Alchemy

Kimiya-yi sa'ādat (The Alchemy of Happiness), a text on Islamic philosophy and alchemy by the Persian philosopher and mystic Al-Ghazālī (11th century)
Depiction of Ouroboros from the alchemical treatise Aurora consurgens (15th century), Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Switzerland

Alchemy (from Arabic: al-kīmiyā)[1] was an ancient branch of natural philosophy, a philosophical and protoscientific tradition[2] practised throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia,[2] originating in Greco-Roman Egypt in the first few centuries .[3]

Alchemists attempted to purify, mature, and perfect certain materials.[2][4][5][n 1] Common aims were chrysopoeia, the transmutation of "base metals" (e.g., lead) into "noble metals" (particularly gold);[2] the creation of an elixir of immortality;[2] the creation of panaceas able to cure any disease; and the development of an alkahest, a universal solvent.[6] The perfection of the human body and soul was thought to permit or result from the alchemical magnum opus[2] and, in the Hellenistic and Western mystery tradition, the achievement of gnosis.[5] In Europe, the creation of a philosopher's stone was variously connected with all of these projects.

In English, the term is often limited to descriptions of European alchemy, but similar practices existed in the Far East, the Indian subcontinent, and the Muslim world.[2] In Europe, following the 12th-century Renaissance[2] produced by the translation of Medieval Islamic works on science and the rediscovery of Aristotelian philosophy, alchemists played a significant role in early modern science[7] (particularly chemistry and medicine). Islamic and European alchemists developed a structure of basic laboratory techniques, theory, terminology, and experimental method, some of which are still in use today. However, they continued antiquity's belief in four elements and guarded their work in secrecy including cyphers and cryptic symbolism. Their work was guided by Hermetic principles related to magic, mythology, and religion.[8]

Modern discussions of alchemy are generally split into an examination of its exoteric practical applications and its esoteric spiritual aspects, despite the arguments of scholars like Holmyard[9] and von Franz[10] that they should be understood as complementary. The former is pursued by historians of the physical sciences who examine the subject in terms of early chemistry, medicine, and charlatanism, and the philosophical and religious contexts in which these events occurred. The latter interests historians of esotericism, psychologists, and some philosophers and spiritualists. The subject has also made an ongoing impact on literature and the arts. Despite this split, which von Franz believes has existed since the Western traditions' origin in a mix of Greek philosophy that was mixed with Egyptian and Mesopotamian technology,[10] numerous sources have stressed an integration of esoteric and exoteric approaches to alchemy as far back as Pseudo-Democritus's first-century AD On Physical and Mystical Matters (Greek: Physika kai Mystika).[11]

Although alchemy is popularly associated with magic, historian Lawrence M. Principe argues that recent historical research has revealed that medieval and early modern alchemy embraced a much more varied set of ideas, goals, techniques, and practices:

Most readers probably are aware of several common claims about alchemy—for example, ... that it is akin to magic, or that its practice then or now is essentially deceptive. These ideas about alchemy emerged during the eighteenth century or after. While each of them might have limited validity within a narrow context, none of them is an accurate depiction of alchemy in general."[12]

Etymology

The word alchemy comes from Old French alquemie, alkimie, used in Medieval Latin as alchymia. This name was itself brought from the Arabic word al-kīmiyā (الكيمياء‎ or الخيمياء‎) composed of two parts: the Late Greek term khēmeía (χημεία), khēmía (χημία), meaning 'to fuse or cast a metal',[13][14] and the Arabic definite article al- (الـ‎), meaning 'The'.[15] Together this association can be interpreted as 'the process of transmutation by which to fuse or reunite with the divine or original form'. Its roots can be traced to the Egyptian name kēme (hieroglyphic 𓆎𓅓𓏏𓊖 khmi ), meaning 'black earth' which refers to the fertile and auriferous soil of the Nile valley, as opposed to red desert sand.[15]

According to the Egyptologist Wallis Budge, the Arabic word al-kīmiyaʾ actually means "the Egyptian [science]", borrowing from the Coptic word for "Egypt", kēme (or its equivalent in the Mediaeval Bohairic dialect of Coptic, khēme). This Coptic word derives from Demotic kmỉ, itself from ancient Egyptian kmt. The ancient Egyptian word referred to both the country and the colour "black" (Egypt was the "Black Land", by contrast with the "Red Land", the surrounding desert); so this etymology could also explain the nickname "Egyptian black arts". However, according to Mahn, this theory may be an example of folk etymology.[15] Assuming an Egyptian origin, chemistry is defined as follows:

Chemistry, from the ancient Egyptian word "khēmia" meaning transmutation of earth, is the science of matter at the atomic to molecular scale, dealing primarily with collections of atoms, such as molecules, crystals, and metals.

Thus, according to Budge and others, chemistry derives from an Egyptian word khemein or khēmia, "preparation of black powder", ultimately derived from the name khem, Egypt. A decree of Diocletian, written about 300 AD in Greek, speaks against "the ancient writings of the Egyptians, which treat of the khēmia transmutation of gold and silver".[16]

The Medieval Latin form was influenced by Greek chymeia (χυμεία) meaning 'mixture' and referring to pharmaceutical chemistry.[17]