Alchemy

Alchemists at work. The idea of changing base metals into gold has had an enduring fascination down the ages.


THE DISCOVERY OF OXYGEN in the eighteenth century is largely believed to have led to the birth of chemistry as we know it. Before then, many races had examined the properties of different materials without ever forming a coherent theory to link their qualities; these ancient studies were known as alchemy or transmutation. Scientists had believed that as metals oxidised, so they gained an important addition. They thought the ultimate transmutation process would turn substances into gold or silver. Today, alchemy is largely considered to be this idea of creating gold. Modern chemistry has proven such a theory is completely impossible, but for thousands of years it was not always thought to be so.

Certainly, many of the greatest minds the world has ever seen believed in the possibility of making gold from base ingredients. In fact, it was such a widely held belief that King Henry IV of England actually encouraged all intelligent men in the country to study the subject so that the nation’s great debts could be paid. Similarly, in later years, many rulers supported alchemists and their experiments. Other races feared the repercussions of transmutation success, and in the second century BC China actually made the production of gold by alchemy an offence punishable by death. The Roman Emperor Diocletian even ordered the destruction of all Egyptian texts that advocated alchemical procedures. Diocletian and the Chinese authorities were wise to be wary, for the Ancient Egyptian and Oriental peoples were known to be the masters of alchemy. Mystical Eastern practices are still revered by some to this day, and the Egyptians are said to have spread their knowledge onto other races. The Arabic world was one of the recipients, and the seventh century King Khalid was said to be a master of the subject. Indeed, the word ‘alchemy’ is thought to have been derived from the Arabic for Egyptian art, ‘al-khem’.

In the following centuries it is said that the Sufi Islamic movement used alchemy as part of their religious beliefs. Certainly, alchemy has always had strong religious connections. Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas were both experts on the subject. Aquinas even wrote a text asking if it was ethically correct to pass off gold created by alchemy as real gold. Another holy man, the fourteenth century Pope John XXII, is credited with writing a major work on the subject, and also wrote a great text damning fraudulent alchemists. When he died in 1334, he left the Church 18 million florins of gold bullion, which no one had even realised he had acquired. Even Martin Luther is believed to have said alchemy was beneficial for affirming church doctrines, whilst the grandees of modern science, Boyle and Newton, were also sympathetic to alchemy.

Although modern chemistry has revealed that what the alchemists were aiming for is impossible, even today our knowledge grows in strange ways. The realm of unstable radioactive materials and the notion that the physical construction of subjects can be altered has opened new avenues of thought. Similarly, another goal of alchemy was to find the elixir of life that would cure all ills and make men young for eternity. Again, although modern science has dismissed alchemist’s methods, experiments in the fields of DNA and cloning have suggested that it is a notion not too far removed from reality. It was even an alchemist, Paracelsus who, in the sixteenth century, determined that illnesses were caused by foreign agents attacking the body.

Other off-shoots of this medical branch of alchemy are also held as valid by some people in our modern age: homeopathy and aromatherapy, for example, are direct descendants of old alchemy studies, and acupuncture and hypnosis are also connected. Some modern alchemists still believe, however, that illness is caused by an imbalance in the body, so much of the medical profession regard them as ‘quacks’. Similarly, the subject has been linked with many New Age ideas and theories which has not helped the public accept it as a genuine and serious area of interest. Many people continue to practise alchemy and maintain that it is a valid subject. Science tends to disagree, but our development and view of the world still owes a lot to this ancient art.

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