Alchemy (Arabic:al-kimia) (Hebrew:אלכימיה al-himia) is both a philosophy and a pseudoscientific practice with an aim of achieving ultimate wisdom as well as immortality, 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, Egypt, Persia (today's Iran), India, China, Japan, Korea and in Classical Greece and Rome, in the Muslim civilizations, and then in Europe up to the 20th century—in a complex network of schools and philosophical systems spanning at least 2500 years.
Alchemy, generally, derives from the Old French alkemie; from the Arabic al-kimia: "the art of transformation." Some scholars believe the Arabs borrowed the word chimia ("χημεία") from Greek for transmutation. Others, such as Mahdihassan, argue that its origins are Chinese.
During the seventeenth century the change of name from Alchemy to chemistry took place, with the work of Robert Boyle, sometimes known as "The father of Chemistry", who in his book "The Skeptical Chymist" attacked Paracelsus and the old Aristotelian concepts of the elements and laid down the foundations of modern chemistry.
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 supposedly 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 Solar energy (gold) with the goal of attaining immortality. This is described as Internal Alchemy. Starting with the Middle Ages, Arabic 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. Alchemists were alternately persecuted or supported through the centuries. For example in 1317 Pope John 22nd issued a Bull against alchemical counterfeiting, and the Cistercians banned the practice amongst their members. In 1403 Henry 4th 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.
Some people suppose 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. Goldsmiths knew long before Alchemists appeared 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.
Several early alchemists, such as Zosimos of Panopolis, are recorded as viewing alchemy as a spiritual discipline, and in the Middle Ages, metaphysical aspects increasingly came to be viewed as the true foundation of the art. Organic and inorganic chemical 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.
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.
After the 15th century, many writers tended to compress citrinitas into rubedo and consider only three stages.
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.
In an historical sense, Alchemy is the pursuit of transforming common metals into valuable gold.
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.
Extract and symbol key from a 17th century book on alchemy. The symbols used have a one-to-one correspondence with symbols used in astrology at the time.
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 İslamic 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 Wei Boyang in Chinese alchemy; Calid and Rhazes in İslamic alchemy; 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, and 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. Most tests were generally fatal, but stabilized elixirs served great purposes. On the other hand, the İslamic 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 İslamic medicine or the chemical industries.
A tentative outline is as follows
1. Egyptian alchemy [5000 BCE – 400 BC], beginning of alchemy
2. Indian alchemy [1200 BC – Present], related to Indian metallurgy; Nagarjuna was an important alchemist
3. Greek alchemy [332 BCE – 642 AD], studied at the Library of Alexandria Stockholm papyrus
4. Chinese alchemy [142 AD], Wei Boyang writes The Kinship of the Three
5. İslamic alchemy [700 – 1400], Muslims were at the forefront of Alchemy and Chemistry in the period of the İslamic Golden Age or İslamic Renaissance.
6. İslamic chemistry [800 – Present], Alkindus and Avicenna refute transmutation, Rhazes refutes four classical elements, and Tusi discovers conservation of mass
7. European alchemy [1300 – Present], Saint Albertus Magnus builds on Arabic alchemy
8. European chemistry [1661 – Present], Boyle writes The Sceptical Chymist, Lavoisier writes Elements of Chemistry, and Dalton publishes his Atomic Theory
Modern connections to alchemy
Islamic 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.
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.
A play by Ben Jonson, The Alchemist, is a satirical and sceptical take on the subject
Part 2 of Goethe's Faust, is full of alchemical symbolism.
According to Hermetic Fictions: Alchemy and Irony in the Novel (Keele University Press, 1995), by David Meakin, alchemy is also featured in such novels 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 and Amanda Quick.
In popular culture
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The subject of alchemy is extensively used in many cartoons and comic books, often in the form of superpowers. In Fullmetal Alchemist, alchemy and transmutation are treated as sciences, mixed with magic but fully understandable and utilizable with proper knowledge. Fullmetal Alchemist also refers to equivalency or equivalent exchange for alchemy to work. In Buso Renkin, alchemy is used primarily as a means for superpowers, however it holds little resemblance to "actual" alchemy.
Alchemy is also used in many video games
- In World of Warcraft, Alchemy is a profession the player's character can learn in order to create special potions or flasks to be used for adding to the character's statistics for a set period of time, usually in preparation for big battles as in the case of instances/dungeons.
- 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.
- The adventure game 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.
- The Plot of the 2003 Core Design video game Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness draws heavily from Alchemic lore and legend.
- 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.
- 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 well-known alchemist in the 14th century.
- Short story by H. P. Lovecraft . "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 their magic to create hideous, unnatural beasts of the dark side, summon forth monsters called Sithspawn, strengthen their weapons, and various acts of corporeal necromancy. Darth Plagueis used this science to discover a technique similar to the real-world Elixir of life.
- 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 Venture Bros. A member of the Order of the Triad is The Alchemist, a character who is seeking the philosopher's stone.
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.
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