Terence McKenna's "Alchemical Dream"
In The Alchemical Dream, a film produced by Sacred Mysteries and directed by Sheldon Rochlin, visionary author and counterculture luminary Terence McKenna relates some of the curious history of European alchemy, and the attempted creation of a religious utopia based on alchemical principles. Dressed as the famed Hermetic magician John Dee, McKenna strolls wistfully through the crumbling ruins and sweeping castle vistas of Eastern Europe discussing the lost secrets of alchemy. He gives us a tour of the last remaining alchemical laboratory in Heidelberg, and tells a fascinating story of political intrigue and bohemian experimentation in the 16th century.
The alchemists were after what McKenna describes as a “magical theory of nature.” They used precise and calculated methods that would pave the way for the future intellectual development of some important sciences such as chemistry, biology, phenomenology, and psychology. Their intention was to transform the human spirit and the physical body itself into something divine and wholly other, something resembling the odd and spectacular alchemical art of the time. They experimented with myriad combinations of special chemicals, magical formulas, and complex distillation processes designed to produce the fabled “philosopher's stone”: a metaphorical goal which can be read in many ways. In essence, the alchemists were trying to bring heaven down to earth by merging spiritual mysticism with the physiological exploration of alchemical mixtures.
According to McKenna, the group of European alchemists who centered around John Dee and the British court of Queen Elizabeth I in the late 1500's believed that the spiritual philosophy of alchemy was so profound and full of potential that it should be embraced as the popular religious paradigm of the day. The Christian preacher Martin Luther had started a Protestant reformation in 1517 with the 95 Theses and now, a century later, Dee felt that the world was ready for an alchemical reformation. With this idea of a religious reformation in mind, Dee and a group of court alchemists traveled to the palace of King Frederick V of Bohemia in 1618 with the intention of establishing a new alchemical kingdom.
This alchemical dream lasted for about a year before the Austrian dynasty of the Hapsburg family got wind of the reformation plan and disapproved of Frederick's kingship, quickly dispatching an army to lay siege to the kingdom of Bohemia and Frederick's court. After a brief period of fighting Frederick was defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain on November 8th, 1620, and the Bohemian hopes of establishing an alchemical religious state were destroyed. While the bulk of alchemical knowledge was lost to Western civilization after this time, the intellectual threads of this esoteric philosophy can still be found in the modern world.
As McKenna points out, this attempted reformation was not entirely dissimilar to what happened in the social climate of America in the 1960's with the re-introduction of sacred plants into Western culture and the social upheaval that occurred simultaneously. McKenna describes the drug revival of the 60's as a sort of “failed alchemy” whose ideal was to transform the human spirit, but wound up as a splintered and marginalized movement, similar to alchemy. However, although alchemy was lost to Western civilization for a few centuries, some of the basic ideas can still be found scattered here and there in some esoteric religious practices, mystical writings, transpersonal psychology and art history books: themes of creativity, diversity, synchronicity, unions of opposites, and personal psycho-spiritual exploration which were all an essential part of the alchemical endeavor.
So while the dream of European alchemy may have apparently died in the 16th century, the underlying motivation of the alchemists – a desire for innovative and genuine spiritual experience – is a fundamental human characteristic that can be traced through many different cultures and time periods. As an example of this, at the end of The Alchemical Dream, McKenna makes an interesting historical footnote about a young solider named Rene Descartes who was part of the invading Hapsburg army which defeated the Bohemian kingdom. Shortly after this time, Descartes was visited in a dream by an angelic apparition who instructed him with a piece of advice which would fundamentally alter our world. The angel said to him, “The conquest of nature is to be achieved through measures and numbers.” Descartes would go on to become one of the most influential scientists and philosophers of his day. For McKenna, this is a perfect example of how the spirit of alchemy (the spirit of inner human creativity) will continuously reappear at opportune moments and direct the course of human events in mysterious ways which we can only begin to understand.
A trailer for the film is available on Google video.
For more information or to request a screening, visit Sacred Mysteries.
Tristan Gulliford is a writer, dreamer, and aspiring myth-keeper who makes electronic music under the name "Dreamcode". He is currently attending the University of Colorado at Boulder.