Page from alchemic treatise of Ramon Llull, 16th century

Alchemy is an influential philosophical tradition whose early practitioners’ claims to profound powers were known from antiquity. The defining objectives of alchemy are varied; these include the creation of the fabled philosopher's stone possessing powers including the capability of turning base metals into the noble metals gold or silver- as well as an elixir of life conferring youth and immortality. In general alchemists believe in a natural and symbolic unity of humanity with the cosmos. Lately western alchemy has become recognized as the proto-typical protoscience presaging the seminal western sciences such as chemistry and medicine. Alchemists nurtured a framework of theory, terminology, experimental process and basic lab techniques still recognizable today. But alchemy differs from modern science in the inclusion of Hermetic principles and practices related to mythology, religion, and spirituality.



The best known goals of the alchemists were the transmutation of common metals into gold or silver, and the creation of a "panacea," a remedy that supposedly would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely; and the discovery of a universal solvent.[1] Modern discussions of alchemy are generally split into an examination of its exoteric practical applications, and its esoteric aspects. The former is pursued by historians of the physical sciences who have examined the subject in terms of proto-chemistry, medicine, and charlatanism. The latter is of interest to the historians of esotericism, psychologists, spiritual and new age communities, and hermetic philosophers.[2] The subject has also made an ongoing impact on literature and the arts. Despite the modern split, numerous sources stress an integration of esoteric and exoteric approaches to alchemy. Holmyard, when writing on exoteric aspects, states that they can not be properly appreciated if the esoteric is not always kept in mind.[3] The prototype for this model can be found in Bolos of Mendes' second century BCE work, Physika kai Mystika (On Physical and Mystical Matters).[4] Marie-Louise von Franz tells us the double approach of Western alchemy was set from the start, when Greek philosophy was mixed with Egyptian and Mesopotamian technology. The technological, operative approach, which she calls extraverted, and the mystic, contemplative, psychological one, which she calls introverted are not mutually exclusive, but complementary instead, as meditation requires practice in the real world, and conversely.[5]

Relation to the science of chemistry

Practical applications of alchemy produced a wide range of contributions to medicine and the physical sciences. Alchemists Jābir ibn Hayyān[6] and Robert Boyle[7] are both credited as being the fathers of chemistry. Paracelsian iatrochemistry emphasized the medicinal application of alchemy (continued in plant alchemy, or spagyric).[8] Studies of alchemy also influenced Isaac Newton's theory of gravity.[9] Academic historical research supports that the alchemists were searching for a material substance using physical methods.[10]

It is a popular belief that Alchemists made 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). Alchemists contributed distillation to Western Europe. The attempts of alchemists to arrange information on substances, so as to clarify and anticipate the products of their chemical reactions, resulted in early conceptions of chemical elements and the first rudimentary periodic tables. They learned how to extract metals from ores, and how to compose many types of inorganic acids and bases.

During the 17th century, practical alchemy started to evolve into modern chemistry,[11] as it was renamed by Robert Boyle, the "father of modern chemistry".[12] In his book, The Skeptical Chymist, Boyle attacked Paracelsus and the natural philosophy of Aristotle, which was taught at universities. However, Boyle's biographers, in their emphasis that he laid the foundations of modern chemistry, neglect how steadily he clung to the Scholastic sciences and to Alchemy, in theory, practice and doctrine.[13] The decline of alchemy continued in the 18th century with the birth of modern chemistry, which provided a more precise and reliable framework within a new view of the universe based on rational materialism.

Relation to Hermeticism

In the eyes of a variety of esoteric and Hermetic practitioners, the heart of alchemy is spiritual. Transmutation of lead into gold is presented as an analogy for personal transmutation, purification, and perfection.[4] This approach is often termed 'spiritual', 'esoteric', or 'internal' alchemy.

Early alchemists, such as Zosimos of Panopolis (c. 300 A.D.), highlight the spiritual nature of the alchemical quest, symbolic of a religious regeneration of the human soul.[14] This approach continued in the Middle Ages, as metaphysical aspects, substances, physical states, and material processes were used as metaphors for spiritual entities, spiritual states, and, ultimately, transformation. In this sense, the literal meanings of 'Alchemical Formulas' were a blind, hiding their true spiritual philosophy. Practitioners and patrons such as Melchior Cibinensis and Pope Innocent VIII existed within the ranks of the church, while Martin Luther applauded alchemy for its consistency with Christian teachings.[15] 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 a 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 a 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 to discover their true meaning.

In his 1766 Alchemical Catechism, Théodore Henri de Tschudi denotes that the 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.[16]

During the renaissance, alchemy broke into more distinct schools placing spiritual alchemists in high contrast with those working with literal metals and chemicals.[17] While most spiritual alchemists also incorporate elements of exotericism, examples of a purely spiritual alchemy can be traced back as far as the sixteenth century, when Jacob Boehme used alchemical terminology in strictly mystical writings.[18] Another example can be found in the work of Heinrich Khunrath (1560–1605) who viewed the process of transmutation as occurring within the alchemist's soul.[17]

The recent work of Principe and Newman, seeks to reject the 'spiritual interpretation' of alchemy, stating it arose as a product of the Victorian occult revival.[19] There is evidence to support that some classical alchemical sources were adulterated during this time to give greater weight to the spiritual aspects of alchemy.[20][21] Despite this, other scholars such as Calian and Tilton reject this view as entirely historically inaccurate, drawing examples of historical spiritual alchemy from Boehme, Isaac Newton, and Michael Maier.[22]


The word alchemy derives from the Old French alquimie, which is from the Medieval Latin alchimia, and which is in turn from the Arabic al-kimia (الكيمياء). This term itself is derived from the Ancient Greek chemeia (χημεία) or chemia (χημία)[23] with the addition of the Arabic definite article al- (الـ).[24] The ancient Greek word may have been derived from[25] a version of the Egyptian name for Egypt, which was itself based on the Ancient Egyptian word kēme (hieroglyphic Khmi, black earth, as opposed to desert sand).[24] The word could also have originally derived from chumeia (χυμεία) meaning "mixture" and referring to pharmaceutical chemistry.[26] With the later rise of alchemy in Alexandria, the word may have derived from Χημία, and thus became spelled as χημεία, and the original meaning forgotten.[27] The etymology is still open, and recent research indicates that the Egyptian derivation may be valid.[28]


Extract and symbol key from a 17th century book on alchemy. The symbols used have a one-to-one correspondence with symbols used in astrology at the time.

Alchemy covers several philosophical traditions spanning some four millennia and three continents. These traditions' general penchant for cryptic and symbolic language makes it hard to trace their mutual influences and "genetic" relationships. One can distinguish at least three major strands, which appear to be largely independent, at least in their earlier stages: Chinese alchemy, centered in China and its zone of cultural influence; Indian alchemy, centered around the Indian subcontinent; and Western alchemy, which occurred around the Mediterranean and whose center has shifted over the millennia from Greco-Roman Egypt, to the Islamic world, and finally medieval Europe. Chinese alchemy was closely connected to Taoism and Indian alchemy with the Dharmic faiths, whereas Western alchemy developed its own philosophical system that was largely independent of, but influenced by, various Western religions. It is still an open question whether these three strands share a common origin, or to what extent they influenced each other.

Alchemy in Greco-Roman Egypt

Ambix, cucurbit and retort of Zosimos, from Marcelin Berthelot, Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (3 vol., Paris, 1887–1888).

The origin of Western alchemy may generally be traced to Hellenistic Egypt. The Hellenistic city of Alexandria was a center of Greek alchemical knowledge, and retained its preeminence through most of the Greek and Roman periods.[29] Here, elements of technology, religion, mythology, and Greek philosophy, each with their own much longer histories, combined to form the earliest known records of alchemy in the West. Zosimos of Panopolis wrote the oldest known books on alchemy while Mary the Jewess is credited as being the first non-fictitious Western alchemist. They wrote in Greek and lived in Egypt under Roman rule.

Mythology – It is claimed by Zosimos of Panopolis that alchemy dated back to pharaonic Egypt where it was the domain of the priestly class; there is little or no evidence for such a claim though.[30]Alchemical writers used Classical figures from Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology to illuminate their works and allegorize alchemical transmutation.[31] These included the pantheon of gods related to the Classical planets, Isis, Osiris, Jason, and many others.

The central figure in the mythology of alchemy is Hermes Trismegistus (or Thrice-Great Hermes). His name is derived from the god Thoth and his Greek counterpart Hermes. Hermes and his caduceus or serpent-staff, were among alchemy's principal symbols. According to Clement of Alexandria, he wrote what were called the "forty-two books of Hermes", covering all fields of knowledge.[32] The Hermetica of Thrice-Great Hermes is generally understood to form the basis for Western alchemical philosophy and practice, called the hermetic philosophy by its early practitioners. These writings were collected in the first centuries of the common era.

Technology – The dawn of Western alchemy is sometimes associated with that of metallurgy, extending back to 3500 BCE.[33] Many writings were lost when the emperor Diocletian ordered the burning of alchemical books[34] after suppressing a revolt in Alexandria (292 CE). Few original Egyptian documents on alchemy have survived, most notable among them the Stockholm papyrus and the Leyden papyrus X. Dating from 300 to 500 CE, they contained recipes for dyeing and making artificial gemstones, cleaning and fabricating pearls, and the manufacture of imitation gold and silver.[35] These writings lack the mystical, philosophical elements of alchemy, but do contain the works of Bolus of Mendes (or Pseudo-Democritus) which aligned these recipes with theoretical knowledge of astrology and the Classical elements.[36] Between the time of Bolus and Zosimos, the change took place that transformed this metallurgy into a Hermetic art.[37]

Philosophy – Alexandria acted as a melting pot for philosophies of Pythagoreanism, Platonism, Stoicism and Gnosticism which formed the origin of alchemy’s character.[38] An important example of alchemy’s roots in Greek philosophy, originated by Empedocles and developed by Aristotle, was that all things in the universe were formed from only four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. According to Aristotle, each element had a sphere to which it belonged and to which it would return if left undisturbed.[39] The four elements of the Greek were mostly qualitative aspects of matter, not quantitative, as our modern elements are. "...True alchemy never regarded earth, air, water, and fire as corporeal or chemical substances in the present-day sense of the word. The four elements are simply the primary, and most general, qualities by means of which the amorphous and purely quantitative substance of all bodies first reveals itself in differentiated form."[40] Later alchemists extensively developed the mystical aspects of this concept.

Alchemy coexisted alongside emerging Christianity. Lactantius believed Hermes Trismegistus had prophesied its birth. Augustine (354–430 CE) later affirmed this, but also condemned Trismegistus for idolatry.[41] Examples of Pagan, Christian, and Jewish alchemists can be found during this period.

Most of the Greco-Roman alchemists preceding Zosimos are known only by pseudonyms, such as Moses, Isis, Cleopatra, Democritus, and Ostanes. Others authors such as Komarios, and Chymes, we only know through fragments of text. After 400 CE, Greek alchemical writers occupied themselves solely in commenting on the works of these predecessors.[42] By the middle of the seventh century alchemy was almost an entirely mystical discipline.[43] It was at that time that Khalid Ibn Yazid sparked its migration from Alexandria to the Islamic world, facilitating the translation and preservation of Greek alchemical texts in the 8th and 9th centuries.[44]

Alchemy in the Islamic world

Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber), considered a "father of chemistry", introduced a scientific and experimental approach to alchemy.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the focus of alchemical development moved to the Islamic World. Much more is known about Islamic alchemy because it was better documented: indeed, most of the earlier writings that have come down through the years were preserved as Arabic translations.[45] The word alchemy itself was derived from the Arabic word الكيمياء al-kimia. The Islamic world was a melting pot for alchemy. Platonic and Aristotelian thought, which had already been somewhat appropriated into hermetical science, continued to be assimilated during the late 7th and early 8th centuries.

In the late 8th century, Jabir ibn Hayyan (known as "Geber" in Europe) introduced a new approach to alchemy, based on scientific methodology and controlled experimentation in the laboratory, in contrast to the ancient Greek and Egyptian alchemists whose works were often allegorical and unintelligible, with very little concern for laboratory work.[46] Jabir is thus "considered by many to be the father of chemistry",[47] albeit others reserve that title for Robert Boyle or Antoine Lavoisier. The historian of science, Paul Kraus, wrote:[46]

“To form an idea of the historical place of Jabir’s alchemy and to tackle the problem of its sources, it is advisable to compare it with what remains to us of the alchemical literature in the Greek language. One knows in which miserable state this literature reached us. Collected by Byzantine scientists from the tenth century, the corpus of the Greek alchemists is a cluster of incoherent fragments, going back to all the times since the third century until the end of the Middle Ages.”
“The efforts of Berthelot and Ruelle to put a little order in this mass of literature led only to poor results, and the later researchers, among them in particular Mrs. Hammer-Jensen, Tannery, Lagercrantz , von Lippmann, Reitzenstein, Ruska, Bidez, Festugiere and others, could make clear only few points of detail…
The study of the Greek alchemists is not very encouraging. An even surface examination of the Greek texts shows that a very small part only was organized according to true experiments of laboratory: even the supposedly technical writings, in the state where we find them today, are unintelligible nonsense which refuses any interpretation.
It is different with Jabir’s alchemy. The relatively clear description of the processes and the alchemical apparatuses, the methodical classification of the substances, mark an experimental spirit which is extremely far away from the weird and odd esotericism of the Greek texts. The theory on which Jabir supports his operations is one of clearness and of an impressive unity. More than with the other Arab authors, one notes with him a balance between theoretical teaching and practical teaching, between the `ilm and the `amal. In vain one would seek in the Greek texts a work as systematic as that which is presented for example in the Book of Seventy.”

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

The first essential in chemistry is that thou shouldest perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who performs not practical work nor makes experiments will never attain to the least degree of mastery.[48]

Early Islamic chemists such as Jabir Ibn Hayyan (جابر بن حيان in Arabic, Geberus in Latin; usually rendered in English as Geber), Al-Kindi (Alkindus) and Muhammad ibn Zakarīya Rāzi (Rasis or Rhazes in Latin) contributed a number of key chemical discoveries, such as the muriatic (hydrochloric acid), sulfuric and nitric acids, and more. The discovery that aqua regia, a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids, could dissolve the noblest metal, gold, was to fuel the imagination of alchemists for the next millennium.

Islamic philosophers also made great contributions to alchemical hermeticism. The most influential author in this regard was arguably Jabir. Jabir's ultimate goal was Takwin, the artificial creation of life in the alchemical laboratory, up to and including human life. He analyzed each Aristotelian element in terms of four basic qualities of hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness.[49] According to Jabir, in each metal two of these qualities were interior and two were exterior. For example, lead was externally cold and dry, while gold was hot and moist. Thus, Jabir theorized, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a different metal would result.[49] By this reasoning, the search for the philosopher's stone was introduced to Western alchemy. Jabir developed an elaborate numerology whereby the root letters of a substance's name in Arabic, when treated with various transformations, held correspondences to the element's physical properties.

The elemental system used in medieval alchemy also originated with Jabir. His original system consisted of seven elements, which included the five classical elements (aether, air, earth, fire and water), in addition to two chemical elements representing the metals: sulphur, ‘the stone which burns’, which characterized the principle of combustibility, and mercury, which contained the idealized principle of metallic properties. Shortly thereafter, this evolved into eight elements, with the Arabic concept of the three metallic principles: sulphur giving flammability or combustion, mercury giving volatility and stability, and salt giving solidity.[50] The atomic theory of corpuscularianism, where all physical bodies possess an inner and outer layer of minute particles or corpuscles, also has its origins in the work of Jabir.[51]

During the 9th to 14th centuries, alchemical theories faced criticism from a variety of practical Muslim chemists, including Ja'far al-Sadiq,[52] Alkindus,[53] Abū al-Rayhān al-Bīrūnī,[54] Avicenna[55] and Ibn Khaldun. In particular, they wrote refutations against the idea of the transmutation of metals.

Alchemy in Medieval Europe

Painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771

The introduction of alchemy to Latin Europe occurred on February 11th, 1144, with the completion of Robert of Chester’s translation of the Arabic Book of the Composition of Alchemy. Although European craftsmen and technicians preexisted, Robert notes in his preface that alchemy was unknown in Latin Europe at the time of his writing. The translation of Arabic texts concerning numerous disciplines including alchemy flourished in twelfth century Toledo, Spain, through contributors like Gerard of Cremona and Adelard of Bath.[56] Translations of the time included the Turba Philosophorum, and the works of Avicenna and al-Razi. These brought with them many new words to the European vocabulary for which there was no previous Latin equivalent. Alcohol, carboy, elixir, and athanor are examples.[57]

Meanwhile, theologian contemporaries of the translators made strides towards the reconciliation of faith and experimental rationalism, thereby priming Europe for the influx of alchemical thought. Saint Anselm (1033–1109) put forth the opinion that faith and rationalism were compatible and encouraged rationalism in a Christian context. Peter Abelard followed Anselm's work, laying the foundation for acceptance of Aristotelian thought before the first works of Aristotle reached the West. Later, Robert Grosseteste (1170–1253) took Abelard's methods of analysis and added the use of observations, experimentation, and conclusions in making scientific evaluations. Grosseteste also did much work to bridge Platonic and Aristotelian thinking.[58]

Through much of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, alchemical knowledge in Europe remained centered around translations, and new Latin contributions were not made. The efforts of the translators were succeeded by that of the encyclopaedists. Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon are the most notable of these.[59] Their works explained and summarized the newly imported alchemical knowledge in Aristotelian terms. There is little to suggest that Albertus Magnus (1193–1280), a Dominican, was himself an alchemist. In his authentic works such as the Book of Minerals, he observed and commented on the operations and theories of alchemical authorities like Hermes and Democritus, and unnamed alchemists of his time. Albertus critically compared these to the writings of Aristotle and Avicenna, where they concerned the transmutation of metals. From the time shortly after his death through to the fifteenth century, twenty-eight or more alchemical tracts were misattributed to him, a common practice giving rise to his reputation as an accomplished alchemist.[60] Likewise, alchemical texts have been attributed to Albert’s student Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274).

Roger Bacon (1214–1294) was an Oxford Franciscan who studied a wide variety of topics including optics, languages and medicine. After studying the Pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum Secretorum around 1247, he dramatically shifted his studies towards a vision of a universal science which included alchemy and astrology. Bacon maintained that Albertus Magnus’ ignorance of the fundamentals of alchemy prevented a complete picture of wisdom. While alchemy was not more important to him than any of the other sciences, and he did not produce symbolic allegorical works, Bacon's contributions advanced alchemy’s connections to soteriology and Christian theology. Bacon’s writings demonstrated an integration of morality, salvation, alchemy, and the prolongation of life. His correspondence with Pope Clement IV highlighted this integration, calling attention to the importance of alchemy to the papacy.[61] Like the Greeks before him, Bacon acknowledged the division of alchemy into the practical and theoretical. He notes that the theoretical lied outside the scope of Aristotle, the natural philosophers, and all Latin writers of his time. The practical however, confirmed the theoretical through experiment, and Bacon advocated its uses in natural science and medicine.[62]

Soon after Bacon, the influential work of Pseudo-Geber (sometimes identified as Paul of Taranto) appeared. His Summa Perfectionis remained a staple summary of alchemical practice and theory through the medieval and renaissance periods. It was notable for its inclusion of practical chemical operations alongside sulphur-mercury theory, and the unusual clarity with which they were described.[63] By the end of the 13th century, alchemy had developed into a fairly structured system of belief. Adepts believed in the macrocosm-microcosm theories of Hermes, that is to say, they believed that processes that affect minerals and other substances could have an effect on the human body (for example, if one could learn the secret of purifying gold, one could use the technique to purify the human soul). They believed in the four elements and the four qualities as described above, and they had a strong tradition of cloaking their written ideas in a labyrinth of coded jargon set with traps to mislead the uninitiated. Finally, the alchemists practiced their art: they actively experimented with chemicals and made observations and theories about how the universe operated. Their entire philosophy revolved around their belief that man's soul was divided within himself after the fall of Adam. By purifying the two parts of man's soul, man could be reunited with God.[64]

In the 14th century, alchemy became more accessible to Europeans outside the confines of Latin speaking churchmen and scholars. Alchemical discourse shifted from scholarly philosophical debate to an exposed social commentary on the alchemists themselves.[65] Dante, Piers the Ploughman, and Chaucer all painted unflattering pictures of alchemists as thieves and liars. Pope John XXII’s 1317 edict, Spondent quas non exhibent forbade the false promises of transmutation made by pseudo-alchemists.[66] In 1403, Henry IV of England banned the practice of multiplying metals. These critiques and regulations centered more around pseudo-alchemical charlatanism than the actual study of alchemy, which continued with an increasingly Christian tone. The 14th century saw the Christian imagery of death and resurrection employed in the alchemical texts of Petrus Bonus, John of Rupescissa and in works written in the name of Raymond Lull and Arnold of Villanova.[67]

Nicolas Flamel lived from 1330 to 1417 and would serve as the archetype for the next phase of alchemy. He was not a religious scholar as were many of his predecessors, and his entire interest in the subject revolved around the pursuit of the philosopher's stone. His work spends a great deal of time describing the processes and reactions, but never actually gives the formula for carrying out the transmutations. Most of his work was aimed at gathering alchemical knowledge that had existed before him, especially as regarded the philosopher's stone.[68] Though the historical Flamel existed, the writings and legends assigned to him only appeared in 1612. Current scholarship suggests that they are fiction - another example of the tradition of pseudepigraphy and allegory in alchemical writing.[69]

Through the late Middle Ages (1300–1500) alchemists were much like Flamel: they concentrated on looking for the philosophers' stone. Bernard Trevisan and George Ripley made similar contributions in the 14th and 15th centuries . Their cryptic allusions and symbolism led to wide variations in interpretation of the art.

Alchemy in the Renaissance and modern age

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

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

One of these men who emerged at the beginning of the 16th century was the German Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535). This alchemist believed himself to be a wizard capable of summoning spirits.[citation needed] His influence was negligible, but like Flamel, he produced writings which were referred to by alchemists of later years. Again like Flamel, he did much to change alchemy from a mystical philosophy to an occultist magic.[citation needed] He did keep alive the philosophies of the earlier alchemists, including experimental science, numerology, etc., but he added magic theory, which reinforced the idea of alchemy as an occultist belief. In spite of all this, Agrippa still considered himself a Christian, though his views often came into conflict with the church.[70][71]

The most important name in this period is Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus, (Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493–1541) who cast alchemy into a new form, rejecting some of the occultism that had accumulated over the years and promoting the use of observations and experiments to learn about the human body. He rejected Gnostic traditions, but kept much of the Hermetical, neo-Platonic, and Pythagorean philosophies; however, Hermetical science had so much Aristotelian theory that his rejection of Gnosticism was practically meaningless. In particular, Paracelsus rejected the magic theories of Agrippa and Flamel.

Paracelsus pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine, and wrote "Many have said of Alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines."[72] His hermetical views were that sickness and health in the body relied on the harmony of man the microcosm and Nature the macrocosm. He took an approach different from those before him, using this analogy not in the manner of soul-purification but in the manner that humans must have certain balances of minerals in their bodies, and that certain illnesses of the body had chemical remedies that could cure them.[73] While his attempts of treating diseases with such remedies as Mercury might seem ill-advised from a modern point of view, his basic idea of chemically produced medicines has stood time surprisingly well. Alchemy became known as the spagyric art after Greek words meaning to separate and to join together the word probably being coined by Paracelsus. Compare this with one of the dictums of Alchemy in Latin: Solve et Coagula  — Separate, and Join Together (or "dissolve and coagulate").[74]

"Alchemist Sędziwój" (1566–1636) by Jan Matejko, 1867

At the beginning of the 16th century, King James IV of Scotland kept an alchemist, John Damian, and a furnace of the quintessence in Stirling Castle.[75] In England, the topic of alchemy in that time frame is often associated with Doctor John Dee (13 July 1527 – December, 1608), better known for his role as astrologer, cryptographer, and general "scientific consultant" to Queen Elizabeth I. Dee was considered an authority on the works of Roger Bacon, and was interested enough in alchemy to write a book on that subject (Monas Hieroglyphica, 1564) influenced by the Kabbalah. Dee's associate Edward Kelley — who claimed to converse with angels through a crystal ball and to own a powder that would turn mercury into gold — may have been the source of the popular image of the alchemist-charlatan.

Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, in the late 16th century, sponsored various alchemists in their work at his court in Prague, one of which was a particular alchemist named Edward Kelley. Kelley had been a protegee of John Dee in England.

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

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

Up to the 17th century, alchemy was practiced by scientists, such as Isaac Newton – who devoted considerably more of his writing to the study of alchemy (see Isaac Newton's occult studies) than he did to either optics or physics. Other alchemists of the Western world who were eminent in their other studies include Roger Bacon, and Tycho Brahe.

The decline of Western alchemy

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

Robert Boyle (1627–1691), better known for his studies of gases (cf. Boyle's law) pioneered the scientific method in chemical investigations. He assumed nothing in his experiments and compiled every piece of relevant data; in a typical experiment, Boyle would note the place in which the experiment was carried out, the wind characteristics, the position of the Sun and Moon, and the barometer reading, all just in case they proved to be relevant.[76] This approach eventually led to the founding of modern chemistry in the 18th and 19th centuries, based on revolutionary discoveries of Lavoisier and John Dalton — which finally provided a logical, quantitative and reliable framework for understanding matter transmutations, and revealed the futility of longstanding alchemical goals such as the philosopher's stone.

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

During the seventeenth century, a short-lived "supernatural" interpretation of alchemy become popular, including support by fellows of the Royal Society: Robert Boyle and Elias Ashmole. Proponents of the supernatural interpretation of alchemy believed that the philosopher's stone might be used to summon and communicate with angels.[77]

In the 17th century, practical alchemy started to evolve into modern chemistry,[11] as it was renamed by Robert Boyle, the "father of modern chemistry".[12] In his book, The Skeptical Chymist, Boyle attacked Paracelsus and the venerable natural philosophy of Aristotle, which was taught at universities. However, Boyle's biographers, in their emphasis that he laid the foundations of modern chemistry, neglect how steadily he clung to the Scholastic sciences and to Alchemy, in theory, practice and doctrine.[13] The decline of alchemy continued in the 18th century with the birth of modern chemistry, which provided a more precise and reliable framework within a new view of the universe based on rational materialism.

The words "alchemy" and "chemistry" were used interchangeably during most of the seventeenth century; only during the eighteenth century was a distinction drawn rigidly between the two.[78] In the eighteen century, "alchemy" was considered to be restricted to the realm of "gold making", leading to the popular belief that most, if not all, alchemists were charlatans, and the tradition itself nothing more than a fraud.[79] The obscure and secretive writings of the alchemists was used as a case by those who wished to forward a fraudulent and non-scientific opinion of alchemy.[80] In order to protect the developing science of modern chemistry from the negative censure of which alchemy was being subjected, academic writers during the scientific Enlightenment attempted, for the sake of survival, to separate and divorce the "new" chemistry from the "old" practices of alchemy. This move was mostly successful, and the consequences of this continued into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and even to the present day.[81]

During the occult revival of the early nineteenth century, alchemy received new attention as an occult science.[82] The esoteric or occultist school, which arose during the nineteenth century, held (and continues to hold) the view that the substances and operations mentioned in alchemical literature are to be interpreted in a spiritual sense, and it downplays the role of the alchemy as a practical tradition or protoscience.[83] This interpretation further forwarded the view that alchemy is an art primarily concerned with spiritual enlightenment or illumination, as opposed to the physical manipulation of apparatus and chemicals, and claims that the obscure language of the alchemical texts were an allegorical guise for spiritual, moral or mystical processes.[84] In the first half of the 19th 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.

In the nineteenth century revival of alchemy, the two most seminal figures were Mary Anne Atwood, and Ethan Allen Hitchcock who independently published similar works regarding spiritual alchemy. Both forwarded a completely esoteric view of alchemy, as Atwood claimed: "No modern art or chemistry, notwithstanding all its surreptitious claims, has any thing in common with Alchemy." [85][86] Atwood's work influenced subsequent authors of the occult revival including Eliphas Levi, Arthur Edward Waite, and Rudolf Steiner. Hitchcock, in his Remarks Upon Alchymists (1855) attempted to make a case for his spiritual interpretation with his claim that the alchemists wrote about a spiritual discipline under a materialistic guise in order to avoid accusations of blasphemy from the church and state.

Thus, as science steadily continued to uncover and rationalize the clockwork of the universe, founded on its own materialistic metaphysics, alchemy was left deprived of its chemical and medical connections — but still incurably burdened by them. Reduced to an arcane philosophical system, poorly connected to the material world, it suffered the common fate of other esoteric disciplines such as astrology and Kabbalah: excluded from university curricula, shunned by its former patrons, ostracized by scientists, and commonly viewed as the epitome of charlatanism and superstition. These developments could be interpreted as part of a broader reaction in European intellectualism against the Romantic movement of the preceding centuries.

Indian alchemy

According to Multhauf & Gilbert (2008):[87]

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

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

"Something has been said about the chemical excellence of cast iron in ancient India, and about the high industrial development of the Gupta times, when India was looked to, even by Imperial Rome, as the most skilled of the nations in such chemical industries as dyeing, tanning, soap-making, glass and cement... By the sixth century the Hindus were far ahead of Europe in industrial chemistry; they were masters of calcinations, distillation, sublimation, steaming, fixation, the production of light without heat, the mixing of anesthetic and soporific powders, and the preparation of metallic salts, compounds and alloys. The tempering of steel was brought in ancient India to a perfection unknown in Europe till our own times; King Porus is said to have selected, as a specially valuable gift from Alexander, not gold or silver, but thirty pounds of steel. The Moslems took much of this Hindu chemical science and industry to the Near East and Europe; the secret of manufacturing "Damascus" blades, for example, was taken by the Arabs from the Persians, and by the Persians from India."

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

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

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

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

Chinese alchemy

Taoist Alchemists often use this alternate version of the Taijitu.

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

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

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

Alchemy as a subject of historical research

The history of alchemy has become a significant and recognized subject of academic study.[88] As the language of the alchemists is analyzed, historians are becoming more aware of the intellectual connections between that discipline and other facets of Western cultural history, such as the evolution of science and philosophy, the sociology and psychology of the intellectual communities, kabbalism, spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, and other mystic movements.[89] Institutions involved in this research include The Chymistry of Isaac Newton project at Indiana University, the University of Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism (EXESESO), the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE), and the University of Amsterdam's Sub-department for the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents. A large collection of books on alchemy is kept in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam.

Modern alchemy

Due to the complexity and obscurity of alchemical literature, and the eighteenth century disappearance of remaining alchemical practitioners into the area of chemistry; the general understanding of alchemy in the general public, modern practitioners, and also many historians of science, have been strongly influenced by several distinct and radically different interpretations.[90] Hundreds of books including adulterated translations of classical alchemical literature were published throughout the early nineteenth century.[20] Many of these continue to be reprinted today by esoteric book publishing houses, along with modern books on spiritual alchemy and poor translations of older alchemical texts. These are then used as sources by modern authors to support spiritual interpretations. Over half of the books on alchemy published since 1970 support spiritual interpretations, mostly using previously adulterated documents to support their conclusions. Many of these books continue to be taken seriously, even appearing in university bookshelves.[91]

Esoteric interpretations of alchemy remains strong to this day, and continue to influence both the public and academic perceptions of the history of alchemy. Today, numerous esoteric alchemical groups continue to perpetuate modern interpretations of alchemy, sometimes merging in concepts from New Age or radical environmentalism movements.[92] Rosencrutzians and freemasons have a continued interest in alchemy and its symbolism.

Alchemy in traditional medicine

Traditional medicine sometimes involves the transmutation of natural substances, using pharmacological or a combination of pharmacological and spiritual techniques. In Ayurveda the samskaras are claimed to transform heavy metals and toxic herbs in a way that removes their toxicity. These processes are actively used to the present day.[93]

Twentieth century spagyrists Albert Richard Riedel and Jean Dubuis merged Paracelsian alchemy with occultism, teaching laboratory pharmaceutical methods. The schools they founded, Les Philosophes de la Nature and The Paracelsus Research Society, popularized modern spagyrics including the manufacture of herbal tinctures and products.[94] The courses, books, organizations, and conferences generated by their students continue to influence popular applications of alchemy as a new age medicinal practice.

Nuclear transmutation

In 1919, Ernest Rutherford used artificial disintegration to convert nitrogen into oxygen.[95] 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.

The synthesis of noble metals enjoyed brief popularity 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.

Synthesis of noble metals requires either a nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator. Particle accelerators use huge amounts of energy, while nuclear reactors produce energy, so only methods utilizing a nuclear reactor are of economic interest.


Alchemical symbolism has been used by psychologists such as Carl Jung who reexamined alchemical symbolism and theory and presented the inner meaning of alchemical work as a spiritual path.[96][97] Jung was deeply interested in the occult since his youth, participating in seances, which he used as the basis for his doctoral dissertation "On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena."[98] In 1913, Jung had already adopted a "spiritualist and redemptive interpretation of alchemy", likely reflecting his interest in the occult literature of the nineteenth century.[99] Jung began writing his views on alchemy from the 1920s and continued until the end of his life. 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).[100][101][102]

Jung saw alchemy as a Western proto-psychology dedicated to the achievement of individuation.[96][102] In his interpretation, alchemy was the vessel by which Gnosticism survived its various purges into the Renaissance,[102][103] a concept also followed by others such as Stephan A. Hoeller. In this sense, Jung viewed alchemy as comparable to a Yoga of the East, and more adequate to the Western mind than Eastern religions and philosophies. The practice of Alchemy seemed to change the mind and spirit of the Alchemist. Conversely, spontaneous changes on the mind of Western people undergoing any important stage in individuation seems to produce, on occasion, imagery known to Alchemy and relevant to the person's situation.[104][non-primary source needed] Jung did not completely reject the material experiments of the alchemists, but he massively downplayed it, writing that the transmutation was performed in the mind of the alchemist. He claimed the material substances and procedures were only a projection of the alchemists' internal state, while the real substance to be transformed was the mind itself.[105]

Marie-Louise von Franz, a disciple of Jung, continued Jung's studies on alchemy and its psychological meaning. Jung's work exercised a great influence on the mainstream perception of alchemy, his approach becoming a stock element in many popular texts on the subject to this day.[106] Modern scholars are sometimes critical of the Jungian approach to alchemy as overly reflective of nineteenth century occultism.[107]

Magnum opus

The Great Work of Alchemy is often described as a series of four stages represented by colors.

See also


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  103. ^ Jung, C. G., & Jaffe A. (1962). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. London: Collins. This is Jung's autobiography, recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffe, ISBN 0-679-72395-1.
  104. ^ Jung, C. G. - Psychology and Alchemy; Symbols of Transformation.
  105. ^ Redemption in Alchemy, by Carl Jung, p210
  106. ^ Secrets of Nature, Astrology and Alchemy in Modern Europe by William R. Newman, Anthony Grafton, MIT Press, 2006, p401
  107. ^
    • Secrets of Nature, Astrology and Alchemy in Modern Europe by William R. Newman, Anthony Grafton, MIT Press, 2006, p418
    • Alchemy Tried in the Fire, by William R. Newman, Lawrence M. Principe, p37
    • On the Edge of the Future, by Jeffrey John Kripal, Glenn W. Shuck, p27
  108. ^ Joseph Needham. Science & Civilisation in China: Chemistry and chemical technology. Spagyrical discovery and invention : magisteries of gold and immortality. Cambridge. 1974. p.23


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