1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Alchemy

ALCHEMY. In the narrow sense of the word, alchemy is the pretended art of making gold and silver, or transmuting the base metals into the noble ones. The idea of such transmutation probably arose among the Alexandrian Greeks in the early centuries of the Christian era; thence it passed to the Arabs, by whom it was transmitted to western Europe, and its realization was a leading aim of chemical workers down to the time of Paracelsus and even later. But “alchemy” was something more than a particularly vain and deluded manifestation of the thirst for gold, as it is sometimes represented; in its wider and truer significance it stands for the chemistry of the middle ages. The idea of transmutation, in the country of its origin, had a philosophical basis, and was linked up with the Greek theories of matter there current; thus, by supplying a central philosophical principle, it to some extent unified and focussed chemical effort, which previously, so far as it existed at all, had been expended on acquiring empirical acquaintance with a mass of disconnected technical processes. Alchemy in this sense is merely an early phase of the development of systematic chemistry; in Liebig’s words, it was “never at any time anything different from chemistry.”

Regarding the derivation of the word, there are two main views which agree in holding that it has an Arabic descent, the prefix al being the Arabic article. But according to one, the second part of the word comes from the Greek χυμεία, pouring, infusion, used in connexion with the study of the juices of plants, and thence extended to chemical manipulations in general; this derivation accounts for the old-fashioned spellings “chymist” and “chymistry.” The other view traces it to khem or khamé, hieroglyph khmi, which denotes black earth as opposed to barren sand, and occurs in Plutarch as χυμεία; on this derivation alchemy is explained as meaning the “Egyptian art.” The first occurrence of the word is said to be in a treatise of Julius Firmicus, an astrological writer of the 4th century, but the prefix al there must be the addition of a later copyist. Among the Alexandrian writers alchemy was designated as ἡ της χρυσού τε καί ἁργύρου ποιήσεως τέχνη θεία καί ἱερά or ἡ ἐπιοτήμη ἱερά. In English, Piers Plowman (1362) contains the phrase “experiments of alconomye,” with variants “alkenemye” and “alknamye.” The prefix al begins to be dropped about the middle of the 16th century.

Origins of Alchemy.—Numerous legends cluster round the origin of alchemy. According to one story, it was founded by the Egyptian god Hermes (Thoth), the reputed inventor of the arts and sciences, to whom, under the appellation Hermes Trismegistus, Tertullian refers as the master of those who occupy themselves with nature; after him later alchemists called their work the “hermetic art,” and the seal of Hermes, which they placed upon their vessels, is the origin of the common phrase “hermetically sealed.” Another legend, given by Zosimus of Panopolis, an alchemistical writer said to date from the 3rd century, asserts that the fallen angels taught the arts to the women they married (cf. Genesis vi. 2), their instruction being recorded in a book called Chemā. A similar story appears in the book of Enoch, and Tertullian has much to say about the wicked angels who revealed to men the knowledge of gold and silver, of lustrous stones, and of the power of herbs, and who introduced the arts of astrology and magic upon the earth. Again, the Arabic Kitáb-al-Fihrist, written by al-Nadím towards the end of the 10th century, says that the “people who practise alchemy, that is, who fabricate gold and silver from strange metals, state that the first to speak of the science of the work was Hermes the Wise, who was originally of Babylon, but who established himself in Egypt after the dispersion of the peoples from Babel.” Another legend, also to be found in Arabic sources, asserts that alchemy was revealed by God to Moses and Aaron. But there is some evidence that, in accordance with the strong and constant tradition among the alchemists, the idea of transmutation did originate in Egypt with the Greeks of Alexandria. In the Leiden museum there are a number of papyri which were found in a tomb at Thebes, written probably in the 3rd century A.D., though their matter is older. Some are in Greek and demotic, and one, of peculiar interest from the chemical point of view, gives a number of receipts, in Greek, for the manipulation of base metals to form alloys which stimulate gold and are intended to be used in the manufacture of imitation jewellery. Possibly this is one of the books about gold and silver of which Diocletian decreed the destruction about A.D. 290—an act which Gibbon styles the first authentic event in the history of alchemy (Decline and Fall, chap. xiii.). The author of these receipts is not under any delusion that he is transmuting metals; the MS. is merely a workshop manual in which are described processes in daily use for preparing metals for false jewellery, but it argues considerable knowledge of methods of making alloys and colouring metals. It has been suggested by M. P. E. Berthelot that the workers in these processes, which were a monopoly of the priestly caste and were kept strictly secret, though fully aware that their products were not truly gold, were in time led by their success in deceiving the public to deceive themselves also, and to come to believe that they actually had the power of making gold from substances which were not gold. Philosophical sanction and explanation of this belief was then found by bringing it into relation with the theory of the prima materia, which was identical in all bodies but recieved its actual form by the adjunction of qualities expressed by the Aristotelian elements—earth, air, fire and water. Some support for this view is gained from study of the alchemistical writings of the period. Thus, in the treatise known as Physica et Mystica and falsely ascribed to Democritus (such false attributions are a constant feature of the literature of alchemy), various receipts are given for colouring and gilding metals, but the conception of transmutation does not occur. This treatise was probably composed at a date not very different from that of the Leiden papyrus. Later, however, as in the Commentary on this work written by Synesius to Dioscorus, priest of Serapis at Alexandria, which probably dates from the end of the 4th century, a changed attitude becomes apparent; the more practical parts of the receipts alloys and colouring metals, described in the older treatise, are by a mystical interpretation represented as resulting in real transmutation.

But while there are thus some grounds for supposing that the idea of transmutation grew out of the practical receipts of Alexandrian Egypt, the alchemy which embraced it as a leading principle was also strongly affected by Eastern influences such as magic and astrology. The earliest Greek alchemistical writings abound with references to Oriental authorities and traditions. Thus the pseudo-Democritus, who was reputed the author of the Physica et Mystica, which itself concludes each of its receipts with a magical formula, was believed to have travelled in Chaldaea, and to have had as his master Ostanes[1] the Mede, a name mentioned several times in the Leiden papyrus, and often by early Christian writers such as Tertullian, St Cyprian and St Augustine. The practices of the Persian adepts also are appealed to in the writings of the pseudo-Democritus, Zosimus and Synesius. The philosopher’s egg, as a symbol of creation, is both Egyptian and Babylonian. In the Greek alchemists it appears as the symbol at once of the art and of the universe, enclosing within itself the four elements; and there is sometimes a play of words between τὸ ὄν and τὸ ᾠὀν. The conception of man, the microcosm, containing in himself all the parts of the universe or macrocosm, is also Babylonian, as again probably is the famous identification of the metals with the planets. Even in the Leiden papyrus the astronomical symbols for the sun and moon are used to denote gold and silver, and in the Meterologica of Olympiodorus lead is attributed to Saturn, iron to Mars, copper to Venus, tin to Hermes (Mercury) and electrum to Jupiter. Similar systems of symbols, but elaborated to include compounds, appear in Greek MSS. of the 10th century, preserved in the library of St Mark’s at Venice. Subsequently electrum (an alloy of gold and silver) disappeared as a specific metal, and tin was ascribed to Jupiter instead, the sign of mercury becoming common to the metal and the planet. Thus we read in Chaucer (Chanouns Yemannes Tale):—

The bodies sevene eek, lo! hem heer anoon:
Sol gold is, and Luna silver we threpe,
Mars yren, Mercurie quik-silver we clepe
Saturnus leed and Jupiter is tin,
And Venus coper, by my fader kin!

Literature of Alchemy.—A considerable body of Greek chemical writings is contained in MSS. belonging to the various great libraries of Europe, the oldest being that at St Mark’s, just mentioned. The contents of these MSS. are all of similar composition, and in Berthelot’s opinion represent a collection of treatises made at Constantinople in the 8th or 9th century. The treatises are nearly all anterior to the 7th century, and most appear to belong to the 3rd and 4th centuries; some are the work of authentic authors like Zosimus and Synesius, while of others, such as profess to be written by Moses, Democritus, Ostanes, &c., the authorship is clearly fictitious. Some of the same names and the same works can be identified in the lists of the Kitáb-al-Fihrist. But the Arabs did not acquire their knowledge of this literature at first hand. The earliest Hellenic culture in the East was Syrian, and the Arabs made their acquaintance with Greek chemistry, as with Greek philosophy, mathematics, medicine, &c., by the intermediary of Syriac translations. (See Arabian Philosophy and Syriac Literature.) Examples of such translations are preserved in MSS. at the British Museum, partly written in Syriac, partly in Arabic with Syriac characters. In Berthelot’s opinion, the Syriac portions represent a compilation of receipts and processes undertaken in the Syrian school of medicine at Bagdad under the Abbasids in the 9th or 10th century, and to a large extent constituted by the earlier translations made by Sergius of Resaena in the 6th century. They contain, under the title Doctrine of Democritus, a fairly methodical treatise in ten books comprising the Argyropoeia and Chrysopoeia of the pseudo-Democritus, with many receipts for colouring metals, making artificial precious stones, effecting the diplosis or doubling of metals, &c. They give illustrations of the apparatus employed, and their close relationship to the Greek is attested by the frequent occurrence of Greek words and the fact that the signs and symbols of the Greek alchemists appear almost unchanged. The other portion seems of somewhat later date. Another Syriac MS., in the library of Cambridge University, contains a translation of a work by Zosimus which is so far unknown in the original Greek. Berthelot gives reproductions of the British Museum MSS. in vol. ii. of La Chimie au moyen âge.

Several alchemistical treatises, written in Arabic, exist in manuscript in the National Library at Paris and in the library of the university of Leiden, and have been reproduced by Berthelot, with translations, in vol. iii. of La Chimie au moyen âge. They fall into two groups: those in one are largely composed of complications from Greek sources, while those in the other have rather the character of original compositions. Of the first group the most interesting and possibly the oldest is the Book of Crates; it is remarkable for containing some of the signs used for the metals by the Greek alchemists, and for giving figures of four pieces of apparatus which closely resemble those depicted in Greek MSS., the former being never, and the latter rarely, found in other Arabic MSS. Its concluding words suggest that its production was due to Khalid ben Yezid (died in 708), who was a pupil of the Syrian monk Marianus, and according to the Kitáb-al-Fihrist was the first Mussulman writer on alchemy. The second group consists of a number of treatises professing to be written by Jaber, celebrated in Latin alchemy as Geber (q.v.). Internal evidence suggests that they are not all from the same hand or of the same gate, but probably they are not earlier than the 9th nor later than the 12th century. The Arabic chroniclers record the names of many other writers on alchemy, among the most famous being Rhazes and Avicenna.

But the further development of alchemy took place in the West rather than in the East. With the spread of their empire to Spain the Arabs took with them their knowledge of Greek medicine and science, including alchemy, and thence it passed, strengthened by the infusion of a certain Jewish element, to the nations of western Europe, through the medium of Latin translations. The makings of these began about the 11th century, one of the earliest of the translators, Constantinus Africanus, wrote about 1075, and another, Gerard of Cremona, lived from 1114 to 1187. The Liber de compositione alchemiae, which professes to be by Morienus—perhaps the same as the Marianus who was the teacher of Khalid—was translated by Robertus Castrensis, who states that that he finished the work in 1182, and speaks as if he were making a revelation—“Quid sit alchemia nondum cognovit vestra Latinitas.” The earlier translations, such as the Turba Philosophorum and other works printed in collections like the Artis auriferae quam chemiam vocant (1572), Theatrum chemicum (1602), and J. J. Manget’s Bibliotheca chemica curiosa (1702), are confused productions, written in an allegorical style, but full of phrases and even pages taken literally from the Greek alchemists, and citing by name various authorities of Greek alchemy. They were followed by treatises of a different character, clearer in matter, more systematic in arrangement, and reflecting the methods of the scholastic logic; these are farther from the Greek tradition, for although they contain sufficient traces of their ultimate Greek ancestry, their authors do not know the Greeks as masters and cite no Greek names. So far as they are Latin versions of Arabico-Greek treatises, they must have been much remodelled in the course of translation; but there is reason to suppose that many of them, even when pretending to be translations, are really original compositions. It is curious that although we possess a certain number of works on alchemy written in Arabic, and also many Latin treatises that profess to be translated from Arabic, yet in no case is the existence known of both the Arabic and the Latin version. The Arabic works of Jaber, as contained in MSS. at Paris and Leiden, are quite dissimilar from the Latin works attributed to Geber, and show few if any traces of the positive chemical knowledge, as of nitric acid (aqua dissolutiva or fortis) or of the mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids known as aqua regis or regia, that appears in the latter. The treatises attributed to Geber, in fact, appear to be original works composed not earlier than the 13th century and fathered on Jaber in order to enhance their authority. If this view be accepted, an entirely new light is thrown on the achievements of the Arabs in the history of chemistry. Gibbon asserts that the Greeks were inattentive either to the use or to the abuse of chemistry (Decline and Fall, chap. xiii.), and gives to the Arabs the credit of the origin and improvement of the science (chap. iii.).[2] But the chemical knowledge attributed to the Arabs has been so attributed largely on the basis of the contents of the Latin Geber, regarded as a translation from the Arabic Jaber. If, then, those contents do not represent the knowledge of Jaber, and if the contents of other Latin translations which there is reason to believe are really made from the Arabic, show little, if any, advance on the knowledge of the Alexandrian Greeks, evidently the part played by the Arabs must be less, and that of the Westerns greater, than Gibbon is prepared to admit.

The descent of alchemistical doctrine can thus be traced with fair continuity for a thousand years, from the Greeks of Alexandria down to the time when Latin alchemy was firmly established in the West, and began to be written of by historical authors like Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon and Arnoldus Villanovanus in the 13th century. But side by side with this literary transmission Berthelot insists that there was another mode of transmission, by means of the knowledge of practical receipts and processes traditional among jewellers, painters, workers in glass and pottery, and other handicraftsmen. The chemical knowledge of Egyptian metallurgists and jewellers, he holds, was early transmitted to the artisans of Rome, and was preserved throughout the dark ages in the workshops of Italy and France until about the 13th century, when it was mingled with the theories of the Greek alchemists which reached the West by way of the Arabs. Receipts given in the Leiden papyrus reappear in the Compositiones ad Tingenda and the Mappae Clavicula, both workshop receipt books, one known in an 8th-century MS. at Lucca, and the other in a 10th-century MS. in the library of Schlettstadt; and again in such works as the De Artibus Romanorum of Eraclius and the Schedula Diversarum Artium of Theophilus, belonging to the 11th or 12th century.

Theory of Transmutation.—The fundamental theory of the transmutation of metals is to be found in the Greek alchemists, although in details it was modified and elaborated by the Arabs and the Latin alchemists. Regarding all substances as being composed of one primitive matter—the prima materia, and as owing their specific differences to the presence of different qualities imposed upon it, the alchemist hoped, by taking away these qualities, to obtain the prima materia itself, and then to get from it the particular substance he desired by the addition of the appropriate qualities. The prima materia was early identified with mercury, not ordinary mercury, but the “mercury of the philosophers,” which was the essence or soul of mercury, freed from the four Aristotelian elements—earth, air, fire and water—or rather from the qualities which they represent. Thus the operator had to remove from ordinary mercury, earth or an earthy principle or quality, and water or a liquid principle, and to fix it by taking away air or a volatile principle. The prima materia thus obtained had to be treated with sulphur (or with sulphur and arsenic) to confer upon it the desired qualities that were missing. This sulphur again was not ordinary sulphur, but some principle derived from it, which constituted the philosopher’s stone or elixir—white for silver and yellow or red for gold. This is briefly the doctrine that the metals are composed of mercury and sulphur, which persisted in one form or another down to the 17th century. Of course there were numerous variations and refinements. Thus in the Speculum Naturale of Vincent of Beauvais (c. 1250) it is said that there are four four spirits—mercury, sulphur, arsenic and sal ammoniac—and six bodies—gold, silver, copper, tin, lead and iron.[3] Of these bodies the two first are pure, the four last impure. Pure white mercury, fixed by the virtue of white non-corrosive sulphur, engenders in mines a matter which fusion changes into silver, and united to pure clear red sulphur it forms gold, while with various kinds of impure mercury and sulphur the other bodies are produced. Vincent attributes to Rhazes the statement that copper is potentially silver, and any one who can eliminate the red colour will bring it to the state of silver, for it is copper in outward appearance, but in its inmost nature silver. This statement represents a doctrine widely held in the 13th century, and also to be found in the Greek alchemists, that everything endowed with a particular apparent quality possesses a hidden opposite quality, which can be rendered apparent by fire. Later, as in the works attributed to Basil Valentine, sulphur, mercury and salt are held to be the constituents of the metals.

It must be noted that the processes described by the alchemists of the 13th century are not put forward as being miraculous or supernatural; they rather represent the methods employed by nature, which it is the end of the alchemist’s art to reproduce artificially in the laboratory. But even among the late Arabian alchemists it was doubted whether the resources of the art were adequate to the task; and in the West, Vincent of Beauvais remarks that success had not been achieved in making artificial metals identical with the natural ones. Thus he says that the silver which has been changed into gold by the projection of the red elixir is not rendered resistant to the agents which affect silver but not gold, and Albertus Magnus in his De Mineralibus—the De Alchemia attributed to him is spurious—states that alchemy cannot change species but merely imitates them—for instance, colours a metal white to make it resemble silver or yellow to give it the appearance of gold. He has, he adds, tested gold made by alchemists, and found that it will not withstand six or seven exposures to fire. But scepticism of this kind was not universal. Roger Bacon—or more probably some one who usurped his name—declared that with a certain amount of the philosopher’s stone he could transmute a million times as much base metal into gold, and on Raimon Lull was fathered the boast, “Mare tingerem si mercurius esset.” Numerous less distinguished adepts also practised the art, and sometimes were so successful in their deceptions that they gained the ear of kings, whose desire to profit by the achievements of science was in several instances rewarded by an abundant crop of counterfeit coins.

Later History of Alchemy.—In the earlier part of the 16th century Paracelsus gave a new direction to alchemy by declaring that its true object was not the making of gold but the preparation of medicines, and this union of chemistry with medicine was one characteristic of the iatrochemical school of which he was the precursor. Increasing attention was paid to the investigation of the properties of substances and of their effects on the human body, and chemistry profited by the fact that it passed into the hands of men who possessed the highest scientific culture of the time, Still, belief in the possibility of transmutation long remained orthodox, even among the most distinguished men of science. Thus it was accepted, at least academically, by Andreas Libavius (d. 1616); by F. de la Boë Sylvius (1614–1672), though not by his pupil Otto Tachenius, and by J. R. Glauber (1603–1668); by Robert Boyle (1627–1691) and, for a time at least, by Sir Isaac Newton and his rival and contemporary, G. W. Leibnitz (1646–1716); and by G. E. Stahl (1660–1734) and Hermann Boerhaave (1668–1738). Though an alchemist, Boyle, in his Sceptical Chemist (1661), cast doubts on the “experiments whereby vulgar Spagyrists are wont to endeavour to evince their salt, sulphur and mercury to be the true principles of things,” and advanced towards the conception of chemical elements as those constituents of matter which cannot be further decomposed. With J. J. Becher (1635–1682) and G. E. Stahl, however, there was a reversion to earlier ideas. The former substituted for the salt, sulphur and mercury of Basil Valentine and Paracelsus three earths—the mercurial, the vitreous and the combustible—and he explained combustion as depending on the escape of this last combustible element; while Stahl’s conception of pholgiston—not fire itself, but the principle of fire—by virtue of which combustible bodies burned, was a near relative of the mercury of the philosophers, the soul or essence of ordinary mercury.

Perhaps J. B. van Helmont (1577–1644) was the last distinguished investigator who professed actually to have changed mercury into gold, though impostors and mystics of various kinds continued to claim knowledge of the art long after his time. So late as 1782, James Price, an English physician, showed experiments with white and red powders, by the aid of which he was supposed to be able to transform fifty and sixty times as much mercury into silver and gold. The metals he produced are said to have proved genuine on assay; when, however, in the following year he was challenged to repeat the experiments he was unable to do so and committed suicide. In the course of the 19th century the idea that the different elements are constituted by different groupings or condensations of one primal matter—a speculation which, if proved to be well grounded, would imply the possibility of changing one element into another—found favour with more than one responsible chemist; but experimental research failed to yield any evidence that was generally regarded as offering any support to this hypothesis. About the beginning of the 20th century, however, the view was promulgated that the spontaneous production of helium from radium may be an instance of the transformation of one element into another. (See Radioactivity; also Element and Matter.)

See M. P. E. Berthelot, Les Origines de l’alchimie (1885); Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (text and translation, 3 vol., 1887–1888); Introduction à l'étude de la chimie des anciens et du moyen âge (1889); La chimie au moyen âge (text and translation of Syriac and Arabic treatises on alchemy, 3 vol., 1893). Much bibliographical and other information about the later writers on alchemy is contained in Bibliotheca Chemica (2 vol., Glasgow, 1906), a catalogue by John Ferguson of the books in the collection of James Young of Kelly (printed for private distribution). (H. M. R.) 

  1. An alchemistical work bearing the name of Ostanes speaks of a divine water which cures all maladies—an early appearance of the universal panacea or elixir of life.
  2. “Some traditionary knowledge might be secreted in the temples and monasteries of Egypt: much useful experience might have been acquired in the practice of arts and manufactures, but the science of chemistry owes its origin and improvement to the industry of the Saracens. They first invented and named the alembic for the purposes of distillation, analyzed the substances of the three kingdoms of nature, tried the distinction and affinities of alkalis and acids, and converted the poisonous minerals into soft salutary remedies. But the most eager search of Arabian chemistry was the transmutation of metals, and the elixir of immortal health: the reason and the fortunes of thousands were evaporated in the crucibles of alchemy, and the consummation of the great work was promoted by the worthy aid of mystery, fable and superstition.” It may be noted that the word “alembic” is derived from the Greek άμβιξ, “cup,” with the Arabic article prefixed and that the instrument is figured in the MSS. of some of the Greek alchemists.
  3. Cf. Chaucer, Chanouns Yemannes Tale, where, however, mercury figures both as a spirit and a body:—

    The firste spirit quik-silver called is,
    The second orpiment, the thridde ywis
    Sal armoniak, and the ferthe brimstoon.”