Alchemy was a mix of pre-modern chemical technology wrapped up with mysticism and metaphysics and directed toward specific goals.
It tried to find keys to God’s processes, but without a modern understanding (which it eventually derived to its own demise) of how those processes worked.
Alchemists took ideals of purity and perfection, assumed a corrupt world could be made perfect, and attempted to understand how both persons and the world could be purified.
The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Faust-Legend and Goethe’s “Faust,” (para 64), by H. B. Cotterill.
In the case of humans, that might mean looking for an elixir that would cure all diseases, or extend life. In the case of earth materials, it involved learning how to shift (“transmute”) the nature of materials toward the purest of them all, gold, via the Philosopher’s Stone.
Alchemists seem to have viewed what was essentially early chemistry and metallurgy as actually or metaphorically a magical or religious act, involving ritual invocation, an idea possibly derived from their impression of the ancient Egyptians who associated their own alchemy with the god Thoth, and whose alchemical practitioners might have been priests.
Step by step, over centuries, alchemists come to conclude around (and well before) the eighteenth century that material changes had only material causes, and that the supernatural had very little to do with it. This was to become the basis of the scientific method by which alchemy transmuted into chemistry. It is ironic that the key to understanding God’s processes was eliminating the concept of God (in the sense of direct material influences) from their calculations!
Alchemists were geniuses, scholars, clowns, frauds, magicians, heretics, or saints, depending on the place and time – and who you asked.
The classical Faust was an alchemist, amongst other things. He studied religion and alchemy and found no answers. He despaired of finding any though those routes. In his darkest moments he invoked the Devil, and struck a bargain.
Tract on the Tincture and Oil of Antimony Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294).
When the first Faust book came out around 1590, alchemy had already been practiced in Europe for hundreds of years. It was a serious pursuit. Over the next several hundred years, unsuccessful in its main goals, impotent and unable to fend off waves of deadly plague epidemics, its reputation waned, briefly revived, and then finally collapsed with the implicit rejection of God’s direct influence in anything material that science was born out of.
Religion has suffered a similar fate, and it is interesting that the early Fausts presage these outcomes, though they are inherently a Christian cautionary tale shaped by medieval European religious schisms.
In the end, we all hope to be able to return to God’s loving embrace, however badly we screw up. Even science isn’t an explicit rejection of God, just a temporary boundary line drawn in the sand (at least that’s what we tell God).
History of Alchemy from Ancient Egypt to Modern Times: Alchemy Rediscovered and Restored (by A. Cockren, 1940). 16th century alchemist Denis Zachaire, quoted.
Long before the processes were understood, alchemists knew that something transpired in chemical reactions – that qualities – virtues – such as hardness, state, and so on could be changed, manipulated, and used to create purer materials; transform from one material to another; or even make entirely new materials.
Alchemists hoped to fiddle with creation by controlling the mechanisms of nature they had observed in working with elements such as gold, silver, mercury and sulphur.
The idea of converting one element into another wasn’t unreasonable. Alchemists and metallurgists before them had melted ores and combined metals to create alloys, so the suggestion that one could convert an inexpensive and plentiful element like lead into gold was reasonable: if all metals were simply variations, or in different states, then it was a simple matter of finding out how to convert from one to another. They were looking for the chemical stem cell which God must have used in the Creation.
Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Alchemy
There was an assumption that perhaps the soul also could be purified in a manner analogous to the purification of gold – a process of ascension in stages from impurity to perfection. Seeing analogies to metaphysical pursuits (such as the improvement of one’s own soul), they thought that alchemy could be used to understand (and perhaps ultimately control…) how God Himself ruled the world.
They had an idea – which came from the oldest Egyptian texts (“as above, so below”) – that the physical and spiritual world were analogous to each other – that macrocosm and the microcosm were reflections of each other. Incantations and spirit beings were available as intermediaries between the spiritual and physical planes. As metals might be transmuted from base metal to purest gold, so might a man transform his spirit or his soul from a base one to a more perfect one.
Alchemy had specific goals, or perhaps it’s better to say “speculations.” Among them: to find a Philosopher’s Stone which would convert substances into gold; to find a comparable Universal Panacea which would cure all ailments; and to find the Elixir of Life, which would confer immortality.
History of Alchemy from Ancient Egypt to Modern Times: Alchemy Rediscovered and Restored, by A. Cockren (1940). 17th century alchemist John Frederick Helvetius (Johann Friedrich Schweitzer(1625-1709)), Dutch physician and alchemical writer, claimed to have carried out the transmutation of lead into gold.
Alchemy may be called a precursor to chemistry, but chemistry lacks these specific goals and assumptions. Applied science has diverse objectives, and also applies rules for objective observation and analysis, known as the scientific method.
The scientific method presumes that anything that can be studied must have a material explanation. That eliminates the mystical or metaphysical side from the equation – literally.
Alchemy in history: From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
That pretty much eliminated God from direct influence in life, and leaves us with everything invested in the ability of science and our ever developing and expanding technology to navigate our way through whatever disasters we might bring upon ourselves or others as we attempt to gain control over this thing we have created – our own, real-life, Faustian bargain with the Devil.
Attitudes toward Alchemy
For us, alchemy may stand as a monument to failed dreams and monumental hubris.
But back in the late sixteenth century, the Faust tale, with its alchemy and devils and demons might (as far as anyone might know) actually be happening around the corner just as depicted. Alchemy was a real and potent practise, and devils and demons were… well…. If the Faust story was not true, it could become so at any time.
The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Faust-Legend and Goethe’s “Faust,” by H. B. Cotterill. The Protestant Church didn’t have the spiritual authority to intercede because Protestantism doesn’t claim that power.
Alchemy realistically threatened both government and religion. If it succeeded in its major goals, it could usurp the incumbent power – either Church or State – or both.
Attempts to delve into the spirit world to divine secrets involved rituals and invocations of spirits. This was what we understand as magic, and is one reason why the Catholic Church felt threatened by alchemy, as it felt that both any attempt to delve into God’s secrets was heresy, and that any attempt to control the spirits was rightly their province (if anybody’s) through the Apostle Peter, from whom the Church is descended.
Confessions, Book 10, by Augustine, a digital book in the International School of Theology’s Cyber Library. Chapter XXXV. You don’t ask God to do tricks. He’s not a dog.
Chemical Heritage Foundation – Molecular Milestones: Alchemy Attracted the Great Pioneers of Modern Science Neil Gussman. (Previously at http://www.chemheritage.org/explore/milestone_alchemy.html)
Alchemy has also both fascinated and frightened governments over the years: there is the lure of unlimited wealth on one hand, and the spectre of an economy out of control on the other. An excess of gold reduces its value, and an imbalance threatens the throne. Just prior to 300 AD, Emperor Diocletian, banned alchemy and destroyed the world’s archive of alchemical texts inherited from the Egyptians. It has been suggested that this was done to weaken and impoverish Egypt, but was notably done toward the end of decades of out-of-control inflation that led to Diocletian’s disastrous price-controlling “Edict on Maximum Prices” of 301 AD.
[It is said] that due to the Egyptians’ revolting behavior Diocletian treated them harshly and murderously. After seeking out the books written by the ancient [Egyptians] concerning the alchemy of gold and silver, he burned them so that the Egyptians would no longer have wealth from such a technique, nor would their surfeit of money in the future embolden them against the Romans.”
Suda On Line: Byzantine Lexicography: Emperor Diocletian burned Alchemy books around 292-296.
Alchemy could also frighten the regular folk. While the Middle Ages have been described as more open and tolerant that we might have thought, alchemy was a dangerous practise even when it didn’t work out right. It involved working with molten metals and extremely dangerous and toxic chemicals in crude form and using crude equipment. If it did work out right, then the superstitious populace could fear the same economic and political chaos the leaders feared, as well as the same spiritual chaos the Church feared – and they knew it would be them being fed into the fires of Hell by demons, come the Apocalypse. If it didn’t work out right, then they could expect huge explosions, toxic chemical clouds, and fires that would destroy their houses, neighbourhoods, and businesses.
Alchemy would have particularly fascinated the growing, opportunistic, upwardly-mobile beneficiaries of the explosion of books that came available after the development of the movable type press by Gutenberg (around 1439 – itself an example of suspected black magic) in the generations before the first Faustbuchs were published.
Confessions, Book 10, by Augustine, a digital book in the International School of Theology’s Cyber Library. …by our pure and chaste country Jerusalem!
Fraud and Superstition
Inevitably, alchemists aroused suspicion among the populace. Fantastic stories of consorting with the devil and other spirits helped explain their preoccupation, their secrecy, and their startling powers.
Persecution and the intrigues of competitors drove alchemists to encrypt, obscure and disguise their notes and books, couched in a mystical facade. Furthermore, fraudsters preyed upon the gullible populace, to the extent that alchemy was viewed with suspicion and hostility. Anyone who offered some claim of actually being able to do such art as converting substances into gold, could expect to be tortured or blackmailed for his secrets, while the rest were likely to be accused of fraud.
In end of which an ounce was, and no more,
Of silver filings put, all as before
Within the coal, and stopped with wax, a bit,
To keep the filings in the hole of it.
And while the priest was busy, as I say,
This canon, drawing close, got in his way,
And unobserved he threw the powder in
Just as before the devil from his skin
Strip him, I pray to God, for lies he wrought;
For he was ever false in deed and thought;
And with his stick, above the crucible,
Arranged for knavish trickery so well,
He stirred the coals until to melt began
The thin wax in the fire, as every man,
Except a fool, knows well it must, sans doubt,
And all that was within the stick slipped out,
And quickly in the crucible it fell.
The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale: From The Canterbury Tales (by Geoffrey Chaucer, c. 1343 – 25 October 1400). The alchemist’s man tells the story of their road to ruin. Con artists would conceal silver or gold in a wax tip of a wand, and use it to stir a crucible of material to be transmuted.
Sadly, religion, metaphysics, and spirituality turned out to have nothing to do with science.
History of Alchemy: Mystics and Seers of All Ages by Reginald Merton (1935)
Early Faust was no friend of science. He embraced black magic after giving up on the available body of knowledge and its slow and pedantic acquisition. Faust was wrong, after all – there was no recourse to God or to the Devil, and alchemy ultimately held more promise than Faust expected. Time would show that rationalism was the way to go.
Goethe’s Faust was further along in this: he knew the value of reason and of effort, and foresaw a world where God-blessed, man (and Faust) is saved through his initiative and noble works. Yet there is a Faustian hell in this too, for we have since seen that cold rationalism and great works alone are insufficient. Homunculus-like; the child’s half-formed.
Alchemy was a transition between depending upon spirit to depending upon matter. It had both a spiritual and physical component, but over time, the two have parted, with science the inheritor of the physical; and the occult and secret mystical societies, the refuge of the disgraced charlatan spirituality.
In fact, rationalism has become so dominant, and its technological offspring so powerful, that both God and the Devil fade into the background, and mankind, without relevant spiritual guidance, proposes a new Faust of the modern era in which Faust is damned again.
Alchemy Rediscovered and Restored: Part I: Historical: Chapter VII: English Alchemists: by A. Cockren, 1940. Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294) suffered the suspicion of others. There are other views though: some feel that Middle Age society was more forgiving of scientific endeavour.
Around the time of the fifteenth century (through the period of Renaissance humanism) – approaching the time of the first known Faustbuch – European achievements in various fields of navigation, exploration, etc., were clearly advancing so far beyond what the predecessor civilizations had achieved that Europe might begin to feel it had become greater than they, and that even more greatness lay ahead. With the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg around 1439 (himself spuriously tied to the Faust legend through his financier/swindler partner’s suggestively similar name “Fust”), the availability of cheaply produced books paved the way for a huge explosion in the dissemination of knowledge and ideas – and mysteries.
In the sixteenth century – at the time of the first Faust, alchemy was undergoing a subtle change in direction: people began to loose their focus on the main goals of alchemy – such as transmutation into gold – and turned instead to focusing on their successes in specific areas of chemical medicine and science, and to loose their attention on the mystical side, in favour of a more material, pragmatic, and meticulous investigation.
In the sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries (Reformation and start of the Industrial Age) alchemy underwent a revival, in part due to the printing press, and the compilation of alchemical works from the past.
Nor solid matter either- none of those
Might, in our working, anything avail.
For lost was all our labour and travail,
And all the cost, the devil’s own to pay,
The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale: From The Canterbury Tales (by Geoffrey Chaucer, c. 1343 – 25 October 1400). The alchemist’s man tells the story of their road to ruin
Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, scientific methods and disciplines were developed that presumed material cause and effect, and the mystical and ritual side of alchemy was effectively shown to be irrelevant.
The Church was right to fear the alchemists, but not because they would come to misappropriate all God’s secrets (and the route to them though the Church), but because with the discovery that the alchemist’s cupboard was bare, suspicion was cast upon the Church’s.
Where did the word “Alchemy” come from? Etymology of Alchemy
“Alchemy” comes from the Arabic word, “al-khimia” or “al-kimiya.”
The “al-” part of the word in Arabic is the definite article like “the” in English.
The remaining “kimiya” has several possible origins depending on your view of history.
http://www.history-science-technology.com/Articles/articles%2010.htm: History of Science and Technology in Islam
Kimiya: Secrets of the Ancients – but Egyptian, Greek or Chinese?
“Kemet” was the native Egyptian name for Egypt. It was the word for “black” and significantly, the word used to distinguish the fertile Nile lands from the red desert soils. Some think that the Greeks then called the Egyptian (“black”) art “Chêmia,” to mean “the Egyptian art” (“χημεία”).
Others think that the “kimiya” part of the word comes from the Greek word (a Syriac transliteration of the Greek word) “chûma” which stood for “cast together” or “transmutation” or “smelting” (Ferrario, 2007).
Yet another possibility, perhaps more remote, is that al-khemia stems from a Chinese root “kim-iya,” a South Chinese term meaning “gold-making juice”, itself made up of two Chinese words: “Kim” (gold) and “Yeh” (juice) (Mahdihassan, 1988).
Spanish Vocabulary: An Etymological Approach. p. 254. David Brodsky. Published by University of Texas Press, 2008
Wikipedia Historical Jewish Population Comparisons April 27 2009
Word gets around – The Origin of the Word Alchemy
Born from an exotic, mystical root that reached back through Arabia, to the Greeks, and to the ancient Egyptians and perhaps beyond, alchemy was a continual spoil of war – the precious knowledge of amazing metalurgical and pre-chemical technologies that was part magic, part religion, and part science.
Each civilization took what it could of conquered civilization’s alchemical sciences, and bundled them up with their own, until another civilization came along and took it from them (just like someone will probably one day come along and do to us).
The Egyptians are considered to be the foundation of European alchemy, but it was the invading Greek, and then Arabic/Islamic societies that conserved it. Little remains of original Egyptian texts – in fact, the earliest known use of the word “khemeia” was in a decree issued by the Roman Emperor Diocletian (c. 300), to burn all such Egyptian books.
Al-Kimiya: Notes on Arabic Alchemy: Chemical Heritage Magazine
Al-kimiya spread throughout the Islamic Empire, to Spain and to the old Islamic capital city Toledo, in central Spain, during the years of La Convivencia (“the Coexistence”) a period of Islamic control but broad-spread religious tolerance in Spanish history from about 711 to 1492, slowly loosing ground over centuries to Christian forces making their way down from the north.
But even before Christian forces overran the Iberian peninsula, Europeans sought out Arabic knowledge there (as early as 1000 with Pope Silvester II (Gerbert d’Aurillac)).
In Spain, alchemy had the opportunity to mix with various influences, including the Kaballism of the Jewish diaspora. During the following period of Reconquista (“Reconquest”), Christian forces regained Spain, moving down from the north over a period of 800 years, reaching, and passing Toledo by 1150.
From Spain, from the early 1100s, and throughout the remainder of the 12th century, the corpus of Islamic alchemical works was translated into Latin, and alchemy worked its way north into Southern France and throughout Europe, so that by the middle of the 13th century, a home-grown alchemy had taken hold in Europe (Ferrario, 2007).
It was to Spain that Nicolas Flamel traveled from Paris around 1378 to find a Kaballist scholar who would interpret the long-lost Book of Abraham the Jew of which he carried copied sheets.
In 1453 the Greek Byzantine empire fell with the loss of Constantinople, and there was a exodus of Greeks through Europe, carrying Greek books and culture.
In 1492 Spain expelled the Jews (and the Muslims), and many of them dispersed through Europe, carrying “al-kimiya” with them. In France, the practice was called “alquemie” and “alchimie” (Alchemy). Moving into English, the word became “alchemy.”
It was Georgius Agricola (Georg Bauer), physician, mineralogist, alchemist, and student of Greek, who dropped the Arabic al prefix of “alchemy” to derive “chemistry” in the 16th century. This was not taken to imply a split between two pursuits, but was possibly an attempt to eliminate the prefix as unnecessary – a form of alchemical purification. Over the following centuries, “alchemy” and “chemistry” began to take on different meanings.
Philosophers are sworn, aye, every one,
That they will thus discover it to none,
Nor in a book will write it for men here;
For unto Christ it is so lief and dear
That He wills that it not discovered be,
Except where it’s pleasing to his deity
Man to inspire, and also, to defend
Whom that he will; and lo, this is the end.
And thus do I conclude, since God in heaven
Wills that philosophers shall not say even
How any man may come upon that stone,
I say, as for the best, let it alone.
For whoso makes of God his adversary,
To work out anything that is contrary
To what he wills, he’ll surely never thrive.
The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale: From The Canterbury Tales (by Geoffrey Chaucer, c. 1343 – 25 October 1400). Why is the recipe of the philosopher’s stone still a secret?
- Project Gutenberg: The Faust-Legend and Goethe’s “Faust,” by H. B. Cotterill.
- Augustine (1963). The Confessions.
- Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Alchemy.
- The Alchemy Website: A collection of alchemical texts and other information.
- History of Alchemy from Ancient Egypt to Modern Times. By A. Cockren.
- Alchemy in history. Wikipedia.
- Suda On Line. Diocletian.
- The American Journal of Chinese Medicine. 1988;16(1-2):83-6. “Alchemy, Chinese versus Greek, an etymological approach: a rejoinder.” Mahdihassan S. (Retr. May 12, 2009).
- Al-Kimiya: Notes on Arabic Alchemy. Gabriele Ferrario. Chemical Heritage Magazine, Fall 2007, Vol. 25, No. 3. (Retr. May 12, 2009).
- Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Entry on Alchemy. (Retr. April 29, 2009).
Etymology of Alchemy
- Internet Sacred Text Archive: Sacred Texts: Alchemy.
- Nature and History and The Great Art of Alchemy: The Great Art – Alchemy: Ed Reither, University of New Orleans.
- Lilly And the Alchemist: A Commentary on the horary “If Attaine the Philosopher’s Stone?”: By David Plant.
- Twilit Grotto — Esoteric Archives:
- If you can’t transmute, then teach: Flamel College.
- The Chymistry of Issac Newton including re-enactments of his experiments and teaching resources (part of the Newton Project)
- Die Edelgeborne Jungfer Alchymia: The Final Stage Of European Alchemy. by Vladmir Karpenko, 2002. Bull. Hist. Chem. 25 (2000), 50-63.