Grandfathers of Alchemy, Forefathers Of Chemistry

Alchemy is a word almost everyone has heard of, but few have ever committed more than a handful of hours trying to grasp what this heavily loaded symbolic word actually means, in its entirely. So often the interested are discouraged by the complex matrix of bizarre symbols and motifs which include nightmarish creatures and semi-divine humans emerging from shadows searching for pure alchemical gold of a type that cannot be bitten, to test its fortitude. Even fewer know that the ultimate goal of the Western alchemist was ‘Projection’, achieved after successfully creating the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, and this powder of projection was thought of as having the ability to transmute lesser metals and substance into their higher form; with gold being the ‘king’ both temporally and allegorically.

Multiplicatio’ emblem from Philosophia Reformata, by Johann Daniel Mylius, 1622. In this image “multiplication” is illustrated with a pelican and a lion feeding their young. (Public Domain)

Multiplicatio’ emblem from Philosophia Reformata, by  Johann Daniel Mylius, 1622 . In this image “multiplication” is illustrated with a pelican and a lion feeding their young. ( Public Domain )

The Ultimate Goal Of Alchemy

Alchemy describes historic explorations into natural philosophies and while this philosophical, proto-scientific conquest originated in Mesopotamia and Greco-Roman Egypt in the first few centuries AD, it was subsequently practiced across Europe, Africa, and Asia. The primary goal of the alchemist was to purify, mature, and perfect different materials and substances. Early experiments played an important role in the development of scientific knowledge, especially in the discipline of chemistry, where alchemists essentially founded its development. But alchemy had a parallel philosophy which attempted to identify precursors and base elements, and mythology has corrupted these arts into the greatly simplified idea of hooded old men locked in moonlit tower-laboratories attempting to turn base metals such as lead, into gold.

Polish alchemist, philosopher, and medical doctor Sedziwój performing a transmutation for Sigismund III, by Jan Matejko (1867). Art Museum, Łódź, (Public Domain)

Polish alchemist, philosopher, and medical doctor Sedziw ój performing a transmutation for  Sigismund III , by Jan Matejko (1867). Art Museum,  Łódź,  ( Public Domain )

Since ancient times gold has been associated with the center of the earth where it was thought to have undergone a natural transformation, becoming gold, so alchemists for the most part sought to find the key to this transformation. The ultimate aim of the alchemist was first to create the ‘Philosopher s Stone’, a legendary substance which according to traditions could not only transform metals into gold, but could also award the alchemist longevity and eternal life. Most historians would agree, however, that the vast majority of alchemists were charlatans seeking the ‘monthly retainer’ from their greedy, gold fevered royal sponsors. This antiquated quest for chemical facts; answers to life beyond life and death beyond death existed at the foundations of both the Western and Islamic worlds. Some famous alchemists were the ‘grandfathers’ of these two greatly different paradigms.

Plato and Aristotle in The School of Athens, by Rafael (1509) (Public Domain)

Plato and Aristotle in The School of Athens, by Rafael (1509) ( Public Domain )

Old Masters Of Western Alchemy

Concerned with the origins and nature of things, and how everything in creation interact, Greek alchemists such as Aristotle, Plato, and Empedocles believed everything in reality was formed from portions of the four classic elements: earth, fire, air, and water, and of the three essentials: salt, mercury, and sulphur. Aristotle believed that every created form strives for perfection and when elements are mixed together in perfect ratio they would turn into gold, and metals in general were regarded as amalgams without this perfect ratio.


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Ashley Cowie  is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artifacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social history .

Top Image : Transcript of The Silvery Water by Ibn Umayl at-Tamîmî by An Islamic artist 739H/1339, probably in Baghdad. Topkapi Library ( Public Domain )

By Ashley Cowie

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