|Photo Credit: Gerik Zayatz, Creative Commons
Toth with the head of an ibis
Everything begins in Africa…
Alchemy is a very old art and/or science but its origins are, surprisingly, traceable. I love etymology so please, bear with me. The word “alchemy” itself offers an explanation too good to omit. It found its way to English from the Old French “alquimie” and the Medieval Latin’s “alchimia” but its real source is Arabic and ancient Greek. Both languages renders it respectively as al-kimia (الكيمياء) and chemia (χημία). It might be derived from a version of the Egyptian name of that African country, which was, in turn, based on the Ancient Egyptian word kēme (hieroglyphic Khmi, black earth, so a fertile ground of the Nile plains as opposed to deadly bare desert sands). There is another school of thought, deriving the word from the Greek chumeia meaning “mixture” and clearly referring to the act of mixing drugs so a kind of ancient pharmaceutical industry or the word khumos, meaning ‘fluid’. Of course, as it is often with such ancient terms, the etymology problem still remains open. Personally I would incline towards the Egyptian derivation. Let me explain why.
As every student learning ancient history knows, Egyptians used to mummify their deceased in order to ensure them an eternal afterlife. They were very proficient in these techniques and I believe such practices gave rise to chemical knowledge far surpassing our wildest guesses. What’s more, there was a great Egyptian adept king, named by the Greeks “Hermes Trismegistus” (so Hermes the Thrice Great) who is supposed to be the very founder of alchemy. We know preciously little about him – he seems to be a Hellenistic Egyptian mix of Hermes the Greek god guiding the souls to the Underworld (called also a psychopompos, conveyor of souls) and Thoth the Egyptian god of record keeping, wisdom and scripture. Toth was one interesiting character by the way – he served as the vizier (prime minister) to Re or Ra, King of the gods, being Mr. Science, the Answer Man, and divine Secretary-in-Chief of the Egyptian pantheon. A nerd but also a trickster (his other animal symbol was a baboon) and a god of magic (professor Dumbledore from “Harry Potter” would seem like just a local amateur conjurer compared to him).
|Hermes leading Euridice back to Hades|
The third century A.D. seems to have been a period when alchemy was widely practiced, but also during that century, in the year 296, Emperor Diocletian (a very bad guy for early Christians too) sought out and burnt all the Egyptian books on alchemy and the other Hermetic sciences, and in so doing destroyed all evidence of any progress made up to that date. I am not sure why he did it. We do have some pieces and excerpts from the Emerald Tablet , the Asclepian Dialogues and the Divine Pymander. They were preserved in the Latin language by Fianus (?) and translate into other languages in the sixteenth century.
From that document comes the famous alchemical rule, saying “That which is above is from that which is below, and that which is below is from that which is above, working the miracles of one.” The other rule states that “all things were from one” so “the structure of the microcosm is in accordance with the structure of the macrocosm”. Taking into account our current state of science you must admit these were quite revolutionary, truly modern ideas. I should also mention the fact that there are many versions of this short document: Isaac Newton, Georgio Beato, Sigismund Bacstrom, Madame Blavatsky, Idres Shah, Dennis W. Hauck each of them rendered it a bit differently; if you want to compare these just follow this link.
|Artist’s impression of the Emerald Tablet|