Etymology of Alchemy

'Alchemy' (al-kimiya) in Arabic
Alchemy (al-kimiya’) in Arabic

Where do the words Alchemy and Chemistry come from?

“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.

“The Arabic form al-kimiya’ is the origin of the word alchemy which is used to denote the science of alchemy which preceded modern chemistry. Kimiya’ without the Article “al” is the origin of the word chemistry. In Arabic the word al-kimiya’ means both alchemy and chemistry, Some contemporary Arab writers try to differentiate between alchemy and chemistry by using the word al-khimiya’ الخيمياء to denote alchemy.” 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).

“In any event, by abandoning its initial al-, alquimia gave rise in the thirteenth century to Medieval Latin CHIMIA, source for Spanish quimica and English chemistry. Chemistry and alchemy existed in parallel, without any substantive difference, until the early seventeenth century, when chemistry began to distinguish itself in the modern sense of making deductions from experiments.”

Spanish Vocabulary: An Etymological Approach. p. 254. David Brodsky. 2008.

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.

“In Arabic alchemy, ‘al-kimiya’ didn’t necessarily refer to the science generally, but referred specifically to the material through which base metals could be transformed into gold.”

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)).

“It may be remarked that these ancient books, so liberally ascribed to Pythagoras, to Solomon, or to Hermes, were the pious frauds of more recent adepts. The Greeks were inattentive either to the use or to the abuse of chemistry. In that immense register, where Pliny has deposited the discoveries the arts, and the errors of mankind, there is not the least mention of the transmutation of metals; and the persecution of Diocletian is the first authentic event in the history of alchemy. The conquest of Egypt by the Arabs diffused that vain science over the globe. Congenial to the avarice of the human heart, it was studied in China as in Europe, with equal eagerness and with equal success. The darkness of the middle ages ensured a favourable reception to every tale of wonder, and the revival of learning gave new vigour to hope, and suggested more specious arts of deception. Philosophy, with the aid of experience, has at length banished the study of alchemy; and the present age, however desirous of riches, is content to seek them by the humbler means of commerce and industry.”

(51)The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon: Chapter 13 – The reign of Diocletian and his three associates, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius.

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.

“The Middle Ages were mainly a period of expulsions. In 1290, 16,000 Jews were expelled from England; in 1306, 100,000 from France; and in 1492, about 200,000 from Spain. Smaller but more frequent expulsions occurred in Germany, so that at the commencement of the 16th century only four great Jewish communities remained: Frankfurt, 2,000; Worms, 1,400; Prague, 10,000; and Vienna, 3,000 (Heinrich Grätz, Geschichte der Juden x. 29). It has been estimated that during the five centuries from 1000 to 1500, 380,000 Jews were killed during the persecutions, reducing the total number in the world to about 1,000,000. In the 16th and 17th centuries the main centres of Jewish population were in Poland and the Mediterranean countries, Spain excepted.”

Wikipedia Historical Jewish Population Comparisons April 27 2009.

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.” 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.

Etymology of Alchemy