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What is Alchemy?

Updated on November 30, 2016

Alchemy is the word for the ancient art of trying to change metals such as mercury and lead into gold and silver. An old legend tells how, a thousand years ago, an alchemist was bending over a boiling pot filled with strange mixtures from which he hoped to make gold. When he looked up, he saw the Devil at the window. He rushed out, grabbed the Devil by the tail and pulled it off. This made the Devil roar loudly. Then the alchemist threw the tail into the magic pot and the mixture turned into gold. This story seems foolish now, but in ancient times men were so greedy for gold that they believed such tales.

Alchemy began about five or six thousand years ago in Egypt, where the priests knew how to get pure copper, tin, lead, silver and gold from the earth and rocks in which they were found. They also knew how to make glass and soap, dyes, stains, drugs and poisons, and could perform many other experiments. Alchemy was first brought to Europe by the Moslems who conquered Spain and who started universities at Toledo and Cordova which became very famous. In 1144 an Englishman, Robert of Chester, made the first translation of many of the old Arabic writings into Latin. These writings contained the knowledge of most of the Greek and Egyptian alchemists.

The Philosopher's Stone

In the middle ages people still believed that Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, had been right when he said that everything was made up of the four substances earth, air, fire and water. They thought that by changing the amounts of these substances in a metal another metal could be made out of it. Alchemists also believed in the "Philosopher's Stone" or "Elixir" which could turn ordinary metals into gold and, some said, cure all illnesses and make people live for ever. For hundreds of years alchemists searched for this stone so that they would be able to change "base" metals such as lead into the "noble" metal gold. Many were rascals and cheats but some, like Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus, were honest and nevertheless were said to have made wonderful discoveries in alchemy. Unfortunately, we cannot find out how it was done because their writings contain so many strange drawings and spells. There were some who claimed that they had discovered the Philosopher's Stone, but they did not live any longer than other men. In castles and dungeons strange men muttered magical words over boiling cauldrons in the hope of gaining large rewards for their work. Some of these alchemists tried to make gold from lead or mercury alone; others mixed mercury with sulphur, arsenic and sal-ammoniac for their experiments.

Today no one believes that anyone has ever made gold or discovered the Philosopher's Stone. Some of the cheats who said that they had discovered gold used lead in which a little gold had been dissolved; when the lead was burnt away, the gold was left. Others stirred melted lead with a hollow iron tube filled with wax in which was hidden some gold dust. False claims were also made by alchemists who managed to colour the outside of a metal yellow or who made yellowish mixtures of metals.

Many noble families employed alchemists to try to make them rich. Even Elizabeth I employed one to make gold for her at Somerset House in London and when he failed to do this he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Ferdinand III, Emperor of Austria, was hoodwinked for a time in 1648 by an alchemist named Richthausen who said that he had succeeded in changing lead into gold. Even as recently as 1929, a number of rich Germans gave thousands of pounds to a plumber who said that he had made gold. Of course he had not, and so the Germans lost all their money. These cheats, especially those who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries, made people think that alchemy was evil.

From Alchemy to Chemistry

The end of alchemy came when a Swiss physician and alchemist, Paracelsus (1490-1541), burnt the writings of earlier scholars in Basle in front of many people and told the alchemists to stop looking for gold and try to improve medicine. Robert Boyle (1627-1691), an Englishman, went even further and said that chemistry should be studied for its own sake.

Chemistry has been studied as a science for over 200 years and more discoveries have been made in that time than were made during all the centuries of alchemy. Even so, a lot of useful knowledge was discovered by alchemists and alchemy was really the forerunner of modern chemistry.


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    • brennawelker profile image

      brennawelker 6 years ago

      THanks for sharing this hub.

    • Rick Ogilvie profile image

      Rick Ogilvie 7 years ago

      The spiritual aspect of alchemical practices was kind of left out, maybe intentionally, but overall this was a nice overview of the history of alchemy from a sceintific standpoint, in my opinion.

      Overall, a brief, informative, and interesting read.