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Thread: A Brief History of Alchemy

  1. #1
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    A Brief History of Alchemy

    This is a Phoenix-thread from the old site.

    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 is all about!

    Want to read other accounts on the History of Alchemy?
    History of Alchemy
    Origins of Alchemy
    Why Mutational Alchemy?
    Wikipedia on Alchemy


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

    Don’t let the delusion of reality confuse you regarding the reality of the illusion.

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    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:

    Deities


    People


    The Lab

    Heating Equipment

    Containers

    Other Equipment

    The Alchemists’ Chemicals

    Source

    Ghislain
    Last edited by Ghislain; 04-19-2012 at 08:55 AM.
    Open Book
    "Dogmatic Assumption Inhibits Enquiry" Rupert Sheldrake

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    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.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_faience

    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.

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    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.


    Don’t let the delusion of reality confuse you regarding the reality of the illusion.

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    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 ...









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    I find the explanation given here to be reliable and have found nothing that contradicts it:
    http://www.alchemywebsite.com/misconceptions.html

    Re: the date of Physika et Mystika given above. There's some discussion of it here http://historymedren.about.com/od/ae..._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.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Chenkel View Post
    I find the explanation given here to be reliable and have found nothing that contradicts it:
    http://www.alchemywebsite.com/misconceptions.html
    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.

    BUT:

    "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.

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    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

    Ghislain
    Last edited by Ghislain; 04-25-2012 at 04:42 PM.
    Open Book
    "Dogmatic Assumption Inhibits Enquiry" Rupert Sheldrake

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    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:
    http://forum.alchemyforums.com/showt...-Alchemy/page4

    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.

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by Chenkel View Post
    Yeah... there was a similar conversation on that sort of thing here a while back:
    http://forum.alchemyforums.com/showt...-Alchemy/page4

    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.

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