What is Alchemy?

Chemistry / 8 min read / 28 August 2021

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Lazy Science Reader,

Alchemy, often considered as the older form of Chemistry is a speculative branch of science and philosophy. With vague evidences of its first development in 4th century BC in China (although accurate origins are yet unclear), the main aim of the ancient discipline was to convert base metals into noble metals such as gold. Alchemists also tried to create the philosopher’s stone which was the “elixir of immortality”, a potion or liquid that could grant anyone eternal life.

Alchemists based their ideas and theories on the Aristotelian assumption that the world and everything in it are composed of four basic elements- air, water, earth and fire along with three “essential” substances: salt, mercury and sulphur.

It primarily developed in three regions independently over the medieval period- Chinese alchemy, which was associated with Taoism- a mystical religion; Indian alchemy, vague references of which can be found in the Hindu sacred scriptures- the Vedas and Western alchemy, which goes back to the beginning of the Hellenistic period (the period between the death of Alexander the great and the emergence of the Roman empire).

Although converting everyday metals to precious metals seems to have the potential of a great business today but alchemist did not seek the conversion for money or profit.

Alchemy was rooted in a complex philosophical and spiritual view. According to it, everything around us has a spirit or soul. The seekers of alchemy did not think of all metals as equal; the base metals were considered spiritually ‘immature’ forms of the ‘perfect’ noble metals. Similar to the concept of human beings reaching higher spiritual realms after several lifetimes of learning, different metals were seen as being in different stages of development on their paths of spirituality or towards spiritual perfection.

The basest of metals like lead represented the lower stages, sinful and imperfect individuals. On the other hand, noble metals stood for the higher stages and represented beauty and regeneration. Alchemists described their methods and techniques in cryptic ways using metaphors, calling a crystalline substance Potassium Nitrate with a salty cooled taste as “a cold dragon”. Clouded with weird terms and secrecy, it fascinated people and their imagination for centuries, becoming a part of myths and stories.

The general attitude towards alchemy between the 16th and 18th centuries was somewhat ambivalent. Although the attempts were not dead, but by 18th century, it turned to mostly religious aims. The possibility of chemical gold-making was not strongly disapproved by scientific evidence until the 19th century although by the 1740s, alchemy became restricted to the realm of gold-making, leading to the popular belief that the practice was just fraud.

During the occult revival of 19th century, alchemy began to be interpreted as an occult (mystical or supernatural phenomena) science concerned with spiritual enlightenment. Influential figures such as Mary Ann Atwood and Allen Hitchcock published works during this period which continued to influence later writers of alchemy. Alchemy has not completely diminished, even today its symbolism evokes interest among several groups.

For more chemistry from Lazy Science Reader, you can check out our article on Organic Chemistry!

Fun Facts :

  • Alchemy gets its name from the Arabic word ‘al-kimia’ which itself is an European word derived from Ancient Greek ‘chemeia’
  • During the 17th century, practical Alchemy evolved into “Chemistry” as it was renamed by Robert Boyle, the “father of modern chemistry”
  • Alchemy has been incorporated in several novels, plays, music, books etc, including popular works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, to name a few