Historical Science & Technology, Pseudoscience

Alchemy: Science + Magic + Religion

When they hear the world “alchemy,” many people likely think of the vaguely science-esque practice of attempting to turn lead into gold. Others will recognize it as the vaguely magic-esque practice that produced the Philosopher’s Stone, a ticket to immortality. (These folks likely know it from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, a.k.a. The Sorcerer’s Stone in the US.) And, while neither of these generalities is wrong, necessarily, they’re not really right, either.

An Ancient Philosophical Tradition

Since its earliest days, alchemists have claimed that the practice is a means of acquiring exceptional powers, immortality among them. It is rooted equally in science (specifically chemistry), religion (specifically hermeticism), and magic. Today, alchemy is recognized as a kind of protoscience that helped contribute to the development of modern scientific disciplines and methods. Like these practices, alchemy was based on laboratory work, theory, and experimentation.

The objectives of alchemy are many and varied, but the “big three,” if you will, are:

  1. The transmutation of base metals (such as lead) into precious metals (most commonly gold, but also silver).
  2. The creation of a single universal remedy for all ailments and diseases, known as a “panacea,” which could prolong life (and youth) indefinitely.
  3. The discovery of a universal solvent (known as Alkahest) which is capable of dissolving any other substance in the world. Alkahest was sought for its potential medicinal uses.

The Philosopher’s Stone of alchemical lore is related to both #1 and #2; some claim it can turn lead into gold, while others say that it is the “Elixir of Life.”

Pictured: NOT an actual alchemist.

Pictured: NOT an actual alchemist, but certainly a favorable modern interpretation.

Historic Divisions

The three major divisions of alchemy can be traced back over four thousand years across three continents. It is impossible to know if they shared a common origin, or if they exerted influence upon each other in any way during their respective developments.

Chinese alchemy, which started in China specifically (obviously) and spread across western Asia, shares close connections with Taoism. Indian alchemy, practiced throughout the Indian subcontinent and known as rasāyana, meaning “path of essence,” is based on the Dharmic religions. Western alchemy, which originated in the Mediterranean region and eventually shifted to medieval Europe, was based on an independent philosophical system that was independent from, though influenced by, a number of Western religions.

The Decline of Alchemy

Slowly but steadily, modern science grew to displace alchemy. The terms “alchemy” and “chemistry” were used more or less interchangeable as late as the 17th Century. By the 18th, however, alchemy was thought of as little more than a charlatan’s practice of attempting to turn gold to lead.

From there, alchemy was largely forgotten, until it was revived as an “occult science” during the early 19th Century’s occult revival. This view of alchemy focused strictly on the spiritual interpretation of the practice, ignoring its scientific, theoretic, and experimental aspects. This version of alchemy continues to be the one most widely known to the modern layperson.

Photo credit: walknboston / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)