A brief history of alchemy – part one

Photo Credit: Gerik Zayatz, Creative Commons
Toth with the head of an ibis

Everything begins in Africa…


I love alchemy. To my own surprise I found out not so long ago, writing a review of a book with alchemy elements, that I haven’t tackled this subject yet. I was thinking about changing that as soon as possible and here you go: this essay starts a series in which I will try to explain my infatuation – why alchemy, mentioned  in scientific or fictional books, makes me always very interested and excited.

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

Small wonder Hermes Trismegistus was considered a deity of its own. Reputedly he lived about 1900 B.C. and he was highly celebrated in the ancient word for his wisdome and skill in the operation of nature (thus such a grand name). Unfortunately, from the works attributed to him, only a few fragments survived to our time. Everything because of one Roman emperor.

 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.

The famous Emerald Tablet (Tabula Smaragdina) of Hermes is the primary document of alchemy. There have been various stories of the origin of the tract, one being that the original emerald slab upon which the precepts were said to be inscribed in Phoenician characters was discovered in the tomb of Hermes by Alexander the Great. I assume the adjective “emerald” concerns the colour, not the material. Most likely the tabled was etched on a sheet of green glass (also a very costly thing at that times) or perhaps a slab of jade or other green semi-precious stone. Real emeralds simply never come that big and ancient people didn’t know how to identify them in a fault-proof way. Of course that fact never prevented spreading the “real emerald” legend. In the Berne edition (1545) of the Summa Perfectionis, the Latin version is printed under the heading: “The Emerald Tables of Hermes the Thrice Great Concerning Chymistry, Translator unknown. The words of the secrets of Hermes, which were written on the Tablet of Emerald found between his hands in a dark cave wherein his body was discovered buried.”

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
The goals alchemists are universally famous for were the transmutation of common metals into Gold or Silver and the creation of a “panacea” or remedies that supposedly would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely. Some of alchemists also tried to find a universal solvent but often such goals were intertwined. Of course these were not the only uses for the discipline they remain the ones most documented and well-known. Many fiction authors used the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary substance that was believed to be an essential ingredient for either or all of those goals, as a linchpin of their stories. They also popularized the picture of an aged, slightly sinister, black-robed wizard, brooding over the crucibles and alembics to discover the formula for the Elixir of Life. However, alchemy has been something far more than an outlet for a few eccentrics who liked to play with occult in their dotage. Men and women who proclaimed themselves alchemists were concerned with things spiritual rather than temporal such as riches and gold. Their writings and the accounts of their lives prove that they were inspired by a vision of perfect human society, freed from disease and the limitations of warring faculties, both mental and physical. To appreciate and understand their visions, it is necessary to trace the history of their philosophy. I will try to give you a rough guide in the next part and I promise to keep it as short as possible. I hope you will enjoy it!

My sources:

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10 Responses to A brief history of alchemy – part one

  1. I understand why Diocletian hated the Christians – they refused to take part in state ceremonies involving the gods – but what could have bothered him about alchemy? How odd.

  2. A very thorough and detail explanation of alchemy. I now have a better understanding myself and how it relates to literature and work of fiction. I never associated it with wizardry, oddly, I don't know why. But it fits now. I often think our ancient ancestors probably had more knowledge about chemical compounds and mixtures to help the body then, then we understand today.

  3. Tracy says:

    Men and women who proclaimed themselves alchemists were concerned with things spiritual rather than temporal such as riches and gold. And that is the message that, strangely, hasn't really entered popular consciousness.

  4. Anachronist says:

    The Red Witch – my thoughts exactly. Perhaps an alchemist promised him the Elixir of Life and didn't deliver? Anyway I wasn't able to find any viable explanation.Lena, thanks for your kind words. I am of the opinion that our ancestors were neither so stupid nor so brilliant as some people proclaim. They certainly knew many things we know now and perhaps some things we are still not aware of.Right you are, Tracy. If you think that alchemists were just after riches and eternal life, you are mistaken. Some of them undoubtedly wanted to achieve these goals, but not all. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Blodeuedd says:

    Yay you are back with your essays. Like I say, Professor Ana in the room 😉

  6. I have always found the idea of alchemy interesting. I am just curious… are you going to change us all into gold? *hides*Seriously, such an interesting essay!

  7. Anachronist says:

    Yes, Blodeuedd, I am back and woe betide you if you don't do your homework ;).Melissa some people simply cannot be changed into anything for different reasons and gold is deserved only for the most exceptional specimen; the short version: no.And thank'ya!

  8. The things people tried to accomplish back in the day always amuses me. But then again, if they never tried it we wouldn't know today that most of that is unlikely. Like you I have a small fascination with the world of alchemy – albeit small – so this was quite informative. Egyptian and Arabic cultures and past societies are so interesting and it amazes me of what they accomplished back then. I guess it amazes me because for a time so much of it was lost. It's just cool…for lack of a better word. 😀

  9. Anachronist says:

    Cool is quite appropriate a word, Jen, thanks!

  10. This is so fascinating. Alchemy excites so many of us–it's a shame that modern-day chemistry can be so poisonous and environmentally hazardous.

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