ALCHEMY (Egyptian-Coptic keme—black land, Egypt; Coptic chemi—black, black thing; Arabic; al—grammatical article)—the name of the ancient and mediaeval discipline that was an early stage of chemistry; a natural and experimental science of an esoteric character whose aim was to discover a substance that would transform base metals into noble metals (lapis philosophorum—the philosophers’ stone), a substance that would prolong life (panaceum vitae—the elixir of youth), and a substance that would give power over the forces of nature.
It is unclear and difficult to establish when and where alchemy arose. The trail leads to Babylon. The Assyriologist H. Zimmernn discovered a fragment dating before the sixth century BC of the book Gate of the Oven which contains writings on the transmutation of metals. Ancient authors (Diodorus of Sicily, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch) make mention of the early development of alchemy in Greece and Egypt, especially in the city of Alexandria, starting in the third century BC; the oldest alchemical texts, which are contained in the Leiden Papyrus (Lemmans, ed. Papyri Musei Lugduno-Batavensis, 1885), date back to the second or third century BC from the regions of Egypt where Greek was spoken; they are descriptions of alchemical operations, instruments, and recipes.
Alchemy was based on the theory of transmutation, which stated that with the right means we may completely transform one substance into another or change its characteristics or qualities; the alchemists were especially interested in transforming base metals into noble metals (e.g., iron or copper into silver, silver into gold); the primary quest of the alchemists was to find the so-called philosophers’ stone. The philosophers’ stone was the principle that constituted a kind of transmutator by which such a process could be performed (by these experiments many reactions and chemical compounds were discovered; discoveries in alchemy also had a positive influence on the development of industry and craftmanship). The idea of transmutation had theoretical foundations in the doctrines of nature of the Greek philosophers—Empedocles (fifth century BC), and Aristotle (fourth century BC). Their doctrines were an attempt to explain the world’s construction and the transformations that occur in the world, and they prepared the ground for studies of a chemical nature. Empedocles searched for the simple components of matter. He held that there were four qualitatively different elements in the world: water, air, fire, and earth (tetrasomia). These elements were the root of all things. They differed only in their state of concentration. Their differences therefore had a quantitative or structural character. The cause of the influence of bodies upon each other was their similarity (the similar joins with the similar). To Empedocles’ four elements, Aristotle added a fifth—ether (the so-called fifth essence); he held that the first four elements are found in all bodies in a mixed state and may pass from one into another by virtue of internal transformations. These transformations are not determined by the elements as such, but by their characteristics—cold, wet, warm, dry. Their characteristics were presented in pairs and were interchangeable (e.g. the change of wet to dry causes the air to change into fire, assuming that the hot remains unchanged). Alchemy was also influenced by the magic and astrology of Babylon and Egypt; under their influence a system of mysticism and natural lore was created. This was popular in the late Hellenistic period, the Middle Ages, and even into modern times. The representatives of alchemy, including Zosimos of Panapolis (third and fourth century, author of a history of alchemy in 28 volumes in which the definition of ”ch(k)emia“ appears for the first time), and Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (fifteenth and sixteenth century; author of the treatise De occulta philosophia), believed that substantial (chemical) changes with the help of spiritual forces that exist in nature and the cosmos (these forces are a manifestation of the universal spirit of the world—“spiritus mundi”); all things are interconnected and influence each other (“all things penetrate all things”, “lower” things can act upon “higher” things); with the help of magic (and also astronomy) it was possible to control these powers and natural forces (to introduce chemical changes and perform transmutations).
According to Zosimos, the first of the ancient alchemists was the mythical Hermes Trismegistos. He was identified with the god Hermes or Thoth. Some claimed he was the author of the hermetic writings and the treatise Tabula Smaragdina, which was very popular among mediaeval alchemists and which supposedly had a recipe for making gold). Other ancient alchemists are mentioned. The magus Ostenos was active in Memphis in the fifth century BC. Bolos of Mende lived in the second century BC, and is also called Pseudo-Democritus. Bolos held to the theory of the four elements in his investigations of transmutation, and gave a formula for obtaining gold from iron and copper. Komanos was active in the first century BC. Maria the Jewess was an alchemist of the first century AD. Zosimos himself may be considered as one of the founders of alchemy.
Alchemy declined with the spread of Christianity. It continued only in Syria and Persia among the Nestorians (fifth century), and in Byzantium. The Arabs became interested in the art of alchemy after they defeated the Roman provinces in Asia Minor and Africa (seventh century). By the tenth century, the Arabs had translated into their own tongue almost all the Greek scientific texts. Like their predecessors, they connected alchemy with astronomy and magic. They tried to use magic to master nature. They searched for a universal solvent for metals. This solvent was called alkahest, the elixir of life and the philosophical stone. They experimented with mercury (the principle of fluidity and splendor) and sulfur (the principle of flammability and color; the European alchemists added arsenic as the principle of permanence). They discovered the mineral acids: acetic and nitric acid, ammonia chloride and white lead. They observed the metallic properties of mercury and described sulfur. They also perfected techniques of distillation, crystallization, and filtration. The best known alchemists were Djabir ibn Hajjan, called Geber (eighth and ninth century), al-Kindi (ninth century), Muhammad ib Zakariya al-Razi (ninth and tenth century), and Avicenna (tenth and eleventh century).
The Arabs had a great influence on the development of alchemy in Europe. In the twelfth century their works (including almost all the works of Geber) were translated by Gerhard of Cremona and Alfred of Sarshel, and thereby European alchemy reached a high level in the thirteenth century (the anonymous treatise Summa perfectionis indicates this). Albert the Great studied alchemy in his youth. Roger Bacon, Arnold de Villanova, Raimundus Lullus (thirteenth and fourteenth century), Thomas Norton, Basilius Valentinius, Johannes Erithemius, and George Angelus (fifteenth century) were all interested in alchemy. The mediaeval alchemists searched from the philosophers’ stone and the elixir of life. They investigated the question of palingenesis (the rebirth of life); they tried to create a miniature man, called a homunculus, in laboratory conditions. Their accomplishments included the discovery of antimony, the production of sulfuric and nitric acid, a process for creating amalgam, and gunpowder. Alchemical practices also were the occasion of many abuses; in 1317, John XXII wrote a bull condemning the alchemists, and Dante Alighieri places alchemists in the ninth circle of hell in his Divine Comedy.
Practical alchemy started in the seventeenth century. Its best known representatives were: Agrippa von Nettesheim, Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, also known as Paracelsus (the founder of iatrochemstry or medical chemistry, from which pharmacology developed), George Bauer Agricola, Andreas Libau-Libavius, and the Polish philosopher and natural scientist Michael Sędziwój. In the thirteenth century, under the influence of new theories of natural science, alchemy began to change into scientific chemistry; two milestones were the foundation of the first chair of medical chemistry at the University of Marburg in 1609, and the publication of R. Boyle’s work The Sceptical Chymist in 1661.
J. Read, Prelude to Chemistry: an Outline of Alchemy, its Literature and Relationships, Lo 1936; F. S. Taylor, The Alchemists, Founders of Modern Chemistry, NY 1949; E. Kwiatkowski, Dzieje chemii i przemysłu chemicznego, Wwa 1962; Z. Zwoźniak, Alchemia [Alchemy], Wwa 1978; P. Andremont, Les enigmes de l’alchemie, G 1979; Y. Marquet, La philosophie des alchimistes et l’alchimie des philosophes”, P 1988; P. Rivier, L’alchimie, science et mystique, P 1990; W. Ferenc, Na początku była filozofia: od alchemii do chemii [In the beginning was philosophy: from alchemy to chemstry], Lb 1998.
Anna Z. Zmorzanka