Alchemy is a multifaceted subject. It is an early form of chemical technology exploring the nature of substances. It is also a philosophy of the cosmos and of mankind's place in the scheme of things. Alchemy developed an amazing language of emblematic symbolism which it used to explore the world. It had a strong philosophical basis, and many alchemists incorporated religious metaphor and spiritual matters into their alchemical ideas.
Alchemy was taken up by some of the most extraordinary people in our intellectual development, including Roger Bacon, Paracelsus, the father of chemistry, Robert Boyle, and, most famously, Isaac Newton, who wrote more about alchemy than he did about physics. It is now contended that it was Newton’s studies into alchemy which gave him the fundamental insight into the famous three laws of motion and gravity.
Throughout the writings of the early alchemical philosophers there is constant reference to the mystic connection between the seven metals--gold, silver, copper, mercury, lead, tin, and iron--and the seven planetary bodies--the Sun, the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn, and Mars... The belief that the seeds of the metals were in the earth and that their formation or growth was fostered by the influence of the planetary bodies is therefore of great antiquity.
The most famous alchemical text is the Emerald Tablet, written around 500BC and attributed to the mythical Egyptian figure of Hermes Trismegistus. Among its twelve lines are the essential words - “as above, so below". They capture the essence of alchemy, that the heavens mirror the earth and that all things correspond to one another.
About four thousand printed books were issued from the 16th through to the late 18th centuries, exploring alchemy from a multiplicity of different perspectives. Many thousands of manuscripts, hand written works, letters, notes and commentaries exist in the libraries of Europe and North America, some beautifully illustrated with coloured images. Alchemy was thus, through the sheer volume of writings, influential throughout the early modern period. Its influence can often be seen in the work of writers, poets, and artists of the time.
The Renaissance version of the mad scientist was the alchemist. While alchemy is as old as human civilization, the modern literary figure of the alchemist was created in the 14th century by authors like Dante (who places an alchemist in the 8th circle of Hell in the Inferno (1308-1321)), Petrarch, (who describes alchemists as fools in De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae ( c.1370)), and Chaucer (who describes alchemists as thieves in "The Canon's Yeoman's Tales" section of The Canterbury Tales (circa 1399)).
Western alchemy developed from Arabic sources. As Islamic scholars had sought alchemical texts in the eighth century, so their Latin counterparts sought similar works four centuries later. The earliest dated Latin translation of this genre is the story of Prince Khalid and Morienos. This was completed by Robert of Chester on the eleventh of February, 1144, a year after he had translated the Koran and a year prior to the completion of his translation of the Algebra of al-Khwarizmi. The De compositione alchemiae of Morienos proved to be only the first of many such translations made during the following century.
Similarities between Chinese and Indian alchemy have long led to speculations regarding the possible transmission of common concepts. To date, however, few facts have come to light to substantiate these speculations. The origins of Islamic alchemy are some-what easier to discern. Traditionally Prince Khalid ibn Yazid (d. 704) was the first Muslim convert to alchemy and it is significant that his teacher was said to be one Morienos, a pupil of the legendary Stephanos of Alexandria.
Alexandrian alchemy was based on Greek philosophy as well as on the practical tradition of the craftsmen. The early comparisons of man and nature found in the pre-Socratics and in Plato's Timaeus fostered an interest in the relationship of the macrocosm and the microcosm, a doctrine which played a major role in alchemical thought well into the seventeenth century.
Alchemy is of a twofold nature, an outward or exoteric and a hidden or esoteric. Exoteric alchemy is concerned with attempts to prepare a substance, the philosopher's stone, or simply the Stone, endowed with the power to transmuting the base metals lead, tin, copper, iron, and mercury into the precious metals gold and silver... The belief that it could be obtained only by divine grace and favour led to the development of esoteric or mystical alchemy, and this gradually developed into a devotional system where the mundane transmutation of metals became merely symbolic of the transformation of sinful man into a perfect being through prayer and submission to the will of God.
Alchemy was also chemistry. Early modern alchemists were intensely concerned with understanding and manipulating matter. Following the example of the influential sixteenth-century Swiss physician Paracelsus, they engaged with the practical complexities of purification and the separation of chemical substances. Alchemical literature deals with the chemical changes brought about through processes of heat, distillation, and evaporation, while instructing its readers in the substances they require: salt, sulphur, mercury, lead, and others.
The word 'alchemy' is said to be derived from the Arabic definite article "al" prefixed to the late Greek word "kimia", a word found in the decree of Diocletian against the old writings of the Egyptians on the "kimia", or transmutation of gold and silver. Suidas, writing in the eleventh century, says the word means "the knowledge of Egyptian art, Chemi or Cham or the Black Land, which was the ancient name for Egypt."