Alchemy in history

Alchemy in history

Alchemy encompasses several philosophical traditions spanning some four millennia and three continents. These traditions' general penchant for cryptic and symbolic language makes it hard to trace their mutual influences and "genetic" relationships.

One can distinguish at least three major strands, which appear to be largely independent, at least in their earlier stages: Chinese alchemy, centered in China and its zone of cultural influence; Indian alchemy, centred around the Indian subcontinent; and Western alchemy, which occurred around the Mediterranean and whose center has shifted over the millennia from ancient Egypt, to the Greco-Roman world, to the Islamic world, and finally medieval Europe. Chinese alchemy was closely connected to Taoism and Indian alchemy with the Dharmic faiths, whereas Western alchemy developed its own philosophical system that was largely independent of, but influenced by, various Western religions. It is still an open question whether these three strands share a common origin, or to what extent they influenced each other.

Western alchemy

Alchemy in ancient Egypt

The origin of western alchemy may generally be traced to ancient (pharaonic) Egypt. Metallurgy and mysticism were inexorably tied together in the ancient world. It is claimedWho|date=July 2007 therefore that alchemy in ancient Egypt was the domain of the priestly class.

Egyptian alchemy is known mostly through the writings of ancient (Hellenic) Greek philosophers, which in turn have often survived only in Islamic translations. Practically no original Egyptian documents on alchemy have survived. Those writings, if they existed, were likely lost when the emperor Diocletian ordered the burning of alchemical books after suppressing a revolt in Alexandria (292), which had been a center of Egyptian alchemy.

Nevertheless archaeological expeditions in recent times have unearthed evidence of chemical analysis during the Naqada periods. For example, a copper tool dating to the Naqada era bears evidence of having been used in such a way (reference: artifact 5437 on display at [] ). Also, the process of tanning animal skins was already known in Predynastic Egypt as early as the 6th millennium BC.

Other evidence indicates early alchemists in ancient Egypt had invented mortar by 4000 BC and glass by 1500 BC. The chemical reaction involved in the production of Calcium Oxide is one of the oldest known (references: Calcium Oxide, limekiln):

:CaCO3 + heat → CaO + CO2.

Ancient Egypt additionally produced cosmetics, cement, faience and also pitch for shipbuilding. Papyrus had also been invented by 3000 BC.

Legend has it that the founder of Egyptian alchemy was the god Thoth, called Hermes-Thoth or Thrice-Great Hermes ("Hermes Trismegistus") by the Greeks. According to legend, he wrote what were called the forty-two Books of Knowledge, covering all fields of knowledge—including alchemy. Hermes's symbol was the caduceus or serpent-staff, which became one of many of alchemy's principal symbols. The "Emerald Tablet" or "Hermetica" of Thrice-Great Hermes, which is known only through Greek and Arabic translations, is generally understoodWho|date=July 2007 to form the basis for Western alchemical philosophy and practice, called the hermetic philosophy by its early practitioners.

The first point of the "Emerald Tablet" tells the purpose of hermetic science: "in truth certainly and without doubt, whatever is below is like that which is above, and whatever is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of one thing."ref_harvard|Burkhardt|Burckhardt, p. 196-7|a This is the macrocosm-microcosm belief central to the hermetic philosophy. In other words, the human body (the microcosm) is affected by the exterior world (the macrocosm), which includes the heavens through astrology, and the earth through the elements. Though when one gains mastery over their inner world, they begin to be able to control the exterior world in unconventional ways.ref_harvard|Burkhardt|Burckhardt, p. 34-42|b

It has been speculatedWho|date=July 2007 that a riddle from the Emerald Tablet—"it was carried in the womb by the wind"—refers to the distillation of oxygen from saltpeter—a process that was unknown in Europe until its (re)discovery by Sendivogius in the 17th century.

In the 4th century BC, the Greek-speaking Macedonians conquered Egypt and founded the city of Alexandria in 332. This brought them into contact with Egyptian ideas. See Alchemy in the Greek World below.

Alchemy in the Hellenistic world

The Hellenistic city of Alexandria in Egypt was a center of Greek alchemical knowledge, and retained its preeminence through most of the Greek and Roman periods. The Greeks appropriated the hermetical beliefs of the Egyptians and melded with them the philosophies of Pythagoreanism, ionianism, and gnosticism. Pythagorean philosophy is, essentially, the belief that numbers rule the universe, originating from the observations of sound, stars, and geometric shapes like triangles, or anything from which a ratio could be derived. Ionian thought was based on the belief that the universe could be explained through concentration on natural phenomena; this philosophy is believed to have originated with Thales and his pupil Anaximander, and later developed by Plato and Aristotle, whose works came to be an integral part of alchemy. According to this belief, the universe can be described by a few unified natural laws that can be determined only through careful, thorough, and exacting philosophical explorations. The third component introduced to hermetical philosophy by the Greeks was gnosticism, a belief prevalent in the Christian and early post-Christian Roman empire, that the world is imperfect because it was created in a flawed manner, and that learning about the nature of spiritual matter would lead to salvation. They further believed that God did not "create" the universe in the classic sense, but that the universe was created "from" him, but was corrupted in the process (rather than becoming corrupted by the transgressions of Adam and Eve, that is, original sin). Many Gnostic sects further held the Biblical deity to be evil and viewed him as a fallen emanation of the High God whom they sought to worship and unite with; however, the aspect of the Abrahamic god as being evil really played no role in alchemy but the aspect of ascending to the high god probably had a great deal of influence. Platonic and neo-Platonic theories about universals and the omnipotence of God were also absorbed (their main beliefs see the physical aspect of the world as being imperfect and think of God as a transcendent cosmic mind).

One very important concept introduced at this time, originated by Empedocles and developed by Aristotle, was that all things in the universe were formed from only four elements: "earth", "air", "water", and "fire". According to Aristotle, each element had a sphere to which it belonged and to which it would return if left undisturbed. ref_harvard|Lindsay|Lindsay, p. 16|a

The four elements of the Greek were mostly qualitative aspects of matter, not quantitative, as our modern elements are. "...True alchemy never regarded earth, air, water, and fire as corporeal or chemical substances in the present-day sense of the word. The four elements are simply the primary, and most general, qualities by means of which the amorphous and purely quantitative substance of all bodies first reveals itself in differentiated form." ref_harvard|Hitchcock|Hitchcock, p. 66|a Later alchemists extensively developed the mystical aspects of this concept.

Alchemy in the Roman Empire

The Romans adopted Greek alchemy and metaphysics, just as they adopted much of Greek knowledge and philosophy. By the end of the Roman empire the Greek alchemical philosophy had been joined to the philosophies of the Egyptians to create the cult of Hermeticism. ref_harvard|Lindsay|Lindsay|b

However, the development of Christianity in the Empire brought a contrary line of thinking, stemming from Augustine (AD 354-430), an early Christian philosopher who wrote of his beliefs shortly before the fall of the Roman Empire. In essence, he felt that reason and faith could be used to understand God, but experimental philosophy was evil: "There is also present in the soul, by means of these same bodily sense, a kind of empty longing and curiosity which aims not at taking pleasure in the flesh but at acquiring experience through the flesh, and this empty curiosity he is dignified by the names of learning and science." ref_harvard|Augustine|Augustine, p. 245|a

Augustinian ideas were decidedly anti-experimental, yet when Aristotelian empirical techniques were made available to the West they were not shunned. Still, Augustinian thought was well ingrained in medieval society and was used to show alchemy as being un-Godly.

Much of the Roman knowledge of alchemy, like that of the Greeks and Egyptians, is now lost. In Alexandria, the centre of alchemical studies in the Roman Empire, the art was mainly oral and in the interests of secrecy little was committed to paper. (Hence the use of "hermetic" to mean "secretive".) ref_harvard|Lindsay|Lindsay, p. 155|c It is possible that some writing was done in Alexandria, and that it was subsequently lost or destroyed in fires and the turbulent periods that followed.

Alchemy in the Islamic world

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the focus of alchemical development moved to the Islamic World. Much more is known about Islamic alchemy because it was better documented: indeed, most of the earlier writings that have come down through the years were preserved as Islamic translations. ref_harvard|Burkhardt|Burckhardt p. 46|c The word "alchemy" itself was derived from the Arabic word الكيمياء "al-kimia". The Islamic world was a melting pot for alchemy. Platonic and Aristotelian thought, which had already been somewhat appropriated into hermetical science, continued to be assimilated during the late 7th and early 8th cenuries.

In the late 8th century, Jabir ibn Hayyan (known as "Geber" in Europe) introduced a new approach to alchemy, based on scientific methodology and controlled experimentation in the laboratory, in contrast to the ancient Greek and Egyptian alchemists whose works were often allegorical and unintelligble, with very little concern for laboratory work. Jabir is thus "considered by many to be the father of chemistry". [citation|first=Zygmunt S.|last=Derewenda|year=2007|title=On wine, chirality and crystallography|journal=Acta Crystallographica Section A: Foundations of Crystallography|volume=64|pages=246-258 [247] ] The historian of science, Paul Kraus, wrote:Kraus, Paul, Jâbir ibn Hayyân, "Contribution à l'histoire des idées scientifiques dans l'Islam. I. Le corpus des écrits jâbiriens. II. Jâbir et la science grecque,". Cairo (1942-1943). Repr. By Fuat Sezgin, (Natural Sciences in Islam. 67-68), Frankfurt. 2002:(cf. cite web|author=Ahmad Y Hassan|title=A Critical Reassessment of the Geber Problem: Part Three|url=|accessdate=2008-08-09)]

Jabir himself clearly recognized and proclaimed the importance of experimentation as follows:

Islamic alchemists such as Muhammad ibn Zakarīya Rāzi (Rasis or Rhazes in Latin) and Jabir Ibn Hayyan (جابر بن حيان in Arabic, Geberus in Latin; usually rendered in English as Geber) contributed a number of key chemical discoveries, such as the technique of distillation (the words "alembic" and "alcohol" are of Arabic origin), the muriatic (hydrochloric acid), sulfuric and nitric acids, soda, potash, and more. (From the Arabic names of the last two substances, "al-natrun" and "al-qalīy", Latinized into "Natrium" and "Kalium", come the modern symbols for sodium and potassium.) The discovery that aqua regia, a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids, could dissolve the noblest metal; gold, was to fuel the imagination of alchemists for the next millennium.

Islamic philosophers also made great contributions to alchemical hermeticism. The most influential author in this regard was arguably Jabir. Jabir's ultimate goal was "Takwin", the artificial creation of life in the alchemical laboratory, up to and including human life. He analyzed each Aristotelian element in terms of four basic qualities of "hotness", "coldness", "dryness", and "moistness". ref_harvard|Burkhardt|Burkhardt, p. 29|d According to Jabir, in each metal two of these qualities were interior and two were exterior. For example, lead was externally cold and dry, while gold was hot and moist. Thus, Jabir theorized, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a different metal would result. ref_harvard|Burkhardt|Burckhardt, p. 29|e By this reasoning, the search for the philosopher's stone was introduced to Western alchemy. Jabir developed an elaborate numerology whereby the root letters of a substance's name in Arabic, when treated with various transformations, held correspondences to the element's physical properties.

The elemental system used in medieval alchemy also originated with Jabir. His original system consisted of seven elements, which included the five classical elements (aether, air, earth, fire and water), in addition to two chemical elements representing the metals: sulphur, ‘the stone which burns’, which characterized the principle of combustibility, and mercury, which contained the idealized principle of metallic properties. Shortly thereafter, this evolved into eight elements, with the Arabic concept of the three metallic principles: sulphur giving flammability or combustion, mercury giving volatility and stability, and salt giving solidity.Strathern, Paul. (2000), "Mendeleyev’s Dream – the Quest for the Elements", New York: Berkley Books]

During the 9th to 14th centuries, alchemical theories faced criticism from a variety of practical Muslim chemists, including Ja'far al-Sadiq,Research Committee of Strasburg University, "Imam Jafar Ibn Muhammad As-Sadiq A.S. The Great Muslim Scientist and Philosopher", translated by Kaukab Ali Mirza, 2000. Willowdale Ont. ISBN 0969949014.] Alkindus, [Felix Klein-Frank (2001), "Al-Kindi", in Oliver Leaman & Hossein Nasr, "History of Islamic Philosophy", p. 174. London: Routledge.] Abū al-Rayhān al-Bīrūnī, [Michael E. Marmura (1965), "An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines: Conceptions of Nature and Methods Used for Its Study by the Ikhwan Al-Safa'an, Al-Biruni, and Ibn Sina" by Seyyed Hossein Nasr", "Speculum" 40 (4): 744-6] Avicenna [Robert Briffault (1938). "The Making of Humanity", p. 196-197.] and Ibn Khaldun. In particular, they wrote refutations against the idea of the transmutation of metals.

Will Durant wrote in "The Story of Civilization IV: The Age of Faith":

Robert Briffault wrote in "The Making of Humanity":

Alchemy in Medieval Europe

Because of its strong connections to the Greek and Roman cultures, alchemy was rather easily accepted into Christian philosophy, and Medieval European alchemists extensively absorbed Islamic alchemical knowledge. Gerbert of Aurillac, who was later to become Pope Silvester II, (d. 1003) was among the first to bring Islamic science to Europe from Spain. Later men such as Adelard of Bath, who lived in the 12th century, brought additional learning. But until the 13th century the moves were mainly assimilative. ref_harvard|Hollister|Hollister p. 124, 294|a

In this period there appeared some deviations from the Augustinian principles of earlier Christian thinkers. Saint Anselm (1033–1109) was a Benedictine who believed faith must precede rationalism, as Augustine and most theologians prior to Anselm had believed, but Anselm put forth the opinion that faith and rationalism were compatible and encouraged rationalism in a Christian context. His views set the stage for the philosophical explosion to occur. Peter Abelard followed Anselm's work, laying the foundation for acceptance of Aristotelian thought before the first works of Aristotle reached the West. His major influence on alchemy was his belief that Platonic universals did not have a separate existence outside of man's consciousness. Abelard also systematized the analysis of philosophical contradictions. ref_harvard|Hollister|Hollister, p. 287-8|b

Robert Grosseteste (1170–1253) was a pioneer of the scientific theory that would later be used and refined by the alchemists. He took Abelard's methods of analysis and added the use of observations, experimentation, and conclusions in making scientific evaluations. Grosseteste also did much work to bridge Platonic and Aristotelian thinking. ref_harvard|Hollister|Hollister pp. 294-5|c

Albertus Magnus (1193–1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) were both Dominicans who studied Aristotle and worked at reconciling the differences between philosophy and Christianity. Aquinas also did a great deal of work in developing the scientific method. He even went as far as claiming that universals could be discovered only through logical reasoning, and, since reason could not run in opposition to God, reason must be compatible with theology. ref_harvard|Hollister|Hollister p. 290-4, 355|d. This ran contrary to the commonly held Platonic belief that universals were found through divine illumination alone. Magnus and Aquinas were among the first to take up the examination of alchemical theory, and could be considered to be alchemists themselves, except that these two did little in the way of experimentation.

The first true alchemist in Medieval Europe was Roger Bacon. His work did as much for alchemy as Robert Boyle's was to do for chemistry and Galileo's for astronomy and physics. Bacon (1214–1294) was an Oxford Franciscan who explored optics and languages in addition to alchemy. The Franciscan ideals of taking on the world rather than rejecting the world led to his conviction that experimentation was more important than reasoning: "Of the three ways in which men think that they acquire knowledge of things: authority, reasoning, and experience; only the last is effective and able to bring peace to the intellect." (Bacon p. 367) "Experimental Science controls the conclusions of all other sciences. It reveals truths which reasoning from general principles would never have discovered." ref_harvard|Hollister|Hollister p. 294-5|e Roger Bacon has also been attributed with originating the search for the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life: "That medicine which will remove all impurities and corruptibilities from the lesser metals will also, in the opinion of the wise, take off so much of the corruptibility of the body that human life may be prolonged for many centuries." The idea of immortality was replaced with the notion of long life; after all, man's time on Earth was simply to wait and prepare for immortality in the world of God. Immortality on Earth did not mesh with Christian theology. ref_harvard|Edwardes|Edwardes p. 37-8|b

Bacon was not the only alchemist of the high Middle Ages, but he was the most significant. His works were used by countless alchemists of the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. Other alchemists of Bacon's time shared several traits. First, and most obviously, nearly all were members of the clergy. This was simply because few people outside the parochial schools had the education to examine the Arabic-derived works. Also, alchemy at this time was sanctioned by the church as a good method of exploring and developing theology. Alchemy was interesting to the wide variety of churchmen because it offered a rationalistic view of the universe when men were just beginning to learn about rationalism. ref_harvard|Edwardes|Edwardes p. 24-7|c

So by the end of the thirteenth century, alchemy had developed into a fairly structured system of belief. Adepts believed in the macrocosm-microcosm theories of Hermes, that is to say, they believed that processes that affect minerals and other substances could have an effect on the human body (for example, if one could learn the secret of purifying gold, one could use the technique to purify the human soul). They believed in the four elements and the four qualities as described above, and they had a strong tradition of cloaking their written ideas in a labyrinth of coded jargon set with traps to mislead the uninitiated. Finally, the alchemists practiced their art: they actively experimented with chemicals and made observations and theories about how the universe operated. Their entire philosophy revolved around their belief that man's soul was divided within himself after the fall of Adam. By purifying the two parts of man's soul, man could be reunited with God. ref_harvard|Burkhardt|Burckhardt p. 149|g

In the fourteenth century, these views underwent a major change. William of Ockham, an Oxford Franciscan who died in 1349, attacked the Thomist view of compatibility between faith and reason. His view, widely accepted today, was that God must be accepted on faith alone; He could not be limited by human reason. Of course this view was not incorrect if one accepted the postulate of a limitless God versus limited human reasoning capability, but it virtually erased alchemy from practice in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. ref_harvard|Hollister|Hollister p. 335|f Pope John XXII in the early 1300s issued an edict against alchemy, which effectively removed all church personnel from the practice of the Art. ref_harvard|Edwardes|Edwardes, p.49|d The climate changes, Black plague, and increase in warfare and famine that characterized this century no doubt also served to hamper philosophical pursuits in general.

Alchemy was kept alive by men such as Nicolas Flamel, who was noteworthy only because he was one of the few alchemists writing in those troubled times. Flamel lived from 1330 to 1417 and would serve as the archetype for the next phase of alchemy. He was not a religious scholar as were many of his predecessors, and his entire interest in the subject revolved around the pursuit of the philosopher's stone, which he is reputed to have found; his work spends a great deal of time describing the processes and reactions, but never actually gives the formula for carrying out the transmutations. Most of his work was aimed at gathering alchemical knowledge that had existed before him, especially as regarded the philosophers' stone. ref_harvard|Burkhardt|Burckhardt pp.170-181|h

Through the late Middle Ages (1300-1500) alchemists were much like Flamel: they concentrated on looking for the philosophers' stone and the elixir of youth, now believed to be separate things. Their cryptic allusions and symbolism led to wide variations in interpretation of the art. For example, many alchemists during this period interpreted the purification of the soul to mean the transmutation of lead into gold (in which they believed elemental mercury, or 'quicksilver', played a crucial role). These men were viewed as magicians and sorcerers by many, and were often persecuted for their practices. ref_harvard|Edwardes|Edwardes pp. 50-75|eref_harvard|Norton|Norton pp lxiii-lxvii|a

One of these men who emerged at the beginning of the sixteenth century was named Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. This alchemist believed himself to be a wizard and was capable of summoning spirits. His influence was negligible, but like Flamel, he produced writings which were referred to by alchemists of later years. Again like Flamel, he did much to change alchemy from a mystical philosophy to an occultist magic. He did keep alive the philosophies of the earlier alchemists, including experimental science, numerology, etc., but he added magic theory, which reinforced the idea of alchemy as an occultist belief. In spite of all this, Agrippa still considered himself a Christian, though his views often came into conflict with the church. ref_harvard|Edwardes|Edwardes p.56-9|fref_harvard|Wilson|Wilson p.23-9|a

Alchemy in the Renaissance and Modern Age

European alchemy continued in this way through the dawning of the Renaissance. The era also saw a flourishing of con artists who would use chemical tricks and sleight of hand to "demonstrate" the transmutation of common metals into gold, or claim to possess secret knowledge that—with a "small" initial investment—would surely lead to that goal.

However, it is important to emphasize that the terms "chemia" and "alchemia" were used as synonyms in the Renaissance, and the differences between alchemy, chemistry and small-scale assaying and metallurgy were not as neat as in the present day. There were important overlaps between practitioners, and trying to classify them into wizards (alchemists), scientists (chemists) and craftsmen (metallurgists) is anachronistic.

The most important name in this period is Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus, (Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493–1541) who cast alchemy into a new form, rejecting some of the occultism that had accumulated over the years and promoting the use of observations and experiments to learn about the human body. He rejected Gnostic traditions, but kept much of the Hermetical, neo-Platonic, and Pythagorean philosophies; however, Hermetical science had so much Aristotelian theory that his rejection of Gnosticism was practically meaningless. In particular, Paracelsus rejected the magic theories of Agrippa and Flamel. He did not think of himself as a magician, and scorned those who did. (Williams p.239-45)

Paracelsus pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine, and wrote "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." ref_harvard|Edwardes|Edwardes, p.47|g His hermetical views were that sickness and health in the body relied on the harmony of man the microcosm and Nature the macrocosm. He took an approach different from those before him, using this analogy not in the manner of soul-purification but in the manner that humans must have certain balances of minerals in their bodies, and that certain illnesses of the body had chemical remedies that could cure them. ref_harvard|Debus|Debus & Multhauf, p.6-12|a While his attempts of treating diseases with such remedies as Mercury might seem ill-advised from a modern point of view, his basic idea of chemically produced medicines has stood time surprisingly well.

In England, the topic of alchemy in that time frame is often associated with Doctor John Dee (13 July 1527 – December, 1608), better known for his role as astrologer, cryptographer, and general "scientific consultant" to Queen Elizabeth I. Dee was considered an authority on the works of Roger Bacon, and was interested enough in alchemy to write a book on that subject ("Monas Hieroglyphica", 1564) influenced by the Kabbala. Dee's associate Edward Kelley — who claimed to converse with angels through a crystal ball and to own a powder that would turn mercury into gold — may have been the source of the popular image of the alchemist-charlatan.

Another lesser known alchemist was Michael Sendivogius ("Michał Sędziwój", 1566 - 1636), a Polish alchemist, philosopher, medical doctor and pioneer of chemistry. According to some accounts, he distilled oxygen in a lab sometime around 1600, 170 years before Scheele and Priestley, by warming nitre (saltpetre). He thought of the gas given off as "the elixir of life". Shortly after discovering this method, it is believed that Sendivogious taught his technique to Cornelius Drebbel. In 1621, Drebbel practically applied this in a submarine.

Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), better known for his astronomical and astrological investigations, was also an alchemist. He had a laboratory built for that purpose at his Uraniborg observatory/research institute.

The decline of Western alchemy

The demise of Western alchemy was brought about by the rise of modern science with its emphasis on rigorous quantitative experimentation and its disdain for "ancient wisdom". Although the seeds of these events were planted as early as the 17th century, alchemy still flourished for some two hundred years, and in fact may have reached its apogee in the 18th century. As late as 1781 James Price claimed to have produced a powder that could transmute mercury into silver or gold.

Robert Boyle (1627–1691), better known for his studies of gases (cf. Boyle's law) pioneered the scientific method in chemical investigations. He assumed nothing in his experiments and compiled every piece of relevant data; in a typical experiment, Boyle would note the place in which the experiment was carried out, the wind characteristics, the position of the Sun and Moon, and the barometer reading, all just in case they proved to be relevant. ref_harvard|Pilkington|Pilkington p.11|a This approach eventually led to the founding of modern chemistry in the 18th and 19th centuries, based on revolutionary discoveries of Lavoisier and John Dalton — which finally provided a logical, quantitative and reliable framework for understanding matter transmutations, and revealed the futility of longstanding alchemical goals such as the philosopher's stone.

Meanwhile, Paracelsian alchemy led to the development of modern medicine. Experimentalists gradually uncovered the workings of the human body, such as blood circulation (Harvey, 1616), and eventually traced many diseases to infections with germs (Koch and Pasteur, 19th century) or lack of "natural" nutrients and vitamins (Lind, Eijkman, Funk, et al.). Supported by parallel developments in organic chemistry, the new science easily displaced alchemy from its medical roles, interpretive and prescriptive, while deflating its hopes of miraculous elixirs and exposing the ineffectiveness or even toxicity of its remedies.

Thus, as science steadily continued to uncover and rationalize the clockwork of the universe, founded on its own materialistic metaphysics, alchemy was left deprived of its chemical and medical connections — but still incurably burdened by them. Reduced to an arcane philosophical system, poorly connected to the material world, it suffered the common fate of other esoteric disciplines such as astrology and Kabbalah: excluded from university curricula, shunned by its former patrons, ostracized by scientists, and commonly viewed as the epitome of charlatanism and superstition.Rosencrutzians and freemasons have, however, always been interested in alchemy and its symbolism. A large collection of books on alchemy is kept in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam.

These developments could be interpreted as part of a broader reaction in European intellectualism against the Romantic movement of the preceding century.

Eastern alchemy

Indian alchemy

According to Multhauf & Gilbert (2008): [Multhauf, Robert P. & Gilbert, Robert Andrew (2008). "Alchemy". Encyclopædia Britannica (2008).]

The oldest Indian writings, the Vedas (Hindu sacred scriptures), contain the same hints of alchemy that are found in evidence from ancient China, namely vague references to a connection between gold and long life. Mercury, which was so vital to alchemy everywhere, is first mentioned in the 4th- to 3rd-century-BC Artha-śāstra, about the same time it is encountered in China and in the West. Evidence of the idea of transmuting base metals to gold appears in 2nd- to 5th-century-AD Buddhist texts, about the same time as in the West. Since Alexander the Great had invaded India in 325 BC, leaving a Greek state (Gandhāra) that long endured, the possibility exists that the Indians acquired the idea from the Greeks, but it could have been the other way around.

Significant progress in alchemy was made in ancient India. Will Durant wrote in "Our Oriental Heritage":

An 11th century Persian chemist and physician named Abū Rayhān Bīrūnī reported that they "have a science similar to alchemy which is quite peculiar to them, which in Sanskrit is called Rasayāna and in Persian Rasavātam. It means the art of obtaining/manipulating Rasa, nectar, mercury, juice. This art was restricted to certain operations, metals, drugs, compounds, and medicines, many of which have mercury as their core element. Its principles restored the health of those who were ill beyond hope and gave back youth to fading old age." One thing is sure though, Indian alchemy like every other Indian science is focused on finding Moksha: perfection, immortality, liberation. As such it focuses its efforts on transumation of the human body: from mortal to immortal. Many are the traditional stories of alchemists still alive since time immemorial due to the effects of their experiments.

The texts of Ayurvedic Medicine and Science have aspects similar to alchemy: concepts of cures for all known diseases, and treatments that focus on anointing the body with oils.

Since alchemy eventually became engrained in the vast field of Indian erudition, influences from other metaphysical and philosophical doctrines such as Samkhya, Yoga, Vaisheshika and Ayurveda were inevitable. Nonetheless, most of the Rasayāna texts track their origins back to Kaula tantric schools associated to the teachings of the personality of Matsyendranath.

The Rasayāna was understood by very few people at the time. Two famous examples were Nagarjunacharya and Nityanadhiya. Nagarjunacharya was a Buddhist monk who, in ancient times, ran the great university of Nagarjuna Sagar. His famous book, "Rasaratanakaram", is a famous example of early Indian medicine. In traditional Indian medicinal terminology "rasa" translates as "mercury" and Nagarjunacharya was said to have developed a method to convert the mercury into gold. Much of his original writings are lost to us, but his teachings still have strong influence on traditional Indian medicine (Ayureveda) to this day.

Chinese alchemy

Whereas Western alchemy eventually centered on the transmutation of base metals into noble ones, Chinese alchemy had a more obvious connection to medicine. The philosopher's stone of European alchemists can be compared to the Grand Elixir of Immortality sought by Chinese alchemists. However, in the hermetic view, these two goals were not unconnected, and the philosopher's stone was often equated with the universal panacea; therefore, the two traditions may have had more in common than it initially appears.

Black powder may have been an important invention of Chinese alchemists. Described in 9th century texts and used in fireworks in China by the 10th century, it was used in cannons by 1290. From China, the use of gunpowder spread to Japan, the Mongols, the Arab world and Europe. Gunpowder was used by the Mongols against the Hungarians in 1241, and in Europe by the 14th century.

Chinese alchemy was closely connected to Taoist forms of traditional Chinese medicine, such as Acupuncture and Moxibustion, and to martial arts such as Tai Chi Chuan and Kung Fu (although some Tai Chi schools believe that their art derives from the philosophical or hygienic branches of Taoism, not the Alchemical). In fact, in the early Song Dynasty, followers of this Taoist idea (chiefly the elite and upper class) would ingest mercuric sulfide, which, though tolerable in low levels, led many to suicide. Thinking that this consequential death would lead to freedom and access to the Taoist heavens, the ensuing deaths encouraged people to eschew this method of alchemy in favor of external sources (the aforementioned Tai Chi Chuan, mastering of the Qi, etc.).

Modern alchemy

In the first half of the nineteenth century, one established chemist, Baron Carl Reichenbach, worked on concepts similar to the old alchemy, such as the Odic force, but his research did not enter the mainstream of scientific discussion.

Matter transmutation, the old goal of alchemy, enjoyed a moment in the sun in the 20th century when physicists were able to convert platinum atoms into gold atoms via a nuclear reaction. However, the new gold atoms, being unstable isotopes, lasted for under five seconds before they broke apart. More recently, reports of table-top element transmutation—by means of electrolysis or sonic cavitation—were the pivot of the cold fusion controversy of 1989. None of those claims have yet been reliably duplicated.

Alchemy in traditional medicine

Traditional medicines involve transmutation by alchemy, using pharmacological or combination pharmacological and spiritual techniques. In Chinese medicine the alchemical traditions of pao zhi will transform the nature of the temperature, taste, body part accessed or toxicity. In Ayurveda the samskaras are used to transform heavy metals and toxic herbs in a way that removes their toxicity. In the spagyric processing of herbal medicine similar effects are found. [ [ Tillotson, Alan; AHG, D.Ay., PhD "Safety and Regulation"] ] These processes are actively used to the present day. [ [ Tierra, Michael; AHG, OMD, L.Ac. "Processing Chinese Herbs"] ] [ [ "Benefits of Herbal Extracts";] ] [Junius, Manfred M; "The Practical Handbook of Plant Alchemy: An Herbalist's Guide to Preparing Medicinal Essences, Tinctures, and Elixirs"; Healing Arts Press 1985]

Nuclear transmutation

In 1919, Ernest Rutherford used artificial disintegration to convert nitrogen into oxygen. [cite web |url= |title= Reviewing Physics: The Physical Setting |author= Amsco School Publications |authorlink= |format= |work= |publisher= Amsco School Publications |language= English |quote= "The first artificial transmutation of one element to another was performed by Rutherford in 1919. Rutherford bombarded nitrogen with energetic alpha particles that were moving fast enough to overcome the electric repulsion between themselves and the target nuclei. The alpha particles collided with, and were absorbed by, the nitrogen nuclei, and protons were ejected. In the process oxygen and hydrogen nuclei were created.] From then on, this sort of "scientific transmutation" is routinely performed in many nuclear physics-related laboratories and facilities, like particle accelerators, nuclear power stations and nuclear weapons as a by-product of fission and other physical processes.

ynthesis of noble metals

The synthesis of noble metals refers to the realization of the age-old dream of alchemists—to artificially produce noble metals. The goal of this could be to achieve greater economic gain when compared to traditional methods of obtaining noble metals. Synthesis of noble metals is only possible with methods of nuclear physics, either using nuclear reactors or by particle accelerators. Particle accelerators require huge amounts of energy, while nuclear reactors produce energy, so only production methods utilizing a nuclear reactor are of economic interest.

Further reading

* [ "Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry"] , William R. Newman, Lawrence M. Principe, University of Chicago Press, 2002, ISBN 0226577023, 344 pages

ee also

*Nuclear transmutation
*Synthesis of noble metals
*Scientific method
*Protoscience, Pseudoscience, and Anti-science
*Obsolete scientific theories


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*cite book | author=Marius | title=On the Elements | location=Berkeley | publisher=University of California Press | year=1976 | isbn=0-520-02856-2 Trans. Richard Dales.
*note_label|Norton|Norton pp lxiii-lxvii|a cite book | author=Norton, Thomas (Ed. John Reidy) | title=Ordinal of Alchemy | location=London | publisher=Early English Text Society | year=1975 | isbn=0-19-722274-9
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External links

* [ SHAC: Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry]

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