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In English, the term is often limited to descriptions of European alchemy, but similar practices existed in the Far East , the Indian subcontinent , and the Muslim world.
Islamic and European alchemists developed a structure of basic laboratory techniques , theory, terminology, and experimental method , some of which are still in use today.
However, they continued antiquity 's belief in four elements and guarded their work in secrecy including cyphers and cryptic symbolism.
Their work was guided by Hermetic principles related to magic , mythology , and religion. Modern discussions of alchemy are generally split into an examination of its exoteric practical applications and its esoteric spiritual aspects, despite criticisms by scholars such as Holmyard  and von Franz  that they should be understood as complementary.
The former is pursued by historians of the physical sciences who examine the subject in terms of early chemistry , medicine , and charlatanism , and the philosophical and religious contexts in which these events occurred.
The latter interests historians of esotericism , psychologists , and some philosophers and spiritualists. The subject has also made an ongoing impact on literature and the arts.
Although alchemy is popularly associated with magic, historian Lawrence M. Principe argues that recent historical research has revealed that medieval and early modern alchemy embraced a much more diverse set of ideas, goals, techniques, and practices:.
Most readers probably are aware of several common claims about alchemy—for example, These ideas about alchemy emerged during the eighteenth century or after.
While each of them might have limited validity within a narrow context, none of them is an accurate depiction of alchemy in general.
The word alchemy comes from Old French alquemie , alkimie , used in Medieval Latin as alchymia. Several etymologies have been proposed for the Greek term.
The first was proposed by Zosimos of Panopolis 3rd—4th centuries , who derived it from the name of a book, the Khemeu. The ancient Egyptian word referred to both the country and the colour "black" Egypt was the "Black Land", by contrast with the "Red Land", the surrounding desert ; so this etymology could also explain the nickname "Egyptian black arts".
Alchemy encompasses several philosophical traditions spanning some four millennia and three continents. These traditions' general penchant for cryptic and symbolic language makes it hard to trace their mutual influences and "genetic" relationships.
One can distinguish at least three major strands, which appear to be mostly independent, at least in their earlier stages: Chinese alchemy , centered in China and Indian alchemy , centered on the Indian subcontinent ; and Western alchemy, which occurred around the Mediterranean and whose center has shifted over the millennia from Greco-Roman Egypt to the Islamic world , and finally medieval Europe.
Chinese alchemy was closely connected to Taoism and Indian alchemy with the Dharmic faiths. In contrast, Western alchemy developed its philosophical system mostly independent of but influenced by various Western religions.
It is still an open question whether these three strands share a common origin, or to what extent they influenced each other. The start of Western alchemy may generally be traced to ancient and Hellenistic Egypt , where the city of Alexandria was a center of alchemical knowledge, and retained its pre-eminence through most of the Greek and Roman periods.
The treatises of Zosimos of Panopolis , the earliest historically attested author fl. Zosimus based his work on that of older alchemical authors, such as Mary the Jewess ,  Pseudo-Democritus ,  and Agathodaimon , but very little is known about any of these authors.
Recent scholarship tend to emphasizes the testimony of Zosimus, who traced the alchemical arts back to Egyptian metallurgical and ceremonial practices.
While critical of the kind alchemy he associated with the Egyptian priests and their followers, Zosimos nonetheless saw the tradition's recent past as rooted in the rites of the Egyptian temples.
Mythology — Zosimos of Panopolis asserted that alchemy dated back to Pharaonic Egypt where it was the domain of the priestly class, though there is little to no evidence for his assertion.
His name is derived from the god Thoth and his Greek counterpart Hermes. Hermes and his caduceus or serpent-staff, were among alchemy's principal symbols.
According to Clement of Alexandria , he wrote what were called the "forty-two books of Hermes", covering all fields of knowledge.
These writings were collected in the first centuries of the common era. Few original Egyptian documents on alchemy have survived, most notable among them the Stockholm papyrus and the Leyden papyrus X.
Philosophy — Alexandria acted as a melting pot for philosophies of Pythagoreanism , Platonism , Stoicism and Gnosticism which formed the origin of alchemy's character.
According to Aristotle, each element had a sphere to which it belonged and to which it would return if left undisturbed.
True alchemy never regarded earth, air, water, and fire as corporeal or chemical substances in the present-day sense of the word.
The four elements are simply the primary, and most general, qualities by means of which the amorphous and purely quantitative substance of all bodies first reveals itself in differentiated form.
Alchemy coexisted alongside emerging Christianity. Lactantius believed Hermes Trismegistus had prophesied its birth.
Others authors such as Komarios, and Chymes , we only know through fragments of text. The 2nd millennium BC text Vedas describe a connection between eternal life and gold.
According to some scholars Greek alchemy may have influenced Indian alchemy but there are no hard evidences to back this claim.
This art was restricted to certain operations, metals, drugs, compounds, and medicines, many of which have mercury as their core element.
Its principles restored the health of those who were ill beyond hope and gave back youth to fading old age. Some early alchemical writings seem to have their origins in the Kaula tantric schools associated to the teachings of the personality of Matsyendranath.
His book, Rasendramangalam , is an example of Indian alchemy and medicine. The contents of 39 Sanskrit alchemical treatises have been analysed in detail in G.
In some cases Meulenbeld gives notes on the contents and authorship of these works; in other cases references are made only to the unpublished manuscripts of these titles.
A great deal remains to be discovered about Indian alchemical literature. The content of the Sanskrit alchemical corpus has not yet been adequately integrated into the wider general history of alchemy.
Much more is known about Islamic alchemy because it was better documented: indeed, most of the earlier writings that have come down through the years were preserved as Arabic translations.
The early Islamic world was a melting pot for alchemy. Platonic and Aristotelian thought, which had already been somewhat appropriated into hermetical science, continued to be assimilated during the late 7th and early 8th centuries through Syriac translations and scholarship.
The science historian, Paul Kraus, wrote:. To form an idea of the historical place of Jabir's alchemy and to tackle the problem of its sources, it is advisable to compare it with what remains to us of the alchemical literature in the Greek language.
One knows in which miserable state this literature reached us. Collected by Byzantine scientists from the tenth century, the corpus of the Greek alchemists is a cluster of incoherent fragments, going back to all the times since the third century until the end of the Middle Ages.
The efforts of Berthelot and Ruelle to put a little order in this mass of literature led only to poor results, and the later researchers, among them in particular Mrs.
The study of the Greek alchemists is not very encouraging. An even surface examination of the Greek texts shows that a very small part only was organized according to true experiments of laboratory: even the supposedly technical writings, in the state where we find them today, are unintelligible nonsense which refuses any interpretation.
It is different with Jabir's alchemy. The relatively clear description of the processes and the alchemical apparati, the methodical classification of the substances, mark an experimental spirit which is extremely far away from the weird and odd esotericism of the Greek texts.
The theory on which Jabir supports his operations is one of clearness and of an impressive unity. More than with the other Arab authors, one notes with him a balance between theoretical teaching and practical teaching, between the 'ilm and the amal.
In vain one would seek in the Greek texts a work as systematic as that which is presented, for example, in the Book of Seventy.
The first essential in chemistry is that thou shouldest perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who performs not practical work nor makes experiments will never attain to the least degree of mastery.
The discovery that aqua regia , a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids, could dissolve the noblest metal, gold, was to fuel the imagination of alchemists for the next millennium.
Islamic philosophers also made great contributions to alchemical hermeticism. The most influential author in this regard was arguably Jabir.
Jabir's ultimate goal was Takwin , the artificial creation of life in the alchemical laboratory, up to, and including, human life.
He analyzed each Aristotelian element in terms of four basic qualities of hotness , coldness , dryness , and moistness. For example, lead was externally cold and dry, while gold was hot and moist.
Thus, Jabir theorized, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a different metal would result. Jabir developed an elaborate numerology whereby the root letters of a substance's name in Arabic, when treated with various transformations, held correspondences to the element's physical properties.
The elemental system used in medieval alchemy also originated with Jabir. His original system consisted of seven elements, which included the five classical elements aether , air , earth , fire , and water in addition to two chemical elements representing the metals: sulphur , "the stone which burns", which characterized the principle of combustibility, and mercury , which contained the idealized principle of metallic properties.
Shortly thereafter, this evolved into eight elements, with the Arabic concept of the three metallic principles: sulphur giving flammability or combustion, mercury giving volatility and stability, and salt giving solidity.
In particular, they wrote refutations against the idea of the transmutation of metals. Whereas European alchemy eventually centered on the transmutation of base metals into noble metals, Chinese alchemy had a more obvious connection to medicine.
The philosopher's stone of European alchemists can be compared to the Grand Elixir of Immortality sought by Chinese alchemists. However, in the hermetic view, these two goals were not unconnected, and the philosopher's stone was often equated with the universal panacea ; therefore, the two traditions may have had more in common than initially appears.
Black powder may have been an important invention of Chinese alchemists. As previously stated above, Chinese alchemy was more related to medicine.
It is said that the Chinese invented gunpowder while trying to find a potion for eternal life. Described in 9th-century texts [ citation needed ] and used in fireworks in China by the 10th century, [ citation needed ] it was used in cannons by Gunpowder was used by the Mongols against the Hungarians in , and in Europe by the 14th century.
Chinese alchemy was closely connected to Taoist forms of traditional Chinese medicine , such as Acupuncture and Moxibustion.
In the early Song dynasty , followers of this Taoist idea chiefly the elite and upper class would ingest mercuric sulfide , which, though tolerable in low levels, led many to suicide.
The introduction of alchemy to Latin Europe may be dated to 11 February , with the completion of Robert of Chester 's translation of the Arabic Book of the Composition of Alchemy.
Although European craftsmen and technicians pre-existed, Robert notes in his preface that alchemy though here still referring to the elixir rather than to the art itself  was unknown in Latin Europe at the time of his writing.
The translation of Arabic texts concerning numerous disciplines including alchemy flourished in 12th-century Toledo, Spain , through contributors like Gerard of Cremona and Adelard of Bath.
These brought with them many new words to the European vocabulary for which there was no previous Latin equivalent.
Alcohol, carboy, elixir, and athanor are examples. Meanwhile, theologian contemporaries of the translators made strides towards the reconciliation of faith and experimental rationalism, thereby priming Europe for the influx of alchemical thought.
In the early 12th century, Peter Abelard followed Anselm's work, laying down the foundation for acceptance of Aristotelian thought before the first works of Aristotle had reached the West.
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Time Traveler for alchemy The first known use of alchemy was in the 15th century See more words from the same century. From the Editors at Merriam-Webster.
Dictionary Entries near alchemy alchemist alchemistry alchemize alchemy alchera alchornea alchymie See More Nearby Entries.
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Take the quiz Spell It Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words? Though alchemy never succeeded, that didn't stop people from claiming to have solved the ancient riddle.
For centuries, rumors spread that certain people had discovered the philosopher's stone since immortality was one of its properties, the fact that they're all now dead suggests otherwise.
Some wealthy people hired alchemists to conduct research on their behalf, though they never saw returns on their investment. Bogus alchemists were so common in the Middle Ages that several famous writers described them, including poets Ben Jonson and Geoffrey Chaucer in "The Canterbury Tales".
Though the philosopher's stone was a myth and alchemy failed, the alchemists weren't completely wrong: With modern physics equipment, such as particle accelerators , it is indeed possible to create gold from other elements, though the amounts are sub-microscopic and the process costs far more to create than the resulting gold is worth.
Though alchemy is long gone, the contrast between lead and gold remains; lead is a common, poisonous metal that can harm children and lead to brain damage; gold is highly valued, treasured, and often worn as jewelry.
Though alchemy never achieved its goals of immortality or turning lead into gold, it did leave an important legacy: alchemists were early practitioners of what would become modern chemistry.
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