Basic Theory of the Acetate Path (5) — The Elements out of Chaos
Now we come to the description of the destructive distillation of our gum of sericon.
This srage of the Acetate Path alone, I personally feel, is the most significant process in the entire arsenal of alchemical operations. Even if the claim that the Acetate Path produces a working transmutation agent are not true, this path contains within it the most accurate and indepth model of 'ancient' Hermetic teaching of all alleged Paths to the Stone.
The mechanical chemistry and physics of destructive distillation conforms neatly to the alchemical philosophic ideal. The philosophic analysis of this process conforms perfectly to the deepst and most serious Hermetic concepts about creation and the structure of matter. It is not merely a chemical operation. it is also a model of universal process, and a tool for teaching the most sacred Hermetic principles. It is hard proof what that which the ancients understood concerning the true nature of reality, as well as being a strong argument for the ancientness of the alchemical tradition. Understanding the process of destructive distillation provides a window into the mind of the ancient and classic period alchemist, and as we know success in lab alchemy requires us to be able to think like an alchemist … not like a chemist.
The basic legend of creation, as seen in the creation myths of many ancient cultures, begins with a state of void, an ocean of chaos, and darkness. From this primordial state (which is considered as a unified field of potential), the basis of binary reality arises. The male and female. The positive and negative poles of the binary. The alchemist's Sun and Moon. Each pole of this binary, too, is a binary being … in this way four conditions arise from the primordial chaos, and alchemists call these conditions the four Elements.
We begin the destructive distillation of our gum of sericon by filling a boiling flask no more than half way with the pure acetate. We then rig a distillation system just like the one we have been discussing here for the Hollandus Plant work. We carefully raise the heat by degrees, and when we reach around 270oC, the wax-like Lead acetate melts like butter. As the green gum warms the heat ripens it, and it turns a brown-red colour. Then as it melts completely it turns liquid, and to look at it in the boiling flask it looks exactly like water at this stage. If you don't heat it to boiling point it sits there still, like limpid clear water. This is now our earth, or prima materia, 'without form'. As it digests, the molecules in its mass begin to decompose, break apart, and the atoms which make up those molecules end up as a chaotic soup. In this watery chaos four things exist, from a chemical point of view: (1) Lead atoms, (2) carbon atoms, (3) hydrogen atoms and (4) atoms of oxygen, in various piece-meal combinations.
As we raise the heat, slowly, some of these atoms break free from the watery chaos and fly up into the upper atmosphere of the boiling flask. At first this looks like a mist floating over the surface of the 'water'. Then as the heat rises this mist condenses, drips down through the condenser, and collects in the receiving flask.
At first water (H2O) condenses. Then the mist thickens and becomes a white smoke, and at that point acetone is being produced by the mist cooling and the atoms of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen re-bonding in to acetone. That white smoke is the true chaos of the alchemists, because it is a gas cloud of ionized particles. From this true chaos new substances can now be created … beginning with, as I have said, acetone. When organic matter begins to break down, acetone is almost always the first product of that decomposition.
For some time that white fume continues, then eventually a red-orange fume rises. The Chaos of ionised particles now form substances different from acetone, which together always look like a yellow-red oil. Exactly what organic substances form this red oil depends on a number of variables. The size of the flask, the aount of matter filling the flask, the degree of heat and the speed the heat is increased, plus the metal or mineral used to form the acetate. The exact chemistry of these complex oils is not an issue in alchemy. All that matters is the basic condition of this substance … its 'oiliness' and the fact it is part spirit and part solid … like all alchemical Sulphur.
Once this red fume has subsided the process is complete. At the very least, when the distillation stops, we have collected four substances out of the chaos: a mb This is the conventional view … which is not the esoteric view…
Elemental Water: (Water) Elemental Air: (Acetone, which is a gas at room temperature) Elemental Fire: (the oil) Elemental Earth: (Lead - residue and sublimate)
This is the basic understanding of the destructive distillation stage of the Acetate Path. Most people who concern themselves with study of the Acetate Work are reasonably well aware of these basics, to this point. But very few people know much at all about the philosophy behind this stage, and few people (maybe only a dozen or so) have any realistic idea, based on experience, of the lab processes beyond this point.
As for the philosophy behind this destructive distillation phase, the fundamentals should be easy enough to grasp.
The old alchemists taught that the lab process was a model of the macrocosmic process of creation. That all things begin in a state of chaos, and that the first state of that Chaos was a viscous water. Many alchemical philosophers make this very clear in their writings. For Acetate alchemists that proto-chaotic water is the metallic acetate in fusion. When heat is awakened in this watery chaotic prima materia it converts into a mist, and we are told of ancient times that this mist, or spirit, contains the Four Elements from which all life has its origin. When this mist condenses we find four substances have been produced, as described previously.
The deeper and more curious idea that needs to be grasped here is this … that if any organic matter is burnt (pyrolytic distillation), its many combinations of molecules break apart, when again cooled, and recondensed form only two main substances … a flammable spirit and a red-yellow oil. the water and the minerals that are the other two products of this process are essentially unchanged by the fire.
What this tells us (when viewing this process Hermetically) is that noi matter how complex the original organic substance is in its natural state, once it is decomposed by fire all of that complexity always results in four substances … two that don't change, and two that are always made by fire (the spirit or Mercury, and the oil or Sulphur). Therefore, there is some natural law governing this pyrolytic mechanism which always forces the chaos of ionized particles of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon to always rearrange in the same types of combination. Why does this happen when, ideally, that cloud of ionized particles could re-join to form any number of 100s of common organic molecules?
When the old alchemists watched this process, and asked themselves the same question (obviously without the chemistry), their conclusion was that essentially, at their root, all things could be reduced to Four basic conditions, and that these Four conditions were in fact two binaries, expressing themselves.
While there is no doubt that in later centuries, as alchemy evolved, and more people contemplated and wrote about this process, a lot of guesswork that is not accurate was added to the core philosophy. For example, many alchemists, after performing the destructive distillation, automatically assumed that the white and red fumes actually came out of the metal … and were therefore naturally trapped inside the metal. This led them to claim that in the bowls of the earth these fumes exist, and that all metals and minerals were produced from them. Today wqe know this is not the case. But it does not change the undeniable fact that when all organic matter is reduced by fire, nature herself allows that matter to be reduced to only Four 'Elements'. In this way it is quite accurate to suggest that when the complexity of organic matter is removed, and all it substance is reshuffled by nature into its least number of combinations, that there are only Four combinations.
This entire concept is, therefore, of deep significance in the entire canon of Hermetic thought … since the idea of the Four Elements and the Three Principals is the most fundamental of esoteric concepts … upon which everything else is built. And here in this process we can actuall experience, contemplate and see how the ancients may very well have founded and built up their theories on this subject.
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 10 November 2013, as post #487.
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