A Brief History of Alchemy

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A Brief History of Alchemy

Post  deviadah on Sun Oct 14, 2007 4:42 pm

An introduction to alchemy in general terms is not an easy feat, and perhaps many who visit this forum are already knowledgeable enough not to need one. But there might be those that doesn’t know much, or nothing at all, about alchemy and have come here by accident or by intuition. So this thread is for them. I also implore members who want to add to this brief intro to do so. There are many ways to tell the history of alchemy and the one I post here is not at all the ultimate version. Please improve on it with what you know...

I have always thought the following quote by W.B. Yeats, from Rosa Alchemica, describes alchemy best:
I had discovered, early in my researches, that their [the alchemists] doctrine was no mere chemical fantasy, but a philosophy they applied to the world, to the elements, and to man himself.
Together with astrology alchemy is the oldest science known to the world. It is a popular belief that Ancient Egypt is regarded as the origin of all things mystical, but we must not forget the Far East. In a book written by Edward Chalmers Werner the following quote can be found:
Chang Tao-Ling, the first Taoist pope, was born in C.E. 35 in the reign of the Emperor Kuang Wu Ti of the Han dynasty… He devoted himself wholly to study and meditation, declining all offers to enter the service of the State. He preferred to take up his abode in the mountains of Western China where he persevered in the study of alchemy and in cultivating the virtues of purity and mental abstraction. From the hands of Lao Tzu he received supernaturally a mystic treatise, by following the instructions in which he was successful in his search for the Elixir of Life.
One of the oldest alchemical fragments known is an Arabic version of the Emerald Tablet found in a work ascribed to Jabir approximately from the 9th century. Amongst other things it teaches unity of matter and the truth that all form is a manifestation from one root the Aether, or ether. Another ancient document is The Ebers Papyrus from Ancient Egypt.

The actual word alchemy is derived from Egyptian or Arabic, Al-Kemin or A-khem, and means divine chemistry or black earth (the latter referring to the silt deposits from the annual flooding of the Nile). In Greek the word chemeia means the art of extracting juices from the word chumos meaning juice. All these words of course are the roots of our modern word chemistry or chemicals.

Porcelain, alcohol distillation, acids, salts and a variety of metallic compounds are the results of early alchemical experiments. Until the end of the 16th century magic was not considered a superstition, but a logical and rational mean of understanding the universe and controlling ones destiny.

Alchemy was widely practiced in the 3rd century C.E and it was also during this period, in around 290 C.E, that Emperor Diocletian decided to seek out all Egyptian books on alchemy and other occult sciences and burn them because he was afraid that the riches they could create might finance a revolt against his empire. One of the greatest tragedies in history since the act destroyed all progress that had been made for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, up to that point. The Asclepian Dialogues and the Divine Poemanda were some of the few fragments that survived this holocaust of knowledge.

The Philosopher’s Stone was sought by alchemists in order to bring about permanent transmutation of base metals into gold. It was first mentioned by Zosimos the Theban (c. 250-300) in the 3rd century and through the years it has had many names such as Materia Prima, Magnum Opus, The First Matter, The One Thing, The Heart of the Sun, The Celestial Dew, The Ugly Toad and has figured as a metaphor for the power of a child’s imagination.

If a solution of the Stone is mixed in spirits of wine the legendary Elixir of Life is the result, which can restore health, youth and perhaps not prevent death but certainly prolong life. I want to quote Archibald Cockren’s book Alchemy Rediscovered and Restored because I think he sums up the alchemist’s quest in a simple terms:
What was the motive behind the constant strivings, the never-failing patience in the unravelling of the mysteries, the tenacity of purpose in the face of persecution and ridicule through the countless ages that led the alchemist to pursue undaunted his appointed way? Something far greater, surely, than a mere vainglorious desire to transmute the base metals into gold, or to brew a potion to prolong a little longer this earthly span, for the devotees of alchemy in the main cared little for these things. The accounts of their lives almost without exception lead us to believe that they were concerned with things spiritual rather than with things temporal. Rather were these men inspired by a vision, a vision of man made perfect, of man freed from disease and the limitations of warring faculties both mental and physical, standing as a god in the realization of a power that even at this very moment of time is lying hidden in the deeper strata of his consciousness, a vision of man made truly in the image and likeness of the one Divine Life in all its Perfection, Beauty, and Harmony.
To understand alchemy a student first has to understand the symbols and allegories it employs, for in them are great truths and secrets stored. There are many reasons why there is such a vast and deep well of symbols, allegories and terms. Some claim it is because these secrets are intended only for those ready to receive them, others that it is out of fear to be deemed heretical. Or that it is because alchemy is, after all, an art and in art nothing, if ever, is told straight.

Another point to consider is that alchemy, and the hermetic arts in general, is an extremely ancient form of craft that has changed and transformed its language over all the centuries since its birth and this has, naturally, led to a large pool of ideas and interpretations.

Regardless of the reasons it is important to understand the hidden meaning behind the alchemical language in order to understand alchemy, even though its secrets are fairly simple to grasp - albeit difficult to fulfil.

But that is what Alchemy Forums is all about!

Want to read other accounts on the History of Alchemy?
History of Alchemy
Origins of Alchemy
Wikipedia on Alchemy
Why Mutational Alchemy?


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Re: A Brief History of Alchemy

Post  goldenfolden on Sun Mar 23, 2008 5:24 pm

Anything people ever tryed to communicate through word once called history is proved to only be true in our thoughts.

Last edited by BeautifulEvil on Wed Mar 26, 2008 3:32 pm; edited 1 time in total (Reason for editing : Cleaned up the post - was a mess.)
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