View Full Version : A Brief History of Alchemy

01-01-2009, 07:04 PM
This is a Phoenix-thread (http://forum.alchemyforums.com/showthread.php?t=7) from the old site (http://alchemy-forums.forumotion.com/forum.htm).

An introduction to alchemy in general terms is not an easy feat, and perhaps many who visit this forum are already knowledgeable enough not to need one. But there might be those that doesn’t know much, or nothing at all, about alchemy and have come here by accident or by intuition. So this thread is for them. I also implore members who want to add to this brief intro to do so. There are many ways to tell the history of alchemy and the one I post here is not at all the ultimate version. Please improve on it with what you know...

I have always thought the following quote by W.B. Yeats, from Rosa Alchemica, describes alchemy best:

I had discovered, early in my researches, that their [the alchemists] doctrine was no mere chemical fantasy, but a philosophy they applied to the world, to the elements, and to man himself.
Together with astrology alchemy is the oldest science known to the world. It is a popular belief that Ancient Egypt is regarded as the origin of all things mystical, but we must not forget the Far East. In a book written by Edward Chalmers Werner the following quote can be found:

Chang Tao-Ling, the first Taoist pope, was born in C.E. 35 in the reign of the Emperor Kuang Wu Ti of the Han dynasty… He devoted himself wholly to study and meditation, declining all offers to enter the service of the State. He preferred to take up his abode in the mountains of Western China where he persevered in the study of alchemy and in cultivating the virtues of purity and mental abstraction. From the hands of Lao Tzu he received supernaturally a mystic treatise, by following the instructions in which he was successful in his search for the Elixir of Life.
One of the oldest alchemical fragments known is an Arabic version of the Emerald Tablet found in a work ascribed to Jabir approximately from the 9th century. Amongst other things it teaches unity of matter and the truth that all form is a manifestation from one root the Aether, or ether. Another ancient document is The Ebers Papyrus from Ancient Egypt.

The actual word alchemy is derived from Egyptian or Arabic, Al-Kemin or A-khem, and means divine chemistry or black earth (the latter referring to the silt deposits from the annual flooding of the Nile). In Greek the word chemeia means the art of extracting juices from the word chumos meaning juice. All these words of course are the roots of our modern word chemistry or chemicals.

Porcelain, alcohol distillation, acids, salts and a variety of metallic compounds are the results of early alchemical experiments. Until the end of the 16th century magic was not considered a superstition, but a logical and rational mean of understanding the universe and controlling ones destiny.

Alchemy was widely practiced in the 3rd century C.E and it was also during this period, in around 290 C.E, that Emperor Diocletian decided to seek out all Egyptian books on alchemy and other occult sciences and burn them because he was afraid that the riches they could create might finance a revolt against his empire. One of the greatest tragedies in history since the act destroyed all progress that had been made for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, up to that point. The Asclepian Dialogues and the Divine Poemanda were some of the few fragments that survived this holocaust of knowledge.

The Philosopher’s Stone was sought by alchemists in order to bring about permanent transmutation of base metals into gold. It was first mentioned by Zosimos the Theban (c. 250-300) in the 3rd century and through the years it has had many names such as Materia Prima, Magnum Opus, The First Matter, The One Thing, The Heart of the Sun, The Celestial Dew, The Ugly Toad and has figured as a metaphor for the power of a child’s imagination.

If a solution of the Stone is mixed in spirits of wine the legendary Elixir of Life is the result, which can restore health, youth and perhaps not prevent death but certainly prolong life. I want to quote Archibald Cockren’s book Alchemy Rediscovered and Restored because I think he sums up the alchemist’s quest in a simple terms:

What was the motive behind the constant strivings, the never-failing patience in the unravelling of the mysteries, the tenacity of purpose in the face of persecution and ridicule through the countless ages that led the alchemist to pursue undaunted his appointed way? Something far greater, surely, than a mere vainglorious desire to transmute the base metals into gold, or to brew a potion to prolong a little longer this earthly span, for the devotees of alchemy in the main cared little for these things. The accounts of their lives almost without exception lead us to believe that they were concerned with things spiritual rather than with things temporal. Rather were these men inspired by a vision, a vision of man made perfect, of man freed from disease and the limitations of warring faculties both mental and physical, standing as a god in the realization of a power that even at this very moment of time is lying hidden in the deeper strata of his consciousness, a vision of man made truly in the image and likeness of the one Divine Life in all its Perfection, Beauty, and Harmony.
To understand alchemy a student first has to understand the symbols and allegories it employs, for in them are great truths and secrets stored. There are many reasons why there is such a vast and deep well of symbols, allegories and terms. Some claim it is because these secrets are intended only for those ready to receive them, others that it is out of fear to be deemed heretical. Or that it is because alchemy is, after all, an art and in art nothing, if ever, is told straight.

Another point to consider is that alchemy, and the hermetic arts in general, is an extremely ancient form of craft that has changed and transformed its language over all the centuries since its birth and this has, naturally, led to a large pool of ideas and interpretations.

Regardless of the reasons it is important to understand the hidden meaning behind the alchemical language in order to understand alchemy, even though its secrets are fairly simple to grasp - albeit difficult to fulfil.

But that is what Alchemy Forums (http://www.alchemyforums.com) is all about!

Want to read other accounts on the History of Alchemy?
History of Alchemy (http://www.alchemylab.com/history_of_alchemy.htm)
Origins of Alchemy (http://www.alchemylab.com/origins_of_alchemy.htm)
Why Mutational Alchemy? (http://www.abrahadabra.com/why.mutational.alchemy.htm)
Wikipedia on Alchemy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alchemy)

Anything people ever tryed to communicate through word once called history is proved to only be true in our thoughts.

04-19-2012, 08:21 AM
In addition to Dev's post above, below are extracts from a site that give a good overview of Alchemy:

Ancient Egypt: Evidence indicates alchemy was practiced in Egypt millennia ago;
they had mortar by 4000 BCE, Papyrus by 3000 BCE, and glass by 1500 BCE. They
also used cosmetics, cement, faience (tin-glazed pottery), and pitch. Here alchemy
was practiced mainly by the priests of Thoth, who was believed to introduce alchemy
to the world.

Greece and Rome: The Grecians called Thoth, “Thrice-Great Hermes” and believed
he wrote forty-two Books of Knowledge. The “Emerald Tablet” is a discourse on
alchemy and forms the basis of Western alchemical philosophy. Empedocles and
Aristotle used the Alexandrian influence to postulate all things in the universe were
created from only four elements: earth, air, fire, water. These four elements were the
primary substances of all bodies. The Romans adopted these beliefs as their own,
but were later influenced by the development of Augustine’s belief that experimental
philosophy was evil. Only two papers survived the later “cleansing” by the Church:
the Stockholm Papyrus and the Leyden x papyri, which discuss how to dye and
make artificial gemstones, clean and fabricate pearls, and make artificial gold and
silver. Many later skeptics have used these discourses to emphasize how alchemists
were simply charlatans.

Islamic Alchemy: Much is known of their experiments due to their thorough
documentation. Jabir ibn Hayyan introduced a new form of chemistry in the latter
part of the eighth century, based on the scientific method and controlled
experimentation. This focus on science has granted the title of “father of chemistry”
to Jabir. Both he and Muhammad ibn Zakarīya Rāzi discovered distillation, acids,
soda, potash, and more. Their work in acids produced aqua regis, a solvent that
could dissolve gold. Jabir believed that rearranging the properties of metals would
cause them to change into one another. Jabir’s magnum opus was not the
transmutation of metals, however, but the creation of artificial life. He also added
three new elements to the Aristotlean quadrad: aether, sulphur, and mercury. An
eighth element, salt, was later included.

European Alchemy: In the early Middle Ages, alchemy was at first readily accepted
into Christian culture based on its strong connection to the Greco-Roman history.
The works of alchemy were assimiliated and by the thirteenth century was a
structured form of belief. This, however, was when alchemy was attacked by
church in the early 1300s by Pope John XXII. From then until the 1500s, what
alchemists existed all searched for the elusive philosopher’s stone and the elixir of
youth. By the Renaissance, most alchemists were con artists that used illusion and
magic tricks to persuade believers that they had the power to change lead into gold.
Some, like Paracelsus, believed that alchemic experimentation could lead to new
medicines and focused exclusively on that aspect. Alchemy continued to hold as a
science up to the 18th century, but modern science, which started in the 17th
century, eventually replaced it.
Indian Alchemy: The Eastern traditions show the same hints of alchemy in the
Vedas as those in China, namely a connection between gold and longevity. The
concept of transmutation and mercury comes later, mercury not being mentioned
until the 3rd century BC and transmutation until 2nd century Buddhist texts. It is
generally believed that the Indian alchemy was ahead of the European form by about
600 years, and many believe Damascus steel was invented in India.

Chinese Alchemy: The Chinese focused on medicine and, for them, the philopher’s
stone was the Grand Elixir of Immortality. Some say black powder was also created
by Chinese alchemists.

It goes on to list:



The Lab

Heating Equipment


Other Equipment

The Alchemists’ Chemicals

Source ( http://www.rpg.net/columns/rocky/rocky9.phtml)


04-19-2012, 10:32 AM
Ah. There is no evidence for alchemy in Egypt before around the 1st/ 2nd century BC. Making faience is not alchemy; even the north European Celts were making it centuries before alchemy began. In fact, Ghislain, that source is horrendously corrupt and of no use to anyone at all. Anyone who writes "faience (tin-glazed pottery)" is clearly incapable of even doing proper research and understanding what they read. Egyptian faience is made using sand, lime and alkali and usually some copper; when heated together the alkali and copper salt migrates to the surface and forms a coloured glaze. I've seen it made, I've seen the large pots in the Petri museum in London which were used 3,000 years ago to make lumps of egyptian blue which is a related sort of process.

The Physika et Mystika is the earliest known text, maybe by Bolos of Mendes, maybe not.

There is no evidence for Diocletian ordering the burning of alchemical books - I've done some research on that and the oldest mention of it is 2 or 3 hundred years afterwards, with no mention from the actual period itself. Note also that it is claimed that Zosimos overlapped with the edict, yet he doesn't mention it, although of course we don't have all his writings.

The Stockholm and Leyden papyri are standard jewellers recipes of the time, but modern scholars reckon they were written down for an interested amateur or as workshop notes for apprentices and the like. Ancient Egypt was a hive of such activity and the craftsmanship has to be seen to be believed. But there was also a lot of junk produced to keep up with the demands of people who couldn't afford pure gold. Hence the recipes about making alloys and giving a gold surface to a metal.

The interesting thing is that Chinese alchemy and Graeco-Egyptian alchemy arose at roughly the same time; again, the earliest i have read of is the first century BC, as presented by Joseph Needham in his encyclopaedic work on Chinese technology.

04-19-2012, 11:16 AM
Anything that happened over 500-3500 years ago is always speculation. There will never be any facts, mostly due to people like Diocletian and others (whoever they were) that burned books and historical records.

It is all guessing, hear-say and theories.


04-20-2012, 03:10 AM
There are the written teachings, the spoken teachings, the unspoken teachings and the unspeakable teachings. Books are awfully unreliable. As far as the other forms of transmission of the teachings, that is more difficult. They say that a fool receives a fool for a teacher... That may not mean what might be expected as the Way of the fool is a valid Way. Of course there are an awful lot of frauds around these days ...

04-23-2012, 11:42 PM
I find the explanation given here to be reliable and have found nothing that contradicts it:

Re: the date of Physika et Mystika given above. There's some discussion of it here http://historymedren.about.com/od/aentries/a/11_alchemy_2.htm which seems to point to a 3rd century dawn of alchemy which makes sense to me (consistent). I'm confused on this, and would love if someone could recommend a digestible reliable paper on the subject. Guthrie: I'd love to hear more on what you found on Diocletian... it'll save me hours of digging :)

As for the speculation... yes... of course there are uncertainties... of course we might be missing unrecorded history and possibilities of oral traditions... but to ignore informed evidence in favour of guesswork on these traditions seems counter-productive.

04-25-2012, 02:20 AM
I find the explanation given here to be reliable and have found nothing that contradicts it:

I don't really love that explanation. It is a good explanation of the first written records there are about a very narrow definition of Alchemy.
On the other hand, I do hate frauds... specially the not so unusual tendency that a lot of Hermeticist have to fake the antiquity of some texts, ideas or orders.
I assume it is safe to say that all of us have met more than a few idiots during our life who said that they were members of an Order that has a direct lineage that goes back to Akhenaten or some idiocy like that... I have little patience with that nonsense, since the truth is ALWAYS more fascinating.

i.e, it is easy to find thousands of sources that state that the Emerald Tablet is 4,000 years old... or 6,000 years old... and even sources that claim that it is the very first thing that was written. Any historian of the Hermetic Tradition knows that far from being the most ancient Hermetic text, it is the "newest" one... written several centuries after all the other Hermetic text that our Corpus Hermeticum nowadays has***.

However... there are a few cases in which this silly practice created amazing results: the "Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster" is probably my favorite example... reading what remains of them it becomes very easy to date them: II century of our age... and certainly not related to any idea that Zoroaster had. Sometimes this "faked antiquity" creates nice results, but 99,99% of the times it is simply silly.


"Birth and death begin, like everything else, before the event." (Austin Osman Spare)

That quote, I love it.

Alchemy didn't begin in the Imperial Egypt?
So... what about the myth of Isis and Osiris??? Did that myth become "Alchemical" in the 2nd or 3rd century of our age even though it remained the same?
I don't think it makes any kind of sense to say such thing.

That's why I think that the "History" that McLean's site has is kinda narrow or short-sighted (even if I think he often has very good explanations of alchemicl texts and he's far from being a naive person).

***As a side note: Because of Gerard de Nerval I got to know about the Druze Religion ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Druze ).
Some years ago I was reading a lot about it (mostly because I really liked the book by Nerval) and found something very interesting, that they included the texts of the Corpus Hermeticum among their religious texts, but what was more interesting to find is that they kept on writing texts signed by Hermes Trimegistus... hence the Druze Religion has a "wider" or "longer" version of the Corpus Hermeticum since they included more texts "signed by Hermes". Of course, they aren't "historical" texts, but NEW texts by Hermes (it would be really silly to state that the author of these "new" texts isn't Hermes.. kinda impossible to deny their legitimacy!)

I remember having read such thing years ago, but I have never been able to find those "new" texts by Hermes Trimegistus... but I would certainly LOVE to read them.

04-25-2012, 04:20 PM
Thank you for your input Guthrie

I am not an expert in the field and I only quickly read through the information in the link.

I would normally look for information that has a good bibliography which I did not in this case,
and as I was going out I thought I would quickly post in case I lost the link.

However it is not all bad as it did inspire some discussion :)

I think I should have posted this as a new thread as this is a 'Sticky', my bad :(


04-25-2012, 05:50 PM
Hi zoas23:

Alchemy didn't begin in the Imperial Egypt?
So... what about the myth of Isis and Osiris???

Yeah... there was a similar conversation on that sort of thing here a while back:

What you've mentioned about Isis and Osiris could also be applied to lots of things: Jason and the Golden fleece; some Greek philosophy; religious or mystery traditions; the bible; metallurgy etc etc etc. What you said about it being dependent on the definition of alchemy seems to be the hinge to me too. There's still not a very good, commonly accepted definition, and everyone here would describe alchemy a little differently. Different descriptions = different historiographies.

Whatever alchemy is, it's not a just a synonym for something else -- like goldsmithing, allegory, Orphism, Platonism, pharmacology. But alchemy has been similar to all these things at one time or another. The similarity of alchemy to pre-existing myths, philosophies, and practices does not necessarily lengthen its history, even if these were incredibly important to alchemy and incorporated into it. Whatever alchemy is, it is distinct thing of which there is no historical evidence that I know of prior to the early Christian era (at least in Egypt). I consider McLeans statement to be fact, not opinion.

04-25-2012, 11:00 PM
Yeah... there was a similar conversation on that sort of thing here a while back:

What you've mentioned about Isis and Osiris could also be applied to lots of things: Jason and the Golden fleece; some Greek philosophy; religious or mystery traditions; the bible; metallurgy etc etc etc. What you said about it being dependent on the definition of alchemy seems to be the hinge to me too. There's still not a very good, commonly accepted definition, and everyone here would describe alchemy a little differently. Different descriptions = different historiographies.

Whatever alchemy is, it's not a just a synonym for something else -- like goldsmithing, allegory, Orphism, Platonism, pharmacology. But alchemy has been similar to all these things at one time or another. The similarity of alchemy to pre-existing myths, philosophies, and practices does not necessarily lengthen its history, even if these were incredibly important to alchemy and incorporated into it. Whatever alchemy is, it is distinct thing of which there is no historical evidence that I know of prior to the early Christian era (at least in Egypt). I consider McLeans statement to be fact, not opinion.

Hi! LOL... I feel weird when someone calls me "Zoas23" since it's just a login name I created to have the same "username" on different internet services (my e-mail, forums, etc), mostly because "Julian" is often taken and I suck at remembering a different name for each different internet service.

I mostly meant that it is possible to write a very scientific "History of the documents, drawings and texts in which alchemical practices are mentioned in an explicit way"... and, as you've also said, the specific definition of alchemy would be very important as to decide which practics belong to the alchemical tradition and which ones don't.

Some time ago I was talking to a friend, a true gnostic, about Philo of Alexandria. I was mostly talking about my enthusiasm with his work. I am not sure if you are familiar with his works, but if you aren't then this short explanation is more than enough: he was a jewish philosopher who was contemporary to the times of Jesus and was very much against the literal interpretation of the Religious texts and mostly the whole of his works are new ways of reading the Jewish sacred texts by seeing them as non-literal metaphores and mixing the jewish religion with (neo)platonic philosophy. The very first documented case of a mix between platonism and the jewish religion.
Anyway, I was talking about him and my friend asked me a weird question: "Would you say that Philo was a Gnostic?". I laughed and said: "Noooo".
It is probably because I am a bit obsessive that I phoned my friend a few hours later and I told him that I had been thinking about it again, this time I said: "YES".

Around 2:00 a.m. in the morning I woke up and I felt the need to write an e-mail to my friend: "I feel stupid answering NO and I feel stupid answering YES... the answer is in a gray area in which it's silly to say black or white, an absolute yes or an absolute no".

I saw the other thread and the idea that Alchemy begins with Zosimus... or around the times of Zosimus (around the year 300).
This leaves behind some texts like Apuleius' Metamorphoses -a.k.a. the "Golden Ass" (written around the year 150)... Which can perfectly be taken as an alchemical novel that isn't incredibly different from a novel like the Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz.

That's why I brought this simple quote by Austin Spare: "Birth and death begin, like everything else, before the event."

I deeply dislike the faked antiquity that some texts give to certain practices (i.e, "the emerald tablet was written 4,000 years BC by a secret society of Egyptian alchemists")... or the authors that simply state a lot of weird things without ever giving any kind of source (mostly because no source can confirm what they state) ---this happens a lot whilst reading Mircea Eliade!

But then again, making Alchemy begin with Zosimus or around the times of Zosimus brings a lot of troubles.
It is quite clear to me that our alchemical tradition begins with the very first myths created by mankind... and it is even silly to write its history without mentioning them.
Just like what I said about Philo, Alchemy has a lot of "grey area" in which it is hard, if not completely impossible, to state if something is alchemy or not.
I think this can be explained without twisting things or faking the anituity of some practices.

04-25-2012, 11:15 PM
The evidence so far is that western alchemy is at least 2,000 years old. The Physika et Mystika has been suggested as being even 2 centuries BC, and it is the earliest text which can really be said to be alchemical. With that and what Zosimos says about older masters, it is clear that alchemy began generations before Zosimos, i.e. at least 2,000 years ago.
Now what is also quite clear is that alchemy drew upon gnostic thought which was based upon a heady mix of Hellenistic mystery religion, Egyptian religion and bits of philosophy such as Aristotle and Plato and Democritus.
Thus something new grew out of old, fertile soil.

All the starting bits were there before hand, from gold being valuable (The age of metals did not begin with making copper axes - the oldest metal objects found have in fact been jewellery, which makes sense) and long lasting, through to the earth being a reflection of heaven or vice-versa.

Of course there are parallels between known African myths and similes used in the manufacture of iron, which have survived to this day, e.g. the furnace being female and giving birth to the iron. And we can assume such views were common all around the world. But the point about alchemy is that it ties together that sort of approach to personal change and redemption.

04-25-2012, 11:21 PM
Ah, I see the other thread. Well, again, my opinion based on all I have read is that alchemy is pre-christian, gnostic in basis. Christianity itself can be read as being a gnostic religion if you are so minded, so obvious parallels are clear.
Plus the number of texts which demonstrate non-christian things and the obvious christian interpolations into Zosimos On the letter Omega.

The fun thing is that Chinese alchemy appears at around the same time, as I have alreay mentioned.

Of course now I think I should write my own short history of alchemy. That's worth a try at the weekend.

04-26-2012, 03:04 PM
Don't pigeon-hole yourselves or you will miss everything outside the (w)hole. Also don’t get caught up in the detail it’s not necessary. IMHO

For example...

That which is known as the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist; from the beginning of the human race
until the time when Christ came in the flesh, at which time the true religion, which already existed began to be called Christianity.

(Retract. I, xiii, cited by Dr. Alvin Boyd Kuhn in his Shadow of The Third Century, Elizabeth N.J.:
Academy Press, 1949, p.3.)

To follow one set of rules laid down by another is what religion is all about. Do you categorise
yourself as an Alchemist, Christian, Jew, or Muslim...etc...

You will feel what the truth is and if that truth isn’t laid down previously by the ones you follow will
you ignore it?


06-06-2012, 10:14 PM
Anything that happened over 500-3500 years ago is always speculation. There will never be any facts, mostly due to people like Diocletian and others (whoever they were) that burned books and historical records. It is all guessing, hear-say and theories.:cool:

The best method is, as it always was, is to recall it from one's soul. There're practicing alchemists who 'recall' in this way, they just don't know that they did. Sudden insights, images, symbols, etc. emerge to solve or enlighten the mind.

The true discipline of alchemy isn't followed from books. The true lineage is 'kept' within. You pick it up as you go along from one incarnation to the next.


The other method, that works well, is to remote view it. I have utilized this method as well.

07-04-2013, 03:46 AM
Just found another reference to Alchemy, which I believe will make a good example of the complexities involved
when trying to study a subject such as this.



Alchemy, a part of the Occult Tradition, is both a philosophy and a practice with an ultimately
unknown aim, involving the improvement of the alchemist as well as the making of several
substances described as possessing unusual properties. The practical aspect of alchemy generated
the basics of inorganic chemistry, namely concerning procedures, equipment and the identification
and use of many current substances.

Alchemy has been practiced in Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Persia, India, Japan, Myanmar, Korea
and China, in Classical Greece and Rome, in the Muslim civilizations, and then in Europe up to the
20th century—in a complex network of schools and philosophical systems spanning at least 2500

Alchemy as a philosophical and spiritual discipline

Alchemy was known as the spagyric art after Greek words meaning to separate and to join
together. Compare this with the primary dictum of Alchemy in Latin: SOLVE ET COAGULA —
Separate, and Join Together .

The best-known goals of the alchemists were the transmutation of common metals into gold (called
chrysopoeia) or silver (less well known is plant alchemy, or " spagyric"); the creation of a " panacea,"
or the elixir of life, a remedy that supposedly would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely;
and the discovery of a universal solvent. Although these were not the only uses for the science, they
were the ones most documented and well known. Starting with the Middle Ages, Arabic and
European alchemists invested much effort on the search for the " philosopher's stone", a legendary
substance that was believed to be an essential ingredient for either or both of those goals. The
philosopher's stone was believed to mystically amplify the user's knowledge of alchemy so much
that anything was attainable. Alchemists enjoyed prestige and support through the centuries,
though not for their pursuit of those goals, nor the mystic and philosophical speculation that
dominates their literature. Rather it came from their mundane contributions to the "chemical"
industries of the day—ore testing and refining, metalworking, production of gunpowder, ink, dyes,
paints, cosmetics, leather tanning, ceramics, glass manufacture, preparation of extracts, liquors, and
so on (it seems that the preparation of aqua vitae, the "water of life", was a fairly popular "experiment" among European alchemists).

Starting with the Middle Ages, some alchemists increasingly came to view metaphysical aspects as
the true foundation of alchemy; and organic and inorganic chemical substances, physical states, and
molecular material processes as mere metaphors for spiritual entities, spiritual states and ultimately,
spiritual transformations. In this sense, the literal meanings of 'Alchemical Formulas' were a blind,
hiding their true spiritual philosophy, which being at odds with the Medieval Christian Church was a
necessity that could have otherwise lead them to the "stake and rack" of the Inquisition under
charges of heresy. Thus, both the transmutation of common metals into gold and the universal
panacea symbolized evolution from an imperfect, diseased, corruptible and ephemeral state
towards a perfect, healthy, incorruptible and everlasting state; and the philosopher's stone then
represented some mystic key that would make this evolution possible. Applied to the alchemist
himself, the twin goal symbolized his evolution from ignorance to enlightenment, and the stone
represented some hidden spiritual truth or power that would lead to that goal. In texts that are
written according to this view, the cryptic alchemical symbols, diagrams, and textual imagery of late
alchemical works typically contain multiple layers of meanings, allegories, and references to other
equally cryptic works; and must be laboriously "decoded" in order to discover their true meaning.

In his Alchemical Catechism , Paracelsus clearly denotes that his usage of the metals was a symbol:

Q. When the Philosophers speak of gold and silver, from which they extract their matter, are we to
suppose that they refer to the vulgar gold and silver? A. By no means; vulgar silver and gold are
dead, while those of the Philosophers are full of life.


Alchemical symbolism has been occasionally used by psychologists and philosophers. Carl Jung
reexamined alchemical symbolism and theory and began to show the inner meaning of alchemical
work as a spiritual path. Alchemical philosophy, symbols and methods have enjoyed something of a
renaissance in post-modern contexts.

Jung saw alchemy as a Western proto-psychology dedicated to the achievement of individuation. In
his interpretation, alchemy was the vessel by which Gnosticism survived its various purges into the
Renaissance. In this sense, Jung viewed alchemy as comparable to a Yoga of the East. The practice of
Alchemy seemed to change the mind and spirit of the Alchemist. His interpretation of Chinese
alchemical texts in terms of his analytical psychology also served the function of comparing Eastern
and Western alchemical imagery and core concepts and hence its possible inner sources
( archetypes).

Magnum opus

The Great Work ; mystic interpretation of its three stages:

nigredo(-putrefactio) , blackening(-putrefaction): individuation, purification, burnout of impurity;
''see also Suns in alchemy - Sol Niger
albedo , whitening: spiritualisation, enlightenment
rubedo , reddening: unification of man with god, unification of the limited with the unlimited.

Within the Magnum Opus, was the creation of the Sanctum Moleculae, that is the 'Sacred Masses'
that were derived from the Sacrum Particulae, that is the 'Sacred Particles', needed to complete the
process of achieving the Magnum Opus.

Alchemy as a subject of historical research

The history of alchemy has become a vigorous academic field. As the obscure hermetic language of
the alchemists is gradually being "deciphered", historians are becoming more aware of the
intellectual connections between that discipline and other facets of Western cultural history, such as
the sociology and psychology of the intellectual communities, kabbalism, spiritualism,
Rosicrucianism, and other mystic movements, cryptography, witchcraft, and the evolution of science
and philosophy.


The origins of Western alchemy are traceable back to ancient Egypt. Greek and Indian philosophers
later theorized that there were only four classical elements (rather than that of today's 112 chemical
elements); Earth, Fire, Water, and Air. The Greek philosophers, in order to prove their point, burned
a log: The log was the earth, the flames burning it was fire, the smoke being released was air, and
the smoldering soot at the bottom was bubbling water. Because of this, the belief that these four
"elements" were at the heart of everything soon spread, only later being replaced in the Middle
Ages by Geber's theory of seven elements, which was then replaced by the modern theory of
chemical elements during the early modern period.

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. Alchemy starts becoming much clearer in
the 8th century with the works of the Islamic alchemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan (known as "Geber" in
Europe), who introduced a methodical and experimental approach to scientific research based in the
laboratory, in contrast to the ancient Greek and Egyptian alchemists whose works were mainly

Other famous alchemists include Wei Boyang in Chinese alchemy; Calid and Rhazes in Islamic
alchemy; Nagarjuna in Indian alchemy; and Albertus Magnus and pseudo-Geber in European
alchemy; as well as the anonymous author of the Mutus Liber, published in France in the late 17th
century, and which was a 'wordless book' that claimed to be a guide to making the philosopher's
stone, using a series of 15 symbols and illustrations. The philosopher's stone was an object that was
thought to be able to amplify ones power in alchemy, and, if possible, grant the user ageless
immortality, unless he fell victim to burnings or drowning; the common belief was that fire and
water were the two greater elements that were implemented into the creation of the stone.

In the case of the Chinese and European alchemists, there was a difference between the two. The
European alchemists tried to transmute lead into gold, and, no matter how futile or toxic the
element, would continue trying until it was royally outlawed later into the century. The Chinese,
however, paid no heed to the philosopher's stone or transmutation of lead to gold; they focused
more on medicine for the greater good. During Enlightenment, these "elixirs" were a strong cure for
sicknesses, unless it was a test medicine. Most tests were generally fatal, but stabilized elixirs served
great purposes. On the other hand, the Islamic alchemists were interested in alchemy for a variety of
reasons, whether it was for the transmutation of metals or artificial creation of life, or for practical
uses such as Islamic medicine or the chemical industries.

A tentative outline is as follows:

Egyptian alchemy [5000 BCE – 400 BCE], beginning of alchemy
Indian alchemy [1200 BCE – Present], related to Indian metallurgy; Nagarjuna was an important
Greek alchemy [332 BCE – 642 CE], studied at the Library of Alexandria
Chinese alchemy [142 CE], Wei Boyang writes The Kinship of the Three
Islamic alchemy [700 – 1400], Muslims did not have alchemists because creation of artificial life is
against their beliefs.
Islamic chemistry [800 – Present], Alkindus and Avicenna refute transmutation, Rhazes refutes four
classical elements, and Tusi discovers conservation of mass
European alchemy [1300 – Present], Saint Albertus Magnus builds on Arabic alchemy
European chemistry [1661 – Present], Boyle writes The Sceptical Chymist , Lavoisier writes Elements
of Chemistry , and Dalton publishes his Atomic Theory


Alchemy, generally, derives from the old French alkemie; from the Arabic al-kimia: "the art of
transformation." Some scholars believe the Arabs borrowed the word “kimia” from Greek. Others,
such as Mahdihassan, argue that its origins are Chinese.

Thus, an alchemist was called a 'chemist' in popular speech, and later the suffix "-ry" was added to
this to describe the art of the chemist as "chemistry".

Modern alchemy

Islamic alchemy was a forerunner of modern scientific chemistry. Alchemists used many of the same
laboratory tools that are used today. These tools were not usually sturdy or in good condition,
especially during the medieval period of Europe. Many transmutation attempts failed when
alchemists unwittingly made unstable chemicals. This was made worse by the unsafe conditions.
Up to the 16th century, alchemy was considered serious science in Europe; for instance, Isaac
Newton devoted considerably more of his time and writing to the study of alchemy (see Isaac
Newton's occult studies) than he did to either optics or physics, for which he is famous. Other
eminent alchemists of the Western world are Roger Bacon, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Tycho Brahe,
Thomas Browne, and Parmigianino. The decline of alchemy began in the 18th century with the birth
of modern chemistry, which provided a more precise and reliable framework for matter
transmutations and medicine, within a new grand design of the universe based on rational

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 a combination of
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. These processes are actively
used to the present day.

Nuclear transmutation

In 1919, Ernest Rutherford used artificial disintegration to convert nitrogen into oxygen. 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.

Synthesis 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.

In popular culture

The subject of alchemy is extensively used in many cartoons and comic books, often in the form of
superpowers. In some Japanese anime and manga, most notably Fullmetal Alchemist, alchemy and
transmutation are treated as sciences, mixed with magic but fully understandable and utilizable with
proper knowledge. Fullmetal Alchemist also refers to equivalency or equivalent exchange for
alchemy to work; i.e to create, something of equal value must be lost, thus making something into
something related or new. In Buso Renkin, alchemy is used primarily as a means for superpowers.

In contemporary art

In the twentieth century alchemy was a profoundly important source of inspiration for the Surrealist
artist Max Ernst, who used the symbolism of alchemy to inform and guide his work. M.E. Warlick
wrote his Max Ernst and Alchemy describing this relationship in detail.

Contemporary artists use alchemy as inspiring subject matter, like Odd Nerdrum, whose interest has
been noted by Richard Vine, and the painter Michael Pearce , whose interest in alchemy dominates
his work. His works Fama and The Aviator's Dream particularly express alchemical ideas in a painted

Scotsman Adam MacLean has made the study and revitalization of alchemy his life, reproducing
seminal texts in hand bound leather covered editions and making fine quality copies of important
alchemical imagery.

Source: (http://www.reference.com/browse/Alchemy?s=t)

I guess that is one opinion, There are other opinions at the source above, but IMO each of us have to make our own.