Alchemy is a universal art found across many cultures, over many centuries and has found expression in many forms, ranging from the mixtures of plants, metals and chemicals to self transformation and mysticism. The word originally come's from the Greek root 'chumeia (χυμεία)' which means "mixture" and refers to the preparation of medicines. This may be the root of the alchemists greatest dream, to find the ultimate elixir which would grant eternal life and cure all illness.
However, it would seem that quite early on alchemists in Alexandria confused the word and assumed it derived from the Egyptian word kēme (hieroglyphic Khmi) which meant 'black land', a reference to the dark fertile soil around the banks of the Nile river, and used by the Egyptians as the word for Egypt itself. The prefix 'Al' comes from Arabia, during the time alchemy was forbidden in Christian Europe, only to be reintroduced after the crusades.
From the root of making medicines, alchemy has come to embrace also practices of transmuting metals, preparing mixtures and preparations from plants and practices for transforming the self, and whilst some alchemists specialised in certain of these areas, or dismissed some areas as nonsense, others felt it important to engage in all aspects of the work.
Whilst the term alchemy didn't exist in Egypt, a number of practises and mystical ideas from Egypt never the less came to influence. The Ouroborus also comes from Egypt, the earliest examples being found there from 1600BC. Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary father of alchemy is also known by the name of the Egyptian god Thoth. The Scarab beetle has also become an important alchemical symbol.
At a certain time in history ideas about converting base metals into gold also became a part of alchemy. The practice certainly existed in ancient Egypt, and the The Leyden X Papyrus, a 3rd Cent AD practical compendium of Alchemical and Chemical techniques written in Greek, show that these were considered alchemical by that time. Some alchemists have compared the transmutation of metals to the myth of the death and resurrection of Osiris is in some way coded into the process in its original form.
Egyptian Alchemy was adopted by the Greeks in Alexandria, as well as exported to Western Asia and India along the early Silk Road. The possibility remains of a flow of ideas from India, and even China, along the same route, particularly in the late period, but only circumstantial evidence has yet been found, mainly the similarity of certain alchemical ideas, such as the importance of the chemicals Mercury and Sulphur.
After the Greeks of Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt enthusiastically adopted Egyptian Alchemy and spread it throughout the Hellenic world.
The earliest works such as those of the Pseudo-Demikristo and Comarius mix practical Egyptian Alchemy with Hellenic Mystery teachings and Magic, while later works, such as those of Zosimus of Panopolis, and the legendary Hermes Trismegistus, are almost entirely allegorical. The teachings that influenced these esoteric Alchemists were a mixture of magical techniques from the Greek Magical Papyri, and the beliefs of Sethian Gnosticism and Hermeticism.
The basic Hermetic idea was that all things are one and so apparently separate systems really operate in parallel. Thus the configuration of the stars in Astrology will parallel the configuration of the human psyche, and the configuration of events experienced by those psyches, when the systems become entangled (such as at birth or moments of creation when the system comes into being). Thus in Alchemy the practitioner's psyche is entangled with the chemical process, and so the 'perfection of metals' becomes the 'perfection of the psyche'. The Gnostic aspect added the belief that mankind were spirits, trapped in and corrupted by matter, and so perfection consisted of liberating pure spirit from matter, thus making Alchemy the ideal Hermetic method.
Greek Alchemy was adopted by both Roman and Arabian culture, who adapted it to Neo-Platonism. Alchemical symbols such as the Caduceus and the god Mercury come from Rome, although the Caduceus may be traced back to an older similar symbol in ancient Sumeria and has similarities to the less well known Greek karykieon. With the fall of the Roman Empire Alchemy was briefly preserved in Byzantium, before being isolated in Arab world where it developed further.
Indian Alchemy in the sense used above does not appear until around 300 BC when texts describe the use of Mercury and Gold in Ayurevedic Medicine. This was the period of the Indo-Greek Kingdoms founded by Alexander the Great (300-100BC), that saw a great fusion of Greek and Indian cultures, so it is likely that this Alchemy was adopted from the Greeks. But India had its own form of Alchemy, Rasayana, dating back to the Vedic period, a science of producing Rasa, an elixir of immortality (or at least long life and good health) from herbal, mineral and metallic ingredients (chiefly Zinc, but also Gold). But while Indian metallurgy and chemistry was renowned throughout the world the chief interest of the former was Iron and Steel, in which it was expert. Gold was valued and used in trade but was not at this time known as a subject of Alchemy as such. The transmutation of Lead into Gold only appears in Buddhist texts of the 2nd Cent AD onwards, and is most likely another import.
The Indian Alchemists appear to have combined Rasayana with Chinese and Western Alchemy to produce their own variety in which purified metals were ingested to achieve health. When this was extended to Mercury and Mercury Sulphides the practice became extremely dangerous. A mystical element was probably also present. It is not known if this was exported back to the Greek world, but the notion of Potable (drinkable) Gold is not documented in Europe till the 16th Century, when contact with India was beginning to open up again.
Nagarjuna was an Indian Metallurgist and Alchemist, born in Gujarat in 931. He wrote the treatise Rasaratnakara that deals with preparations of Rasa (by then associated with Mercury). It gives a survey of the status of metallurgy and alchemy in the land. Extraction of metals such as silver, gold, tin and copper from their ores and their purification were also mentioned in the treatise. He also wrote Uttaratantra as a supplement to Susrutasamhita, dealing with preparation of medicinal drugs, and an Ayurvedic treatise, Arogyamanjari.
There are some indications that after the late 13th Century some Indian practitioners used this increasingly unpopular form of Mercurial Alchemy as a veil for esoteric forms of Yoga and Tantra, which paralleled, and were perhaps influenced by, the development of Taoist Internal Alchemy in China in the 12th Century.
Indian Alchemy was exported to Persia and Arabia in the Middle Ages. There is also a possibility of an exchange with Ancient Egypt prior to the Greek contact, but there is no real evidence for this, other than the established trade routes across the Indian Ocean. But there does appear to have been an ongoing two way exchange between India and China since ancient times (but it is now almost impossible to tell which of these was the originator).
Chinese Alchemy, or Dan (elixir), is a Taoist practise that can be traced back to the 5th Century BC, but is traditionally believed to be much older. In its earliest form it appears to have been another attempt to find an elixir of immortality, using herbs, minerals and metals. One of the most dangerous components of early elixirs was Arsenic, though Chinese texts indicate 'non-corporeal' immortality was an acceptable goal to these Alchemists (Arsenic poison preserves dead bodies from decay and would have been taken as a sign of soul activity). Almost as dangerous was the use of Cinnabar (Red Mercuric Sulphide) as an elixir, but this would become the classic ingredient, before Gold and Silver were introduced around 200BC, and the term 'Dan' is itself often used to denote Cinnabar. This substance was central to the Taoist practice because on heating it reduces to Sulphur and Mercury, which were seen as Solar and Lunar, or Yin and Yang substances, and on cooling returned to Cinnabar, the fusion of opposites. Safer Gold and Silver, and their alloy, only began to replace these after 100BC (along with Egyptian style 'fake Gold', ironically given greater magical value as it had been 'magically processed'). This parallels Indian Alchemy, but it is uncertain which form was the oldest as there was a two way cultural exchange (the Taoist connotations of Cinnabar indicates a Chinese origin for this practise however).
From around the 12th Century a new form of Alchemy emerges, Neidan or Internal Elixir Alchemy, which distinguishes itself from Weidan or the External Alchemy described above. Neidan is the art of using meditation techniques, visualization, breathing and bodily posture exercises to achieve the same healthy or immortal state as Weidan. In its advanced form it is based on the Three Treasures:
1. Ching, the essential energy of the body, acquired by inheritance, food, breathing, exercise and concentration, lost with any body fluid or illness and physical stress. Stored in kidneys and focused in navel centre. Yin. Mercury (or Sulphur).
2. Chi, the vital energy of body, generated by fusion of Yin and Yang, flow through body effected by body structure and positions. Focused in heart centre. Cinnabar.
3. Shen, the psychic energy of body, acquired in meditation and from atmospheric radiation, channelled by visualisation, lost through psychological stress, extreme emotion and in depression. Focused in 'Third Eye'. Yang. Sulphur (or Mercury).
The earliest West Asian Alchemy was identical to the Greco-Egyptian, but the form propagated under Islam from the 7th Century onwards was of a more practical and 'scientific' kind with a variety of goals, from generating gold (Chrysopoeia) and producing Alkahest, the 'universal solvent', to attempting to generate artificial forms of life, Takwin (derived from the same science of ancient Persia that also spawned the Hebrew Golem concept). More mundanely this school was the first manifestation of Chemistry and invented many of its instrumentation and methods, without its modern theoretical basis. As such its Alchemy was more formulaic and structured.
The Persian Ismaili school also preserved a more Neo-Platonic and Hermetic form of Alchemy, and most significantly imported late forms of Indian Elixir Alchemy (which carried with it Chinese concepts), as well as maintaining ancient Persian ideas, such as Takwin and various Zoroastrian notions. Aspects of Chinese Alchemy may have also been directly adopted. The resultant eclectic Persian Alchemy was absorbed into esoteric schools of the broader Arabian Alchemy, but was increasingly regarded as a superstitious, unscientific fringe by most Arab Alchemists (along with Chrysopoeia).
Note - Oriental Inner Alchemy would not have reached Persia till the late 13th Century at the very earliest.
The most influential esoteric Arab Alchemist (who was also a great Chemist) was Jabir Ibn Hayyan (Arabic جابر بن حيان, Latin Geberus; usually rendered in English as Geber) of the 8th Century. Who is believed to have 'rationalised' Ismaili Alchemy. He analysed each Aristotelian element in terms of four basic qualities of hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness. According to Geber, in each metal two of these qualities were interior and two were exterior. 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 given various transformations, held correspondences to the element's physical properties. The elemental system used in medieval alchemy was developed by Geber. 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.
Alchemy first enters Medieval Europe from Moorish Spain (where the esoteric form was popular), but was further studied during the Crusades in its more eastern forms.
A brief reading list to get a beginner started on the subject.
- Alchemy and Mysticism: the Hermetic Museum ~ ed Alexander Rood
- The Philosophers stone ~ Peter Marshal
- Chemical Serpents ~ Anton Channing
This aims to be a comprehensive alphabetised list of all published alchemy books. A complete list would likely be extremely large, so restricting the list to recommended texts is advisable. Specialist reading lists for different kinds of alchemy may be made if this one becomes too large. If you notice something missing that you would recommend, please add it.
Dionysius Andreas Freher
- The Paradoxical Emblems
- The Philosophers Stone: A quest for the secrets of alchemy.
- Promethea (A fictional comic story that includes a lot of really good introductory material relating to aspects of alchemy, including the caduceus, Kabbalah, tantra and the symbolism of the seven traditional planets)
- Alchemy and mysticism: The Hermetic Museum