2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: General Chemistry

In the history of science, alchemy refers to both an early form of the investigation of nature and an early philosophical and spiritual discipline, both combining elements of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, medicine, astrology, semiotics, mysticism, spiritualism, and art. Alchemy has been practiced in Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Persia, India, and China, in Classical Greece and Rome, in Muslim civilization, and then in Europe up to the 19th century—in a complex network of schools and philosophical systems spanning at least 2500 years.

Western alchemy has always been closely connected with Hermeticism, a philosophical and spiritual system that traces its roots to Hermes Trismegistus, a syncretic Egyptian-Greek deity and legendary alchemist. These two disciplines influenced the birth of Rosicrucianism, an important esoteric movement of the seventeenth century. In the course of the early modern period, mainstream alchemy evolved into modern chemistry.

Today, the discipline is of interest mainly to historians of science and philosophy, and for its mystic, esoteric, and artistic aspects. Nevertheless, alchemy was one of the main precursors of modern sciences, and many substances and processes of ancient alchemy continue to be the mainstay of modern chemical and metallurgical industries.

Although alchemy takes on many forms, in pop culture it is most often cited in stories, films, shows, and games as the process used to change lead (or other elements) into gold.


"The alchemist", by Sir William Fettes Douglas, 1853
"The alchemist", by Sir William Fettes Douglas, 1853

Alchemy as an investigation of nature

The common perception of alchemists is that they were pseudo-scientists, liars and charlatans, who attempted to turn lead into gold, believing that the universe was composed of the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, and spent most of their time concocting miraculous remedies, poisons, and magic potions.

Although some alchemists were indeed posers, liars and charlatans, most were well-meaning and intelligent scholars and distinguished scientists such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle. These innovators attempted to explore the nature of chemical substances and processes. They had to rely on experimentation, traditional know-how, rules of thumb—and speculative thought in their attempts to uncover the mysteries of the physical universe.

At the same time, it was clear to the alchemists that "something" was generally being conserved in chemical processes, even in the most dramatic changes of physical state and appearance; that is, that substances contained some "principles" that could be hidden under many outer forms, and revealed by proper manipulation. Throughout the history of the discipline, alchemists struggled to understand the nature of these principles, and find some order and sense in the results of their chemical experiments—which were often undermined by impure or poorly characterized reagents, the lack of quantitative measurements, and confusing and inconsistent nomenclature.

Goals of alchemy

1. The transmutation of metals

2. The creation of an elixir that would prolong life indefinitely

3. The transmutation of human life

Alchemy as a philosophical and spiritual discipline

The best known goals of the alchemists were the transmutation of common metals into gold or silver, and the creation of a " panacea," a remedy that supposedly would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely. Although these were not the only uses for the science, they were the ones most documented and well known. Starting with the Middle Ages, European alchemists invested much effort on the search for the " philosopher's stone", a legendary substance that was believed to be an essential ingredient for either or both of those goals. The philosopher's stone was believed to mystically amplify the user's knowledge of alchemy so much that anything was attainable. Alchemists enjoyed prestige and support through the centuries, though not for their pursuit of those goals, nor the mystic and philosophical speculation that dominates their literature. Rather it was for their mundane contributions to the "chemical" industries of the day—the invention of gunpowder, ore testing and refining, metalworking, production of ink, dyes, paints, and cosmetics, leather tanning, ceramics and glass manufacture, preparation of extracts and liquors, and so on (It seems that the preparation of aqua vitae, the "water of life", was a fairly popular "experiment" among European alchemists).

On the other hand, alchemists never had the inclination to separate the physical (chemical) aspects of their craft from the metaphysical interpretations. Indeed, from antiquity until well into the Modern Age, a physics devoid of metaphysical insight would have been as unsatisfying as a metaphysics devoid of physical manifestation. For one thing, the lack of common words for chemical concepts and processes, as well as the need for secrecy, led alchemists to borrow the terms and symbols of biblical and pagan mythology, astrology, kabbalah, and other mystic and esoteric fields; so that even the plainest chemical recipe ended up reading like an abstruse magic incantation. Moreover, alchemists sought in those fields the theoretical frameworks into which they could fit their growing collection of disjointed experimental facts.

Starting with the middle ages, some alchemists increasingly came to view these metaphysical aspects as the true foundation of alchemy; and chemical substances, physical states, and material processes as mere metaphors for spiritual entities, states and transformations. Thus, both the transmutation of common metals into gold and the universal panacea symbolized evolution from an imperfect, diseased, corruptible and ephemeral state towards a perfect, healthy, incorruptible and everlasting state; and the philosopher's stone then represented some mystic key that would make this evolution possible. Applied to the alchemist himself, the twin goal symbolized his evolution from ignorance to enlightenment, and the stone represented some 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" in order to discover their true meaning.

Alchemy and astrology

Since its earliest times, alchemy has been closely connected to astrology—which, in the Islamic world and Europe, generally meant the traditional Babylonian-Greek school of astrology. Alchemical systems often postulated that each of the seven planets known to the ancients " ruled" or was associated with a certain metal. See the separate article on astrology and alchemy for further details. In Hermeticism it is linked with both astrology and theurgy. "Everything that happens once will never happen again. But anything that happens twice will surely happen a third time." A quote from The Alchemist.

Alchemy in the age of science

Up to the 18th century, alchemy was actually considered serious science in Europe; for instance, Isaac Newton devoted considerably more of his time and writing to the study of alchemy (see Isaac Newton's occult studies) than he did to either optics or physics, for which he is famous. Other eminent alchemists of the Western world are Roger Bacon, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Tycho Brahe, Thomas Browne, and Parmigianino. The decline of alchemy began in the 18th century with the birth of modern chemistry, which provided a more precise and reliable framework for matter transmutations and medicine, within a new grand design of the universe based on rational materialism.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, one established chemist, Baron Carl Reichenbach, worked on concepts similar to the old alchemy, such as the Odic force, but his research did not enter the mainstream of scientific discussion.

Matter transmutation, the old goal of alchemy, enjoyed a moment in the sun in the 20th century when physicists were able to convert lead atoms into gold atoms via a nuclear reaction. However, the new gold atoms, being unstable isotopes, lasted for under five seconds before they broke apart. More recently, reports of table-top element transmutation—by means of electrolysis or sonic cavitation—were the pivot of the cold fusion controversy of 1989. None of those claims have yet been reliably duplicated.

Alchemical symbolism has been occasionally used in the 20th century by psychologists and philosophers. Carl Jung reexamined alchemical symbolism and theory and began to show the inner meaning of alchemical work as a spiritual path. Alchemical philosophy, symbols and methods have enjoyed something of a renaissance in post-modern contexts, such as the New Age movement.

Alchemy as a subject of historical research

The history of alchemy has become a vigorous academic field. As the obscure hermetic language of the alchemists is gradually being "deciphered", historians are becoming more aware of the intellectual connections between that discipline and other facets of Western cultural history, such as the sociology and psychology of the intellectual communities, kabbalism, spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, and other mystic movements, cryptography, witchcraft, and the evolution of science and philosophy.


The word chemistry comes from the earlier study of alchemy, which is basically the quest to make gold from earthen starting materials. As to the origin of the word “alchemy” the question is a debatable one, it certainly has Greek origins, and some, following E. Wallis Budge, have also asserted Egyptian origins. Alchemy, generally, derives from the old French alkemie; and the Arabic al-kimia: "the art of transformation." The Arabs borrowed the word “kimia” from the Greeks when they conquered Alexandria in the year 642 AD. A tentative outline is as follows:

  1. Egyptian alchemy [5,000 BC – 400 BC], Alexandria has the world’s largest library
  2. Greek alchemy [332 BC – 642 AD], the Greeks take over Alexandria
  3. Arabian alchemy [642 AD – 1200], the Arabs take over Alexandria, e.g. Jabir is the main chemist.
  4. European alchemy [1300 – Present], Gerber builds on Arabic chemistry
  5. Chemistry [1661], Boyle writes his classic chemistry text The Sceptical Chymist
  6. Chemistry [1787], Lavoisier writes his classic Elements of Chemistry
  7. Chemistry [1803], Dalton publishes his Atomic Theory

Thus, an alchemist was called a 'chemist' in popular speech, and later the suffix "-ry" was added to this to describe the art of the chemist as "chemistry".

Alchemy in history

Extract and symbol key from a 17th century book on alchemy. The symbols used have a one-to-one correspondence with symbols used in astrology at the time.
Extract and symbol key from a 17th century book on alchemy. The symbols used have a one-to-one correspondence with symbols used in astrology at the time.

Alchemy encompasses several philosophical traditions spanning some four millennia and three continents. These traditions' general penchant for cryptic and symbolic language makes it hard to trace their mutual influences and "genetic" relationships.

One can distinguish at least two major strands, which appear to be largely independent, at least in their earlier stages: Chinese alchemy, centered in China and its zone of cultural influence; and Western alchemy, whose centre has shifted over the millennia between Egypt, Greece and Rome, the Islamic world, and finally back to Europe. Chinese alchemy was closely connected to Taoism, whereas Western alchemy developed its own philosophical system, with only superficial connections to the major Western religions. It is still an open question whether these two strands share a common origin, or to what extent they influenced each other.

Alchemy in ancient Egypt

The origin of western alchemy may generally be traced to ancient (pharaonic) Egypt. Metallurgy and mysticism were inexorably tied together in the ancient world. It is claimed therefore that Alchemy in ancient Egypt was the domain of the priestly class.

Egyptian alchemy is known mostly through the writings of ancient (Hellenic) Greek philosophers, which in turn have often survived only in Islamic translations. Practically no original Egyptian documents on alchemy have survived. Those writings, if they existed, were likely lost when the emperor Diocletian ordered the burning of alchemical books after suppressing a revolt in Alexandria (292), which had been a centre of Egyptian alchemy.

Nevertheless archaeological expeditions in recent times have unearthed evidence of chemical analysis during the Naqada periods. For example, a copper tool dating to the Naqada era bears evidence of having been used in such a way (reference: artifact 5437 on display at ). Also, the process of tanning animal skins was already known in Predynastic Egypt as early as the 6th millennium BC . Other evidence indicates early alchemists in ancient Egypt had invented mortar by 4000 BC and glass by 1500 BC. The chemical reaction involved in the production of Calcium Oxide is one of the oldest known (references: Calcium Oxide, limekiln):

CaCO3 + heat → CaO + CO2.

Ancient Egypt additionally produced cosmetics, cement, faience and also pitch for shipbuilding. Papyrus had also been invented by 3000 BC.

Legend has it that the founder of Egyptian alchemy was the god Thoth, called Hermes-Thoth or Thrice-Great Hermes ( Hermes Trismegistus) by the Greeks. According to legend, he wrote what were called the forty-two Books of Knowledge, covering all fields of knowledge—including alchemy. Hermes's symbol was the caduceus or serpent-staff, which became one of many of alchemy's principal symbols. The " Emerald Tablet" or Hermetica of Thrice-Great Hermes, which is known only through Greek and Arabic translations, is generally understood to form the basis for Western alchemical philosophy and practice, called the hermetic philosophy by its early practitioners.

The first point of the "Emerald Tablet" tells the purpose of hermetic science: "in truth certainly and without doubt, whatever is below is like that which is above, and whatever is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of one thing." This is the macrocosm-microcosm belief central to the hermetic philosophy. In other words, the human body (the microcosm) is affected by the exterior world (the macrocosm), which includes the heavens through astrology, and the earth through the elements. Though when one gains mastery over their inner world, they begin to be able to control the exterior world in unconventional ways.

It has been speculated that a riddle from the Emerald Tablet—"it was carried in the womb by the wind"—refers to the distillation of oxygen from saltpeter—a process that was unknown in Europe until its (re)discovery by Sendivogius in the 17th century.

In the 4th century BC, the Greek-speaking Macedonians conquered Egypt and founded the city of Alexandria in 332. This brought them into contact with Egyptian ideas. See Alchemy in the Greek World below.

Chinese alchemy

Whereas Western alchemy eventually centered on the transmutation of base metals into noble ones, Chinese alchemy had a more obvious connection to medicine. The philosopher's stone of European alchemists can be compared to the Grand Elixir of Immortality sought by Chinese alchemists. However, in the hermetic view, these two goals were not unconnected, and the philosopher's stone was often equated with the universal panacea; therefore, the two traditions may have had more in common than it initially appears.

Black powder may have been an important invention of Chinese alchemists. Described in 9th century texts and used in fireworks in China by the 10th century, it was used in cannons by 1290. From China, the use of gunpowder spread to Japan, the Mongols, the Arab world and Europe. Gunpowder was used by the Mongols against the Hungarians in 1241, and in Europe by the 14th century.

Chinese alchemy was closely connected to Taoist forms of traditional Chinese medicine, such as Acupuncture and Moxibustion, and to martial arts such as Tai Chi Chuan and Kung Fu (although some Tai Chi schools believe that their art derives from the philosophical or hygienic branches of Taoism, not the Alchemical). In fact, in the early Song Dynasty, followers of this Daoist idea (chiefly the elite and upper class) would ingest mercuric sulfide, which, though tolerable in low levels, lead many to suicide. Thinking that this consequential death would lead to freedom and access to the Daoist heavens, the ensuing deaths encouraged people to eschew this method of alchemy in favour of external sources (the aforementioned Tai Chi Chuan, mastering of the Qi, etc.).

Indian alchemy

Little is known in the West about the character and history of Indian alchemy. An 11th century Persian alchemist named al-Biruni reported that they "have a science similar to alchemy which is quite peculiar to them, which is called Rasayāna in persian Rasavātam. It means the art of obtaining/manipulating Rasa, nectar, mercury, juice. This art was restricted to certain operations, metals, drugs, compounds, and medicines, most of which have mercury as their core element. Its principles restored the health of those who were ill beyond hope and gave back youth to fading old age." One thing is sure though, Indian alchemy like every other Indian science is focused on finding Moksha: perfection, immortality, liberation. As such it focuses its efforts on transumation of the human body: from mortal to immortal. Many are the traditional stories of alchemists still alive since time immemorial due to the effects of their experiments.

The texts of Ayurvedic Medicine and Science have aspects similar to alchemy: concepts of cures for all known diseases, and treatments that focus on anointing the body with oils.

Since alchemy eventually became engrained in the vast field of Indian erudition, influences from other metaphisical and philosophical doctrines such as Samkhya, Yoga, Vaisheshika and Ayurveda were inevitable. Nonetheless, most of the Rasayāna texts track their origins back to Kaula tantric schools associated to the teachings of the personality of Matsyendranath.

The Rasayāna was understood by very few people at the time. Two famous examples were Nagarjunacharya and Nityanadhiya. Nagarjunacharya was a buddhist monk who, in ancient times, ran the great university of Nagarjuna Sagar. His famous book, Rasaratanakaram, is a famous example of early Indian medicine. In traditional Indian medicinal terminology 'rasa' translates as 'mercury' and Nagarjunacharya was said to have developed a method to convert the mercury into gold. Much of his original writings are lost to us, but his teachings still have strong influence on traditional Indian medicine (Ayureveda) to this day.

Alchemy in the Greek world

The Greek city of Alexandria in Egypt was a centre of Greek alchemical knowledge, and retained its preeminence through most of the Greek and Roman periods. The Greeks appropriated the hermetical beliefs of the Egyptians and melded with them the philosophies of Pythagoreanism, ionianism, and gnosticism. Pythagorean philosophy is, essentially, the belief that numbers rule the universe, originating from the observations of sound, stars, and geometric shapes like triangles, or anything from which a ratio could be derived. Ionian thought was based on the belief that the universe could be explained through concentration on natural phenomena; this philosophy is believed to have originated with Thales and his pupil Anaximander, and later developed by Plato and Aristotle, whose works came to be an integral part of alchemy. According to this belief, the universe can be described by a few unified natural laws that can be determined only through careful, thorough, and exacting philosophical explorations. The third component introduced to hermetical philosophy by the Greeks was gnosticism, a belief prevalent in the Christian and early post-Christian Roman empire, that the world is imperfect because it was created in a flawed manner, and that learning about the nature of spiritual matter would lead to salvation. They further believed that God did not "create" the universe in the classic sense, but that the universe was created "from" him, but was corrupted in the process (rather than becoming corrupted by the transgressions of Adam and Eve, that is, original sin). Many Gnostic sects further held the Biblical deity to be evil and viewed him as a fallen emanation of the High God whom they sought to worship and unite with, however the aspect of the Abrahamic god as being evil really played no role in alchemy but the aspect of ascending to the high god probably had a great deal of influence. Platonic and neo-Platonic theories about universals and the omnipotence of God were also absorbed (their main beliefs see the physical aspect of the world as being imperfect and think of God as a transcendent cosmic mind).

One very important concept introduced at this time, originated by Empedocles and developed by Aristotle, was that all things in the universe were formed from only four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. According to Aristotle, each element had a sphere to which it belonged and to which it would return if left undisturbed.

The four elements of the Greek were mostly qualitative aspects of matter, not quantitative, as our modern elements are. "...True alchemy never regarded earth, air, water, and fire as corporeal or chemical substances in the present-day sense of the word. The four elements are simply the primary, and most general, qualities by means of which the amorphous and purely quantitative substance of all bodies first reveals itself in differentiated form." Later alchemists extensively developed the mystical aspects of this concept.

Alchemy in the Roman Empire

The Romans adopted Greek alchemy and metaphysics, just as they adopted much of Greek knowledge and philosophy. By the end of the Roman empire the Greek alchemical philosophy had been joined to the philosophies of the Egyptians to create the cult of Hermeticism.

However, the development of Christianity in the Empire brought a contrary line of thinking, stemming from Augustine (354-430 AD), an early Christian philosopher who wrote of his beliefs shortly before the fall of the Roman Empire. In essence, he felt that reason and faith could be used to understand God, but experimental philosophy was evil: "There is also present in the soul, by means of these same bodily sense, a kind of empty longing and curiosity which aims not at taking pleasure in the flesh but at acquiring experience through the flesh, and this empty curiosity he is dignified by the names of learning and science."

Augustinian ideas were decidedly anti-experimental, yet when Aristotelian experimental techniques were made available to the West they were not shunned. Still, Augustinian thought was well ingrained in medieval society and was used to show alchemy as being un-Godly.

Much of the Roman knowledge of Alchemy, like that of the Greeks and Egyptians, is now lost. In Alexandria, the centre of alchemical studies in the Roman Empire, the art was mainly oral and in the interests of secrecy little was committed to paper. (Whence the use of "hermetic" to mean "secretive".) It is possible that some writing was done in Alexandria, and that it was subsequently lost or destroyed in fires and the turbulent periods that followed.

Alchemy in the Islamic world

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the focus of alchemical development moved to the Islamic World. Much more is known about Islamic alchemy because it was better documented: indeed, most of the earlier writings that have come down through the years were preserved as Islamic translations.

The Islamic world was a melting pot for alchemy. Platonic and Aristotelian thought, which had already been somewhat appropriated into hermetical science, continued to be assimilated. Islamic alchemists such as al-Razi (Latin Rasis or Rhazes) and Jabir ibn Hayyan (Latin Geber) contributed key chemical discoveries of their own, such as the technique of distillation (the words alembic and alcohol are of Arabic origin), the muriatic(hydrochloric), sulfuric, and nitric acids, soda, potash, and more. (From the Arabic names of the last two substances, al-natrun and al-qalīy, Latinized into Natrium and Kalium, come the modern symbols for sodium and potassium.) The discovery that aqua regia, a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids, could dissolve the noblest metal; gold, was to fuel the imagination of alchemists for the next millennium.

Islamic philosophers also made great contributions to alchemical hermeticism. The most influential author in this regard was arguably Jabir Ibn Hayyan (Arabic جابر إبن حيان, Latin Geberus; usually rendered in English as Geber). Jabir's ultimate goal was takwin, the artificial creation of life in the alchemical laboratory, up to and including human life. He analyzed each Aristotelian element in terms of four basic qualities of hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness. According to Geber, in each metal two of these qualities were interior and two were exterior. For example, lead was externally cold and dry, while gold was hot and moist. Thus, Jabir theorized, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a different metal would result. By this reasoning, the search for the philosopher's stone was introduced to Western alchemy. Jabir developed an elaborate numerology whereby the root letters of a substance's name in Arabic, when treated with various transformations, held correspondences to the element's physical properties.

Alchemy in Medieval Europe

 Painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771
Painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771

Because of its strong connections to the Greek and Roman cultures, alchemy was rather easily accepted into Christian philosophy, and Medieval European alchemists extensively absorbed Islamic alchemical knowledge. Gerbert of Aurillac, who was later to become Pope Silvester II, (d. 1003) was among the first to bring Islamic science to Europe from Spain. Later men such as Adelard of Bath, who lived in the 12th century, brought additional learning. But until the 13th century the moves were mainly assimilative.

In this period there appeared some deviations from the Augustinian principles of earlier Christian thinkers. Saint Anselm (1033–1109) was a Benedictine who believed faith must precede rationalism, as Augustine and most theologians prior to Anselm had believed, but Anselm put forth the opinion that faith and rationalism were compatible and encouraged rationalism in a Christian context. His views set the stage for the philosophical explosion to occur. Peter Abelard followed Anselm's work, laying the foundation for acceptance of Aristotelian thought before the first works of Aristotle reached the West. His major influence on alchemy was his belief that Platonic universals did not have a separate existence outside of man's consciousness. Abelard also systematized the analysis of philosophical contradictions.

Robert Grosseteste (1170–1253) was a pioneer of the scientific theory that would later be used and refined by the alchemists. He took Abelard's methods of analysis and added the use of observations, experimentation, and conclusions in making scientific evaluations. Grosseteste also did much work to bridge Platonic and Aristotelian thinking.

Albertus Magnus (1193–1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) were both Dominicans who studied Aristotle and worked at reconciling the differences between philosophy and Christianity. Aquinas also did a great deal of work in developing the scientific method. He even went as far as claiming that universals could be discovered only through logical reasoning, and, since reason could not run in opposition to God, reason must be compatible with theology. . This ran contrary to the commonly held Platonic belief that universals were found through divine illumination alone. Magnus and Aquinas were among the first to take up the examination of alchemical theory, and could be considered to be alchemists themselves, except that these two did little in the way of experimentation.

The first true alchemist in Medieval Europe was Roger Bacon. His work did as much for alchemy as Robert Boyle's was to do for chemistry and Galileo's for astronomy and physics. Bacon (1214–1294) was an Oxford Franciscan who explored optics and languages in addition to alchemy. The Franciscan ideals of taking on the world rather than rejecting the world led to his conviction that experimentation was more important than reasoning: "Of the three ways in which men think that they acquire knowledge of things: authority, reasoning, and experience; only the last is effective and able to bring peace to the intellect." (Bacon p. 367) " Experimental Science controls the conclusions of all other sciences. It reveals truths which reasoning from general principles would never have discovered." Roger Bacon has also been attributed with originating the search for the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life: "That medicine which will remove all impurities and corruptibilities from the lesser metals will also, in the opinion of the wise, take off so much of the corruptibility of the body that human life may be prolonged for many centuries." The idea of immortality was replaced with the notion of long life; after all, man's time on Earth was simply to wait and prepare for immortality in the world of God. Immortality on Earth did not mesh with Christian theology.

Bacon was not the only alchemist of the high middle ages, but he was the most significant. His works were used by countless alchemists of the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. Other alchemists of Bacon's time shared several traits. First, and most obviously, nearly all were members of the clergy. This was simply because few people outside the parochial schools had the education to examine the Arabic-derived works. Also, alchemy at this time was sanctioned by the church as a good method of exploring and developing theology. Alchemy was interesting to the wide variety of churchmen because it offered a rationalistic view of the universe when men were just beginning to learn about rationalism.

So by the end of the thirteenth century, alchemy had developed into a fairly structured system of belief. 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 fourteenth century, these views underwent a major change. William of Ockham, an Oxford Franciscan who died in 1349, attacked the Thomist view of compatibility between faith and reason. His view, widely accepted today, was that God must be accepted on faith alone; He could not be limited by human reason. Of course this view was not incorrect if one accepted the postulate of a limitless God versus limited human reasoning capability, but it virtually erased alchemy from practice in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Pope John XXII in the early 1300s issued an edict against alchemy, which effectively removed all church personnel from the practice of the Art. The climate changes, Black plague, and increase in warfare and famine that characterized this century no doubt also served to hamper philosophical pursuits in general.

Nicholas Flamel had these mysterious alchemical symbols carved on his tomb in the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris.
Nicholas Flamel had these mysterious alchemical symbols carved on his tomb in the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris.

Alchemy was kept alive by men such as Nicolas Flamel, who was noteworthy only because he was one of the few alchemists writing in those troubled times. Flamel lived from 1330 to 1417 and would serve as the archetype for the next phase of alchemy. He was not a religious scholar as were many of his predecessors, and his entire interest in the subject revolved around the pursuit of the philosopher's stone, which he is reputed to have found; 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 philosophers' stone.

Through the high middle ages (1300-1500) alchemists were much like Flamel: they concentrated on looking for the philosophers' stone and the elixir of youth, now believed to be separate things. Their cryptic allusions and symbolism led to wide variations in interpretation of the art. For example, many alchemists during this period interpreted the purification of the soul to mean the transmutation of lead into gold (in which they believed elemental mercury, or 'quicksilver', played a crucial role). These men were viewed as magicians and sorcerers by many, and were often persecuted for their practices.

One of these men who emerged at the beginning of the sixteenth century was named Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. This alchemist believed himself to be a wizard and was capable of summoning spirits. His influence was negligible, but like Flamel, he produced writings which were referred to by alchemists of later years. Again like Flamel, he did much to change alchemy from a mystical philosophy to an occultist magic. He did keep alive the philosophies of the earlier alchemists, including experimental science, numerology, etc., but he added magic theory, which reinforced the idea of alchemy as an occultist belief. In spite of all this, Agrippa still considered himself a Christian, though his views often came into conflict with the church.

Alchemy in the Modern Age and Renaissance

European alchemy continued in this way through the dawning of the Renaissance. The era also saw a flourishing of con artists who would use chemical tricks and sleight of hand to "demonstrate" the transmutation of common metals into gold, or claim to possess secret knowledge that—with a "small" initial investment—would surely lead to that goal.

The most important name in this period is Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus, (Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493–1541) who cast alchemy into a new form, rejecting some of the occultism that had accumulated over the years and promoting the use of observations and experiments to learn about the human body. He rejected Gnostic traditions, but kept much of the Hermetical, neo-Platonic, and Pythagorean philosophies; however, Hermetical science had so much Aristotelian theory that his rejection of Gnosticism was practically meaningless. In particular, Paracelsus rejected the magic theories of Agrippa and Flamel. He did not think of himself as a magician, and scorned those who did. (Williams p.239-45)

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. While his attempts of treating diseases with such remedies as Mercury might seem ill-advised from a modern point of view, his basic idea of chemically produced medicines has stood time surprisingly well.

"Alchemist Sędziwój" (1566–1636) by Jan Matejko, 1867
"Alchemist Sędziwój" (1566–1636) by Jan Matejko, 1867

In England, the topic of alchemy in that time frame is often associated with Doctor John Dee ( 13 July 1527 – December, 1608), better known for his role as astrologer, cryptographer, and general "scientific consultant" to Queen Elizabeth I. Dee was considered an authority on the works of Roger Bacon, and was interested enough in alchemy to write a book on that subject (Monas Hieroglyphica, 1564) influenced by the Kabbala. Dee's associate Edward Kelley — who claimed to converse with angels through a crystal ball and to own a powder that would turn mercury into gold — may have been the source of the popular image of the alchemist-charlatan.

Another lesser known alchemist was Michael Sendivogius (Michał Sędziwój, 1566 - 1636), a Polish alchemist, philosopher, medical doctor and pioneer of chemistry. According to some accounts, he distilled oxygen in a lab sometime around 1600, 170 years before Scheele and Priestley, by warming nitre (saltpetre). He thought of the gas given off as "the elixir of life". Shortly after discovering this method, it is believed that Sendivogious taught his technique to Cornelius Drebbel. In 1621, Drebbel practically applied this in a submarine.

Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), better known for his astronomical and astrological investigations, was also an alchemist. He had a laboratory built for that purpose at his Uraniborg observatory/research institute.

The decline of Western alchemy

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.

Robert Boyle (1627–1691), better known for his studies of gases (cf. Boyle's law) pioneered the scientific method in chemical investigations. He assumed nothing in his experiments and compiled every piece of relevant data; in a typical experiment, 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. This approach eventually led to the founding of modern chemistry in the 18th and 19th centuries, based on revolutionary discoveries of Lavoisier and John Dalton — which finally provided a logical, quantitative and reliable framework for understanding matter transmutations, and revealed the futility of longstanding alchemical goals such as the philosopher's stone.

Meanwhile, Paracelsian alchemy led to the development of modern medicine. Experimentalists gradually uncovered the workings of the human body, such as blood circulation (Harvey, 1616), and eventually traced many diseases to infections with germs ( Koch and Pasteur, 19th century) or lack of natural nutrients and vitamins ( Lind, Eijkman, Funk, et al.). Supported by parallel developments in organic chemistry, the new science easily displaced alchemy from its medical roles, interpretive and prescriptive, while deflating its hopes of miraculous elixirs and exposing the ineffectiveness or even toxicity of its remedies.

Thus, as science steadily continued to uncover and rationalize the clockwork of the universe, founded on its own materialistic metaphysics, Alchemy was left deprived of its chemical and medical connections — but still incurably burdened by them. Reduced to an arcane philosophical system, poorly connected to the material world, it suffered the common fate of other esoteric disciplines such as astrology and Kabbalah: excluded from university curricula, shunned by its former patrons, ostracized by scientists, and commonly viewed as the epitome of charlatanism and superstition. Rosencrutzians and freemasons have, however, always been interested in alchemy and its symbolism. A large collection of books on alchemy is kept in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam.

These developments could be interpreted as part of a broader reaction in European intellectualism against the Romantic movement of the preceding century.

Alchemy in the Bahá'í Faith

Bahá'u'lláh, founder of the Bahá'í Faith, promised the realisation of the discovery of a radical approach to the transmutation of elements as one of the signs of the coming of age of humanity. He prophesied, as well, that after this discovery a great calamity would overcome the world, unless mankind would accept his Faith. Bahá'u'lláh also refers to the elixir and the philosopher's stone, but states that these are spiritual in nature, and refer to the Word of God.

Modern alchemy

In modern times, progress has been made toward achieving the goals of alchemy using different means than those of traditional alchemy. These developments may on occasion be called "alchemy" for rhetorical reasons.

As of 2006, a universal panacea remains elusive, though futurists such as Ray Kurzweil believe sufficiently advanced nanotechnology may prolong life indefinitely. Some say the third goal of alchemy has been fulfilled by IVF and the cloning of a human embryo, although these technologies fall far short of creating a human life from scratch.

The aim of artificial intelligence research could be said to be creating a life from scratch, and those philosophically opposed to the possibility of AI have compared it with alchemy, such as Herbert and Stuart Dreyfus in their 1960 paper Alchemy and AI. However, because the specific aim of alchemy is human transmutation rather than creating life from scratch, genetic research, particularly splicing would be closer to this goal.

Nuclear transmutation

In 1919, Ernest Rutherford used artificial disintegration to convert nitrogen into oxygen. This process or transmutation has subsequently been carried out on a commercial scale by bombarding atomic nuclei with high energy particles from modern particle accelerators and in nuclear reactors. Indeed, in 1980, Glenn Seaborg transmuted lead into gold, though the amount of energy used and the microscopic quantities created negated any possible financial benefit.

Unduplicated transmutation claims

In 1964, George Ohsawa and Michio Kushi, based on the claims of Corentin Louis Kervran, reportedly successfully transmutated sodium into potassium, by use of an electric arc, and later of carbon and oxygen into iron. In 1994, R. Sundaresan and J. Bockris reported that they had observed fusion reactions in electrical discharges between carbon rods immersed in water. However, none of these claims have been replicated by other scientists, and the idea is now thoroughly discredited.


Carl Jung saw alchemy as a Western proto-psychology dedicated to the achievement of individuation; in his interpretation, alchemy was the vessel by which Gnosticism survived its various purges into the Renaissance. In this sense, Jung viewed alchemy as comparable to a Yoga of the West. Jung also interpreted Chinese alchemical texts in terms of his analytical psychology as means to individuation.

Alchemy in art and entertainment

References to alchemy in art and entertainment are far too numerous to list. Here we give only a few indicative samples. More titles can be found in the philosopher's stone article.

Novels and plays

Many writers lampooned alchemists and used them as the butt of satirical attacks. Two early and well-known examples are

  • Geofrey Chaucer, Canon's Yeoman's Tale (ca. 1380). The main character, an alchemist on the way to Canterbury, claims that he will "pave it all of silver and of gold".
  • Ben Jonson, The Alchemist (ca 1610). In this five-act play, the characters set up an alchemy workshop to swindle people.
An Alchemical Laboratory, from The Story of Alchemy and the Beginnings of Chemistry
An Alchemical Laboratory, from The Story of Alchemy and the Beginnings of Chemistry

In more recent works, alchemists are generally presented in a more romantic or mystic light, and often little distinction is made between alchemy, magic, and witchcraft:

  • The Alchemist (book) is the name of a novel by Paulo Coehlo where the main character meets an alchemist and is taught alchemy
  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818). Victor Frankenstein uses both alchemy and modern science to create Frankenstein's monster.
  • Vladimir Odoevsky, Salamandra (1828).
  • Goethe, Faust, Part 2 (1832). Faust's servant Wagner uses alchemy to create a homunculus.
  • Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). An alchemist named Melquíades adds to the novel's surreal atmosphere.
  • Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist (1988).
  • Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum (1988).
  • Teresa Edgerton, the Green Lion trilogy: Child of Saturn (1989), The Moon in Hiding (1989) and The Work of the Sun (1990). The heroine is an alchemist's apprentice. (The second trilogy in this setting did not touch on alchemical themes.)
  • Richard Garfinkle, Celestial Matters (1996). Deals (unusually) with Chinese Alchemy.
  • J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997). Features Nicholas Flamel as a character.
  • Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle (2003–2004). Features real and imaginary alchemists such as Isaac Newton, de Duillier, and Enoch Root.
  • Martin Booth, Doctor Illuminatus: The Alchemist's Son (2003).
  • Margaret Mahy, Alchemy (2004).
  • John Fasman, The Geographer's Library, whose plot revolves around thirteen alchemical artifacts.
  • Gregory Keyes, The Age of Unreason series . Features Isaac Newton and de Duillier.
  • Cornelia Funke, Dragon Rider (2004). Twigleg the homonculus was created by an alchemist.
  • Antal Szerb, "The Pendragon legend" (1934)
  • Some of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels (1983-present) feature a Guild of Alchemists. They are noted for blowing up their own Guild building on a regular basis. They play a particularly important role in Men at Arms (1993).
  • In the movie Silence Becomes You (2005), alchemy clearly influences the decisions and lives of the characters.
  • In Ian Watson's science fiction novel The Gardens of Delight, an alchemist of the far future, aided by a powerful extraterrestrial being, creates a planet based on Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, in which Bosch's alchemical allegory takes on real substance.

Film and television

  • Television shows such as Fullmetal Alchemist and Charmed use the idea of alchemy in its classic sense.
  • In the Star Trek universe, the fictional concepts of the replicator and transporter are frequently used as alchemical plot devices where base raw materials can be rearranged at the molecular level in order to produce objects, devices, foodstuffs, and chemical compounds of virtually any nature.
  • In the show Blackadder II, Percy tries to save Edmund's fortune by discovering the secrets of alchemy the very same afternoon.

Modern art and exhibition

Some contemporary artists used alchemy symbols to create new masterpieces.

  • Tryptukos is a parallel between modern physics and alchemy exposed at Liverpool by an unknown artist. The right part of this triptych is an original 14th century engraving from the Naturæ Liber, property of the Alchemic Museum, Kutna Hora, Czech Republic.
  • Four Ways of Measuring the Distance Between Alchemy and Contemporary Art explains why alchemy is marginal to current visual art, and why alchemical thinking remains absolutely central. This article has been published in the International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry.

Comics, manga, and video games

  • World of Warcraft, an immersive MMORPG, has a player based trade & profession system including Alchemy and Herbalism, which give the user the ability to make potions that aid or give the user special abilities, such as speed increase, invisibility, health and stats bonuses. The Alchemy profession also has an operation called Transmute which is used to turn some metals gained from the Mining profession into their next higher neighbors.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), Anime/manga series by Hiromu Arakawa, is centered around brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric. 'Alchemists' can transform anything within the principle of Equivalent Exchange—the "Law of Nature" as it is referred to in this manga series. The Elric brothers, much like the Western "Alchemists" discussed near the top of this page, are also in search of the Philosopher's Stone, but so that they can transmute (alchemize) their now metal or semi-metal bodies back to their original states. Also, Alchemy is performed using diagrams known as "Transmutation Circles" in this series.
  • Sega's Chakan, Genesis and Game Gear video game (1992). The immortal swordsman collects potions around the elemental planes—each with ingredients of four elements. Chakan has the option of mixing any two potions whether its fire and air, earth and earth, etc. A variety of Alchemic solutions occur healing Chakan, damaging surrounding demons, enhanced abilities in jumping and strength, as well as granting elemental properties of fire, ice, thunder and lightning to Chakan's two swords.
  • Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Fantastic Four comics (ca. 1962–). Villain Diablo is an alchemist.
  • Darklands, PC game (1992). Alchemy features prominently throughout the game.
  • Mike Mignola's Hellboy comics (1993–). The character Roger the Homunculus was created by alchemy.
  • Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage video game. Alchemy is featured as a skill.
  • Verant Interactive's smash hit computer game Everquest (1998-). Shaman characters may learn and train in this skill.
  • Nintendo's Golden Sun video game (2001). Psynergy is a force that threatens the world, which is connected to many displines, Ki, Chi, Ply, and of course, Alchemy.
  • Nobuhiro Watsuki, Buso Renkin manga (2003–2006).
  • Kazuki Takahashi, Yu-Gi-Oh! GX anime (2004–). The character Lyman Banner (Daitokuji) is an alchemist who preserved his soul within a homunculus.
  • Square Enix's Final Fantasy series features the Alchemist as a job in several games (for example, as a Dresssphere in Final Fantasy X-2).
  • Bethesda Softworks' The Elder Scrolls series prominently features alchemy as a method of creating various potions for use by the player.
  • Konami's Shadow of Destiny features an alchemist and a creature made by alchemy as major characters.
  • Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb, computer game (2003). A large portion of the game is centered around a castle in Prague formerly owned by an alchemist king.
  • Ultima Online computer game (1997). Alchemy is one of the player skills and professions.
  • Zork Nemesis video game (1996).
  • Secret of Evermore (1995) for the SNES, uses an alchemy combat system where the player mixes ingredients for combat effects, in lieu of typical magic systems.
  • RuneScape, the massive online mulitplayer game by Jagex, allows a player to turn items into gold with spells once they have achieved a certain mage level.
  • Alchemy is a key plot point and aspect of gameplay in the Playstation 2 RPG, Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana.
  • In the popular MMORPG Ragnarok Online a playable character class called Alchemist is able to create potions, explosives, simple plant type monsters, and homunculi that fight for them.
  • In the video game Haunting Ground (2005), alchemy is a large plot point, and the main character is trapped in a castle owned by powerful alchemists and their creations, whom chase her in order to obtain "the Azoth" in one way or another. The stalkers are all clones of a great alchemist from the middle ages, and the whole story revolves around enlightenment and purification, rife with symbolism for alchemy in general and what its practitioners believed.
  • In Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident a brief reference is made to alchemy; specifically, that it can be achieved through greater technology.
  • In Square Enix's Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, Alchemy is a trade that a character can learn in the shops.
  • In The Big O (1999-2003) act 8 Missing Cat, a modern alchemist, Eugene, transmutates humans and animals into chimeras.
  • The Atelier Iris games revolve heavily around alchemy, where spirits of nature ( Mana) are used to extract elements from the environment, and transmute them into a variety of items.


  • Leonard Cohen's album New Skin for the Old Ceremony features an alchemical diagram on the cover.
  • The Smashing Pumpkins, album Machina/The Machines of God (2000). The album concept and design is based on alchemy and its symbols.
  • Tool (band), album Lateralus (2001).
  • Susumu Hirasawa, album Philosopher's Propeller (賢者のプロペラ, Kenja no Puropera)" (2000).
  • Bruce Dickinson, album The Chemical Wedding (1998). The Album's concept and artwork are based on William Blake's works as well as Alchemy and its symbols.
  • XTC album Mummer features the song "Human Alchemy" about the early philosophy behind slavery.
  • Alchemy, the first of Dire Straits' two live albums
  • Home (band), The Alchemist, 1970s progressive rock concept album.
  • Yngwie Malmsteen, album Alchemy. (1999)
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