Alchemy is an ancient path of spiritual purification and transformation; the expansion of consciousness and the development of insight and intuition through images. Alchemy is steeped in mysticism and mystery. It presents to the initiate a system of eternal, dreamlike, esoteric symbols that have the power to alter consciousness and connect the human soul to the Divine.
Alchemy is part of the mystical and mystery traditions of both East and West. In the West, it dates to ancient Egypt, where adepts first developed it as an early form of chemistry and metallurgy. Egyptians alchemists used their art to make alloys, dyes, perfumes and cosmetic jewelry, and to embalm the dead.
The early Arabs made significant contributions to alchemy, such as by emphasizing the mysticism of numbers (quantities and lengths of time for processes). The Arabs also gave us the term 'alchemy', from the Arabic term 'alchimia', which loosely translated means 'the Egyptian art'.
During medieval and Renaissance times, alchemy spread through the Western world, and was further developed by Kabbalists, Rosicrucians, astrologers and other occultists. It functioned on two levels: mundane and spiritual. On a mundane level, alchemists sought to find a physical process to convert base metals such as lead into gold. On a spiritual level, alchemists worked to purify themselves by eliminating the "base" material of the self and achieving the 'gold' of enlightenment.
By Renaissance times, many alchemists believed that the spiritual purification was necessary in order to achieve the mundane transformations of metals.
The alchemists relied heavily upon their dreams, inspirations and visions for guidance in perfecting their art. In order to protect their secrets, they recorded diaries filled with mysterious symbols rather than text. These symbols remain exceptionally potent for changing states of consciousness.
Alchemy is a form of speculative thought that, among other aims, tried to transform base metals such as lead or copper into silver or gold and to discover a cure for disease and a way of extending life.
Alchemy was the name given in Latin Europe in the 12th century to an aspect of thought that corresponds to astrology, which is apparently an older tradition. Both represent attempts to discover the relationship of man to the cosmos and to exploit that relationship to his benefit. The first of these objectives may be called scientific, the second technological. Astrology is concerned with man's relationship to "the stars" (including the members of the solar system); alchemy, with terrestrial nature. But the distinction is far from absolute, since both are interested in the influence of the stars on terrestrial events. Moreover, both have always been pursued in the belief that the processes human beings witness in heaven and on earth manifest the will of the Creator and, if correctly understood, will yield the key to the Creator's intentions.
Nature and Significance
That both astrology and alchemy may be regarded as fundamental aspects of thought is indicated by their apparent universality. It is notable, however, that the evidence is not equally substantial in all times and places. Evidence from ancient Middle America (Aztecs, Mayans) is still almost nonexistent; evidence from India is tenuous and from ancient China, Greece, and Islamic lands is only relatively more plentiful. A single manuscript of some 80,000 words is the principal source for the history of Greek alchemy. Chinese alchemy is largely recorded in about 100 "books" that are part of the Taoist canon. Neither Indian nor Islamic alchemy has ever been collected, and scholars are thus dependent for their knowledge of the subject on occasional allusions in works of natural philosophy and medicine, plus a few specifically alchemical works.
Nor is it really clear what alchemy was (or is). The word is a European one, derived from Arabic, but the origin of the root word, chem, is uncertain. Words similar to it have been found in most ancient languages, with different meanings, but conceivably somehow related to alchemy. In fact, the Greeks, Chinese, and Indians usually referred to what Westerners call alchemy as "The Art," or by terms denoting change or transmutation.
The Chemistry of Alchemy
Superficially, the chemistry involved in alchemy appears a hopelessly complicated succession of heatings of multiple mixtures of obscurely named materials, but it seems likely that a relative simplicity underlies this complexity. The metals gold, silver, copper, lead, iron, and tin were all known before the rise of alchemy. Mercury, the liquid metal, certainly known before 300 BC, when it appears in both Eastern and Western sources, was crucial to alchemy. Sulfur, "the stone that burns," was also crucial. It was known from prehistoric times in native deposits and was also given off in metallurgic processes (the "roasting" of sulfide ores). Mercury united with most of the other metals, and the amalgam formed coloured powders (the sulfides) when treated with sulfur. Mercury itself occurs in nature in a red sulfide, cinnabar, which can also be made artificially. All of these, except possibly the last, were operations known to the metallurgist and were adopted by the alchemist.
The alchemist added the action on metals of a number of corrosive salts, mainly the vitriols (copper and iron sulfates), alums (the aluminum sulfates of potassium and ammonium), and the chlorides of sodium and ammonium. And he made much of arsenic's property of colouring metals. All of these materials, except the chloride of ammonia, were known in ancient times. Known as sal ammoniac in the West, nao sha in China, nao sadar in India, and nushadir in Persia and Arabic lands, the chloride of ammonia first became known to the West in the Chou-i ts'an t'ung ch'i, a Chinese treatise of the 2nd century AD. It was to be crucial to alchemy, for on sublimation it dissociates into antagonistic corrosive materials, ammonia and hydrochloric acid, which readily attack the metals. Until the 9th century it seems to have come from a single source, the Flame Mountain (Huo-yen Shan) near T'u-lu-p'an (Turfan), in Central Asia.
Finally, the manipulation of these materials was to lead to the discovery of the mineral acids, the history of which began in Europe in the 13th century. The first was probably nitric acid, made by distilling together saltpetre (potassium nitrate) and vitriol or alum. More difficult to discover was sulfuric acid, which was distilled from vitriol or alum alone but required apparatus resistant to corrosion and heat. And most difficult was hydrochloric acid, distilled from common salt or sal ammoniac and vitriol or alum, for the vapours of this acid cannot be simply condensed but must be dissolved in water.
"Transmutation" is the key word characterizing alchemy, and it may be understood in several ways: in the changes that are called chemical, in physiological changes such as passing from sickness to health, in a hoped-for transformation from old age to youth, or even in passing from an earthly to a supernatural existence. Alchemical changes seem always to have been positive, never involving degradation except as an intermediate stage in a process having a "happy ending." Alchemy aimed at the great human "goods": wealth, longevity, and immortality.
Alchemy was not original in seeking these goals, for it had been preceded by religion, medicine, and metallurgy. The first chemists were metallurgists, who were perhaps the most successful practitioners of the arts in antiquity. Their theories seem to have come not from science but from folklore and religion. The miner and metallurgist, like the agriculturalist, in this view, accelerate the normal maturation of the fruits of the earth, in a magico-religious relationship with nature. In primitive societies the metallurgist is often a member of an occult religious society.
But the first ventures into natural philosophy, the beginnings of what is called the scientific view, also preceded alchemy. Systems of five almost identical basic elements were postulated in China, India, and Greece, according to a view in which nature comprised antagonistic, opposite forces--hot and cold, positive and negative, and male and female; i.e., primitive versions of the modern conception of energy. Drawing on a similar astrological heritage, philosophers found correspondences among the elements, planets, and metals. In short, both the chemical arts and the theories of the philosophers of nature had become complex before alchemy appeared
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