Alchemists and Archetypes
In search of magic
First Published in SunFlyer

Long, long ago scientists stoked terrible fires by which they melted various metals and compounds; stirring, purifying, distilling, in their quest for the miraculous. These scientists were known as alchemists and their holy grail was a thing called "the philosopher's stone" which, when added to any metal, would turn it into gold.

Rumour had it that the elixir, properly refined, would also bestow eternal youth on those who partook of it themselves. Even as witches burned at the stake, onlookers whispered amongst themselves of the famous alchemists of old. They told of Morenius, who lived as a Christian hermit in the mountains near Jerusalem during the seventh century, and who sent large gifts of gold to the church every year. When this caused Arab King Khalid to make enquiries, it is said that Morenius initiated Khalid into the secrets of Alchemy.

Amidst the great wealth that enabled him to make these donations, the source of which was never confirmed, Morenius deepened the mystery, saying: "This thing (the philosopher's stone) is extracted from you: you are its mineral, and one can find it in you; or, to put it more clearly, they (the alchemists) take it from you. If you recognise this, the love and approbation of the stone will grow within you. Know that this is true without doubt."

Today it is only children who still believe easily in the existence of magic, only children who hold firm the faith, without doubt, that the mundane can be transmuted with a word, into the marvellous. As adults we have learned to be acceptably sceptical in order to fit into society. Or have we?

Preschool children are especially prone to magical thinking. This term refers to the belief that external events are directly related to our internal thought processes and words. During this stage, a child will believe emphatically for instance that "mommy got sick because I told her she is mean". The associated guilt can be crippling, and can be carried into adulthood.

And who amongst us does not remember the recklessness of late adolescence? That time when we believed we were indestructible, immortal, when we fearlessly lived life on an edge of adrenalin without thought of consequence, wholly immersed in each moment of pure exhilaration. This is indeed how magical thinking grows up with us.

As adults we are even more circumspect with our magical thinking. We possibly shudder ever so slightly if we break a mirror, are almost unconsciously careful to avoid walking underneath ladders, a tad apprehensive maybe about flying to France on Friday the 13th. But we also give credence to visualising our goals. Athletes in particular, often have elaborate pre-match rituals, "lucky" underwear, or "winning" bats. Even in the superficially sober light of commerce, huge risks are often undertaken in the firm belief that the business and its management are "in The Zone", that all that is needed to secure a good outcome is a "Big Match Temperament".

Magical thinking, all of it. And, it may well be argued, mostly it works.

For deep in the human heart, beyond the edge of reason, fleetingly acknowledged only in the darkness of a few private moments before sleep, there lives a primordial wizard who beckons us all to become more, to grow, to find the philosopher's stone within and to right all wrongs. 

There is an archetypal impetus that propels man beyond the known, to push the boundaries of human experience and understanding, "to go where no man has gone before". This is the driving force behind exploration, research and fantasy alike. It is the magical impetus. It fuels new discoveries, it inspires great insights into the nature of humanity and its environment, it is the muse behind the artist. It is the voice of the wizard within.

Those who follow the voice often report a perilous journey. The intrepid traveller needs to slay the great Dragon of Social Dictate to continue on his quest independent of the goodwill of others, navigating only by the soft, susurrant voice of the wizard within. Similarly, he might need to withstand alchemical fires of great suffering, thus to purify his own heart. Once heard however, the voice of the wizard within is not to be denied. Muted as it may be, it is also uncompromisingly insistent.

And so it happens that, as man searches for the apparent magic of knowledge and exploration, he makes the greatest discovery of all: that true magic resides in his own essence.

“Listen, then while I make known the Grand Arcanum of this wonder-working Stone, which at the same time is not a stone, which exists in every man, and may be found in its own place at all times…." said the alchemist, Philalethes. "It is called a stone, not because it is like a stone, but only because by virtue of its fixed nature, it resists the action of fire as successfully as any stone… If we say that its nature is spiritual, it would be no more than the truth; if we describe it as corporeal, the expression would be equally correct; for it is subtle, penetrative, glorified, spiritual gold. It is the noblest of all created things…it is a spirit or quintessence.”

Our abiding fascination with magic, evidenced for example in the upsurge of popular books and movies like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, is in truth the quest for personal transformation. We know that we hold within us, in our quintessence, the seed to greatness.  Somewhere, if we knew where to look, we could find our way to a Golden Age of abundance for all, wise rule and the definitive victory of good over evil.

More importantly, in that magical place of the Golden Age, we would ourselves be better people.

We would be kinder to strangers, express our affections more clearly. We would take the time to live each moment. We would notice our children's smiles. We would laugh with them. We would busy ourselves with the things that really matter. We would hold precious the sparkle in the eyes of a lover, the awe of a starry night, the luxury of a cat stretching. We would gather again with friends around a fire and tell stories, share trials and triumphs. We would encourage one another; we would heal and be healed. We would know the meaning of life. We would be whole. There would be magic. Somewhere, if only we knew where to look...

So we wait for a magical event to transform our mundane existence into the miraculous. We cast about for a philosopher's stone, something outside ourselves that will transmute, transform, all the while missing the insouciant chuckle of the wizard within, prompting us: "It is here. It is now. What are you waiting for?"

Therefore, a spot of advice from one wizard to another: take the hand of a friend or better still, a child, and go see a movie about magic. Buy popcorn and Slush Puppy (to be slurped, obviously). Forget the schizoid world of bank managers and bills for a few hours. Laugh uproariously at the funny bits. Scream in terror at the scary ones. Then go home and look at the stars. Believe and be whole, if only for a while. You'll be a better wizard for it and maybe, just maybe you will find within your own heart, the philosopher's stone.