When the Egg Cracks Open

The Alchemical Egg

The egg is a universal symbol of life. It appears in various creation myths, representing the start of the universe itself. In ancient Greek cosmology, the ‘Orphic egg’ is considered to be the source of life, and is often depicted with a serpent wound around it. From the egg hatches the primordial deity, the golden-winged Phanes, who in turn creates a pantheon of gods.

As one account says: The Cosmic Egg is one of the most prominent icons in world mythology. It can be found in Egyptian, Babylonian, Polynesian and many other creation stories. In almost all cases, this embryonic motif emerges out of darkness, floating upon the waters of chaos. Within this egg typically resides a divine being who literally creates himself from nothing… This creator then goes on to form the material universe.


In Russian folklore, eggs also represent time itself. One traditional custom celebrates the turning of the year by visualising the coming year as twelve nests, representing the twelve months, all sitting in the branches of a mighty oak tree. Each nest has four eggs in it, and each egg will hatch seven chicks, thus creating the weeks in the month, and the days in the week. (This doesn’t quite add up to the full number of days in the year, but never mind!) Decorated eggs, both natural and crafted, are particularly popular in Russia and also in the Ukraine, not only for Easter, but all year round.

I have always had a personal attachment to eggs. I have kept hens, and nothing beats the pleasure of reaching your hand into a nest of straw and gently clasping the warm egg laid there that morning. I love eating them – though they have to be ‘just right’ – no sloppy whites! Perhaps there’s something powerful about the potential of an egg to be perfect, fresh and tasty to eat, or to be repellent through its undercooked sliminess, let alone when it’s gone bad and stinks. Even those home laid hen’s eggs could sometimes deliver a nasty shock if they’d been hidden away in the nest for too long!

I’ve also kept Russian decorative eggs from the period when I was importing Russian crafts. I prefer the simple shapes, rather than the elaborate, Faberge-style ones, because the primordial shape of the egg is perfection itself.

The Story to Come

In my occasional alchemy blogs I draw from my book Everyday Alchemy, but I also like to introduce stories that haven’t been told before, as I did in the previous one (Alchemy and the Trickster), recounting how I met a current-day Hermes in Amsterdam.The next extract I’m adapting from the book already contains a personal story, however, which also dates from my student years, and which precedes that meeting in Amsterdam.

When I post these passages from my book, I aim to refresh them with new observations and experiences, so they may be somewhat different here to the form in which they first appeared, and perhaps appeal to a wider range of readers. For those who would like to follow this further, the book contains practical suggestions as a guide to working with alchemical principles in everyday life (but not in a laboratory!). Although Everyday Alchemy is currently out of print, copies can still be found, and I hope that it will be republished at some point.

This extract is adapted from: ‘Cracking the Egg’, Chapter One, Everyday Alchemy
(Please note: all copyright retained by Cherry Gilchrist, author.)

Emblem 8: Take the egg and pierce it with a fiery sword
(from Michael Maier’s ‘Atlanta Fugiens’)

This is the moment. You hold the sword in your hand, ready to pierce the egg that stands before you. It is the perfect egg, and the perfect moment to do the deed. Now is your chance to strike.


But it is terrifying to commit yourself to this moment. It is much easier to linger in the past or dream of the future. And the egg is beautiful as it is. If the sword doesn’t strike cleanly, you might shatter the shell and damage the precious embryo of life inside it. Wouldn’t it be better to leave it be?


It is your choice, of course. The sword carries your intention, and you must decide whether you will use it to break open the alchemical egg and initiate the process of transformation. The egg may look perfect, but it is as yet undeveloped. From the moment of opening the egg, you must begin the work of developing the raw material it contains through every stage of change until it becomes alchemical gold. The egg will certainly perish if its potential is not released, so the choice cannot be postponed indefinitely. The gold you aspire to, on the other hand, is incorruptible. It is a symbol for enlightenment, the Elixir of Life, the realisation of Life beyond life, the Sun behind the sun. It is a place of safety for the human spirit, and an entry point into the divine world.


The moment of impending change is frightening. The act of splitting the egg open will catapult the alchemist into an unknown world; from this moment on, he will be changed. He will have to leave his old life behind. On his face we can read apprehension, and even a hint of terror. But he knows that even though he trembles on the brink, he has to go forward. This chance may only come once in a lifetime. (The emblem depicts a male alchemist; traditionally, there were also many female alchemists, although it was a difficult activity for a woman with children and household responsibilities to take up, as it required many hours or days of solitude.)


There is also intense concentration in his expression. The perfect egg could be ruined by one careless slip with the sword. So his act of bravery must be carried out as precisely and skilfully as possible.

Setting out on the Path

Alchemy is about change. Each of us changes – life itself does that to us. Age, environment and experience affect us, altering our appearance and our outlook. Hopefully, we all finish our lives a little wiser than we started. But the work of alchemy makes different demands. It is for those who consciously seek change on a bigger scale – not change for change’s sake, but for the growth of the spirit.


Alchemists have always said that there is a right moment to start the ‘great work’, and to initiate the alchemical process, sometimes according to astrology, or the lunar cycle. But perhaps more critical is the time that precedes that, the moment of choice, which is shown here. This can be triggered by a key event. In the 16th century, a young man called Jakob Boehme had a mysterious encounter. One day, he was at work as a humble apprentice in a shoe shop, when a stranger appeared in the doorway. His eyes were burning with an unearthly light, and he said: ‘Jakob, thou art little, but shalt be great, and become another man, such a one as at whom the world shall wonder.’ From that day, Boehme became aware of his destiny, and went on to become a famous alchemist and mystic.

Below: Jacob Boehme and his own version of the ‘cosmic egg’ – ‘The Philosophical Sphere, or the Wonder Eye of Eternity’


Even though such a dramatic revelation may happen rarely, perhaps on this occasion from an angelic messenger, similar experiences can happen even in ordinary meetings with normal people. Someone may speak a few words that strike us with great power, and which become our imperative, spurring us to take a different direction. Or a seemingly unrelated event may also bring us to that moment of change.

A Road Trip in Mexico

In 1968, when I was student of nineteen, my boyfriend and I headed off to America for the summer. We reached the West Coast, hung out in San Francisco (as you did, the year after the Summer of Love), and decided to drive down through Mexico in an old camper van. One morning, after a showery night, we were heading through the hills in central Mexico towards a little town called Zacatecas. Chris was driving, as I hadn’t passed my test at that time. The surface was slippery and suddenly, as we were rounding a bend, the car skidded and veered towards the edge of the road. Below us was an almost sheer drop down a high earth cliff. I watched the whole process happen with great clarity – there was no room for fear – and I remember thinking quite calmly: ‘This is the last thought that I shall ever have. What a shame.’ Then the van plunged over the edge, and I fell with it into a kind of grey limbo. I ‘woke up’ after it had rolled over and over and came to rest at the bottom of the cliff. Miraculously, the two of us in it were almost unhurt, apart from bruises and minor cuts, and a bristling mass of cactus spines in my legs. But nothing was ever the same again.


For several weeks prior to the accident, I had sensed that something very frightening was about to happen, though I had no idea what. I felt that my world – my egg – was about to burst open. I would wake up at night in distress from nightmares, and yet I couldn’t say what they were about. And after the accident, there was no blissful state of relief that I was still alive. In fact, we lived through a horrible period; to begin with, when we climbed back up to the road, no one would stop to help us although we were visibly bleeding. When kind strangers finally took us to hospital, we were treated and released within a few days, but then we had to live in the little mountain town for weeks while they sorted out our insurance claim. It turned out that the drunken official who’d issued them at the border hadn’t actually signed our papers. The police who’d eventually attended the scene of the accident had stolen not only a camera but also our travellers’ cheques. Thus, while this was being sorted – they eventually handed the camera back, but the travellers’ cheques involved a lengthy replacement process – our money ran out, and we had to sleep in a hut where rats ran across the floor. At night, I began to indulge in a fantasy that we had really died, and that now we were trapped in some kind of curious and unpleasant otherworld.

Here I am, sitting in the car repair yard, wondering if they’re going to be able to fix our VW camper van. Zacatecas, Mexico, 1968

By day, everything began to polarise into the good and the bad. There were kind people who helped us, fed us, and acted like Good Samaritans. There were also corrupt officials and those too callous to help. And the terror of the accident haunted me, as it did for months to come.

The VW van in the repair yard, with my boyfriend examining the rear door. Would you trust any of these guys standing around? We had little choice, though.

But – and here is the promise of gold among the dross – this event brought me to the most important choice of my life. I had come close to death, and I had to face up to this. It had haunted me, as it probably did many of my generation, with the threat of nuclear war in our early teens. The threat was indeed very real, and my sense of a dark, terrifying void beyond life wouldn’t go away. Now I couldn’t shelve the ‘big questions’ any more, about life and death and my own place on this planet. Back in the UK, I began attending a meditation class (you can find details of this here), and soon afterwards I found the line of study that I have followed since, based in the Western Hermetic and Cabbalistic tradition. The accident had shattered my world, but it brought new hope and a new way forward.

The Egg Breaks Open

When the moment is seized, and the egg broken open – either by your own agency, or by powers seemingly from outside – there is a real shift in life. It is like becoming a driver instead of a passenger. Your range of options increases – where to go, what speed to travel at, and what to see along the way. Of course, there are different dangers and responsibilities too, when you take charge of a fast and potentially lethal vehicle.


Alchemy itself is often described as the speeding up of a natural process. Alchemy accelerates the work of nature, and traditional alchemists often put themselves at serious risk in their laboratories, where explosions and escape of poisonous gases were common. You may be relieved to hear that I’m not recommending any dangerous laboratory experiments! (Which are, in any case, entirely outside my area of expertise.) However, even as an ‘everyday alchemist’, working on the material of your own life, you may discover highly charged areas of energy in your own being. This is still work that has to be handled with care and skill. And as the alchemists themselves have said, it also needs discipline, hard work and patience. Meditation, for instance, requires a regular habit of taking time out and dropping immediate concerns.


If you choose to take such a path, the alchemical view is that you’re speeding up the process of spiritual evolution and perhaps taking it further than would normally happen over a lifetime. In terms of gold itself, the alchemists believed that all matter is slowly evolving into gold, and that the chosen ‘work’, whether in a spiritual or material sense, is to do with conscious acceleration of that development.

The Story of the King’s Son


This sense of purpose and destiny is embodied in an ancient and beautiful Gnostic poem called The Hymn of the Robe of Glory. (It is sometimes also known as Hymn of the Pearl.) It tells the story of a king’s son, whose parents send him on a quest to find a precious pearl hidden in the depths of the earth.
The King’s son leaves his heavenly palace, and descends to this world. Here, he forgets his true origins and the task which he has to perform. He goes to live in the land of Egypt, which is a symbol for the dark land of sleep, and indulging of base desires. (Egypt is also, incidentally, a metaphor for the ‘black earth’, the primal material of alchemy, and alchemy itself may have originated in Egypt.)


His royal parents wait for him, but he doesn’t return. So they compose a letter to him, and send it in the form of an eagle, the ‘king-bird’ and divine messenger.


It flew and alighted beside me
And turned into speech altogether
At its voice and at the sound of its wings
I awoke and arose from my deep sleep.
The eagle speaks the message to the drowsy prince:
‘Up and arise from thy sleep…
Remember that thou art a King’s son…
Think of the Pearl
For which thou didst journey to Egypt.’


So the son remembers who he is, and what he has to do. He finds the pearl, and begins the journey home. As he finally approaches his parents’ palace, he sees the Robe of Glory spread out before him, the garment of light that he is destined to wear. He accepts his true birthright.


This allegory declares that we are all royal sons and daughters, who have forgotten our heritage. Every one of us has a chance to awaken to the message of the eagle, and remember the mission we are on. Such a message is not found exclusively in ancient texts, but also closer to our time, for instance in ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality’ by Wordsworth:


Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come…


But we become so immersed in both the cares and the delights of everyday life that we lose sight of our real destiny, and it takes a conscious choice to fulfil it. We are given fresh chances; the message comes, often in an unexpected form, but we have to awaken to it, and choose to act. The pearl will lie forgotten in the depths of the earth, unless we remember to look for it.

(End of extract from Everyday Alchemy. )

To round off this post, I’ll include the exercise which immediately follows this extract in the chapter. You never know, you might like to try it!

Following the Thread
What turning points can you identify in your own life? Review a crucial event in your life. Remember, as clearly as you can, what happened in terms of the outer sequence of action. You may feel emotional about this, but although you should acknowledge your emotions, it’s important that they don’t cloud the story.


Put the event in context: what led up to it? Follow the thread back from the event itself. Try not to judge the reasons and causes, but rather see what comes to mind.


Then follow the thread forward. What changed as a result? Try and see it as a story, almost as though somebody else was telling it.


Write down what you have discovered. Repeat this exercise over the next few days, and see if any of your perceptions change.

You may also be interested in:

Alchemy and the Trickster

Alchemy and Cooking

Meeting the Shaman in Siberia

The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

Alchemy and the Trickster

I’m planning to offer some intermittent and experimental posts about alchemy, based on my book Everyday Alchemy. Alchemy itself is experimental, so it may be no bad thing to adopt that approach here! Here’s the first of them. But to begin with, I’ll say a few words about alchemy and the background to the posts.

When I was in my mid-30s, I was offered an unexpected chance to write a book on the history of alchemy, for a series published by Aquarian Press. They had been let down by an unsuitable text from the author they’d commissioned, and a writer on their radar recommended me instead. ‘How hard can it be?’ I asked myself, already well acquainted with Kabbalah, Tarot and the Western esoteric tradition. Yes, I would take it on. Oh, and it had to be completed in a very short space of time – 6 months, as I recall.

I soon found out the huge challenge of the task ahead of me. Alchemy has a lengthy and complex history, and it has been practised in all sorts of different ways. It was not the straightforward task I’d envisaged. However, I was lucky to live near the city of Exeter at the time, whose university had (and still has) an excellent section on so-called esoteric subjects. I swiftly learned that I had to be perceptive and ruthless in my approach to research, in extracting the essence, doing my best to understand and clarify it, and present a reliable overview within those few months. I also had to use my own discrimination, tempered by experience of the esoteric tradition and meditation. This was necessary so that I could discard peripheral and fantastical practices which were a long way from the genuine core of alchemy. Necessity drove me here, and I think the book was all the better for it. Alchemy: The Great Work came out in 1984 and has never really been out of print since, though in different, revised and re-named editions. It was met with good reviews and acclaim, and I trembled to be unseated by an expert who knew what I had perhaps missed, this has never happened. It remains one of the very few accessible studies of the history of alchemy.

The Red Dragon of alchemy, symbolising the basic energy or life force which must be released and transformed into gold

Everyday Alchemy (2002) carries on where my history of alchemy (Alchemy: The Great Work) left off; it reveals how we can use alchemical practice within the ‘laboratory’ of our own lives to achieve change. In Cherry’s Cache, I’ve already covered one of these topics, about cooking as a form of alchemy, and I’ll be coming back to other forms of ‘diy’ alchemy in later posts. But for now, I’d like to set the scene and tell you a true-life tale. So I start today with an overview of alchemy,adapted from the Prelude to Everyday Alchemy, and end with a story about encountering a mysterious stranger in shadowy Amsterdam. This is an account of something that happened to me the year that I turned twenty-one, and which I have never written publicly about before. Is that enough to entice you to read on? I hope so!

Alchemy, broadly speaking, is the quest to make gold from base materials. It is the art of transformation. That quest in one sense eventually developed into modern chemistry, but alchemy itself has never been just about material change. It is about mystical inspiration and powerful visions, and the interaction of mind and matter.

A historical perspective: the alchemist and his assistants at work


What is Alchemy?

From the Prelude to Everyday Alchemy

The practice of alchemy stretches back for thousands of years. It was one of the esoteric arts of the ancient Egyptians, who sought the secrets of transmuting metals. Later, seekers from Greek and Middle Eastern cultures recorded their visions of eternal gold, and added practical instructions for setting up an alchemical laboratory. From the medieval period, the quest for turning base metal into gold spread into Europe. Alchemists could be found across a wide range of society, from ragged tricksters who promised instant gold in return for funds, to philosophic princes in Renaissance palaces, who shut themselves away in secret chambers to pursue the Great Work. And over in the Far East, there were yet other traditions of alchemy, which focussed chiefly on the search for the ultimate medicine, the Elixir of Life, gleaming with the golden light of immortality.

An image from Splendor Solis (The Sun in Splendour), an illustrated manuscript from the 16th century. Alchemy is rich in symbolism, and here the rising sun symbolises the creation of gold in the alchemical vessel

The aim of alchemy is usually understood as the transformation of base metal into gold. Yet this can be interpreted in so many ways: historically, some alchemists certainly concentrated on the material properties of chemicals and metals, and their work in time gave rise to modern chemistry. This in turn then started to rule out the miracles and revelations which were so much a part of traditional alchemy. Other alchemists saw their path primarily as a mystical one, where developments in the laboratory were considered only an outward sign of divine transformation in the soul. But for most alchemists, spiritual and material labours have always gone together, and been expressed through the realm of imagery. The world of alchemical imagery is a fantastic one, teeming with winged beings, dragons and serpents, kings and queens, naked lovers, and exotic birds and beasts. Imagery forms a kind of symbolic communication between the different levels of experience. For us today, it is just as important to span these different levels too. But rather than setting up a traditional alchemical laboratory, we can use our own lives as the prime material.


Alchemy is a living tradition, and has to be re-invented in each new age. However, connecting to the lineage of alchemists who have gone before us is important; the tree of alchemy has many branches, but they all connect to the main trunk, the tradition of transformation. There are ways of filling in the historical background; we have access to a vast number of alchemical tracts, which leave us with a wealth of imagery and enigmatic writings. Alchemists deliberately set out to mystify, so that ‘the wise’ might understand, and ‘the ignorant’ remain confused. They preferred to leave clues rather than recipes. But linking into the tradition is important, and one reason why I have chosen to illustrate this book with emblems from an important source, Atlanta Fugiens by Michael Maier (1617). Emblems formed part of the core material of alchemy, especially in the seventeenth century. The idea was based on Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the belief that you could contain a wealth of secret knowledge within one image, which only the initiated could truly understand. These complex, many-layered emblems largely replaced the more graphic alchemical woodcuts and illuminations from earlier centuries. The best emblem books were published in different languages throughout Europe, and became common currency for alchemists.

Here is Hermes, aka Mercury, the presiding spirit of alchemy and also planetary ruler of the astrological sign of Gemini. This is how Anna Zinkeisen depicted him in her Zodiac Calendar, which you can read about here

The ‘patron saint’ of alchemy is Hermes Trismegistus. This is why alchemy is also often known as ‘the Hermetic Work’. The secondary meaning of hermetic as ‘sealed’ comes from the practice of alchemy itself, and relates to the closed vessel in which much of the transformation takes place. On a more symbolic level, this signifies that alchemical work is self-contained, and must be protected from intrusion. The legendary figure of Hermes Trismegistus is known as a master magician, the guide of souls, and also as a trickster figure. Although he is related to the Greek God Hermes, messenger of the gods, he is a specific personification of revelation, wisdom and the arts of transformation. He is said to have initiated the first alchemists. The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, thought to have been written by the sage himself, became the key text for alchemists; it contains the famous saying: ‘As above, so below’. The first known versions of this text appeared in Arabic in the 9th century AD, but its history may be far older.

A Roman copy of a 5th c. BC Greek statue of Hermes, with his traveller’s cloak, caduceus, and characteristic hat

Hermes himself has a life stretching back beyond recorded history, and certainly beyond the classical Greek myths where he was known as a tricky messenger and a charming thief. In his earlier incarnations, he was the god of boundaries, who carried a magical staff, and was also the mediator of quarrels, as well as being healer of the sick and patron deity of trading. His role was always that of a magical intermediary, and he could communicate even with the souls of the dead. From Greece, his cult spread to Egypt, and was then taken up in the esoteric culture of Alexandria, where Greek, Egyptian and Jewish traditions combined in the early centuries AD to form the Hermetic mystery schools, which also included a strong element of alchemy. Their guide was Hermes Trismegistus, meaning ‘Thrice Great Hermes’, and many of the inspired writings of that period were attributed to Great Master Hermes himself. It is not surprising that later European alchemists also took Hermes as their patron, and aspired to follow his teachings.
Hermes Trismegistus is one of the chief sources of inspiration for Everyday Alchemy. His key symbol is the caduceus, the staff with two winged serpents winding around it. These represent the awakened energies of Ouroboros. The staff stands for the straight and firm direction of the work: our central aim of transformation. But on its own, it is not enough. There must be ways and means to achieve this end. The two serpents signify the ways in which we must be resourceful and even cunning, moving this way and that in order to reach the final goal. The caduceus thus stands for the taming and harnessing of creative power, the weaving of its three fundamental energies into a new and higher harmony.

An ancient depiction of Ouroboros in a Greek alchemical text


Hermes as teacher and messenger also shows the important responsibility of sharing any gains that you make with others. There are stories of alchemists in history who used their ‘gold’ (whether material or spiritual doesn’t really matter) to help the poor and the sick. When alchemists succeed in making gold, they are expected to go further, and create the ‘elixir of gold’, which can then be used to make more gold. In our terms, this means that by transforming our potential into gold, we create new possibilities which may be useful to others. We have a duty to bring these to life too. The caduceus is also a symbol of healing, and is still used as such over the doors of pharmacy shops today.


One of the most ancient symbols of alchemy is that of Ouroboros, the dragon or serpent which lies in a circle with its tail in its mouth. Within Ouroboros, everything is there in potential, but as yet, nothing has been realised; the dragon is asleep. And indeed, we already have everything within ourselves that we need for our alchemical journey. But first we have to wake the dragon up. Then the aroused dragon must be battled with, and its three different energies released. The skill of alchemy is to combine these energies in a new way, so that they work at their highest potential. But, as the dragon says, ‘In my beginning is my end.’ And so the symbol of Ouroboros never loses its meaning, for in a sense, the journey is never completed; each ending is followed by a new beginning. Even if we eventually arrive back at the place we left, nothing is the same: all is transformed.

Ouroboros as a dragon, as depicted in Michael Maier’s Atlanta Fugiens. I chose emblems from this set to illustrate ‘Everyday Alchemy

An encounter in Amsterdam


Sometimes, it seems that an archetype can come to life. The story which follows does not feature in Everyday Alchemy, and I’ve largely kept it private for over fifty years. I wrote it down some nine years after the event, when it was still very fresh in my mind, and what follows is largely taken from that account. ‘Chris’ refers to my former husband; at that time we were still students in our last year of university. The meetings referred to were run under the aegis of ‘The Society of the Common Life’ in Cambridge, where we had very recently been introduced to the Tree of Life and Kabbalah.

As I was at the time, around 1970 – a photo taken in Cambridge Botanical Gardens

The Story

In the spring of 1970, just after we had started going to the Common Life meetings, and learning about the Tree of Life, Chris and I went to Amsterdam. There was no special purpose, apart from enjoying the last of our student vacations and mixing with the counter-culture of the city. By this time, however, this culture was beginning to peel away for me, like a skin that I didn’t need. Another kind of world was making itself known, and the old hippy ways were less attractive now.
It was very cold, with flurries of snow, and we spent more time inside than out. One evening, we went to a bar. There followed an encounter with a mysterious stranger.


Nothing was bright or light on the night in question. The streets were dark, and the bar where we went was dimly lit; I recall nothing of his face, or how we began to talk to him. But there cannot have been much small talk before we were all into the realms of discussing psychic and esoteric knowledge. He described an experiment that he made with friends, a kind of astral projection, in which they perceived one other as bubbles, floating up to meet in the air. I didn’t know whether to accept this, or be sceptical. Then either Chris or I mentioned the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, which we had just learnt to draw and name. He showed interest, and asked us what it was. One of us sketched out the diagram and we described the significance of the different ‘sephiroth’ (spheres on the tree) to him. He nodded, and replied, ‘I just wanted to see how much you knew about it.’ Not the reply of a woolly psychic relating his dubious experiences. Nor did he go on to expound his views on the Kabbalah – no, it was left at that.

The ‘Ladder’ shown here, in Robert Fludd’s engraving, is an emblem for various forms of teaching, including the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (seen below in a modern Western form), which encourage the individual to understand and experience different levels of existence, encompassing both material and spiritual worlds.

We all exited the bar together, and made our way up to the Central Station. It is only from this point that I have a vague recollection of the friend who accompanied him, but who must have also have been present in the bar. On the way, although we learned more about our new acquaintance, his identity became even less certain as he professed dual if not triple nationality, spoke alternately in French and English, admitted to being known by more than one name, was not keen to be noticed by the police, and had several countries of residence. At the station he fetched a large rucksack, full of books from a left luggage locker. He couldn’t travel round without books, he said, but these were weighing heavy on him and he wanted to give us a number to lighten his load. We took an armful from him, and said our goodbyes.


Only later did I remember that the newcomer’s entry point on the great Tree of Life is said to be at the sephira of Hod, personified as Mercury or Hermes, the quicksilver trickster. ‘Hod’ on the Tree represents the sphere of rational mind, with attributes of quick wit, mastery of language plus deviousness and playfulness. As the archetype of Hermes in particular, he is an elusive, shadowy figure, speaker of many tongues. He is a traveller of no fixed abode or name, a trickster, a bringer of books and knowledge. And he is also fond of a joke now and then.


We still have two of the books he left with us, (
as I wrote in 1979): the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and a selection from the Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan. The rest of the books and papers have disappeared one way or another. I wasn’t attached to them in any way, and somehow that seems appropriate. (And now, in 2021, they are all gone…)

From ‘The Book of Lambspring’, an alchemical text of 1625. Here, Hermes performs another of his crucial roles, that of guide to the seeker. He leads him up up to a high place where he can see the terrain, the ground he has covered, the holy powers of sun and moon, and the journey he has yet to take.


Aftermath: As I’ve discovered through subsequent research, Amsterdam was once an important centre of Kabbalah teaching schools. Our own line of study in the ‘Society of the Common Life’ is said to have come to the UK from the Low Countries in the early 20th century. However, at the time, I knew little or nothing about this connection. I’ve also now made my own modest contribution to Kabbalah lore, as the interpreter of the Tree of Life Oracle, a divination system which was bequeathed to me by my mentor. Rather like the hermetic, quicksilver spirit itself, this project has bounced through three separate editions involving four different publishers. It has taken three different names, and the planned publication date for the latest edition has been changed several times over. I hope now that it will shortly be available, in August 2021. Pre-orders are welcome! Just follow this link….and you never know where it might lead you.

You may also be interested in

Alchemy and Cooking

Anna Zinkeisen and the Zodiac Calendar

The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

Meeeting Walter Lassally: Cinematographer and Kabbalist

Meeting the Shaman in Siberia

And please visit the website that I co-author on The Soho Cabbalists

Further reading

Alchemy and Cooking

Having acquired White Lead, do the work of women, that is: COOK

An emblem from Michael Maier’s book ‘Atlanta Fugiens‘, 1617. The reference to cooking being ‘women’s work’ should probably be taken symbolically – however, women did play a strong role historically in alchemy.

‘Do you cook supper sometimes? If so, you’re an alchemist.’ This usually produces a response of surprised delight, when I open a talk on alchemy this way. Many people are drawn to old alchemical imagery, as the psychologist Carl Jung pointed out, but the process and practice of alchemy through history can seem very obscure and mysterious. The aim of my first book on alchemy, Alchemy: The Great Work was to clarify its history and significance, and it has been in print now in one form or another for over thirty years.  My second book Everyday Alchemy took a different approach and asked the question:  how we can ‘make gold’ in our own lives? For this, I took a sequence of alchemical emblems from Michael Maier’s book Atlanta Fugiens, published in 1617, and suggested ways in which we can use alchemical knowledge to enrich and transform our personal experience. Cookery turned out to be a very useful way of doing this!

Like alchemy, it is both art and science – it requires attention and ingenuity, as well as knowledge and skill. Cookery is magical, creative and indeed unpredictable process as it endeavours to turn raw ingredients into an appealing and attractive finished dish. Who, after all, hasn’t lamented a culinary failure, or rejoiced over a stylish and delicious success?

So what I’ll do here is to weave some pictures into edited extracts from the book, along with an easy and delicious recipe to finish. In the current days of lockdown in Britain, many more people have turned to baking. It’s comforting and creative, and although there’s a shortage of some ingredients, you may often find that you have what you need in the cupboard if you pick a recipe that’s not too complex.

Cherry in the kitchen – the apron gives a fair idea of some favourite dishes!
An alchemist’s ‘kitchen’ at Prague Castle

From Chapter Three of Everyday Alchemy

Cooking – Is it really Alchemy?

Strangely enough, cooking is a very good way to appreciate how alchemy works. It is one of the best examples of transformation that we have in everyday life. But it is not just a mechanical process – remember that no alchemy is complete without conscious participation. We need to give it attention, even when the work is repetitive. This way, the transformation can proceed at every level, not just in the saucepan.

But what is transformation itself? The word comes up again and again in alchemy, so I need to take a deep breath and try to penetrate its meaning. Here is an example; it is simple, and comes from the humble kitchen, but it is true alchemy.

A few weeks ago, I decided to make some bramble jelly. It was late summer, and the days were sunny and mellow. There is a patch of wild blackberries just over my garden wall, and I picked and ate them practically every day, often just stewing them up with apples. Then I wanted to do something different, to keep the flavour of summer berries in my store cupboard through the cold months of winter ahead. I followed the recipe by cooking the blackberries in water, then straining them overnight through a canvas jelly bag. The slow drip resulted in a litre or so of a clear, dark liquid, to which I added sugar and then boiled it up. The temperature of the heat is crucial; first it must be gentle, to dissolve the sugar without burning it, and then brought up so that it is high enough to reach the ‘setting point’, the temperature at which the jelly will set. Some jellies and jams will be ready in a few minutes, while others take up to three quarters of an hour. Recipes are only a guide: the cook must be very watchful, because it’s impossible to predict exactly how long it will take.

Quince jelly, made with fruit from our garden. The jelly is being left to set before sealing the jars

You must also pour it into warmed glass jars before it sets completely. If the jars are not warmed, they may crack. If the jelly is taken off the stove too soon, you’ll have a runny mixture, and if you leave it too long it will become too rubbery and the flavour will alter. Fortunately, in my case the result was a translucent jelly, of a beautiful dark ruby colour.  The pots stand in my cupboard; the berry has been transformed into a new substance, but the jelly nevertheless retains the beauty of the blackberry, and the delicacy and tang of its taste. And this jelly can be kept for months, unlike the berry that rots so quickly on the bush.

Bramble jelly became my triumph of domestic alchemy, the ‘gold’ achieved from three simple ingredients – berries, water and sugar – and transformed through the agency of fire. The jelly contains the essence of blackberry. The berry has lost its original form, but through this sacrifice, its essence is released and is embodied in a new and purer form. In alchemy, the death of the ‘body’ must occur, which then liberates the soul and spirit; these in turn find a home in a new ‘glorified’ body.

It is extraordinary to think that the humble blackberry and jelly making can be seen in such mystical terms, but true transformation has taken place. Transformation is a change of state, a process by which the whole person or substance is changed.

A modern version of ‘cooking the trout’ mentioned in the emblem above – although such instructions were usually deeply symbolic, rather than literal. In fact I think this was a sea bream we were about to eat here.

True cookery is a creative process. Cooking transforms the ingredients, whereas food fixing, or assembling, on the other hand, simply combines them into – let’s say – a tuna mayo sandwich, or a prettily presented raw salad. With cooking, there is always an element of risk that something will go wrong – the mayonnaise will curdle or the cake sag. Science may say that results can be replicated if you start with exactly the same ingredients and work in exactly the same conditions. But when is this ever possible? Who can fully predict the final taste of wine that is being made? The variables, such as the weather conditions, the state of the soil and so on, can be assessed to some extent. But perhaps there is more to it than that. After all, no one grape is ever exactly the same as any other grape. No two people are identical. The very fact of existing at a different meeting point of time and space creates differences between people, plants, or raw materials. And this is not perceived as a simple causal effect, but is tied into the alchemical view that the cosmos itself has a conscious life.

 ‘This whole Cosmos…is full of Life. And there is nothing therein, through all Eternity, neither of the whole nor of its parts, which doth not live. For not a single thing that is, or has been, or shall be in this Cosmos, is dead.’

The Divine Pymander of Hermes Trismegistus

( From Chapter Three of Everyday Alchemy)

A home-made loaf – bread is surely one of the greatest examples of how raw ingredients are transformed through cookery.

So, get to it, and enjoy your cooking forays! Here is an easy and super-delicious recipe from the Queen of Baking, Mary Berry, along with some notes I’ve made when cooking this. It’s comforting and simple. Remember – cooking is flexible and even though we might need to start off with exact recipes, there’s often scope for improvising. Bara Brith is a kind of Welsh tea-bread. But there are many versions of this recipe across the British Isles– in Ireland it’s known as Barm Brack. Bringing this even closer to alchemy, you might like to try an Irish Halloween Barm Brack, ‘complete with ring for love and a coin for wealth’. https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/food-and-drink/recipes/the-perfect-traditional-irish-barmbrack-1.2842588.The essential part of the process for all these recipes seems to be soaking the dried fruit in tea for a few hours beforehand, or overnight. But the Irish twist in this recipe is to add a drop or two of whisky!

Here’s our Bara Brith, made according to the recipe below. I’m afraid it’s being eaten up rather quickly!

From ‘Mary Berry’s Baking Bible’

With notes by Cherry Gilchrist

Bara Brith (Speckled bread)

175g (6 oz) currants

175 g (6 oz) sultanas (Fruit could be varied – cranberries and raisins should work too)

225 g (8 oz) light muscovado sugar (Dark should be fine)

300 ml ( ½ pt) strong hot tea

275 g (10oz) self-raising flour (or add baking powder – soda in the USA – if you only have plain flour. I calculate this at scant 2 tsp)

1 large egg, beaten

(Option to add a little spice – eg 1 tsp mixed spice, or 2 tsp cinnamon and/or a little powdered ginger)

  1. Measure the fruit and sugar into a bowl, pour over the hot tea, cover and leave overnight. (If you make a big enough pot, this will give you an excuse to sit down with a strong cuppa afterwards.)
  2. Pre-heat the oven to 150 degrees C/ Fan 130C. Lightly grease a 900 g (2lb) loaf tin then line the base with baking parchment
  3. Stir the flour and egg into the fruit mixture, mix thoroughly, then turn into the prepared tin and level the surface.
  4. Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 1 ½ hours or until well risen and firm to the touch. (Don’t skimp on the timing. It will be moist whatever you do, just about, but if it comes out too early it may be ‘sad’ and a little heavy in the middle). A skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean. Leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out, peel off the parchment and finish cooling on a wire rack. Serve sliced and buttered.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist:

Alchemy: The Great Work (also published as The Elements of Alchemy and Explore Alchemy) This is a concise and accessible history of alchemy, and explains how alchemists attempted the process of transforming base matter into gold.

Everyday Alchemy (also published as The Alchemist’s Path) is a personal guide to using the process of alchemical change in everyday life. It is currently out of print, but used copies are normally available from internet sellers like Amazon or Abe Books. We hope to organise a reprint and/or e-book edition in due course.