History of Alchemy
Why study Alchemy?
However one regards it as a science and philosophy, Alchemy provided the beginnings of chemistry, and certainly helped to develop the apparati of chemistry. It is part of the history of science, which is the history of human interaction with nature, and humanity's attempts to harness the power of nature for very human needs and wants.
At right, frontispiece from Glauber's 1663 Explicatio Salamonis.
Alchemists acted on the idea that nature had secrets to give and that they could be revealed through laboratory examination and experimentation. While their knowledge was limited regarding the properties of nature, nonetheless, the work of the alchemists provided the basis of modern laboratory techniques, and they did indeed discover many of nature's secrets. Their dogged pursuit for the elixir of life is not so different from modern chemists and natural products researchers who are similarly searching for that one great find which will cure all ills.
Was alchemy magic? Was "magic" used in the processes of alchemy? That question remains. One answer to that question is that "magic" is anything that cannot yet be explained through science and/or reason. Certainly, in seeking the secrets of nature, some alchemists were searching for a greater connection to "God," to the spirit moving the world. There was also a great deal of astrology at play in the work of alchemy, as was ritual in the laboratory processes. Laboratories were laid out based on cosmic conjunctions and designed as if in a temple. Some would argue that this was "magic." Particularly after the 14th century, Alchemy became more closely associated with magic. Clergymen were forbidden to practice it, by and large, so it was taken up by laymen. The era of witchhunts was well under way, and alchemists were often viewed as magicians and sorcerers who were worthy of persecution for their activities. Complicating matters were those, like Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, who believed they were wizards who could call forth spirits and other mystical forces to their service. Without a doubt, there were many false practitioners of alchemy whose main goal was the transmutation of base metal into gold who were using something like "hocus pocus" in their sleight-of-hand machinations to fool the public. Nevertheless, a belief in something at work that was not the result of human action was essential, especially early on.
Not until Paracelsus in the 16th century was alchemy pulled away from the stigma of "magic" when he, among others, began promoting the experimental aspects of it over the philosophical and spiritual. Many later practitioners of the 17th and 18th centuries were well-known scientists with solid reputations and who are revered to this day for their many other accomplishments. Alchemy was just one of many scientific pursuits for them. There seemed to be less of a focus on the supernatural and more of a focus on science, as something more recognizable to modern sensibilities. But, where did this science come from? What body of work were they building on? Where and when did alchemy begin?
Alchemy began as a form of scientific and philosophic practice in at least two distinct locations. It developed in both Egypt and China, independently of one another. In Egypt, alchemy is tied in with the fertility of the Nile River basin, fertility being referred to as Khem. By at least the 4th century BCE, there was a basic practice of alchemy in place, probably related to mummification procedures and connected strongly with ideas of life after death. Much early information on alchemy was lost when the Christians invaded Egypt and burned the library at Alexandria. According to legend, though, the god Thoth was the originator of alchemy in Egypt, and when the Greeks assimilated alchemy into their own practice, Thoth became Hermes-Thoth, who wrote the forty-two books of knowledge, one of which covered alchemy. Hermes symbol was the caduceus, serpent staff, which became a primary symbol of alchemy, and eventually medicine.
Image above left from Giovanni Nazari's Della tramvtatione metallica sogni tre... (1572)
Alchemy would not make an appearance in Europe until the 8th century when Muslims finally brought alchemical knowledge with them to Spain. The first European text to mention alchemy appeared in roughly 1050 CE. And, while Egyptian, Muslim, and European practitioners were certainly interested in the elixir of life, there was a more noticeable focus on creating gold from other substances than was found elsewhere. Gold was perceived to be the perfect metal, with all others being less than perfect. The pursuit of the transmutation of lesser metals into gold was thus also the pursuit of the perfection and transmutation of the human spirit.
One of the most famous of the Islamic alchemists was Jabir ibn Hayyan (Haiyan), who really transformed alchemy through his use of scientific methodology and investigation. Instead of writing in coded words and phrases, Jabir was very straightforward in reporting his activities. In fact, he did not think alchemy was worth pursuing without experimentation. His ultimate goal was the artificial creation of life in the laboratory; he was even willing to accept that it might be possible to create human life in the laboratory.
Alchemy in China was the brainchild of Taoist monks, and as such is wrapped up in Taoist beliefs and practice. The founder of Chinese alchemy is considered to be Wei Po-Yang. In its earliest practice the Chinese aim was always to discover the elixir of life, not to transmute base metals into gold. Therefore, there was always a closer connection to medicine in China.
When alchemy emerged in China, the word for gold, kim or chim (which referred to the production or creation of gold) was not yet created in the Chinese lexicon. Eventually, the transmutation of other elements into gold was an aim, but it was never THE aim in Chinese practice. Additionally, not only were plants and minerals and other substances taken internally, but Chinese alchemy also included exercise techniques that were also meant to help prolong life and manipulate one's life-force. It is probable that the Chinese shared their alchemical practices with interested persons in India (though it is possible that it developed there independently, as well); and as in China, the focus was more often on obtaining the elixir of life than the production of gold.
One of the probable contributions of Chinese alchemists to the world at large is "black powder" or gun powder. This was described as early as the 9th century and used in fireworks within the next 100 years. By the late 13th century, they were using it in cannons. This knowledge first spread to Japan and then farther and farther away, until the Europeans were using gun podwer by the 14th century. If this was an alchemical invention, it was likely not the aim, because Chinese alchemy was consistently about medicine, prolonging life, and creating both internal and external balance.
The "Golden Age" of Alchemy
Once Alchemy became known in Spain, it did not take long for information about it to begin working its way through the rest of Europe. Roger Bacon, a 13th century Franciscan Friar, who is considered one of the earliest proponents of the scientific method, is considered the first real European alchemist. (Prior to Bacon, there was some exploration of alchemical theory and ideas, but no real practitioners.) He was primarily interested in the elixir of life and some form of ingestible gold which would prolong life. Bacon's writings on alchemy were used by many other practitioners well into the 19th century.
Image at right is page 37 from Giovanni Pantheo's Ars et theoriatransmutationis metallicae cum Voarchadúmia... (1550)
During Bacon's time and for awhile after, the church looked at alchemy as a method for exploring theology, and so early European alchemists were clergymen, they being the only ones with enough education to read and decipher the alchemical texts. Unfortunately, Pope John XXII issued an edict banning alchemical counterfeiting (or fraud), which led to a negative view of alchemical practice within the church. By the 15th century, the English King had banned practice of alchemy without a license.
Once alchemy became more scientific and focused on the transmutation into gold, there was more support for it. This was a period of economic hardship and even many monarchs were hopeful that the claims of alchemy were true. Even the Catholic Church was in favor of alchemical endeavors for this reason. By the 17th and 18th centuries, though, alchemy was decidedly divided into the laboratory practice vs. the philosophical practice, and the laboratory won out. There was no shortage of practitioners in alchemy and related fields. They were involved in all manner of scientific pursuits and most were physicians, professors, metallurgists, or some other profession in addition to being alchemists. They published widely, and often cryptically so as not to reveal too many secrets of the trade. Some authors preferred to publish using pseudonyms, especially adopting the names of famous alchemists and chemists to gain recognition and legitimacy in the field.
Not until the mid-17th century, supposedly with the publication of Robert Boyle's The Sceptical Chymist, was there the beginning of a separation between alchemy and chemistry. And, even then, both were practiced, without distinctions between them, by all manner of scientists, including Isaac Newton, who some consider one of the greatest alchemists of all time. Newton certainly devoted more energy to writing on alchemy than either optics or phsyics, for which he is best known.
Alchemy, though it largely passed from popularity, continued on. There have been experiments, even into the 20th century, that attempted transmutation, notably using nuclear power and particle acceleration. Pharmacology, while not necessarily admitting to any relationship with alchemy, has as its mission to find the "magic" drugs to help prolong life and heal sickness in much the same way alchemy operated 100s of years ago.
Discoveries and Contributions
The work done by alchemists forwarded the progress of science on many fronts. The Indian alchemists invented steel and identified metals based on flame color. A famous woman alchemist, Maria the Jewess, from Roman Egypt introduced the use of glass apparati because it was easier to see what stage the chemicals had reached in any given process. Zosimos, from whom information about Maria the Jewess was revealed, invented a cold still. The modern chemistry laboratory owes a great deal to the many inventions and improvements in lab equipment and processes done for the sake of alchemy.
Facing page to page 171 of Georg von Welling's Opus mago-cabbalisticum et theosophicum (1784)
Alchemists, such as Jabir ibn Haiyan (8th century), extracted anesthetic compounds from herbs, which were used for general anesthesia during operations or difficult procedures. Jabir is also noteworthy for his introduction of a rudimentary elements system which eventually grew, over the centuries, into the table of elements we are familiar with today. Paracelsus, the 15th century physician and alchemist, created laudanum, an opium tincture widely in use until the end of the 19th century. The alchemist Glauber in the 17th century discovered sodium sulfate, which is also known as "Glauber's salt" and which made him famous. He also was the first to produce concentrated hydrochloric acid and improved the process of manufacturing nitric acid. These are just a few of many alchemists who isolated a variety of natural minerals, elements, and compounds, for a variety of uses. Many of these are crucial elements in modern chemical processes, and these materials could be used in either alchemy or chemistry, if one wants to distinguish between the two.
Information derived from both Lloyd sources and reliable internet sources. See "Resources" and "Links" above for further resources.