I have always been fascinated by alchemical illustrations and runes, this concept of a sort-of magic with an alleged scientific background. So when Halli said she was going to cover the Voynich Manuscript my mind immediately flashed to the illustrations reminiscent of the same era and knew it was time to finally crack that nut
What is Alchemy?
Undoubtedly you have heard of alchemy in one context or another, most likely in fantasy stories or video games, but you likely haven't heard much about the actual historical practice aside from the quest for immortality or transmuting lesser metals into gold. Alchemy is an ancient practice one with obscure tangled roots that may go back a couple millennia BC. Much of alchemy's history is shrouded in mystery and cyphers, and is a practice that has repeatedly been banned throughout history and has faced many hurdles, yet still managed to find its way even to today.
The general goal of alchemy was to purify, mature and perfect certain materials. So yeah, turn lead to gold, become immortal and creating remedies that could cure whatever ails you. Not only could alchemy make you rich and healthy, it could also lead you to the perfection of the human body and soul. Does this not sound like every self help MLM you have ever heard of? There may be a reason for that, but we'll get to that later
Ok, but what actually is it?
The word alchemy has a worldly history, the modern word coming from old French (alquemie, alkimie), which in medieval Latin was alchymia. The Latin word was adopted from the Arabic word al-kīmiyā, which in turn was borrowed from the late Greek term khumeia. All these factors combined break down roughly into:
the process of transmutation by which to fuse or reunite with the divine or original form
The original Greek word's origins is a little more ambiguous, some arguing it came from the name of a book called the Khemeu, while others argue it was derived from the Greek word that used to describe metallic objects formed by casting
And some even argue that the word is a derivative of the Egyptian word kēme, which meant 'black earth', in reference to the fertile soil of the Nile as opposed to the barren red desert sand. An Egyptologist, Wallis Budge argues that the Arabic word al-kīmiyaʾ actually means "The Egyptian Science" or "The Egyptian Black Arts" so believe what you will, what you need to know is the word is old as fuck, as is the practice.
It's not uncommon for scholars to split alchemy
into the practical applications and the
more esoteric spiritual aspects, but both
of these aspects are integral to
understanding what alchemy really was
As a whole, alchemy encompasses several philosophical traditions spanning some four millennia and three continents. Because of the cryptic and symbolic language used in alchemical texts it makes it difficult to trace back its origins, but it's generally agreed, that there are at least three major strands, which appear to be mostly independent at least in the early years: Chinese Alchemy, Indian Alchemy and Western Alchemy (which started in the Mediterranean, and shifted to the Islamic world and then medieval Europe)
Chinese alchemy had a lot of connections with Taoism, and Indian with the dharmic faiths, while western alchemy was mostly developed independent of the various western religions, but was absolutely influenced as it passed from one culture to the next
Despite these three distinct strands, it is still an open question as to whether or not all three had a common origin at some point and how much they influenced each other as the practice has always been heavily guarded.
Most of what we're going to cover today will be about western alchemy as that's what we have the most information about,
but I wanted to give a brief run down on what we know about alchemy in India and in China
The more general name for the Indian science of alchemy or proto-chemistry is Rasaśāstra, but may be referred to by Rasayana as well, though the latter is more specific to medical practices for lengthening lifespans and invigorating the body
Alchemy in India was more focused on the creation of a divine body and immortality, but many early Sanskrit alchemical texts talk about material manipulation of substances like mercury and sulphur.
India's alchemical history can be traced back to metallurgic roots in the 2nd millennium BC text Vedas. Vedas are some of the oldest Sanskrit literature and oldest Hinduism scriptures discovered to date. The texts describe a connection between eternal life and gold.
By the third century AD, we see that India had a considerable knowledge of metallurgy as well as other chemistry related pursuits. Including recipes for explosive and directions for extracting salts from fertile soils and plant remains for the purposes of making saltpetre, perfume and refined sugar.
Buddhist texts from the 2nd-5th centuries mention the transmutation of base metals to gold. There is some argument that Greek alchemists may have had a big influence on Indian alchemists, but there is no hard evidence to support this claim
It was not uncommon for historical Buddhist philosophers to dabble in or practice alchemy, especially when in association with medicine. One of the well known early alchemists Nāgārjuna Siddha was a buddhist monk, who was said to have developed a method for converting mercury into gold
Some of their early alchemical writings appeared to originate in the Kaula tantric schools, which primarily focused on the worship of Shiva and Shakti, others can be found in medical texts written in southern India in the early 9th century
While some Sanskrit alchemical texts have been studied widely and across the world, there are still many that have never been translated. As unlike western alchemy with pagan religious roots, Buddhism and Hinduism were never fully squashed and many of their original works still survive today and likely could tell us a lot about the history of alchemy as a whole
The exact origins of alchemy in China are still debated to this day. Some argue that it may be as old as 2000 BC, but solid evidence is limited.
Laozi is a semilegendary Taoist philosopher thought to have lived between 600-400 BC. The alleged accomplishments of Laozi are many and include:
- Serving as the royal archivist for the Zhou court
- Not only met Confucius, but impressed him in some way
- Composed the Tao Te Ching a fundamental text for Taoism that would go on to strongly influence much of Chinese philosophy and religion
- Founded Taoism
The story goes, that after his many great achievements, he retired and went west into the wilderness never to be seen again. Folklore tells us that he then became an immortal hermit or a god of the celestial bureaucracy under the name Laojun, one of the Three Pure Ones.
Since the 7th century Laozi was considered a revered ancestor, though in more recent years, some scholars have began to argue that Laozi may have never existed at all.
Next was Zhang Daoling, who is also credited with founding Taoism, and is thought to have lived in the 1st or 2nd century AD. It is said he began reading Tao Te Ching since an early age and would later encounter Laojun, the deified Laozi who would tell him that bad times were coming and that he was to lead the chosen people.
He would found a "health" cult where he would spread his Taoist teachings that were said to promote long life. It is alleged that Daoling lived into his 120s and when he passed, he simply disappeared leaving nothing but his clothes behind, as he had ascended.
It's easy to see how both of these stories could be linked to alchemy with the legends of ascendance and longevity. According to one researcher, it is thought that when Daoling had met the ascended Laozi, together they created the philosopher's stone, but there's little evidence to directly support this
Our first solid alchemical connection comes during the Qin dynasty when writer Huan Kuan (73-49 BC) states how modifying forms of nature and ingesting them will bring immortality to the person who drinks them. But author JC Cooper claims to have an even older connection, which claims to be before 144 BC, as during that year the emperor issued a decree which ordered public execution for anyone found making counterfeit gold.
Cooper also suggests there's evidence that in 60 BC, the emperor hired a well-known scholar Liu Xiang as Master of the Recipes so that he could make alchemical gold and prolong the Emperor's life, but Cooper seems to be the only source on this
So, as you can imagine, what we know of the history of Chinese alchemy is all over the place, but it does sound like the practice did begin early on, or at least practices similar to what we would call alchemy
Here's what we do know about Chinese alchemy:
- In much of China, natural gold is quite rare and much of it had to be imported, but despite this rarity:
- Alchemy created gold is considered superior to natural gold, as it's believed that the transformative process and the combination of different materials gave it additional spiritual value, so much so that it was thought, consumption of this artificial gold could lead to immortality
- Cinnabar was another highly valued material used with alchemy. Cinnabar has a natural red color, which in Chinese culture represents the sun, fire, royalty and energy. Cinnabar can also be roasted to extract mercury, which we all know is an old world cure-all everyone once loved. Because of these two qualities the color and difficulty in processing, it too was considered another excellent source of immortality
- As expected Chinese medicine and alchemy have a natural intersection. Metals were often mixed with herbs or animal bi products, rhino horn in particular was valued as medicines and elixirs made with it were thought to be excellent boosts to fertility
- Silver and gold were frequently used to make elixirs, but arsenic and sulphur were used as well, which ended wonderfully
- Though it seems clear they understood that these substances were lethal, but the risk of death wasn't a concern, especially not if it meant you were going to have an excellent afterlife. As expected many elixir drinkers died or suffered psychological issues and other ailments
- If you did die from one of these elixirs, the condition of your corpse would tell those who remained what level of immortality you achieved. If your corpse smells sweet you achieved immortality in an ephemeral state. And if your corpse just disappeared, leaving your clothes behind, this was another form of immortality known as shih chieh hsien (corpse-free immortals)
- Long life was one of the most common alchemical goals in China, that and spiritual and mental growth
- In western alchemy one of the challenges alchemists that specialized in chemical medicine, was the opposition of individuals that swore by herbal remedies. This wasn't as much an issue in China where mineral remedies had always been accepted
- The western alchemists also were divided between those that favored transmutation and those that favored medicine, but in China, medicine was always the favored specialty
- The difference between an elixir and medicine, was that medicine tended to be composed of natural products like plants and animal bi-products (never the animals themselves but like their fur or dung). Where elixirs usually consisted of a chemical or metal mixed with other items. Medicines naturally were more common because they were easier to make, but both were considered valid forms of treatment, with elixirs considered more potent
- Alchemy would come to be seen as an art
- While not called anything like the Philosopher's stone, Chinese alchemists had the Grand Elixir of Immortality, and it was just as sought after
- During the Qin dynasty it is said that Qin Shi Huang sent Taoist alchemist Xu Fu to the eastern seas with 500 young men and 500 young women to find the elixir in the legendary Penglai Mountain, but returned without finding it
- Xu Fu would attempt this expedition again, this time with 3000 men and 3000 women, but they never returned. In some legends instead they found Japan
- It is said that the discovery of black powder also known as gun powder was made by alchemists trying to make a potion of eternal life
It was not uncommon for women to become alchemists. The earliest female alchemist we're aware of came from the Fang family around 1st century BC. She studied the practice alongside the emperor's wife at the time. She is credited with the discovery of turning mercury into silver. Which isn't quite as bullshit as it sounds
It's believed that she discovered the technique of using mercury to extract silver from ore. The mercury could then be boiled and would leave behind the residue of pure silver.
Keng Hsien-Seng was another female alchemist which lived somewhere around 975 AD. Not only was she an alchemist but also was well versed in Taoist techniques including the ability to control spirits. Like lady Fang, she too could turn mercury into silver, but also apparently could turn snow into silver which is something I have no explanation for
Origins of Alchemy - BC
Alchemy's history is a complex one as it became a bit of a catch all for many practices from medicine, chemistry, metallurgy and spiritualism, so the possible starting points are many throughout history. While little evidence remains from the pre AD practice, it is commonly believed that all three strands of alchemy have history in the BC era
3500 BC - 3000 BC
The earliest suggestions we have for the origins of western alchemy would be ancient Egypt. Some Greek alchemists saying as early as -3000 BC
But it may even go back further than that as it's commonly thought that alchemy was a derivative of Egyptian metallurgy which is the practice and art of working metal on a chemical and physical level. Records indicate that Egyptians may have been studying metallurgy as early as 3500 BC.
A 1922 paper in Scientific Monthly titled "Falsifications in the History of Early Chemistry" by JM Stillman gives us a little more context
The paper supports the idea that chemistry has its roots in the metallurgy practices of ancient Egyptians, and specifically a certain cult of the Egyptian priesthood. This makes sense when we think about it. Egyptian priests were responsible for preparing the dead for burial, and as we know, burial in Ancient Egypt wasn't a set-it and forget-it process like most burials are these days.
Preparing the dead was an elaborate tradition, removing specific organs and placing them in separate jars, embalming the bodies, dressing them and then there's the whole tomb and sarcophagus thing. The higher status you had the more elaborate your tomb would be, it was not uncommon for the richest and most powerful to be gilded in precious metals and gemstones. So naturally, you would imagine it would be important for these priests to have a good understanding of how to work with metal, human anatomy and chemistry. Death was a really big deal as it was believed how and what you were buried with would come with you to the next life, so it better be good
And well, how better to demonstrate the powers of your gods then by performing miracles, that really were just science that no one else understood? You know what else would be good? Being able to make basic metals look like gold or silver, or making alloys to extend the mileage of your precious metals
The story goes that you could only learn these secrets if you joined the priest hood and swore an oath to never tell anyone. But secrecy likely wasn't the only reason little exists about these early alchemic practices, but we'll get there
300 BC - 0
Around 300 BC, the first hermetic writings are found. Hermeticism is a philosophical system that is primarily based on the teachings of one Hermes Trismegistus (with trismegistus basically meaning great great great).
It is unclear whether or not Hermes was a real person, some believing he is the combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth, others asserting that he was Hermes, third of his line. Whatever the case, the writings that were attributed to him span centuries, up until around 1200 AD. For a dead, likely-never-have-existed dude, he was an awfully prolific writer, though one of his philosophies specifically was about reincarnation, soooo take that as you will
Hermeticism and alchemy are closely linked, with alchemy often referred to as a the "hermetic art" or the "hermetic philosophy"
Hermes bore a staff that had two snakes entwined around it and this symbol would become deeply associated with alchemy, and eventually medicine.
It is generally agreed that western alchemy was already in play by the Hellenistic period of ancient Egypt that ran from 305 BC to 30 BC, the heart of which was in Alexandria. While Alexandria is in Egypt, don't let that fool you, Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, so by and large the city was mostly what we would consider Greek.
This is why the earliest alchemical texts
we have are very much a conglomerate of Egyptian alchemy, Greek philosophy and various
Origins of Alchemy - AD
0 - 100 AD
One of the earliest western alchemists we know by name was actually a woman known as Mary the Jewess or Mary the Prophetess. She lived in Alexandria around the first century. While not a lot of her own written work has survived much of what we know of came from another alchemist known as Zosimos of Panopolis in the 3rd century (don't worry we'll talk about him)
Through Zosimos many of the beliefs of Mary can be observed. Mary incorporated lifelike attributes into her descriptions of metal such as bodies, souls, and spirits. Mary believed that metals had two different genders and by joining these two genders together a new entity could be made.
She is also credited with the invention of several kinds of chemical apparatuses
One such invention is the tribikos, was a kind of alembic with three arms that was used to obtain substances purified by distillation. Now the article I was reading said that this apparatus is still used by chemists today, but I could not find any photos of such a thing, so it's possible it uses a different name now, or this statement is simply wrong
But she does survive with a setup known as a bain-marie, or as you more likely know it, a double boiler. A process where water is heated in one vessel and another is placed in or above the water, designed to provide a more consistent and/or long lasting heat. Also is used to make homemade hollandaise sauce, which is really important
Mary also has another interesting credit, being one of the four female alchemists that could make the philosopher's stone, the other three being known as Cleopatra (not the Pharaoh), Medera, and Taphnutia. Though it's important to note that this is not a claim that she made, not that we're aware of anyways, but was instead attributed to her in the early 1600s by alchemist Michael Meier.
Zosimos of Panopolis
a Greek Alexandrian scholar comes onto
the scene circa 300 AD, writing a handful
of alchemical texts, most of which have survived to today
and some of the earliest complete writings
on alchemy we have and where much of the western alchemic lore drew from. He is also who
popularized the use of the word 'chemia',
which would eventually become alchemy
He wrote that he had traced the alchemical arts back to Egyptian metallurgical and ceremonial practices.
While he did speak a lot about scientific aspects of this practice, he didn't shy away from the more mystical. In his book "The Final Abstinences" or also known as the "Final Count", he goes on to explain that the ancient practice of tinctures (the technical greek name for alchemy) had been taken over by certain "demons" who taught the art only to those that offered them sacrifices
Zosimos also called these demons "the guardians of places" and those that offered them sacrifices "priests" making it likely he was referring to the gods of Egypt and their priests. While critical of the Egyptian roots, he acknowledged their contributions and traditions and attests that the practice could go back as far as 3000 BC
Zosimos of Panopolis is actually the first known mention of the philosopher's stone. Though later scholars would claim that the stone went back even further all the way to Adam who acquired the knowledge from God himself. Though they didn't cite their sources on that
The Philosopher's Stone
I mean, I can't
mentioned the philosopher's stone without
talking about it. Most people probably have heard about the philosopher's stone through Harry Potter and its wizard creator Nicolas Flamel, the stone that could provide immortality. But the real history is a little more complex.
The philosopher's stone is a mythical substance that was said to be the catalyst for the process known as chrysopoeia, or the turning of base metals like lead to precious metals like gold or silver
The philosopher's stone was the most sought after goal in alchemy. It symbolized perfection at its finest, enlightenment and heavenly bliss. It was the top tier psychic powers that scientology promises but never delivers. The term "magnum opus" meaning "great work" actually was the term used to describe the creation of this mythical substance.
So why did everyone want this stone?
Well we know about its properties of transmutation and ability to make you immortal, but the stone had other abilities: heal all forms of illness, creation of perpetually burning lamps, transmutation of common crystals into precious stones and diamonds, reviving of dead plants, creation of flexible or malleable glass, and the creation of a clone or homunculus.
And as a side note
here: to gain the extended life, you must
consume a small part of the stone diluted in wine.
Who doesn't love a good life prolonging drink?
Over the centuries, the stone has also been called hundreds of different things, from calculus albus (white stone), to lapis, to vitriol, and sometimes just referred to as "stone"
Some claimed the stone came in multiple flavors, a white stone that would make silver and red stone that made gold, with the white being the less mature version. Some said it was a reddish purple glass-like trinket, that it weighed more than gold and that it was soluble in any liquid and was impervious to fire
What was it made of? That's the million dollar question and you check the works of ten alchemists, you will find ten different answers, but some of the suspected components include: mundane things like metals, plants, rocks, chemicals and even bodily products like hair and saliva. Others had more mystical explanations, one being its creation required a mythical element named carmot
Just like its ingredients, the directions for creation are just as varied. Often expressed as a series of color changes or chemical processes, the work may pass through phases of nigredo, albedo, citrinitas, and rubedo. When expressed as a series of chemical processes it often includes seven or twelve stages concluding in multiplication, and projection.
The theory for the creation of the stone brings us back to the classical elements as defined by ancient Greek philosophers: earth, fire, water and air, just like the avatar
It was believed that all things were comprised of these elements in different combinations. Metals in particular were comprised of all four with two being exterior and two being interior, and the different combinations is what produced each metal. The idea behind the stone would be that the transmutation it caused would shuffle these elements
But this stone was elusive and only a handful of people allegedly ever made it. Alchemists in the middle ages became particularly interested in this and since no one knew how to make the stone, a dry red powder was marketed as a necessary component to alchemy, said to have been derived from a stone, this powder was called xerion in Greek.
As for Nicholas Flamel? Well we'll get there, just know that he was not a wizard. Probably.
So you're probably wondering at this point, if western alchemy started in ancient Egypt, how come we're hearing about it from a bunch of Greek colonialists?
Allegedly much of the alchemic literature of Egypt was lost in 292 AD when the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered the burning of alchemical books after suppressing a revolt in Alexandria
When I first read this, this stopped me dead in my tracks as the very day I was researching this I had watched a video that morning about how much of what we think we know about the library of Alexandria came from texts and documents written centuries after the fact. And that very famous uber destruction we all know about? May not have actually happened. So naturally I had to look into this
Now Diocletian was a religious man and it's easy to argue that alchemical texts, especially if they referenced Egyptian gods, as you would expect it to if it were written by Egyptian priest, could be seen as blasphemous and worthy of destruction, so it's not a far stretch.
I was able to follow this citation back to "A Short History of Chemistry" by "James Riddick Partington" . Finding this book has been a challenge, but I managed to snag a snippet from Google Books
On page 20 of the 1937 publishing of the book it says this
"an edict of the Emperor Diocletian in A.D. 296, given by Suidas (tenth century) from an older source, in which the books of the Egyptians (in Alexandria) on chémeia are ordered to be burnt. "
So naturally I had to figure out who this Suidas (also known as Suda) was and what he said, which was a journey, I'll tell you what. But turns out this guy wrote a large 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world, that included both Greek and Latin, and most certainly not English.
But searching terms I knew and the Latin and Greek references I had seen, I found the entry on chemia, which is the Latin word for alchemy and look there's Diocletian's name right there, but what did it say? Believe it or not I don't speak or read Latin, but I am good at the Google. I copied the passage into google translate
Χημεία. Chemia. Sive, ars conficiendi ar- genti & auri. Chemicos libros Diocletianus perquifitos combuffit. " Diocletianus /Egyptiis ob tumultum, quem concitaverant, infenfus, omni acerbitate & crudelitate eos vexavit: librofque a veteribus [/Egyptiis] de chemia auri & argenti confcriptos cum perquififfet, igni tradidit; ne ex hujufmodi arte opes, & ex opibus fiducia atque animus ad rebellandum pofthac /Egyptiis fuppete- rent. Quzre in v. Aéeas.
Chemistry. Or, the art of making silver and gold. Diocletian's alchemical books were read out. "Diocletian, on account of the tumult which they had excited, tormented them with all bitterness and cruelty; and when he had finished, he delivered to the fire the books written by the ancients [/Egyptians] on the chemistry of gold and silver; they had confidence in wealth and courage to rebel against the Egyptians.
So this does indeed sound like Diocletian burned what we would consider texts on alchemy (ancient Egyptian metallurgy being its origins) as a response to the to the rebellion that occurred. But Suidas did not cite a source, at least not one I could identify so the buck seems to end there
This would've been the rise of Christianity, and much of Rome was of that persuasion by this point and we know that went smoothly and did not trample all over anyone else's "pagan" beliefs in the slightest.
During this time Christian nations were traveling the countryside destroying pagan temples and schools and converting whoever they could get their hands on and would submit. Those who weren't as malleable were killed, or fled, scattering these scholars to the far corners of the world
But according to JM Stillman's 1922 paper, xenophobia and Christian righteousness weren't the only reasons Diocletian may have did away with these texts.
There was also a great fear of what these practitioners could do if half of what was said about them was true. The idea that with this knowledge anyone could make artificial silver or gold was terrifying as it could cripple the economy of the entire roman empire, not the mention that when your society is built on the backs of slavery and conquest, the idea that if this fell into the "wrong" hands could empower the very people you were trying to oppress was not favorable for those in power.
With Egypt being all but conquered by the Romans and the Egyptian priesthood scattered as their great works and temples were destroyed, the art of alchemy was at serious risk of disappearing forever. Trying to gather and document this knowledge would put anyone at risk of being perceived as a bad Christian, which was a very dangerous thing to be considered at the time
So if you wanted to write about this stuff you needed to make it unclear that this was actually what you were writing about. Enter mystical allegories, allusions and soon cyphers and codes.
Few original Egyptian documents on alchemy have survived, most notable among them the Stockholm papyrus and the Leyden papyrus X. Dating from AD 250-300, they contained recipes for dyeing and making artificial gemstones, cleaning and fabricating pearls, and manufacturing of imitation gold and silver
While Zosimos's works are the most complete, in them he cites other works that came before him, in particular the writings of Democritus. His works contained recipes for making imitations of gold and silver and for dyes etc. But they also were rich with the mystical philosophy and obscure allegories
Democritus allegedly wrote four books on the topic, though today only snippets of two of them survive. While cool and all, there's a reason why Democritus is particularly important in an unusual way as he may represent one of the first alchemical pseudepigraph writers
See Democritus was a pen name.
We already know that writing about alchemy wasn't always safe, in fact, for much of history it wasn't safe and even when it was, secrecy had always been important. Yeah, sure codes and cyphers might obscure the work, but how do you obscure the authorship? We would see many ways this would be done, falsification of names and dates. But one of the most beloved ways to publish your alchemical work was to publish it and attribute it to a now dead author, because it's not like they could arrest the dead.
The work of Democritus has long been attributed to a man named Democritus of Abdera, who lived in 5th century BC. In fact the first person we know who made this connection was Pliny the Elder in a text he wrote around 75 AD, but a contemporary to Pliny, Columella asserts that Democritus was actually Bolos of Mendes in Egypt who lived in 3rd century BC. But this is mostly forgotten as for the next centuries, Democritus of Abdera would get the credit
To this day we don't really know who Democritus was or even when he lived. This can be said about many of the most well known authors associated with alchemy, so it's important to keep this in mind as we go forward. Maybe this well known author was a secret alchemist and it didn't come out until after they died... or maybe someone else just thought they would make a good pseudonym
Most of the Greco-Roman alchemists preceding Zosimos are known only by pseudonyms, such as Moses, Isis, Cleopatra, Democritus, and Ostanes. Others authors such as Komarios, and Chymes, we only know through fragments of text. After AD 400, Greek alchemical writers occupied themselves solely in commenting on the works of these predecessors
While the Christian church ruled what was considered the west at the time with an iron fist, there were a few small cults that worked hard to keep this knowledge alive and piece together the fragments they could find, in particular one in Byzantium
Muslim Migration / Khalid
Mid 7th century, Muslim powers had risen, conquering much of western Asia and the Mediterranean, which would lead to the assimilation of Greek Alexandrian science, most notably by Syrian schools founded by many of Rome's "pagan" fugitive scholars, bringing with them whatever alchemical texts they could rescue
It would be around this time the term for this science would shift from chemia to al-chemia
Allegedly it was Islamic royalty that sparked this interest, in particular the Prince Khalid ibn Yazid.
Khalid was thought to be an alchemist in his own right and is thought to have written many alchemic texts in Arabic, which would eventually get translated into Latin under the name Calid. But like many alchemic authors, his true identity is strongly debated
The Emerald Tablet
Around the 8th or 9th centuries a new prominent alchemical text would first appear in Arabic sources and attributed to none other than Hermes Trismegistus, the lovechild of the gods Hermes and Thoth. For many early alchemists this was their bible, the foundation of their art. Since its initial discovery it has been translated and republished countless times
The oldest known source was a Syrian manuscript titled "The Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature" or the "Book of Causes". An encyclopedic work on natural philosophy falsely attributed to Apollonius of Tyana, a Greek philosopher that lived during the 1st century AD. Like everything alchemy, the true author is heavily debated, though most can agree that it likely wasn't Apollonius
In the book the author tells his readers that he discovered the text in a vault below a statue of Hermes in Tyana, and that, inside the vault, an old corpse on a golden throne held the emerald tablet
The earliest version that has been translated goes as follows:
Truth! Certainty! That in which there is no doubt!
That which is above is from that which is below, and that which is below is from that which is above,
working the miracles of one [thing]. As all things were from One.
Its father is the Sun and its mother the Moon.
The Earth carried it in her belly, and the Wind nourished it in her belly,
as Earth which shall become Fire.
Feed the Earth from that which is subtle,
with the greatest power. It ascends from the earth to the heaven
and becomes ruler over that which is above and that which is below.
This tablet is where the quote "as above, so below" comes from, we're learning about the origins of so many fun phrases today
Jabir / Arabian Geber / Djaber
Alchemy grew very popular in the Islamic nations and many alchemical texts were produced. The most famous of which are attributed to Geber, whose work is prolific, vast and comprehensive, once consisting of 600 works. At this point scholars tend to agree that a singular Jabir ever existed is unlikely, and it's thought that instead the library of work was likely created by a group of Shi'ite alchemists (shi'ite being a branch of islam) and written in the 9th and 10th centuries
The Jabir texts that remain prominent today primarily focus on alchemy, chemistry and magic, but the original collection covered a large array of topics including cosmology, astronomy and astrology, over medicine, pharmacology, zoology and botany, to metaphysics, logic, and grammar.
These texts described the work of an experienced and capable chemist familiar with and describing well the methods of distillation, sublimation, furnace operations and the purification of many metallic salts and solutions. They contained the first definite information about the preparation of mineral acids, referred to as a sharp or corrosive "waters"
These texts also contain the oldest known systematic classification of chemical substances and the oldest known directions on how to derive an inorganic compound from organic substances by chemical means
Much of these texts were informed by a philosophical theory known as "the science of the balance" which sought to break down all phenomena into a scientific analysis and quantitative components and directions. This practical approach was very valuable in a sea of alchemic texts written in code and presented via allegory
Paul Kraus, a 1900s scholar with a focus on Arabic philosophy, alchemy and chemistry wrote this
The relatively clear description of the processes and the alchemical apparati, the methodical classification of the substances, mark an experimental spirit which is extremely far away from the weird and odd esotericism of the Greek texts. The theory on which Jabir supports his operations is one of clearness and of an impressive unity. More than with the other Arab authors, one notes with him a balance between theoretical teaching and practical teaching, between the 'ilm and the amal
Between the 13th and 14th centuries these texts would come back into prominence when they were translated into Latin and published in Europe where they found a whole new audience
One of the more interesting aspects of Jabir's work was the stated goal of "Takwin", the artificial creation of life in the alchemical laboratory, up to and including human life. And it is thought that through these writings, the concept of the philosopher's stone was brought to European alchemy
Muslim Transmutation Criticism
From the 9th to 14th centuries, alchemical theories faced criticism from the practical Muslim chemists, who baulked at the concept of transmuting metals. Islamic alchemists took a more scientific approach, where much of the early Greek alchemic work involved a lot of allegory and religious context.
In the 11th century, Muslim alchemists debated if this was even possible. A leading opponent was the Persian polymath Avicenna, who discredited the theory of the transmutation of substances, stating,
"Those of the chemical craft know well that no change can be effected in the different species of substances, though they can produce the appearance of such change."
Alchemy Comes to Europe
There is some irony in that the Christian church was responsible for driving alchemy out of Egypt and Rome and into the Muslim nations, only for it to be semi responsible for it coming to Europe. Bear with me for a minute
Alchemy's entry into Europe came with texts translated from Arabic into the Latin, frequently by monks.
The first such text was a translation by Robert of Chester of the book "The Book of the Composition of Alchemy" which was published on Feb 11 1144. While we don't know if Robert of Chester worked with the church or not, as we aren't 100% sure he was, there's a high probability that he did as scribe was a highly valued profession and one most frequently employed by the church or nobility.
While it's possible and likely that some of the Islamic, Egyptian and/or Greek practitioners of alchemy made their way to Europe at some point and continued their trade in secret, we'll likely never know, because it would've been in secret.
Anyways, this book contains a dialogue between the byzantine monk Morienus and Umayyad Prince Khalid ibn Yazid. It would detail what the word alchemy means as the preface indicates that it's not a word used in the Latin world. It also sparked a new interest particularly in 12th century Toledo, Spain where numerous translated Arabic texts on the practice became available.
These brought many words that Latin did not have an equivalent for: Alcohol, carboy, elixir, and athanor are examples
Meanwhile the theologian contemporaries of these translators made strides towards reconciling faith and experimental rationalism, thereby priming Europe for a broader introduction to alchemy. These early scribes pushed for the idea that faith and science were not so far departed and that god was science.
Ok so maybe the church being responsible for it coming to Europe is a bit of a stretch, but it certainly helped
Not that it was lovingly embraced, it still met opposition. The populace and more importantly the leaders, thoroughly believed that alchemists could make gold and silver out of nothing, and just like the Roman emperors of ages past, this made them really uncomfortable. They viewed the art with much suspicion and feared for their economies.
In the 13th century a Franciscan friar known as Roger Bacon had become a prominent encyclopedist, working to translate all manner of texts into Latin, but notably had a special interest in many of the science related texts.
It was in Bacon's alchemic translations we would see commentary connecting alchemic principles with Christian theology. Concepts like morality and salvation pairing well with the ideas in alchemy of enlightenment and the perfection of the human body and mind to the point of immortality. He would advocate for the use of alchemic principles in natural sciences and medicine.
As expected after Bacon's death, his name with be attributed to "found" alchemic texts and stories arose of him becoming an archmage in the end days of his life. One such story told that he had created a "brazen head" a head made from bronze or brass that was both magical and mechanical, more alike an automaton. The head could answer correctly any question asked of it.
As an extra fun tidbit, this brazen head would be used in the "sample dungeon" provided in the 1977 DnD base set rulebook, where the head was mounted next to a inscribed riddle, that if the players solved they could ask it a question once a day.
It wasn't long after Bacon's work, Jabir's work would be translated and published in Europe
In the 13th century, scientist and philosopher, Albertus Magnus, is said to have discovered the philosopher's stone. Magnus does not confirm he discovered the stone in his writings, but he did record that he witnessed the creation of gold by "transmutation"
By the end of the 13th century western alchemy had developed into a fairly structured belief system. One such example is the concept that if one could figure out a process that would effect minerals and other substances, the same techniques could be used on humans for similar results. One such example being that if you could determine the secret to purifying gold, you could use those techniques to purify the human soul.
But while structured and fairly consistent, most if not all of these texts were still heavily coded and shrouded in mystery. Not only that, often traps and misleading information would be embedded to trip up the uninitiated
Alchemy would evolve, experimentation with chemicals, observing and recording these details grew popular, but the spiritual aspects continued to grow as well. With the integration of Christian theology we saw a shift in belief to where the human soul had been sundered in two because of the fall of Adam, so by purifying both halves, the person could be reunited with god
In the 14th century alchemy became more accessible to those outside of the Latin reading churchmen and scholars. Alchemical discourse shifted from scholarly philosophical debates and instead to social commentary less about the work but more about the alchemists themselves
And it may have been in response to this growing interest in alchemy that in 1317 Pope John XXII would make a decree in regard to alchemy, and surprisingly not one tied to religion specifically
What he forbade was alchemic charlatans
He specified that any person who either produced, successfully ordered the production of, assisted in the production of or knowingly sold false alchemic metals in attempt to pay off debt should be sentenced to pay a fine; the fine was to be calculated by weighing the alchemic metal and then charging however much that weight of real silver or gold would cost
If the person couldn't pay, jail time could be determined based on the circumstances of the fraud. The worst punishment were for clerics who were found practicing alchemic fraud. These clerics would be kicked from the church and lose all standing and benefits, as well as face the other punishments mentioned.
While this didn't straight up ban alchemy, it did make the situation a little more precarious, especially since most alchemists were really interested in the idea of transmutation
Dante and Chaucer and many other well known writers of the time painted all alchemists as thieves and liars
Raimundus Lullus was a prominent churchman and writer on theology and philosophy who died in 1315 while carrying out missionary work among the Moors. In the middle ages he was considered one of the great masters of alchemy. His scholarly biographer B Haureau cites the titles of some 80 alchemical texts attributed to him. But it doesn't take long to realize that some of his most famous works were dated between 1330-1333, you know 15 years after he died, and it is generally agreed that he never wrote anything about alchemy
Roman Catholic Inquisitor General Nicholas Eymerich
In 1376 we would see the Roman Catholic Inquisitor General Nicholas Eymerich associate alchemy and demonic rituals, insisting that the alleged magic of alchemy was not the same as the more positive magic found in scripture
England Adds Restrictions to Alchemy
1403 Henry IV of England bans the practice of multiplying metals (although it was possible to buy a license to attempt to make gold alchemically, and a number were granted by Henry VI and Edward IV) These critiques and regulations centered more around pseudo-alchemical charlatanism than the actual study of alchemy, which continued with an increasingly Christian tone.
Renaissance alchemists had a plethora of career opportunities, becoming contracted for anything from mining, medicine, chemical production, metallurgy and even gemstones.
While most of these applications were legitimate, the renaissance did have its fair share of charlatans. Self-proclaimed alchemists utilized sleight of hand and promises of life changing knowledge to earn their way through the world. This became such a problem that some of these alleged alchemists were prosecuted for fraud
Alchemy became the crossroads for many professions and sciences, which today we consider completely separate entities, alchemists becoming a bit of a pseudo scientific, pseudo spiritual Jack of all trades. But these alchemists did change the world, submarines (the underwater vehicle, not the sandwich) were only made possible by the discovery of oxygen distillation. In fact Isaac Newton was a learned and competent alchemist
Alchemy Shifts to Medicine
In the early 1500s Europe we saw a shift in western alchemy brought on by Paracelsus (Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493-1541). Paracelsus saw the potential for chemicals and minerals to be used in medicine like China had been for thousands of years by this point.
"Many have said of Alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines."
His thoughts were that sickness and health in the body were dependent on the balance of man the microcosm and nature the macrocosm. This view wasn't particularly new, it just had been oriented around soul-purification, not actual physical health. He believed that the body required certain balances of minerals and certain illnesses could be cured with chemical remedies.
In the late 1500s John Dee would jump into the scene, serving as the consultant to Queen Elizabeth I. Dee leaned into the more occult and mystical aspects of alchemy, but was best known for his angel summoning, divination, astrology and cryptography. This guy is fascinating in his own rights and I couldn't really squeeze him into this in the way he deserved, so Halli will have to do a topic on him at some point
Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor of the late 16th century famously received and sponsored several alchemists in his court in Prague, even including Dee for a time. It became popular for the powerful and wealthy to have an alchemist at their beck and call, and Dee's legacy didn't end with him, his son Arthur would take up the alchemical mantel and found himself serving English and Russian royalty
Philosopher's Stone and Angels
During the 17th century we would see alchemy lean into the supernatural again, many thinking that not only was the philosopher's stone all these wonderful and magical things, but could also be used to communicate with angels
Nicolas Flamel was a real person, though not a wizard from what we can tell. He was born in 1330 France and was a scribe and manuscript seller. He seemed to be a relatively normal guy, he married a wealthy woman, ran his manuscript shops and the couple were said to be generous philanthropists.
So how did he become associated with the philosopher's stone?
In 1612 Paris (and 1624 London) an alchemical book was published called "Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures" and the book was attributed to Nicolas Flamel
The publisher introduces the book saying that Flamel had spent his life looking for the philosopher's stone. According to this intro, Flamel came across a mysterious 21 page book in 1357 and became fascinated by it. In 1378 he traveled to Spain for assistance with translating the book. On the way back he met a sage who identified the book as an original copy of "The Book of Abramelin" the story of Abramelin, an Egyptian mage who met Abraham of Worms, a Jewish man from Worms, Germany. Abramelin taught Abraham magic.
With this knowledge, over the next few years, Flamel and his wife allegedly decoded enough of the book to successfully replicate its recipe for the philosopher's stone, producing first silver in 1382 and then gold
From there on legends around Flamel grew, except there is a few problems with this whole story
We have no evidence that Flamel was an alchemist, this claim never occurred until the book's initial publishing in 1612, two hundred years after Flamel died
Oh yeah, Flamel died at age 70 in 1418, so clearly if he had found the stone, the powers of immortality weren't as advertised, or now he's Keanu Reaves, who knows
The next issue is that it says that Flamel found "The Book of Abramelin" in 1357. Except that the guy the story was about was thought to have been born in 1362, so not having even been born yet when Flamel allegedly found a book about his life. I have had issue finding the original publishing date for this book, but within the book, which is a comprised of a series of letters, it states the date as 1458. And the earliest printed copies of this book date 1608 and were written in German
And yet Nicolas Flamel is often cited as the person that discovered the stone, though if we're to believe Zosimos, he was several centuries late to the punch
In 1677 a book was published called the Mutus Liber, in the initial printing, no more than a dozen copies were made. The book contained no words but consisted of 15 pages of alchemical illustrations
It became a point of much interest for many alchemists as within it were though to be the instructions for creating the stone. Since its initial publishing, it he has been consistently published nearly every 30 years since, with the most recent being 2015
Alchemists and scholars over the centuries have pored over this book endlessly, searching for some sort of secret meaning, one that has never been found and may have never existed
But seeds of dismissal began to be planted in the 17th century and over the next two hundred years we would see alchemy fade away, as a general disdain for "ancient wisdom" became more and more prominent.
Roles and knowledge once delegated to those in the alchemical professions began to branch off into their own practices and by 1720 alchemy and chemistry had a firm line drawn between them. By the 1740s alchemists by and large were thought to be frauds who claimed they could make gold though no one really believed that anymore
In the early 19th century we would see occultism become an interest again and with it was the resurrection of the alchemical arts, though now anything that may have actually been scientific was either downplayed or reconstrued into a more spiritual sense.
Mary Anne Atwood an English writer with a passion for alchemy wrote:
"No modern art or chemistry, notwithstanding all its surreptitious claims, has any thing in common with Alchemy."
Atwood and her other contemporaries flipped the script, where once ancient alchemists incorporated theology and allegory to hide their more scientific works, this new generation of alchemists believed that the more scientific and practical aspects of ancient alchemy were actually the mask, concealing deep spiritual meaning that ancient alchemists felt like they had to hide out of fear of accusations of blasphemy
Today alchemy is mostly a mysterious practice of times passed, but there is one area in particular that we see elements of this art continue and that is in new age spiritual and medicinal beliefs. Concepts around crystals for divination and healing, tinctures of essential oils to treat all that ails you and mysterious herbal remedies abound, nearly all of these practices were influenced in one way or another by alchemic beliefs.
Hell even NXIVM, primarily known now for its famous subsect sex cult that liked to brand its members, employed many ideas that harken back to alchemical beliefs. One in particular being around the concept of integration. NXIVM practitioners believed that all people were disintegrated, that their essence and being was fractured and through NXIVM classes and education you could integrate those slivers back together, and if you managed to complete integration, you would reach enlightenment. Of course the only one that ever fully reached integration was their leader, Keith Reniere himself.
And if any of the alchemical symbolism you see seems oddly familiar, that can be blamed on Carl Gustav Jung, who "rescued" those concepts and integrated them into his unique brand of psychology. Jung's teachings are the basis of many a cult and fringe group.
As for the wondrous idea of transmuting baser materials into gold? Well we know now that it's impossible to do so through chemical means, but is actually possible by physical means through a process known as Nuclear transmutation we've been able to synthesize gold in particle accelerators since 1941, though it is not in the least bit financially worth while
In short alchemy has a fascinating history and is the foundation of many of the sciences we rely on today and sadly many grifts we see today. Like alchemy itself which is both mysticism and science, its impact on the world has been both negative and positive.
Full Source List