I believe that Alchemy is the quest for one’s own spirituality. King Arthur’s final realisation is that the Holy Grail is not a cup or a physical object at all, but the metaphor for one’s own spiritual awakening, and in that moment, despite being mortally wounded, he is able to defeat Mordred on the battlefield. It is the only way to read the story so that prophecy is fulfilled, in any other interpretation he fails to find the Grail, and thus could not have triumphed in the final showdown. This is why his dying wish is that Excalibur, the sword of the King, which represents his worldly power, the material world, be thrown back into the lake from whence it came.
The language of the English Mystics is one of metaphor. It begins in the Gnostic Scriptures with the Gospel of Mary Magdalene; the revelation that the kingdom of Heaven is within. There is no suggestion that it is a literal afterlife, that all comes later after the Roman Emperor Constantine decides to co-opt the fledgling pagan Christianity into his crumbling empire by conspiring with imperialistic theologians at the Council of Nicea, thus creating the Catholic Church and destroying everything that Christianity stood for. It continues through the legends of Camelot, through Chaucer and Shakespeare, gets its greatest shot in the arm from Milton’s Paradise Lost, eventually feeding into the mythologies of William Blake, who gives us perhaps our sharpest and best understanding of what a luminous thing the creative spirit is. At the same time, it is passed along in other ways, from the rebellion of the Knights Templar against the perceived wisdom of the Church, through to the exaltation of Mary, the Masonic rites of Christopher Wren, and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s pan-dimensional attempts to re-paganise Christianity.
It was mankind’s search for a God that led him to the stars; an innate desire to commune with the creator, and this hunger led to new understandings of nature and the universe, dis-empowering the false religion of the Church along the way, and opening the metaphorical door to science. Once we accept the language of metaphor, the vocabulary of Alchemy makes perfect sense, it becomes the bridge between two worlds, slowly graduating away from the supernatural towards the scientific, whilst highlighting that spirituality is not in the ownership of any religion, indeed by very definition the eternal reward of an afterlife is about as materialistic (and therefore unspiritual) as one can get. There were those who believed that the Philosopher’s Stone was a literal recipe for creating gold, and therefore the key to untold material wealth, but these were the ones who consistently failed. John Dee was never truly concerned with such material rewards, his quest was for divine knowledge, a complete understanding of the universe, something which scientists surely understand better than anyone. As such, his angelic conversations represent a methodical journey towards the within. In English, only a single letter separates “God” from “gold”. In Enochian, they are the same word.
The first principle of Alchemy is Egocide, the surrender of those parts of the self that are grounded in greed, materialism and gratification. Egocide relinquishes our need to control and thus limit our prospects. It opens us up to love, to courage, and to humanity. The second principle is the Black Sun, illuminating our own darkness and facing down our own demons, in order that we may be free to accept the gift of our forthcoming spiritual awakening. The process continues, bringing a lifetime of deeper explorations of ourselves and our place in the universe.
The creation of gold is obviously a metaphor for the refining of self. Carl Jung took great interest in Alchemy, despite the less-than-scientific reputation it had attained by his lifetime. He saw in it the potential for great progress in the field of human psychology, and became deeply involved in the development of spiritual psychology, an obsession he shared with other groundbreakers in the field, including William James. In later life Jung referred often to his conversations with James on the subject of parapsychology, they both believed that spirituality made people saner and more stable in the first instance, and that the value of truth could not be overstated in psychoanalysis, for reasons that are probably self-explanatory. Thus the ripples of Alchemy are still being felt, and will be as long as human beings need to discover themselves.