Alchemy. Such a misunderstood science. I hope this article can help set things straight for whomever reads it.
Alchemy is an ancient art, first practiced in the Middle Ages. It was devoted to finding a substance that would transmute, (or turn) common metals in to gold, silver or other precious metals, and also to cause immortality in humans. Alchemy was most likely the first time people dipped their toes into chemistry.
Alchemy began in Ancient Egypt, and was especially prevalent in Alexandria in the Hellenistic period. At the same time, China had been tinkering with the ideas as well. Early writings about alchemy by greek philosiphers are sometimes thought of as the first chemical theories. Empedocles (im-ped-oh-klees) formed the all too famous theory that all things in existence were made of air, fire, earth and water. Later, the emperor Diocletian (die-oh-klee-shun) ordered all of the Egyptian texts on the chemistry of gold and silver to be burned and for all expirements to stop.
Zosimus the Theban disvovered that sulfuric acid is a solvent of metals, and, using this, he removed oxygen from the red oxide of mercury, turning the oxidized mercury pure again, much like if you took rust off a nail, it would be a normal nail again. Alchemy’s fundemental concept came from an Aristotelian doctrine saying that all things tend to reach perfection at some point. Since other common metals were “less perfect” than gold and other precious metals, it made sense to these researchers that these metals would eventually turn to gold. Also it was thought that nature must make gold out of common metals deep within the earth, so with any luck, this process could be done in the lab with good result.
Eventually Alchemy reached Arabia, where the first book on Chemistry was written. From there it travelled through Spain, into Europe. Roger Bacon, and Albertus Magnus both believed that transmutation to gold was possible. Most people, including these two famous Alchemists, believed that gold was the perfect metal, and that if the philosipher’s stone was created, it would be a substance so much more perfect than gold, that it would make the less perfect metals transmute.
Roger Bacon believed that gold dissolved in Aqua Regia* was the elixer of life. The Italian Scholastic philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catalan churchman Raymond Lully, and the Benedictine monk Basil Valentine also did much to further the progress of chemistry and alchemy, in discovering the uses of antimony, the making of amalgams, and the isolation of spirits of wine, or ethyl alcohol.
Perhaps the most famous Alchemist was the Swiss Philippus Paracelsus. He believed that the elements of compound bodies were salt, sulfur and mercury, representing earth, air and water. Fire however was imponderable to him. He believed also, that there was one more element, the source of the four ancients. This one element that created everything was called Alkahest, and he stated that if it were found, it would prove to be the universal medicine, an irrisistable solvent, and the philosipher’s stone. In other words, it was the ultimate form of perfection.
After this, the alchemists of Europe split into two main groups. Those based on facts and hard research, and those who dabbled in the metaphysical, these entangled alchemy in fraud, necromancy, and imposture. This gives alchemy the current mysterious status.
Perhaps the most fun part of Alchemy is the coded engravings that were made during the time. Many of them are still around, and almost impossible to decifer without an explanation. Using obscure characters including the planets themselves as symbols for who-knows-what. Kings, queens, crows, multi-blossom flowers, and green lions abound.