The art and science by which the chemical philosophers of
medieval times attempted to transmute the baser metals into
gold and silver. Alchemy is also the name of the Gnostic philosophy
that undergirded the alchemical activity, a practical phi
losophy of spiritual purification. There is considerable disagreement
as to which, the scientific or the philosophical, is the
dominant aspect and the manner in which the two were integrated
(which to some extent varied tremendously from alchemist
There is also considerable divergence of opinion as to the
etymology of the word. One highly possible origin is the Arabic
al (the) and kimya (chemistry), which in turn derived from late
Greek chemeia (chemistry), from chumeia (a mingling), or cheein
(to pour out or mix). The Aryan root is ghu, (to pour), whence
comes the modern word gush. E. A. Wallis Budge, in his Egyptian
Magic, however, states that it is possible that alchemy may
be derived from the Egyptian word khemeia, the preparation
of the black ore, or powder, which was regarded as the active
principle in the transmutation of metals. To this name the
Arabs affixed the article al, resulting in al-khemeia, or alchemy.
History of Alchemy
From an early period the Egyptians possessed the reputation
of being skillful workers in metals, and, according to Greek
writers, they were conversant with their transmutation, employing
quicksilver in the process of separating gold and silver from
the native matrix. The resulting oxide was supposed to possess
marvelous powers, and it was thought that there resided within
it the individualities of the various metalsthat in it their various
substances were incorporated. This black powder was mystically
identified with the underworld god Osiris, and consequently
was credited with magical properties. Thus there grew
up in Egypt the belief that magical powers existed in fluxes and
alloys. It is probable such a belief existed throughout Europe
in connection with the bronze-working castes of its several
races. (See Shelta Thari)
It was probably in the Byzantium of the fourth century, however,
that alchemical science received embryonic form. There
is little doubt that Egyptian tradition, filtering through Alexandrian
Hellenic sources, was the foundation upon which the infant
science was built, and this is borne out by the circumstance
that the art was attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and supposed
to be contained in its entirety in his works.
The Arabs, after their conquest of Egypt in the seventh century,
carried on the researches of the Alexandrian school, and
through their instrumentality the art was carried to Morocco
and in the eighth century to Spain, where it flourished. During
the next few centuries Spain served as the repository of alchemical
science, and the colleges at Seville, Cordova, and Granada
were the centers from which this science radiated throughout
Europe. The first practical alchemist was probably the Arabian
Geber, who flourished in the early to mid-eighth century C.E.
His Summa Perfectionis implies that alchemical science had already
matured in his day, and that he drew his inspiration from
a still older unbroken line of adepts. He was followed by Avicenna,
Meisner, and Rhasis; in France by Alain of Lisle, Arnaldus
de Villanova, and Jean de Meung the troubadour; in
England by Roger Bacon; and in Spain by Raymond Lully.
Later, in French alchemy, the most illustrious names are
those of Nicolas Flamel (fourteenth century), and Bernard
Trévisan (fifteenth century), after which the center of interest
changes in the sixteenth century to Germany and in some measure
to England, in which countries Paracelsus, Heinrich
Khunrath, Michael Maier, Jakob Boehme, Jean Van Helmont,
the Brabanter, George Ripley, Thomas Norton, Thomas
Dalton, Jean Martin Charnock, and Robert Fludd kept the
alchemical flame burning brightly. In Britain, the great scientist
Sir Isaac Newton conducted alchemical research.
It is surprising how little alteration is found throughout the
period between the seventh and the seventeenth centuries, the
heyday of alchemy, in the theory and practice of the art. The
same sentiments and processes put forth by the earliest alchemical
authorities are also found expressed by the later experts,
and a unanimity regarding the basic canons of the art is expressed
by the hermetic students of all periods, thus suggesting
the dominance of the philosophical teachings over any scientific
applications. With the introduction of chemistry as a practical
art, alchemical science fell into disuse, already having suffered
from the number of charlatans practicing it. Here and
there, however, a solitary student of the art lingered, and the
subject has to some extent been revived during modern times.
The Theory and Philosophy of Alchemy
The grand objects of the alchemical art were (1) the discovery
of a process by which the baser metals might be transmuted
into gold and silver; (2) the discovery of an elixir by which life
might be prolonged indefinitely; and there is sometimes added
(3) the manufacture of an artificial process of human life (see
Homunculus). Religiously, the transmutation of metals can be
thought of as a symbol of the transmutation of the self to a
higher consciousness and the discovery of the elixir as an affirmation
of eternal life.
The transmutation of metals was to be accomplished by a
powder, stone, or elixir often called the philosophers stone,
the application of which would effect the transmutation of the
baser metals into gold or silver, depending on the length of
time of its application. Basing their conclusions on the examination
of natural processes and metaphysical speculation concerning
the secrets of nature, the alchemists arrived at the
axiom that nature was divided into four principal regions: the
dry, the moist, the warm, the cold, from which all that exists
must be derived. Nature was also divisible into the male and the
female. She is the divine breath, the central fire, invisible yet
ever active, and is typified by sulphur, which is the mercury of
the sages, which slowly fructifies under the genial warmth of nature.
Thus, the alchemist had to be ingenuous, of a truthful disposition,
and gifted with patience and prudence, following nature
in every alchemical performance. He recalled that like attracts
like, and had to know how to obtain the seed of metals, which
was produced by the four elements through the will of the Supreme
Being and the Imagination of Nature. We are told that
the original matter of metals was double in its essence, being
a dry heat combined with a warm moisture, and that air is water
coagulated by fire, capable of producing a universal dissolvent.
These terms the neophyte must be cautious of interpreting in
their literal sense, for it is likely that alchemists, other than the
several frauds, were speaking about the metaphysics of inner
spirituality. Great confusion exists in alchemical nomenclature,
and the gibberish employed by the scores of charlatans who in
later times pretended to a knowledge of alchemical matters did
not tend to make things any more clear.
The neophyte alchemist also had to acquire a thorough
knowledge of the manner in which metals grow in the bowels
of the earth. They were said to be engendered by sulphur,
which is male, and mercury, which is female, and the crux of
alchemy was to obtain their seeda process the alchemistical
philosophers did not describe with any degree of clarity. The
physical theory of transmutation is based on the composite
character of metals, and on the presumed existence of a substance
which, applied to matter, exalts and perfects it. This substance,
Eugenius Philalethes and others called The Light.
The elements of all metals were said to be similar, differing
only in purity and proportion. The entire trend of the metallic
kingdom was toward the natural manufacture of gold, and the
production of the baser metals was only accidental as the result
of an unfavorable environment. The philosophers stone was
the combination of the male and female seeds that form
gold. The composition of these was so veiled by symbolism as
to make their precise identification impossible.
Occult scholar Arthur Edward Waite, summarized the alchemical
process once the secret of the stone was unveiled:
Given the matter of the stone and also the necessary vessel,
the processes which must be then undertaken to accomplish
the magnum opus are described with moderate perspicuity.
There is the calcination or purgation of the stone, in which
kind is worked with kind for the space of a philosophical year.
There is dissolution which prepares the way for congelation,
and which is performed during the black state of the mysterious
matter. It is accomplished by water which does not wet the
hand. There is the separation of the subtle and the gross, which
is to be performed by means of heat. In the conjunction which
follows, the elements are duly and scrupulously combined. Putrefaction
afterwards takes place, Without which pole no seed
Then, in the subsequent congelation the white colour appears,
which is one of the signs of success. It becomes more pronounced
in cibation. In sublimation the body is spiritualised,
the spirit made corporeal, and again a more glittering whiteness
is apparent. Fermentation afterwards fixes together the alchemical
earth and water, and causes the mystic medicine to
flow like wax. The matter is then augmented with the alchemical
spirit of life, and the exaltation of the philosophic earth is
accomplished by the natural rectification of its elements. When
these processes have been successfully completed, the mystic
stone will have passed through three chief stages characterised
by different colours, black, white, and red, after which it is capable
of infinite multication, and when projected on mercury, it
will absolutely transmute it, the resulting gold bearing every
test. The base metals made use of must be purified to insure the
success of the operation. The process for the manufacture of
silver is essentially similar, but the resources of the matter are
not carried to so high a degree.
According to the Commentary on the Ancient War of the
Knights the transmutations performed by the perfect stone are
so absolute that no trace remains of the original metal. It cannot,
however, destroy gold, nor exalt it into a more perfect metallic
substance; it, therefore, transmutes it into a medicine a
thousand times superior to any virtues which can be extracted
from it in its vulgar state. This medicine becomes a most potent
agent in the exaltation of base metals.
Other modern authorities have denied that the transmutation
of metals was the grand object of alchemy, and from reasons
highlighted earlier, among others, inferred from the alchemistical
writings that the object of the art was the spiritual
regeneration of mankind. Mary Ann Atwood, author of A Suggestive
Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery, and Civil War General
Ethan Allen Hitchcock, author of Remarks upon Alchemy and the
Alchemists, were perhaps the chief protagonists of the belief
that, by spiritual processes akin to those of the chemical processes
of alchemy, the soul of man may be purified and exalted.
Both somewhat overstated their case in their assertion that the
alchemical writers did not claim that the transmutation of base
metal into gold was their grand object. While the spiritual quest
may have been dominant, none of the passages that Atwood
and Hitchcock quote was inconsistent with the physical aspect
of alchemy. Eugenius Philalethes, for example, in his work The
Marrow of Alchemy, argues forcefully that the real quest is for
gold. It is constantly impressed upon the reader, however, in
the perusal of esteemed alchemical works, that only those who
are instructed by God can achieve the grand secret. Others,
again, state that while a novice might possibly stumble upon it,
unless guided by an adept the beginner has small chance of
achieving the grand arcanum.
The transcendental view of alchemy, however, rapidly
gained ground through the nineteenth century. Among its exponents
was A. E. Waite, who argued, The gold of the philosopher
is not a metal, on the other hand, man is a being who possesses
within himself the seeds of a perfection which he has
never realized, and that he therefore corresponds to those metals
which the Hermetic theory supposes to be capable of development.
It has been constantly advanced that the conversion
of lead into gold was only the assumed object of alchemy, and
that it was in reality in search of a process for developing the
latent possibilities in the subject man.
At the same time, it must be admitted that the cryptic character
of alchemical language was probably occasioned by a fear
on the part of the alchemical mystic that he might lay himself
open through his magical opinions to the rigors of the law.
Meanwhile, several records of alleged transmutations of
base metals into gold have survived. These were reportedly
achieved by Nicholas Flamel, Van Helmont, Martini,
Richthausen, and Sethon. In nearly every case the transmuting
element was said to be a mysterious powder or the philosophers
A correspondent writing to the British newspaper Liverpool
Post in its Saturday, November 28, 1907, edition gave an interesting
description of a veritable Egyptian alchemist whom he
had encountered in Cairo not long before:
I was not slow in seizing an opportunity of making the acquaintance
of the real alchemist living in Cairo, which the
winds of chance had blown in my direction. He received me in
his private house in the native quarter, and I was delighted to
observe that the appearance of the man was in every way in
keeping with my notions of what an alchemist should be. Clad
in the flowing robes of a graduate of Al Azhar, his long grey
beard giving him a truly venerable aspect, the sage by the
eager, far-away expression of his eyes, betrayed the mind of the
dreamer, of the man lost to the meaner comforts of the world
in his devotion to the secret mysteries of the universe. After the
customary salaams, the learned man informed me that he was
seeking three thingsthe philosophers stone, at whose touch
all metal should become goldthe elixir of life, and the universal
solvent which would dissolve all substances as water dissolves
sugar; the last, he assured me, he had indeed discovered a
short time since. I was well aware of the reluctance of the medieval
alchemists to divulge their secrets, believing as they did
that the possession of them by the vulgar would bring about
ruin of states and the fall of divinely constituted princes; and
I feared that the reluctance of the modern alchemist to divulge
any secrets to a stranger and a foreigner would be no less. However,
I drew from my pocket Sir William Crookess spinthariscopea
small box containing a particle of radium highly magnifiedand
showed it to the sheikh. When he applied it to his
eye and beheld the wonderful phenomenon of this dark speck
flashing out its fiery needles on all sides, he was lost in wonder,
and when I assured him that it would retain this property for
a thousand years, he hailed me as a fellow-worker, and as one
who had indeed penetrated into the secrets of the world. His
reticence disappeared at once, and he began to tell me the aims
and methods of alchemical research, which were indeed the
same as those of the ancient alchemists of yore. His universal
solvent he would not show me, but assured me of its efficacy.
I asked him in what he kept it if it dissolved all things. He replied
In wax, this being the one exception. I suspected that he
had found some hydrofluoric acid, which dissolves glass, and
so has to be kept in wax bottles, but said nothing to dispel his
The next day I was granted the unusual privilege of inspecting
the sheikhs laboratory, and duly presented myself at
the appointed time. My highest expectations were fulfilled; everything
was exactly what an alchemists laboratory should be.
Yes, there was the sage, surrounded by his retorts, alembics,
crucibles, furnace, and bellows, and, best of all, supported by
familiars of gnome-like appearance, squatting on the ground,
one blowing the fire (a task to be performed daily for six hours
continuously), one pounding substances in a mortar, and another
seemingly engaged in doing odd jobs. Involuntarily my
eyes sought the pentacle inscribed with the mystic word Abracadabra,
but here I was disappointed, for the black arts had no
place in this laboratory. One of the familiars had been on a voyage
of discovery to London, where he bought a few alchemical
materials; another had explored Spain and Morocco, without
finding any alchemists, and the third had indeed found alchemists
in Algeria, though they had steadily guarded their secrets.
After satisfying my curiosity in a general way, I asked the
sage to explain the principles of his researches and to tell me
on what his theories were based. I was delighted to find that his
ideas were precisely those of the medieval alchemists namely,
that all metals are debased forms of the original gold, which is
the only pure, non-composite metal; all nature strives to return
to its original purity, and all metals would return to gold if they
could; nature is simple and not complex, and works upon one
principle, namely, that of sexual reproduction. It was not easy,
as will readily be believed, to follow the mystical explanations
of the sheikh. Air was referred to by him as the vulture, fire
as the scorpion, water as the serpent, and earth as calacant;
and only after considerable cross-questioning and confusion of
mind was I able to disentangle his arguments. Finding his notions
so entirely medieval, I was anxious to discover whether he
was familiar with the phlogistic theory of the seventeenth century.
The alchemists of old had noticed that the earthy matter
which remains when a metal is calcined is heavier than the
metal itself, and they explained this by the hypothesis, that the
metal contained a spirit known as phlogiston, which becomes
visible when it escapes from the metal or combustible substance
in the form of flame; thus the presence of the phlogiston lightened
the body just as gas does, and on its being expelled, the
body gained weight. I accordingly asked the chemist whether
he had found that iron gains weight when it rusts, an experiment
he had ample means of making. But no, he had not yet
reached the seventeenth century; he had not observed the fact,
but was none the less ready with his answer; the rust of iron was
an impurity proceeding from within, and which did not affect
the weight of the body in that way. He declared that a few days
would bring the realisation of his hopes, and that he would
shortly send me a sample of the philosophers stone and of the
divine elixir; but although his promise was made some weeks
since, I have not yet seen the fateful discoveries.
That alchemy has continued to be studied in relatively modern
times there can be no doubt. Louis Figuier in his LAlchimie
et les Alchimistes (1854), dealing with the subject of modern alchemy,
as expressed by the initiates of the first half of the nineteenth
century, states that many French alchemists of his time
regarded the discoveries of modern science as merely so many
evidences of the truth of the doctrines they embraced.
Throughout Europe, he said, the positive alchemical doctrine
had many adherents at the end of the eighteenth century and
the beginning of the nineteenth.
Reportedly, a vast association of alchemists called the
Hermetic Society, founded in Westphalia in 1790, continued
to flourish in the year 1819. In 1837 an alchemist of Thuringia
presented to the Société Industrielle of Weimar a tincture he
averred would effect metallic transmutation. About the same
time several French journals announced a public course of lectures
on hermetic philosophy by a professor of the University
Figuier further stated that many Hanoverian and Bavarian
families pursued in common the search for the grand arcanum.
Paris, however, was regarded as the alchemistical Mecca. There
lived many theoretical alchemists and empirical adepts. The
first pursued the arcanum through the medium of books; the
others engaged in practical efforts to effect transmutation.
During the 1840s Figuier frequented the laboratory of a certain
Monsieur L., which was the rendezvous of the alchemists
of Paris. When Monsieur Ls pupils left the laboratory for the
day the modern adepts dropped in one by one, and Figuier relates
how deeply impressed he was by the appearance and costumes
of these strange men. In the daytime he frequently encountered
them in the public libraries, buried in the study of
gigantic folios, and in the evening they might be seen pacing
the solitary bridges with eyes fixed in vague contemplation
upon the first pale stars of night. A long cloak usually covered
their meager limbs, and their untrimmed beards and matted
locks lent them a wild appearance. They walked with a solemn
and measured gait, and used the figures of speech employed
by the medieval illuminés. Their expression was generally a
mixture of the most ardent hope and a fixed despair.
Among the adepts who sought the laboratory of Monsieur
L., Figuier noticed especially a young man in whose habits and
language he could see nothing in common with those of his
strange companions. He confounded the wisdom of the alchemical
adept with the tenets of the modern scientist in the
most singular fashion, and meeting him one day at the gate of
the observatory, M. Figuier renewed the subject of their last discussion,
deploring that a man of his gifts could pursue the
semblance of a chimera. Without replying, the young adept
led him into the observatory garden and proceeded to reveal
to him the mysteries of modern alchemical science.
The young man recognized a limit to the research of the
modern alchemists. Gold, he said, according to the ancient authors,
has three distinct properties: (1) resolving the baser metals
into itself, and interchanging and metamorphosing all metals
into one another; (2) curing afflictions and the prolongation
of life; and (3) serving as a spiritus mundi to bring mankind into
rapport with the supermundane spheres. Modern alchemists,
he continued, rejected the greater part of these ideas, especially
those connected with spiritual contact. The object of modern
alchemy might be reduced to the search for a substance having
power to transform and transmute all other substances one into
anotherin short, to discover that medium known to the alchemists
of old as the philosophers stone and now lost to us.
In the four principal substances of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon,
and azote, we have the tetractus of Pythagoras and the tetragram
of the Chaldeans and Egyptians. All the sixty elements are referable
to these original four. The ancient alchemical theory
claimed that all the metals are the same in their composition,
that all are formed from sulphur and mercury, and that the difference
between them is according to the proportion of these
substances in their composition. Further, all the products of
minerals present in their composition complete identity with
those substances most opposed to them. For example, fulminating
acid contains precisely the same quantity of carbon, oxygen,
and azote as cyanic acid, and cyanhydric acid does not
differ from formate ammoniac. This new property of matter is
known as isomerism. Figuiers friend then proceeded to
quote in support of his thesis the operations and experiments
of M. Dumas, a celebrated French savant, as well as those of
William Prout and other English chemists of standing.
Passing on to consider the possibility of isomerism in elementary
as well as in compound substances, he pointed out to
Figuier that if the theory of isomerism can apply to such bodies,
the transmutation of metals ceases to be a wild, unpractical
dream and becomes a scientific possibility, the transformation
being brought about by a molecular rearrangement. Isomerism
can be established in the case of compound substances by
chemical analysis, showing the identity of their constituent
parts. In the case of metals it can be proved by the comparison
of the properties of isomeric bodies with the properties of metals,
in order to discover whether they have any common characteristics.
M. Dumas, speaking before the British Association, had
shown that when three simple bodies displayed great analogies
in their properties, such as chlorine, bromide, and iodine, barium,
strontium, and calcium, the chemical equivalent of the intermediate
body is represented by the arithmetical mean between
the equivalents of the other two. Such a statement well
showed the isomerism of elementary substances and proved
that metals, however dissimilar in outward appearance, were
composed of the same matter differently arranged and proportioned.
This theory successfully demolished the difficulties in
the way of transmutation.
If transmutation is thus theoretically possible, it only remains
to show by practical experiment that it is strictly in accordance
with chemical laws, and by no means inclines to the supernatural.
At this juncture, the young alchemist proceeded to liken the
action of the philosophers stone on metals to that of a ferment
on organic matter. When metals are melted and brought to red
heat, a molecular change may be produced analogous to fermentation.
Just as sugar, under the influence of a ferment, may
be changed into lactic acid without altering its constituents, so
metals can alter their character under the influence of the philosophers
stone. The explanation of the latter case is no more
difficult than that of the former. The ferment does not take any
part in the chemical changes it brings about, and no satisfactory
explanation of its effects can be found either in the laws of affinity
or in the forces of electricity, light, or heat. As with the
ferment, the required quantity of the philosophers stone is infinitesimal.
The alchemist then averred that medicine, philosophy,
every modern science was at one time a source of such errors
and extravagances as are associated with medieval alchemy, but
they are not therefore neglected and despised. Why, then,
should we be blind to the scientific nature of transmutation?
One of the foundations of alchemical theories was that minerals
grow and develop in the earth, like organic things. It was always
the aim of nature to produce gold, the most precious metal, but
when circumstances were not favorable the baser metals resulted.
The desire of the old alchemists was to surprise natures secrets,
and thus attain the ability to do in a short period what nature
takes years to accomplish. Nevertheless, the medieval
alchemists appreciated the value of time in their experiments
as modern alchemists never do.
Figuiers friend urged him not to condemn these exponents
of the hermetic philosophy for their metaphysical tendencies,
for, he said, there are facts in our sciences that can only be explained
in that light. If, for instance, copper is placed in air or
water, there will be no result, but if a touch of some acid is
added, it will oxidize. The explanation is that the acid provokes
oxidation of the metal, because it has an affinity for the
oxide which tends to forma material fact almost metaphysical
in its production, and only explicable thereby.
Alchemy in the Twentieth Century
Since the nineteenth-century speculations of Figuier, the
modern view of alchemy has primarily regarded it as a mystical
approach to chemistry. With the development of subatomic
physics and nuclear fission, the transmutation of elements became
a reality, culminating in the atomic bomb and atomic
power stations, but the vast apparatus and energy needed to
transmute elements has increased skepticism that the old alchemists
ever succeeded in their dreams.
The alchemical work gave way to ceremonial magic, which
today carries most of what is left of the alchemical hermetic tradition.
However, there have been a few contemporary figures
who followed the alchemical metaphor. Among these was Frater
Albertus, who emerged in the 1970s as head of the Paracelsus
Research Society in Salt Lake City, Utah. He wrote a number
of books about his work, however these only hinted at any
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Barbault, Armand, Gold of a Thousand Mornings. London:
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De Givry, Grillot. Witchcraft, Magic & Alchemy. London,
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