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Alchemy: History of the Great Secret Part V

Updated on January 31, 2015
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Elizabeth has been an EMT for a year, a writer for 10 years, and an artist all her life. She pulls inspiration from her favorite authors.

Chapter Five: European Alchemy

During the Renaissance, the words alchemy and chemistry were used synonymously, as there were not yet definite differences between alchemy, metallurgy, and the young science of chemistry. However, one disparity is that while chemistry was developing as a natural experimental science, alchemy was becoming more closely akin to occult practices.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa was a German alchemist who lived at the beginning of the 16th century. He studied theology and astrology in addition to alchemy, while being a writer and a professor at the University of Dole in Burgundy. Although Agrippa included the practices of earlier alchemists – like experimental science and numerology – in his research, he also added magical theory and as a result was denounced several times in his life as a heretic. Agrippa still claimed to be a Christian, and was never formally accused or charged.

Throughout his life and travels, Agrippa served as a legal consultant, especially where the legal problem was mainly theological. Like most alchemists, he also served as a physician and theologian – capable of the former because of his knowledge of chemicals and tinctures and the latter because of his religious and astrological studies. He began his work De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres in 1510 while studying under Johannes Trithemius, who suggested that Agrippa keep this work about early modern occult theory a secret between colleagues. As a result of this advice, Agrippa worked on the book for the next twenty years in secret before publishing.

Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus, was a Swedish physician and alchemist in the early to mid 16th century. In addition to being a physician, Paracelsus became a botanist and chemist in his search for more medicinal recipes. He is credited with giving the element zinc its name, originally calling it zincum. In his role as the first systematic botanist, Paracelsus rejected the occult practices of Agrippa and Flamel in favor of observation and careful experimentation.

Many have said of alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines.” Through his ideas that the body must have certain balances and that illnesses caused by imbalances could be cured by chemical mixtures led to alchemy becoming known as the Spagyric Art, a phrase coined by Paracelsus from the Greek words for “to separate” and “to join together.

— Paracelsus, The Transmutation of Metals; On Cements
John Dee's hieroglyph, expressing the unity of  creation. Note that the top half resembles the modern pagan symbol for the horned god.
John Dee's hieroglyph, expressing the unity of creation. Note that the top half resembles the modern pagan symbol for the horned god.

King James IV of Scotland kept an alchemist close in company, the clergyman John Damian. Damian’s attempts at medicine, flying, and alchemical research led to his advancement by the king, and, in turn, his criticism by the poet William Dunbar[1]. Damian ordered the construction of alchemical furnaces at Stirling Castle and the king’s castle Holyroodhouse so that he could attempt to create the fifth element, the “quinta essential.” In 1507, Damian attempted to fly from the battlements of Stirling Castle, and although unsuccessful, he was unharmed.

In England, alchemical history was focused largely on John Dee, the astrologer who was consultant to Queen Elizabeth I, even before she became queen. Dee studied various religious practices, including the Jewish Kabbalah, and attempted to learn the language of the angels. He was called upon frequently by the young Elizabeth Tudor to prophesize her future. Unfortunately, this led to his arrest in 1555 and trial for casting the Queen’s horoscope[2] and treason. After clearing his name, he was taken into the custody of Bishop Bonner, a clergyman employed by Mary Tudor during her reign to search out and put to death Jews, Protestants, and other heretics. Luckily, Dee again cleared his name and became an associate of Bonner, ensuring his safety throughout the rest of the Inquisition in England. When Elizabeth became queen, Dee used his knowledge of astrology to choose her coronation date, and became her advisor for all discovery voyages.

Through his study, Dee became something of an expert on the works of Roger Bacon, an English alchemist the century before, and was sufficiently interested in this study to write his own alchemical work, the Monas Hieroglyphica. It is a book detailing and defining a glyph of his own creation, which was his representation of the unity of all creation. Although we still know of this glyph today, historians’ limited knowledge of the oral traditions of Dee’s contemporaries makes interpreting his complicated and exhaustive work difficult.

John Dee
John Dee
Edward Kelley
Edward Kelley

May 22nd, Mistris Kelly received the sacrament, and to me and my wife gave her hand in charity; and we rushed not from her.

— John Dee, his diary

Dee and Kelley

An associate of John Dee who worked as a medium to help Dee speak to angels was Edward Kelley, who also claimed the alchemical ability to turn base metals into gold. Most of what we know of Kelley’s life is what was recorded in Dee’s almanacs and diaries. However, according to several accounts, Kelley was punished by being cropped at the ears for counterfeiting in Lancaster, after which he fled to Germany and was entertained at the court of Rudolf II[3]. Upon his return to England, Kelley sought out John Dee in 1582 and professed his ability to communicate with angels. He must have impressed Dee, and became his regular scryer.

A year after beginning work with Dee, Kelley came into possession of an alchemical text and a sum of a mysterious red powder. How he came to find these items is yet another subject on which the evidence disagrees. According to Kelley, he and an associate were led to find them through conference with a spiritual creature. According to Elias Ashmole, a student of alchemy who came later, Kelley found the items in Glastonbury Abbey, but this account has been contradicted by Dee in his carefully detailed diaries. Kelley reportedly believed that he could use the powder to create a mixture that would allow him to turn base metals into gold. Allegedly, the secret to the red powder was contained in the mysterious book.

Dee and Kelley traveled throughout Europe beginning with Dee’s acquaintance with the Polish Prince Albert in 1583. They failed to impress either Albert or Rudolf II in Prague, and lived a fairly nomadic life while continuing to attempt to discover the divine language of the angels. Eventually their attempts to contact angels and the dead caught some negative attention from the Catholic Church (the Papal bulls against alchemy were still in effect). Dee and Kelley attended a hearing with the Bishop of San Severo in 1587, where Dee successfully defended himself but Kelley succeeded only in infuriating the Bishop by speaking of the misconduct of the priests, which had been one of the major arguments in favor of the Church of England over the Catholic faith. Around this time, Kelley appeared to have been attempting to sever himself from Dee’s research. According to Dee’s diaries, Kelley claimed that the angels had ordered them to share everything, including their wives. Dee did indeed honor this order, and - hilariously - Dee’s wife gave birth to a son nine months after the sharing occurred, and history still does not know if the child was Dee’s or Kelley’s, although he was raised in Dee’s household.

In 1588, the papal bulls against alchemical practices were revoked, and the following year Dee returned to England and Kelley got his wish – he remained behind in Europe and rejoined the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in Prague. Toward the end of the 16th century, Kelley was imprisoned by the emperor, who feared that Kelley would succumb to Queen Elizabeth’s wishes and return to England before divulging his alchemical secrets. Kelley went in and out of imprisonment as he promised to produce gold for the emperor and again and again failed. Kelley died in imprisonment, and his works have collectively been translated to The Alchemical Writings of Edward Kelley.

Decline Towards Modern Science

During the late 16th and early 17th centuries, lesser known alchemists also made their few contributions. Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was interested mainly in astrology and astronomy, but built an alchemical laboratory at his larger research institute at Uraniborg. Unfortunately, the research site was destroyed after his death, as he had fallen out with the Danish King. Michael Sendivogius (1566-1636) was a polish alchemist as well a physician and pioneer of chemistry. According to some accounts, which cannot be proven, he distilled oxygen in his lab at the beginning of the 17th century, and called the resulting gas the elixir of life. It is thought that he taught his method to Cornelius Drebbel, who applied the method in a submarine in 1621.

Toward the end of the 17th century, and into the 18th century, Isaac Newton not only pursued scientific studies which led to major developments in that field, but took a personal interest in occult studies and the wisdom of the ancients. Most of his occult study focused on the subject of alchemy. Unfortunately, a fire in Newton’s laboratory destroyed much of his writing and work, so there may have been much more to his alchemical study than is currently known. According to the writings that historians have had access to, the main focus of Newton’s alchemical study was, not the creation of gold, but the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone and the elixir of life. He believed that the growth of silver from a solution into what he called a Diana’s Tree was proof that metals possessed some sort of life force. The goddess Diana was used among alchemists as a representation of silver. To create such a “tree,” mercury was added to a solution of silver nitrate, which reacted to create the tree-like growth, including fruit-like forms among the branches.

an example of a Diana's Tree "grown up over copper rod from silver/mercury amalgam placed in 0.1 M solution of silver nitrate - reaction time 2 hrs."
an example of a Diana's Tree "grown up over copper rod from silver/mercury amalgam placed in 0.1 M solution of silver nitrate - reaction time 2 hrs."

The last alchemist worth noting before the decline of western alchemy is Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), who studied the traditions of Roger Bacon. Throughout the 1650’s, after marrying into estates and money, Ashmole dedicated a great amount of time and energy to his alchemical pursuits, and published his Fasciculus Chemicus under an anagram for his own name, James Hasolle. It was an English translation of two Latin works, one of which was originally by Arthur Dee, the son of the alchemist John Dee. However, Ashmole’s most important and influential alchemical work is his Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, his annotated collection of alchemical verses translated into English. His last alchemical work was published in 1658, and was entitled The Way to Bliss. As Ashmole never identified himself as a practicing alchemist, but instead claimed to simply be a collector and student. This became apparent after the publication of his last work, when he turned his attention to other interests and abandoned the alchemical field.

Studies of alchemy continued through various channels into the 18th century, but for the most part alchemy as it was once known reached its end at the close of the 17th century. The Paracelsian traditions led into the development of modern medicine, and the traditions and beliefs of John Dee lent their ideas to occult studies and religions. Alchemy, as the search for the transmutation of metals and the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, disappeared into subcultures like freemasonry and its subtle inclusions in religious practices, but ceased to be practiced as its own scientific study.


  1. The poet who comically described Damian’s career. In summary, it says that Damian pretended to be a doctor in France before coming to Scotland and failing to make the quintessence alchemically, and then tried to fly to Turkey by was attacked by birds who plucked his wings.
  2. Mary Tudor was queen at this time, and was obsessed with marrying Phillip of Spain and producing an heir in order to keep her protestant younger sister from the throne.
  3. Holy Roman Emperor who reputedly supported and sponsored many alchemists in Prague, and by some accounts all but imprisoned Kelley in attempt to create gold and search for the elixir of life.

© 2015 Elizabeth Skinner


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    • Leland Johnson profile image

      Leland Johnson 

      3 years ago from Midland MI

      Well written hub- actually drove me to a dictionary! It's remarkable that they didn't require more evidence for their findings back in the day. I'll be back to check out the video you included-dont have time right now. Great job!

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Very interesting and informative Hub, Elizabeth.


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