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In the history of science, alchemy (from the Arabic الخيمياء al-khīmiyā' ) refers to both an early form of the investigation of nature and an early philosophical and spiritual discipline, both combining elements of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, medicine, astrology, semiotics, mysticism, spiritualism, and art all as parts of one greater force. Alchemy has been practiced in Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Persia, India, Japan, Korea and China, in Classical Greece and Rome, in the Muslim civilizations, and then in Europe up to the 19th century—in a complex network of schools and philosophical systems spanning at least 2500 years.
Alchemy as a philosophical and spiritual discipline
Alchemy was known as the spagyric art after Greek words meaning to separate and to join together. Compare this with the primary dictum of Alchemy in Latin: SOLVE ET COAGULA — Separate, and Join Together.
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 science, they were the ones most documented and well known. Starting with the Middle Ages, European alchemists invested much effort on 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. The philosopher's stone was believed to mystically amplify the user's knowledge of alchemy so much that anything was attainable. Alchemists enjoyed prestige and support through the centuries, though not for their pursuit of those goals, nor the mystic and philosophical speculation that dominates their literature. Rather it came from their 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).
Starting with the Middle Ages, some alchemists increasingly came to view metaphysical aspects as the true foundation of alchemy; and organic and inorganic chemical substances, physical states, and molecular material processes as mere metaphors for spiritual entities, spiritual states and ultimately, spiritual 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 lead 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 some 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 some 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. In this sense, Jung viewed alchemy as comparable to a Yoga of the East. The act of Alchemy seemed to improve the mind and spirit of the Alchemist. His interpretation of Chinese alchemical texts in terms of his analytical psychology also served as the same function.
The Great Work; mystic interpretation of its three stages:
- nigredo(-putrefactio), blackening(-putrefaction): individuation, purification, burnout of impureness; see also Suns in alchemy - Sol Niger
- albedo, whitening: spiritualisation, enlightenment
- rubedo, reddening: unification of man with god, unification of the limited with the unlimited.
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.
The origins of Western Alchemy are traceable back to Ancient Egypt. Alchemy was thought of by philosophers in ancient Greece, theorizing that there were only four elements (rather than that of today's 112); Earth, Fire, Water, and Air. To prove their point, they 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 by Roman scientific advances, and later on past the Dark Ages.
Alchemy encompasses several philosophical traditions spanning some 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.
Famous alchemists include Wei Boyang in Chinese alchemy; Calid, Geber and Rhazes in Islamic 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 ones 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.
There is, however, one main difference between Chinese and European alchemists. 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.
A tentative outline is as follows:
- Egyptian alchemy [5000 BCE – 400 BCE], beginning of alchemy
- Indian alchemy [1200 BCE – Present], related to metallurgy; Nagarjuna was an important alchemist
- Greek alchemy [332 BCE – 642 CE], studied at the Library of Alexandria
- Chinese alchemy [142 CE], Wei Boyang writes The Kinship of the Three
- Islamic alchemy [700 – 1400], Geber a very important chemist introduces experimental method and theories on philosopher's stone and creation of life
- Islamic chemistry [800 – Present], Alkindus and Avicenna refute alchemy and Tusi discovers conservation of mass
- European alchemy [1300 – Present], Saint Albertus Magnus builds on Arabic alchemy
- European chemistry [1661 – Present], Boyle writes The Sceptical Chymist, Lavoisier writes Elements of Chemistry, and Dalton publishes his Atomic Theory
Alchemy, generally, derives from the old French alkemie; and the Arabic al-kimia: "the art of transformation." Some scholars believe the Arabs borrowed the word “kimia” from the Greeks. Others, such as Mahdihassan, argue that its origins are Chinese.
Thus, an alchemist was called a 'chemist' in popular speech, and later the suffix "-ry" was added to this to describe the art of the chemist as "chemistry".
A connection has been made between alchemy and Egypt. One source in particular gives further background into the probable founding of the name itself in the following passage: "...The concept is a very ancient one, which seems to answer to deep human motivations. It came to Medieval Europe by way of Egypt. When they invaded Egypt, which they called Khem, in the seventh century, the followers of the moon god discovered that the Egyptians were masters of the art of working in gold. They called gold-working al-kimiya - 'the art of the land of Khem' - and so, according to one account, the word 'alchemy' was born."
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 time and 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.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, one established chemist, Baron Carl Reichenbach, worked on concepts similar to the old alchemy, such as the Odic force, but his research did not enter the mainstream of scientific discussion.
Matter transmutation, the old goal of alchemy, enjoyed a moment in the sun in the 20th century when physicists were able to convert platinum atoms into gold atoms via a nuclear reaction. However, the new gold atoms, being unstable isotopes, lasted for under five seconds before they broke apart. More recently, reports of table-top element transmutation—by means of electrolysis or sonic cavitation—were the pivot of the cold fusion controversy of 1989. None of those claims have yet been reliably duplicated.
Alchemy in traditional medicine
Traditional medicines involve transmutation by alchemy, using pharmacological or combination 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. In the spagyric processing of herbal medicine similar effects are found. 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 is 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.
(see also: Glenn T. Seaborg)
In popular culture
The subject of alchemy is extensively used in many cartoons and comic books, often in the form of superpowers. In some Japanese anime and manga, most notably 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; i.e to create, something of equal value must be lost, thus making something into something related or new. In Buso Renkin, alchemy is used primarily as a means for superpowers.
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.
Scotsman Adam McLean has made the study and revitalization of alchemy his life, reproducing seminal texts in hand bound leather covered editions and making fine quality copies of important alchemical imagery.