Alchemy and Herbalism Part III- Spiritual Herbal Pharmacy — School of Evolutionary Herbalism

Alchemy and Herbalism Part III- Spiritual Herbal Pharmacy — School of Evolutionary Herbalism


Welcome to part three in the Alchemy and Herbalism series. This series introduces you to the Alchemical tradition, which is not usually a standard part of our herbal education. This is really unfortunate because I have found this tradition to be an incredible adjunct to my herbal studies that ultimately has made me a better clinical practitioner, a better medicine maker, and a better human being overall. As we’ve seen over the last few posts, the alchemical worldview is one of integration, one of harmony, one of a deep and profound connection to the natural world, and one of learning from nature, learning from people, learning from the plants. It adds an extra oomph of power and healing potency to our work as herbalists. 

“As Above, So Below”

Last week we talked about one of the core philosophical pillars of alchemy, summarized in the adage “as above, so below,” which looks at the overarching pattern or blueprint of nature and how the wholeness of creation is found within the part, within each individual species. We also looked at how it is central to the alchemical approach to medicine to look at a person and look at a plant and decipher what their pattern of nature and creation is, how it’s uniquely imprinted within a person and in a plant, and how, when we see people and plants in that way, it allows us to be able to make connections that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to make, especially in the dotted line that connects the physical, the energetic, and the spiritual side of people and plants.

The last post was like flying at a 5,000-foot level. But how do we apply that philosophy? How do we practically apply this understanding of the macrocosm and the microcosm and “as above, so below”? This is where we get into Spagyrics, which is a term invented by the alchemist Paracelsus in the early 1500s. It is the branch of the alchemical tradition that focuses on medicinal plants.

Spagyric and Practical Alchemy

The word “spagyrics” is a combination of two Greek words. It’s commonly defined as “to separate and recombine.” I have a student from Greece who dug into the etymology of the words spao and ageiro, which are the roots of the word that Paracelsus put together to create “spagyric.” My student said that it’s better defined as “to separate and reawaken.” That seems fitting for the spagyric process. I call spagyrics “spiritual herbal pharmacy.” As I said in part one, alchemy is the root of modern chemistry and modern pharmacology, but it’s different because it sees that the substances and materials that we work with have a spirit, have consciousness, have purpose and meaning, and something beyond the material.

Distillation of the Mercury principle in a Spagyric preparation

The spagyric process to separate and recombine or reawaken is a way that we approach creating herbal medicines and herbal extracts that is in alignment with creation. In alchemy there’s a cosmology, a creation story, a way in which we see life unfolding from oneness into, as they say in Taoism, the 10,000 things. There’s all the facets of life and the way life was created is this cosmological blueprint. Spagyrics is about taking that blueprint and applying it to how we create and craft holistic medicine. It is a holistic approach to creating plant medicine, one in which we are concentrating the chemical properties of plants, along with the energetic properties, as well as the spiritual virtues of the plants.

The beauty of spagyrics is that you have one single form of medicine that addresses the whole person. You’re not using one type of extract to treat the body, and another type of extract to treat the psyche, and another type of extract to treat the mind or the emotions. With spagyrics it’s all together as one—because the whole plant is present in the preparation, it treats the whole person. This is a profound way of working with herbal medicine. It’s very efficient and effective as well. I’m not able to do practical hands-on demonstrations here for how spagyrics are prepared, but I want to give you some context for how that overarching alchemical philosophy that I shared with you over the last two posts is applied in the way that we work with plants in a laboratory setting, in the creation of the medicines. In the next post, I’ll share more about how they’re applied in a therapeutic context and working with people. 

Creating Spagyric Medicines

Spagyrics and alchemical philosophy see that everything in nature has three core components to it: sulfur, mercury, and salt. These are called the Tria Prima, or the three philosophical principles, and they correlate to the soul, the spirit, and the body of any living thing. Within a plant, this soul, spirit, and body is seen as the alkaline mineral salts, the alcohol and water-soluble chemistry, and the essential oils—the body, the spirit, and the soul. These are what we are tangibly working with in a spagyrics context. We take a whole plant and separate out the soul, the essential oils through distillation. We separate out the spirit, the alcohol through fermenting the herb into a wine and distilling the alcohol off. We take the body, the salt of the plant, and burn it down to an ash and crystallize all of those alkaline minerals. 

Then those three principles are purified or rarefied, concentrated, and then they are recombined and brought back together into what is considered a holistic and yet refined—a broad spectrum, and yet concentrated and refined—form of herbal extracts that are incredibly potent in very minuscule dosages. That’s the general premise of how spagyric extracts are prepared. There are many different ways of extracting and purifying and recombining them to create different types of spagyric extracts. There are many different types of spagyric extracts. Some are liquid, some are solid, some are focused more in the body, some are focused more on the spirit and some are focused more on the soul.

Spagyrics are getting really popular these days. More people are becoming aware of the alchemical tradition. It’s gaining popularity, and this is something we see throughout the history of alchemy. It moves in waves where it’ll get really popular and a lot of people are into it, and then it’ll get suppressed or go underground for a period of time. There were places in Europe where alchemy was made illegal because there were charlatans and people that weren’t doing it in a good way. Right now, we’re seeing a peak happening in terms of popularity of alchemy and spagyrics, which I think is great, but I also think it’s really important to maintain the integrity of this tradition.

The Calcination process: burning plants into an ash for a Spagyric preparation

People get excited about spagyrics because it’s a no-waste form of herbal medicine making, meaning that when you make a tincture and you press the herb out of the tincture, often that plant material is composted or thrown out. In spagyrics, we don’t throw that out. We use that through the calcination process, burning it down to an ash and crystallizing those minerals, which are then reintroduced back into, in this case, the tincture, which is the most basic spagyrics tincture. But that’s as far as a lot of people are going with it. People are calling themselves alchemists and they have the secret of alchemy but they’re just sprinkling ash back into their tincture. That’s like saying because you’re coating yourself in sesame oil you’re an Ayurvedic practitioner. It’s taking one little bit and ignoring everything else. I’m not trying to get after anyone or attack anyone by saying that. I just think it’s very important to understand that alchemy is a very complex, very sophisticated, refined, whole system of medicine and medicine making. Just putting ash into a tincture is not the full spectrum of what spagyrics is. There’s a lot more to it than that. That’s just the very basic intro to it. I hate to see a very rich tradition get diluted down to just this one single thing. That’s a very powerful and important part of the process, but there’s a lot more to it than that. 

Harvesting Planets

In herbalism, we are harvesting plants—we are harvesting the medicinal potency of plants from nature. Alchemy, and spagyrics, is harvesting planets. That may sound really out there and really strange. But this is one of the ways that alchemy and herbalism achieves “as above, so below.” In herbalism, we’re working with plants, these earthen beings, these sentient conscious life-forms that grow on this earth. In alchemy, we’re working with those herbs in accordance with the stars.

Alchemy is about harvesting planets. In spagyric practice we do this through what are referred to as astral timing mechanisms, whichprovide a way of looking at the spirit of time, the energetics of time, and how different energies are flowing through certain times of day. In certain spaces, certain geographical regions, changes are happening, and in alchemy we see this as correlating to certain planetary qualities. This similar to what in Chinese medicine is seen as different times of the day correlating to different organ systems, or in Ayurvedic medicine, different times of day or different seasonal attributes correlate to the three doshas—vata, pitta, and kapha. These are energetic understandings of time. Many people think that these only exist in the East, but we actually have our own system in the West, which is based on astrology.

Angelica with its planetary ruler, Mercury

The critically important aspect of properly prepared spagyric medicine is that the plants are harvested and prepared accordingly to the timing of the planet that governs that plant. In a previous post, I talked about how we can look at a plant and where it grows, its shape, its color, its texture, its taste, what organ systems it works on, its energetics, its medicinal virtues, and the way it affects the mind and the spirit. We can look at that whole pattern in a plant and see a very specific relationship to one of the primary celestial bodies in our solar system. That is the secret key that unlocks the door to working with that plant in the context of alchemy. 

We harvest these planetary qualities in alchemy and spagyrics through lining up when we pick the plant and when we distill the plant. We do all of our work with that plant when that planetary energy is at its peak so that it’s being infused into the medicine. Because the medicines are prepared astrologically, they will function astrally, meaning that they work through our astral body. I know that sounds new-agey and really out there, but this is a traditional term used to denote what we might refer to as the energy body of the human organism. This is mapped out in the nadis of Ayerveda and the meridians and points of acupuncture. It’s the same thing. It’s interesting that in acupuncture there are 12 meridians, and in Western astrology there are 12 signs of the Zodiac. I have an acupuncturist friend who heard me talk about spagyrics and alchemy and said that the way I talk about the constellations and the way these stars connect—there are 12 of them, which reminded him of the 12 meridians and how these points are like stars and the lines that connect them are like constellations. We were seeing the similarity amongst these traditions. 

Preparing Spagyric Remedies

One of the main ways that spagyrics remedies work is through the human astral body, which can be seen as the mediary between the physical organism and the spiritual part of our being. In that way, they’re working not just chemically in the body, although there are chemicals present in spagyric preparations, but they’re also working on more of what we might refer to as the subtle body. In that way, they’re influencing the mind, they’re influencing the emotions, they’re influencing our soul. Properly prepared spagyric remedies are building bridges between ourselves as microcosm to these archetypal forces in the macrocosm.

Sometimes we’re living our lives and some of these archetypes—planets and elements and things like that—we embody them pretty well. We have a certain degree of balance with an archetypal force. It’s well integrated, and we express it in a healthy way. Other ones not so much. We all have aspects of life that we struggle with. Those are the archetypal forces that according to alchemy are more likely than not to make us sick or give us challenges, because they’re trying to wake us up to a new level of awareness so that we can heal, so that we can grow, so that our soul can develop and evolve on its pathway and journey through this life. 

One of the ways that this is done in spagyrics is that we are mirroring that process of creation in medicine making. The way life creates itself, the way a child is born, the way a child is brought into this world and the gestation process in the womb, and the way that the water breaks, and the way that life emerges into this world and takes its first breath—all of that is mirrored in the spagyrics process, because according to alchemy, when we create something, we want to follow the pattern of creation. The way life creates life is the way that we’re creating the medicine. In that, there’s an inherent transformational quality, there’s a transformational process present. I like to think of spagyrics as “cosmological medicine making” or “spiritual herbal pharmacy,” because we are not only attending to and concentrating the chemical attributes of plants but we’re also concentrating the spiritual and energetic attributes of plants as their microcosm is mirroring their the celestial archetypes of the macrocosm. This is one of the ways that the alchemical tradition practically applies that axiom of “as above, so below,” or “as within, so without,” because it’s working through the whole person, because the medicine contains the whole plant, and because the medicine also contains the wholeness of life itself.

Holistic Herbal Pharmacy

Alchemy is a truly holistic approach to herbal medicine making. This was profound for me, because I love herbal medicine making—it’s probably one of my favorite attributes of studying plant medicine, especially when I was at Bastyr. We got tons of time in the medicine making lab, and I loved that part of it. I was like a mad scientist, experimenting and wanting to make the most potent, concentrated medicine I could, and wanting it to work on the whole person. I was combining decoctions and infusions and tinctures and flower essences and all types of different things, trying to get the most out of the medicine that I was making, because I wanted it to address the whole person. They were a little bit of a smorgasbord of different things. They lacked a definition, they lacked a specific focus. 

The Calcination process; burning plants further to render a white ash for the Salt principle

When I came across alchemy and spagyrics, I knew this was it, this was a system of herbal pharmacy that directly acknowledges the spiritual counterpart of a plant, the plant’s connection to the rest of the cosmos, and the necessity for us as human beings to be healed on these more subtle levels that exist beyond the body, but while not ignoring the body. I worked with flower essences for a period of time and really appreciate the way they work. But they always felt one-sided or that they were missing something really important because there wasn’t really anything physiological occurring there. Conversely, with a lot of standard preparations, I felt like the vibrational counterpart that something like a flower essence has wasn’t present. Spagyrics brings them together so that we have a whole medicine to heal the whole person and operates on the archetypal level within people.

This is a whole other level of medicine making, but not to the exclusion of other forms of herbal medicine. I still use powders, I still make myself cups of tea, I still work with infused oils and salves and topical preparations. Some people only do spagyrics and think all other forms of herbal medicine are inferior. But everything has its place. Spagyrics is definitely more involved than most standard herbal forms of preparation, and it’s definitely more advanced forms of medicine making, but it’s right there with the rest of the types of herbal preparations that we can make. It’s just another level of working with the plants and combining different forms of preparations too. 

With certain forms of spagyrics, as I mentioned earlier, we’ll distill off the essential oils of a plant. There’s a whole branch of herbalism with aroma therapy that focuses only on essential oils. Another example in alchemy is that rather than pouring some brandy or vodka to tincture your herbs, there are ways where you’re actually fermenting that plant into a wine and distilling your own herbal spirits, alcohol from that herb. You’re literally making a yarrow alcohol that then you can use in different forms of spagyrics. It takes what are often seen as separate forms of medicine making and brings them all together to create a singular holistic form of medicine that ultimately heals the whole person. 

Deep, Holistic Healing

This is really important in modern-day herbal medicine, because especially in these times that we’re in right now, the world is in chaos. We’re seeing the need for humanity to heal on a much deeper level. Over the last number of months and years, we’ve been uncovering deep levels of psychological and spiritual imbalance amongst humanity. People are still racist, still sexist, still think in ways that are not inclusive and harmonious with nature. These are deep levels of imbalances that require healing. It can be easy to get mad at people and upset at people for thinking in different ways, but it shows that there’s a need for healing. This is why I’m so passionate about sharing about alchemical medicine and spagyric medicine, because I believe that the plants and these forms of preparing the plants hold a power and potency to bring a level of healing to people that is desperately needed during these times here on mother earth.

Plant crystals! The body of a plant, or the Salt principle in Spagyric medicine

I also find that many people who go to an herbalist are looking for this. They go to an herbalist because they’re fed up with pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter medicine, and they want a different option. That’s great, but many people are coming to the herbalist and wanting help on a deeper level, wanting a deeper connection to nature, wanting a deeper connection to themselves, to heal their trauma, to move forward in their life. These forms of medicine can really help people in that way. It’s important as a modern herbalist to be able to meet the needs and wants and desires of our clients so that we can help them to the best of our capacity. 

How Spagyrics Heal People

That brings us to the next question: What does that look like? In spagyric forms of herbal medicine, we’re lining up the way we craft our medicine in accordance with the macrocosm, with the pattern of nature, and we’re concentrating chemical, energetic, and spiritual properties into the plants. Naturally, they work differently than standard forms of herbal preparations. So how do you use them? What types of effects do we see when we start taking a spagyric form of medicine? How do they heal us? On a bigger level, what is healing? We’re talking about alchemy and herbalism—from the traditional perspective of alchemy, what is healing? What is a disease? Why do we get sick? How can these forms of medicine help us? That’s what I’ll focus on in the fourth and final part of our Alchemy and Herbalism series. I’m going to talk about illness as initiation and how spagyrics really work when we need that help, what they’re doing in our bodies, what they’re doing in our minds, what they’re doing in our souls, and how they are not just healing but are also supporting us in our soul’s evolutionary journey on this mother earth.

If alchemy is intriguing to you, I’ve got a much more in-depth, free course that I’m going to be sharing going deeper into Spagric medicine and the philosophy of Alchemy, so be sure to check the next blog post (Part 4) and join us for this Free training starting next week!





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