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A Brief History of Alchemy


The origins of alchemy are shrouded in history, and there is no shortage of theories as to where it might have originated.


Mystery and magic permeate ancient Egypt, where a powerful priesthood once held great influence over everyday life. Of interest to us are those priests who worked with materials in what we would today call chemistry. These priests developed knowledge, skills and abilities in metallurgy, ceramics, medicine, mummification and pressing, among other things.

From the few writings that have come down to us, it is evident that many of the priests were equally capable healers. The science they pursued has always had two sides - a mental/spiritual and a physical. In the production of a medicine, for example, a substance was processed while using certain words, spells, songs or rituals. And when these were prescribed, the patient received instructions to repeat a spell or prayer.

These sciences evolved over time, and many a legend of miraculous healing tinctures, life-giving potions, and mimicking gold and gems survives to this day. In this regard, valuable oils were among the first things to be stolen when ancient tomb robbers ransacked a pharaoh's tomb.



When Alexander the Great around 300 BC. arrived in Egypt, he fell in love with its culture. This was the beginning of the so-called Graeco-Egyptian or Ptolemaic period. The Greeks called Egypt "Khem" or "Khemet" - "The Black Land". The name referred to the dark fertile soil left behind by the annual flooding of the Nile. Knowledge of Egyptian science thus reached Greece, where it was called Khemia / the black art and spawned a long line of Greek alchemists.

Alexander initiated an extensive building and restoration campaign in Egypt, which also resulted in the city of Alexandria, which was named after him. The great library of Alexandria is legendary. It is estimated to have contained almost a million volumes of collected writings from the known world. Alexandria became a melting pot of ideas and philosophies, and it was here that Hermetic philosophy and alchemy came together.

Until around 30 BC. the legions of Rome had swept the world and the last Egyptian Ptolemies came under Roman rule. During this riot, an extensive part of the great library fell victim to the fire and an enormous amount of knowledge was lost.


In 290, Emperor Diocletian feared that the amount of imitation gold being produced using Egyptian art would upset the Roman economy. Fearing that someone might amass enough wealth to raise an army against Rome, Diocletian issued an edict. He prescribed the destruction of all texts and materials dealing with the production of gold and precious stones. This order was carried out with great thoroughness.


In 325 Rome officially became Christian and in 391 Emperor Theodosius made heresy a death penalty. You could either be a Christian, go into exile or be killed.

Of those who practiced the Hermetic philosophy, most left the country and fled east to the Arab lands. The early Persian caliphs were more hospitable to alchemists and the center of art shifted there. It was here then that the Arabic prefix "Al" was added to the Greek "Khemia" giving us "Al-Khemia" which later became alchemy.


With the Islamic invasions of around 800 AD, alchemy made its way to Western Europe, largely thanks to the works of Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna. He formulated a medical system that was popular for centuries.

Another scholar was Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan. Ibn Sina and Jabir collected many of the ancient Egyptian and Greek works and translated them into Arabic, which were then translated into Latin in Europe.


Alchemy was very popular in medieval Europe. By now, kings and rulers everywhere had heard of her miracles, particularly the turning of lead into gold. Alchemy as a way of producing gold became a popular pastime for rich and poor alike. Many frauds were committed and a lot of swindles were played out. Countless gullible people have lost all of their savings through some delusional belief.

As a result, alchemy gained a bad reputation, was dismissed as humbug, and began to be distrusted as a whole. Finally, around 1310, Pope John XXII issued a decree forbidding the practice of alchemy, particularly gold-making, and punishing those who dealt in alchemically produced gold with severe penalties.

In 1404, King Henry IV of England passed an "ordinance"; making gold-making a crime against the Crown.


From the late 15th century, the invention of the printing press made knowledge more widely available to the public. Texts on alchemy became very popular and began to spread.


Paracelsus (Philippus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, born 1493 in Switzerland) revolutionized the art of alchemy and is considered one of the fathers of modern chemistry and pharmaceutical medicine. Not only was he a respected physician and university lecturer, he was also versed in all the arts of Hermetic philosophy.

He stressed to his colleagues the importance of diligently turning to alchemy as a source of medicines, which went far beyond anything the pharmaceutical technology of his day could produce. He was constantly at odds with his medical peers and was viewed with suspicion by the Church for his views and opinions. His ideas and writings did not go unnoticed. They shifted the focus back to the original purpose of alchemy, which was to create medicines for the body and soul that would lead to perfect health and wholeness. With this, Paracelsus laid the foundation for spagyrics.


During the 17th century religious freedom increased, sparking a wave of interest in alchemical texts. These became even more readily available, and scholars freely professed their existence as Rosicrucian, Adept, or Alchemist. Apart from all practical work, it was above all the spiritual aspects of alchemy that fascinated many.

At the time, Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle (another "father of modern chemistry") were also studying alchemy. Highly motivated, Newton produced volumes of treatises. In fact, he considered himself more of an alchemist than a doctor or mathematician.

Boyle was also busy trying to clarify many alchemical concepts which, even in his day, had fallen victim to the obscuration. He was a thorough experimenter and understood the difference between philosophical and unphilosophical treatment of material. In his highly influential book The Skeptical Chymist, he questioned the number and properties of the elements and called for a more structured terminology.


In 1662 King Charles II signed the first charter of the Royal Society and the study of chemistry soon became an officially recognized science.


(adapted from RA Bartlett, Living Alchemy, 2009)

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