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History Of Alchemy

 by Heidi Keller - April 5, 2004

a laboratory of alchemyThe alchemists may have been religious fanatics, deceivers, madmen, or merely curious scholars, but their achievements are one of the basis of the present chemistry and other sciences. This is how their history went...

Searching For God

The roots of alchemy are unknown, but generally they are associated with Egypt, which is also known as the cradle of most of the Western mysticism. The father of the Egyptian alchemy is Hermes Trimesgistus, who was an Egyptian king and lived around 1900 BC. 

He was said to have had a great wisdom, however little is known about what he actually did, as in the 3rd c. AD, the Roman Emperor Diocletian's armies destroyed the few authentic fragments that remained.

Even so, his works were copied, are known as the books "Emerald Tablet", "Asclepian Dialogues" and "Divine Pymander", and they were preserved in the last centuries through the many translations.

The "Emerald Tablet" book has a very interesting story. Legend tells that its text was taken from a text written in Phoenician on a real emerald slab and which was found by Alexander The Great on Hermes' tomb.

Whether if Hermes was really such a great mage or how his writings were found, his influence traveled through time and space and influenced generations of alchemists all around the world.

Alchemy must have been an old practice in the Ancient Chinese Empire too. There's a mention of the first Taoist pope called Chang Tao-Ling, born in 35 AD, whose life was devoted to studing and meditating. He isolated himself at the top of a mountain and there he studied alchemy, which was taught to him by Lao Tzu, who gave him a book with magical texts, being one of them about the Elixir of Life.

Then there's the Near East alchemy, which certainly was much influenced by the Egyptian one. By the time Diocletian ordered his armies to destroy the libraries of alchemy in Egypt, the practice was popular among the scholars of all the ancient world. This didn't discourage the practitioners and one century later the philosopher Zosimus, the Panopolite wrote "The Divine Art Of Making Gold And Silver", one of the most important books of the late Ancient Age.

By the end of the Roman Empire, the Roman philosopher Morienus, decided to leave his hometown and go after the wise hermit Adfar. It's said that he found the old man and became his disciple. After Adfar's death, Morienus became acquainted with the King Calid and wrote a dialogue supposedly based on one of their talks.

One of the most important alchemists of Arabia was Jabir (a.k.a. Geber), who was a follower of the Hermetic school. He was born around 750 AD, and is considered the greatest alchemist since Hermes Trimegistus. Jabir wrote 500 texts on the art, but only five of them remained.

He's considered one of the first to study the effects of corrosives, mercury and silver nitrate. Most of his inventions have been disguised by him in his writings and were taught only to a few gifted apprentices, so it's impossible to know how far he went.

Other three important scholars of these first centuries of the Middle Ages are Rhasis, who's said to have transmutated base metals in gold; Alfarabi, who was considered one of the wisest man of his times and Avicenna, who was born in 980 AD, and is considered the last great alchemist of the Egyptian school.

Surviving The Persecution

There are at least three probable sources of the alchemic tradition in the West: either it was continued through the works of the Roman alchemists, or it was re-learned by the Europeans at the time of the Crusades or it received influence from the Moors at the time they ruled over Spain.

Whatever the case, the first important treatise is of the 12th century, Artephius' "The Art Of Prolonging Human Life". Either this scholar was a good lier or he knew better, because apart from claiming to have the solution to old age, he also claimed to have lived around 1000 years!

One century later the King Alphonso of Castille wrote "Tesero" and William de Loris, who wrote one of the first chivalry novels "Le Roman de La Rose", was an alchemist and with his friend Jean de Meung, he wrote the books "The Remonstrance of Nature to the Wandering Alchemist" and "The Reply of the Alchemist to Nature".

Alchemy continued to flourish among the previleged men, who were rich merchants, noblemen and even members of the clergy. But, the reactionary factions of the clergy saw this doctrine as a danger to the power that the Church had over the European citizens.

It was a defiance to limits that they had imposed over what could be done and known by humans and what God could make. So the Inquisitors started to target those men, and one of their first vicitims, back in the 13th century, was the Italian Peter d'Apona, writer of several texts and who was accused of keeping demonic spirits inside crystal vessels who taught him all those "sinful" things.

an alchemistThings weren't ever easy for those scholars, but from then on they may have gotten even harder. Alchemy became a secret murmured in the universities' corridors and to be called an alchemist became a dangerous offense.

Even so, the studies continued. The doctor and theologist Arnold de Villeneuve wrote a very important text called "Theatrum Chemicum". He was also accused of heresy and satanism by the Inquisitors, but managed to keep free from their hands. Nevertheless, his books were burnt in Italy.

One of the greatest personalities of the Medieval alchemy is Raymond Lully. It's almost certain that his name was used by his followers as an alias when authoring treatises. There are about 486 texts on all kinds of sciences. He traveled a lot throughout Europe, tried to spread his teachings among the Muslims, and he's said to have discovered the Philosopher's Stone (the stone that can change base metal into gold), and he was even arrested and used by King Edward I of England to make the money he needed to start his Crusade.

It was by the 14th century that the accusations of charlatanism spread through the continent and both the countries and the Vatican established laws prohibiting the practise of the art, although several popes, cardinals, bishops and noblemen of all ranks are said to have studied it and even used what they found out to enrich themselves...

From The Spiritual To The Material

As you can see, science and religion were so totally connected in those centuries, that even those who were accused of heresy, were faithful men. All the old teachings have mentions to the power of God over nature, and describe the chemical experiments as one would a spiritual vision. However, things started to change slowly around the 17th century, at the beginning of what is called "The Enlightened Era". 

Since the Renaissance, scholars like Leonardo da Vinci had secretly studied the human body in order to understand how it works, be able to draw it with perfection, etc. These men would pay a hospital's clerk, for example, to hide a dead body, which late at night would be studied by several curious men in the basement of the hospital. If those meetings were discovered, those men would have to face the rage of the Inquisition. 

Without their efforts, probably our present science would much more delayed than it already is, as through a long time, most of the technological and scientific studies of the ancient peoples were prohibited by the clergy and even the source of the human knowledge was in their hands, and closed to the average man.

One of the most famous alchemists of the 17th c. is Jean-Baptist Van Helmont, who wrote the book "De Natura Vitae Eternae", in which he describes his experiments with the Philosopher's Stone. In the 18th century, Sigmund Richter, a member of the Rosicrucian society, wrote "Perfect and True Preparation of the Philosophical Stone", and was known as a mage of great power. 

The first true scientists, who took from the alchemy its spiritual aspect, started to appear by the end of the 18th century and especially through the 19th century. Although the art must have continued to be practised in the old way for a long time, it's unlikely that it lasted beyond the beginning of the 20th century.

For more information

The Alchemy Web Site

History of Alchemy from Ancient Egypt to Modern Times

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