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The name alchemy comes etymologically from Arabic and Late Greek. Ancient Greeks had a term ‘khēmía’, and the Arabic part is the ‘al’, which means ‘the’. A loose interpretation of the word in this form is: the process of transmutation to fuse or reunite with the divine’.
However, other historians can find roots of alchemy in the Egyptian name ‘kēme’ which translates to ‘black earth’. It refers specifically to the soil in the Nile valley. But when speaking about alchemy, it explains the nickname ‘Egyptian black arts’, that people had for the practice.
The history of alchemy spans across three continents of the world and ties into philosophical traditions and spiritual beliefs. There are three types: Chinese alchemy, Indian alchemy, and Western alchemy. Each had their own close connections with religion and philosophies.
Where Did Alchemy Begin?
To think about where alchemy began, we must go back to ancient civilization in different places. Alchemy was developed across the world at separate times, but the general understanding and beliefs were the same. People believed that by combining metals, or ingredients with metals, they would get medicinal benefits. Sometimes, they believed they could find the source of immortality itself.
Historians could not pinpoint exactly where Chinese alchemy began, but there’s evidence of it being discussed in 73-49BC during the reign of Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the Qin dynasty. The first movements of alchemy in China were to turn base metals into gold using alchemy, and they practiced this regularly. Fake gold was popular, and they prosecuted people for making and using it. Later, Chinese alchemy had ties to Tao/Daoism, and they believed transforming metals and drinking them could make a person immortal.
There were two methods of Chinese alchemy practice. Outer alchemy referred to preparing chemical elixirs often made from substances containing high quantities of mercury, sulfur, lead, and arsenic. They believed combining the substances with other minerals and herbs found outside of the body had medicinal benefits, thus ‘outer alchemy’. Inner alchemy focused more on meditation techniques and breathing exercises which were carried out to improve the energy flow inside the body, believing this would help preserve the life essence of a person. It refers to looking after substances already inside the body:
- Jing: This translates to ‘life essence’. Every person is born with a certain amount, and they believed they could increase it by following specific diets or lifestyles. They believed jing lived in the kidneys.
- Qi: The Chinese called this ‘energy’ and thought it filled the space just below the naval. This resulted from yin and yang interacting in the body, and if you were healthy, it constantly moved around the body.
- Shen: Shen is ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’. They believed this lived in the heart. It was the form of energy people used when carrying out mental or spiritual activities, or being creative.
Even though Chinese alchemy students believed these herbal essences or substances could bring about eternal life, it was not the case. Many people ingested mercury, sulphur, lead and arsenic and later died or experienced severe health problems because of the elixir they drank. The study of alchemy formed the beliefs and practices associated with traditional Chinese medicine.
In India, alchemy was called ‘Rasaśāstra’,which translates to ‘The Science of Mercury’. There are several texts from early India that described using mercury or cinnabar for alchemic purposes. Similarly to China, people believed that gold and immortality were linked. Alexander The Great invaded India in 325BC and left a legacy behind, so maybe the Indians learned alchemy from the Greeks. Or the Greeks could have picked it up from the Indians. There is no way to be sure.
In both Indian and Chinese alchemy, making gold was only a small part. The bigger part of Indian alchemy–like their Chinese brethren — was using it for medicinal purposes. India was less concerned with an elixir for immortality, though, and instead used alchemy to create remedies for specific illnesses and diseases. Alchemy in India was also used to keep people looking youthful, reducing wrinkles and revitalise the body.
While they still associate Rasayana in India with long-term health benefits, the use of mercury in medicinal products has declined. Rasayana products now include primarily herbal ingredients with additional healthy minerals and animal by-products.
In the Western world, alchemy traces its roots back to Hellenistic Egypt. The city of Alexandria was a famous for its alchemical studies. It’s thought that alchemy began here and spread its way through Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome.
However, it’s difficult to tell, as Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered his subjects to burn alchemy books during his reign, which means the true beginnings of Western alchemy are still relatively unknown. Few texts have survived, containing recipes for creating fake pearls and gemstones, and using metals to make dye. But they don’t have the spiritual elements of alchemy in them, like we see in both Indian and Chinese alchemy.
After the Roman Empire fell, alchemy moved to the medieval Islamic world. There, they documented their uses of alchemy much better than their predecessors. Jābir ibn Hayyān was an influential Arabic author during the Islamic Golden Age, who wrote extensively on Islamic alchemy. He is now thought of as the father of Arabic chemistry. His methodical practices were documented extensively in ‘The One Hundred and Twelve Books’ a massive collection discussing practical elements of alchemy.
Muslim alchemists sought ‘takwin’. They believed this was the ability to create life in a laboratory. This was a goal of Jabir’s, and he wrote about the idea of being able to make a human in a lab. Jabir divided metals up by certain qualities: hot, cold, dry, or moist. He believed every metal had two of these qualities. Gold was hot and moist, whereas lead was cold and dry. He believed that by rearranging these qualities within metals, he could create a new metal.
The Philosophers Stone
The idea of the ‘philosopher’s stone’ was the most desired object in the world of alchemy. People believed the philosopher’s stone could turn metals like lead, tin, and iron into more precious metals like gold. As a result, it also became associated with immortality and youth, with the ability to cure ailments.
Alchemists all over the world tried desperately to find it. In the 14th century, a French bookmaker Nicolas Flamel made the bold claim of turning lead into gold after studying old alchemy textbooks. It’s unknown if his claims were accurate.
The existence of the philosopher’s stone has been referenced in texts dating back to 300 AD. Theories were that the stone could come in two types, white or red. The white stone could turn metals into silver, and the red one could turn them into gold.
Magnum opus of Alchemy
The Magnum opus (also known as Great Work) is a term used in alchemy for the creation of the philosopher’s stone. There were four phases of the Magnum opus:
- Nigredo: blackening
- Albedo: whitening
- Citrinitas: yellowing
- Rubedo: reddening/purpling
References to these four stages can be traced back to the earliest texts of alchemy. Birds have often been associated with them–like the raven, swan, and phoenix.
Alchemy was brought back to medieval Europe with the introduction of Arabic texts, and continued to be studied by religious people. During the period of the Renaissance, the spiritual aspects of alchemy were reintroduced across European alchemy. They associated the practice with astrology and magic.
There were plenty of fraudsters who used pseudo-alchemical tricks during this period to con people out of money. This prompted Michael Maier and Heinrich Khunrath to write about these fake transmutations of metals, to distinguish true alchemists from the fakes.
Decline of Alchemy in Modern World
The 1600s saw the art of chemistry rise, and former alchemists and philosophers became pioneers of this new form of science. With the rise of modern science taking over, alchemy seemed outdated. In the 1740s there was a distinction between ‘alchemy’ and the modern ‘chemistry’ which saw scientists move away from gold and elixir, making and start developing the study of chemicals that we now recognise chemistry to be. Alchemists moved into becoming chemists, which continues to be a flourishing form of science today.
Nowadays, most references to alchemy are in entertainment, like literature (referred to as literary alchemy). Shakespeare used alchemy to inspire some of his works, most notably The Tempest. JK Rowling referenced the philosopher’s stone in her first book in the Harry Potter series, although the name was changed to The Sorcerer’s Stone for American audiences.
We owe most–if not all–modern advances in medicine down to the study and practice of chemistry. However, this would not have occurred if it weren’t for the centuries of alchemy practice that preceded it.