What is alchemy? 

The aims of the alchemist

AlchemyAlchemy is a very ancient practice that originally developed in pursuit of three goals:

  • To find a method of transforming base or worthless metal into gold or silver; this was often called the search for the philosopher's stone, which was thought to be the key to these transformations
  • To prepare an elixir of life that would ensure longevity
  • To discover a universal solvent that would enable alchemists to dissolve materials and use them for other purposes.

Alchemy developed well beyond these fundamental aims and also included features that were not scientific, but were also mystical and spiritual

The history and spread of alchemy

The origins of alchemy seem to lie in ancient Egypt over 4000 years ago. There is evidence of the practice in temple carvings and it is also known that the Greeks used Egyptian manuscripts in their study of alchemy.  

It was also practised in India from about 1200 BCE, in the Byzantine Empire and in the Islamic world between about 700 and 1400 CE, before arriving in Europe in the Middle Ages, from about 1300 CE onwards.  

More on the etymology of 'alchemy': The word ‘alchemy' came into English from the Old French alquimie, deriving from the medieval Latin word alchimia. In Arabic the word was al-kimia, a combination of Greek and Arabic elements.     
  • al = Arabic for ‘the', the definite article
  • chumaeia = Ancient Greek for ‘mixture', referring to the experiments carried out in pursuit of the goals of alchemy

Alchemy and science 

Alchemy and medieval science

Aristotelian science saw the world as having been created from ‘prima material' – primal matter which was originally chaotic and formless. From this matter emerged the four elements, each of which was seen as having two qualities, one primary and one secondary. These were:

  • Air   (1. fluid 2. hot)
  • Fire   (1. hot  2. dry)
  • Earth   (1. dry  2. cold)
  • Water  (1. cold 2. fluid)

By removing a quality from each of two elements it was possible to produce a third; for instance, fire and water with dry and cold removed produced air. It was on these theories of dissolving, separating, reconstituting and recombining that alchemists based their experiments. These theories were challenged in the Middle Ages when Islamic alchemists discovered new elements, including mercury and sulphur.

Alchemy, technology and the development of modern science

Ancient alchemy is thought to have made contributions to the technology of crafts and manufactures:

  • Preparing inks, dyes, paints and cosmetics
  • The crafts of glass-making, ceramics (pottery) and the tanning of leather
  • Distillation, extraction and the preparation of various liquors
  • Mixing and purification of substances used in medicine.

Some of the techniques that were developed have almost certainly survived into modern times.

Alchemists would also have needed to call on the skills of craft-workers such as glass-makers and metal-workers to make the vessels and implements they required to conduct their experiments. These tools / objects were the earliest versions of some of the equipment still used in modern laboratories.

Alchemist to chemist

Alchemy can be seen as the forerunner of modern chemistry. Alchemists:

  • Made many of the first experimentally-based observations of the properties of materials
  • Developed the practice of testing theories and propositions through experimentation
  • Were among the earliest historical figures who might be regarded as scientists in modern terms.

Historically, alchemy and what is thought of as modern science overlapped:

  • Robert Boyle (1627-91), known as ‘the father of chemistry', was critical of ancient science but maintained an interest in alchemy in both its experimental and metaphysical senses
  • Isaac Newton (1642-1727), a scholar and theorist in mathematics, optics and physics (including the theory of gravity), also conducted alchemical experiments.

Alchemy: science, heresy or trickery?

The spiritual dimensions of alchemy

Alchemy included spiritual aspects concerning the impact on individual alchemists of their study and experiments. Since alchemical knowledge was believed to be the gift of the gods, individuals who devoted themselves to its study could hope to achieve a spiritual or metaphysical transformation, just as their experiments were aimed at achieving physical transformations. In this sense, their experiments became metaphors for their own spiritual purification.

Attitudes to alchemy

The reputation of alchemy has varied since it was introduced into Europe in the Middle Ages. Alchemists might:

  • Be respected or revered as genuine scientists and divines, endowed with special knowledge and insight
  • Be seen as heretics, meddling with forbidden knowledge
  • Be regarded as unscrupulous tricksters and frauds preying on the desires of greedy and gullible individuals.

In Christian Europe, there was much suspicion of art practised in semi-secrecy, using a complex system of codes and symbols, which were readily associated with witchcraft and black magic. The fact that alchemy was based on methods and ideas from pre-Christian and pagan cultures also damaged its reputation.

Church teaching

The Church often took measures against alchemy: although priests were frequently practising alchemists, this was regarded as a serious threat to Church authority. Pope John XXII (1316-34) issued a Papal Bull against alchemy and Cistercian monks were forbidden from the practice. In 1403, King Henry IV (1399-1413) banned alchemy in England. By contrast, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1576-1612), whose court was in Prague, supported the work of alchemists and many rulers relied on the advice of the closely related art of astrology.

Duping the people

Fairground traders often based their tricks and frauds on alchemy, selling worthless elixirs and remedies and claiming to change low value coins into gold or silver. Conjuror's tricks – making objects appear, disappear or change into something else – also sometimes originated in alchemical ideas.

Alchemy in literature: characters and language

Alchemy appears in literature in two important ways:

  • Characters who practise, or claim to practise, alchemy
  • Language and symbols drawn from alchemy and applied to a variety of characters and situations.

Literary alchemists

  • Will, the narrator of the anonymous medieval poem Piers Plowman (c. 1367-86) seeks for truth and, among others, consults alchemists who are revealed as liars and thieves
  • The Canon Yeoman's Tale, one of the Canterbury Tales (c. 1387-1400) by Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400) tells the stories of two priests who are practising alchemists and use their skills to cheat and trick others
  • The story of Sir Gareth of Orkney in Le Morte d'Arthur [The Death of Arthur] (finished by 1470, first published in 1485 by Sir Thomas Malory (d. 1471)) uses the terminology and processes of alchemy to identify the stages of the knight's adventures and his spiritual development. These include victories over knights representing the four elements, so that he acquires their powers
  • Doctor Faustus (c. 1588) by Christopher Marlowe (1564-93) portrays a brilliant, intellectually restless individual who becomes impatient with conventional learning and makes a pact with the devil to gain access to secret knowledge. He is disappointed and declines into a kind of high-class magician or conjuror, playing tricks on the Pope and indulging the whims of the royalty and aristocracy of Europe
  • The Alchemist (1610) by Ben Jonson (1572/3-1637) is probably the best-known work in English on the subject of alchemy. Its central character is Subtle, who claims to be both an alchemist and an astrologer. In the course of the action, he cheats a succession of victims by promising each of them that he can fulfil their wishes. The satire is aimed equally at Subtle and the false claims of alchemy, and at the gullible individuals so blinded by their needs that they refuse to believe the one character who sees through Subtle's tricks and tries to expose him.

Impact on the language

Elsewhere in literature, from the Middle Ages onwards, the language of alchemy is often used as a means of defining characters and the ways in which they behave. The theory of the humours draws, like alchemy, on the four basic elements combined with a variety of qualities to explain human behaviour. More generally, the use of terms such as:

  • Combination
  • Purification
  • Distillation
  • Mollification (softening)
  • Fermentation
  • Coagulation
  • Separation
  • Re-combination
  • Transformation
  • Transmutation

draw on the alchemical tradition.

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