Most people think that the alchemists were simply failed chemists, but their attempts to change lead into gold in the laboratory were not truly their primary purpose—at least not the primary purpose of those who genuinely knew the tradition. Actually, alchemical processes and journey myths encode key stages of psychological growth and development.
Like many mystical, initiatory traditions, alchemy was handed down from master to student primarily in an oral fashion. Documents about alchemy written by masters of the alchemical tradition were purposely obscure so that only those initiated into its language could grasp the meaning. The alchemical masters were being appropriately careful that people who lacked a good Ego structure and a sense of ethics and morality would not stumble upon these techniques and injure either themselves or another.
The goal of changing lead into gold on the physical plane was always secondary, for genuine alchemists, to the greater spiritual goal of raising Ego consciousness to experience Soul, and in the process give birth to the Self. The achievement of changing lead into gold on the physical plane was thought to be an outer sign of the more important inward, spiritual accomplishment. The various chemical procedures that separate out the essence of gold (Spirit) from lesser elements (matter) parallel the stages of the hero’s spiritual journey out of the consensual, Ego-dominated reality into the transmutable, spiritual domain, and then back, to transform physical reality as Spirit is made manifest on earth. The final stage of the alchemical process—symbolized by royalty, gold, and the sun—signifies the successful ability to manifest a spiritual truth on the physical plane.
— Carol S. Pearson, Awakening the Heroes Within