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The history of alchemy : Turning metal into gold.
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Taken from a 1960 reprint of "AN ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF OCCULTISM", by
Lewis Spence; University Press, Hyde Park, New York. Originally
Published in 1920, it is considered to be one of the most complete
texts on the subject.

ALCHEMY: The science by aid of which the chemical philosophers of
medieval times attempted to transmute the baser metals into gold or
silver. There is considerable divergence of opinion as to the etymology
of the word, but it would seem to be derived from the Arabic al=the, and
kimya=chemistry, which in turn derives from the late Greek
chemica=chemistry, from chumeia=a mingling, or cheein, `to pour out` or
`mix', Aryan root ghu, to pour, whence the word `gush'. Mr. A. Wallis
Budge in his "Egyptian Magic", however, states that it is possible that
it may be derived from the Egyptian word khemeia, that is to say 'the
preparation of the black ore', or `powder', which was regarded as the
active principle in the transmutation of metals. To this name the Arabs
affixed the article `al', thus giving al-khemeia, or alchemy.
HISTORY OF ALCHEMY: From an early period the Egyptians possessed the
reputation of being skillful workers in metals and, according to Greek
writers, they were conversant with their transmutation, employing
quicksilver in the process of separating gold and silver from the native
matrix. The resulting oxide was supposed to possess marvelous powers,
and it was thought that there resided within in the individualities of
the various metals, that in it their various substances were
incorporated. This black powder was mystically identified with the
underworld form of the god Osiris, and consequently was credited with
magical properties. Thus there grew up in Egypt the belief that
magical powers existed in fluxes and alloys. Probably such a belief
existed throughout Europe in connection with the bronze-working castes
of its several races. Its was probably in the Byzantium of the fourth
century, however, that alchemical science received embryonic form.
There is little doubt that Egyptian tradition, filtering through
Alexandrian Hellenic sources was the foundation upon which the infant
science was built, and this is borne out by the circumstance that the
art was attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and supposed to be contained
in its entirety in his works.
The Arabs, after their conquest of Egypt in the seventh century,
carried on the researches of the Alexandrian school, and through their
instrumentality the art was brought to Morocco and thus in the eighth
century to Spain, where it flourished exceedingly. Indeed, Spain from
the ninth to the eleventh century became the repository of alchemic
science, and the colleges of Seville, Cordova and Granada were the
centers from which this science radiated throughout Europe.
The first practical alchemist may be said to have been the Arbian
Geber, who flourished 720-750. From his "Summa Perfectionis", we may be
justified in assuming that alchemical science was already matured in his
day, and that he drew his inspirations from a still older unbroken line
of adepts. He was followed by Avicenna, Mesna and Rhasis, and in France
by Alain of Lisle, Arnold de Villanova and Jean de Meung the troubadour;
in England by Roger Bacon and in Spain itself by Raymond Lully. Later,
in French alchemy the most illustrious names are those of Flamel (b. ca.
1330), and Bernard Trevisan (b. ca. 1460) after which the center of of
interest changes to Germany and in some measure to England, in which
countries Paracelsus, Khunrath (ca. 1550), Maier (ca. 1568), Norton,
Dalton, Charnock, and Fludd kept the alchemical flame burning brightly.

It is surprising how little alteration we find throughout the period
between the seventh and the seventeenth centuries, the heyday of
alchemy, in the theory and practice of the art. The same sentiments and
processes are found expressed in the later alchemical authorities as in
the earliest, and a wonderful unanimity as regards the basic canons of
the great art is evinced by the hermetic students of the time. On the
introduction of chemistry as a practical art, alchemical science fell
into desuetude and disrepute, owing chiefly to the number of charlatans
practicing it, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century, as a
school, it may be said to have become defunct. Here and there, however,
a solitary student of the art lingered, and in the department of this
article "Modern Alchemy" will demonstrate that the science has to a
grate extent revived during modern times, although it has never been
quite extinct.
THE QUESTS OF ALCHEMY: The grand objects of alchemy were (1) the
discovery of a process by which the baser metals might be transmuted
into gold or silver; (2) the discovery of an elixir by which life might
be prolonged indefinitely; and there may be added (3), the manufacture
of and artificial process of human life. (for the latter see Homunculus)
THE THEORY AND PHILOSOPHY OF ALCHEMY: The first objects were to be
achieved as follows: The transmutation of metals was to be accomplished
by a powder, stone or exilir often called the Philosopher`s Stone, the
application of which would effect the transmutation of the baser metals
into gold or silver, depending upon the length of time of its
application. Basing their conclusions on a profound examination of
natural processes and research into the secrets of nature, the
alchemists arrived at the axiom that nature was divided philosophically
into four principal regions, the dry, the moist, the warm, the cold,
whence all that exists must be derived. Nature is also divisible into
the male and the female. She is the divine breath, the central fire,
invisible yet ever active, and is typified by sulphur, which is the
mercury of the sages, which slowly fructifies under the genial warmth of
nature. The alchemist must be ingenuous, of a truthful disposition, and
gifted with patience and prudence, following nature in every alchemical
performance. He must recollect that like draws to like, and must know
how to obtain the seed of metals, which is produced by the four elements
through the will of the Supreme Being and the Imagination of Nature. We
are told the the original matter of metals is double in its essence,
being a dry heat combined with a warm moisture, and that air is water
coagulated by fir, capable of producing a universal dissolvent. These
terms the neophyte must be cautious of interpreting in their literal
sense. Great confusion exists in alchemical nomenclature, and the
gibberish employed by the scores of charlatans who in later times
pretended to a knowledge of alchemical matters did not tend to make
things any more clear. The beginner must also acquire a thorough
knowledge of the manner in which metals grow in the bowels of the earth.
These are engendered by sulphur, which is male, and mercury, which is
female, and the crux of alchemy is to obtain their seed - a process
which the alchemist philosophers have not described with any degree of
The physical theory of transmutation is based on the composite
character of metals, and on the existence of a substance which, applied
to matter, exalts and perfects it. This, Eugenius Philalethes and
others call 'The Light'. The elements of all metals is similar,
differing only in purity and proportion. The entire trend of the
metallic kingdom is towards the natural manufacture of gold, and the
production of the baser metals is only accidental as the result of an

unfavorable environment. The Philosopher's Stone is the combination of
the male and female seeds which beget gold. The composition of these is
so veiled by symbolism as to make their identification a matter of
impossibility. Waite, summarizing the alchemical process once the
secret of the stone is unveiled, says: "Given the matter of the stone
and also the necessary vessel, the process which must be then undertaken
to accomplish the `magnum opus' are described with moderate perpicuity.
There is the calcination or purgation of the stone, in which kind is
worked with kind for the space of a philosophical year. There is
dissolution which prepares the way for congelation, and which is
performed during the black state of the mysterious matter. It is
accomplished by water which does not wet the hand. There is the
separation of the subtle and the gross, which is to be performed by
means of heat. In the conjunction which follows, the elements are duly
and scrupulously combined. Putrefaction afterwards takes place.
`Without which pole no seed may multiply.'
"Then, in the subsequent congelation the white colour appears, which
is one of the signs of success. It becomes more pronounced in cibation.
In sublimation the body is spiritualised, the spirit made corporeal,
and again a more glittering whiteness is apparent. Fermentation
afterwards fixes together the alchemical earth and water, and causes the
mystic medicines to flow like wax. The matter is then augmented with
the alchemical spirit of life, and the exaltation of the philosophic
earth is accomplished by the natural rectification of its elements.
When these processes have been successfully completed, the mystic stone
will have passed through the chief stages characterized by different
colours, black, white and red, after which it is capable of infinite
multication, and when projected on mercury, it will absolutely transmute
it, the resulting gold bearing every test. The base metals made use of
must be purified to insure the success of the operation. The process
for the manufacture of silver is essentially similar, but the resources
of the matter are not carried to so high a degree.
"According to the "Commentary on the Ancient War of the Knights" the
transmutations performed by the perfect stone are so absolute that no
trace remains of the original metal. It cannot, however, destroy gold,
nor exalt it into a more perfect metallic substance; it, therefore,
transmutes it into a medicine a thousand times superior to any virtues
which can be extracted from its vulgar state. This medicine becomes a
most potent agent in the exaltation of base metals."
There are not wanting authorities who deny that the transmutations of
metals was the grand object of alchemy, and who infer from the
alchemistical writings that the end of the art was the spiritual
regeneration of man. Mrs. Atwood, author of "A Suggestive Inquiry into
the Hermetic Mystery", and an American writer named Hitchcock are
purhaps the chief protagonists of the belief the by spiritual processes
akin to those of the chemical process of alchemy, the soul of man may be
purified and exalted. But both commit the radical error of stating the
the alchemical writers did not aver that the transmutation of base metal
into gold was their grand end. None of the passages they quote, is
inconsistent with the physical object of alchemy, and in a work, "The
Marrow of Alchemy", stated to be by Eugenius Philaletes, it is laid down
that the real quest is for gold. It is constantly impressed upon the
reader, however, in the perusal of esteemed alchemical works, that only
those who are instructed by God can achieve the grand secret. Others,
again, state that a tyro may possibly stumble upon it, but that unless
he is guided by an adept he has small chance of achieving the grand
arcanum. It will be obvious to the tyro, however, that nothing can ever

be achieved by trusting to the allegories of the adepts or the many
charlatans who crowded the ranks of the art. Gold may be made, or it
may not, but the truth or fallacy of the alchemical method lies with
modern chemistry. The transcendental view of alchemy, however, is
rapidly gaining ground, and probably originated in the comprehensive
nature of Hermetic theory and the consciousness in the alchemical mind
that what might with success be applied to nature could also be applied
to man with similar results. Says Mr. Waite, "The gold of the
philosopher is not a metal, on the other hand, man is a being who
possesses within himself the seeds of a perfection which he has never
realized, and that he therefore corresponds to those metals which the
Hermetic theory supposes to be capable of developing the latent
possibilities in the subject man." At the same time, it must be
admitted that the cryptic character of alchemical language was probably
occasioned by a fear on the part of the alchemical mystic that he might
lay himself open through his magical opinions to the rigors of the law.
RECORDS OF ACTUAL TRANSMUTATIONS: Several records of alleged
transmutations of base metal into gold are in existence. These were
achieved by Nicholas Flamel, Van Helmont, Martini, Richthausen, and
Sethon. For a detailed account of the methods employed the reader is
referred to several articles on these hermetists. In nearly every case
the transmuting element was a mysterious powder or the "Philosopher's
MODERN ALCHEMY That alchemy has been studied in modern times there
can be no doubt. M. figuier in his "L'Alchimie et les Alchimistes",
dealing with the subject of modern alchemy, as expressed by the
initiates of the first half of the nineteenth century, states that many
French alchemists of his time regarded the discoveries of modern science
as merely so many evidences of the truth of the doctrines they embraced.
Throughout Europe, he says, the positive alchemical doctrine had many
adherents at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the
nineteenth. Thus a "vast association of alchemists", founded in
Westphalia in 1790, continued to flourish in the year 1819, under the
name of the "Hermetic Society". In 1837, an alchemist of Thuringia
presented to the Societe Industrielle of Weimar a tincture which he
averred would effect metallic transmutation. About the same time
several French journals announced a public course of lectures on
hermetic philosophy by a professor of the University of Munich. He
further states that many Honoverian and Bavarian families pursued in
common the search for the grand arcanum. Paris, however, was regarded
as the alchemical Mecca. There dwelt many theoretical alchemists and
"empirical adepts". The first pursued and arcanum through the medium of
books, the other engaged in practical efforts to effect transmutation.
M. Figuier states that in the forties of the last century he
frequented the laboratory of a certain Monsieur L., which was the
rendezvous of the alchemists in Paris. When Monsieur L`s pupils left
the laboratory for the day, the modern adepts dropped in one by one, and
Figuier relates how deeply impressed he was by the appearance and
costumes of these strange men. In the daytime, he frequently
encountered them in the public libraries, buried in gigantic folios, and
in the evening they might be seen pacing the solitary bridges with eyes
fixed in vague contemplation upon the first pale stars of night. A long
cloak usually covered the meager limbs, and their untrimmed beards and
matted locks lent them a wild appearance. They walked with a solemn and
measured gait, and used the figures of speech employed by the medieval
illumines. Their expression was generally a mixture of the most ardent
hope and fixed despair. Among the adepts who sought the laboratory of

Monsieur L., Figuier remarked especially a young man, in whose habits
and language he could nothing in common with those of his strange
companions. He confounded the wisdom of the alchemical adept with the
tenets of the modern scientist in the most singular fashion, and meeting
him one day at the gate of the Observatory, M. Figuier renewed the
subject of their last discussion, deploring that " a man of his gifts
could pursue the semblance of a chimera." Without replying, the young
adept led him into the Observatory garden, and proceeded to reveal to
him the mysteries of modern alchemical science.
The young man proceeded to fix a limit to the researches of the modern
alchemists. Gold, he said, according to the ancient authors, as three
distinct properties: (1) that of resolving the baser metals into itself,
and interchanging and metamorphosing all metals into one another; (2)
the curing of afflictions and the prolongation of life; (3), as a
'spiritus mundi' to bring mankind into rapport with the supermundane
spheres. Modern alchemists, he continued, reject the greater part of
these ideas, especially those connected with spiritual contact. The
object of modern alchemy might be reduced to the search for a substance
having the power to transform and transmute all other substances into
one another - in short, to discover that medium so well known to the
alchemists of old and lost to us. This was a perfectly feasible
proposition. In the four principal substances of oxygen, hydrogen,
carbon, and azote, we have the tetractus of Pythagoras and the tetragram
of the Chaldeans and Egyptians. All the sixty elements are referable to
these original four. The ancient alchemical theory established the fact
that all the metals are the same in their composition, that all are
formed from sulphur and mercury, and that the difference between them is
according to the proportion of these substances in their composition.
Further, all the products of minerals present in their composition
complete identity with those substances most opposed to them. Thus
fulminating acid contains precisely the same quantity of carbon, oxygen,
and azote as cyanic acid, and "cyanhydric" acid does not differ from
formate ammoniac. This new property of matter is known as "isomerism".
M. Figuier's friend then proceeds to quote support of his thesis and
operations and experiments of M. Dumas, a celebrated French savant, as
is well known to thous of Prout, and other English chemists of standing.
Passing to consider the possibility of isomerism in elementary as well
as in compound substances, the points out to M. Figuier that id the
theory of isomerism can apply to such bodies, the transmutation of
metals ceases to be a wild, unpractical dream, and becomes a scientific
possibility, the transformation being brought about by a molecular
rearrangement. Isomerism can be established in the case of compound
substances by chemical analysis. showing the identity of their
constituent parts. In the case of metals it can be proved by the
comparison of the properties of isometric bodies with the properties of
metals, in order to discover whether they have any common
characteristics. Such experiments, he continued, had been conducted by
M. Dumas, with the result the isometric substances were to be found to
have equal equivalents, or equivalents which were exact multiples of one
another. This characteristic is also a feature of metals. Gold and
osmium have identical equivalents, as have platinum and iridium. The
equivalent of cobalt is almost the same as that of nickel, and the
semi-equivalent of tin is equal to the equivalent of the two preceding
M. Dumas. speaking before the British Association, had shown that when
three simple bodies displayed great analogies in their properties, such
as chlorine, bromide, and iodine, barium, strontium, and calcium, the

chemical equivalent of the intermediate body is represented by the
arithmetical mean between the equivalents of the other two. Such a
statement well showed the isomerism of elementary substances, and proved
that metals, however dissimilar in outward appearance, were composed of
the same matter differently arranged and proportioned. This theory
successfully demolishes the difficulties in the way of transmutation.
Again, Dr. Prout says that the chemical equivalents of nearly all
elemental substances are the multiples of one among them. Thus, if the
equivalent of hydrogen be taken for the unit, the equivalent of every
other substance will be an exact multiple of it - carbon will be
represented by six, axote by fourteen, oxygen by sixteen, zink by
thirty-two. But, pointed out M. Figuier's friend, if the molecular
masses in compound substances have so simple a connection, does it not
go to prove the all natural bodies are formed of one principle,
differently arranged and condensed to produce all known compounds?
If transmutation is thus theoretically possible, it only remains to
show by practical experiment that it is strictly in accordance with
chemical laws, and by no means inclines to the supernatural. At this
juncture the young alchemist proceeded to liken the action of the
Philosopher`s Stone on metals to that of a ferment on organic matter.
When metals are melted and brought to red heat, a molecular change may
be produced analogous to fermentation. Just as sugar, under the
influence of a ferment, may be changed into lactic acid without altering
its constituents, so metals can alter their character under the
influence of the Philosopher`s Stone. The explanation of the latter
case is no more difficult than that of the former. The ferment does not
take any part in the chemical changes it brings about, and no
satisfactory explanation of its effects can be found either in the laws
of affinity or in the forces of electricity, light, or heat. As with
the ferment, the required quantity of the Philosopher`s Stone is
infinitesimal. Medicine, philosophy, every modern science was at one
time a source of such errors and extravagances as are associated with
medieval alchemy, but they are not therefore neglected and despised.
Wherefore, then, should we be blind tot he scientific nature of
One of the foundations of alchemical theories was that minerals grew
and developed in the earth, like organic things. It was always the aim
of nature to produce gold, the most precious metal, but when
circumstances were not favorable the baser metals resulted. The desire
of the old alchemists was to surprise nature`s secrets, and thus attain
the ability to do in a short period what nature takes years to
accomplish. Nevertheless, the medieval alchemists appreciated the value
of time in their experiments as modern alchemists never do. M.
Figuier`s friend urged him not to condemn these exponents of the
hermetic philosophy for their metaphysical tendencies, for, he said,
there are facts in our sciences that can only be explained in that
light. If, for instance, copper be placed in air or water, there will
be no result, but if a touch of some acid be added, it will oxidize.
The explanation is that "the acid provokes oxidation of the metal
because it has an affinity for the oxide which tends to form." - a
material fact most metaphysical in its production, and only explicable
He concluded his argument with an appeal for tolerance towards the
medieval alchemists, whose work is underrated because it is not properly

Atwood, A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mastery, 1850
Hitchcock, Remarks on Alchemy and the Alchemists, Boston, 1857
Waite, Lives of the Alchemystical Philosophers, London, 1888
" The Occult Sciences, London, 1891
Bacon, Mirror of Alchemy, 1597
S. le Doux, Dictionnaire Hermetique, 1695
Langlet de fresnoy, Histoire de la Philosophie Hermetique, 1792
" " Theatrum Chemicum, 1662
Valentine, Triumphal Chariot of Antimony, 1656
Redgrove, Alchemy Ancient and Modern
Figuier, L'Alchimie et les Alchimistes, Paris, 1857

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