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Alchemy

Alchemy

The art and science by which the chemical philosophers of medieval times attempted to transmute the baser metals into gold and silver. Alchemy is also the name of the Gnostic philosophy that undergirded the alchemical activity, a practical philosophy of spiritual purification. There is considerable disagreement as to which, the scientific or the philosophical, is the dominant aspect and the manner in which the two were integrated (which to some extent varied tremendously from alchemist to alchemist).

There is also considerable divergence of opinion as to the etymology of the word. One highly possible origin is the Arabic al (the) and kimya (chemistry), which in turn derived from late Greek chemeia (chemistry), from chumeia (a mingling), or cheein (to pour out or mix). The Aryan root is ghu, (to pour), whence comes the modern word gush. E. A. Wallis Budge, in his Egyptian Magic, however, states that it is possible that alchemy may be derived from the Egyptian word khemeia, "the preparation of the black ore," or "powder," which was regarded as the active principle in the transmutation of metals. To this name the Arabs affixed the article al, resulting in al-khemeia, or alchemy.

History of Alchemy

From an early period the Egyptians possessed the reputation of being skillful workers in metals, and, according to Greek writers, they were conversant with their transmutation, employing quicksilver in the process of separating gold and silver from the native matrix. The resulting oxide was supposed to possess marvelous powers, and it was thought that there resided within it the individualities of the various metalsthat in it their various substances were incorporated. This black powder was mystically identified with the underworld god Osiris, and consequently was credited with magical properties. Thus there grew up in Egypt the belief that magical powers existed in fluxes and alloys. It is probable such a belief existed throughout Europe in connection with the bronze-working castes of its several races. (See Shelta Thari )

It was probably in the Byzantium of the fourth century, however, that alchemical science received embryonic form. There is little doubt that Egyptian tradition, filtering through Alexandrian Hellenic sources, was the foundation upon which the infant science was built, and this is borne out by the circumstance that the art was attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and supposed to be contained in its entirety in his works.

The Arabs, after their conquest of Egypt in the seventh century, carried on the researches of the Alexandrian school, and through their instrumentality the art was carried to Morocco and in the eighth century to Spain, where it flourished. During the next few centuries Spain served as the repository of alchemical science, and the colleges at Seville, Cordova, and Granada were the centers from which this science radiated throughout Europe. The first practical alchemist was probably the Arabian Geber, who flourished in the early to mid-eighth century C.E. His Summa Perfectionis implies that alchemical science had already matured in his day, and that he drew his inspiration from a still older unbroken line of adepts. He was followed by Avicenna, Meisner, and Rhasis; in France by Alain of Lisle, Arnaldus de Villanova, and Jean de Meung the troubadour; in England by Roger Bacon; and in Spain by Raymond Lully.

Later, in French alchemy, the most illustrious names are those of Nicolas Flamel (fourteenth century), and Bernard Trévisan (fifteenth century), after which the center of interest changes in the sixteenth century to Germany and in some measure to England, in which countries Paracelsus, Heinrich Khunrath, Michael Maier, Jakob Boehme, Jean Van Helmont, the Brabanter, George Ripley, Thomas Norton, Thomas Dalton, Jean Martin Charnock, and Robert Fludd kept the alchemical flame burning brightly. In Britain, the great scientist Sir Isaac Newton conducted alchemical research.

It is surprising how little alteration is found throughout the period between the seventh and the seventeenth centuries, the heyday of alchemy, in the theory and practice of the art. The same sentiments and processes put forth by the earliest alchemical authorities are also found expressed by the later experts, and a unanimity regarding the basic canons of the art is expressed by the hermetic students of all periods, thus suggesting the dominance of the philosophical teachings over any "scientific" applications. With the introduction of chemistry as a practical art, alchemical science fell into disuse, already having suffered from the number of charlatans practicing it. Here and there, however, a solitary student of the art lingered, and the subject has to some extent been revived during modern times.

The Theory and Philosophy of Alchemy

The grand objects of the alchemical art were (1) the discovery of a process by which the baser metals might be transmuted into gold and silver; (2) the discovery of an elixir by which life might be prolonged indefinitely; and there is sometimes added (3) the manufacture of an artificial process of human life (see Homunculus ). Religiously, the transmutation of metals can be thought of as a symbol of the transmutation of the self to a higher consciousness and the discovery of the elixir as an affirmation of eternal life.

The transmutation of metals was to be accomplished by a powder, stone, or elixir often called the philosophers' stone, the application of which would effect the transmutation of the baser metals into gold or silver, depending on the length of time of its application. Basing their conclusions on the examination of natural processes and metaphysical speculation concerning the secrets of nature, the alchemists arrived at the axiom that nature was divided into four principal regions: the dry, the moist, the warm, the cold, from which all that exists must be derived. Nature was also divisible into the male and the female. She is the divine breath, the central fire, invisible yet ever active, and is typified by sulphur, which is the mercury of the sages, which slowly fructifies under the genial warmth of nature.

Thus, the alchemist had to be ingenuous, of a truthful disposition, and gifted with patience and prudence, following nature in every alchemical performance. He recalled that like attracts like, and had to know how to obtain the "seed" of metals, which was produced by the four elements through the will of the Supreme Being and the Imagination of Nature. We are told that the original matter of metals was double in its essence, being a dry heat combined with a warm moisture, and that air is water coagulated by fire, capable of producing a universal dissolvent. These terms the neophyte must be cautious of interpreting in their literal sense, for it is likely that alchemists, other than the several frauds, were speaking about the metaphysics of inner spirituality. Great confusion exists in alchemical nomenclature, and the gibberish employed by the scores of charlatans who in later times pretended to a knowledge of alchemical matters did not tend to make things any more clear.

The neophyte alchemist also had to acquire a thorough knowledge of the manner in which metals "grow" in the bowels of the earth. They were said to be engendered by sulphur, which is male, and mercury, which is female, and the crux of alchemy was to obtain their "seed"a process the alchemistical philosophers did not describe with any degree of clarity. The physical theory of transmutation is based on the composite character of metals, and on the presumed existence of a substance which, applied to matter, exalts and perfects it. This substance, Eugenius Philalethes and others called "The Light." The elements of all metals were said to be similar, differing only in purity and proportion. The entire trend of the metallic kingdom was toward the natural manufacture of gold, and the production of the baser metals was only accidental as the result of an unfavorable environment. The philosophers' stone was the combination of the male and female "seeds" that form gold. The composition of these was so veiled by symbolism as to make their precise identification impossible.

Occult scholar Arthur Edward Waite, summarized the alchemical process once the secret of the stone was unveiled:

"Given the matter of the stone and also the necessary vessel, the processes which must be then undertaken to accomplish the magnum opus are described with moderate perspicuity. There is the calcination or purgation of the stone, in which kind is worked with kind for the space of a philosophical year. There is dissolution which prepares the way for congelation, and which is performed during the black state of the mysterious matter. It is accomplished by water which does not wet the hand. There is the separation of the subtle and the gross, which is to be performed by means of heat. In the conjunction which follows, the elements are duly and scrupulously combined. Putrefaction afterwards takes place, 'Without which pole no seed may multiply.'

"Then, in the subsequent congelation the white colour appears, which is one of the signs of success. It becomes more pronounced in cibation. In sublimation the body is spiritualised, the spirit made corporeal, and again a more glittering whiteness is apparent. Fermentation afterwards fixes together the alchemical earth and water, and causes the mystic medicine to flow like wax. The matter is then augmented with the alchemical spirit of life, and the exaltation of the philosophic earth is accomplished by the natural rectification of its elements. When these processes have been successfully completed, the mystic stone will have passed through three chief stages characterised by different colours, black, white, and red, after which it is capable of infinite multication, and when projected on mercury, it will absolutely transmute it, the resulting gold bearing every test. The base metals made use of must be purified to insure the success of the operation. The process for the manufacture of silver is essentially similar, but the resources of the matter are not carried to so high a degree.

"According to the Commentary on the Ancient War of the Knights the transmutations performed by the perfect stone are so absolute that no trace remains of the original metal. It cannot, however, destroy gold, nor exalt it into a more perfect metallic substance; it, therefore, transmutes it into a medicine a thousand times superior to any virtues which can be extracted from it in its vulgar state. This medicine becomes a most potent agent in the exaltation of base metals."

Other modern authorities have denied that the transmutation of metals was the grand object of alchemy, and from reasons highlighted earlier, among others, inferred from the alchemistical writings that the object of the art was the spiritual regeneration of mankind. Mary Ann Atwood, author of A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery, and Civil War General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, author of Remarks upon Alchemy and the Alchemists, were perhaps the chief protagonists of the belief that, by spiritual processes akin to those of the chemical processes of alchemy, the soul of man may be purified and exalted. Both somewhat overstated their case in their assertion that the alchemical writers did not claim that the transmutation of base metal into gold was their grand object. While the spiritual quest may have been dominant, none of the passages that Atwood and Hitchcock quote was inconsistent with the physical aspect of alchemy. Eugenius Philalethes, for example, in his work The Marrow of Alchemy, argues forcefully that the real quest is for gold. It is constantly impressed upon the reader, however, in the perusal of esteemed alchemical works, that only those who are instructed by God can achieve the grand secret. Others, again, state that while a novice might possibly stumble upon it, unless guided by an adept the beginner has small chance of achieving the grand arcanum.

The transcendental view of alchemy, however, rapidly gained ground through the nineteenth century. Among its exponents was A. E. Waite, who argued, "The gold of the philosopher is not a metal, on the other hand, man is a being who possesses within himself the seeds of a perfection which he has never realized, and that he therefore corresponds to those metals which the Hermetic theory supposes to be capable of development. It has been constantly advanced that the conversion of lead into gold was only the assumed object of alchemy, and that it was in reality in search of a process for developing the latent possibilities in the subject man."

At the same time, it must be admitted that the cryptic character of alchemical language was probably occasioned by a fear on the part of the alchemical mystic that he might lay himself open through his magical opinions to the rigors of the law.

Meanwhile, several records of alleged transmutations of base metals into gold have survived. These were reportedly achieved by Nicholas Flamel, Van Helmont, Martini, Richthausen, and Sethon. In nearly every case the transmuting element was said to be a mysterious powder or the "philosophers' stone."

Modern Alchemy

A correspondent writing to the British newspaper Liverpool Post in its Saturday, November 28, 1907, edition gave an interesting description of a veritable Egyptian alchemist whom he had encountered in Cairo not long before:

"I was not slow in seizing an opportunity of making the acquaintance of the real alchemist living in Cairo, which the winds of chance had blown in my direction. He received me in his private house in the native quarter, and I was delighted to observe that the appearance of the man was in every way in keeping with my notions of what an alchemist should be. Clad in the flowing robes of a graduate of Al Azhar, his long grey beard giving him a truly venerable aspect, the sage by the eager, far-away expression of his eyes, betrayed the mind of the dreamer, of the man lost to the meaner comforts of the world in his devotion to the secret mysteries of the universe. After the customary salaams, the learned man informed me that he was seeking three thingsthe philosophers' stone, at whose touch all metal should become goldthe elixir of life, and the universal solvent which would dissolve all substances as water dissolves sugar; the last, he assured me, he had indeed discovered a short time since. I was well aware of the reluctance of the medieval alchemists to divulge their secrets, believing as they did that the possession of them by the vulgar would bring about ruin of states and the fall of divinely constituted princes; and I feared that the reluctance of the modern alchemist to divulge any secrets to a stranger and a foreigner would be no less. However, I drew from my pocket Sir William Crookes's spinthariscopea small box containing a particle of radium highly magnifiedand showed it to the sheikh. When he applied it to his eye and beheld the wonderful phenomenon of this dark speck flashing out its fiery needles on all sides, he was lost in wonder, and when I assured him that it would retain this property for a thousand years, he hailed me as a fellow-worker, and as one who had indeed penetrated into the secrets of the world. His reticence disappeared at once, and he began to tell me the aims and methods of alchemical research, which were indeed the same as those of the ancient alchemists of yore. His universal solvent he would not show me, but assured me of its efficacy. I asked him in what he kept it if it dissolved all things. He replied 'In wax,' this being the one exception. I suspected that he had found some hydrofluoric acid, which dissolves glass, and so has to be kept in wax bottles, but said nothing to dispel his illusion.

"The next day I was granted the unusual privilege of inspecting the sheikh's laboratory, and duly presented myself at the appointed time. My highest expectations were fulfilled; everything was exactly what an alchemist's laboratory should be. Yes, there was the sage, surrounded by his retorts, alembics, crucibles, furnace, and bellows, and, best of all, supported by familiars of gnome-like appearance, squatting on the ground, one blowing the fire (a task to be performed daily for six hours continuously), one pounding substances in a mortar, and another seemingly engaged in doing odd jobs. Involuntarily my eyes sought the pentacle inscribed with the mystic word ' Abracadabra, ' but here I was disappointed, for the black arts had no place in this laboratory. One of the familiars had been on a voyage of discovery to London, where he bought a few alchemical materials; another had explored Spain and Morocco, without finding any alchemists, and the third had indeed found alchemists in Algeria, though they had steadily guarded their secrets. After satisfying my curiosity in a general way, I asked the sage to explain the principles of his researches and to tell me on what his theories were based. I was delighted to find that his ideas were precisely those of the medieval alchemists namely, that all metals are debased forms of the original gold, which is the only pure, non-composite metal; all nature strives to return to its original purity, and all metals would return to gold if they could; nature is simple and not complex, and works upon one principle, namely, that of sexual reproduction. It was not easy, as will readily be believed, to follow the mystical explanations of the sheikh. Air was referred to by him as the 'vulture,' fire as the 'scorpion,' water as the 'serpent,' and earth as 'calacant'; and only after considerable cross-questioning and confusion of mind was I able to disentangle his arguments. Finding his notions so entirely medieval, I was anxious to discover whether he was familiar with the phlogistic theory of the seventeenth century. The alchemists of old had noticed that the earthy matter which remains when a metal is calcined is heavier than the metal itself, and they explained this by the hypothesis, that the metal contained a spirit known as 'phlogiston,' which becomes visible when it escapes from the metal or combustible substance in the form of flame; thus the presence of the phlogiston lightened the body just as gas does, and on its being expelled, the body gained weight. I accordingly asked the chemist whether he had found that iron gains weight when it rusts, an experiment he had ample means of making. But no, he had not yet reached the seventeenth century; he had not observed the fact, but was none the less ready with his answer; the rust of iron was an impurity proceeding from within, and which did not affect the weight of the body in that way. He declared that a few days would bring the realisation of his hopes, and that he would shortly send me a sample of the philosophers' stone and of the divine elixir; but although his promise was made some weeks since, I have not yet seen the fateful discoveries."

That alchemy has continued to be studied in relatively modern times there can be no doubt. Louis Figuier in his L'Alchimie et les Alchimistes (1854), dealing with the subject of modern alchemy, as expressed by the initiates of the first half of the nineteenth century, states that many French alchemists of his time regarded the discoveries of modern science as merely so many evidences of the truth of the doctrines they embraced. Throughout Europe, he said, the positive alchemical doctrine had many adherents at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth.

Reportedly, a "vast association of alchemists" called the Hermetic Society, founded in Westphalia in 1790, continued to flourish in the year 1819. In 1837 an alchemist of Thuringia presented to the Société Industrielle of Weimar a tincture he averred would effect metallic transmutation. About the same time several French journals announced a public course of lectures on hermetic philosophy by a professor of the University of Munich.

Figuier further stated that many Hanoverian and Bavarian families pursued in common the search for the grand arcanum. Paris, however, was regarded as the alchemistical Mecca. There lived many theoretical alchemists and "empirical adepts." The first pursued the arcanum through the medium of books; the others engaged in practical efforts to effect transmutation.

During the 1840s Figuier frequented the laboratory of a certain Monsieur L., which was the rendezvous of the alchemists of Paris. When Monsieur L's pupils left the laboratory for the day the modern adepts dropped in one by one, and Figuier relates how deeply impressed he was by the appearance and costumes of these strange men. In the daytime he frequently encountered them in the public libraries, buried in the study of gigantic folios, and in the evening they might be seen pacing the solitary bridges with eyes fixed in vague contemplation upon the first pale stars of night. A long cloak usually covered their meager limbs, and their untrimmed beards and matted locks lent them a wild appearance. They walked with a solemn and measured gait, and used the figures of speech employed by the medieval illuminés. Their expression was generally a mixture of the most ardent hope and a fixed despair.

Among the adepts who sought the laboratory of Monsieur L., Figuier noticed especially a young man in whose habits andlanguage he could see nothing in common with those of his strange companions. He confounded the wisdom of the alchemical adept with the tenets of the modern scientist in the most singular fashion, and meeting him one day at the gate of the observatory, M. Figuier renewed the subject of their last discussion, deploring that "a man of his gifts could pursue the semblance of a chimera." Without replying, the young adept led him into the observatory garden and proceeded to reveal to him the mysteries of modern alchemical science.

The young man recognized a limit to the research of the modern alchemists. Gold, he said, according to the ancient authors, has three distinct properties: (1) resolving the baser metals into itself, and interchanging and metamorphosing all metals into one another; (2) curing afflictions and the prolongation of life; and (3) serving as a spiritus mundi to bring mankind into rapport with the supermundane spheres. Modern alchemists, he continued, rejected the greater part of these ideas, especially those connected with spiritual contact. The object of modern alchemy might be reduced to the search for a substance having power to transform and transmute all other substances one into anotherin short, to discover that medium known to the alchemists of old as the philosophers' stone and now lost to us. In the four principal substances of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and azote, we have the tetractus of Pythagoras and the tetragram of the Chaldeans and Egyptians. All the sixty elements are referable to these original four. The ancient alchemical theory claimed that all the metals are the same in their composition, that all are formed from sulphur and mercury, and that the difference between them is according to the proportion of these substances in their composition. Further, all the products of minerals present in their composition complete identity with those substances most opposed to them. For example, fulminating acid contains precisely the same quantity of carbon, oxygen, and azote as cyanic acid, and "cyanhydric" acid does not differ from formate ammoniac. This new property of matter is known as "isomerism." Figuier's friend then proceeded to quote in support of his thesis the operations and experiments of M. Dumas, a celebrated French savant, as well as those of William Prout and other English chemists of standing.

Passing on to consider the possibility of isomerism in elementary as well as in compound substances, he pointed out to Figuier that if the theory of isomerism can apply to such bodies, the transmutation of metals ceases to be a wild, unpractical dream and becomes a scientific possibility, the transformation being brought about by a molecular rearrangement. Isomerism can be established in the case of compound substances by chemical analysis, showing the identity of their constituent parts. In the case of metals it can be proved by the comparison of the properties of isomeric bodies with the properties of metals, in order to discover whether they have any common characteristics.

M. Dumas, speaking before the British Association, had shown that when three simple bodies displayed great analogies in their properties, such as chlorine, bromide, and iodine, barium, strontium, and calcium, the chemical equivalent of the intermediate body is represented by the arithmetical mean between the equivalents of the other two. Such a statement well showed the isomerism of elementary substances and proved that metals, however dissimilar in outward appearance, were composed of the same matter differently arranged and proportioned. This theory successfully demolished the difficulties in the way of transmutation.

If transmutation is thus theoretically possible, it only remains to show by practical experiment that it is strictly in accordance with chemical laws, and by no means inclines to the supernatural.

At this juncture, the young alchemist proceeded to liken the action of the philosophers' stone on metals to that of a ferment on organic matter. When metals are melted and brought to red heat, a molecular change may be produced analogous to fermentation. Just as sugar, under the influence of a ferment, may be changed into lactic acid without altering its constituents, so metals can alter their character under the influence of the philosophers' stone. The explanation of the latter case is no more difficult than that of the former. The ferment does not take any part in the chemical changes it brings about, and no satisfactory explanation of its effects can be found either in the laws of affinity or in the forces of electricity, light, or heat. As with the ferment, the required quantity of the philosophers' stone is infinitesimal.

The alchemist then averred that medicine, philosophy, every modern science was at one time a source of such errors and extravagances as are associated with medieval alchemy, but they are not therefore neglected and despised. Why, then, should we be blind to the scientific nature of transmutation? One of the foundations of alchemical theories was that minerals grow and develop in the earth, like organic things. It was always the aim of nature to produce gold, the most precious metal, but when circumstances were not favorable the baser metals resulted. The desire of the old alchemists was to surprise nature's secrets, and thus attain the ability to do in a short period what nature takes years to accomplish. Nevertheless, the medieval alchemists appreciated the value of time in their experiments as modern alchemists never do.

Figuier's friend urged him not to condemn these exponents of the hermetic philosophy for their metaphysical tendencies, for, he said, there are facts in our sciences that can only be explained in that light. If, for instance, copper is placed in air or water, there will be no result, but if a touch of some acid is added, it will oxidize. The explanation is that "the acid provokes oxidation of the metal, because it has an affinity for the oxide which tends to form"a material fact almost metaphysical in its production, and only explicable thereby.

Alchemy in the Twentieth Century

Since the nineteenth-century speculations of Figuier, the modern view of alchemy has primarily regarded it as a mystical approach to chemistry. With the development of subatomic physics and nuclear fission, the transmutation of elements became a reality, culminating in the atomic bomb and atomic power stations, but the vast apparatus and energy needed to transmute elements has increased skepticism that the old alchemists ever succeeded in their dreams.

The alchemical work gave way to ceremonial magic, which today carries most of what is left of the alchemical hermetic tradition. However, there have been a few contemporary figures who followed the alchemical metaphor. Among these was Frater Albertus, who emerged in the 1970s as head of the Paracelsus Research Society in Salt Lake City, Utah. He wrote a number of books about his work, however these only hinted at any alchemical success.

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Alchemy

Alchemy

The image of alchemists as defrocked wizards and full-time frauds is not quite accurate. Most of them were, in fact, highly spiritual men whose quest to transmute one substance into another was closer to mysticism than modern chemistry. The essence of alchemy lay in the belief that certain incantations and rituals could convince or command angelic beings to change base metals into precious ones.

According to ancient tradition, the mummy of Hermes Trismegistus, the master of alchemical philosophy, was found in an obscure chamber of the Great Pyramid of Giza, clutching an emerald tablet in its hands. The words contained on the tablet revealed the alchemical creed that "It is true and without falsehood and most real: that which is above is like that which is below, to perpetuate the miracles of one thing. And as all things have been derived from one, by the thought of one, so all things are born from this thing, by adoption." Within the secrets inscribed on the tablet was the "most powerful of all powers," the process by which the world was created and by which all "subtle things" might penetrate "every solid thing," and by which base material might be transformed into precious metals and gems.


For centuries, the writings of Hermes Trismegistus were considered a precious legacy from the master of alchemy. The Hermetics believed that the nature of the cosmos was sacramental: "that which is above is like that which is below." In other words, the nature of the spiritual world could be discovered through the study of the material substance of Earth; and earthly humans, created of the dust of the ground, comprised the prima materia of the heavenly beings they would become, just as the base elements of Earth comprised the raw materials for gold. The alchemical adepts believed that the most perfect thing on the planet was gold and that it was linked with the sun. The sun was considered to be the lowest manifestation of the spiritual world and therefore provided the intermediary between God and humankind.

The science of alchemy was introduced to the Western world at the beginning of the second century of the common era. It was, however, 200 years before the practice of the craft reached its zenith, concurrent with the persecutions of the pagans by the Christians. Zosimus of Panapolis, self-appointed apologist of alchemy, cited a passage in Genesis as the origin of the arcane art: "The sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair." To this scriptural reference, Zosimus added the tradition that in reward for their favors, the "sons of God," who were believed to be fallen angels, endowed these women with the knowledge of how to make jewels, colorful garments, and perfumes with which to enhance their earthly charms.

The seven principal angels whose favor the alchemist sought to obtain for their transformation were Michael, who was believed to transmute base metals into gold and to dissolve any enmity directed toward the alchemist; Gabriel, who fashioned silver and foresaw the future; Samuel, who protected against physical harm; and Raphael, Sachiel, Ansel, and Cassiel, who could create various gems and guard the alchemist from attack by demons. However, members of the clergy were skeptical that the alchemists were truly calling upon angels, rather than demons in disguise, and they recalled the words of the Church Father Tertullian (c. 155 or 160after 220), who confirmed earlier beliefs that the "sons of God" referred to in Genesis were evil perverts who bequeathed their wisdom to mortals with the sole intention of seducing them to mundane pleasures.

While the Hermetic was akin to the mystic, a great deal more came out of those smoky laboratories than candidates for the torture chambers of the Inquisition. In the intellectual half-light of the Middle Ages, the brotherhood of alchemy, perhaps by accident as much as design, did produce a number of valuable chemical discoveries. Albert le Grand produced potassium lye; Raymond Lully (12351315) prepared biocarbonate of potassium; Paracelsus (14931541) was the first to describe zinc and chemical compounds to medicine; Blaise Vigenere (15231596) discovered benzoic acid. Discoveries increased during the Renaissance when such men as Basil Valentine (c. 1450 1492) discovered sulphuric acid, and Johann Friedrich Boetticher (16821719) became the first European to produce porcelain. Evidence has been disinterred from the musty alchemists' libraries in Europe that suggests that certain of the medieval and Renaissance alchemists conducted experiments with photography, radio transmission, phonography, and aerial flight, as well as the endless quest to transmute base metals into gold.

Delving Deeper

budge, e. a. wallis. egyptian magic. new york: dover books, 1971.

caron m. and s. hutin. the alchemists. trans. by helen r. lane. new york: grove press, 1961.

heer, friedrich. the medieval world: europe 1100 to 1350. translated by janet sondheimer. cleveland, ohio: world books, 1961.

meyer, marvin, and richard smith, eds. ancient christian magic. san francisco: harpersanfrancisco, 1994.

seligmann, kurt. the history of magic. new york: meridian books, 1960.

spence, lewis. an encyclopedia of occultism. new hyde park, n.y.: university books, 1960.

williams, charles. witchcraft. new york: meridian books, 1960.


Valentine Andreae (15861654)

Valentine Andreae (or Andreas) was a Lutheran pastor who held as his ideal not only Martin Luther (14831546), the powerful guiding force behind the Protestant Reformation, but also Christian Rosencreutz (13781484), legendary founder of the Rosicrucian mystical movement, and Paracelsus (14931541), the revered alchemist. Andreae was a brilliant scholar who

as a youth had traveled widely throughout Europe and had risen in the clerical ranks to become a chaplain at the Court of Wurtemberg, Germany. Embittered by the misery that had been brought to his fatherland as a result of the Thirty Years' War (161848), Andreae became an apologist for the Rosicrucians and wrote The Hermetic Romance or The Chemical Wedding (1616), an allegorical autobiography of Christian Rosencreutz the founder of the fraternity. Since the seal of the Rosicrucian Fraternity, the seal of Martin Luther, and the crest of the Andreae family all bear the image of the cross and the rose, understandable confusion has arisen from time to time regarding the "autobiography." Upon the book's initial publication, many scholars, aware that Rosencreutz had been dead for 130 years, speculated that his spirit had dictated the work. Later academic debates swirled around the question of whether or not Andreae and Rosencreutz were the same person and whether the Fraternity was actually founded in the seventeenth century, rather than the fifteenth.

Andreae admitted the work was his own and proclaimed it an allegorical novel written in tribute to Rosencreutz, as well as a symbolic depiction of the science of alchemy and Hermetic magic. Others identified the work as a comic romance, lightly depicting the most profound alchemical symbols in a fanciful manner. The royal wedding to which the hero Rosencreutz is invited is in reality the alchemical process itself in which the female and male principles are joined together. As the novel continues, the vast arcana of alchemical truths are represented by various animals, mythological beings, and human personalities.

In addition to being an advocate of alchemy and the process of contacting intermediary spirits to accomplish good for society, Andreae believed in becoming an active reformer of social ills, as well as supporting the reformation of the church. His treatises The Tower of Babel (1619) and The Christianopolitan Republic (1620) argue in favor of a general transformation of European society.


Delving Deeper

caron, m., and s. hutin. the alchemists. translated by helen r. lane. new york: grove press, 1961.

De Givry, Emile Grillot. Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic and Alchemy. Trans. by J. Courtenay Locke. New York: Causeway Books, 1973.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Spence, Lewis. An Encyclopedia of Occultism. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.


Roger Bacon (c. 12201292)

Roger Bacon, an English Franciscan friar, scientist, and philosopher, accepted what he termed the "natural magic" that occurred within mathematical and physical areas of experimentation, but he was resolutely against the use of incantations, the invocation of spirits, and the casting of spells. In his opinion, magicians were charlatans, reciting magical formulas even though they knew the effects they created were but the products of natural phenomena.

Bacon recognized that there were mysterious forces that appeared to be magical, such as those that moved the stars and the planets; but he argued that all knowledge that existed on Earth depended upon the power of mathematics. The friar also admitted the difficulties in discerning between the natural magic of science and the black arts. He was convinced, though, that natural magic was good and black magic was evil.

This thirteenth-century alchemist seemed to have powers of prediction when he told his contemporaries that physics, not magic, would produce huge vessels that would be able to navigate the oceans and rivers without sails or oars, cars without horses that would be able to move at tremendous speed, flying machines that would soar across the skies guided by a single man seated at centrally located controls, submarine machines that could dive to the bottom of the sea without danger to its crew, and great bridges without pillars that could span rivers. Bacon has been credited with dozens of inventions, such as the telescope, eye glasses, gunpowderall derived through his science, rather than his magic.

In his medical practice, Bacon worked with certain alchemical formulas prized by specially gifted scientists since ancient times that could create a mysterious liquid known to prolong human life. He also employed the alchemical and homeopathic principles that "like produces like," that is, if one wishes to prolong one's life, he or she should eat the flesh of creatures that are long-lived, such as various reptiles.

Steadfastly arguing that all human knowledge depends upon a study of mathematics, Bacon insisted that the noblest expression of mathematics is astrology. At each person's birth the heavenly energies determine powerful physical, mental, and emotional factors that strongly affect that individual's destiny. The stars do not decide one's fate, Bacon conceded, for humans did have free will as a divine gift, but the celestial movements did most certainly dispose one toward one's fate. Therefore, he concluded, astrology should be utilized as a powerful tool in medicine, alchemy, and predicting the future of individuals and nations.

Friar Bacon was well aware that the church did not share his enthusiasm for astrology, but he argued that the Bible itself is the basic source of astrological knowledge and that a careful study of astrology would ultimately prove the claims of theology. Fellow clerics who opposed such a study, Bacon said, were merely ignorant.

In spite of such statements that seemed tinged with heresy, Bacon's religious views were essentially orthodox, and he sincerely believed that his studies would only serve to advance the power and the prestige of the church. He also drew upon scripture when he acknowledged the enormous power of the spoken word ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." John 1:1). Bacon stated that all miracles at the beginning of the world were the result of God's word. Therefore, when humans spoke with concentration and the proper intention and desire, their very words could accomplish powerful effects upon the self, upon others, and upon material things.

In his great determination to produce a work that would unify all learning, wisdom, and faith, Friar Bacon wrote Opus Majus (1268). Despite the fact that Bacon continued to attack superstition and reject the black arts, he remains widely known as a magician, rather than an early experimental scientist.


Delving Deeper

Caron, M., and S. Hutin. The Alchemists. Trans. by Helen R. Lane. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

De Givry, Emile Grillot. Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic and Alchemy. Trans. by J. Courtenay Locke. New York: Causeway Books, 1973.

Heer, Friedrich. The Medieval World: Europe 1100 to 1350. Trans. by Janet Sondheimer. Cleveland, Ohio: World Books, 1961.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Spence, Lewis. An Encyclopedia of Occultism. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.


Helvetius (1625709)

While not a great deal is known about the life of John Fredrick Schweitzer, called Helvetius, his place in the history of alchemy is secure because, according to tradition, he witnessed a genuine transmutation of base metal into gold and later replicated the process in the presence of doubtful observers.

On December 27, 1666, when he was working in his study at the Hague, a stranger appeared and informed him that he would remove all Helvetius's doubts about the existence of the philosopher's stone that could serve as the catalyst to change base metals

into gold because he possessed such magic. The stranger immediately drew from his pocket a small ivory box, containing three pieces of metal of the color of brimstone and, for their size, extremely heavy. With those three bits of metal, the man told Helvetius, he could make as much as 20 tons of gold.

Helvetius examined the pieces of metal, taking the opportunity of a moment's distraction to scrape off a small portion with his thumbnail. Returning the metal to his mysterious visitor, he asked that he perform the process of transmutation before him.

The stranger answered firmly that he was not allowed to do so. It was enough that he had verified the existence of the metal to Helvetius. It was his purpose only to offer encouragement to alchemical experiments.

After the man's departure, Helvetius procured a crucible and a portion of lead into which, when the metal was in a molten state, he threw the stolen grain he had secretly scraped from the stranger's philosopher's stone. The alchemist was disappointed when the grain evaporated and left the lead in its original state. Thinking that he had been made the fool by some mad burgher's whimsey, Helvetius returned to his own experiments, forgetting about the dream of a magical philosopher's stone.

Some weeks later, when he had almost forgotten the incident, Helvetius received another visit from the stranger. He impatiently told the man to perform a transmutation before his eyes or to leave.

This time the stranger surprised him by agreeing to prove that what he and his brother alchemists most desired truly did exist. He admonished Helvetius that one grain was sufficient for the process to be accomplished, but it was necessary to wrap it in a ball of wax before throwing it on the molten metal, otherwise its extreme volatility would cause it to vaporize. To the alchemist's astonishment and his great delight, the stranger transmuted several ounces of lead into gold. Then he permitted Helvetius to repeat the process by himself, allowing the alchemist to convert six ounces of lead into pure gold.

Helvetius found it impossible to keep a secret of such immense value and importance. Soon the word of his remarkably successful experiments spread throughout Holland, and Helvetius demonstrated the power of the philosopher's stone in the presence of the Duke of Orange and many other prestigious witnesses. The duke's own goldsmith assayed the gold and declared it to be of highest quality. The famous philosopher Baruch Spinoza (16321677) visited Helvetius in his laboratory and examined the crucible and gold for himself. He left the alchemist convinced that the transmutation had been authentic.

Soon, after repeated demands for such incredible demonstrations, Helvetius had exhausted the small supply of catalytic pieces that he had received from the mysterious stranger. Search as he might, Helvetius could not find the man in all of North Holland nor learn his name, and the stranger never again visited him.


Delving Deeper

Caron, M., and S. Hutin. The Alchemists. Translated by Helen R. Lane. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

De Givry, Emile Grillot. Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic and Alchemy. Translated by J. Courtenay Locke. New York: Causeway Books, 1973.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Spence, Lewis. An Encyclopedia of Occultism. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.


Hermes Trismegistus

In alchemical/magical tradition, powerful secrets of alchemy were found inscribed on an emerald tablet in the hands of the mummy of Hermes Trismegistus, the master magician and alchemist, who had been entombed in an obscure chamber of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The preamble to the key to transmuting base materials to precious metals and gems instructed the adept that "It is true, without falsehood, and most real: that which is above is like that which is below, to perpetrate the miracles of one thing." The writings of Hermes Trismegistus were considered by the alchemists as a legacy from the master of alchemy and were, therefore, precious to them.

As much as the thought of such a find may fire the imagination, the discovery of the Emerald Tablet at Giza is quite likely an allegory. The alchemists, who were concerned with the spiritual perfection of humankind as well as the transmutation of base metals into gold, commonly recorded their formulas and esoteric truths in allegorical form. Today it is known that there was no single personage named Hermes Trismegistus and that the Leyden Papyrus discovered in the tomb of the anonymous magician contains the oldest known copy of the inscription from the legendary Emerald Tablet, which is itself a description of the seven stages of gold-making.

Hermes, who is called Trismegistus, "three times the greatest," was a deity of a group of Greeks who once founded a colony in Egypt. This transplanted god drew his name from Hermes (Mercury to the Romans), the messenger of the Greek hierarchy of deities and the god who conducted the souls of the dead to the underworld kingdom of Hades. The Egyptians identified Hermes Trismegistus with Thoth, who, in their pantheon of gods, was the divine inventor of writing and the spoken word. These same Greek colonists developed an interest in the old Egyptian religion, then went on to combine elements of their hellenistic beliefs, add fragments of Judaism and other Eastern belief constructs, and set about creating a synthesis of the various theologies. A vast number of unknown authors worked at the great task of composing a series of esoteric writings, all of which were attributed to the mythical figure of Thoth-Hermes. Eventually, Thoth-Hermes became humanized into a legendary king, who supposedly wrote the amazing total of 36,525 volumes of metaphysical teachings. In the third century, Clement of Alexandria reduced the total to 42, which he said he saw in a vision being carried by adepts.


Delving Deeper

Budge, E. A. Wallis. Egyptian Magic. New York: Dover Books, 1971.

Caron, M., and S. Hutin. The Alchemists. Translated by Helen R. Lane. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Spence, Lewis. An Encyclopedia of Occultism. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.


Albertus Magnus (c. 11931280?)

Albertus Magnus, Bishop of Ratisbon, became interested in alchemy and is credited with some extraordinary accomplishments, including the invention of the pistol and the cannon. Albertus is said to be one of those magi who actually achieved the transmutation of base metals into gold by means of the philosopher's stone. In addition, some said that he was able to exert control over atmospheric conditions, once even transforming a cold winter day into a pleasant summer afternoon so he and his guests could dine comfortably outside. A prolific writer, Albertus produced 21 volumes containing directions for the neophyte-practicing alchemist. Certain witnesses to his laboratory credited him with the creation of an automaton that performed menial tasks and was capable of intelligent speech. The term "Magnus" (great) usually ascribed to him was not awarded to him as a result of his many accomplishments, but is simply the Latin equivalent of his family name, de Groot.

Born at Larvingen on the Danube in circa 1193, Albertus was thought as a child to be quite stupid, capable, it seemed, of understanding only basic religious ideals, rather than any kind of complex study. Then one night the boy claimed to have received a visitation from the Blessed Virgin, and his intelligence quotient soared thereafter. Feeling obliged to devote his life to the clergy when he completed his studies, Albertus did so well in the clerical profession that he was made Bishop of Ratisbon. He held the position only a brief time before he resigned and announced that he would devote his intellect and his energy to science.

Albertus's scientific discoveries and his studies in alchemy and magic were always conducted with complete loyalty to the church. In his estimation, magic should be used only for good, and from the modern perspective, Albertus was not so much an alchemist as he was one of the most brilliant of the early experimental chemists. It remains a matter of conjecture whether or not Albertus really did accomplish the ultimate alchemical feat of transmuting base metals into gold, but tradition has it that he bequeathed his philosopher's stone to his distinguished pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas (12241274). Once it was in his possession, according to the old legend, Aquinas destroyed the stone, fearful that the accusations of communing with Satan that had been levied at his mentor might be true.

Ever since he left the clergy, Albertus had lived in pleasant seclusion in his estate near Cologne. As he grew older, it is said that the dullness of mind that had characterized his youth returned, and Albertus Magnus died in relative obscurity.


Delving Deeper

Caron, M., and S. Hutin. The Alchemists. Trans. by Helen R. Lane. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Spence, Lewis. An Encyclopedia of Occultism. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.

Summers, Montague. The History of Witchcraft. New York: University Books, 1956.


Paracelsus (14931541)

The German physician Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim traveled throughout Europe, practicing medicine, occultism, and alchemy under the name of Paracelsus. As with so many of the true alchemists, Paracelsus believed that it was far more important to contemplate nature and the majesty of God's handiworks than to spend all one's time studying the knowledge that could be found in books. If one could acquire the kind of purity of belief, such as Jesus (c. 6 b.c.e.c. 30 c.e.) affirmed existed in the heart of a child, one could literally transform base substances into precious metals and gems, for the primary ingredient necessary for alchemical success lay in obtaining the prima materia, the essence of all substances, the primeval building blocks of the universe. In the view of Paracelsus, this essential substance was both visible and invisible, and it was the soul of the world from which all elements had sprung, and its power was accessible to all who had the purity of heart and the faith to attain it. For Paracelsus, as for many of his alchemical brotherhood, the gospels of Jesus and the writings of Hermes Trismegistus had much in common.

Paracelsus also excited the medical community and lay people alike with his wonder medicine, the alkahest. There was the spirit alkahest that fortified the body against diseases, and there was the metal alkahest that matured and perfected base metals into gold. As a result of a series of chemical experiments, Paracelsus became the first to describe zinc, which had been unknown to science, and he introduced many practical curative compounds to the medical practitioners of his day. At the same time that he delivered these medicines into the hands of the doctors, he admonished them to remember always that the first doctor of humankind was God, the divine creator of all health.

Paracelsus believed firmly that the fully realized human was the one who lived a healthful life. In addition, those who sought divine harmony should study astrology in order to learn the harmony of the spheres, should become a theologian in order to comprehend the needs of the soul, and should practice alchemy in order to understand that there are universal substances to be found everywhere in the material world. Those many accomplishments should then be capped with the fully realized human becoming a mystic to perceive always that there exist things beyond logic.


Delving Deeper

Caron, M., and S. Hutin. The Alchemists. Trans. by Helen R. Lane. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Spence, Lewis. An Encyclopedia of Occultism. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.

Summers, Montague. The History of Witchcraft. New York: University Books, 1956.

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Alchemy

ALCHEMY

ALCHEMY. In the early modern period the term "alchemy" did not refer solely to the transmutation of metals. A variety of laboratory procedures, including the separation of metals, sublimations, and distillations, were generally described in alchemical terms, and alchemy had already for a long time been associated with making medicines. In this regard the medieval tradition of separating from substances a fifth essence, or quinta essentia, underscored later attempts among Hermeticists and Paracelsians to extract a celestial, life-giving force from plants, animals, and metals that, in turn, could perfect specific bodies. The sulfur-mercury theory, based in Aristotelian natural philosophy and further articulated by Arab scholars, in which all metals were believed to be composed of an original sulfur and mercury in various degrees of purity, also continued to provide a basis for some alchemical discussions. The extent to which Aristotelian principles continued to influence practical alchemical procedures is well illustrated by a text called Alchemia written in 1597 by a German physician, chemist, and schoolmaster named Andreas Libau (c. 15501616). Libau's book looks very modern, and has been referred to as the first textbook of modern chemistry. It teaches, among many other things, how to analyze minerals, metals, and mineral waters, how to make use of assaying techniques, and how to prepare medicines from metals and minerals. It describes analytical reactions, presents quantitative methods for determining alloys, and gives precise instructions on how to build a variety of laboratory furnaces and vessels. It also describes extracts and essences at the same time that it provides evidence for various sorts of transmutation. All of this falls under the heading of alchemy.

HERMETICISM AND PARACELSUS

At the same time as some alchemists were being led by older theories to create new chemical technologies, others were inspired by more spiritual traditions, especially by the legacy of Neoplatonism and by the discovery in the second half of the fifteenth century of texts reputed to have been written by an ancient sage named Hermes Trismegistus. The tradition that followed, called Renaissance Hermeticism, viewed the celestial bodies, sometimes through the mediation of a cosmic spirit (spiritus mundi), as the link between God and terrestrial things. Divine virtues penetrated everything in nature, and the Hermetic alchemist sought to extract such powers and virtues particularly for the purpose of making useful medicines. A very similar idea prompted the thinking of an especially significant figure in the history of early modern alchemy, Paracelsus (1493/941541). Paracelsus described the creation of the physical universe and the processes that maintained the life of the body in essentially alchemical terms. All of nature stemmed from an initial separation of light from dark, earth from water, and so on, and the body operated by means of an "inner alchemist," called the archeus, which separated that which was pure and helpful to the maintenance of life from that which was not. Regarding transmutation, Paracelsus, like many others, thought in embracive terms. In a work called De Natura Rerum (On the nature of things) he notes, "transmutation is when a thing loses its form or shape and is transformed so that it no longer displays at all its initial form and substance. . . . When a metal becomes glass or stone . . . when wood becomes charcoal . . . [or] . . . when cloth becomes paper . . . all of that is the transmutation of natural things." By this definition almost everyone in the early modern period was engaged in alchemy. "Nature," Paracelsus adds, "brings nothing to light which is completed in itself, rather, human beings have to do the completing. This completing is called alchemy." To complete the work of nature and to delve into her secrets Paracelsus recommended the processes of distillation, calcination (producing a powdery calx, or oxide, usually by heating a metal), and sublimation (heating to a gaseous state and then condensing a vapor into solid form). Through these one could separate the elements and discover the healing and perfecting tinctures, magisteria (substances whose external impurities had been removed and which were then said to be exalted or ennobled), and arcana (divine secrets) within things, and learn about the generative qualities associated with the first principles of creation, the socalled tria prima: salt, sulfur, and mercury.

The art of separation was, for Paracelsus and his followers, the key to knowledge of both natural philosophy and medicine; in this regard Paracelsus distinguished between what he called alchemia transmutatoria and alchemia medica. Both types of alchemy involved looking for a powerful agent capable of perfecting or healing. That agent had long gone by several names, including elixir, grand magisterium, or philosophers' stone, and in the early modern period different traditions traced this agent to specific material origins. One tradition linked to Paracelsus sought to prepare the elixir or stone from "vitriol." Others, who followed in the tradition of an alchemical writer named Michael Sendivogius (15661636), referred to niter. A third tradition, which included the authors Jean d'Espagnet, Alexander von Suchten, Gaston DuClo, and Eirenaeus Philalethes (a pseudonym for George Starchy), pursued processes involving vitriol (sometimes called the remedy of the Green Lion) and mercury.

Works by an author using the name Basilius Valentinus directed attention to the use of antimony in alchemical operations, and those writings supplied seventeenth-century chemical physicians with much information about compounding medicines from antimony. Panaceas of various sorts boasted alchemical heritage; one of the most famous was the drinkable gold (aurum potabile) described, among others, by Angelo Sala, Francis Anthony, and Johann Rudolf Glauber (16041668). Producing medicines by means of chemical synthesis was a direct outgrowth of alchemical and Paracelsian practices. Both came together as a university subject early in the seventeenth century when Johannes Hartmann (15681631) was appointed public professor of chemiatria (chemical medicine) at the University of Marburg. Hartmann's patron, the German prince Moritz, landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (ruled 15921627), was one of a number of European potentates, including several Medici princes and the Holy Roman emperor Rudolf II (ruled 15761612), at whose courts alchemical projects served economic, political, and aesthetic ambitions. In England, traditions of alchemy and Paracelsianism came together in the hands of social critics and educational reformers. Samuel Hartlib (c. 16001662), Jan Amos Comenius (15921670), and the dramatist John Webster (c. 1580c. 1625) each acknowledged the practical results of alchemical labors. Webster especially concluded that the traditions of medieval alchemy and Paracelsus should find a place within the university as an "art that doth help more truly and radically to . . . discover the secret principles and operations of nature." Outside the court and academy, alchemy in various forms continued to be part of the everyday business of popular culture, reflected in vernacular pharmacy books, books of secrets, and a variety of household manuals.

The Bible itself could be read as an alchemical text. One frequent reference was to the book of Exodus, where Moses grinds up the golden calf and gives it (as a kind of aurum potabile ) to the children of Israel to drink. The knowledge of Moses, received from Egyptian priests, reflected, many thought, a prisca sapientia, an ancient pure wisdom that had been corrupted over time, but which, through the comparison of texts with experience, might be discovered again.

ALCHEMY AND MODERN SCIENCE

As an artifact of the early modern period, alchemy continued to exert an influence throughout the scientific revolution. Robert Boyle (16271691) and Isaac Newton (16421727) both pursued alchemical programs. That Boyle accepted the reality of transmutation and the validity of claims about the powers of the philosophers' stone is clear from an unpublished dialogue on the transmutation of metals. There opponents of transmutation are soundly refuted with the report of an "anti-elixir" that, when projected onto molten gold, transmutes it into base metal. Among Boyle's papers are hundreds of pages of laboratory processes, many related to metallic transmutations and largely written in code. In one instance he wrote a precise account of a transmutation that he had personally witnessed. To Boyle, the corpuscular philosophy, which defined matter as composed of tiny particles, was not at all inconsistent with alchemical ideas. Transmutations took place, he argued, when changes took place in the sizes, shapes, and motions of the particles of an original matter.

Another adherent of alchemy and corpuscularianism was Isaac Newton. The largest particles of every sort of matter, he theorized, were composed of very subtle sulfurous or acid particles surrounded by larger earthy or mercurial particles, the latter piled up like rings or shells around the volatile center. Every substance, he held, was composed of particles analogous to tiny universes. Transmutation resulted when the larger particles of a substance were reduced to smaller particles and then rearranged. Newton was also fond of ancient texts, especially those related to the Egyptian magus Hermes, and he collected bits and pieces of alchemical wisdom in the form of transcriptions, extracts, and collations of ancient, medieval, and contemporary alchemical authorities. He labored over the construction of an index chemicus, an inventory of chemical and alchemical writing arranged by topic that, in its final form, comprised a volume of more than a hundred pages, with 879 separate headings. Another text of "Notable Opinions" consisted of quotations from seventy-five printed and handwritten alchemical sources. The alchemist George Starchy described to him the concept of chemical mediation (the means by which two unsociable bodies are made sociable by means of a third) and recounted also for Newton procedures for making philosophical mercury and for preparing an antimonial amalgam called the "star regulus." Accepting the presence of spiritual agents in nature, Newton thought that metals could both grow and decay as part of a cycle of creation in which the return to chaos gave rise to new substances.

See also Hermeticism ; Magic ; Matter, Theories of ; Paracelsus ; Scientific Revolution.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dobbs, Betty Jo Teeter. The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy. Cambridge, U.K., 1975.

Kopp, Hermann. Die Alchemie. 1886; rept. Hildesheim, 1971.

Martels, Z. R. W. M. von, ed., Alchemy Revisited. Leiden, 1990.

Principe, Lawrence M. The Aspiring Adept. Princeton, 1998.

Principe, Lawrence M., and William R. Newman. "Some Problems with the Historiography of Alchemy," in Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe, ed. by W. R. Newman and Anthony Grafton. Cambridge, Mass., 2001, pp. 385431.

Bruce T. Moran

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Alchemy

Alchemy

Alchemy was an early system of thinking about nature that contributed to the development of the modern science of chemistry. It was popular in ancient China, Persia, and western Europe throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages (4001450). A combination of philosophy, metallurgical arts (the science of metals), and magic, alchemy was based on a distinctive world-viewthat an essential correspondence exists between the microcosm and the macrocosm (the smallest and largest parts of the universe). Its objectives were: (1) to find ways of accelerating the rates at which metals were thought to "grow" within Earth in their development toward perfection (gold) and (2) to accomplish a similar perfection in humans by achieving eternal life.

Origins

Scholars do not know when or where alchemy originated. However, historians agree that alchemistic ideas and practices flourished in the ancient world within several cultural traditions. Even the term alchemy has remained mysterious; scholars have identified al as an Arabic article and proposed various possible meanings for the word chem, but a clear explanation of the term is still lacking.

Alchemy in China

The earliest alchemical practices are believed to have arisen in China in the fourth century b.c. The main emphasis in Chinese alchemy, it seems, was not on transmutationthe changing of one metal into anotherbut on the search for human immortality. In their search for an elixir (special liquid) of immortality, court alchemists experimented with mercury, sulfur, and arsenic. They sometimes created poisonous potions; several emperors died after drinking them. Such spectacular failures eventually led to the disappearance of alchemy in China.

Words to Know

Elixir: In alchemy, a substance that is supposed to have the power to change base metals into gold or to bring about human immortality.

Macrocosm: The whole extent of the universe.

Microcosm: A small part of the whole universe, as, for example, an individual human life.

Philosopher's stone: A material thought by alchemists to have the power to bring about the transmutation of metals.

Transmutation: The conversion of one substance into another, as in the conversion of lead or iron into gold.

Arabic alchemy

Alchemy flourished in parts of Islam in the eighth and ninth centuries. Court scientists, encouraged by their rulers, began studying and translating Greek philosophical and scientific works to aid them in their quest. The greatest practitioner of Arabic alchemy was ar-Razi (also known as Rhazes; c. 850c. 925), who worked in Baghdad.

This dogged pursuit of a recipe for gold led Arabic alchemists to study and classify chemical elements and chemicals. Ar-Razi speculated about the possibility of using "strong waters," which were in reality corrosive salt solutions, as the critical ingredient for the creation of gold. Experimentation with salt solutions led to the discovery of mineral acids, but scholars are not sure if Arabic alchemy should be credited with this discovery.

Alchemy in the Western world

The history of Western alchemy probably begins in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Among the most prominent Alexandrian alchemists was Zosimos of Panopolis, Egypt, who may have lived in the third or fourth century a.d. In accordance with older traditions, Zosimos believed that a magical ingredient was needed for the creation of gold. Greek alchemists called this ingredient xerion, which is Greek for "powder." This word came into Latin and modern European languages as elixir and later became known as the elusive philosopher's stone.

After the fall of the Western Roman empire in the fifth century, Greek science and philosophyas well as alchemysank into oblivion. In was not until the eleventh century that scholars rediscovered Greek learning, translating Greek scientific and philosophical works into Latin. The pioneers of medieval science, such as Roger Bacon (c. 1219c. 1292), viewed alchemy as a worthwhile intellectual pursuit, and alchemy continued to exert a powerful influence on intellectual life throughout the Middle Ages. However, as in ancient China, alchemists' continued failure to produce gold eventually provoked skepticism and led to its decline.

In the sixteenth century, alchemists turned to more practical matters, such as the use of alchemy to create medicines. The greatest practitioner of this type of alchemy was Swiss physician and alchemist Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus (14931541), who successfully used chemical drugs to treat disease. Although a believer in magic, astrology, and alchemy, Paracelsus was also an empirical scientist (one who relies on observation and experimental methods); he contributed significantly to the development of medicine.

While alchemy is often considered to be unscientific, some great scientists, including Isaac Newton (16431727), took the subject seriously enough to conduct alchemical experiments. In addition, alchemy is credited with laying the foundation for the study of chemistry. Not only did alchemists systematize and classify the knowledge of elements and chemicals, they also made a number of important discoveries, including sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride, which is used in batteries), saltpeter (potassium nitrate, which is used in gunpowder and the manufacture of glass; or sodium nitrate, which is used in rocket propellants and explosives), alcohol, and mineral acids. In addition, they developed a number of laboratory techniques, including distillation (a method of purifying a liquid) and crystallization (solidifying substances into crystals).

[See also Chemistry ]

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Alchemy

Alchemy


The alchemical period corresponds to the span of human history that preceded the era in which fundamental understanding in the chemical sciences began to be acquired by humankind. Most scholars believe that alchemy had its roots in ancient Egypt. China has also emerged as a possible source of alchemical thought. Thus, alchemy was the practice of chemistry such as it existed over the approximately twenty-five centuries before the time of Robert Boyle (16271697) and Antoine Lavoisier (17431784), when chemistry began to develop into the science we know today. Alchemy was an early precursor to science and included many of the chemistry-related processes that have become known as the chemical artsthe working of metals and alloys , glassmaking and glass coloring, and the preparation and use of pigments, dyes, and therapeutic agents.

In its broadest aspect, alchemy appears as a system of philosophy that strove to penetrate the mystery of life as well as to master the formation of inanimate substances. The main goals of the alchemists were the transmutation of base metals into gold and the attainment of the "Philosopher's Stone," a substance that would bring perfection to life. Other embodiments of the Philosopher's Stone were the Elixir Vitae, the Grand Magisterium, and the Red Tincture, all regarded as universal medicines. The alchemical fascination with gold emerged from the idea that gold was the perfect metal. If one could understand the essence of this perfect metal (the theory went), the essence of all substances less perfect than gold could then be understood, which, accordingly, could lead to the creation of all substances, including gold. The Philosopher's Stone incorporated the promise that the perfection of gold could somehow be transferred to life's processes. The Philosopher's Stone was the agent by which base metals could be changed to gold and, by extrapolation, could lead to greater longevity. The Chinese alchemists included these ideas in their approach to alchemistry. They sought the preparation of a liquid form of gold that would promote longevity; liquid gold would contain the essence of the Philosopher's Stone and the search for liquid gold was one route to the Philosopher's Stone. The Chinese alchemists were interested in the preparation of artificial cinnabar, which they believed to be the "life-giving" red pigment that could be used in goldmaking. They were also interested in the transmutation of base metals into gold. Thus, the focus of alchemical thought and process was the manipulation of matter in such a way as to, ultimately, increase longevity.

It is not surprising that in the early days of alchemy, much of the ancient Egyptian expertise in gold refining and goldworking as well as the Egyptian skill with respect to enamelware, the production of colored glass, and the preparation and use of pigments were highly valued by alchemists. In a sense, those Egyptian craftsmen were the first alchemists, even though

they may not have had the same ultimate focus as the practitioners of the alchemical arts.

In the course of the evolution of the alchemical arts, the fundamental properties of matter came under consideration. Aristotle taught that all matter consisted of four fundamental constituent factors or elementsair, water, earth, and fire. All matter was supposed to incorporate these four elements in different combinations and proportions. The changes that a substance could be made to undergo, for example, the burning of wood or the boiling of water, corresponded to a change or changes in the proportions of these four elements within that substance. Thus, alchemy ultimately gave rise to modern chemical thought and, gradually, the goals of alchemy were abandoned. In a broad sense, alchemy can be regarded as a prelude to the chemistry we know today.

see also Al-Razi, Abu-Bakr Muhammed ibn Zakariya; Boyle, Robert; Lavoisier, Antoine; Paracelsus.

J. J. Lagowski

Bibliography

Brock, W. H. (1993). The Norton History of Chemistry. New York: W. W. Norton.

Lindsay, Jack (1970). The Origins of Alchemy in Graeco-Roman Egypt. New York: Barnes and Noble.

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Alchemy (Analytical Psychology)

ALCHEMY (ANALYTICAL PSYCHOLOGY)

Alchemy is a philosophical and chemical "opus" with roots in ancient times and branches throughout the world's cultures. It is both an experimental and symbolic practice, a technical research into the nature of matter, and an imaginal exercise on the spirit of matter and its potential for change. It is also a mythopoeic meditation and a projective method, a moving Rorschach for the practitioner.

Using its experiments as metaphors, it has sought an enlivening elixir, a healing panacea, and the transformation of base metal into gold through release from crude impure ores. This occurs through producing a transmuting agent, itself a transformation from the prima materia of the common "philosopher's stone" into the precious "stone of the philosophers" or "lapis."

Alchemy posits an original unitary energy which separated in space-time into distinct physical elements, "falling apart" and differentiating in the four directions. Perceived as transmutable through shared qualities or correspondences, these elements could one day be reunited in a reconstituted wholeness. The dicta"Return to chaos is essential to the work," "Volatize the fixed and fix the volatile," and "Dissolve and Coagulate"express a dialectic process between complements and opposites in analysis and synthesis.

The alchemists might quicken this process through their outer intervention in matter and their interior practice of soul and spirit. The opus is the work of persons or couples, whose integration or dissociation are operative. While using common references, it values the individual and dynamic over the collective and dogmatic. Through the interior change of the adept and his soror mystica (mystical sister) and the chemical changes in the "well closed vessel" of the retort, the microcosm and macrocosm affect and reflect each other.

The Freudian psychoanalyst Herbert Silberer first observed the analogy to transference in the conjoinings and confrontations among sulphurs, mercuries, and salts, between the "masculine" and "feminine" matter, called king and queen, sun and moon, gold and silver, day and night, male and female.

Jung cited Silberer in his work on the "coniunctio " (conjunction) of transference and countertransference. In alchemy, Jung found a precursor of depth psychotherapy's dyadic and interactional model. He came to understand the psyche, the unconscious, and depth analysis as alchemical process, the "stone" as transformational consciousness, both a means and the goal of individuation. He also noted alchemical images in modern dreams.

Beverley D. Zabriskie

See also: Allendy, René Felix Eugène; Archetype (analytical psychology); Goethe and psychoanalysis; Jung, Carl Gustav; Silberer, Herbert; Transference/counter-transference (analytical psychology).

Bibliography

Jung, Carl Gustav. (1946). The psychology of the transference. Collected Works (Vol. XVI). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

. (1953). Psychological reflections: An anthology of the writings of C. G. Jung (J. Jacobi, Ed.). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

. (1955-56). Mysterium Conjunctionis. An inquiry into the separation and synthesis of psychic opposites in alchemy. Collected Works (Vol. XIV). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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alchemy

alchemy

Alchemy is the historic inquiry into the nature of matter, a research undertaken by many individuals in different cultures around the world. Alchemists were chemists, physicists, and philosophers, who had as their ultimate goal the transformation of ordinary matter into gold. They undertook experiments, speculated on the composition of matter, and wrote treatises that were notorious for their complexity and their obscure, often made-up language. During the Renaissance, the reputation of alchemy and alchemists declined. Some monarchs and church officials banned their work, and alchemists were subject to arrest and execution as magicians and heretics.

The ancient Greeks and Romans told of an ancient sage, the Egyptian Hermes Trismegitus, who was believed to have discovered many of the secrets of matter. Europe's medieval alchemists collected plants, minerals, soil, and other substances, combining them and altering them in a search of the philosopher's stone, which would allow them to create gold or silver from more common materials. In the quest for curing illness, they also undertook a search for a universal panacea that would relieve deadly maladies and bring the sick back to health.

The alchemists applied principles of astrology, religion, and metaphysics in their books of formulas, attempting to arrive at universal principles that would explain their observations. Although they failed in their efforts to find the philosopher's stone, they did uncover useful compounds. In their research into the nature of light and illumination, the alchemist Hennig Brandt discovered phosphorus in 1669. Alchemical knowledge also contributed to industries such as dyeing, tanning, metalworking, and glassmaking.

Alchemists of the Renaissance drew on the medieval scholastic tradition of logic and argument, the knowledge of Arab herbalists and chemists, and the application of scientific research in industry and manufacturing. During the Renaissance, many philosophers and scientists wrote alchemical works. Sir Isaac Newton devoted more than thirty years to the investigation of alchemy, setting down experimental notes, transcribing and editing the works of others, and making up catalogs of substances and their properties. The German scientist Andreas Libavius wrote Alchemia, considered by many to be the first chemistry textbook. In some cases, the principles of alchemy provided a framework for influential systems of philosophy and knowledge. Paracelsus (14931541), considered by many as the greatest alchemist of the Renaissance era, created an all-encompassing chemical trinity, in which all earthly substances were grounded in salt (the principle of fixedness), sulfur (the principle of inflammability), and mercury (the principle of combining).

See Also: Paracelsus

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alchemy

alchemy, an art of ancient but uncertain origins, can be interpreted as an enquiry into man's relationship with the cosmos and the will of the Creator, manifested as either a devotional philosophy transforming sinful man into perfect being (‘esoteric’), or attempted transmutation of base metals into gold or silver (‘exoteric’), or an inextricable mixture of both. The catalyst required was the elixir of life, tincture, or philosophers' stone, the preparation of which long obsessed men of all ranks, despite its futility.

Probably arising in Hellenistic Alexandria, alchemy (al-kimia) was transmitted to Europe through Islamic culture, via 12th-cent. translations into Latin by men like Robert of Chester, Adelard of Bath, and the encyclopedist Bartholomaeus Anglicus. Whilst earlier Taoist alchemists had aimed principally for longevity, if not immortality, medieval western alchemists' objectives were gold-making or creating superior medicines, drawing on Aristotelian theory of the four ‘elements’ (air, fire, earth, water), old ideas that the planets were connected to certain metals, animistic beliefs, and current technical knowledge. The medieval idea of unity of matter justified the approach that if lead and gold were both dense and soft, then merely changing greyness to yellowness should convert the common metal into the precious one. Obsession with chemical colour changes (series of black, white, iridescent, yellow, purple, red) was matched by symbolic and enigmatic language, as the basic procedures of calcination, sublimation, fusion, crystallization, and distillation absorbed much time and expense.

Since the gold-makers' skills rendered them vulnerable to avaricious magnates, caution and circumspection were advisable, but public credulity encouraged conjuring and dishonesty; Chaucer's bitterness in ‘The Canon's Yeoman's Tale’ suggests that he himself had been taken in. Practical alchemy, nevertheless, had much to offer medicine, giving rise to metallic rather than herbal remedies, much favoured by Paracelsus, and eventually to iatrochemistry.

Despite interest from John Dee, Kenelm Digby, the ‘Wizard’ 9th earl of Northumberland, Walter Ralegh, and even Charles II, alchemy received its death-warrant in the mid-17th cent. when Robert Boyle demolished the theory of the four ‘elements’. Although it had led to the discovery of alcohol and the mineral acids, historians of chemistry view alchemy in general as fraudulent. Yet growing dissatisfaction with the mechanistic objectives of modern science has renewed interest in the alchemists' wider goals and debate about man and Creator.

A. S. Hargreaves

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alchemy

alchemy (ăl´kəmē), ancient art of obscure origin that sought to transform base metals (e.g., lead) into silver and gold; forerunner of the science of chemistry. Some scholars hold that it was first practiced in early Egypt and others that it arose in China (in the 5th or 3d cent. BC) and was carried westward. It consisted chiefly of experiments with metals and other chemical materials. Alchemical apparatus included the alembic (or ambix) for distillation and the kerotakis for sublimation. In its beginnings alchemy was essentially a craft and embraced many kinds of metalwork, including the use of alloys resembling gold and silver. Alexandria is generally considered a center of early alchemy, and the art was influenced by the philosophy of the Hellenistic Greeks; the conversion of base metals into gold (considered the most perfect of metals) was part of a general striving of all things toward perfection. Since the early alchemists were mainly artisans, they tried to conceal the secrets of their work; thus, many of the materials they used were referred to by obscure or astrological names. It is believed that the concept of the philosopher's stone (called also by many other names, including the elixir and the grand magistery) may have originated in Alexandria; this was an imaginary substance thought to be capable of transmuting the less noble metals into gold and also of restoring youth to the aged. Alchemy, strongly tinged with magic, reached the Arabs (perhaps in the 8th cent.) and remained for several centuries under Muslim influence; in the 12th cent. it reached parts of Europe through translations of Arabic writings (the early Greek treatises were not known in Europe in the Middle Ages). Arab alchemy was preserved especially in the works of Jabir, and the earlier Greek alchemy in those of Zosimus and others. The alchemical writings of the Middle Ages continued to be couched in symbolic and cryptic language. The alchemists became obsessed with their quest for the secret of transmutation; some adopted deceptive methods of experimentation, and many gained a livelihood from hopeful patrons. As a result, alchemy fell into disrepute. However, in the searching experimental quests of the alchemists chemistry had its beginnings; indeed, the histories of alchemy and chemistry are closely linked. Transmutation of elements has been accomplished in modern chemistry.

See L. Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science (8 vol., 1923–58); A. J. Hopkins, Alchemy: Child of Greek Philosophy (1943); C. A. Burland, The Arts of the Alchemists (1967); J. Lindsay, The Origins of Alchemy in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1970); L. M. Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy (2012).

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Alchemy

7. Alchemy

See also 252. MAGIC .

arcanum
the secret of life; a great elixir or remedy sought by the alchemists. See also 233. KNOWLEDGE .
elixir
1. the hypothetical substance sought by alchemists that was believed to transform base metals into gold and give eternal life. Also called philosophers stone, elixir of life.
2. Rare. the quintessence or underlying principle. See also 350. REMEDIES .
Hermeticism1
1. the occult concepts, ideas, or philosophy set forth in the writings of the hermeticists of the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.
2. adherence to, belief in, or propagation of these concepts and ideas.
3. Literature. a symbolic and arcane style similar to that of the hermeticists, especially in the poetry of certain French symbolist poets. Cf. hermetics . hermeticist, hermetist, n. hermetic, hermetical, adj.
Hermeticism2, hermeticism
1. the ideas or beliefs set forth in the writings of Hermes Trismegistus.
2. adherence to these ideas and beliefs.
hermetics
the occult sciences, especially alchemy. Cf. Hermeticism1 . hermetist, n. hermetic, hermetical, adj.
iatrochemistry
1. originally, alchemy devoted to medicinal purposes, especially the alchemy of the period 1525-1660, influenced by the theories of Paracelsus.
2. currently, chemistry for healing purposes. iatrochemist, n.
spagyrist
an alchemist.
transmutation
the process or act of change, especially from one thing to another, as the change from base metal to gold, pursued by the alchemists. transmutationist, n. transmutative, adj.
transmutationist
an alchemist who believed that, in one of several ways, it was possible to change less valuable elements into silver or gold.

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Alchemy

Alchemy (Arab., perhaps from Gk. via Syriac, al-kīmiyā). The endeavour (minimally) to find the key to the transformation of chemical substances, especially of base metals into precious ones; and beyond that, to find ‘the elixir of immortality’. The word and practice of ‘alchemy’ thus underlie modern chemistry. In its earlier forms it pervades all religions, though moving increasingly to interior and spiritual transformations. Thus in Taoism, there were two different levels: practitioners of Wai-tan (external alchemy) sought a potion for immortality, based on a belief that a person's vital energy (yüan-chʾi) was a particular balance of yin-yang, which, if it is disturbed, produces illness and death; gold and cinnabar have the power to restore the balance. The practitioners of Nei-tan (internal alchemy) aimed to develop an immortal soul from ching, chʾi, and shen, by meditative exercises, especially breathing and control of bodily functions.

European alchemy seems to have begun in Hellenistic Egypt around the 1st cent. CE, and possibly even earlier. It enjoyed flourishing periods in 2nd- and 3rd-cent. Greece, and in various parts of the Arab world in the 7th and 8th cents., thus taking its name from the Arab. al-kīmiyā, the Syriac kīmīyā, and the Gk. chēmeia. In the 10th cent., alchemy re-entered Europe via Islamic Spain, where it also received influence from the Kabbalah. At its peak in Renaissance Europe, in addition to having produced a well-developed medical system under such as Paracelsus, alchemy came for some to rival the Church as the epitome of Hermetic philosophy.

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alchemy

al·che·my / ˈalkəmē/ • n. the medieval forerunner of chemistry, concerned particularly with attempts to convert base metals into gold or to find a universal elixir. ∎ fig. a process by which paradoxical results are achieved or incompatible elements combined with no obvious rational explanation: his conducting managed by some alchemy to give a sense of fire and ice. DERIVATIVES: al·chem·ic / alˈkemik/ adj. al·chem·i·cal / alˈkemikəl/ adj. al·che·mist / -mist/ n. al·che·mize / -ˌmīz/ v.

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alchemy

alchemy XIV. ME. alkamye, etc. — OF. alkemie, alkamie (mod. alchimie) — medL. alchimia, -chemia = Arab. al-kīmiyā', i.e. AL-2, kīmiyā' — Gr. khēm(e)íā art of transmuting metals. By assoc. with Gr. khūmeíā infusion arose the modL. alchymia, whence the frequent XVI–XVIII Eng. sp. alchymy (cf. chymistry, var. of CHEMISTRY).
Hence alchemical XVI. So alchemist XV (cf. †alchemister, etc. XIV). — OF. alkemiste or medL. alchemista.

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alchemy

alchemy the medieval forerunner of chemistry, concerned with the transmutation of matter, in particular with attempts to convert base metals into gold or find a universal elixir.

The term comes (in late Middle English) via Old French and medieval Latin from Arabic alkīmiyā', from al ‘the’ + kīmiyā' (from Greek khēmia, khēmeia ‘art of transmuting metals’).

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alchemy

alchemy Primitive form of chemistry practised in Western Europe from early Christian times until the 17th century, popularly supposed to involve a search for the philosopher's stone – capable of transmuting base metals into gold – and the elixir of life. It actually involved a combination of practical chemistry, astrology, philosophy, and mysticism.

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Alchemy

ALCHEMY.

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China
Europe and the Middle East

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alchemy

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