In speaking of York Rite Alchemy I will first treat the subject of Alchemy by itself:
Alchemy is divided into two denominations: Operative and Speculative.
Operative Alchemy is the science of transmuting lead into gold, and while this lofty goal was perhaps never achieved by the operatives, their work became the precursor to modern Chemistry.
Speculative Alchemy is the science of transmuting our own being from its rough and imperfect state into its exalted and all-perfect state.
The process of Alchemical work is divided into four stages. Black (Negredo), White (Albedo), Yellow (Cintrinitas), and Red (Rubedo.) The Yellow stage, being popular in ancient operative alchemy, has been largely combined into the other stages in speculative and most later alchemical works.
The process is further divided into seven (or more rarely, twelve) distinct steps.
The seven steps and their corresponding stages are:
1st, Calcination. The raw material is reduced to ashes in fire.
2nd, Dissolution. The ashes are dissolved in water.
3rd, Separation. The result is filtered, and the subtle material is separated from the gross material.*
4th, Conjunction. The resulting materials are re-combined, to create what is known as the Lesser Stone, the Lunar Stone, or the White Stone.
5th, Fermentation. Continued application of heat allows growth of a bacteria or ferment.*
6th, Distillation. Any impurities in the resulting substance are eliminated.
7th, Coagulation. The final substance is made solid, and becomes the Great Stone, the Solar Stone, or Philosopher's Stone. Legend suggests that the Philosopher's stone could, in turn, be used to transmute base metals into Gold or to create the Elixir of Life.
Thus concludes our outline of the Seven step alchemical process. For those who are curious, the twelve steps process is similar: Calcination, Dissolution, Separation, Conjunction, Putrefaction, Congelation, Cibation, Sublimation (which is nearly the same as Distillation), Fermentation, Exaltation, Multiplication, and Projection. The seven step process, however, is the more widely accepted and ancient interpretation, with the twelve steps being perhaps not more than an elaboration upon the other.
Now, to my primary subject:
How does this relate to York Rite Masonry?
First, the primary legend of Masonry is about the search for the lost Word, the qualities and powers of which are notably similar to that of the Philosopher's Stone, the allegorical interpretation of being able "to travel in foreign countries, work, and receive master's wages" being basic among these powers.
Through the process of time and development under the hand of skilled Masons, our American York Rite has arrived at a process which correlates one-for-one to the Alchemical work.
1st, Entered Apprentice (Alchemical Process of Calcination)
The candidate as the rough ashlar, or crude material, is divested of all metalic substances and taught to subdue his passions. He is admonished to burn away his impurities, or to put it another way, to use the common gavel to break off the rough and superfluous edges of the stone and make it fit for the builder's use. He is reduced to ashes, as it is the internal and not the external qualifications that recommend a man for Masonry. Alchemists relate this phase to the Fire of Creation: "Let there be light."
2nd, Fellow Craft (Alchemical Process of Dissolution)
The candidate is taught about the Arts and Sciences, and two pillars which could preserve them from conflagration (fire, step 1) and inundation (water, this step.) In the Old Charges we find that the legendary precursors to the Two Pillars in our Fellowcraft Degree were actually set up before the Flood as repositories for the knowledge of the children of Lamech, in music, shepherding, metallurgy, and weaving, and not during the time of King Solomon. This early symbol of "all the knowledge of the arts and sciences" is essentially equivalent to the "Ancient Master's Word." It is as if it is the same legend,which took two developmental routes.
3rd, Master Mason (Alchemical Process of Separation)
The flood has arrived, or in other words, the Grand Master has been slain, and the AMW has been lost. The Alchemical process of separation is that of dividing the subtle from the gross. The raising in the Master Mason Degree can be seen as a separation of that which is eternal in man, from that which is merely temporary. We review all of our hidden material and decide what to discard, and what to keep.
4th, Mark Master (Alchemical Process of Conjunction)
We now put together the material which was retained to form the White Stone, or Key-Stone, upon which is written a new name, representing our new personality.
5th, Past Master (Alchemical Process of Fermentation)
King Solomon is in his old age, his death is imminent. It is said to the candidate, when the hat is placed upon his head, "and may a portion of his wisdom descend upon you." This is the spark, ferment, or bacteria that begins to grow in us.
6th, Most Excellent Master (Alchemical Process of Distillation)
The final touches are placed upon the Temple, and it is dedicated with prayer and ceremony. Divine fire from heaven comes down and lights upon the altar, burning away any impurity which may have been in the work through God's acceptance of the offering to him. The tools are now laid down, and the aprons removed, as we move into the next process.
7th, The Holy Royal Arch (Alchemical Process of Coagulation)
After a long wait, the Sun at Meridian Height shines into the innermost recesses of the vault, under the ruins of King Solomon's Temple, and reveals the object of our quest. Scarlet and Gold, the principal colors of this degree, show us that we have arrived at the Red Stage of Alchemy.
I hope you enjoyed this basic journey into the relation of Alchemy and the York Rite degrees. A question that would be natural is how these relations could exist, when the history and development and sequence of these degrees is so widespread in time and so uniquely American. I would suggest that the formulation of the Rite was in itself a process of separation, fermentation, etc., ending in coagulation of what we have today.