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Alchemy: History of the Great Secret Part VI

Updated on February 1, 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.

Chemical Equation for Smelting Copper

2CuO + C ====> 2Cu + CO2

Chemical Equation for Making Ancient Glass

5SiO2 +CaCO3 + NaCO3 ====> Na2SiO3·CaSiO3·3SiO2 + 2CO2

Chapter Six - Alchemy and Chemistry

Alchemy was, first and foremost, a practical science. Although we often think of alchemy as the mystical science the renaissance alchemists practiced, it has its roots in the ancient times, in the science required to create pottery, tools, and ornaments. One cannot refer to the history of chemistry without discussing the history of alchemy; after all, they were the same practice until the mid-17th century.

Metallurgy is the oldest form of chemistry of which archaeologists have found evidence. Of course, some metals came into use long before others, a concept which is best known by the timeline of ages – this early period of metallurgy occurred in what is widely known as the Bronze Age. This is the time when techniques for smelting metals such as copper and tin were developed and widely used, and copper/tin ores were smelted to make bronze. There is no evidence of tin bronzes before 3000 BCE. Iron was in use in Egypt by 2000 BCE.

Although the ancients had no hard and fast knowledge of the elements or of the metals they were using, modern knowledge allows us to look into the chemical processes they were performing, like smelting copper.

Another early chemical development was the art of glassmaking, which can be traced back to 3500 BCE in Mesopotamia. The ancient Egyptians refined and developed this art, and their glassmaking process involved the fusing of sand and natron – a naturally occurring sodium carbonate.

Cubes made up the element of Earth.
Cubes made up the element of Earth.
Icosahedra made up the element water.
Icosahedra made up the element water.
Tetrahedra made up the element fire.
Tetrahedra made up the element fire.
Octahedra made up the element air.
Octahedra made up the element air.

Greek Sciences

Other aspects of modern chemistry, like matter theory, have roots in ancient Greece. The Pre-Socratic philosophers were interested in explaining the observable changes in matter around them. This is the first time that a distinction was made between the visible appearance of a substance or object and its internal or intrinsic qualities. Although these theories did begin as philosophic ideas and cannot really be called chemical in the modern sense, they did provide the basis and framework for the development of modern matter theory. Many of these philosophers believed in the concept of monism – the idea that all matter is made of the same substance at their most fundamental level.

Thales of Miletus, one of the earliest Pre-Socratics and supporters of monism, held that water was the universal substance that all matter was made of. Anaximenes, who came after Thales, believe that it was air. Although we now know their theories to have been incorrect, unfortunately we cannot reconstruct their systems or truly understand their hypotheses because of the limited surviving writings from the time.

Of course, there were other theories. Another common idea in Greek culture was the theory of pluralism – the opposite of monism in that it suggested that instead of just one primordial substance, there were several. The different amounts of these substances arranged in different ways produced the various types of matter around us. Perhaps the most important supporter of this theory was Empedocles, who believed that there were four primordial substances: fire, earth, air, and water. Originally they were referred to as the four “roots” of matter, but later came to be known as the four “elements” and are still referred to as such today in New Age and Chinese teaching. Empedocles also held that these “roots” combined and separated under the influence of what he termed “love” and “strife,” the opposing forces of the universe. Some experts believe that because three of the four “roots” (water, earth, and air) correspond with the modernly recognized states of matter (liquid, solid, and gas), it’s possible that the Pre-Socratic thinkers recognized this distinction; however, there is no evidence to definitively support this theory.

Leucippus and his pupil, Democritus of Abdera, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE, were the first supporters of the theory of atomism. This theory postulates that all matter is made of tiny, indivisible particles, called atoms (which gets its etymology from the Greek word atomos, which means “uncuttable”). The theory of atoms moving around in a void combined some of the other contradicting theories of the time. Under this theory, visible changes in matter occurred when atoms were rearranged, but these changes were believed to be superficial, as the atoms themselves – the smallest and most primordial substances – remained unchanged. The later philosopher Epicurus made this atomic system the base of his moral system wherein atomic movements and changes predetermined everything, even “free will,” similar to the theories observed in the Asian internal alchemy traditions.

The only all-encompassing viewpoint of the era was Plato’s view of creation. Although Plato was not interested in the nature of matter, he did adapt the atomism theory. Plato postulates that a divine but not omnipotent creator creates a single and uniform matter and forms it first into triangles, which are then put together into various polyhedral to represent the elements. This view of creation encompassed monism and pluralism, as well as the basic idea of atomism with a touch of Pythagorean geometry.

Plato’s most famous and influential student, Aristotle, had an entirely different view on his teacher’s matter theory. Aristotle repeatedly and emphatically rejected the concept of atomism. He argued that if atoms existed, they would either be mathematical points with no true dimension, so that no matter how many you put together they would never amount to any matter; or they had to have a very discrete size and could therefore not be truly undividable. Modern chemistry teaches us that Aristotle was right on this second point, because there are particles that are smaller than atoms that make up the structure of the atoms. However, the discovery of electrons, neutrons, and protons came long after Aristotle’s chemical theories[1].

In opposition to the atomism theory, Aristotle developed his theory of hylomorphism, which postulates that every object is made of a single type of matter upon which a form is imposed. The form is what contains all of the observable characteristics of the object, like shape and size and color. The changes in matter happen when one form is exchanged for another. Aristotle, despite his contrariness, did adopt the concept of the four elements, although he believed that they were all composed of the same primordial matter and that their form arises from the combination of states – hot, cold, wet, and dry.

Fire: hot and dry

Earth: cold and dry

Water: cold and wet

Air: hot and wet

This concept did help explain observable chemical phenomena, like the heating of water that results in steam – air.

In addition, Aristotle did keep to the idea of smallest parts. Despite his disbelief in atoms, he believed that there was a smallest size a particle of an object could be and still remain that substance. This concept had a huge influence on medieval alchemy and, much later, 17th century atomism.

Alexandrian alembic
Alexandrian alembic
The alchemical symbol for Caput Mortuum, supposed to resemble a skull, literally a "dead head"
The alchemical symbol for Caput Mortuum, supposed to resemble a skull, literally a "dead head"

Hellenistic Scientific Contributions

Although the above chemical theories are some of the most monumental contributions to modern day chemistry, they are not the only contributions the ancient alchemists made. Furnaces and other apparatuses, such as the alembic, were invented during the Hellenistic Egypt period[2]. Some of these apparatuses have been credited to one Maria the Jewess, who is largely believed to be a mythical figure. However, the person responsible for giving her credit was Zosimos of Panopolis, whose works are largely fragmentary now but do offer a great deal of insight to the world of chemical thought of the era. Why would a man in that time period in Egypt give credit for such inventions to a woman, let alone a Jewish woman[3]?

Maria the Jewess is mentioned in more than a few alchemical works, and she is not the only female alchemist to be mentioned. Zosimos of Panopolis quoted Maria several times in his own works, and is one of the alchemists to attribute to her the invention of the early alembic. His works can be dated to the 4th century. In the 8th century, a Byzantine named George Syncellus, mentions “Mary” as a teacher of the aforementioned Democritus, who is known to have lived in the 4th century BCE. In addition, Maria is named in the Kitab al-Fihrist as one of the fifty two most famous alchemists and as one who knew the preparation of what is known as the Caput Mortuum, the “dead head,” a useless substance left over from some operation or experiment. This term was also used to refer to a brownish-red metallic compound such as ferrous sulphate[4] or copper oxidule.

Maria was also known to Morienus, the Roman philosopher, who called her Mary the Prophetess, and to the Arabs, who called her the Daughter of Plato[5].

Another very notable development from Hellenistic Egypt is the movement from imitating gold and silver to the search for a process that would allow alchemists to create actual gold and silver from baser metals, a process which – as discussed in previous chapters – is known as transmutation. Alchemists of the time believed that they could create a substance that, when powdered and mixed with other metals, would turn those metals into gold. This substance was originally referred to as either xerion or xere, a medicine or powder, or the lithos ton philosophon, the Philosopher’s Stone. The search for this substance occupied laboratory alchemists for the next fifteen centuries.

Mercury and Sulfur make Cinnabar

Hg + S ====> HgS

Arabic Developments

The next chemical developments come down to us from Arabic alchemy. The Arabs received their knowledge of alchemical traditions around the 7th century, when Arabic armies explored and conquered in all directions. When the city of Alexandria was annexed into the Muslim world, all of the Greek and Egyptian knowledge was inherited by the Islamic world. Following this influx of information, Arabic works on alchemy began to appear rapidly. A great many of these works are attributed to authors who are better known as Geber and Rhazes: Jabir ibn-Hayyan and Abu Muhammad ibn-Zakariyya ar-Razi respectively. It is debatable whether Geber ever existed at all, as there are over two thousand works attributed to him, timed far enough apart that it seems improbable that they could have all been written by the same author.

Geber elaborates on Aristotle’s idea of hot, cold, wet and dry. He taught that everything in the world was made up of a mathematical, measurable mixture of these qualities, and that by using scientific processes to change that mixture, one substance could be changed into another. One of the Geberian works, the Kitab al-iadh – the Book of Purifications – introduces the Mercury-Sulfur theory. This theory postulates that Aristotle’s two exhalations[6] condense underground to create the two metals – or rather principles of metals – Mercury and Sulfur, which then combine to create metals. Different metals result from the combinations of different amounts and purities of mercury and sulfur. The idea was that the most pure and refined mercury and sulfur combined to make pure gold, while less pure mercury and sulfur resulted in baser metals.

Alchemists of the time knew that the mercury and sulfur referred to in the theory were only the names for the underground exhalations. They were well aware that if the actual substances mercury and sulfur were combined the result would be cinnabar.

Rhazes seems to have largely just compiled books of the knowledge the Arabs possessed on alchemy. His works contained recipes, classifications of substances, information about chemical apparatuses, descriptions of chemical techniques and processes, and more. The collections attributed to Rhazes continued to be viewed as the authoritative alchemical sources through the 17th century.

It is worth noting that not all of the Arabic alchemists believed transmutation to be possible. Ibn-Sina, for example, primarily wrote medical texts but made a few contributions to the field of alchemy. Although he adopted the Mercury-Sulfur theory, he argued that artificial and natural things are intrinsically different, and so natural gold could never be replicated artificially in a laboratory by the alchemists.

When Islam began to decline around the turn of the 12th century, there was a great translation movement, during which many of the Arabic and Greek alchemical texts were translated into Latin. In this way, alchemical knowledge made its way into Europe. It is worth noting that many of the Arabic treatises have been lost, and the entirety of what modern chemists and historians retain of their knowledge is what was translated into Latin, thus it is likely that some things were lost in translation.

Take freshly prepared caustic lime, and, if possible, still hot or warm. Powder it quickly in a dry place, and put it into a retort. Add as much absolute alcohol as the powder will absorb, and distil the alcohol at a moderate heat, until the powder in the retort is perfectly dry. The distilled alcohol is now to be poured again upon the lime, and distilled, and this operation is to be repeated ten times. Mix the powder with the fifth part of its weight of pure carbonate potassa.

— A Compendium of Alchemical Processes, 73-72

Treatises and the Alkahest

The first alchemical treatise to be translated into Latin was a work originally attributed to Morienus, translated by Robert of Ketton in 1144, titled De Compositione Alchemiae (On the Composition of Alchemy). There is evidence of the scattered existence of texts on the knowledge of metallic transmutation prior to this translation, but alchemy did not begin to truly develop in Europe until its publication, and by the 13th century, alchemical practices were well established in the Latin speaking world, and many works by Latin authors had appeared.

Some of the works that appeared around this time were attributed to the aforementioned “Geber,” but were more likely written by one Paul of Taranto. Although these works do draw upon earlier Arabic and Green texts, they also show great originality. His Summa Perfectionis (The Sum of Perfection) presents a new matter theory – based both on the Mercury-Sulfur theory an Aristotle’s theory of smallest parts. This is not an atomic theory because Geber’s smallest parts are not indivisible, but it is similar. Geber proposed that metals are produced from combining particles of mercury and sulfur, and that in different metals the particles are different sizes and are packed in different arrangements. His theories of how the particles were arranged and what size they were is based off the known weight differences between the various metals.

The theory of the universal solvent – a title frequently attributed to water in the world of chemistry today – is actually quite an ancient one. Alchemists dating back to Paracelsus (1493-1541) searched for what Paracelsus named the “Alkahest,” a substance that would have the ability to dissolve any matter on earth. In fact, although many alchemists of his time sought the alkahest element for its hypothetical medicinal uses, Paracelsus himself thought the element to be the philosopher’s stone itself[7]. Highly influential author and alchemist Eirenaeus Philalethes[8] theorized that the alkahest would indeed dissolve already composed matter down into its basic elemental parts, but that the alkahest could not dissolve other elements further. While the true identity of Philalethes is not known, we do know that men such as Isaac Newton and John Locke studied his works, dating his theories around or prior to the early 18th century. Although the theory of atomism had existed for many centuries already, science did not begin to develop true knowledge about atoms until later. Therefore one could surmise that Philalethes simply did not subscribe to the theory of atomism and thought that the alkahest could not break elements down further because they were already at their most basic and smallest parts.

Many writings referencing the alkahest have survived, and some even include recipes for how to make it.

Robert Boyle
Robert Boyle

The study of metals and minerals continued to be the focus of alchemy until the early modern period, when there was a revival in the interest in the transmutation of base metals and the search for the Philosopher’s Stone. These interests continued until about 1720, and throughout much of this time frame the words “alchemy” and “chemistry,” which have almost the same etymology, were synonymous. Indeed, notable scientists like Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton were both interested in and conducted experiments about the transmutation and creation of gold. Newton’s various experiments led to the development of modern- day physics principles. And, of course, Robert Boyle is known as the father of modern-day chemistry. The study of alchemy, as the route to eternal life and the creation of gold, continued beyond the 18th century; however it is then that all the alchemical knowledge and experimentation of the previous centuries culminated in the beginnings of modern chemistry.


  1. Electrons were discovered in 1897 by JJ Thomson and a team of physicists who conducted cathode ray experiments. Protons were discovered later, in 1918, by Ernest Rutherford, and neutrons were discovered in 1932 by James Chadwick when he conducted experiments to prove that radiation was composed of uncharged particles.
  2. The period after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and Egyptian culture and science was directly influenced by Greek scholars and resources.
  3. Author’s note: Although none of Maria the Jewess’ writings survived for examination today, she is quoted and mentioned in enough alchemical texts, which span many cultures and centuries, to reasonably believe she existed. The same could be true of her that is true of Ancient Greek history; there is quite a lot that was written that we have no hard evidence actually occurred, and yet we take it to be historical fact for all intents and purposes. Given the time period and the rarity of credit being given to a woman in a scholarly field, it’s not unreasonable to believe that Maria the Jewess, no matter how else she is referred to, may have in fact lived – most likely in the 4th or 5th century BCE.
  4. Iron sulfate – FeS04, also known as green vitriol
  5. In Western alchemical texts, “Daughter of Plato” was also a name used to refer to white sulfur.
  6. Aristotle’s theory suggested that all metals and minerals were created by the combination of two what he called “exhalations” which emanated from the center of the earth.
  7. Though this differs from the theory that the philosopher’s stone could transform baser materials into gold – the alkahest was believed to dissolve anything chemically, including gold.
  8. The true identity of Eirenaeus Philalethes is not known and has been a subject of much research among historians. Based upon the research that has been conducted to date, many of Philalethes works are credited to George Starkey, an American alchemist and medical practitioner in the mid-17th century.

© 2015 Elizabeth Skinner


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    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 3 years ago from Australia

      Considering the techniques available today, it's amazing how much the Ancient Greeks discovered in so many fields of science, or that their works, and those of the East, survived. An interesting hub, voted up