There was some discussion recently on the fora about the nature of Alchemy, and whether our alchemical forbears were referring to internal substances or primarily to external substances. One of the gentlemen involved is a well known external alchemist, with a tremendous amount of scholarship under his belt. While I respect his contribution, the idea that there is any such thing as purely external alchemy is entirely incorrect.
***added for clarity. Thank you Mr.Faust! The gist of the argument being made was that there was no evidence/truth to traditional Alchemy being "internal" in Nature, and that the Basil Valentines, Flamels, and Philalethes' of our tradition where speaking to purely physical processes. Which I, uh, completely disagree with.
Yup. There is no such thing as strictly "external" Alchemy. If an alchemical process doesn't reflect into the Body, it isn't alchemy. Archemy, yes, and sometimes Spagery, but not Alchemy.
"External" is a handy term we use to describe a piece of the complicated process, a process that can be seen in many of the Emblems--especially in those of Daniel Stolisces' "Hermetic Garden". We see a Sun in the Sky, a Sun in the Sea, and a Sun in a cave in the Earth. This process is symbolic of complete alchemical practice, which is triune, reflective and co-operative.
The Prima Materia is, always has been, and always shall be the Body of the alchemist, the Self of the alchemist. Any process that doesn't have some involvement with the Prima Materia is play-acting. The confusion comes from those who have read the old manuscripts, and derived true chemical processes from them. They make the mistake of thinking that, because an Alchemist may use an external Materia within his lab-ware, that the Prima Materia is other than the body. This is due to lack of initiation or lack of Hermetic understanding; all alchemical processes are meant to work upon the Prima Materia that is the body--we use the lab in the same way we use the tools of ceremonial magic in Lunar alchemy (Lunar alchemy=Theurgic Ceremonial Magic). What happens within the glass is analogous to the process we wish worked upon our bodies.
I think the best way to understand this is to compare "external" alchemy to ceremonial magic. Both are processes that use analogy and symbol in order to work upon the substance of the alchemist/magicians Self; both are Theurgic and both are Lunar, in that they operate upon the Prima Materia analogically instead of directly. They are not actually different things, they are different approaches to the same method of Art.
In theurgic ritual magic, we find that we invariably have a Circle of Art. This is the Symbol of the Body--it delineates the limits of the alchemist's personal sphere in the same way that the Skin does the physical body of the Alchemist. Within the Lab, this would be our External glassware, our Retort.
In theurgic Ritual magic, we have our symbols for the Elements--the subtle Parts of the alchemist--and invocation of those forces in balanced measure into the Circle. These external symbols are analogous to the Senses and humours of the physical Body in direct Internal alchemy. Within the lab, this would be the physical substance of the analogous Materia we are working with--say Cinnabar, for instance. The physical substance in the glass is representative of the mixed substances within the Alchemist, the lymph and nerve-force and matter that dwell in various stages of coagulation within body. This is why we see so often that mercury-sulfides like cinnabar are used as the Materia in laboratory alchemy; their composition makes for powerful and straight forward analogous connection to the Alchemist, whose body is composed of Salt-Mercury-Sulfur. When we understand the Salt-Force as that which causes the coagulation into physicality and the Mercury and Sulfur forces as Spirit and Soul respectively, we see that a mercuric sulfide is a perfect Materia to serve as an external symbol of the Prima Materia. Spirit and Soul made literally solid.
In theurgic Ritual Magic, we find all is powered by subtle virtue and LVX--this is the Dragon/Internal Fire of direct Alchemy, and the chemical fire/external burner (depending upon wet or dry method) of the lab-work. This is the "heat" used to refine the matter.
The processes of "External" alchemy are meant to work upon the Prima Materia; it is absolutely pointless to practice external alchemy without creating a connection between the Prima Materia and the First Matter in the glass. Observing chemical changes without connection in Spirit is a pleasant mental exercise, but it isn't Alchemy.
Creating that connection isn't difficult at all. What joins all together is our Menstruum, our Mercury, within which we dissolve the Prima Materia and the External matters, regardless of practice. They must both be held by the Spirit and Awareness. Baptism of the External matter is one method which I've found efficacious. Look to the transubstantiation practiced in the Christian Eucharist for guidance there. The Bread is become the Body (Salt), and the Wine the Blood (Spirit). The Holy Spirit (in this case Sulfur) descends with the priest's prayer, and the Eucharist is born as a fully alchemical body, that of the solar Christ. A spark of Gold. The priest then consumes this body, which, after the truly alchemical process of digestion occurs, disperses that gold throughout the body of the priest, lifting the nature of the Priest's body and refining it. A gentle calcination. This is an old alchemical method, an amalgam Way, combining Lunar (use of analogous substances to refine Virtue) with Solar (direct change worked upon the physical Prima Materia, in this instance through digestion.) So, the Key here in many ways is prayer.
Just as there is no such thing as Ritual Magic without a magician, we can't have Alchemy without the alchemist! External alchemy works upon the Prima Materia; if it doesn't then it is just archemy, perhaps chemistry. Where archemists fail is in neglecting to properly understand the purpose of the process and of the materias involved.
Classic alchemical practice becomes confused for moderns without initiatory or Hermetic understanding because of the nature of the Language of the Birds. An alchemist can speak of the Prima Materia in one sentence, and be referring to the analogous/lunar Matter in the lab glass, and in the next be referring to the direct Prima Materia that is the body. Over and over, our forebears state that our matter isn't "vulgar" and our Mercury isn't "common", but of course these things are overlooked.
It's also worth noting that using external matters in combination with internal practices is a Key to the Art; there is a feedback that occurs between the "External" matter in the glass and the Internal substances of the Alchemist that is incredibly useful. It is also difficult sometimes to measure internal states...when there is proper sympathy between the external matter and the Internal, changes to both happen in turn, and the external is much easier to observe. It becomes a visual record of the internal changes occurring during the process. When looking at particular methods--such as the Wet Way espoused by the FAR+C--we can see how the changes the external matter experience can be keyed to the changes experienced in the Prima Materia, and how we can guide both matters forward in changes with Hermetically sealed operation.
The External work is only half the process; if not done in sympathy and simultaneously with the Internal work it is a dead thing. If it were otherwise, archemists would have no problems completing the Work.
Feel free to disagree with me in the comments! =)