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Its practitioners mainly sought to turn lead into gold, a quest that has captured the imaginations of people for thousands of years.
However, the goals of alchemy went far beyond simply creating some golden nuggets. Alchemy was rooted in a complex spiritual worldview in which everything around us contains a sort of universal spirit, and metals were believed not only to be alive but also to grow inside the Earth.
When a base, or common, metal such as lead was found, it was thought to simply be a spiritually and physically immature form of higher metals such as gold.
To the alchemists, metals were not the unique substances that populate the Periodic Table , but instead the same thing in different stages of development or refinement on their way to spiritual perfection.
As James Randi notes in his "Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural," "Beginning about the year and reaching its flower in medieval times, alchemy was an art based partly upon experimentation and partly upon magic.
Early investigators of natural processes centered their search on a mythical substance they knew as philosopher's stone, which was supposed to possess many valuable attributes such as the power to heal, to prolong life, and to change base metals into precious metal — such as gold.
Historian Nevill Drury, in his book "Magic and Witchcraft," notes that, "The word alchemy is thought to derive from an Egyptian word, 'chem' or 'qem,' meaning black — a reference to the black alluvial soils bordering the Nile We know that the Greek word 'chyma,' meaning to fuse or cast metals, established itself in Arabic as 'al kimia' — from which alchemy is derived.
He noted that the theoretical lay outside the scope of Aristotle, the natural philosophers, and all Latin writers of his time.
The practical, however, confirmed the theoretical thought experiment, and Bacon advocated its uses in natural science and medicine.
In particular, along with Albertus Magnus, he was credited with the forging of a brazen head capable of answering its owner's questions.
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.
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.
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.
Pope John XXII 's edict, Spondent quas non-exhibent forbade the false promises of transmutation made by pseudo-alchemists. 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.
Nicolas Flamel is a well-known alchemist, but a good example of pseudepigraphy , the practice of giving your works the name of someone else, usually more famous.
Although the historical Flamel existed, the writings and legends assigned to him only appeared in 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.
Bernard Trevisan and George Ripley made similar contributions. Their cryptic allusions and symbolism led to wide variations in interpretation of the art.
During the Renaissance , Hermetic and Platonic foundations were restored to European alchemy. The dawn of medical, pharmaceutical, occult, and entrepreneurial branches of alchemy followed.
These were previously unavailable to Europeans who for the first time had a full picture of the alchemical theory that Bacon had declared absent.
Renaissance Humanism and Renaissance Neoplatonism guided alchemists away from physics to refocus on mankind as the alchemical vessel.
Esoteric systems developed that blended alchemy into a broader occult Hermeticism, fusing it with magic, astrology, and Christian cabala.
He was instrumental in spreading this new blend of Hermeticism outside the borders of Italy. Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus , Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, — cast alchemy into a new form, rejecting some of Agrippa's occultism and moving away from chrysopoeia.
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. 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.
John Dee 13 July — December, followed Agrippa's occult tradition. Although better known for angel summoning, divination, and his role as astrologer , cryptographer, and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I , Dee's alchemical  Monas Hieroglyphica , written in was his most popular and influential work.
His writing portrayed alchemy as a sort of terrestrial astronomy in line with the Hermetic axiom As above so below.
Proponents of the supernatural interpretation of alchemy believed that the philosopher's stone might be used to summon and communicate with angels.
Entrepreneurial opportunities were common for the alchemists of Renaissance Europe. Alchemists were contracted by the elite for practical purposes related to mining, medical services, and the production of chemicals, medicines, metals, and gemstones.
Although most of these appointments were legitimate, the trend of pseudo-alchemical fraud continued through the Renaissance. Betrüger would use sleight of hand, or claims of secret knowledge to make money or secure patronage.
Legitimate mystical and medical alchemists such as Michael Maier and Heinrich Khunrath wrote about fraudulent transmutations, distinguishing themselves from the con artists.
The terms "chemia" and "alchemia" were used as synonyms in the early modern period, 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 alchemists, chemists and craftsmen is anachronistic.
Sendivogious taught his technique to Cornelius Drebbel who, in , applied this in a submarine. Isaac Newton 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 early modern alchemists who were eminent in their other studies include Robert Boyle , and Jan Baptist van Helmont. Their Hermeticism complemented rather than precluded their practical achievements in medicine and science.
The decline of European 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 peak in the 18th century.
As late as James Price claimed to have produced a powder that could transmute mercury into silver or gold. Early modern European alchemy continued to exhibit a diversity of theories, practices, and purposes: "Scholastic and anti-Aristotelian, Paracelsian and anti-Paracelsian, Hermetic, Neoplatonic, mechanistic, vitalistic, and more—plus virtually every combination and compromise thereof.
Robert Boyle — pioneered the scientific method in chemical investigations. He assumed nothing in his experiments and compiled every piece of relevant data.
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.
Beginning around , a rigid distinction began to be drawn for the first time between "alchemy" and "chemistry". This move was mostly successful, and the consequences of this continued into the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
During the occult revival of the early 19th century, alchemy received new attention as an occult science. In the 19th-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.
Hitchcock, in his Remarks Upon Alchymists 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.
In , Baron Carl Reichenbach , published his studies on Odic force , a concept with some similarities to alchemy, but his research did not enter the mainstream of scientific discussion.
In his lineage, many researchers, including Emmanuel and Charles d'Hooghvorst, are updating alchemical studies in France and Belgium.
Several women appear in the earliest history of alchemy. Michael Maier names Mary the Jewess , Cleopatra the Alchemist , Medera , and Taphnutia as the four women who knew how to make the philosopher's stone.
The first alchemist whose name we know is said to have been Mary the Jewess c. The laboratory water-bath, known eponymously especially in France as the bain-marie , is said to have been invented or at least improved by her.
The tribikos a modified distillation apparatus and the kerotakis a more intricate apparatus used especially for sublimations are two other advancements in the process of distillation that are credited to her.
Due to the proliferation of pseudepigrapha and anonymous works, it is difficult to know which of the alchemists were actually women.
After the Greco-Roman period, women's names appear less frequently in the alchemical literature. Women vacate the history of alchemy during the medieval and renaissance periods, aside from the fictitious account of Perenelle Flamel.
Mary Anne Atwood 's A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery marks their return during the nineteenth-century occult revival.
The history of alchemy has become a significant and recognized subject of academic study. A large collection of books on alchemy is kept in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam.
A recipe found in a midth-century kabbalah based book features step by step instructions on turning copper into gold. The author attributed this recipe to an ancient manuscript he located.
Journals which publish regularly on the topic of Alchemy include ' Ambix ', published by the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, and ' Isis ', published by The History of Science Society.
Western alchemical theory corresponds to the worldview of late antiquity in which it was born. Concepts were imported from Neoplatonism and earlier Greek cosmology.
As such, the Classical elements appear in alchemical writings, as do the seven Classical planets and the corresponding seven metals of antiquity.
Similarly, the gods of the Roman pantheon who are associated with these luminaries are discussed in alchemical literature.
The concepts of prima materia and anima mundi are central to the theory of the philosopher's stone. In the eyes of a variety of esoteric and Hermetic practitioners, alchemy is fundamentally spiritual.
Transmutation of lead into gold is presented as an analogy for personal transmutation, purification, and perfection.
He is named "alchemy's founder and chief patron, authority, inspiration and guide". Early alchemists, such as Zosimos of Panopolis c.
AD , highlight the spiritual nature of the alchemical quest, symbolic of a religious regeneration of the human soul. In this sense, the literal meanings of 'Alchemical Formulas' were a blind, hiding their true spiritual philosophy.
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.
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?
By no means; vulgar silver and gold are dead, while those of the Philosophers are full of life. Due to the complexity and obscurity of alchemical literature, and the 18th-century disappearance of remaining alchemical practitioners into the area of chemistry; the general understanding of alchemy has been strongly influenced by several distinct and radically different interpretations.
Principe and William R. Newman , have interpreted the 'decknamen' or code words of alchemy as physical substances.
These scholars have reconstructed physicochemical experiments that they say are described in medieval and early modern texts.
First Known Use of alchemy 15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1. Learn More about alchemy.
Time Traveler for alchemy The first known use of alchemy was in the 15th century See more words from the same century.
From the Editors at Merriam-Webster. Dictionary Entries near alchemy alchemist alchemistry alchemize alchemy alchera alchornea alchymie See More Nearby Entries.
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Test Your Vocabulary. Love words? Need even more definitions? The awkward case of 'his or her'. 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, words is the principal source for the history of Greek alchemy. 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.
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