Basic Theory of the Acetate Path (3) — The Crude Matter
Anyone who has studied alchemy for a reasonable amount of time will tell you that one of the biggest secrets that students of the Great Work concern themselves with is knowledge of the substance alchemists take in hand to begin the work with. For the sake of clarity I refer to this substance as 'the crude matter'. Whatever we might think about this subject, at the very start of the work some substance, that is found in nature somewhere, has to be taken in hand in order to begin the work.
Probably the most well known statement about the crude matter is that … “nobody has ever revealed its true name”. Most students of alchemy become aware of this idea, and most of them also accept that statement without ever really thinking seriously about whether or not the claim is a reasonable one.
There are at least two problems with the claim that the crude matter has never been openly revealed. The first problem is that the statement is worded in such a way that it presupposes that there is only one substance from which the Philosopher's Stone can be made. Yet, every serious student of alchemy is aware that there are a good number of 'Paths' to the Stone, most of which use a different substance from each of the other Paths as their source material. The second problem with the statement is that nobody could be so familiar with every piece of information published about the Great Work that they could be sure nobody ever openly named the crude matter. Reason also dictates that, since it is difficult enough to get half a dozen people living in the same time, who speak the same language and come from similar backgrounds to agree strictly on anything, the idea that numerous people who speak various languages and are separated by time, location and cultural background, would agree to keep a single secret for more than 2000 years, is just highly unlikely.
In this way, when considering the question of what the crude matter is in the Acetate Path, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the truth of the answer to this question has been published in the past.
When considering what the crude matter of the Acetate Path might be, the old Adepts left us a number of clues. One of the more well known being the name “Opus Saturni” (The Work of Saturn). It is generally accepted this 'Saturn' refers to the true nature of the crude matter.
The concept 'Work of Saturn' is a qabalistic device. That is, it is a kind of cypher, using qabalistic symbology for the purpose of concealing the common name of the substance taken in hand to begin this work. Esoteric alchemists hoped that by veiling the name of the crude matter in this way, the only kind of alchemist who would be in a position to recognise the symbolism would be one who had studied Qabala. That device might therefore minimize the number of mere treasure hunters and exoteric 'chemists' who came to the work, from figuring it out.
There are basically two camps of opinion about exactly what 'Saturn' really refers to. One camp insist that Saturn refers to the metal Lead (Pb), since in Qabala Lead and the planet Saturn are both referred to the same sephira on the tree of life (Binah). The second camp is made up of individuals who are united by the single belief that whatever the crude matter of this Path is, it is 'not' Lead. In this camp there are a number of beliefs about what the alternative might be, ranging from the absolutely absurd, to the somewhat plausible. In my opinion the most plausible belief in the second camp is that the crude matter is the semi-metal Antimony (Sb). There are a number of reasons for that choice, the most obvious being that in a small number of Acetate Path texts the word Antimony is used openly (in various guises). The least used reason being that there is a little known Qabalistic doctrine that states that the semi-metal Antimony is attributed to the sephira Malkuth, and is sometimes referred to as 'the little Saturn'. Virtually the only argument against the use of Lead is that it is too commonly referred to by the old acetate alchemists. In other words, because it is believed the true name has never been published, and since the word Lead appears in several texts, the crude matter cannot therefore be Lead. Again, the validity of this statement rests primarily on the presumption that the crude matter is a secret.
It is possible, for example, that both of these substances (Lead and Antimony) are candidates, as they are probably the most common substances presented in classic Acetate Path texts as being the crude matter, either individually, or together. A perfect example of this situation is found in Ripley's Bosome Book, where he opens the first chapter with: … “First take 30 pound weight of Sericon or Antimony…”.
For the few individuals who are aware of the use of the word sericon in Acetate texts, there has been a degree of debate about its meaning. But it isn't difficult to find the solution to that riddle. An author by the name of Paul of Taranto (13th century), who was also an alchemist, wrote a book known as the 'Theorica et Practica' , which largely was an argument for the validity of lab alchemy, at a time when knowledge of alchemy was first filtering in to Europe from the near East. In his book Paul uses the word Sericon as a rough translation for the Arabic zariqun, or sariqun – which is Arabic for Lead oxide. Since Paul of Taranto's translation it has been common for alchemists of the Acetate Path to call the crude matter of their work 'Sericon'.
While Ripley gives no clue as to what he means by 'Antimony', if he is speaking literally then he is not giving us any idea as to how that mineral needs to be prepared, if at all. But by giving us the term Sericon we can deduce enough to be able to move to the next stage of the work … because he is not simply saying 'use Lead' (which would leave us guessing what form of Lead), but he specifically states we need to begin with Lead oxide.
There is a helpful reference to the true nature of Sericon, and that is in John Heydon’s ‘The Wise Man’s Crowne’ (and by extension ‘The Rosie Crucian Secrets’, which contains sections of Heydon's work.). There, the author of the process not only assures us that Sericon is red Lead oxide, but he tells us his preferred method of preparing it:
“But that the body may be prepared according to this Table and after my intention and the desire of Ripley, we both will that the oil or Water of Paradise be drawn out of the Gum of Sericon (whose father is Adrop). Sericon is made of red Lead; therefore it is first necessary to show the way of making Minium of Lead. Take ten or twelve pounds of Lead and melt it in a great iron vessel as plumbers use to do; and when it is molten, stir it still with an iron spatula till the Lead be turned to powder, which powder will be of a green colour. When you see it thus, take it from the fire and let it get cool and grind that powder upon a marble till it be impalpable, moistening the powder with a little common Vinegar till it be like thick honey, which put into a broad earthen vessel and set it on a trevet over a lent fire to vapour away the Vinegar and dry the powder and it will be of a yellow colour. Grind it again and do as before, till the powder be so red as red Lead, which is called Adrop. And thus is Saturn calcined into red Lead or Minium.”
Heydon tells us a number of helpful things in this passage. He makes it clear that Lead oxide is Sericon, and that he is referencing Ripley's use of the term. He also makes it clear that Ripley's Water of Paradise (Mercury) is drawn from a gum made from the oxide of Lead. He also tells us clearly that Sericon has also been called Adrop, an explanation which I have never seen anywhere else, and a word which is for the most part a mystery to most students of alchemy. Lastly, he explains that the cypher 'Saturn' represents Lead oxide. With all of this we are not left guessing about anything, and no clearer explanation exists anywhere else in alchemical literature that I am aware of, of the true nature of the crude matter of the Acetate Path.
I should also point out here that there is a common confusion between the term 'Prima Materia' and 'Crude Matter'. It is often taken for granted that the Prima Materia (first matter) is the first thing taken in hand to begin the work. This misunderstanding arises from the oft repeated phrase …“we must first know how to obtain the Prima Materia before our work can begin” [my paraphrase]. It is understandable that students of the art, who are unfamiliar with the quirks of the use of alchemical language, believe that what is being referred to here is the first substance to take in hand. But it is not.
The Great Work is a mimicking of the work of creation. Creation begins when the Elements from which physical reality is composed are drawn out of the Primal Chaos. Alchemists refered to this Chaos, or Hyle, as the First Matter, because it is the very ground-bed from which creation has its existence.
In the laboratory, then, when we have the crude matter in hand, in order to begin the Great work, we first have to retrograde that crude substance back to Prima Materia, or Chaos of the Philosophers. Until we learn how to perform this reverse engineering of the crude matter, we cannot reach the 'start' of the Great Work. Therefore, the crude matter and the first matter are not the same thing.
Disclaimer: I strongly advise that you do not attempt to put the techniques I describe here in to practice unless you have a well developed experience with chemistry, or you have access to the careful instruction of someone who is intimately knowledgeable in the processes I describe herein. Many of these techniques I describe in these essays have potential risks involved, and I do not always point out those risks in my descriptions. I do not take responsibility for any injuries or damages which may occur from the practical experiment with instructions contained in this email.
This essay was first published on the Hermetic Alchemy Forum on 22 October 2013, as post #462.
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