The Alchemical Dream

In The Alchemical
a film produced by Sacred Mysteries and directed by Sheldon Rochlin, visionary
author and counterculture luminary Terence McKenna relates some of the curious
history of European alchemy, and the attempted creation of a religious utopia
based on alchemical principles. Dressed as the famed Hermetic magician John Dee,
McKenna strolls wistfully through the crumbling ruins and sweeping castle vistas
of Eastern Europe discussing the lost secrets of alchemy. He gives us a tour of
the last remaining alchemical laboratory in Heidelberg, and tells a fascinating
story of political intrigue and bohemian experimentation in the 16th century.

The alchemists were after what McKenna describes as a “magical theory of
nature.” They used precise and calculated methods that would pave the way for
the future intellectual development of some important sciences such as
chemistry, biology, phenomenology, and psychology. Their intention was to
transform the human spirit and the physical body itself into something divine
and wholly other, something resembling the odd and spectacular alchemical art of
the time. They experimented with myriad combinations of special chemicals,
magical formulas, and complex distillation processes designed to produce the
fabled “philosopher’s stone”: a metaphorical goal which can be read in many
ways. In essence, the alchemists were trying to bring heaven down to earth by
merging spiritual mysticism with the physiological exploration of alchemical

According to McKenna, the group of European alchemists who centered around
John Dee and the British court of Queen Elizabeth I in the late 1500’s believed
that the spiritual philosophy of alchemy was so profound and full of potential
that it should be embraced as the popular religious paradigm of the day. The
Christian preacher Martin Luther had started a Protestant reformation in 1517
with the 95 Theses and now, a century later, Dee felt that the world was ready
for an alchemical reformation. With this idea of a religious reformation in
mind, Dee and a group of court alchemists traveled to the palace of King
Frederick V of Bohemia in 1618 with the intention of establishing a new
alchemical kingdom.

This alchemical dream lasted for about a year before the Austrian dynasty of
the Hapsburg family got wind of the reformation plan and disapproved of
Frederick’s kingship, quickly dispatching an army to lay siege to the kingdom of
Bohemia and Frederick’s court. After a brief period of fighting Frederick was
defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain on November 8th, 1620, and the
Bohemian hopes of establishing an alchemical religious state were destroyed.
While the bulk of alchemical knowledge was lost to Western civilization after
this time, the intellectual threads of this esoteric philosophy can still be
found in the modern world.

As McKenna points out, this attempted reformation was not entirely dissimilar
to what happened in the social climate of America in the 1960’s with the
re-introduction of sacred plants into Western culture and the social upheaval
that occurred simultaneously. McKenna describes the drug revival of the 60’s as
a sort of “failed alchemy” whose ideal was to transform the human spirit, but
wound up as a splintered and marginalized movement, similar to alchemy. However,
although alchemy was lost to Western civilization for a few centuries, some of
the basic ideas can still be found scattered here and there in some esoteric
religious practices, mystical writings, transpersonal psychology and art history
books: themes of creativity, diversity, synchronicity, unions of opposites, and
personal psycho-spiritual exploration which were all an essential part of the
alchemical endeavor.

So while the dream of European alchemy may have apparently died in the 16th
century, the underlying motivation of the alchemists – a desire for innovative
and genuine spiritual experience – is a fundamental human characteristic that
can be traced through many different cultures and time periods. As an example of
this, at the end of The Alchemical Dream, McKenna makes an interesting
historical footnote about a young solider named Rene Descartes who was part of
the invading Hapsburg army which defeated the Bohemian kingdom. Shortly after
this time, Descartes was visited in a dream by an angelic apparition who
instructed him with a piece of advice which would fundamentally alter our world.
The angel said to him, “The conquest of nature is to be achieved through
measures and numbers.” Descartes would go on to become one of the most
influential scientists and philosophers of his day. For McKenna, this is a
perfect example of how the spirit of alchemy (the spirit of inner human
creativity) will continuously reappear at opportune moments and direct the
course of human events in mysterious ways which we can only begin to understand.

A trailer for the film is available on Google video. 

For more information or to request a screening, visit Sacred Mysteries.

via Reality
Sandwich | Tristan Gulliford

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