Alchemy is an ancient path of spiritual purification and transformation; the expansion of consciousness and the development of insight and intuition through images. Alchemy is steeped in mysticism and mystery. It presents
to the initiate a system of eternal, dreamlike, esoteric symbols that have the
power to alter consciousness and connect the human soul to the Divine.
Alchemy is part of the mystical and mystery traditions of both East and West. In
the West, it dates to ancient Egypt, where adepts first developed it as an early
form of chemistry and metallurgy. Egyptians alchemists used their art to make
alloys, dyes, perfumes and cosmetic jewelry, and to embalm the dead.
The early Arabs made significant contributions to alchemy, such as by emphasizing the mysticism of numbers (quantities and lengths of time for processes). The Arabs also gave us the term 'alchemy', from the Arabic term 'alchimia', which loosely translated means 'the Egyptian art'.
During medieval and Renaissance times, alchemy spread through the Western world, and was further developed by Kabbalists, Rosicrucians, astrologers and other occultists. It functioned on two levels: mundane and spiritual. On a mundane level, alchemists sought to find a physical process to convert base metals such as lead into gold. On a spiritual level, alchemists worked to purify themselves by eliminating the "base" material of the self and achieving the 'gold' of enlightenment.
By Renaissance times, many alchemists believed that the spiritual purification was necessary in order to achieve the mundane transformations of metals.
The alchemists relied heavily upon their dreams, inspirations and visions for guidance in perfecting their art. In order to protect their secrets, they recorded diaries filled with mysterious symbols rather than text. These symbols remain exceptionally potent for changing states of consciousness.
Alchemy is a form of speculative thought that, among other aims, tried to transform base metals such as lead or
copper into silver or gold and to discover a cure for disease and a way of extending life.
Alchemy was the name given in Latin Europe in the 12th century to an aspect of thought that
corresponds to astrology, which is apparently an older tradition. Both represent attempts to discover the
relationship of man to the cosmos and to exploit that relationship to his benefit. The first of these
objectives may be called scientific, the second technological. Astrology is concerned with man's
relationship to "the stars" (including the members of the solar system); alchemy, with terrestrial nature.
But the distinction is far from absolute, since both are interested in the influence of the stars on terrestrial
events. Moreover, both have always been pursued in the belief that the processes human beings witness
in heaven and on earth manifest the will of the Creator and, if correctly understood, will yield the key to
the Creator's intentions.
Nature and significance
That both astrology and alchemy may be regarded as fundamental aspects of
thought is indicated by their apparent universality. It is notable, however, that the
evidence is not equally substantial in all times and places. Evidence from ancient
Middle America (Aztecs, Mayans) is still almost nonexistent; evidence from India is
tenuous and from ancient China, Greece, and Islamic lands is only relatively more
plentiful. A single manuscript of some 80,000 words is the principal source for the
history of Greek alchemy. Chinese alchemy is largely recorded in about 100
"books" that are part of the Taoist canon. Neither Indian nor Islamic alchemy has
ever been collected, and scholars are thus dependent for their knowledge of the
subject on occasional allusions in works of natural philosophy and medicine, plus a
few specifically alchemical works.
Nor is it really clear what alchemy was (or is). The word is a European one,
derived from Arabic, but the origin of the root word, chem, is uncertain. Words
similar to it have been found in most ancient languages, with different meanings,
but conceivably somehow related to alchemy. In fact, the Greeks, Chinese, and
Indians usually referred to what Westerners call alchemy as "The Art," or by terms
denoting change or transmutation.
The chemistry of alchemy
Superficially, the chemistry involved in alchemy appears a hopelessly complicated
succession of heatings of multiple mixtures of obscurely named materials, but it
seems likely that a relative simplicity underlies this complexity. The metals gold,
silver, copper, lead, iron, and tin were all known before the rise of alchemy.
Mercury, the liquid metal, certainly known before 300 BC, when it appears in both
Eastern and Western sources, was crucial to alchemy. Sulfur, "the stone that
burns," was also crucial. It was known from prehistoric times in native deposits and
was also given off in metallurgic processes (the "roasting" of sulfide ores).
Mercury united with most of the other metals, and the amalgam formed coloured
powders (the sulfides) when treated with sulfur. Mercury itself occurs in nature in
a red sulfide, cinnabar, which can also be made artificially. All of these, except
possibly the last, were operations known to the metallurgist and were adopted by
The alchemist added the action on metals of a number of corrosive salts, mainly
the vitriols (copper and iron sulfates), alums (the aluminum sulfates of potassium
and ammonium), and the chlorides of sodium and ammonium. And he made much of
arsenic's property of colouring metals. All of these materials, except the chloride
of ammonia, were known in ancient times. Known as sal ammoniac in the West, nao
sha in China, nao sadar in India, and nushadir in Persia and Arabic lands, the
chloride of ammonia first became known to the West in the Chou-i ts'an t'ung ch'i, a
Chinese treatise of the 2nd century AD. It was to be crucial to alchemy, for on
sublimation it dissociates into antagonistic corrosive materials, ammonia and
hydrochloric acid, which readily attack the metals. Until the 9th century it seems to
have come from a single source, the Flame Mountain (Huo-yen Shan) near
T'u-lu-p'an (Turfan), in Central Asia.
Finally, the manipulation of these materials was to lead to the discovery of the
mineral acids, the history of which began in Europe in the 13th century. The first
was probably nitric acid, made by distilling together saltpetre (potassium nitrate)
and vitriol or alum. More difficult to discover was sulfuric acid, which was distilled
from vitriol or alum alone but required apparatus resistant to corrosion and heat.
And most difficult was hydrochloric acid, distilled from common salt or sal ammoniac
and vitriol or alum, for the vapours of this acid cannot be simply condensed but
must be dissolved in water.
"Transmutation" is the key word characterizing alchemy, and it may be understood
in several ways: in the changes that are called chemical, in physiological changes
such as passing from sickness to health, in a hoped-for transformation from old
age to youth, or even in passing from an earthly to a supernatural existence.
Alchemical changes seem always to have been positive, never involving
degradation except as an intermediate stage in a process having a "happy
ending." Alchemy aimed at the great human "goods": wealth, longevity, and
Alchemy was not original in seeking these goals, for it had been preceded by
religion, medicine, and metallurgy. The first chemists were metallurgists, who were
perhaps the most successful practitioners of the arts in antiquity. Their theories
seem to have come not from science but from folklore and religion. The miner and
metallurgist, like the agriculturalist, in this view, accelerate the normal maturation
of the fruits of the earth, in a magico-religious relationship with nature. In primitive
societies the metallurgist is often a member of an occult religious society.
But the first ventures into natural philosophy, the beginnings of what is called the
scientific view, also preceded alchemy. Systems of five almost identical basic
elements were postulated in China, India, and Greece, according to a view in which
nature comprised antagonistic, opposite forces--hot and cold, positive and
negative, and male and female; i.e., primitive versions of the modern conception of
energy. Drawing on a similar astrological heritage, philosophers found
correspondences among the elements, planets, and metals. In short, both the
chemical arts and the theories of the philosophers of nature had become complex
before alchemy appeared.
Neither in China nor in the West can scholars approach with certitude the origins
of alchemy, but the evidences in China appear to be slightly older. Indeed, Chinese
alchemy was connected with an enterprise older than metallurgy--i.e., medicine.
Belief in physical immortality among the Chinese seems to go back to the 8th
century BC, and belief in the possibility of attaining it through drugs to the 4th
century BC. The magical drug, namely the "elixir of life" (elixir is the European
word), is mentioned about that time, and that most potent elixir, "drinkable gold,"
which was a solution (usually imaginary) of this corrosion-resistant metal, as early
as the 1st century BC--many centuries before it is heard of in the West.
Although non-Chinese influences (especially Indian) are possible, the genesis of
alchemy in China may have been a purely domestic affair. It emerged during a
period of political turmoil, the Warring States Period (from the 5th to the 3rd
century BC), and it came to be associated with Taoism--a mystical religion founded
by the 6th-century-BC sage Lao-tzu--and its sacred book, the Tao-te Ching
("Classic of the Way of Power"). The Taoists were a miscellaneous collection of
"outsiders"--in relation to the prevailing Confucians--and such mystical doctrines as
alchemy were soon grafted onto the Taoist canon. What is known of Chinese
alchemy is mainly owing to that graft, and especially to a collection known as Y�n
chi ch'i ch'ien ("Seven Tablets in a Cloudy Satchel"), which is dated 1023. Thus,
sources on alchemy in China (as elsewhere) are compilations of much earlier
The oldest known Chinese alchemical treatise is the Chou-i ts'an t'ung ch'i
("Commentary on the I Ching"). In the main it is an apocryphal interpretation of the I
Ching ("Classic of Changes"), an ancient classic especially esteemed by the
Confucians, relating alchemy to the mystical mathematics of the 64 hexagrams
(six-line figures used for divination). Its relationship to chemical practice is
tenuous, but it mentions materials (including sal ammoniac) and implies chemical
operations. The first Chinese alchemist who is reasonably well known was Ko Hung
(AD 283-343), whose book Pao-p'u-tzu (pseudonym of Ko Hung) contains two
chapters with obscure recipes for elixirs, mostly based on mercury or arsenic
compounds. The most famous Chinese alchemical book is the Tan chin yao ch�eh
("Great Secrets of Alchemy"), probably by Sun Ssu-miao (AD 581-after 673). It is a
practical treatise on creating elixirs (mercury, sulfur, and the salts of mercury and
arsenic are prominent) for the attainment of immortality, plus a few for specific
cures for disease and such other purposes as the fabrication of precious stones.
Altogether, the similarities between the materials used and the elixirs made in
China, India, and the West are more remarkable than are their differences.
Nonetheless, Chinese alchemy differed from that of the West in its objective.
Whereas in the West the objective seems to have evolved from gold to elixirs of
immortality to simply superior medicines, neither the first nor the last of these
objectives seems ever to have been very important in China.
Chinese alchemy was consistent from first to last, and there was relatively little
controversy among its practitioners, who seem to have varied only in their
prescriptions for the elixir of immortality or perhaps only over their names for it, of
which one Sinologist has counted about 1,000. In the West there were conflicts
between advocates of herbal and "chemical" (i.e., mineral) pharmacy, but in China
mineral remedies were always accepted. There were, in Europe, conflicts between
alchemists who favoured gold making and those who thought medicine the proper
goal, but the Chinese always favoured the latter. Since alchemy rarely achieved
any of these goals, it was an advantage to the Western alchemist to have the
situation obscured, and the art survived in Europe long after Chinese alchemy had
simply faded away.
Chinese alchemy followed its own path. Whereas the Western world, with its
numerous religious promises of immortality, never seriously expected alchemy to
fulfill that goal, the deficiencies of Chinese religions in respect to promises of
immortality left that goal open to the alchemist. A serious reliance on medical
elixirs that were in varying degrees poisonous led the alchemist into permanent
exertions to moderate those poisons, either through variation of the ingredients
or through chemical manipulations. The fact that immortality was so desirable and
the alchemist correspondingly valued enabled the British historian of science
Joseph Needham to tabulate a series of Chinese emperors who probably died of
elixir poisoning. Ultimately a succession of royal deaths made alchemists and
emperors alike more cautious, and Chinese alchemy vanished (probably as the
Chinese adopted Buddhism, which offered other, less dangerous avenues to
immortality), leaving its literary manifestations embedded in the Taoist canons.
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-sastra, 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 (Gandhara)
that long endured, the possibility exists that the Indians acquired the idea from
the Greeks, but it could have been the other way around.
It is also possible that the alchemy of medicine and immortality came to India from
China, or vice versa; in any case, gold making appears to have been a minor
concern, and medicine the major concern, of both cultures. But the elixir of
immortality was of little importance in India (which had other avenues to
immortality). The Indian elixirs were mineral remedies for specific diseases or, at
the most, to promote long life.
As in China and the West, alchemy in India came to be associated with religious
mysticism, but much later--not until the rise of Tantrism (an esoteric, occultic,
meditative system), AD 1100-1300. To Tantrism are owed writings that are clearly
alchemical (such as the 12th-century Rasarnava, or "Treatise on Metallic
From the earliest records of Indian natural philosophy, which date from the 5th-3rd
centuries BC, theories of nature were based on conceptions of material elements
(fire, wind, water, earth, and space), vitalism ("animated atoms"), and dualisms of
love and hate or action and reaction. The alchemist coloured metals and on
occasion "made" gold, but he gave little importance to that. His six metals (gold,
silver, tin, iron, lead, and copper), each further subdivided (five kinds of gold,
etc.), were "killed" (i.e., corroded) but not "resurrected," as was the custom of
Western alchemy. Rather, they were killed to make medicines. Although "the
secrets of mercurial lore" became part of the Tantric rite, mercury seems to have
been much less important than in China.
The Indians exploited metal reactions more
widely, but, although they possessed from an early date not only vitriol and sal
ammoniac but also saltpetre, they nevertheless failed to discover the mineral
acids. This is the more remarkable because India was long the principal source of
saltpetre, which occurs as an efflorescence on the soil, especially in populous
tropical countries. But it lacks the high degree of corrosivity of metals possessed
by the vitriols and chlorides and played a small part in early alchemy. Saltpetre
appears particularly in 9th- to 11th-century-AD Indian and Chinese recipes for
fireworks, one of which--a mixture of saltpetre, sulfur, and charcoal--is gunpowder.
Saltpetre first appears in Europe in the 13th century, along with the modern
formula for gunpowder and the recipe for nitric acid.
Western alchemy may go back to the beginnings of the Hellenistic period (c. 300
BC-c. AD 300), although the earliest alchemist whom authorities have regarded as
authentic is Zosimos of Panopolis (Egypt), who lived near the end of the period. He
is one of about 40 authors represented in a compendium of alchemical writings
that was probably put together in Byzantium (Constantinople) in the 7th or 8th
century AD and that exists in manuscripts in Venice and Paris. Synesius, the latest
author represented, lived in Byzantium in the 4th century. The earliest is the
author designated Democritus but identified by scholars with Bolos of Mende, a
Hellenized Egyptian who lived in the Nile Delta about 200 BC.
He is represented by
a treatise called Physica et mystica ("Natural and Mystical Things"), a kind of recipe
book for dyeing and colouring but principally for the making of gold and silver. The
recipes are stated obscurely and are justified with references to the Greek
theory of elements and to astrological theory. Most end with the phrase "One
nature rejoices in another nature; one nature triumphs over another nature; one
nature masters another nature," which authorities variously trace to the Magi
(Zoroastrian priests), Stoic pantheism (a Greek philosophy concerned with nature),
or to the 4th-century-BC Greek philosopher Aristotle. It was the first of a number
of such aphorisms over which alchemists were to speculate for many centuries.
In 1828 a group of ancient papyrus manuscripts written in Greek was purchased in
Thebes (Egypt), and about a half-century later it was noticed that among them,
divided between libraries in Leyden (The Netherlands) and Stockholm, was a tract
very like the Physica et mystica. It differed, however, in that it lacked the former's
theoretical embellishments and stated in some recipes that only fraudulent
imitation of gold and silver was intended. Scholars believe that this kind of work
was the ancestor both of the Physica et mystica and of the ordinary artist's recipe
book. The techniques were ancient. Archaeology has revealed metal objects inlaid
with colours obtained by grinding metals with sulfur, and Homer's description (8th
century BC) of the shield of Achilles gives the impression that the artist in his time
was virtually able to paint in metal.
Democritus is praised by most of the other authors in the Venice-Paris manuscript,
and he is much commented upon. But only Zosimos shows what had become of
alchemy after Bolos of Mende. His theory is luxuriant in imagery, beginning with a
discussion of "the composition of waters, movement, growth, embodying and
disembodying, drawing the spirits from bodies and binding the spirits within
bodies" and continuing in the same vein. The "base" metals are to be "ennobled"
(to gold) by killing and resurrecting them, but his practice is full of distillation and
sublimation, and he is obsessed with "spirits." Theory and practice are joined in
the concept that success depends upon the production of a series of colours,
usually black, white, yellow, and purple, and that the colours are to be obtained
through Theion hydor (divine or sulfur water--it could mean either).
Zosimos credits these innovations mainly to Maria (sometimes called "the Jewess"),
who invented the apparatus, and to Agathodaimon, probably a pseudonym. Neither
is represented (beyond Zosimos' references) in the Venice-Paris manuscript, but a
tract attributed to Agathodaimon, published in 1953, shows him to be preoccupied
with the colour sequence and complicating it by using arsenic instead of sulfur.
Thus, the colour-producing potentialities of chemistry were considerable by the
time of Zosimos.
Zosimos also shows that alchemical theory came to focus on the idea that there
exists a substance that can bring about the desired transformation instantly,
magically, or, as a modern chemist might say, catalytically. He called it "the
tincture," and had several. It was also sometimes called "the powder" (xerion),
which was to pass through Arabic into Latin as elixir and finally (signifying its
inorganic nature) as the "philosopher's stone," "a stone which is not a stone," as
the alchemists were wont to say. It was sometimes called a medicine for the
rectification of "base" or "sick" metals, and from this it was a short step to view it
as a drug for the rectification of human maladies. Zosimos notes the possibility, in
passing. When the objective of alchemy became human salvation, the material
constitution of the elixir became less important than the incantations that
accompanied its production. Synesius, the last author in the Venice-Paris
manuscript, already defined alchemy as a mental operation, independent of the
science of matter.
Thus, Greek alchemy came to resemble, in both theory and practice, that of China
and India. But its objectives included gold making; thus it remained fundamentally
Arabic alchemy is as mysterious as Greek in its origins, and the two seem to have
been significantly different. The respect in which Physica et mystica was held by
the Greek alchemists was bestowed by the Arabs on a different work, the Emerald
Tablet of Hermes Trismegistos, the reputed Hellenistic author of various
alchemical, occultic, and theological works. Beginning "That which is above is like to
that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above," it is
brief, theoretical, and astrological. Hermes "the thrice great" (Trismegistos) was a
Greek version of the Egyptian god Thoth and the supposed founder of an
astrological philosophy that is first noted in 150 BC. The Emerald Tablet, however,
comes from a larger work called Book of the Secret of Creation, which exists in
Latin and Arabic manuscripts and was thought by the Muslim alchemist ar-Razi to
have been written during the reign of Caliph al-Ma'mun (AD 813-833), though it has
been attributed to the 1st-century-AD pagan mystic Apollonius of Tyana.
Some scholars have suggested that Arabic alchemy descended from a western
Asiatic school and that Greek alchemy was derived from an Egyptian school. As far
as is known, the Asiatic school was not Chinese or Indian. What is known is that
Arabic alchemy was associated with a specific city in Syria, Harran, which seems to
have been a fountainhead of alchemical notions. And it is possible that the
distillation ideology and its spokeswoman, Maria--as well as
Agathodaimon--represented the alchemy of Harran, which presumably migrated to
Alexandria and was incorporated into the alchemy of Zosimos.
The existing versions of the Book of the Secret of Creation have been carried
back only to the 7th or 6th century but are believed by some to represent much
earlier writings, although not necessarily those of Apollonius himself. He is the
subject of an ancient biography that says nothing about alchemy, but neither does
the Emerald Tablet nor the rest of the Book of the Secret of Creation. On the
other hand, their theories of nature have an alchemical ring, and the Book
mentions the characteristic materials of alchemy, including, for the first time in the
West, sal ammoniac. It was clearly an important book to the Arabs, most of whose
eminent philosophers mentioned alchemy, although sometimes disapprovingly.
Those who practiced it were even more interested in literal gold making than had
been the Greeks. The most well-attested and probably the greatest Arabic
alchemist was ar-Razi (c. 850-923/924), a Persian physician who lived in Baghdad.
The most famous was Jabir ibn Hayyan, now believed to be a name applied to a
collection of "underground writings" produced in Baghdad after the theological
reaction against science. In any case, the Jabirian writings are very similar to
those of ar-Razi.
Ar-Razi classified the materials used by the alchemist into "bodies" (the metals),
stones, vitriols, boraxes, salts, and "spirits," putting into the latter those vital (and
sublimable) materials, mercury, sulfur, orpiment and realgar (the arsenic sulfides),
and sal ammoniac. Much is made of sal ammoniac, the reactive powers of which
seem to have given Western alchemy a new lease on life. Ar-Razi and the Jabirian
writers were really trying to make gold, through the catalytic action of the elixir.
Both wrote much on the compounding of "strong waters," an enterprise that was
ultimately to lead to the discovery of the mineral acids, but students have been no
more able to find evidence of this discovery in the writings of the Arabic
alchemists than in those of China and India. The Arabic strong waters were merely
corrosive salt solutions.
Ar-Razi's writing represents the apogee of Arabic alchemy, so much so that
students of alchemy have little evidence of its later reorientation toward mystical
or quasi-religious objectives. Nor does it seem to have turned to medicine, which
remained independent. But there was a tendency in Arabic medicine to give
greater emphasis to mineral remedies and less to the herbs that had been the
chief medicines of the earlier Greek and Arabic physicians. The result was a
pharmacopoeia not of elixirs but of specific remedies that are inorganic in origin
and not very different from the elixirs of ar-Razi. This new pharmacopoeia was
taken to Europe by Constantine of Africa, a Baghdad-educated Muslim who died in
1087 as a Christian monk at Monte Cassino (Italy). The pharmacopoeia also
appeared in Spain in the 11th century and passed from there to Latin Europe,
along with the Arabic alchemical writings, which were translated into Latin in the
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