Alchemy is an influential philosophical tradition whose early practitioners’ claims to profound powers were known from antiquity. The defining objectives of alchemy are varied; these include the creation of the fabled philosopher’s stone possessing powers including the capability of turning base metals into the noble metals gold or silver, as well as an elixir of life conferring youth and longevity. Western alchemy is recognized as a protoscience that contributed to the development of modern chemistry and medicine. Alchemists developed a framework of theory, terminology, experimental process and basic laboratory techniques that are still recognizable today. But alchemy differs from modern science in the inclusion of Hermetic principles and practices related to mythology, religion, and spirituality.
The defining goals of alchemy are often given as the transmutation of common metals into gold (known as chrysopoeia), the creation of a panacea, and the discovery of a universal solvent. However, this only highlights certain aspects of alchemy. Alchemists have historically rewritten and evolved the explanation of their art, making a singular definition difficult. H.J. Sheppard gives the following as a comprehensive summary:
Alchemy is the art of liberating parts of the Cosmos from temporal existence and achieving perfection which, for metals is gold, and for man, longevity, then immortality and, finally, redemption. Material perfection was sought through the action of a preparation (Philosopher’s Stone for metals; Elixir of Life for humans), while spiritual ennoblement resulted from some form of inner revelation or other enlightenment (Gnosis, for example, in Hellenistic and western practices).
In the eyes of a variety of esoteric and Hermetic practitioners, the heart of alchemy is spiritual. Transmutation of lead into gold is presented as an analogy for personal transmutation, purification, and perfection. This approach is often termed ‘spiritual’, ‘esoteric’, or ‘internal’ alchemy.
Early alchemists, such as Zosimos of Panopolis (c. AD 300), highlight the spiritual nature of the alchemical quest, symbolic of a religious regeneration of the human soul. This approach continued in the Middle Ages, as metaphysical aspects, substances, physical states, and material processes were used as metaphors for spiritual entities, spiritual states, and, ultimately, transformation. In this sense, the literal meanings of ‘Alchemical Formulas’ were a blind, hiding their true spiritual philosophy.
The origin of Western alchemy may generally be traced to Hellenistic Egypt. The Hellenistic city of Alexandria was a center of Greek alchemical knowledge, and retained its preeminence through most of the Greek and Roman periods. Here, elements of technology, religion, mythology, and Greek philosophy, each with their own much longer histories, combined to form the earliest known records of alchemy in the West. Zosimos of Panopolis wrote the oldest known books on alchemy while Mary the Jewess is credited as being the first non-fictitious Western alchemist. They wrote in Greek and lived in Egypt under Roman rule.
Technology – The dawn of Western alchemy is sometimes associated with that of metallurgy, extending back to 3500 BCE. Many writings were lost when the emperor Diocletian ordered the burning of alchemical books after suppressing a revolt in Alexandria (292 CE). Few original Egyptian documents on alchemy have survived, most notable among them the Stockholm papyrus and the Leyden papyrus X. Dating from 300 to 500 CE, they contained recipes for dyeing and making artificial gemstones, cleaning and fabricating pearls, and the manufacture of imitation gold and silver. These writings lack the mystical, philosophical elements of alchemy, but do contain the works of Bolus of Mendes (or Pseudo-Democritus) which aligned these recipes with theoretical knowledge of astrology and the Classical elements. Between the time of Bolus and Zosimos, the change took place that transformed this metallurgy into a Hermetic art.
The demise of Western 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 apogee in the 18th century. As late as 1781 James Price claimed to have produced a powder that could transmute mercury into silver or gold.