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Alchemy Analysis Many writers have interpreted alchemy in a restricted sense, as the pretended art of transmuting the so-called base metals into the noble metals, silver and gold. In a wider sense, alchemy is considered to be the chemistry of the Middle Ages. Alchemy has never at any time been anything different from chemistry (Sivin 34). It is utterly unjust to confound it, as is generally done, with the gold-making of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Alchemy is viewed as a science, and includes all those processes in which chemistry is technically applied. In its broadest aspect, alchemy appears as a system of philosophy, which claims to penetrate the mystery of life as well as the formation of inanimate substances. A modern writer on this wider alchemy voices some of its claims in the following language: Hermetism, or its synonym Alchemy, is in its primary intention and office the philosophic and exact science of the regeneration of the human soul from its present sense-immersed state into the perfection and nobility of that divine condition in which it was originally created (Dawkins 45). Secondarily and incidentally, it carries with it a knowledge of the way in which the life-essence of Alchemy and Philosophical Stone belonging to the subhuman kingdoms can, correspondingly, be intensified and raised to a nobler form than that in which it exists in its present natural state. A modern exponent of alchemy states: “The operation of the Philosopher’s Stone does not belong to the realm of pure chemistry. The method described with so remarkable a unity of doctrine excludes any idea of research or tentative procedure, and is incompatible with the abundant experimentation involved in modern chemistry, both organic and inorganic” (Needham 56). In this method one sees the working of an eagerness, an inspiration, and a fertilizing and generative element showing that the alchemists had surprised some secret of cellular life which, carried into the metallurgic field, produced effects unknown now.
A distinction is often drawn in alchemical writings between an esoteric alchemy, whose hidden secrets were revealed only to chosen adepts, and an exoteric pseudo-alchemy, which is depicted as the uninstructed craft of mercenary gold- seekers, or puffers. All modern pronouncements on alchemy are necessarily the opinions of experts, for in the twenty first century the ‘Divine Art’ has lost the wide appeal which it possessed three hundred years ago. Today, the man in-the-street, so far as he is cognizant of alchemy at all, pictures it merely as a collection of old wives’ tales arising from those crazy cauldrons which he regards as indispensable stage-properties of the comic relief of the Middle Ages. Faced with the diversity of opinion, one may well ask: What, then, was alchemy? How did it arise? What were the ideas which influenced the alchemists? What was the driving force which actuated them? What did they accomplish? In order to find answers to such questions as these, let us try to assimilate something of the alchemistic inheritance, environment, and point of view. There is ample evidence that the Egyptians were remarkably skilled in various arts based upon chemical knowledge, such as metallurgy, enamelling, glass-tinting, the extraction of plant oils, and dyeing (Eliade 23-25). For such reasons, Egypt, or Khem, the country of dark soil, the Hebrew ‘Land of Ham’, has often been pictured as the motherland of chemistry; so that later this art of the dark country became known to Islam as al Khem, and through Islam to the Western world as alchemy. The reputed Egyptian origin of alchemy is encouraged throughout the vast body of mediaeval alchemical literature by constant references to Hermes Trismegistos, or Hermes the Thrice-Great, the alleged father of the Hermetic Art and the patron of its practitioners, the self-styled sons of Hermes.
Hermes is regarded as the Greek equivalent of the ibis-headed moon-god, Thoth, who, in turn, has sometimes been identified with the deified Athothis of 3400 B.C., or with Imhotep, both of whom excelled in the art of healing. Thoth is perceived the Egyptian god of healing, of intelligence, and of letters: in the last capacity, his Greek equivalent, Hermes, may perhaps be excused for the 36,000 original writings which he was said to have contributed to alchemical literature (Eliade 78). Of these, the best known is the so-called Emerald Table of Hermes, consisting of a sequence of sentences or precepts, which are frequently quoted in alchemical writings. In recent years Egypt has found a rival in China, as the possible original home of alchemy. Alchemical ideas appear to have arisen in China as early as the fifth century B.C., and alchemy is said to have been actively pursued in that country from 300 B.C. onwards (Sivin 41). Chinese alchemy is closely bound up with Taoism, a system of philosophy and religion, which was based partly on the teachings of Lao-Tsu of the sixth century B.C. and given form and direction by Chang Tao-ling in the second century A.D. The ultimate origin of alchemy is thus a vexed question: the claims of the Orient have been strengthened by the researches of the twentieth century, and in any case it appears that China possesses, in the Ts’an T'ung Ch’i of Wei Po-yang, the earliest known treatise, which is devoted entirely to alchemy (Needham 132). The history of science contains no parallel to the quest of the Philosopher’s Stone; it contains nothing else so impressive or romantic. The achievement of the Stone is viewed as the great and final goal of alchemy. In its fullest aspect, the quest is dominated by a singularly noble ideal, for it has been imperfect man’s search after perfection. To most of its seekers, however, the Grand Magisterium and Elixir was merely a magic source of wealth, health, and long life (Wolf 88).
“Gold”, says Goethe, “gives power; without health there is no enjoyment, and longevity here takes the place of immortality” (Dawkins 144). With such considerations in mind, and inspired by their vivid faith in the miraculous virtues of the imaginary Stone, generation after generation of alchemists, during an epoch of more than a thousand years, is shown to devote their lives and treasures to the pursuit of the greatest puzzles, which the world has ever known. These ardent laborers in the fire press forward in an unceasing stream, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, to maintain an un-wearying assault upon the Alchemical Citadel; but their struggles meet with no reward during the long age of alchemy (Budge and Wallis 90-92). The most lively imagination is not capable of devising a thought, which could have acted more powerfully and constantly on the minds and faculties of men, than that very idea of the Philosopher’s Stone. Without this idea, chemistry would not now stand in its present perfection. In order to know that the Philosopher’s Stone does not really exist, it is indispensable that every substance accessible should be observed and examined. But it is precisely in this that individuals perceive the almost miraculous influence of the idea. The strength of opinion is shown not broken till science had reached a certain stage of development (Wolf 72). The fundamental idea of the Philosopher’s Stone is expressed by Rolls and Robertson in the following terms: “That there abides in nature a certain pure matter, which, being discovered and brought by art to perfection, converts to itself proportionally all imperfect bodies that it touches” (44). This idea, in one form or another, is considered to be undoubtedly the main source of inspiration of alchemists of all kinds, from the most exalted adept to the meanest puffer.
The possibility of transmutation is seen as a logical consequence of alchemical theory. Quite apart from theoretical considerations, however, the alchemists regard transmutation as a self-evident truth. In their eyes, such processes can be proved experimentally in many ways, as well as being justified on theoretical grounds. For example, the mineral galena (lead sulphide) possesses the colour and lustre of lead, but it is neither malleable nor fusible like lead. When it is heated, however, it disengages sulphureous fumes, acquires the missing properties, and is transformed into lead.