Alchemy: Europe and the Middle East

Tara E Nummedal. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

To a modern observer, alchemy likely connotes only the transmutation of base metals into gold, or perhaps a more metaphorical transformation of the soul. In its roughly two-thousand-year history, however, alchemy’s practices and ideas have ranged much more broadly, encompassing everything from the production of dyes, medicines, precious metals, and gemstones to assaying techniques, matter theory, and spiritual practices linking the manipulation of matter to changes in the alchemist’s soul. Although all of these dimensions were present from alchemy’s beginnings, practitioners have chosen to highlight particular facets of their art at different times. Any definition of alchemy, therefore, must be both sensitive to its historical permutations and broad enough to include each of its chemical, pharmacological, metallurgical, and spiritual components. To be more precise, one may speak of technical or practical alchemy, spiritual alchemy, natural philosophical alchemy, transmutational alchemy, and medical alchemy (often referred to as iatrochemistry or chimiatria). This essay offers an overview of alchemy’s changing meaning over its rich and long history.

Practical Origins in Hellenistic Egypt

Although alchemy’s roots undoubtedly extend as far back as metallurgy itself, the textual record dates to the first centuries C.E. in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Immersed in an extraordinary mix of cultures and traditions, Alexandrian alchemists blended Greek matter theory and philosophy, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Babylonian astrology, Egyptian mythology, mystery cults, and craft recipes for making cosmetics, beer, precious stones, and gold. Because the few extant texts from this period were written in Greek, this initial period is typically known as Greek alchemy.

The oldest text documenting early alchemy is the Physika kai mystika (Of natural and mystical things), purportedly written by the Greek natural philosopher Democritus but likely written by Bolos of Mendes (third century B.C.E.). The Physika kai mystika and other similar texts (such as two anonymous Egyptian papyri known as the Leiden Papyrus X and the Stockholm Papyrus) focus on the kind of practical knowledge that would continue to engage alchemists for centuries, providing instructions for how to manufacture and “multiply” gold and silver, as well as how to produce chemically other valuable gemstones, pearls, and dyes. The works of a female alchemist from Hellenistic Egypt named Maria the Jewess (fl. 250 C.E.) contain the oldest descriptions of some of alchemy’s most important apparatus, namely alchemical furnaces and stills.

Theoretical Foundations in Antiquity

Such practical alchemical work received theoretical justification in part from Greek natural philosophy. Although Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E) did not write about alchemy per se, he provided a theory of matter that made it possible to conceptualize the transmutation of metals. Aristotle posited the notion that all things were composed of the same formless, passive matter (materia prima), which was then transformed into a specific substance by an active, shaping form. For alchemical theory, Aristotle’s crucial notion was that, because the four elements—earth, fire, water, and air—were composed of the same basic matter, they could be transmuted into one another by altering their forms. Through the application of heat, for example, water could be transmuted into “air” (steam). From this, alchemists developed the idea of isolating the materia prima in metals and transmuting one into another through the use of an agent known as the philosophers’ stone or elixir.

The rich cultural resources of the Hellenistic world further developed alchemy’s theoretical foundations. From Stoic matter theory, pneuma, or spirits, replaced Aristotelian forms as the active defining force of matter. From Babylonian astrological traditions alchemists adopted the identification of the seven metals (gold, silver, mercury, copper, iron, tin, and lead) with the seven planets (sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) and the division of both metals and planets into male and female. Finally, the central transmutational process of reducing metals to theirmateria prima before recreating them as gold or silver drew on ideas presented in the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, in which Osiris was killed and dismembered before Isis brought him back to life.

A collection of texts written in the first centuries C.E. known as the Hermetica were attributed to Hermes Trismegistos, a figure identified with the Egyptian god Thoth, the mythical creator of the arts and sciences. Although alchemy was only one topic among many in the Hermetica, in the European Middle Ages Hermes came to be known as the legendary first alchemist and alchemy as the “hermetic art.” The Hermetica ranged in content from medical, astrological, and magical treatises to much more theosophical ruminations on the redemption of the spirit through gnosis.

This association in the Hermetica between practical alchemy and spiritual gnosis found its way into alchemical theory through later authors. The link between spiritual and practical goals of transmutational alchemy is particularly evident in the work of the Alexandrian Zosimos of Panopolis (fl. 300 C.E.; later Latinized as Rosinius). In his compilation of older alchemical writings known as the Cheirokmeta, Zosimos wove his practical alchemy into a mystical theoretical framework that would prove just as enduring as alchemy’s more technical concerns. Full of secretive language, dream sequences, and allegories, Zosimos’s texts describe alchemical processes metaphorically—as sexual generation, for instance—and highlight the role of spirits in transforming matter. With a clear debt to Gnosticism, Zosimos established an enduring connection between practical laboratory work and spiritual perfection.

Medieval Arabic Alchemy

When Islamic empires expanded into centers of Hellenistic culture in the seventh century, Muslim natural philosophers and physicians inherited the Greek alchemical tradition. From the eighth to the tenth centuries, scholars in intellectual centers like Baghdad synthesized the basic elements of the Greek alchemical tradition. The anonymous editor of the Turba philosophorum (Crowd of philosophers; c. 900), for instance, assembled excerpts from various Greek alchemical authors into a virtual conversation. Alchemists writing in Arabic also elaborated on the Greek theoretical foundation, contributing a number of key concepts to alchemical matter theory and medicine. The word alchemy, a combination of the Arabic definite article al with the Greek word chemeia, or chymeia (likely derived from the word for smelting metals, cheein), represents this fusion of Greek and Arabic scholarship, while continued use of Arabic alchemical terms such asalkalai, alcohol, alembic, and elixir (al-iksir) highlights the legacy of Arabic scholarship.

The translation of Greek alchemical texts into Arabic also underscores a central problem in the history of alchemy: pseudonymous texts. In the first centuries C.E., alchemical texts appeared purportedly authored by figures such as Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and Cleopatra. Because Arabic and later European translators did not identify these pseudonyms as such, these prominent ancient figures entered the alchemical corpus as legitimate alchemical authors. The authorship of Arabic texts has been equally difficult for scholars to decipher. One of the more influential medieval Arabic texts, for instance, contains a dialogue between King Khalid ibn Yazid (c. 660-704) and a Christian hermit living in Jerusalem, Morienus. Although it is unclear whether Khalid and Morienus actually wrote this text, both figures remained prominent personages in the medieval alchemical tradition.

A collection of thousands of texts dating to the eighth and tenth centuries known in Latin as the Corpus Gabirianumand attributed to Jabir ibn Hayaan (c. 721-c. 815) contained fundamental contributions to the medieval Arabic alchemical corpus. Among the innovations of the Corpus was the concept of a tripartite division of all things into soul, spirit, and body, a division that would play a central role in European alchemical thought of the sixteenth century. The Corpus also introduced the sulfur-mercury theory, which its author had adopted from the ninth-century author Balinus (pseudo-Apollonius of Tyana). This variation on Aristotle’s forms and the Stoic pneuma stated that all matter was formed by two qualities, sulfur and mercury, the balance of which existed in varying degrees in different metals. Using the elixir (or philosophers’ stone) to shift the balance between these two principles, the alchemist could transmute one metal into another. The Corpus also posited that the elixir could be made of plant or animal substances as well as mineral, and that it could be used both as a panacea in medicine and in transmutation. Just as the elixir “cured” base metals of their impurities by transmuting them into silver or gold, so too could it “cure” sick people of their illnesses.

The Persian physician and philosopher Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zachariya al-Razi, known in Latin as Rhazes (c. 865-between 923 and 935) is best known for setting out a systematic summary of the “state of the field” of alchemy. Al-Razi added a third quality, salt, to the sulfur-mercury theory, and divided the chemical world into animal, vegetable, and mineral realms. Al-Razi’s texts show that he was clearly a practicing alchemist, describing experiments, apparatus, and ingredients, as well as the standard steps of the “great work” of making the elixir.

Although both al-Razi and the Corpus Gabirianum provided theoretical justifications of the notion of transmutation, not all Arabic-speaking philosophers supported this idea. The physician Abdallah ibn Sina (Latinized as Avicenna; 980-1037) famously inveighed against the possibility of transmutation in his Kitab al-shifa (Book of the remedy), articulating an argument that would prove widely influential in the Latin Middle Ages.

The Latin Middle Ages

In the twelfth century, Europeans such as Gerard of Cremona, Daniel of Morley, and Robert of Ketton began to translate more than seventy Arabic texts into Latin, introducing Europeans for the first time to the alchemical corpus and the Arabic term al-kimiya, which became the Latin alquimia, alkimia, alchimia, or alchemia. By the end of the century, translations from Morienus, the Corpus Gabirianum, and al-Razi, as well as a host of other spurious alchemical texts, acquainted Europeans with the central figures, techniques, and ideas of the Greek and Arabic alchemical traditions. A vibrant European technical literature emerged, dealing with alchemical techniques for dye-making, distilling, metallurgy, mineralogy, and, of course, the transmutation of metals.

Alongside this practical literature, European alchemists writing in Latin also continued to develop the theoretical foundations of their art. Around 1250 the prominent philosopher Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280) legitimated scholarly interest in alchemy when he praised alchemists’ ability to imitate nature in his De mineralibus (On minerals). The late-thirteenth-century Summa perfectionis magisterii of Pseudo-Geber (or “the Latin Geber,” likely the Italian Franciscan Paul of Taranto) replaced the mercury-sulfur theory with the “mercury alone” theory, which stated that mercury was the fundamental component of metals, while sulfur was a pollutant. Drawing on Aristotle, medieval natural philosophy, and medical theory, Pseudo-Geber also articulated a corpuscular theory of matter, positing that all matter is composed of small particles.

In the thirteenth century a debate emerged around alchemy’s legitimacy and its relationship to other fields of knowledge. The central issue was whether alchemy, as a form of human art or technology, was capable of successfully imitating or even surpassing nature. Responding initially to ibn Sina’s famous rejection of transmutation (often given greater authority by its erroneous attribution to Aristotle), scholars such as Roger Bacon (c. 1220-1292) and Paul of Taranto forcefully argued that true alchemists could indeed use their knowledge of metals to affect real transmutations. In the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Thomas Aquinas, Giles of Rome (Aegidius Romanus), and the inquisitor Nicholas Eymeric formulated theological objections to alchemy, arguing that the power to transmute species was reserved for God alone. This religious critique reached its peak around 1317 with Pope John XXII’s condemnation of those alchemists who “promise that which they do not produce.” Although this papal bull’s primary target was alchemical counterfeiting of metals, it sanctioned the increasingly vociferous backlash against alchemists’ claims of power over nature. Still, alchemy continued to flourish in the fourteenth century, as evidenced by the popularity of the Fransciscan Johannes de Rupescissa’s treatise on the quintessence, or inner essence, of all matter, and a spate of alchemical texts spuriously propagated in the fourteenth century under the name of the thirteenth-century Catalan physician Ramon Lull.

Renaissance Europe

The fifteenth-century rediscovery of the ancient Hermetic corpus and a concurrent revival of Neoplatonism introduced learned Europeans to ancient connections among alchemy, gnosis, and magic. Alchemy’s renewed associations with magic and nature’s occult forces broadened the primarily technical and natural philosophical discussions of alchemy of the Middle Ages. Hermetic philosophers began to reenvision themselves as operators who might use knowledge of nature to manipulate their world.

At the same time, alchemy’s practical utility gained prominence in the sixteenth century, primarily through the work of the Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) and his followers. Although he did not deny the possibility of alchemical transmutation, Paracelsus focused mainly on alchemy’s medical applications, advocating a new kind of alchemical medicine, known as chimiatria or iatrochemistry, in which practitioners used alchemical distillation and extraction to isolate the quintessence of matter for medicinal purposes. These powerful (and often controversial) new alchemical drugs were designed to attack the specific disease, in contrast to traditional humoral medicine, which sought to treat the balance of humors within the body as a whole. On the theoretical level, Paracelsus also offered a new understanding of matter, complementing the ancient four elements with the tria principia or tria prima, adding salt to the two medieval principles of matter (sulfur and mercury). By refining alchemical matter theory and re-situating medicine on a new foundation of alchemy, Paracelsus and his followers gave the ancient art a new prominence both in the study of nature and in the practice of medicine.

Transmutation remained a prominent goal for many alchemists, particularly the consumers of a burgeoning trade in printed alchemical books. By the sixteenth century, alchemy had burst the bounds of the world of scholarship and found a much wider audience in Europe. In particular, alchemy’s central image of purification and ennoblement resonated with religious reformers such as Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, and the German mystic Jakob Böhme, all of whom drew on alchemical metaphors and imagery in their writings. Alchemical authors also made explicit connections between alchemy and Christianity. Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605), for instance, specifically articulated such connections, comparing the healing power of the philosophers’ stone to the redemptive powers of Christ in the Ampitheatrum sapientiae aeternae solis verae of 1595.

Urban readers, literate artisans, and learned ladies also took an interest in alchemy, consuming popular vernacular alchemical literature that tended to focus on the practical benefits of the art, particularly the production of precious metals, gemstones, and medicines. Many self-trained alchemists ultimately found employment among Europe’s courts, where many princes generously supported practical and theoretical alchemical work. Faced with an increasingly crowded field of practitioners and no traditional markers of authority such as university degrees, licenses, or guilds, those who consumed alchemical knowledge and products struggled to make their own decisions about what constituted legitimate alchemy. With such a wide variety of people both seeking out knowledge and claiming to be alchemists, new debates emerged in the sixteenth century about what true alchemy was and who could legitimately claim to practice it.

The Scientific Revolution and Beyond

Although it has been assumed that alchemy was inconsistent with new ideas about nature associated with the scientific revolution or that the promoters of the “new science” rejected alchemy, historians now refuse simple narratives associating the scientific revolution with the decline of alchemy. During the seventeenth century, alchemy continued to be a vibrant field of natural philosophical inquiry; most prominent natural philosophers took a mixed view of it. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), for instance, condemned alchemists’ tendency toward secrecy, contrasting it with the openness and cooperation that he advocated in reforming the pursuit of natural knowledge. Still, he looked to alchemy as an important source of knowledge about matter and medicine.

Historians have shown that Robert Boyle (1627-1691) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) were both deeply involved with alchemy both in theory and practice, often in startlingly productive ways. Boyle, for instance, believed in the possibility of transmutation and worked on it for decades, seeking out the knowledge and skills of numerous adepts. Boyle’s corpuscular matter theory, for which he is often hailed as a crucial figure in the history of chemistry, bolstered his belief in transmutation and the philosophers’ stone. Scholars have shown that Isaac Newton was an avid student of alchemy as well, likely devoting more time to alchemical study and experiments in his lifetime than to physics. Although historians still have a great deal to understand about the exact purpose of Newton’s alchemical studies, they clearly played a crucial role in his larger project of understanding God and nature.

By the end of the seventeenth century, alchemy was associated with new medicines, natural magic, ancient wisdom, and popular recipes for making gold as well as the innovations of the scientific revolution. Over the course of the eighteenth century, however, the alchemist’s purview came to be more limited. Influenced by Antoine Lavoisier’s (1743-1794) efforts to resituate chemical natural philosophy on a foundation of quantitative analysis of matter, a new kind of chemist emerged. Whereas the terms alchemy and chemistry were used synonymously until the end of the seventeenth century, in the eighteenth century scholars increasingly sought to separate the two, restricting alchemy to gold making and spiritual alchemy (activities that natural philosophers began to exclude from science), while also redefining alchemy’s scientific and technical dimensions as chemistry. As a result, alchemy increasingly lost its long-standing association with science in the eighteenth century, retaining only its ancient links to mysticism and transmutation.

Alchemy continued to flourish among communities of occultists and Romantic natural philosophers in the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), for instance, had an enduring interest in alchemy, viewing it as a secret key to the relationships between humans, God, and the cosmos. Nineteenth-century occultists picked up a theosophical thread in the writings of earlier authors such as Paracelsus, Valentin Weigel (1533-1588), Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), and Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), incorporating alchemical study and images into the activities of secret societies. Finally, in the early twentieth century, the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung identified similarities between alchemical symbols and the dreams of his patients, positing that alchemists’ descriptions of transmutation were a metaphor for the development of the individual. This view of alchemy, which interprets alchemy as a symbol for deeper psychological processes, has endured in the popular imagination into the twenty-first century.