The History of Alchemy
Practiced in civilizations across the world from ancient times up through the 19th century, the early proto-scientific and philosophical discipline of alchemy is most widely understood as the quest to achieve the transmutation of base metals into the precious metals of gold or silver, as well as the creation of a panacea, which promised to cure all disease, rendering immortality a fate not only reserved for the gods. Taking the commonality of properties of the known metals (gold, silver, iron, copper, tin, lead and mercury) as evidence of a commonality of composition, alchemists operated on the assumption that they might somehow correct the composition of the base metal, rendering it pure gold. To do so, they needed the philosopher’s stone, or the elixir, which would speed up that process of transmutation which, occurring naturally underground, would require the passage of thousands of years.
We might imagine the history of alchemy as a curious double-helix, its Eastern and Western strands decidedly separate but linked by certain commonalities. The Eastern strand of the history of alchemy finds its root in China, where alchemy was closely linked with the pursuit of health through traditional Taoist forms of medicine (specifically Acupuncture and Moxibustion, a therapy that uses mugwort herb to stimulate the circulation of blood through warm regions of the body and key acupuncture points). In that it was not so much concerned with the transmutation of base metals to previous metals, Chinese alchemy stood apart from its Western cousin, but it had its own version of the Philosopher’s Stone, which they called the Grand Elixir of Immortality.
But it is Egypt that promises to remain immortal when it comes to the discussion of the history of alchemy, its position of privilege perhaps embedded in the word alchemy itself. The etymology of the word is contested, traced to the Arabic al-kīmiya or al-khīmiya, meaning “cast together”, “pour together” or “weld”, as well as to the Persian Kimia, meaning “gold.” Others, though, read al- kīmiya as “the Egyptian [science]”, having been borrowed from the Copic word for “Egypt”, or kēme, which is itself derived from a chain that leads back to the ancient Egyptian term for the color black and the country of Egypt itself, kmt.
It is the god Thoth (also referred to as Hermes-Thoth) to whom mythology attributes the honor of being the founder of Egyptian mythology. It his forty-two Books of Knowledge, Thoth wrote in part on alchemy, but it is his Emerald Tablet, preserved Greek and Arabic translations, that is said to form a critical foundation in the alchemy of the West. Like Thoth’s Emerald Tablet, the only works of Egyptian alchemy available today have survived through such Greek and Arabic translations. As the Macedonians conquered Egypt in the 4th century, so came Greek language and culture in tow – and any Egyptian writings on alchemical philosophy and practice were likely burned as a part of Diocletian’s attempts to suppress a 292 revolt in Alexandria, that center of knowledge which figured so prominently in our histories of Automata and Algorithm.
There in Alexandria, the Greeks brought their philosophies of Pythagoreanism, Ionianism and Gnosticism together with the Egyptian hermetic philosophy, the principle tenet of which is called the macrocosm-microcosm belief: “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.” That central belief, that the exterior world, or the macrocosm, affects the human body, or the microcosm, interacted with the belief that numbers rule the universe, that the universe could be explained by examining natural phenomena and that the world was created in a flawed manner, thereby rendering it imperfect (Pythagoreanism, Ionianism and Gnosticism, respectively, and grossly oversimplified) to create a tradition that left us with the idea that everything in the universe was formed from the elements earth, air, water and fire.
As the Greeks adopted Egyptian alchemical knowledge and traditions, so adopted the Romans the knowledge and traditions of the Greeks. But Christianity then swept through the empire, bringing Christian philosophies, and particularly those of Augustine, into contention with Hermetic ideals. Augustine believed experimental philosophy to be evil and ungodly, maintaining people could understand God through reason and faith. Augustine’s philosophies were in turn used to argue that alchemy was evil and ungodly. But alchemy already had its niche in the Christian tradition, grandfathered in by Greek and Roman culture. As medieval Europe saw Christian philosophers challenge Augustinian doctrine, its alchemists worked from the contributions from the Islamic world, which became the premier stage for scientific and alchemical development after the fall of Rome.
Islamic alchemists were responsible for the technique of distillation; they discovered sulfuric, hydrochloric and nitric acids – and, perhaps most importantly, that the latter two could be mixed together and used to dissolve gold, the noblest of metals. The philosopher Jabir Ibn Hayyan, referred to in English as Geber, remains one of the most influential writers in the history of alchemy, for it was he who sought after the artificial creation of life in the laboratory. He described the elements in terms of their hotness, coldness, dryness and moistness – qualities which could be altered in the laboratory and rearranged, thus resulting in a new metal. He thus introduced the search for the philosopher’s stone, a central thrust of the Western alchemical tradition.
Though many philosophized about alchemy in the early stages of the millennium, some historians argue that the first alchemical experimentation in medieval Europe did not occur until the 13th century, when Roger Bacon is said to have brought on the search for the elixir of life. Bacon’s contributions to science were widespread: in addition to his work in alchemy, he analyzed convex glasses and lenses, invented spectacles, theorized about the telescope and, lest we forget, created the talking head automaton.
Bacon’s European contemporaries were to a great extent members of the clergy, those who had access to and the education to read the world’s assembled alchemical oeuvre. As the 13th century drew to a close, there was an established architecture of alchemical belief, including the aforementioned macrocosm-microcosm theories, the four elements and the four qualities. But most importantly, these Christian alchemists believed that their art could reunite man and God – for if man’s soul had been divided with Adam’s fall, so could the separate parts be purified and brought together again. These philosophies would be struck down in the next century, with the edict of Pope John XXII against alchemy removing clergymen from its practice.
The alchemy of the next three hundred years was thus one of a much different character. Alchemists returned their efforts to the search for the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of youth, and influential figures like Nicolas Flamel and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa contributed to a major shift in the classification of the art – namely, alchemy went from being characterized as a mystical philosophy to that of an occultist magic. This shift set alchemy up to be struck down by the thinkers of the Age of Reason, who favored rigorous experimentation over such seeds of ancient wisdom. The prescient Paracelsus, perhaps the most important alchemist during the Renaissance, had perceived the occultist label a threat to the alchemical arts as a whole, and as such, he pushed back, casting some occultist threads and Gnostic philosophies out of his alchemical fabric, choosing to focus his efforts on using chemicals and minerals in medicine to achieve a healthy balance in human bodies. But the work of Paracelsus could still not overcome all that occultist image carried with it, all the fallout created by the charlatans and cons who promised transmutation but produced trash.
We might read the intentions of the earliest alchemists as the same as those of the Internet alchemists of today: above all else, the these alchemists concern themselves with the study of changes in the material world and how they might be able to harness the power of these changes for their own purpose and benefit. These solitary materials scientists, mixing various elements together to render their combinations far more valuable than the sums of their parts, set the stage for the Internet alchemists of today, who, in harnessing the power of the changes of Internet media and create entities which are far more valuable. This alchemy takes place in large part in the act of naming – a company, an index, a domain, a category, a database class – for in that move to name, the Internet alchemist creates something far more than simply a representation of some external object or idea.
Thanks to Maggie Dillon for helping with this research