Before alchemy was a dark art or metaphor for soul work or synonym for magic, it was something much more commonplace: it was a laboratory science.
It all began a long time ago, in a land far away. Egypt, to be exact. What later came to be called alchemy grew from the experiments the Egyptian priesthood used to unravel the workings of the Universe. Those universal forces were called neteru and it’s been theorized that our word “nature” may be, etymologically-speaking, its bastard child twice removed.
- Alchemy was a lab science, i.e. it was performed by experimentation.
- These experiments were performed by priests.
So a long time ago, in a land far away, those engrossed in the mysteries of spirituality were experimenting to understand the nature of the Universe.
As we reinvigorate ancient life sciences like yoga, Ayurveda, Qi Gong, and 5 Element acupuncture, it’s important to understand that back in the day, science and spirituality walked hand in hand.
Why? Because folks back then would be flabbergasted by our compartmentalization of the world; back then, everything was interconnected (hint: it still is).
Fast-forward thousands of years to an internet suddenly interested in “soul alchemy.” What the hell does that even mean?
To unravel it, so it’s not just some marketing slogan (’cause alchemy is an incredibly rich and fertile metaphor, truly worth digging into), we’ve gotta go back to basic alchemy.
Let’s pause first for a word from our sponsor (who would be me… or my business, Herbiary, actually): alchemy is the many times great-grandparent of modern wellness practices. You know Hippocrates? The “let your food be your medicine” dude? He most certainly studied alchemy.
My own first exposure to alchemical principals was through the study of plant medicine. Plant medicine preparations (and pharmaceutical preparations for that matter) are still influenced by things those Egyptian priests discovered all those ages ago.
Okay, back to the present day and how alchemy can support your soul work by helping you untangle thoughts and emotions that are keeping you stuck and stagnant.
The basic steps of an alchemical experiment look like this:
3. Put it all back together again.
When your life feels like a tangled mess, these steps are incredibly useful:
Begin to unravel influences, thought patterns, and emotions to untie the knots. When the threads of your life are bound together, you can’t see clearly and it’s easy to become reactive. My favorite way to separate out is to draw a Mind Map. I like to do this by hand, preferably on big paper, but there are lots of digital tools out there too. Try this or this. Put your problem issue or knotty thoughts in the middle of your Mind Map, then tease out the individual strands of influences.
Work with each individual strand of thought or emotion to clear it and find resolution within yourself. This might be minutes or months of work, and that’s going to depend on what you reveal to yourself through your Mind Mapping. You may need help to tie off or cut some strands. That’s okay (you are making progress simply by doing this work. Don’t get all judge-y with yourself if you need a therapist or acupuncturist or good friend to help you through it!).
3. Bring It All Back Together
Because everything is interconnected. Make a new Mind Map or do some journaling to see how the new patterns formed through this process.
It’s step 3 which is often neglected… but step three is where the gold is! This is the holy grail of alchemy, the “sacred wedding” where everything that was disparate becomes integrated.
When you alchemize your life in this way, you tap into the everyday magic of our greatest thinkers—from Hildegard von Bingen to Leonardo DaVinci. You step into a long tradition of people who understood that the processes of the natural world are a mirror for processes within ourselves and by unraveling both we come into deeper relationship with neteru: ours and the earth’s.
P.S. While most of the “big names” in alchemy are men’s, women have been alchemists since the beginning. Click through to meet a few!
Ever Wondered “Can Natural Products Hurt Me?”
I got a call a few weeks back from a local restaurateur asking me if I had any idea how to help one of her waiters detox from Kratom.
Kratom is an Asian herb which has become popular in the past few years for pain. Her server had started taking it, without much research or thought, ’cause “hey, it’s natural!”
This type of flimsy reasoning makes my head spin and fire shoot from my bulging eyeballs. Really, people? Have you not heard of earthquakes, and poison mushrooms, and those nasty little spiders which lay their eggs under your skin? Whatever convinced you that nature is kind?
Thinking things are safe because they’re natural is an idea which has grown out of three things.
1. One hundred years of pharmaceutical companies campaigning hard to convince us that natural remedies are ineffective.
Why do they need us to believe this? Because they can’t patent an herb and, one hundred years ago, their competition was herbs and homeopathics. So we’re told that natural remedies don’t do much; what we really need is a patented and scientifically-proven drug.
They’ve done a great job with marketing! So much so that even people like you, who regularly use natural products, are muddle-headed about it: on the one hand, you believe they work. On the other hand, you’ve subconsciously bought into the drug companies’ schtick and it’s softened your view of the efficacy of natural products. Your conscious mind translates this mishmash as “natural products are safe.”
2. Living in places that are relatively tame.
Most of us no longer live in a world dominated by wild things, unless you count rats and humans who have gone feral. If you were foraging for food, you’d know for certain that Holly and Yew berries, despite being plump, pretty, and oh-so-natural, can kill you.
If you were a farmer and watched coyote eat your sheep and sat up at night with a cow sick from munching butterfly milkweed, you’d have no delusions that natural means safe.
3. Trusting experts instead of ourselves.
Another by-product of our current medical model is trusting experts to the point that, in a pinch or a hurry, we’re gonna trust someone else instead of thinking and aggressively researching for ourselves. We learned from a young age to listen to our doctor even if it went against the wisdom of our bodies.
Medically-speaking we’ve been conditioned to do as we’re told which, unfortunately, means we’re predisposed to give credence to some random-ass internet site.
These three proclivities are a dangerous combo ’cause I’ve got news for you:
Kratom, the herb I was called about, contains alkaloids in amounts similar to opium and to hallucinogenic mushrooms, which makes it no better for daily use than other opioids.
Here’s how I teach about the potency of different herbal preparations:
Imagine fire. Start with the smallest of flame, a lit match or a tea light. Now grow the flame to fill a lantern or fireplace. Finally, picture a glassblowing forge, heat crackling the air.
In terms of herbal products, your most gentle product—a flower essence—isn’t even the lit match. It’s a picture of fire. This energy medicine reminds your body that it knows fire, that it can remember how to be warm.
Next in strength is a tea or a vinegar, a gentle candle flame. It takes a lot of candles to light a room!
Then there’s tincture—alcohol extract—this is a hearth fire, capable of lighting a room and cooking your dinner. In other words, capable of catalyzing transformation.
Finally there are essential oils. These are concentrates. They’re the forge, able to melt metal and glass, to quickly shift substance from one form to another. While metaphorically speaking that sounds very exciting, I know you don’t actually want to melt your insides—some oils will do the equivalent of that if you ingest them.
The airborne volatiles from essential oils penetrate the mucus membranes in your nose and hit your bloodstream pretty quickly, which makes inhalation the preferred therapeutic method. I’m not gonna say you never want to ingest an essential oil but, because they’re a heavy-duty concentrate, you need a high level of knowledge to do this safely. If you’re not willing to put in the years of study to make these decisions from a place of wisdom, stick to inhaling!
Beyond preparation of the herbs, there’s the chemical composition of the plant itself.
This is were Kratom comes in. Alkaloids are pretty tough on the body for a number of reasons.
I think it’s important here to remind you who I am: Hi. My name’s Maia Toll, registered herbalist with The American Herbalists Guild. I own two herb stores—one in Philadelphia, one in Asheville—and an online shop at www.herbiary.com. I LOVE botanicals. I spent a year in Ireland studying with a traditional medicine woman and have taught everywhere from the jungles of Peru to the University of Pennsylvania. Most importantly: I don’t want you to be scared. I want you to be smart.
A few days back, I got an email from a past student who is creating an herb and permaculture program for the prison system. She wrote “the act of making medicine from something you grow is a profoundly powerful act of self care.” I couldn’t agree more.
Something deep, profound, and ancient happens when you step into this medicine with your mind and your heart, your body and your soul.
Botanical medicine is an entry into alchemy. It’s a way to remember yourself and to re-engage with healing on all levels.
I invite you to step into this wisdom. To remember that plants have personalities and potencies, just like people. Nature is a myriad of things: kind is only one possibility.
I always love to hear from you: scroll down to share your experience working with plant medicine.