What Is Steampunk Alchemy?
The truth is that both alchemy and Steampunk can mean different things to different people and s o a definitive answer to the above question must, like the temple of heaven itself,* officially remain eternally elusive.
However, don your pith helmet and fire up your Aethereal-disruption-long-ranged-transponder, and we will embark upon a little investigative journey into the hazardous jungles of the collective conciousness, which should end in us either being quite close to a vague understanding of what Steampunk Alchemy could possibly be, or with us being boiled alive in a steaming pot of earl grey by a lynch mob of philosophers, wizards, airship pilots and dames in crinoline… are we game? …. right then, chocks away…
First let’s tackle the alchemy bit… **
In essence, alchemy is all about change, or transmutation. The change of base metals into gold, the change of plant materials into an elixir of life, the change of the mortal, fallible human self into a divine and worthy spirit. Most alchemical investigation is also conducted under the umbrella of the philosophical understanding that all that exists in the physical world, including ourselves, is merely the manifestation, or echo, of the spiritual reality of the universe – thus anything we create on earth is merely an attempt to re-create that which already exists in the spiritual realm.
Although there have been several different branches of alchemy over the centuries, and although many alchemists have chosen to devote themselves exclusively to one of these paths, even a very cursory study of the subject suggests that these branches constantly strive, throughout history and experience, to join together – creating an almost undeniable sense that the riches or eternal good health promised through working with metals and plants are always symbolic of the real and vital changes which take place within the alchemist’s soul.
Alchemy then becomes a very personal and sacred art, as all work and progress effected in the lab is seen as symbolic of the changes wrought within the personal, spiritual or psychological life of the alchemist.
‘Work and Pray’ was the constant mantra of the alchemists of old and it remains so to this day.
So what do modern alchemists do then? …
Classical alchemy is still practised today and it is an extremely complex – often dangerous – art, requiring years of study and dedication. One of the more widely practised branches in the modern world is herbal alchemy – which has its roots in the desire to effect physical, spiritual or mental healing through work with plant matter.***
In herbal alchemy, the plant matter is first reduced to its constituent parts. These are often referred to as The White Queen and The Red King. Once separated, the elements are ritually purified and then re-combined, in a process symbolically known as The Alchemical Wedding, to produce a stronger, more potent, perhaps even magical, substance which can be used to evoke positive change and healing in the body and life of the alchemist.****
Steampunk Alchemy though? I mean REALLY? Are you sure…
Alchemy suffered a dramatic decline during the eighteenth century as Chemistry emerged, like some acne-ridden upstart adolescent , to scoff at its archaic and mis-informed parent and renounce the connection between the physical world of science and the magical world of spiritual religion.
By the nineteenth century, classical alchemy had been all but eclipsed by modern science and it may therefore seem strange to suggest that there is a valid place for alchemists within the world of Steampunk, which is heavily influenced by nineteenth century culture.
However, alchemy didn’t just disappear and the works of Mary Atwood – “A Suggestive Enquiry Into The Hermetic Mystery” published in 1850 – testifies that there were still dedicated alchemists struggling against the tide of modern rational and scientific thought.
(That in itself is a fascinating niche to explore: the place of the dedicated classical alchemist seeking spiritual enlightenment through experimentation with the elements of the natural world in a steam-powered retro-futuristic society where mechanical monstrosities and infernal devices are threatening to make gods of the men and women who designed and constructed them. )
In fact, despite the decline of those practising alchemical ritual, this crescendoing power of humanity over the rest of the natural world***** curiously caused the essence and symbolism of alchemical thought to pervade the nineteenth century consciousness almost like a divinely gifted antidote – from every corner of the rapidly industrialising globe, poets, artists, writers and those with very loud voices and a lot of opium in their bodies were wagging their cautionary fingers at the doctors and professors and tinkers and shouting “Ah-ha! But supposing you DO succeed in building that strange new device? What if your greed overrides your ethics? Hm? What if your idea of heaven turns out to be hell? What if you realise you have built a monster? What if you BECOME a monster?”
Certainly alchemical notions of symbolic transmutation are prolific both in nineteenth century works and also in modern Steampunk literature, with men becoming to various extents mechanical and machines becoming increasingly autonomous. At which point do we separate the machine from the man and the man from the machine? According to alchemical philosophy, we are the base metal that must be refined and moulded, we are the cogs which connect to make the societal machine, and we are that machine as the components of ourselves whir together to produce our industry in the world.
(At which point do we find ourselves seated in a carriage, like Jeter’s hero, facing the mechanical replica of ourselves – the magnificent or monstrous manifestation of all we could have been or have the potential to yet become? )
The doorway towards Steampunk Alchemy is now beginning to creek open before our very eyes, like the hidden chamber of unfathomable treasures deep within the lost temple … No doubt you spotted the gleam a paragraph or two ago?
If the early alchemists saw the deconstruction and recombination of plant and mineral elements as symbolic of spiritual enlightenment, the road for the Steampunk alchemist seems clear:
To immediately put the kettle on and begin dissecting teabags?
To explore the notion that the reduction of metals in the forge, their refinement in the furnace, their reconstruction into ‘cogs and springs and whirry things’ and further composition into mechanical wonders could be viewed in the same symbolic way?****** *
But what, then, would a Steampunk alchemist actually do? Especially if it’s not allowed to involve tea! …
If ,in herbal alchemy, the plant is dissembled into its three constituent parts – the alcohol, oil and salt- which represent the spirit, the persona and the body, then perhaps the Steampunk alchemist can begin to work with machinery in the same symbolic way?
In a clockwork machine, for example, the coil might represent the spirit, the shaft the persona and the cogs the body. This analogy seems to work if we take the philosophical view that it is the spirit which shapes the actions of the persona and the persona which controls the body. Of course a clockwork machine winds down and must be constantly wound and oiled to keep it functioning and in the same way the spirit must be constantly kept healthy otherwise the persona, and even the health of the body, can begin to deteriorate.
So far so good. However life is never so simple and satisfactory for long is it?
Let’s take the iconic Steam engine for example –
In a steam engine this analogy becomes more complex and potentially problematic. Where there is fuel involved, can that fuel be considered a part of the machine? The answer to this question is obviously debatable but whatever the proposed answer: What, then, would the fuel symbolise ?
(No doubt one could write an entire book of such problems and form a collegium so as to torment young people with pages and pages of the stuff. They are questions each would-be Steampunk alchemist must grapple with for themselves.)
Another inherent problem with using the machine as our alchemical symbol is that, unlike the plant, the animal or the mineral, the machine is a human construct, not a divine one. The machine is our own attempt to mimic divine constructs, whereas the plant, animal and mineral are manifestations of aspects of the divine universal spirit.
Steampunk alchemy may then be seen as very limited in the benefits its symbolism can provide for a marriage of the spirit, body and persona and a transformation and perfection of the soul towards divine spiritual enlightenment.
But let’s consider, for no apparent reason, the Steiner-Waldorf method of teaching and learning which teaches children first to write words and then to read what they have written.
Are you considering?
There is evidently, then, a certain spiritual benefit in the prayerful attempt to construct machinery and the meditative contemplation of what we have created, provided, of course, that we work into our understanding the acceptance that we are only ever creating poor replicas of the divine.
The Chamber Door Creeks Open, The Fool’s Gold Gleams…
The obvious trap for those who would play at divine mimicry, whether their creations and aims be in the realm of the physical, the spiritual or, as in the case of the alchemist, both, is that once we achieve any amount of perceived success, we may begin to consider ourselves to be gods, forgetting that our physical form is only ever an echo of one small spiritual ‘cog’ in the ‘Great Universal Machine.’ We can therefore look upon all our creations as nothing but small, imperfect copies of some small aspect of the thing we are claiming to have become masters of.
And for this reason it is sobering, as we embark upon our Steampunk alchemical adventures, to keep our library shelves stocked high with those blessed volumes of gothic fiction – Poe, Stoker, Shelley et al… – who will constantly remind us of the ‘Lore Of Transmutation’ which is the pit that awaits us if we do not allow the pendulum of our egos to remain in motion. ******* *
So, fellow intrepid adventurers, we arrive back at base camp, hopefully all in one piece and possibly even a little more enlightened for our troubles. If I have done my job as tour guide well, you will hopefully have had a fairly good glimpse into the hidden treasure room wherein the possibilities for Steampunk alchemical exploration lie. If not, you may proceed to the small tumble down hut behind that cluster of mangrove trees over there, where free tiffin is being served, ******** and demand your money back from the woman with biceps the size of coconuts. And coconuts the size of watermelons. You can’t miss her – her pet tiger is usually draped around her shoulders like a fashionable fur stole.
What’s that you say?
The Footnotes, should you choose to accept them, are as follows:
*I am well aware that a certain members of The Everyday Extraordinaries CLAIM to have discovered the lost temple of pingshui, however in view of the distinct lack of evidence to back up this claim, the wyvern and I must remain sceptical and assume they were simply ‘larping around.’
** (If you are a classically trained and practising alchemist you can go make yourself a brew right now and return in a few paragraphs time because, quite frankly, you’re going to be grinding your teeth to pixie dust at my oversimplification of the subject. )*
*** Herbal Alchemy is not to be confused with the medicinal administration of herbal remedies. Reaching for a few peppermint leaves and a kettle at the onset of a headache is not the alchemist’s cup of tea. So to speak. That’s not to say, of course, that there isn’t a certain alchemical methodology that can be applied to the artistry of the tisane. .. an avenue for another time perhaps…**
****Yes it is a sort of philosopher’s stone. Yes it can be used to produce elixirs. Yes it is a bit like that bit in Harry Potter. No you cannot try this at home. (At least not without proper training. Which, happily, you can get right here Alchemy Guild) ***
***** (brought on no doubt by an undocumented, yet epically proportioned, plague of the disease ‘what-if-itis’ which I have mentioned previously on various soap boxes in various parlours) ****
****** Note to self: Construct article detailing alchemy of tea in near future.
*******In fact, we are actually touching here upon a much more ancient concept. The Celts, for example, certainly viewed the blacksmith as a spiritual artisan or magician and the forge as a place of reverent spiritual symbolism where base materials were shaped through sweat and toil into treasure and tools that would benefit the whole tribe.*****
********If we become too deluded by our own genius, our house will crumble, we will become monsters and our undead wives will devour us, leaving nothing but our black tell-tale hearts.******
*********Never turn down free tiffin.
More footnotes, to alleviate general malaise which may ecru due to the droning and monotonous nature of the text, are provided here for use in medical emergency: