(Story begins here) “Um, hi there,” said Pete awkwardly. The woman placed her hands on her hips in mock disapproval at Pete’s stilted response, before bounding over and kissing the young man vigorously on both cheeks.
“No need to be awkward around me, Bubbeleh. I don’t bite,” she glanced over at Pete who was tapping one of the conical flasks with a finger. “But that fluid will do worse than bite if you break the flask,” she added hurriedly, before shepherding Pete over to one of a pair of wooden chairs in the corner.
“So, where are we?” asked Pete.
“We’re in Memphis, in the year 80AD, Bubbeleh.”
“In America?” Mary looked briefly puzzled.
“America? No, we’re in Egypt, well slightly underneath Egypt, yes?” Mary gestured at her cellar and slapped Pete on the back in celebration of her joke, causing him to briefly consider whether he’d sustained a mild whiplash injury.
“Egypt?” said Pete, “but you sound more like an Israeli?”
“An Israelite you mean? Well, yes I am Jewish, the clue is in my name, so…” Mary shrugged and pouted.
“You are Jewish so you sound Jewish.”
“Right, Bubbeleh. So, do you know anything else about me?” she asked hopefully.
“Generally, Plato’s forms influence the cave wall, higher reality to lower, but a sacrament, performed well, can cause a slight and temporary reversal of polarity and allow the higher concepts to be influenced by our worldly actions.”
“I’m sorry Mary, I’m afraid not.” The woman pointed forlornly at a large brass pot on a nearby stove.
“That does not give you a clue?” Pete got up and examined the pot.
“This looks like a bain-marie. My grandmother used one, for making custard, a clever way to keep the contents at a controlled temperature. Oh, so…”
“Yes, Bubbeleh, you’re looking at the first one. I just invented it! Nice to know it still bears my name in your time.”
“But they’re used all over the place, I never thought that it was named after, well after…”
“An alchemist from two thousand years ago?
“Well, yes. So alchemy? Isn’t that sort of… bad chemistry?” asked Pete, “no offence,” he added hurriedly. But Mary was shaking with laughter.
“Bad chemistry!” she bellowed, administering another spine jangling slap to Pete’s back. “That’s a good one.”
“It was?” winced Pete
“Oh yes, chemistry evolved from we alchemists, but all these chemists completely missed the point.”
“Alchemy is not what in your time you call a science.” Mary was suddenly serious. “It is… a religion.” Pete’s face adopted its default expression since he’d been in heaven, bafflement. He gestured at all Mary’s apparatus.
“It looks like a science.”
“The goal of what you call science is understanding of the physical plane. I am looking much higher.” Mary gestured expansively at her ceiling.
“But I thought it was all about turning lead into gold and nobody ever managed it.”
“But what is gold?” Mary breathed excitedly in Pete’s face, the latter starting to think that Mary would turn lead into garlic if she could. “Well, it’s an element.”
“True gold,” breathed Mary. “True gold, is no longer desiring gold.”
“Not the material kind?”
“Oh no, the only thing that offends God is a focus on the material life.”
“Alchemists believe in God?” Mary looked puzzled
“Well of course Bubbeleh. Will you ask if I do not believe in the foundations beneath my feet next? The whole point of alchemy is to become closer to Him.”
“Purification of the soul.”
“How does alchemy do that?” Mary sat down heavily opposite Pete.
“Good question Bubbeleh, would you like to see something? I’m going to take you inside a dream that a friend of mine had, he was called Zosimos of Panopolis. It is rather… unsavoury but very important.”
“Let’s go” said Pete boldly. The cellar faded away and was replaced by a small but echoey stone church. On the simple stone alter was a large steaming cauldron. Pete walked uncertainly towards it, he could hear the bubbling of boiling water and a smell similar to cooking chicken. On tip toes, he peaked over the rim of the giant vessel. A human hand shot out of the murky water and grabbed Pete’s wrist in a vice like grip. Crying out in shock, he tried to rip the hand from him, pieces of soft, boiled flesh came away in his hand, but the skeletal grip remained. A disfigured head emerged from the water. Chunks of scalp were hanging off, the eyeballs were wrinkled up like sultanas, the remaining skin was a mass of bright red lesions. “The sight that you see is the entrance, and the exit, and the transformation… Those who seek to obtain the art, the moral perfection, enter here, and become spirits by escaping from the body” the figure said in a quavering voice, before submerging back into the murky bubbling water, releasing its grip as it did so. Pete turned to Mary and stammered
“I…I thought you said this was a dream. It seems more like a nightmare.”
“Even nightmares are a type of dream,” said Mary cheerfully, “so be careful next time someone wishes that all your dreams come true, yes?” Pete nimbly dodged the impending slap on his back as the church faded away and they were once more in the alchemist’s cellar. “What Zozimos saw,” said Mary as she regained her balance following the unexpected absence of Pete from the path of her hand, “he called ‘human distillation’. Just as distilling water purifies it, so distilling the body purifies it too. It was a key moment in alchemy.”
“But surely that doesn’t actually work?”
“Well, no,” admitted Mary, “not literally, but it is what in Christian terms would be called a sacrament.”
“It goes back to the Hermetic maxim as above so below, to use the strict spiritual word, it’s correspondence.”
“Surely there’s no alchemy or hermeticism or occult stuff in Christianity?” Pete felt the breeze as Mary snorted.
“Bubbeleh, Christianity is built on ‘occult stuff’. Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism itself applauded alchemy for its consistency with Christian teachings.”
“It’s a fact,” said Mary simply. “The use of metals is merely symbolic, if you don’t believe me it says so in the Alchemical Catechism of 1766 and that’s quite an authority.”
“So how can alchemy and Christian teachings be so compatible.”
“Because they have the same origin,” said Mary simply, “Neoplatonism”.
“Alchemists were Platonists?”
“Of course Bubbeleh, why do you think the Arabs call me Daughter of Plato? Think of a Christian sacrament, communion for example. By symbolically eating bread and drinking wine to represent Christ, you are making an earthly representation of the higher truth that we can all become Christ through perfection of our souls. Generally, Plato’s forms influence the cave wall, higher reality to lower, but a sacrament, performed well, can cause a slight and temporary reversal of polarity and allow the higher concepts to be influenced by our worldly actions. The effect is too weak and precarious to take effect outside of the individual performing the sacrament, but it can have a profound effect on them.”
“So alchemy is a sacrament? But very different to Christian sacraments.”
“Not entirely, Zosimos saw the alchemical vessel as a baptismal font. Baptism itself is about washing away sin, the material nature. It’s just that we alchemists know that it takes a lot more than water to do the job!”
“Can you show me some alchemy?” Mary rubbed her chins as she considered this.
“The sacrament of alchemy is quite a personal experience…” she said thoughtfully, “but since underneath all these fancy heaven graphics,” she gestured at herself and the laboratory, “you’re talking directly to my eternal soul I suppose I should be charitable.” (continue)