Alchemy, originally derived from the Old Persian word “Kimia” meaning gold, later arabized as (Arabic: al-kimi), is both a philosophy and an ancient practice focused on the attempt to change base metals into gold, investigating the preparation of the “elixir of longevity”, and achieving ultimate wisdom, involving the improvement of the alchemist as well as the making of several substances described as possessing unusual properties. The practical aspect of alchemy generated the basics of modern inorganic chemistry, namely concerning procedures, equipment and the identification and use of many current substances.
The fundamental ideas of alchemy are said to have arisen in the ancient Persian Empire. Alchemy has been practiced in Mesopotamia (comprising much of today’s Iraq), Egypt, Persia (today’s Iran), India, China, Japan, Korea and in Classical Greece and Rome, in the Post-Islamic Persia, and then in Europe up to the 20th century, in a complex network of schools and philosophical systems spanning at least 2500 years.
Alchemy as a philosophical and spiritual discipline
Alchemy became known as the spagyric art after Greek words meaning to separate and to join together in the 16th century, the word probably being coined by Paracelsus. Compare this with one of the dictums of Alchemy in Latin: Solve et Coagula — Separate, and Join Together (or “dissolve and coagulate”).
The best-known goals of the alchemists were the transmutation of common metals into gold (called chrysopoeia) or silver (less well known is plant alchemy, or “spagyric“); the creation of a “panacea“, or the elixir of life, a remedy that, it was supposed, would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely; and the discovery of a universal solvent. Although these were not the only uses for the discipline, they were the ones most documented and well-known. Certain Hermetic schools argue that the transmutation of lead into gold is analogical for the transmutation of the physical body (Saturn or lead) into (Gold) with the goal of attaining immortality. This is described as Internal Alchemy. Starting with the Middle Ages, Persian and European alchemists invested much effort in the search for the “philosopher’s stone“, a legendary substance that was believed to be an essential ingredient for either or both of those goals. Pope John XXII issued a bull against alchemical counterfeiting, and the Cistercians banned the practice amongst their members. In 1403, Henry IV of England banned the practice of Alchemy. In the late 14th century, Piers the Ploughman and Chaucer both painted unflattering pictures of Alchemists as thieves and liars. By contrast, Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, in the late 16th century, sponsored various alchemists in their work at his court in Prague.
It is a popular belief that Alchemists made mundane contributions to the “chemical” industries of the day—ore testing and refining, metalworking, production of gunpowder, ink, dyes, paints, cosmetics, leather tanning, ceramics, glass manufacture, preparation of extracts, liquors, and so on (it seems that the preparation of aqua vitae, the “water of life”, was a fairly popular “experiment” among European alchemists). In reality, although Alchemists contributed distillation to Western Europe, they did little for any known industry. Long before Alchemists appeared, goldsmiths knew how to tell what was good gold or fake, and industrial technology grew by the work of the artisans themselves, rather than any Alchemical helpers.
The double origin of Alchemy in Greek philosophy as well as in Egyptian and Mesopotamian technology set, from the start, a double approach: the technological, operative one, which Marie-Louise von Franz call extravert, and the mystic, contemplative, psychological one, which von Franz names as introvert. These are not mutually exclusive, but complementary instead, as meditation requires practice in the real world, and conversely.
Several early alchemists, such as Zosimos of Panopolis, are recorded as viewing alchemy as a spiritual discipline, and, in the Middle Ages, metaphysical aspects, substances, physical states, and molecular material processes as mere metaphors for spiritual entities, spiritual states, and, ultimately, transformations. In this sense, the literal meanings of ‘Alchemical Formulas’ were a blind, hiding their true spiritual philosophy, which being at odds with the Medieval Christian Church was a necessity that could have otherwise led them to the “stake and rack” of the Inquisition under charges of heresy. Thus, both the transmutation of common metals into gold and the universal panacea symbolized evolution from an imperfect, diseased, corruptible, and ephemeral state towards a perfect, healthy, incorruptible, and everlasting state; and the philosopher’s stone then represented a mystic key that would make this evolution possible. Applied to the alchemist himself, the twin goal symbolized his evolution from ignorance to enlightenment, and the stone represented a hidden spiritual truth or power that would lead to that goal. In texts that are written according to this view, the cryptic alchemical symbols, diagrams, and textual imagery of late alchemical works typically contain multiple layers of meanings, allegories, and references to other equally cryptic works; and must be laboriously “decoded” in order to discover their true meaning.
In his Alchemical Catechism, Paracelsus clearly denotes that his usage of the metals was a symbol:
Q. When the Philosophers speak of gold and silver, from which they extract their matter, are we to suppose that they refer to the vulgar gold and silver? A. By no means; vulgar silver and gold are dead, while those of the Philosophers are full of life.
Alchemical symbolism has been occasionally used by psychologists and philosophers. Carl Jung reexamined alchemical symbolism and theory and began to show the inner meaning of alchemical work as a spiritual path. Alchemical philosophy, symbols and methods have enjoyed something of a renaissance in post-modern contexts.
Jung saw alchemy as a Western proto-psychology dedicated to the achievement of individuation. In his interpretation, alchemy was the vessel by which Gnosticism survived its various purges into the Renaissance, a concept also followed by others such as Stephan A. Hoeller. In this sense, Jung viewed alchemy as comparable to a Yoga of the East, and more adequate to the Western mind than Eastern religions and philosophies. The practice of Alchemy seemed to change the mind and spirit of the Alchemist. Conversely, spontaneous changes on the mind of Western people undergoing any important stage in individuation seems to produce, on occasion, imagery known to Alchemy and relevant to the person’s situation.
His interpretation of Chinese alchemical texts in terms of his analytical psychology also served the function of comparing Eastern and Western alchemical imagery and core concepts and hence its possible inner sources (archetypes).
Marie-Louise von Franz, a disciple of Jung, continued Jung’s studies on Alchemy and its psychological meaning.
The Great Work; mystic interpretation of its four stages:
- nigredo (-putrefactio), blackening (-putrefaction): corruption, dissolution, individuation, see also Suns in alchemy – Sol Niger
- albedo, whitening: purification, burnout of impurity; the moon, female
- citrinitas, yellowing: spiritualisation, enlightenment; the sun, male;
- rubedo, reddening: unification of man with god, unification of the limited with the unlimited.
However, it is in citrinitas that the Chemical Wedding takes place, generating the Philosophical Mercury without which the Philosopher’s Stone, triumph of the Work, could never be accomplished.
Within the Magnum Opus was the creation of the Sanctum Moleculae, that is the ‘Sacred Masses’ that were derived from the Sacrum Particulae, that is the ‘Sacred Particles’, needed to complete the process of achieving the Magnum Opus.
Alchemy as a subject of historical research
The history of alchemy has become a vigorous academic field. As the obscure hermetic language of the alchemists is gradually being “deciphered”, historians are becoming more aware of the intellectual connections between that discipline and other facets of Western cultural history, such as the sociology and psychology of the intellectual communities, kabbalism, spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, and other mystic movements, cryptography, witchcraft, and the evolution of science and philosophy.
According to Marie-Louise von Franz, the initial basis for alchemy are the pre-socratic Greek philosophers, such as Empedocles, Thales of Miletus and Heraclitus, Egyptian mummification and metal technology, and Mesopotamian technology and astrology.
The origins of Western alchemy are traceable back to ancient Egypt. The Leyden papyrus X and the Stockholm papyrus along with the Greek magical papyri comprise the first “book” on alchemy still existent. Greek and Indian philosophers theorized that there were only four classical elements (rather than today’s 117 chemical elements, a useful analogy is with the highly similar states of matter); Earth, Fire, Water, and Air. The Greek philosophers, in order to prove their point, burned a log: The log was the earth, the flames burning it was fire, the smoke being released was air, and the smoldering soot at the bottom was bubbling water. Because of this, the belief that these four “elements” were at the heart of everything soon spread, only later being replaced in the Middle Ages by Geber‘s theory of seven elements, which was then replaced by the modern theory of chemical elements during the early modern period.
Alchemy encompasses several philosophical traditions spanning four millennia and three continents. These traditions’ general penchant for cryptic and symbolic language makes it hard to trace their mutual influences and “genetic” relationships. Alchemy starts becoming much clearer in the 8th century with the works of the Persian Alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (known as “Geber” in Europe), who introduced a methodical and experimental approach to scientific research based in the laboratory, in contrast to the ancient Greek and Egyptian alchemists whose works were mainly allegorical.
Other famous alchemists include Rhazes, Avicenna and Imad ul-din in Persian alchemy; Wei Boyang in Chinese alchemy; and Nagarjuna in Indian alchemy; and Albertus Magnus and pseudo-Geber in European alchemy; as well as the anonymous author of the Mutus Liber, published in France in the late 17th century, which was a ‘wordless book’ that claimed to be a guide to making the philosopher’s stone, using a series of 15 symbols and illustrations. The philosopher’s stone was an object that was thought to be able to amplify one’s power in alchemy and, if possible, grant the user ageless immortality, unless he fell victim to burnings or drowning; the common belief was that fire and water were the two greater elements that were implemented into the creation of the stone.
In the case of the Chinese and European alchemists, there was a difference between the two. The European alchemists tried to transmute lead into gold, and, no matter how futile or toxic the element, would continue trying until it was royally outlawed later into the century. The Chinese, however, paid no heed to the philosopher’s stone or transmutation of lead to gold; they focused more on medicine for the greater good. During Enlightenment, these “elixirs” were a strong cure for sicknesses, unless it was a test medicine. In general, most tests were fatal, but stabilized elixirs served great purposes. On the other hand, the Persian alchemists were interested in alchemy for a variety of reasons, whether it was for the transmutation of metals or artificial creation of life, or for practical uses such as Persian Medicine.
A tentative outline is as follows:
- Egyptian alchemy [5000 BC – 400 BC], beginning of alchemy
- Indian alchemy [1200 BC – Present], related to Indian metallurgy; Nagarjuna was an important alchemist
- Greek alchemy [332 BC – 642 AD], studied at the Library of Alexandria Stockholm papyrus
- Chinese alchemy [142 AD], Wei Boyang writes The Kinship of the Three
- Islamic alchemy [700 – 1400], Persians were at the forefront of Alchemy and Chemistry in the period of the Islamic Golden Age.
- Persian chemistry [800 – Present], Alkindus and Avicenna refute transmutation, Rhazes refutes four classical elements, and Tusi discovers conservation of mass
- European alchemy [1300 – Present], Saint Albertus Magnus builds on Persian alchemy
- European chemistry [1661 – Present], Boyle writes The Sceptical Chymist, Lavoisier writes Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (Elements of Chemistry), and Dalton publishes his Atomic Theory
Modern connections to alchemy
Persian alchemy was a forerunner of modern scientific chemistry. Alchemists used many of the same laboratory tools that are used today. These tools were not usually sturdy or in good condition, especially during the medieval period of Europe. Many transmutation attempts failed when alchemists unwittingly made unstable chemicals. This was made worse by the unsafe conditions in which the alchemists worked.
Up to the 16th century, alchemy was considered serious science in Europe; for instance, Isaac Newton devoted considerably more of his writing to the study of alchemy (see Isaac Newton’s occult studies) than he did to either optics or physics, for which he is famous. Other eminent alchemists of the Western world are Roger Bacon, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Tycho Brahe, Thomas Browne, and Parmigianino. The decline of alchemy began in the 18th century with the birth of modern chemistry, which provided a more precise and reliable framework for matter transmutations and medicine, within a new grand design of the universe based on rational materialism.
Alchemy in traditional medicine
Traditional medicines involve transmutation by alchemy, using pharmacological or a combination of pharmacological and spiritual techniques. In Chinese medicine the alchemical traditions of pao zhi will transform the nature of the temperature, taste, body part accessed or toxicity. In Ayurveda the samskaras are used to transform heavy metals and toxic herbs in a way that removes their toxicity. These processes are actively used to the present day.
In 1919, Ernest Rutherford used artificial disintegration to convert nitrogen into oxygen. From then on, this sort of scientific transmutation has been routinely performed in many nuclear physics-related laboratories and facilities, like particle accelerators, nuclear power stations and nuclear weapons as a by-product of fission and other physical processes.
According to Hermetic Fictions: Alchemy and Irony in the Novel (Keele University Press, 1995), by David Meakin, alchemy is also featured in such novels and poems as those by William Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Emile Zola, Jules Verne, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, James Joyce, Gustav Meyrink, Lindsay Clarke, Marguerite Yourcenar, Umberto Eco, Michel Butor, Paulo Coelho, Amanda Quick, Gabriel García Marquez and Maria Szepes.
Hilary Mantel, in her novel Fludd (1989, Penguin), mentions the spagyric art. ‘After separation, drying out, moistening, dissolving, coagulating, fermenting, comes purification, recombination: the creation of substances the world until now has never beheld. This is the opus contra naturem, this is the spagyric art, this is the Alchymical Wedding’. (page 79)
In Dante’s Inferno, it is placed within the Tenth ring of the 8th circle.
In Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap series, Marcellus Pye is an important Alchemist that first appears in Physik, the third book.
In popular culture
The subject of alchemy is extensively used in many animations, graphic novels, and video games, often in the form of special abilities such as magic, art/power, and sometimes forms of science.
- In Blackadder, alchemy is used by Percy in Blackadder the Third to make a fortune for Edmund. He mistakenly makes a “nugget” of purest Green instead of Gold.
- In Fullmetal Alchemist, alchemy and transmutation are treated as sciences, fully understandable and utilizable with proper knowledge, comparable to the study of physics. Fullmetal Alchemist also refers to equivalency (or equivalent exchange, as it’s referred to in the show) for alchemy to work.
- In Buso Renkin, Alchemy is used primarily as a means for superpowers and creation of homunculi, however it holds little resemblance to “actual” alchemy.
- In The Venture Brothers, there is a character named the Alchemist.
- In Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!, the monkey team’s arch-enemy, Skeleton King, was once their human master and creator called The Alchemist, who specialized in combining science and magic in his experiments. Upon realizing the horror he would become, the Alchemist used his knowledge to transform his pet monkeys into the Hyperforce so they could protect the universe from his own evil.
Alchemy is also used in many video games:
- In Castlevania (series), Alchemy is depicted as a field that experiments with the principles of God’s creation of the world. The hero of each game (usually part of the Belmont family) uses a whip created with alchemy (the Vampire Killer) to fight their way through a castle infested with classic monsters to eventually reach the final boss, Dracula, who is granted eternal life by the Crimson Stone. The stone is said to be one of two stones accidentally created when a failed attempt at creating the Philosopher’s Stone occurred. The stone is said to grant eternal life but also carry the curse of the vampire. In addition, Death offers his allegiance to whoever possesses the Crimson Stone. The second stone created by this failure is the Ebony Stone. The Ebony Stone is a stone that envelopes all of its surroundings in an eternal darkness. Castlevania: Lament of Innocence for the Playstation 2 (the beginning of Castlevania’s chronology) makes more reference to alchemy than any other Castlevania game.
- In the Xbox 360 game “Two Worlds“, there are five ‘schools’ of alchemy, Earth, Fire, Water, Air, and Necromancy. These skills may be used to make potions and weapon level ups by placing found items in a cauldron and cooking them. Spells are also possible.
- In Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor, Alchemy is a skill that characters can learn, which provides access to potion making, using ingredients with varying potency, using the skill level as a bonus; higher ranking allows access to more complex potions, up to “black” potions, which give characters a permanent boost in statistics, as opposed to a set period of time.
- In Secret of Evermore, the only video game from Square’s North American division, alchemy takes the place of the normal magic system. The main character receives alchemic formulas instead of spells and by combining a wide variety of ingredients (such as wax, oil, limestone, and dry ice) a reaction will take place such as fireballs, healing, or shields.
- The Atelier and Mana Khemia series from GUST also heavily emphasize on alchemy. The games feature hundreds of ingredient and recipes that players need to find or derive themselves. Additionally, all weapons and certain items must be made, or synthesized, and they are not sold in shops, which therefore makes alchemy essential in character growth.
- Zork Nemesis features a slightly stylised (to fit the fictional world of Zork) vision of alchemy, and uses knowledge of the processes as clues to solving puzzles.
- Rumble Fighter Alchemist is one of the 4 classes in the game. The class allows for various uses of machinery in the game.
- The Plot of the 2003 Core Design video game Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness draws heavily from Alchemic lore and legend.
- In the Eternal Champions video game series, there is a character named Xavier Pendragon, who accidentally gives himself seemingly supernatural powers through a failed alchemy experiment.
- In the MMORPG World of Warcraft, Alchemy is a profession in that allows characters to turn flower petals and other components in to potions and transmute metals.
Alchemy is referenced in print (fiction):
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, as the name would suggest, has as a central theme a magical stone (called the Philosopher’s Stone) that is supposed to grant ever-lasting life and be able to turn anything to gold. For the American publication, the name was changed to “Sorcerer’s Stone,” but the parallels between the book’s magical stone and the alchemists’ philosophers stone are still unmistakable.
- The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, discusses one boy’s quest to fulfill his destiny, and on the way he is aided by an alchemist.
- The plot of the novel The Red Lion (Elixir of Eternal Life) by Hungarian writer Maria Szepes revolves around alchemy and the secret of eternal life.
- Another novel called The Alchemist by Donna Boyd explains the life of an immortal Egyptian going about life from Ancient Egypt to modern civilization.
- The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott centers on twins, Sophie and Josh Newman, who are guided through their prophesied quest by Nicholas Flamel, a real and well-known alchemist from the 14th century.
- Short story by H. P. Lovecraft  (1986). “The Alchemist”. in S. T. Joshi (ed.). Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (9th corrected printing ed.). Sauk City, WI: Arkham House. ISBN 0-87054-039-4.
- Alchemy serves as one of the themes in White Wolf‘s Promethean: The Created role-playing game, using the humours, classical metals, and the ideas of refinement and the Magnum Opus as central ideas.
- In Star Wars, the Sith have their own variation called Sith alchemy, which calls upon the use of chemical science combined with their magic to create hideous, unnatural beasts of the dark side, summon forth monsters called Sithspawn, strengthen their weapons and armor, brew an anger inducing poison, create an appearance altering mask and commit various acts of corporeal resurrection. Darth Plagueis, a famous Sith alchemist, used this science to discover a technique similar to the real-world Elixir of life.
- John Crowley‘s Ægypt sequence of critically acclaimed novels which speculate on the alchemies that have the power to transform ordinary life.
Alchemy is also referenced in Music:
- Heavy Metal band Bruce Dickinson close the alchemy themed album “The Chemical wedding” with the track “The Alchemist”
- California band Thrice created a four-EP set named the Alchemy Index, which centers around each of the four elements involved in the alchemical process.
In contemporary art
In the twentieth century alchemy was a profoundly important source of inspiration for the Surrealist artist Max Ernst, who used the symbolism of alchemy to inform and guide his work. M.E. Warlick wrote his Max Ernst and Alchemy describing this relationship in detail.
Contemporary artists use alchemy as inspiring subject matter, like Odd Nerdrum, whose interest has been noted by Richard Vine, and the painter Michael Pearce, whose interest in alchemy dominates his work. His works Fama and The Aviator’s Dream particularly express alchemical ideas in a painted allegory.