What is alchemy, anyway?

Image courtesy of chaucer.lmc.gatech.edu
Image courtesy of chaucer.lmc.gatech.edu

When I began to research this article, I went in believing that the ultimate goal of alchemy was to transform less precious metals into gold. While most “users” of alchemy did so in an attempt to produce gold, there was much more to it than that.

Alchemy is rooted in the idea that all matter was composed of proportions of earth, air, fire and water; a fifth, ether, was thought to be what the heavens were made of. Before the periodic table and the understanding of atoms, metals were thought to be all the same, with varying degrees of “maturity.” Precious metals, of course, were more mature.

While greed is ever-present in the human heart, the effort to turn lesser metals into gold wasn’t purely for monetary profits. Gold was viewed as the most mature of the metals, the one of spiritual perfection. It was the perfect balance of earth, air, fire and water. Another aim of alchemy was the pursuit of immortality. Alchemists worked toward concocting an “elixir of life,” which would endow the user with eternal life, eternal youth, or both.

Both of those aims, gold and immortality, were envisioned as ways toward an even more important goal: ultimate wisdom, or understanding of the world’s mysteries. If you’ve ever heard of the “philosopher’s stone,” it was an object (or substance) that was meant to bring perfection, either through transmuting other metals to gold, or bringing the power of the heavens to a person through wisdom or eternal life/beauty.

The methods of alchemy are similar to what you probably imagine chemists doing: mixing stuff in test tubes. While practitioners of alchemy probably didn’t have test tubes, they certainly had cups and bowls. I won’t go into the specific methods involved in alchemy, you can read about them here and here.

Much of what was done in alchemy made its way into chemistry. Even though alchemy wasn’t exactly a rigorous discipline, a great deal of experimental knowledge had been gleaned from it. When empiricism and the scientific method took hold in the 16th century, the science of chemistry was born. Between that point and the late 19th century, much of today’s chemical nomenclature and principles came into being. Dmitri Mendeleev developed the periodic table of elements around that time. The periodic table was good not just at describing the currently known elements, but predicting elements that had yet to be discovered.

Today, when we think of alchemy, we think of the arcane and magical, with tomes full of recipes for potions for nearly every purpose. Alchemy may seem like the practice of magic in our modern understanding, but it was actually a detailed and systematic discipline. One goal of alchemy, the philosopher’s stone, has never been attained, but in its pursuit of wisdom, it led to the birth of one of the most important sciences on the planet today, with applications in biology, technology and nearly everything else that is made of matter.

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