We may say that Alchemy is an ancient path of spiritual purification and transformation. Is the expansion of consciousness and the development of insight and intuition through images. Alchemy is steeped in mysticism and mystery. It presents to the initiate a system of eternal, dreamlike, esoteric symbols that have the power to alter consciousness and connect the human soul to the Divine.

Alchemy is part of the mystical and mystery traditions of both East and West. In the West, it dates to ancient Egypt, where adepts first developed it as an early form of chemistry and metallurgy. Egyptians alchemists used their art to make alloys, dyes, perfumes and cosmetic jewellery, and to embalm the dead.

The early Arabs made significant contributions to alchemy, such as by emphasizing the mysticism of numbers (quantities and lengths of time for processes). The Arabs also gave us the term ‘alchemy’, from the Arabic term ‘alchimia’, which loosely translated means ‘the Egyptian art’.

During medieval and Renaissance times, alchemy spread through the Western world, and was further developed by Kabbalists, Rosicrucians, astrologers and other occultists. It functioned on two levels: mundane and spiritual. On a mundane level, alchemists sought to find a physical process to convert base metals such as lead into gold. On a spiritual level, alchemists worked to purify themselves by eliminating the “base” material of the self and achieving the ‘gold’ of enlightenment.

Alchemy is a form of speculative thought that, among other aims, tried to transform base metals such as lead or copper into silver or gold and to discover a cure for disease and a way of extending life.

Alchemy was the name given in Latin Europe in the 12th century to an aspect of thought that corresponds to astrology, which is apparently an older tradition. Both represent attempts to discover the relationship of man to the cosmos and to exploit that relationship to his benefit. The first of these objectives may be called scientific, the second technological. Astrology is concerned with man’s relationship to “the stars” (including the members of the solar system); alchemy, with terrestrial nature. But the distinction is far from absolute, since both are interested in the influence of the stars on terrestrial events. Moreover, both have always been pursued in the belief that the processes human beings witness in heaven and on earth manifests the will of the Creator and, if correctly understood, will yield the key to the Creator’s intentions.

Nor is it really clear what alchemy was. The word is a European one, derived from Arabic, but the origin of the root word, chem, is uncertain. Words similar to it have been found in most ancient languages, with different meanings, but conceivably somehow related to alchemy. In fact, the Greeks, Chinese, and Indians usually referred to what Westerners call alchemy as “The Art,” or by terms denoting change or transmutation.

Chinese alchemy
Neither in China nor in the West can scholars approach with certitude the origins of alchemy, but the evidences in China appear to be slightly older. Indeed, Chinese alchemy was connected with an enterprise older than metallurgy--i.e., medicine. Belief in physical immortality among the Chinese seems to go back to the 8th century BC, and belief in the possibility of attaining it through drugs to the 4th century BC. The magical drug, namely the “elixir of life” (elixir is the European word), is mentioned about that time, and that most potent elixir, “drinkable gold,” which was a solution (usually imaginary) of this corrosion-resistant metal, as early as the 1st century BC--many centuries before it is heard of in the West.

Chinese alchemy followed its own path. Whereas the Western world, with its numerous religious promises of immortality, never seriously expected alchemy to fulfill that goal, the deficiencies of Chinese religions in respect to promises of immortality left that goal open to the alchemist. A serious reliance on medical elixirs that were in varying degrees poisonous led the alchemist into permanent exertions to moderate those poisons, either through variation of the ingredients or through chemical manipulations. The fact that immortality was so desirable and the alchemist correspondingly valued enabled the British historian of science Joseph Needham to tabulate a series of Chinese emperors who probably died of elixir poisoning. Ultimately a succession of royal deaths made alchemists and emperors alike more cautious, and Chinese alchemy vanished (probably as the Chinese adopted Buddhism, which offered other, less dangerous avenues to immortality), leaving its literary manifestations embedded in the Taoist canons.

Indian alchemy
The oldest Indian writings, the Vedas, contain the same hints of alchemy that are found in evidence from ancient China, namely vague references to a connection between gold and long life. Mercury, which was so vital to alchemy everywhere, is first mentioned in the 4th- to 3rd-century-BC Artha-sastra, about the same time it is encountered in China and in the West. Evidence of the idea of transmuting base metals to gold appears in 2nd- to 5th-century-AD Buddhist texts, about the same time as in the West. Since Alexander the Great had invaded India in 325 BC, leaving a Greek state (Gandhara) that long endured, the possibility exists that the Indians acquired the idea from the Greeks, but it could have been the other way around.

It is also possible that the alchemy of medicine and immortality came to India from China, or vice versa; in any case, gold making appears to have been a minor concern, and medicine the major concern, of both cultures. But the elixir of immortality was of little importance in India (which had other avenues to immortality). The Indian elixirs were mineral remedies for specific diseases or, at the most, to promote long life.

Hellenistic alchemy
Western alchemy may go back to the beginnings of the Hellenistic period (c. 300 BC-c. AD 300), although the earliest alchemist whom authorities have regarded as authentic is Zosimos of Panopolis (Egypt), who lived near the end of the period. He is one of about 40 authors represented in a compendium of alchemical writings that was probably put together in Byzantium (Constantinople) in the 7th or 8th century AD and that exists in manuscripts in Venice and Paris. Synesius, the latest author represented, lived in Byzantium in the 4th century. The earliest is the author designated Democritus but identified by scholars with Bolos of Mende, a Hellenized Egyptian who lived in the Nile Delta about 200 BC.

He is represented by a treatise called Physica et mystica ("Natural and Mystical Things"), a kind of recipe book for dyeing and colouring but principally for the making of gold and silver. The recipes are stated obscurely and are justified with references to the Greek theory of elements and to astrological theory. Most end with the phrase “One nature rejoices in another nature; one nature triumphs over another nature; one nature masters another nature,” which authorities variously trace to the Magi, the Zoroastrian priests, Stoic pantheism (a Greek philosophy concerned with nature), or to the 4th-century-BC Greek philosopher Aristotle. It was the first of a number of such aphorisms over which alchemists were to speculate for many centuries.

Arabic alchemy
Arabic alchemy is as mysterious as Greek in its origins, and the two seem to have been significantly different. The respect in which Physica et mystica was held by the Greek alchemists was bestowed by the Arabs on a different work, the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistos, the reputed Hellenistic author of various alchemical, occultic, and theological works. Beginning “That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above,” it is brief, theoretical, and astrological. Hermes “the thrice great” (Trismegistos) was a Greek version of the Egyptian god Thoth and the supposed founder of an astrological philosophy that is first noted in 150 BC. The Emerald Tablet, however, comes from a larger work called Book of the Secret of Creation, which exists in Latin and Arabic manuscripts and was thought by the Muslim alchemist ar-Razi to have been written during the reign of Caliph al-Ma’mun (AD 813-833), though it has been attributed to the 1st-century-AD pagan mystic Apollonius of Tyana.

Latin Alchemy
In the 12th century the Christian West began to shed its habit of indifference or hostility to the secular literature of ancient and alien civilizations. Christian scholars were particularly attracted to Muslim Spain and Sicily and there made translations from both Arabic and Greek works, many of which were in some degree familiar, but some of which, including the literature of alchemy, were new.

The Greek alchemy of the Venice-Paris manuscript had much less impact than the work of ar-Razi and other Arabs, which emerged among the voluminous translations made in Spain about 1150 by Gerard of Cremona. By 1250 alchemy was familiar enough to enable such encyclopaedists as Vincent of Beauvais to discuss it fairly intelligibly, and before 1300 the subject was under discussion by the English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon and the German philosopher, scientist, and theologian Albertus Magnus.

To learn about alchemy was to learn about chemistry, for Europe had no independent word to describe the science of matter. It had been touched upon in works concerned with other forms of change--e.g., the motion of projectiles, the aging of man, and similar Aristotelian concepts. On the practical side there were also artists’ recipe books; but for the first time in the works of Bacon and Albertus Magnus change was discussed in a truly chemical sense, with Bacon treating the newly translated alchemy as a general science of matter for which he had great hopes.

But the more familiar alchemy became, the more clearly it was understood that gold making was the almost exclusive objective of alchemy, and Europeans proved no more resistant to the lure of this objective than their Arabic predecessors. By 1350, alchemical tracts were pouring out of the scriptoria (monastic copying rooms), and the Europeans had even taken over the tradition of anonymity and false attribution.

By 1300 alchemists had begun the discovery of the mineral acids, a discovery that occupied about three centuries between the first evidence of the new strong water (aqua fortis--i.e., nitric acid) and the clear differentiation of the acids into three kinds: nitric, hydrochloric, and sulfuric. These three centuries saw prodigious efforts in European alchemy, for these spontaneously reactive and highly corrosive substances opened a whole new world of research. And yet, it was of little profit to chemistry, for the experiments were inhibited by the old objectives of separating the base metals into their “elements,” concocting elixirs, and other traditional procedures.

The “water of life” (aqua vitae; i.e., alcohol) was probably discovered a little earlier than nitric acid, and some physicians and a few alchemists turned to the elixir of life as an objective. John of Rupescissa, a Catalonian monk who wrote c. 1350, prescribed virtually the same elixirs for metal ennoblement and for the preservation of health. His successors multiplied elixirs, which lost their uniqueness and finally simply became new medicines, often for specific ailments. Medical chemistry may have been conceived under Islam, but it was born in Europe. It only awaited christening by its great publicist, Paracelsus (1493-1541), who was the sworn enemy of the malpractices of 16th-century medicine and a vigorous advocate of “folk” and “chemical” remedies. By the end of the 16th century, medicine was divided into warring camps of Paracelsians and anti-Paracelsians, and the alchemists began to move en masse into pharmacy.

Finally, the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who, following the earlier work of the Austrian psychologist Herbert Silberer, judged alchemical literature to be explicable in psychological terms, offered a new interpretation in the 1920s. Noticing the similarities between alchemical literature, particularly in its reliance on bizarre symbolic illustrations, and the dreams and fantasies of his patients, Jung viewed them as manifestations of a “collective unconscious”. Jung’s theory, still largely undeveloped, remains a challenge rather than an explanation.