Art and Science of Alchemy

The common goals of Alchemy's "alchemists" were the transmutation of common metals into gold or silver and the creation of a "panacea,"—a cure for all diseases and even death. European alchemists of the Middle Ages invested much time and energy into the search for the "Philosopher's Stone,"—a mythical substance believed to be an essential Alchemy ingredient that would enable to achieve at least one, but hopefully both of their goals.

Alchemical Laboratory

Historical Alchemy

Historically, Alchemy refers to the investigation of nature and an early philosophical and spiritual discipline that combined elements of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, medicine, astrology, semiotics, mysticism, spiritualism, and art—all believed to be but smaller parts of one, greater force. Alchemy was known to be practiced for at least 2500 years in many parts of the world, including: most of Europe, Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Persia, India, China, Greece, Rome, and in many Muslim societies.

The Alchemists

Alchemists were popular and garnered the support and favor of nobility not so much for their pursuit of their unattainable goals—the mystic and philosophical speculation—but for their mundane contributions to the "chemical" industries of the day: basic metallurgy, metalworking, ink production, dyes, paints, cosmetics, leather tanning solutions and methods, ceramic and glass manufacturing processes, the preparation of extracts and liquors, and so on. These byproducts of their research were valuable contributions to the societies of their day and contributed greatly to the advancement of civilization.

But alchemists never had the intellectual wherewithal to separate the chemical aspects of their craft from the metaphysical interpretations. The lack of common terminology for chemical concepts and processes led alchemists to borrow terms and symbols of biblical and pagan mythology, astrology, kabbalah, and other mystic and esoteric fields so that even the simplest chemical formula read like a magic spell or ritual.

In the Middle Ages, some alchemists began to view the metaphysical aspects of their work as the true foundation of alchemy. Chemical substances, physical states, and material processes came to be viewed as metaphors for spiritual entities, states and transformations or transmutations.

Modern Alchemy

Most modern-day alchemists and some scholars see the spiritual and metaphysical metaphors of the alchemist as the most refined aspect of alchemy, but the development of chemistry out of alchemy as a corruption of the original Hermetic tradition.

Western alchemy has always been closely connected with Hermeticism, a philosophical and spiritual system that traces its roots to Hermes Trismegistus, a syncretic Egyptian-Greek deity and legendary alchemist. These two disciplines influenced the birth of Rosicrucianism, an important esoteric movement of the seventeenth century. In the course of the early modern period, mainstream alchemy evolved into modern chemistry.

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