A Relevant Imaginative Practice
|By Tawni Miller|
Sunday, March 24, 2013
“Alchemy may be compared to the man who told his sons that he had left them gold in his vineyard: where they, by digging, found no gold, but by turning up the mold about the roots of the vines, produced a plentiful vintage.” Roger Bacon (d.1292) wrote these words in defense of the science he himself practiced. Bacon is well known for his philosophy but few mention his interest in Alchemy, which since the development of its successor, Chemistry, has been subjected to relentless criticism for its impractical goals. The truth is, Alchemy resulted in many scientific discoveries and developments in various cultural aspects of Renaissance Europe and the world today. Muslims played a key role in reinventing Alchemy from Greek and Egyptian writings, which they studied during the Abbasid Period. Islamic alchemists are the revivers of Alchemy, which both directly impacted science, philosophy, politics, art, and literature.
Alchemy has been defined as “…a body of theory and practice that sought to harness for human use certain hidden or “occult” powers in natural objects.” This definition, as provided by the Encyclopedia of the Black Death, puts particular emphasis on Alchemy’s relation to magic and by doing so illustrates the difference between chemistry, a rational modern science, and its theoretical, sub-science predecessor. The adjective “theoretical,” is not meant to imply that Alchemists merely developed theories pertaining to elements and matter. Alchemy served both of these purposes, but it also involved a great amount of “hands on” work in laboratories with, often dangerous, chemicals. Its objective was to discover or develop the Elixir of Life, the Alchemist and the Philosopher’s Stone. The Elixir of life, also known as the “Master Elixir” was thought to remove all impurities from one’s body and soul. The Alchemist was an imaginary decomposer of all matter, like a universal acid. Finally the Philosopher’s Stone, was more often than not described as a powder, gel or liquid, and not as a stone, possessed the ability to transform and basic metal into a the precious metal, gold.
Alchemy began in Egypt and Greece. We know this, because Muslim Alchemists were studying the work of Greek Alchemists, just as all other Muslims, during the height of the Abbasid Empire, were studying Greek and Roman works to develop mathematics, philosophy and medicine. It was practiced for no more than three centuries in Egypt before Emperor Diocletian outlawed it in 292 C.E. John Hopkins, in his article, A Modern Theory of Alchemy, suggests the Egyptian and Greek claims of producing gold from base metals were not written with the same understanding of “gold” that would motivate future Muslim and European Alchemists. Egyptians believed that all things had a soul and color was an indication of the level of perfection the soul of an object held. It was believed that gold had a superior soul to all other metals and by mixing a small amount of gold with base metals, the gold’s soul would improve the soul of the other metals and solid gold would be produced. This of course was not the case. The metal was etched to reveal only the gold of the object. Arabs would later understand “gold” to be actual pure gold by their standards, was able to be produced. This occurrence would involve a change in elements that made up the metal. There was believed to be four elements, Earth, Water, Air and Fire. Each metal was thought to be a combination of the four elements. In order for transmutation to occur the ratio of these elements would have to be altered. The Philosopher’s Stone was understood to poses this power.
Muslims would be responsible for the advancements made in Alchemy from the middle of seventh century until the thirteenth century. When Alchemy began is unknown, but it was first systemized by Jabir b. Hayyan (d.815), also known as, “Geber the Wise,” during the eighth century. Jabir is the most notable Islamic alchemist. It was Jabir who originally named the practice “al-Kimiya,” during his time as a court astrologer to Harun al-Rashid of Baghdad. He was one of the first to perform alchemical experiments in a controlled environment, a laboratory, and he wrote about one hundred books on Alchemy during his life time. Jabir is one of the few to be accepted by the western world, and his writings are what first introduced the notion of the Elixir of Life to the West. Jabir has been described as “the peak of Perfection” in Arabic Alchemy and he believed whole heartedly in possibility of transmutation, the transformation of one metal into another.
Ibn Sina (d.1037), the Islamic chemist, better known by his Latin name, Avicenna, was a critic of transmutation. He argued, “Those of the chemical craft know well that no change can be effected in the different species of substances, though they can produce the appearance of such change.” Meaning that one could change the appearance of a metal, but the true essence stayed the same. Avicenna was not alone in this critique of this goal of alchemy, it was also disputed by Al-Kindi(d.873) and Abu Rayhan al-Biruni(d. 1048), the Islamic polymaths. More chemists would follow suit in criticizing Alchemy. They wished to distinguish their practice from its less than secular origins. Even today it is often viewed by historians and scientists as an archaic, “quack” practice. John Hopkins, in his article A Modern Theory of Alchemy, summed up this perception perfectly with his description of the alchemist as, “Working in Ignorance, albeit with perseverance and enthusiasm, led on his mad belief that he could transmute base metals into silver and gold.” However, just because their goals may have been unattainable at the time, does not mean that these Alchemists works were without value.
Alchemy’s scientific contributions include developments in chemistry methods and accidental discoveries. Modern day chemistry was born from Alchemy. Alchemists practiced an early form of the scientific method, complete with a controlled environment and constant variables. Several accidental scientific discovers were made by alchemist in their pursuit of the philosopher’s stone. Jabir, alone, discovered aqua regia, sulphuric acid, and nitric acid. As a result of the west’s adoption of the practice, German Henning Brandt was able to discover phosphorus after boiling his urine, which he believed to be the Philosopher’s Stone, in 1669. (Saunders 2004)P.32 Today it is an ingredient in toothpaste and rocket fuel.**source** Finally, It was Chinese Alchemists who discovered gun powder. Where would the Ottomans or the other “Gunpowder Empires” be without them? The Ottomans would not have been able to defeat the Safavids at Chaldiran. Without gunpowder the world would not be the same as it is today. The United States would most likely be made up of only Native Americans and the Spanish conquistadors would not have been as successful in South America without their gunpowder weapons.
Because alchemists were often polymaths, meaning they worked in several fields of study, Alchemy influenced not only science, but also, philosophy, religion, politics, literature, and art. Alchemy, like any early science, requires a great deal of imagination. Alchemists were always thinking about attaining not only the perfect acidic solution and the Stone, but a pure body and soul. It is also true that Alchemists found it necessary to believe that all mater was connected, that one element could be transformed into another, if provided the correct environment. Because all things are connected, elements like people were assigned characteristics. These characteristics promoted gender stereotypes. Sulfur is masculine, active, hot and the fixed principle in the generic recipe for the Stone. Mercury, on the other hand, is feminine, passive, cold and the volatile principle. Creation of the stone is also thought to be the result of the procreation of the two. Another conclusion drawn from the assumption that all mater is alive and connected is the idea is that metals are like all things in nature, in a cycle and growing. This cycle begins with iron and then proceeds to copper, lead, tin, mercury, silver, and finally, gold. The philosophy of growth is applied to human spirituality, as well as, their body.
Religious thought was affected by the belief that all matter was connected and that one element could be manipulated into another. Because Middle-eastern and European alchemists tended to be of the Abrahamic faith traditions, they would dispute this claim, but the belief that metals could “marry” and “grow” suggested that they were, in a sense, alive, and that one’s soul could be perfected with the same elixir that perfected a metal could potentially be viewed as Animism. The book of Genesis clearly states that only man was created in the image of God and neither in the Quran nor the Bible is there expressed concern for the souls of objects. This is an excellent example of how Pagan beliefs can survive with in ancient art forms. In the case of the Muslims, this often occurred with the study of Greek, Roman and Egyptian texts. It is also true that the belief that man could create a substance that could give him enlightenment, by means of purifying his soul, leaves little room for the need for salvation through Christ’s Sacrifice. To many Christian Alchemists of the west, this could potentially prove problematic from a theological stand point.
Political authorities viewed Alchemy as both a threat and potentially profitable. The ability to produce gold would potentially lessen its value. If too much was produced, the economy would inflate. For this reason, many rulers outlawed Alchemy. These worries, however, do not stop them from employing their own Alchemists. Their greed got the better of them, and they hoped to increase their power by being the only one with access to the Stone. It was not always simply greed which kept the practice of alchemy alive. Some Monarchs were patrons of Alchemy because they processed a genuine interest in the practice. Emperor Rudolph II of the Holy Roman Empire, for example, performed his own experiments. This recklessness and exposing himself to mercury could have been the cause of eccentric behaviors during his later rule. It is true; alchemists often suffered mental illnesses after being exposed to harmful chemicals, like mercury. The inspiration for the mad hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was hat makers who lost their minds a result of their intimate work with mercury while softening hides. Although their mental well-being is important, it is not as important as that of a Ruler. The people, over whom they rule, are dependent on them to protect them and provide them with order.
Literature produced by Alchemists is comprised of symbolic meanings. Because of the potential value of their recipes to produce one or all of their desires, it was necessary to write in a literary code. As Roger Bacon explains in his piece Opus Tertium, “the wicked if they knew the secret, would misuse it and over throw the world.” Various codes were used in the writings of alchemists. Some used zodiac symbols to represent different metals. Some, like Elias Ashmole (d.1692), used combinations of Arabic numerals and some used metaphoric symbols. The Philosopher’s Stone was portrayed as either an infant in purple or Christ. A dragon represented fire and a king and a Queen represented sulfur and mercury. These recipes often read like a rhyme or a story. These stories helped to develop and popularize allegories during the Renaissance in the West and the Golden age inthe Middle East.
These symbols were also illustrated in books on Alchemy, as a means to express concepts. Occasionally, these drawings would be all the book consisted of, like in Mitus Liber, the “Dumb Book.” To a non-alchemist the illustrations would be impossible to understand, they were often elaborate and of exceptional quality. These images were an art form themselves. Figure A is an illustration found in The Ripley Scroll and is the work of Sir George Ripley, the English alchemist. This green dragon is thought to represent Aqua Fortis, a combination of nitric acid and water. This dragon represented what Ripley theorized to be the key to developing the Philosopher’s Stone. The moon often represented mercury and the sun represented sulfur. The dragon appears to be pushing the moon to combine with the sun or mercury to combine with sulfur. This combination was always believed to be crucial in the development of the stone. Thus, the works of alchemists contributed to artistic development during its time. All of these contributions made by Alchemy are a credit to Islamic Alchemists, particularly Jabir because he was the first to systemize Alchemy and mold it into a discipline.
As for the claim that the goals of Alchemy are unattainable, transmutation no longer only exists in theory. British Scientist Fredrick Soddy (d. 1956) received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1921 for his discoveries related to isotopes and radioactivity. Soddy was able to relate radioactivity to transmutation which occurs in the nucleus of an atom. This transmutation causes the atom to change and results in the change of an entire element. This is also in relation to the workings of an atomic bomb. An easier way of understanding these happenings is through the effect that radioactivity can have on sex cells. When people are exposed to a great amount of Radio activity, like those in Hiroshima affected by the bombing in 1945, the genetic information in the nucleus of their sex cells is mutated or changed. This can result in birth defects, like those suffered by the next generation in Hiroshima. Babies were born without limbs and missing vital organs. The nucleus of a cell contains the information that determines characteristics of that cell and thus the organism to which the cell belongs. The same is true of for the atom, because the manipulation of its nucleus will change its properties. This is known by chemists as Transmutation. Alchemists were dreaming of a very real occurrence that actually exists in nature. It is also, true that Soddy had studied Alchemy in his study of the history of Chemistry. It is reasonable, because of the limitations language so often provides, to suggest that Soddy may have found it easier to understand and recognize transmutation in the work of Norman Lockyer (d.1920), the British astrophysicist, on the light of stars. If one says that Alchemy is nothing of importance, they are also saying that possibility of an atomic apocalypse is nothing to get excited over.
Alchemy impacted science, philosophy, politics and art and, because Muslims are responsible for its revival, Islamic Alchemists prove to be important to world history. Jabir b. Hayyan did contribute his own discoveries of aqua regia, sulphuric acid, and nitric acid, but he, along with other Islamic scientists, recreated Alchemy is to a fine toned disciple which incorporates an early form of the scientific method. This practice, and its aims, continues to attract the interests of the chemist, the historian and the everyday readers of fiction.
"Alchemy." Science, Vol. 18, No. 447, 1891: 113-117.
Briffault, Robert. The Making of Humanity. Google Books, 1938.
Byrne, Joseph P. Encyclopedia of the Black Death. Denver: ABC- CLIO, 2012.
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Hopkins, John. "A Modern Theory of Alchemy." Isis, Vol. 7 No. 1, 1925: 58-76.
Hutin, Serge. A History of Alchemy. New York: Walker and Company, 1962.
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Sclove, Richard E. "From Alchemy to Atomic War: Fredrick Soddy's "Technology Assesment" of Atomic Energy, 1900-1915." Science, Technology, and Huamn Values Vol. 14 No. 2, 1989: 163-194.
Thompson, Charles John Samuel. Alchemy and Alchemists. Google Books, 2002.
Young, M.J.L., J. D. Latham, and R.B. Serjeant. The Cambridge History of Arabic: Religion, Learning, and Science in the Abbasid Period. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
 John Hopkins, "A Modern Theory of Alchemy." Isis, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1925: 58-76, 71.
 Joseph P. Byrne, Encyclopedia of the Black Death, Denver: ABC- CLIO, 2012, 4.
 "Alchemy." Science, Vol. 18, No. 447, 1891: 113-117, 113.
 Hopkins, "A Modern Theory of Alchemy." 1925, 71.
 Ibid, 70.
 Ibid, 62-63.
 Serge Hutin, A History of Alchemy. New York: Walker and Company, 1962, 81.
 John Read, Prelude to Chemistry. Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1966, 17.
 Byrne, Encyclopedia of the Black Death. 2012, 4.
 M.J.L. Young, J. D. Latham, and R.B. Serjeant. The Cambridge History of Arabic: Religion, Learning, and Science in the Abbasid Period. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 333.
 Ibid, 335.
 Ibid, 333.
 Robert Briffault, The Making of Humanity. Google Books, 1938, 196-197.
 Hopkins, "A Modern Theory of Alchemy." 1925, 58.
 Hutin, A History of Alchemy, 1962, 49.
 Byrne, Encyclopedia of the Black Death, 2012, 4.
 Hutin, A History of Alchemy, 1962, 79.
 Ibid, 84.
 Charles John Samuel Thompson, Alchemy and Alchemists. Google Books, 2002, 191.
 Hutin, A History of Alchemy, 1962, 25.
 Ibid, 31.
 Ibid, 25.
 Curious Britain. Curious World: Five Strange Books. 2012. http://www.aquiziam.com/five-strange-books.html (accessed Novemeber 25, 2012).
 IMDB, Scholastic Children's Books. "Total Harry Potter Franchise Revenue." Statistics Brain. August 24, 2012. http://www.statisticbrain.com/total-harry-potter-franchise-revenue/ (accessed November 26, 2012).
 Richard E. Sclove, "From Alchemy to Atomic War: Fredrick Soddy's "Technology Assesment" of Atomic Energy, 1900-1915." Science, Technology, and Huamn Values Vol. 14 No. 2, 1989: 163-194, 179.
 Sclove, "From Alchemy to Atomic War: Fredrick Soddy's "Technology Assesment" of Atomic Energy, 1900-1915," 1989, 166.