A Brief History of Alchemy

The beginnings of Alchemy remain obscure as it was traditionally a system of knowledge that was transmitted orally from generation to generation. The knowledge of refining gold for instance was kept secret by priest guilds in Egypt and Mesopotamia where access was by initiation. These processes became written down as language became codified and texts began to circulate outside closed institutions. Although later purges by invaders caused the destruction of the libraries such as Alexandria and the relentless cycles of religious repression, war and book burning have caused a great loss to archaeologists and researchers. In spite of this there are over a hundred thousand manuscripts on the subject that have survived. It is generally stated in these works however that without oral instruction it is almost impossible to understand these writings. Hence the age-old rationale of finding someone to learn from.

In spite of many spurious claims, the earliest recorded alchemical texts appeared circa 5th century BC in China, India and the later Graeco-Egyptian alchemy which collectively became known as the Hermetic tradition had a more direct influence on Europe through the Greek and Arabic cultures. The earliest recorded gold refining techniques came through Persian and Syrian Influences from 525 to 332 BC.
Each culture developed practical techniques for distillation, sublimation, purification, ‘hermetic’ sealing of vessels and metallurgical techniques for refining metals. One of the first recorded distillation and sublimation vessels was the kerotakis and the three armed still attributed to Maria the Jewess. This became part of the body of knowledge that eventually migrated with the Moslem and Jewish influence into Moorish Spain that ultimately led to the Renaissance beginning in the 14th century.

Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, also known as Paracelsus (c.1493-1541) placed more emphasis on experimental pharmacology and the reform of the medical profession and apothecaries. This lead to iatrochemistry and the use of pharmaceuticals that paved the way for modern medicinal products and also influenced physicians such as Samuel Hahnemann to formulate the principles of Homeopathy in 1796. The journeys to the Middle East and throughout Europe by seekers like Paracelsus resulted in practical benefits to the growing knowledge in Germany, England, France and Alchemical research became patronised by rulers such as Rudolf the Second of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperor (1552-1612).

Alchemy through this period became commonly referred to as the Mother of all the Arts and Sciences and was researched by secret societies such as the Rosicrucians who emerged in 1618, contributing to the Christianising trend of Alchemy that had been developing over the previous centuries. Alchemical ideas continued to have an influence on early scientists such as Isaac Newton (1642-1727) who spent several months each year sleeping in his laboratory to keep the furnaces stoked and conducting alchemical/metallurgical experiments and his colleague Robert Boyle, (1627-1691) an early proponent of the scientific method. Many were members of the Royal Society of London, of which Newton was the head. Successive generations however chose to distance themselves intellectually from the mystical aspects of Alchemy in order to pursue a rationalist scientific approach to conducting experiments. This gave rise to a new terminology, symbolism and increasing technical specialisation such as chemistry that has resulted in a separation of the study of the material world from the rest of human activity, and metaphysics, and the increasing compartmentalism and rivalry between the disciplines.

In spite of the separation of Alchemy and Science, it has not prevented the study of Alchemy by practical experimenters in the last hundred years. These include Fulcanelli, Archibald Cockren, the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961), Albert Riedel (1911-1984) founder of the Paracelsus College to mention only a few who continued to find value in Alchemical concepts and practices. Books continue to be written and groups are still actively trying to unravel and understand this ancient Art and the lives of those who pursued it.

Although the separation still exists today the cycle of Alchemy tells us that if one thing is separated into two it will eventually be re-united after sufficient 'purification', particularly from some of the the cultural and religious baggage it has picked up as impurities over millenia. In time this will create the necessery magnetic polarity of attraction to bring about the reunion; perhaps simply by the wealth of evidence that will reach a critical mass (the internet is contributing to this process after only a decade) whereby alchemy can no longer be ignored by science; after all, on the surface each is preoccupied by the same things; perfect health, longevity and the transmutation of matter; and so the cycle of history flows on. As the history of scientific discovery illustrates that which is outside and radical in one generation becomes part of the mainstream in the next. This principle of enantiodromia where everything turns into its opposite eventually, is implicit within any life-cycle.