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ALCHEMY

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Originally appearing in Volume V01, Page 520 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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ALCHEMY. In the narrow sense of the word, alchemy is the pretended art of making gold' and silver, or transmuting the base metals into the noble ones. The idea of such trans-mutation probably arose among the Alexandrian Greeks in the early centuries of the Christian era; thence it passed to the Arabs, by whom it was transmitted to western Europe, and its realization was a leading aim of chemical workers down to the time of Paracelsus and even later. But "alchemy" was some-thing more than a particularly vain and deluded manifestation of the thirst for gold, as is sometimes represented; in its wider and truer significance it stands for the chemistry of the middle ages. The idea of transmutation, in the country of its origin, had a philosophical basis, and was linked up with the Greek theories of matter there current; thus, by supplying a central philosophical principle, it to some extent unified and focussed chemical effort, which previously, so far as it existed at all, had been expended on acquiring empirical acquaintance with a mass of disconnected technical processes. Alchemy in this sense is merely an early phase of the development of systematic chemistry; in Liebig's words, it was " never at any time anything different from chemistry." Regarding the derivation of the word, there are two main views which agree in holding that it has an Arabic descent, the prefix al being the Arabic article. But according to one, the second part of the word comes from the Greek Xvµeia, pouring, infusion, used in connexion with the study of the juices of plants, and thence extended to chemical manipulations in general; this derivation accounts for the old-fashioned spellings " chymist " and " chymistry." The other view traces it to khem or khame, hieroglyph khmi, which denotes black earth as opposed to barren sand, and occurs in Plutarch as Xvµeia; on this derivation alchemy is explained as meaning the " Egyptian art." The first occurrence of the word is said to be in a treatise of Julius Firmicus, an astrological writer of the 4th century, but the prefix al there must be the addition of a later copyist. Among the Alexandrian writers alchemy was designated as rjs Xpvo-oui re Kai ap'yipov 9rotilo-ewr TEXV11 Oda Kai iepa or it Eortarfiµrl iepa. In English, Piers Plowman (1362) contains the phrase " experimentis of alconomye," with variants" alkenemye " and " alknamye." The prefix al begins to be dropped about the middle of the 16th century. Origins of Alchemy.—Numerous legends cluster round the origin of alchemy. According to one story, it was founded by the Egyptian god Hermes (Thoth), the reputed inventor of the arts and sciences, to whom, under the appellation Hermes Trismegistus, Tertullian refers as the master of those who occupy themselves with nature; after him later alchemists called their work the " hermetic art," and the seal of Hermes, which they placed upon their vessels, is the origin of the common phrase hermetically sealed." Another legend, given by Zosimus of Panopolis, an alchemistical writer said to date from the 3rd century, asserts that the fallen angels taught the arts to the women they married (cf. Genesis vi. 2), their instruction being recorded in a book called Chema. A similar story appears in the Book of Enoch, and Tertullian has much to say about the wicked angels who revealed to men the knowledge of gold and silver, of lustrous stones, and of the power of herbs, and who introduced the arts of astrology and magic upon the earth. Again, the Arabic Kitdb-al-Fihrist, written by al-Nadim towards the end of the Loth century, says that the " people who practise alchemy, that is, who fabricate gold and silver from strange metals, state that the first to speak of the science of the work was Hermes the Wise, who was originally of Babylon, but who established him-self in Egypt after the dispersion of the peoples from Babel." Another legend, also to be found in Arabic sources, asserts that alchemy was revealed by God to Moses and Aaron. But there is some evidence that, in accordance with the strong and constant tradition among the alchemists, the idea of transmutation did originate in Egypt with the Greeks of Alexandria. In the Leiden museum there are a number of papyri which were found in a tomb at Thebes, written probably in the 3rd century A.D., though their matter is older. Some are in Greek and demotic, and one, of peculiar interest from the chemical point of view, gives a number of receipts, in Greek, for the manipulation of base metals to form alloys which simulate gold and are intended to be used in the manufacture of imitation jewellery. Possibly this is one of the books about gold and silver of which Diocletian decreed the destruction about A.D. 29o—an act which Gibbon styles the first authentic event in the history of alchemy (Decline and Fall, chap. xiii.). The author of these receipts is not under any delusion that he is transmuting metals; the MS. is merely a workshop manual in which are described processes in daily use for preparing metals for false jewellery, but it argues considerable knowledge of methods of making alloys and colouring metals. It has been suggested by M. P. E. Berthelot that the workers in these processes, which were a monopoly of the priestly caste and were kept strictly secret, though fully aware that their products were not truly gold, were in time led by their success in deceiving the public to deceive themselves also, and to come to believe that they actually had the power of making gold from substances which were not gold. Philosophical sanction and explanation of this belief was then found by bringing it into relation with the theory of the prima materia, which was identical in all bodies but received its actual form by the adjunction of qualities expressed by the Aristotelian elements—earth, air, fire and water. Some support for this view is gained from study of the alchemistical writings of the period. Thus, in the treatise known as Physica et Mystica and falsely ascribed t'o Democritus (such false attributions are a constant feature of the literature of alchemy), various receipts are given for colouring and gilding metals, but the conception of transmutation does not occur. This treatise was probably composed at a date not very different from that of the Leiden papyrus. Later, however, as in the Commentary on this work written by Synesius to Dioscorus, priest of Serapis at Alexandria, which probably dates from the end of the 4th century, a changed attitude becomes apparent; the more practical parts of the receipts are obscured or omitted, and the processes for preparing alloys and colouring metals, described in the older treatise, are by a mystical interpretation represented as resulting in real transmutation. But while there are thus some grounds for supposing that the idea of transmutation grew out of the practical receipts .of Alexandrian Egypt, the alchemy which embraced it as a ,lead- , ing principle was also strongly affected by Eastern influences such as magic and astrology. The earliest Greek alchemistical writings abound with references to Oriental authorities and traditions. Thus the pseudo-Democritus, who was reputed the author of the Physica et Mystica, which itself concludes each of its receipts with a magical formula, was believed to have travelled in Chaldaea, and to have had as his master Ostanes' the Mede, a name mentioned several times in the Leiden papyrus, and often by early Christian writers such as Tertullian, St Cyprian and St Augustine. The practices of the Persian adepts also are appealed to in the writings of the pseudo-Democritus, Zosimus and Synesius. The philosopher's egg, as a symbol of creation, is both Egyptian and Babylonian. In the Greek alchemists it appears as the symbol at once of the art and of the universe, enclosing within itself the four elements; and there is sometimes a play of words between To ov and re cibv. The conception of man, the microcosm, containing in himself all the parts of the universe or macrocosm, is also Babylonian, as again probably is the famous identification of the metals with the planets. Even in the Leiden papyrus the astronomical symbols for the sun and moon are used to denote gold and silver, and in. the Meteorologica of Olympiodorus lead is attributed to Saturn, iron to Mars, copper to Venus, tin to Hermes (Mercury) and electrum to Jupiter. Similar systems of symbols, but elaborated to include compounds; appear in Greek MSS. of. the loth century,, preserved in the library of St Mark's at Venice. Subsequently electrum (an alloy of gold and silver) disappeared as a specific metal, and tin was ascribed to Jupiter instead, the sign of mercury becoming common to the metal and the planet. Thus we read in Chaucer (Chanouns Yemannes Tale) The bodies sevene eek, lo! hem heer anoon: Sol gold is, and Luna silver we threpe, Mars yren, Mercurie quik-silver we clepe, Saturnus leed and Jupiter is tin, And Venus coper, by my fader kin! Literature of Alchemy.— A considerable body of Greek chemical writings is contained in MSS. belonging to the various great libraries of Europe, the oldest being that at St Mark's, just mentioned. The contents of these MSS. are all of similar composition, and in Berthelot's opinion represent a collection of treatises made at Constantinople in the 8th or 9th century. The treatises are nearly all anterior to the 7th century, and most appear to belong to the 3rd and 4th centuries; some are the work of authentic authors like Zosimus and Synesius, while of others, such as profess to be written by Moses, Democritus, Ostanes, &c., the authorship is clearly fictitious. Some of the same names and the same works can be identified in the lists of, the Kitdb-sl-Fihrist. But the Arabs did not acquire their knowledge of this literature at first hand. The earliest Hellenic culture in the East was Syrian, and the Arabs made their first acquaintance with Greek chemistry, as with Greek philosophy, mathematics, medicine, &c., by the intermediary of Syriac translations. (See
End of Article: ALCHEMY
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