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published: 7/2/14

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Alchemy



The basics of alchemy

alchemy
Joseph Wright painting

What is alchemy? Alchemy refers to the belief that through scientific efforts, like procedures and techniques used in a laboratory - combined with various practices related to sorcery, spirituality, and religion - that a type of supernatural power can be produced and harnessed by an individual for specific purposes. Alchemy was well-known in the Middle Ages.

What is the purpose of alchemy? People who attempt alchemy can have different motivations. Historically, the practice is most known for trying to turn base metals into gold. Practitioners have also tried to use alchemy to discover a way to live forever (see more about "the philosopher's stone" below), which is consistent with the underlying philosophical premise of the practice that the natural can turn into the supernatural.

What is alchemy's reputation today? It depends on who you ask. The scientific community reminds people that, although alchemists didn't reach their ultimate objectives and that their religious presuppositions can be called into question, their explorations and inventiveness in laboratory methodology provided insights that are still in use today in fields like chemistry. Others, citing the spiritual elements of alchemy, categorize it as an occult practice.




Alchemy in-depth: etymology, European history, and magic

Etymology

What does alchemy means? The etymology (i.e. the word history) of "alchemy" isn't clear. Many believe the word finds roots in the Greek word "chemis," which is where English gets word like "chemistry" and "chemical." A similar Greek word, "chumeia," which means "mixture," is also a possibility. Some suggest the word may have origins in Egypt, yet that doesn't mean its language of origin isn't still Greek because of the hellenization (i.e. the influence of Greek culture) that occurred in Northeast Africa during the time of Alexander the Great.

European history

gold bar
the world's largest gold bar

Was alchemy only practiced in Medieval Europe? No. A variety of people groups all around the world have practiced alchemy at different times and in different ways. Alchemists have practiced in China, some associated with Taoism; India, some associated with Hinduism; and practitioners have also been found in parts of the Muslim world. In the Western world, practitioners could be found in Greco-Roman religions, which are likely the alchemic traditions that eventually made their way to Europe. The relationship between these various cultural expressions of alchemy is mostly unknown.

What marked alchemy's presence and rise in Europe? In the 12th century, Robert of Chester finished his translation of the Arabic book, The Composition of Alchemy. While the practice was already being undertaken by a few Europeans, Robert's book introduced the subject to a wider audience.

Who was the first influential Christian to argue in favor of the practice? In the 13th century, Roger Bacon, a Roman Catholic Franciscan, attempted to establish a philosophical connection between alchemy and the study of Christian salvation, based on the notion of the natural turning into the supernatural. Bacon even urged Pope Clement IV to embrace the practice.

Did the Christian church come to embrace the practice? While some individual Christians did, the Church didn't. As alchemy became more known and practiced in Europe, many Christians expressed their disapproval, including Dante and Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century. In 1317, Pope John XXII issued an edict that prohibited alchemy. and in 1403, Henry IV of England forbade the practice as well. Nevertheless, some Christians saw in alchemy an illustration of the believer's resurrection, that is, transformation from natural to supernatural.

What was the philosopher's stone? The "philosopher's stone" was a theoretical tool, which had the ability of turning base metals into gold. This stone was considered the highest aim of the practice of alchemy. Attempts to create the philosopher's stone was called the Magnum Opus, meaning "Great Work."

What contributed to the decline of alchemy in Europe? The development of modern science, detached from religion and spirituality, served to erode the underlying beliefs of alchemy and caused significant reduction in the practice over time. It was, however, still practiced for centuries despite its waning popularity.

Alchemy and sorcery or magic

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Romans harvesting

To what degree should alchemy be considered "magic" or an occult practice? A common element to worldviews in the Middle Ages was that there was an underlying spiritual substance behind things that are in the world. For example, many believed there was "something" behind a farmer's crops; there was an essence that couldn't be detected through the senses. Magic, certain occult practices, as well as alchemy, all attempted to find and engage that underlying substance, even though each practitioner may have had different reasons for doing so.

To what degree should alchemy not be considered "magic" or an occult practice? Many approaches to magic (i.e. in the spiritual sense of the word) and the occult involve attempted engagement with personal spirits, some of whom are considered good and some of whom are considered bad or evil. While some who practiced alchemy were followers of different world religions, they weren't explicitly attempting to interact with their God or spirits, like angels and demons in Christianity, or jinn in Islam.

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