God’s miracles seen as a sort of magic. We discuss some of the debates alchemists had and break down some ways they may have gotten supernatural help. For instance using the bible as a base for magic. In this system biblical miracles are seen as a form of magic.
Theurgy and Thaumaturgy
We’ve been holding off on this show for a while. There are too many related areas of philosophy, theology and the occult to just have this show in a vacuum.
To get the whole picture it helps to have a basic understanding of qabalah and hermeticism. We’ve covered those, so we think you’re ready.
At the center of what we’ll talk about today is the debate on whether alchemy somehow involved magic or was purely a natural process. Opinions of this varied, but before we get into the different views on alchemy, let’s get through some definitions:
Thaumaturgy can be thought of as a sort of magic. But to some folks in history so can mathematics be thought of as a sort of magic. They can go hand in hand with qabalistic theories.
At it’s simplest definition Thaumaturgy can be thought of as performing miracles. There’s a strong theological aspect to it, and if you’re religious you probably wouldn’t think of someone who does thaumaturgy as a magician or thaumaturgist, you’d probably call them a “wonderworker.” Like a saint performing miracles through God’s help. Or maybe the belief of healing by the laying on of hands.
From (from the Greek words θαῦμα thaûma, meaning “miracle” or “marvel” and ἔργον érgon, meaning “work”)
John Dee anglicized the word, and Dee’s mathematics could be the layman’s miracles.
If we talk of qabalistic alchemists, an understanding of thaumaturgy help to understand them. There’s just a correlation there, qabbalah is not thaumaturgy, but theosophy (more to that in a second)
Theurgy is perhaps related, but thought of as more of a way to connect to God. When Christians fast or pray to get God’s favor; that’s theurgy. So is a rain dance. Or sacrifice.
We we talk of alchemy, theurgy is an important aspect of neoplatonic alchemists.
In neo-platonism, theurgy was a form of mediation to be closer to God, who was unobtainable. We talked about this in several shows: alchemists contemplating God in the lab and meditating over their incubator. That’s theurgy.
Another reason I wanted them both together on one show is that Theurgy isn’t just praying for say, a better crop and hoping. Iamblichus and other neo-platonists thought that theurgy was strong enough of a force to do things like make statues talk. So -to some- clearly in the realm of magic (while to others not.)
It’s basically like asking for devine intervention, whereas thaumaturgy is more like using God’s power to create miracles yourself.
I’ll throw in Theosophy too. This is wisdom received from God. Maybe on the nature of God. Could be through qabalah. Or through divination. Edward Kelley supposedly got an alchemical recipe from the angels he was talking to… which he did using theurgy and goetia (summoning angels/demons) They would pray and fast before using their scrying glass to summon the angels.
We talked about theosophy in our hermeticism episode. Now we’re just tying it all together.
So let’s look at some examples:
Using qabbalistic methods to find hidden meaning, or finding hidden meanings in scripture, or even divinely inspired scriptures are all examples of theosophy.
So was alchemy done through magic, or some sort of divine intervention?
Or was it just imitating some natural process.. something akin to science?
We have philosophers and alchemists who debated on these topics for centuries and the full discourse would cover books, so let’s distill this all down a little:
First we had people that would argue whether transmutation is possible at all. Examples on both sides would be given, quoting Avicenna, Aristotle, etc.
On one side it would be argued that alchemy is an art, and like art it imitates nature, but the gold created is not really gold. Even if you can’t tell the difference, and it passes all the tests. It still wouldn’t have the healing effects (for example) that people thought gold had.
On the other hand, people would give examples of transmutations carried out by humans all the time, with the help of nature. A farmer planting seeds to raise crops. People burning ferns to ash (and I guess add sand) to create glass. Those are some examples given where humans are using nature in a way to transmute one thing into another.
Alchemists would often (but not always) -depending on the time period- try to stay clear of the reputation of being a sorcerer. They would insist that in a lab they are replicating the natural process in which the earth transmutates different metals into higher ones.
In this way the furnace and sulphur and mercury were thought to be a replication of what happens in nature.
This was argued back and forth.
But then we also have people in the camp that insist that gold can only be created with god’s help. We see this a lot. So -in a way- that’s at the very least theurgy. The recipe itself can be gotten from theosophy – Edward Kelley got a recipe from angels, for example.
We saw in Zosimos’ episode that higher beings help, so it’s just a matter of astronomy to determine whether it’s God, or demons that are helping.
To summarize the debate in magic vs. nature:
It was debated whether transmutation was possible at all, whether it was possible to create something real or only an imitation.
And then it was debated whether the transmutation was possible without God’s help and will.
And again, there were always those who knowingly made fake gold and tried to sell it as something else.
But even leaving charlatans out of this for a minute, the genuine belief and and arguments for or against alchemy varied over the centuries.
Was the gold created genuine, or an imitation?
Was alchemy dabbling with evil forces – or done by the pious, with the will of God?
Or were people imitating nature and therefore simply perfecting a science?
The answers are more various than the number of alchemists we’ll probably ever cover on this show, but interesting questions to ask about each person we discuss in our show.
Throughout the span of alchemy these questions were at the center of the debate of its merits, and I think spending some time on the subject should clarify how alchemy was viewed through it’s history.