Alchemy ALCHEMY: The science by aid of which the chemical philosophers of medieval times attempted to transmute the baser metals into gold or silver. There is considerable divergence of opinion as to the etymology of the word, but it would seem to be derived from the Arabic al=the, and kimya=chemistry, which in turn derives from the late Greek chemica=chemistry, from chumeia=a mingling, or cheein, `to pour out` or `mix’, Aryan root ghu, to pour, whence the word `gush’. Mr. A. Wallis Budge in his “Egyptian Magic”, however, states that it is possible that it may be derived from the Egyptian word khemeia, that is to say ‘the preparation of the black ore’, or `powder’, which was regarded as the active principle in the transmutation of metals. To this name the Arabs affixed the article `al’, thus giving al-khemeia, or alchemy. HISTORY OF ALCHEMY: From an early period the Egyptians possessed the reputation of being skillful workers in metals and, according to Greek writers, they were conversant with their transmutation, employing quicksilver in the process of separating gold and silver from the native matrix.
The resulting oxide was supposed to possess marvelous powers, and it was thought that there resided within in the individualities of the various metals, that in it their various substances were incorporated. This black powder was mystically identified with the underworld form of the god Osiris, and consequently was credited with magical properties. Thus there grew up in Egypt the belief that magical powers existed in fluxes and alloys. Probably such a belief existed throughout Europe in connection with the bronze-working castes of its several races. Its was probably in the Byzantium of the fourth century, however, that alchemical science received embryonic form.
There is little doubt that Egyptian tradition, filtering through Alexandrian Hellenic sources was the foundation upon which the infant science was built, and this is borne out by the circumstance that the art was attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and supposed to be contained in its entirety in his works. The Arabs, after their conquest of Egypt in the seventh century, carried on the researches of the Alexandrian school, and through their instrumentality the art was brought to Morocco and thus in the eighth century to Spain, where it flourished exceedingly. Indeed, Spain from the ninth to the eleventh century became the repository of alchemic science, and the colleges of Seville, Cordova and Granada were the centers from which this science radiated throughout Europe. The first practical alchemist may be said to have been the Arbian Geber, who flourished 720-750. From his “Summa Perfectionis”, we may be justified in assuming that alchemical science was already matured in his day, and that he drew his inspirations from a still older unbroken line of adepts. He was followed by Avicenna, Mesna and Rhasis, and in France by Alain of Lisle, Arnold de Villanova and Jean de Meung the troubadour; in England by Roger Bacon and in Spain itself by Raymond Lully.
Later, in French alchemy the most illustrious names are those of Flamel (b. ca. 1330), and Bernard Trevisan (b. ca. 1460) after which the center of of interest changes to Germany and in some measure to England, in which countries Paracelsus, Khunrath (ca. 1550), Maier (ca. 1568), Norton, Dalton, Charnock, and Fludd kept the alchemical flame burning brightly.
It is surprising how little alteration we find throughout the period between the seventh and the seventeenth centuries, the heyday of alchemy, in the theory and practice of the art. The same sentiments and processes are found expressed in the later alchemical authorities as in the earliest, and a wonderful unanimity as regards the basic canons of the great art is evinced by the hermetic students of the time. On the introduction of chemistry as a practical art, alchemical science fell into desuetude and disrepute, owing chiefly to the number of charlatans practicing it, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century, as a school, it may be said to have become defunct. Here and there, however, a solitary student of the art lingered, and in the department of this article “Modern Alchemy” will demonstrate that the science has to a grate extent revived during modern times, although it has never been quite extinct. THE QUESTS OF ALCHEMY: The grand objects of alchemy were (1) the discovery of a process by which the baser metals might be transmuted into gold or silver; (2) the discovery of an elixir by which life might be prolonged indefinitely; and there may be added (3), the manufacture of and artificial process of human life. (for the latter see Homunculus) THE THEORY AND PHILOSOPHY OF ALCHEMY: The first objects were to be achieved as follows: The transmutation of metals was to be accomplished by a powder, stone or exilir often called the Philosopher`s Stone, the application of which would effect the transmutation of the baser metals into gold or silver, depending upon the length of time of its application.
Basing their conclusions on a profound examination of natural processes and research into the secrets of nature, the alchemists arrived at the axiom that nature was divided philosophically into four principal regions, the dry, the moist, the warm, the cold, whence all that exists must be derived. Nature is also divisible into the male and the female. She is the divine breath, the central fire, invisible yet ever active, and is typified by sulphur, which is the mercury of the sages, which slowly fructifies under the genial warmth of nature. The alchemist must be ingenuous, of a truthful disposition, and gifted with patience and prudence, following nature in every alchemical performance. He must recollect that like draws to like, and must know how to obtain the seed of metals, which is produced by the four elements through the will of the Supreme Being and the Imagination of Nature.
We are told the the original matter of metals is double in its essence, being a dry heat combined with a warm moisture, and that air is water coagulated by fir, capable of producing a universal dissolvent. These terms the neophyte must be cautious of interpreting in their literal sense. Great confusion exists in alchemical nomenclature, and the gibberish employed by the scores of charlatans who in later times pretended to a knowledge of alchemical matters did not tend to make things any more clear. The beginner must also acquire a thorough knowledge of the manner in which metals grow in the bowels of the earth. These are engendered by sulphur, which is male, and mercury, which is female, and the crux of alchemy is to obtain their seed – a process which the alchemist philosophers have not described with any degree of clarity.
The physical theory of transmutation is based on the composite character of metals, and on the existence of a substance which, applied to matter, exalts and perfects it. This, Eugenius Philalethes and others call ‘The Light’. The elements of all metals is similar, differing only in purity and proportion. The entire trend of the metallic kingdom is towards the natural manufacture of gold, and the production of the baser metals is only accidental as the result of an unfavorable environment. The Philosopher’s Stone is the combination of the male and female seeds which beget gold.
The composition of these is so veiled by symbolism as to make their identification a matter of impossibility. Waite, summarizing the alchemical process once the secret of the stone is unveiled, says: “Given the matter of the stone and also the necessary vessel, the process which must be then undertaken to accomplish the `magnum opus’ are described with moderate perpicuity. There is the calcination or purgation of the stone, in which kind is worked with kind for the space of a philosophical year. There is dissolution which prepares the way for congelation, and which is performed during the black state of the mysterious matter. It is accomplished by water which does not wet the hand. There is the separation of the subtle and the gross, which is to be performed by means of heat. In the conjunction which follows, the elements are duly and scrupulously combined. Putrefaction afterwards takes place.
`Without which pole no seed may multiply.’ “Then, in the subsequent congelation the white colour appears, which is one of the signs of success. It becomes more pronounced in cibation. In sublimation the body is spiritualised, the spirit made corporeal, and again a more glittering whiteness is apparent. Fermentation afterwards fixes together the alchemical earth and water, and causes the mystic medicines to flow like wax. The matter is then augmented with the alchemical spirit of life, and the exaltation of the philosophic earth is accomplished by the natural rectification of its elements. When these processes have been successfully completed, the mystic stone will have passed through the chief stages characterized by different colours, black, white and red, after which it is capable of infinite multication, and when projected on mercury, it will absolutely transmute it, the resulting gold bearing every test.
The base metals made use of must be purified to insure the success of the operation. The process for the manufacture of silver is essentially similar, but the resources of the matter are not carried to so high a degree. “According to the “Commentary on the Ancient War of the Knights” the transmutations performed by the perfect stone are so absolute that no trace remains of the original metal. It cannot, however, destroy gold, nor exalt it into a more perfect metallic substance; it, therefore, transmutes it into a medicine a thousand times superior to any virtues which can be extracted from its vulgar state. This medicine becomes a most potent agent in the exaltation of base metals.” There are not wanting authorities who deny that the transmutations of metals was the grand object of alchemy, and who infer from the alchemistical writings that the end of the art was the spiritual regeneration of man. Mrs.
Atwood, author of “A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery”, and an American writer named Hitchcock are purhaps the chief protagonists of the belief the by spiritual processes akin to those of the chemical process of alchemy, the soul of man may be purified and exalted. But both commit the radical error of stating the the alchemical writers did not aver that the transmutation of base metal into gold was their grand end. None of the passages they quote, is inconsistent with the physical object of alchemy, and in a work, “The Marrow of Alchemy”, stated to be by Eugenius Philaletes, it is laid down that the real quest is for gold. It is constantly impressed upon the reader, however, in the perusal of esteemed alchemical works, that only those who are instructed by God can achieve the grand secret. Others, again, state that a tyro may possibly stumble upon it, but that unless he is guided by an adept he has small chance of achieving the grand arcanum.
It will be obvious to the tyro, however, that nothing can ever be achieved by trusting to the allegories of the adepts or the many charlatans who crowded the ranks of the art. Gold may be made, or it may not, but the truth or fallacy of the alchemical method lies with modern chemistry. The transcendental view of alchemy, however, is rapidly gaining ground, and probably originated in the comprehensive natur …