Alchemy was an early scientific practice that was popular in the Middle Ages. It is considered a forerunner of chemistry, based on the transformation of matter. Its early focus was on transmuting base metals into gold and discovering an elixir that could prolong life.The attempt to transmute lead into gold, for example, has sparked people’s imaginations for thousands of years. Overtime alchemy split into two branches: one focused on the mystical and the other focused on the material aspect. Alchemy has continued to have an influence on modern day chemistry, psychology, alternative healing practices, and the occult. This is a practical guide to alchemy and its modern day uses.
The History of Alchemy
The etymology of the word alchemy is believed to be from the Egyptian “chem” or “qem” which means “black.” This refers to the black alluvial soils, which is a particular kind of sentiment with a variety of materials, bordering the Nile.
Alchemy developed separately in various regions throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe; which has created a rich diversity in its history and its modern day influences. Many alternative and traditional healing modalities used today contain some sort of transformational or alchemical philosophy.
Alchemy started as an interest in the material substances of this world. The Alchemists were searching for ultimate knowledge and wisdom regarding the “material” of life.
Both chemical and elemental composition were central to the alchemical scientists of antiquity. They were fascinated by how matter could transform and they wanted to take a rigorous approach to this pursuit. Therefore, the experiments conducted were recorded in meticulous detail.
This history of alchemy is best studied by looking at medieval journals and manuscripts. These books are complete with occult images, diagrams of the human body, and astrological symbolism as well as alchemical recipes, and philosophy. The Getty Research Institute displayed some of this fascinating artwork in a show in 2016.
Alchemy’s evolution can be traced from Egypt, to the Middle Ages, and into the Renaissance. For this reason, each of these time periods saw a different flavor of alchemical focus and expression.
Early Origins of Alchemy
The heart of alchemy was in the city of Alexandria during the time of Hellenistic Egypt. Around 300 AD, Egyptian born Zosimos was one of the premier alchemists of his day.
Royal calligrapher, Al-Tughra’i, translated some of Zosimos’ work into Arabic in Persia in 1100 AD. Researcher, H. S. El Khadem explores this text along with the knowledge of the early alchemists as a foundation in a 1996 paper. Interestingly, the titles of the works studied translate into English as “Keys of the Craft” and “Keys of Mercy and Secrets of Wisdom.” This demonstrates the often mysterious and mystical nature of alchemical literature in addition to its attempts at scientific application.
The Zosimos text provides detailed directions on alchemical processes and philosophy — with steps on how to distill substances and make elixirs for eternal youth. In addition, Aristotelian and other Greek philosophies are found in the work, suggesting an amalgam of diverse cultural influences found in alchemy.
The medieval period experienced a growing interest in alchemy throughout Europe. The Islamic world held onto alchemy following the Fall of the Roman Empire and introduced the philosophy to Europe by way of Spain starting around the 5th century.
One of the most well-known philosophers of this time was Paracelsus, born in 1493 in Switzerland. His focus was on health and medicine and improving medical practices of the day by keeping the body in both spiritual and physical balance. Where his medical and scientific accomplishments are many, he was also an alchemist. For this reason, he was able to use his knowledge related to metals and transmutation in the treatment of illness both mental and physical.
The Middle Ages was a period of experimentation for alchemy and also a more secretive time for the practice. This was due to the heavy focus on magic and witchcraft found in alchemy. The church fiercely forbid these practices. For this reason, many scholars keep their research secret by developing cryptic coding systems to document their work.
The practice of alchemy came out of hiding during the Renaissance years starting in the 14th century. This was partly due to a growing fascination in the rational world, a shift in worldview towards the humanistic, along with the revival of interest in classical philosophers who influenced alchemy. Alchemists became employed in a number of practical fields during this time. For example, one could find an alchemist working in medicine, metallurgy, or pharmaceuticals.
Occultist’s interest in alchemy also increased in the Renaissance period, especially relating to the state of the human soul. For example, the Emerald Tablet was studied during this time, which is a historical piece of writing that contains mystic wisdom and a murky authorship.
According to research presented in 2009 by scholar Zoran Petrowanowitsch, the “Emerald Tablet,” was first introduced into the West in the 13th century based on a text from an earlier 7th century Arabic work. A line translated from Latin to English provides the following statement:
“That which is below is equal to that which is above”
This piece of text, along with other information in the work, has been a cornerstone of occult philosophy. The popular phrase ‘As Above, So Below’ axiom can be interpreted to mean that what is happening in the larger cosmos, the planets, or the divine is also mirrored on a smaller scale within each human being on earth.
The Philosopher’s Stone: Turning Lead into Gold
Especially popular in the Middle Ages was the search for the philosopher’s stone, also called the elixir of life. It has become one of the most enduring legends of alchemy. This is not a stone in actuality, but instead a substance thought to meld everything in the world together. In addition, it would be able to grant eternal youth and immortality.
One way that alchemists set out to achieve this goal was by transmuting material substances. For example, turning lead into gold or copper into silver. By ingesting their different recipes, alchemists were engaging in a method of trial and error on their search for eternal life. Unfortunately, this led to many accidental poisonings as substances toxic to humans, such as liquid mercury, were often in the mixtures.
They were desperately searching for the material of spirit, the substance that ties everything together and permeates all life and matter on earth. Hundreds of manuals exist dating back to the 1300s as evidence of these experiments with recipes calling for morning dew, sulfur, and iron.
As legend would have it, one such alchemist did achieve the seemingly impossible. As the story goes, Nicholas Flamel concocted the illustrious mixture, shared it with wife, and they both achieved immortality. The local towns people often reported seeing him and his wife around town long after their deaths.
Substances + Elements + Symbols
The substances used in alchemy were of the utmost importance. Early alchemists treated metals with heat in their experiments. Salts, liquid mercury, and sulfur were all used in the transmutation process.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle taught of the four elements which are earth, water, air, and fire. Scholars of antiquity believed that everything in the world was based on these four essential elements and so they became foundations to alchemical philosophy.
Alchemy made use of symbolic language and imagery. For instance, snakes are found throughout alchemical texts, as symbols of regeneration, and fire represented purification. In addition, the male and female body are also frequently present in images, often fused together demonstrating the potential for unity and balance in the human being. These pictures also represent a marriage between the active and passive principles, polarity and the nature of opposites.
Alchemical drawings also present planetary symbolism through the use of the Sun, Moon, and Mercury. In many ways, alchemy and astrology are close cousins. For this reason, there are multiple overlapping symbolic and elemental correspondences between the two disciplines. Below is a chart of astrological planetary and metal correspondences used by the alchemists.
Alchemy Chart: Planets + Metals
|Alchemical Planetary Symbol||Corresponding Metal|
What is Alchemy today?
Science has proven that it is not possible to turn lead into gold or produce an elixir of immortality. Despite this, alchemy has played a role in the modern world, in the fields of science and psychology. For instance, alchemist Paracelsus, had a vast influence on modern chemistry, especially related to medicine and the treatment of disease. He also bridged a gap between science and magic, believing in the healing power of both mysticism and the physical sciences.
In addition, alchemical themes are found in the modern practices of astrology and tarot. For example, decks such as the Hermetic Tarot deck by Godfrey Dawson or the The Mary-El Tarot by Marie White, utilize symbols from alchemical traditions. Alchemy legends have inspired countless works of art and stories. Take the 2001 movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for example, which draws directly from alchemical legend.
Alchemy’s Influence on Chemistry
Alchemy is the precursor to modern chemistry, the same way astrology is to astronomy in that both of these disciplines split from their metaphysical pasts in favor of scientific application. On the surface, the instruments such as glass tubes, and laboratories of early alchemists seem to reflect a rudimentary forerunner of modern chemistry tools. On a deeper level, chemistry and alchemy relate in how they aim to understand the chemical composition of this world.
Chemistry studies the transformations of the molecular and unseen structural makeup of material much like alchemy, therefore links can be drawn between the two. Researcher Glynis L. Coyne discusses in their work the importance that alchemy has had on modern science.
According to Coyne’s research, alchemy has inspired many scientists such as physicists Issac Newton and chemist Robert Boyle who would go on to pioneer the experimental scientific method. In addition to these influences, alchemy has also had an effect on the modern development of metallurgy and the chemical process for making dyes.
It is also worth point out, that many of the alchemists also worked in medicine and developed pharmaceuticals. Parallels can be found between alchemists work and the way modern chemists develop medicines and other chemical based treatments.
Alchemy and Medicine
Another branch of medicine inspired by alchemy is complementary and alternative medicine. These medicine practices are growing in popularity. The National Institute of Health reports that almost 40 percent of adults in the US use alternative health methods. Some of these practices have historical roots in the alchemy of India, China, and the far East.
These practical applications for alchemy are relevant in our world today as they provide a chance to understand how transformation takes place within the body. In addition, they provide other options for healing along with taking a more holistic approach. By looking at the body and mind connection, disease and imbalance takes on a very different treatment methodology than most Western medicine practices.
One can find philosophies of alchemy related to health and wellness throughout Indian Ayurvedic texts. A work called Indian Alchemy Or Rasayana by S. Mahdihassan published in 2002 traces the roots of these alchemical medicinal practices.
The term “rasa” is mentioned throughout the texts and is likened to the life force or “qi” as it is called in Chinese medicine. The unlocking and harnessing of this energy provides one access to longevity and other health benefits. An exploration into Ayurvedic medicine demonstrates the healing power of herbal medicines and effects in the body.
Mahdihassan explains that the work of Rasayana was to preserve life as opposed to strictly fight disease medicinally. This theme relates very closely to the work of alchemists on their search for immortality and eternal youth through the concocting of an elixir of life.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
China also developed a system of alchemy with this system being based on Taoist philosophy. Taoist philosophy looks at the patterning and energy present in the universe. The goal is to become in harmony with these energies, therefore, Chinese alchemy focuses on balance in the body.
In addition, Chinese alchemy also placed a heavy focus on finding an elixir that would grant longevity and immortality much like the alchemy of other traditions. One of the main ingredients used in these recipes was Cinnabar, also used as a red dye substance. This is a mercury sulfide material that can be toxic if ingested, it was thought to be able to balance yin and yang energies. A focus on balance is still present in Chinese medicine today, of course, without the use of these poisonous mercurial substances.
Chinese medicine can treat a large variety of ailments. Treatments used include acupuncture, herbal remedies, and moxibustion to name a few. Traditional Chinese medicine has been the basis of many medical studies, for example, one study looked at the curative effect of these methods on patients undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer. In addition, Dr Margaret Chan, previous Director-General of the World Health Organization, discussed the valuable and growing role of Chinese Medicine in modern medical practices in a speech in 2016.
Alchemy in Psychology & the Occult
Alchemy has thrived in the metaphysical arena of the modern day. Psychedelic author and lecturer, Terence McKenna, spoke extensively on the topic of alchemy. In addition, Swiss psychologist Carl Jung incorporated alchemical ideas into his psychological theories on psyche transformation. Entire esoteric traditions are based on alchemical and Hermetic lore, texts, symbols, and legends.
Alchemy in the Occult
Modern occult literature contains countless examples of alchemical symbolism and influence. For example, the alchemical philosophy of transmutation is found in the Theosophical society which is a spiritual organization founded in 1875. In addition, these philosophies influenced the mystical practices of Rosicrucianism along with 20th century mystic Manly P. Hall.
Alchemical philosophy has also had an influence on western esoteric traditions. Hermes Trismegistus is a mythical figure in the alchemical legends. He corresponds to the Egyptian god Toth and is credited with bestowing the wisdom of the sciences on the Ancient Egyptians. In addition, the authorship of the “Emerald Tablet” is often attributed to him.
Hermes Trismegistus’ occult teachings, as found on the “Emerald Tablet,” have been influential in the development of Hermeticism and Western ceremonial magic. The philosophical and esoteric Hermetic tradition is concerned with core principles of Hermetic wisdom related to change and transformation, gnosis, consciousness, and spiritual laws of the universe.
The Greek god Hermes or Roman god Mercury is also central in alchemical and esoteric texts influencing modern occult traditions. Hermes can travel freely between the world above, the heavens and the world below, the earth. He carries a caduceus, which is a staff with 2 entwining snakes around it. This staff has become a symbol of medical practice, wellness, and healing today.
Alchemy in Jungian Psychology
Alchemy had an influence on famed psychologist Carl Jung. His work focused greatly on self-transformation and actualization through a process called individuation.
A Chinese alchemical text called The Secret of the Golden Flower largely sparked his interest in alchemy. The writing of Paracelsus, the 14th century physician, was also influential to Carl Jung’s approach to alchemy as described in the The Collected Works of C.G. Jung Alchemical Studies Volume 13 published in the 1960s.
Jungian Psychology has practical applications today in treatment and therapy settings. The work of Jungian therapists allows clients to manage conflicting energies within them.
What is next for Alchemy?
Alchemy continues to be an inspiration and influence in the world today. Whereas the focus of alchemy is no longer transmuting lead into gold, the principles of transformation underlaying alchemy continue to play a part in modern thought. As interest and use of traditional medicinal practices grows, society continues to embark on a mission towards optimal health and wellness.
Contributor | Emma Lynn Wilson