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Alchemy

ALCHEMY: The science by aid of which the chemical philosophers of

medieval times attempted to transmute the baser metals into gold or silver.

There is considerable divergence of opinion as to the etymology of the word,

but it would seem to be derived from the Arabic al=the, and kimya=chemistry,

which in turn derives from the late Greek chemica=chemistry, from chumeia=a

mingling, or cheein, `to pour out` or `mix’, Aryan root ghu, to pour,

whence the word `gush’. Mr. A. Wallis Budge in his “Egyptian Magic”,

however, states that it is possible that it may be derived from the

Egyptian word khemeia, that is to say ‘the preparation of the black ore’,

or `powder’, which was regarded as the active principle in the

transmutation of metals. To this name the Arabs affixed the article `al’,

thus giving al-khemeia, or alchemy.

HISTORY OF ALCHEMY: From an early period the Egyptians possessed the

reputation of being skillful workers in metals and, according to Greek

writers, they were conversant with their transmutation, employing

quicksilver in the process of separating gold and silver from the native

matrix. The resulting oxide was supposed to possess marvelous powers, and

it was thought that there resided within in the individualities of the

various metals, that in it their various substances were incorporated.

This black powder was mystically identified with the underworld form of the

god Osiris, and consequently was credited with magical properties. Thus

there grew up in Egypt the belief that magical powers existed in fluxes and

alloys. Probably such a belief existed throughout Europe in connection

with the bronze-working castes of its several races. Its was probably in

the Byzantium of the fourth century, however, that alchemical science

received embryonic form. There is little doubt that Egyptian tradition,

filtering through Alexandrian Hellenic sources was the foundation upon

which the infant science was built, and this is borne out by the

circumstance that the art was attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and

supposed to be contained in its entirety in his works.

The Arabs, after their conquest of Egypt in the seventh century, carried

on the researches of the Alexandrian school, and through their

instrumentality the art was brought to Morocco and thus in the eighth

century to Spain, where it flourished exceedingly. Indeed, Spain from the

ninth to the eleventh century became the repository of alchemic science,

and the colleges of Seville, Cordova and Granada were the centers from

which this science radiated throughout Europe.

The first practical alchemist may be said to have been the Arbian Geber,

who flourished 720-750. From his “Summa Perfectionis”, we may be justified

in assuming that alchemical science was already matured in his day, and

that he drew his inspirations from a still older unbroken line of adepts.

He was followed by Avicenna, Mesna and Rhasis, and in France by Alain of

Lisle, Arnold de Villanova and Jean de Meung the troubadour; in England by

Roger Bacon and in Spain itself by Raymond Lully. Later, in French alchemy

the most illustrious names are those of Flamel (b. ca. 1330), and Bernard

Trevisan (b. ca. 1460) after which the center of of interest changes to

Germany and in some measure to England, in which countries Paracelsus,

Khunrath (ca. 1550), Maier (ca. 1568), Norton, Dalton, Charnock, and Fludd

kept the alchemical flame burning brightly.

It is surprising how little alteration we find throughout the period

between the seventh and the seventeenth centuries, the heyday of alchemy,

in the theory and practice of the art. The same sentiments and processes

are found expressed in the later alchemical authorities as in the earliest,

and a wonderful unanimity as regards the basic canons of the great art is

evinced by the hermetic students of the time. On the introduction of

chemistry as a practical art, alchemical science fell into desuetude and

disrepute, owing chiefly to the number of charlatans practicing it, and by

the beginning of the eighteenth century, as a school, it may be said to

have become defunct. Here and there, however, a solitary student of the

art lingered, and in the department of this article “Modern Alchemy” will

demonstrate that the science has to a grate extent revived during modern

times, although it has never been quite extinct.

THE QUESTS OF ALCHEMY: The grand objects of alchemy were (1) the

discovery of a process by which the baser metals might be transmuted into

gold or silver; (2) the discovery of an elixir by which life might be

prolonged indefinitely; and there may be added (3), the manufacture of and

artificial process of human life. (for the latter see Homunculus)

THE THEORY AND PHILOSOPHY OF ALCHEMY: The first objects were to be

achieved as follows: The transmutation of metals was to be accomplished by

a powder, stone or exilir often called the Philosopher`s Stone, the

application of which would effect the transmutation of the baser metals

into gold or silver, depending upon the length of time of its application.

Basing their conclusions on a profound examination of natural processes and

research into the secrets of nature, the alchemists arrived at the axiom

that nature was divided philosophically into four principal regions, the

dry, the moist, the warm, the cold, whence all that exists must be derived.

Nature is also divisible into the male and the female. She is the divine

breath, the central fire, invisible yet ever active, and is typified by

sulphur, which is the mercury of the sages, which slowly fructifies under

the genial warmth of nature. The alchemist must be ingenuous, of a

truthful disposition, and gifted with patience and prudence, following

nature in every alchemical performance. He must recollect that like draws

to like, and must know how to obtain the seed of metals, which is produced

by the four elements through the will of the Supreme Being and the

Imagination of Nature. We are told the the original matter of metals is

double in its essence, being a dry heat combined with a warm moisture, and

that air is water coagulated by fir, capable of producing a universal

dissolvent. These terms the neophyte must be cautious of interpreting in

their literal sense. Great confusion exists in alchemical nomenclature,

and the gibberish employed by the scores of charlatans who in later times

pretended to a knowledge of alchemical matters did not tend to make things

any more clear. The beginner must also acquire a thorough knowledge of the

manner in which metals grow in the bowels of the earth. These are

engendered by sulphur, which is male, and mercury, which is female, and the

crux of alchemy is to obtain their seed – a process which the alchemist

philosophers have not described with any degree of clarity.

The physical theory of transmutation is based on the composite character

of metals, and on the existence of a substance which, applied to matter,

exalts and perfects it. This, Eugenius Philalethes and others call ‘The

Light’. The elements of all metals is similar, differing only in purity

and proportion. The entire trend of the metallic kingdom is towards the

natural manufacture of gold, and the production of the baser metals is only

accidental as the result of an unfavorable environment. The Philosopher’s

Stone is the combination of the male and female seeds which beget gold.

The composition of these is so veiled by symbolism as to make their

identification a matter of impossibility. Waite, summarizing the

alchemical process once the secret of the stone is unveiled, says: “Given

the matter of the stone and also the necessary vessel, the process which

must be then undertaken to accomplish the `magnum opus’ are described with

moderate perpicuity. There is the calcination or purgation of the stone, in

which kind is worked with kind for the space of a philosophical year.

There is dissolution which prepares the way for congelation, and which is

performed during the black state of the mysterious matter. It is

accomplished by water which does not wet the hand. There is the separation

of the subtle and the gross, which is to be performed by means of heat. In

the conjunction which follows, the elements are duly and scrupulously

combined. Putrefaction afterwards takes place.

`Without which pole no seed may multiply.’

“Then, in the subsequent congelation the white colour appears, which is

one of the signs of success. It becomes more pronounced in cibation. In

sublimation the body is spiritualised, the spirit made corporeal, and again

a more glittering whiteness is apparent. Fermentation afterwards fixes

together the alchemical earth and water, and causes the mystic medicines to

flow like wax. The matter is then augmented with the alchemical spirit of

life, and the exaltation of the philosophic earth is accomplished by the

natural rectification of its elements. When these processes have been

successfully completed, the mystic stone will have passed through the chief

stages characterized by different colours, black, white and red, after

which it is capable of infinite multication, and when projected on mercury,

it will absolutely transmute it, the resulting gold bearing every test. The

base metals made use of must be purified to insure the success of the

operation. The process for the manufacture of silver is essentially

similar, but the resources of the matter are not carried to so high a

degree.

“According to the “Commentary on the Ancient War of the Knights” the

transmutations performed by the perfect stone are so absolute that no trace

remains of the original metal. It cannot, however, destroy gold, nor exalt

it into a more perfect metallic substance; it, therefore, transmutes it

into a medicine a thousand times superior to any virtues which can be

extracted from its vulgar state. This medicine becomes a most potent agent

in the exaltation of base metals.”

There are not wanting authorities who deny that the transmutations of

metals was the grand object of alchemy, and who infer from the

alchemistical writings that the end of the art was the spiritual

regeneration of man. Mrs. Atwood, author of “A Suggestive Inquiry into the

Hermetic Mystery”, and an American writer named Hitchcock are purhaps the

chief protagonists of the belief the by spiritual processes akin to those

of the chemical process of alchemy, the soul of man may be purified and

exalted. But both commit the radical error of stating the the alchemical

writers did not aver that the transmutation of base metal into gold was

their grand end. None of the passages they quote, is inconsistent with the

physical object of alchemy, and in a work, “The Marrow of Alchemy”, stated

to be by Eugenius Philaletes, it is laid down that the real quest is for

gold. It is constantly impressed upon the reader, however, in the perusal

of esteemed alchemical works, that only those who are instructed by God can

achieve the grand secret. Others, again, state that a tyro may possibly

stumble upon it, but that unless he is guided by an adept he has small

chance of achieving the grand arcanum. It will be obvious to the tyro,

however, that nothing can ever be achieved by trusting to the allegories of

the adepts or the many charlatans who crowded the ranks of the art. Gold

may be made, or it may not, but the truth or fallacy of the alchemical

method lies with modern chemistry. The transcendental view of alchemy,

however, is rapidly gaining ground, and probably originated in the

comprehensive nature of Hermetic theory and the consciousness in the

alchemical mind that what might with success be applied to nature could

also be applied to man with similar results. Says Mr. Waite, “The gold of

the philosopher is not a metal, on the other hand, man is a being who

possesses within himself the seeds of a perfection which he has never

realized, and that he therefore corresponds to those metals which the

Hermetic theory supposes to be capable of developing the latent

possibilities in the subject man.” At the same time, it must be admitted

that the cryptic character of alchemical language was probably occasioned

by a fear on the part of the alchemical mystic that he might lay himself

open through his magical opinions to the rigors of the law.

RECORDS OF ACTUAL TRANSMUTATIONS: Several records of alleged

transmutations of base metal into gold are in existence. These were

achieved by Nicholas Flamel, Van Helmont, Martini, Richthausen, and Sethon.

For a detailed account of the methods employed the reader is referred to

several articles on these hermetists. In nearly every case the transmuting

element was a mysterious powder or the “Philosopher’s Stone”.

MODERN ALCHEMY That alchemy has been studied in modern times there can

be no doubt. M. figuier in his “L’Alchimie et les Alchimistes”, dealing

with the subject of modern alchemy, as expressed by the initiates of the

first half of the nineteenth century, states that many French alchemists of

his time regarded the discoveries of modern science as merely so many

evidences of the truth of the doctrines they embraced. Throughout Europe,

he says, the positive alchemical doctrine had many adherents at the end of

the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. Thus a “vast

association of alchemists”, founded in Westphalia in 1790, continued to

flourish in the year 1819, under the name of the “Hermetic Society”. In

1837, an alchemist of Thuringia presented to the Societe Industrielle of

Weimar a tincture which he averred would effect metallic transmutation.

About the same time several French journals announced a public course of

lectures on hermetic philosophy by a professor of the University of Munich.

He further states that many Honoverian and Bavarian families pursued in

common the search for the grand arcanum. Paris, however, was regarded as

the alchemical Mecca. There dwelt many theoretical alchemists and

“empirical adepts”. The first pursued and arcanum through the medium of

books, the other engaged in practical efforts to effect transmutation.

M. Figuier states that in the forties of the last century he frequented

the laboratory of a certain Monsieur L., which was the rendezvous of the

alchemists in Paris. When Monsieur L`s pupils left the laboratory for the

day, the modern adepts dropped in one by one, and Figuier relates how

deeply impressed he was by the appearance and costumes of these strange men.

In the daytime, he frequently encountered them in the public libraries,

buried in gigantic folios, and in the evening they might be seen pacing the

solitary bridges with eyes fixed in vague contemplation upon the first pale

stars of night. A long cloak usually covered the meager limbs, and their

untrimmed beards and matted locks lent them a wild appearance. They walked

with a solemn and measured gait, and used the figures of speech employed by

the medieval illumines. Their expression was generally a mixture of the

most ardent hope and fixed despair. Among the adepts who sought the

laboratory of Monsieur L., Figuier remarked especially a young man, in

whose habits and language he could nothing in common with those of his

strange companions. He confounded the wisdom of the alchemical adept with

the tenets of the modern scientist in the most singular fashion, and

meeting him one day at the gate of the Observatory, M. Figuier renewed the

subject of their last discussion, deploring that ” a man of his gifts could

pursue the semblance of a chimera.” Without replying, the young adept led

him into the Observatory garden, and proceeded to reveal to him the

mysteries of modern alchemical science.

The young man proceeded to fix a limit to the researches of the modern

alchemists. Gold, he said, according to the ancient authors, as three

distinct properties: (1) that of resolving the baser metals into itself,

and interchanging and metamorphosing all metals into one another; (2) the

curing of afflictions and the prolongation of life; (3), as a ’spiritus

mundi’ to bring mankind into rapport with the supermundane spheres. Modern

alchemists, he continued, reject the greater part of these ideas,

especially those connected with spiritual contact. The object of modern

alchemy might be reduced to the search for a substance having the power to

transform and transmute all other substances into one another – in short,

to discover that medium so well known to the alchemists of old and lost to

us. This was a perfectly feasible proposition. In the four principal

substances of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and azote, we have the tetractus of

Pythagoras and the tetragram of the Chaldeans and Egyptians. All the sixty

elements are referable to these original four. The ancient alchemical

theory established the fact that all the metals are the same in their

composition, that all are formed from sulphur and mercury, and that the

difference between them is according to the proportion of these substances

in their composition. Further, all the products of minerals present in

their composition complete identity with those substances most opposed to

them. Thus fulminating acid contains precisely the same quantity of carbon,

oxygen, and azote as cyanic acid, and “cyanhydric” acid does not differ

from formate ammoniac. This new property of matter is known as “isomerism”.

M. Figuier’s friend then proceeds to quote support of his thesis and

operations and experiments of M. Dumas, a celebrated French savant, as is

well known to thous of Prout, and other English chemists of standing.

Passing to consider the possibility of isomerism in elementary as well as

in compound substances, the points out to M. Figuier that id the theory of

isomerism can apply to such bodies, the transmutation of metals ceases to

be a wild, unpractical dream, and becomes a scientific possibility, the

transformation being brought about by a molecular rearrangement. Isomerism

can be established in the case of compound substances by chemical analysis.

showing the identity of their constituent parts. In the case of metals it

can be proved by the comparison of the properties of isometric bodies with

the properties of metals, in order to discover whether they have any common

characteristics. Such experiments, he continued, had been conducted by M.

Dumas, with the result the isometric substances were to be found to have

equal equivalents, or equivalents which were exact multiples of one another.

This characteristic is also a feature of metals. Gold and osmium have

identical equivalents, as have platinum and iridium. The equivalent of

cobalt is almost the same as that of nickel, and the semi-equivalent of tin

is equal to the equivalent of the two preceding metals.

M. Dumas. speaking before the British Association, had shown that when

three simple bodies displayed great analogies in their properties, such as

chlorine, bromide, and iodine, barium, strontium, and calcium, the chemical

equivalent of the intermediate body is represented by the arithmetical mean

between the equivalents of the other two. Such a statement well showed the

isomerism of elementary substances, and proved that metals, however

dissimilar in outward appearance, were composed of the same matter

differently arranged and proportioned. This theory successfully demolishes

the difficulties in the way of transmutation. Again, Dr. Prout says that

the chemical equivalents of nearly all elemental substances are the

multiples of one among them. Thus, if the equivalent of hydrogen be taken

for the unit, the equivalent of every other substance will be an exact

multiple of it – carbon will be represented by six, axote by fourteen,

oxygen by sixteen, zink by thirty-two. But, pointed out M. Figuier’s

friend, if the molecular masses in compound substances have so simple a

connection, does it not go to prove the all natural bodies are formed of

one principle, differently arranged and condensed to produce all known

compounds?

If transmutation is thus theoretically possible, it only remains to show

by practical experiment that it is strictly in accordance with chemical

laws, and by no means inclines to the supernatural. At this juncture the

young alchemist proceeded to liken the action of the Philosopher`s Stone on

metals to that of a ferment on organic matter. When metals are melted and

brought to red heat, a molecular change may be produced analogous to

fermentation. Just as sugar, under the influence of a ferment, may be

changed into lactic acid without altering its constituents, so metals can

alter their character under the influence of the Philosopher`s Stone. The

explanation of the latter case is no more difficult than that of the former.

The ferment does not take any part in the chemical changes it brings about,

and no satisfactory explanation of its effects can be found either in the

laws of affinity or in the forces of electricity, light, or heat. As with

the ferment, the required quantity of the Philosopher`s Stone is

infinitesimal. Medicine, philosophy, every modern science was at one time

a source of such errors and extravagances as are associated with medieval

alchemy, but they are not therefore neglected and despised. Wherefore, then,

should we be blind tot he scientific nature of transmutation?

One of the foundations of alchemical theories was that minerals grew and

developed in the earth, like organic things. It was always the aim of

nature to produce gold, the most precious metal, but when circumstances

were not favorable the baser metals resulted. The desire of the old

alchemists was to surprise nature`s secrets, and thus attain the ability to

do in a short period what nature takes years to accomplish. Nevertheless,

the medieval alchemists appreciated the value of time in their experiments

as modern alchemists never do. M. Figuier`s friend urged him not to

condemn these exponents of the hermetic philosophy for their metaphysical

tendencies, for, he said, there are facts in our sciences that can only be

explained in that light. If, for instance, copper be placed in air or

water, there will be no result, but if a touch of some acid be added, it

will oxidize. The explanation is that “the acid provokes oxidation of the

metal because it has an affinity for the oxide which tends to form.” – a

material fact most metaphysical in its production, and only explicable

thereby.

He concluded his argument with an appeal for tolerance towards the

medieval alchemists, whose work is underrated because it is not properly

Bibliography

Atwood, A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mastery, 1850

Hitchcock, Remarks on Alchemy and the Alchemists, Boston, 1857

Waite, Lives of the Alchemystical Philosophers, London, 1888

” The Occult Sciences, London, 1891

Bacon, Mirror of Alchemy, 1597

S. le Doux, Dictionnaire Hermetique, 1695

Langlet de fresnoy, Histoire de la Philosophie Hermetique, 1792

” ” Theatrum Chemicum, 1662

Valentine, Triumphal Chariot of Antimony, 1656

Redgrove, Alchemy Ancient and Modern

Figuier, L’Alchimie et les Alchimistes, Paris, 1857


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