The Skeptics SA guide to
The best known aspect of Alchemy was probably the quest to convert ordinary metal, like iron or lead into gold: however the true objectives of Alchemy were much more complex and diverse. There were essentially two categories of Alchemists:
- the Soufflers, whose main objective was to find the Philosopher’s Stone, a substance they believed could convert ordinary metals like iron or lead into gold
- the Alchemists, whose prime aim was the gathering of knowledge, wisdom, and the completion of the Great Work
Although actually a pseudo-science, it was the precursor of modern chemistry. It combined many intricate scientific, religious, metaphysical and philosophical concepts to such an extent that it was extremely difficult to distinguish which was which. The principles of Alchemy were known in ancient China, and appear to have spread to Europe sometime around the time when the Roman Empire was declining. From that point forward it spread slowly across Europe and became part of some of the ‘sciences’ adopted by the Arabs. They spread Alchemy as they conquered many parts of the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, and by 1000 CE it had been adopted by a great number of scholars.
Like many of the ancient ‘arts’ Alchemy and those practising the art presented a facade of the pursuit of a profoundly intellectual endeavour. In fact, Alchemy was never more than a great sham, and most Alchemists were simply conmen who claimed to be magicians, able to make gold from base metals such as lead. Frequently on the move, they were constantly looking for gullible and wealthy patrons who were prepared to supply them with a home, a laboratory and finance. Their usual practice was to keep promising that they would succeed ‘the very next time’. Then when their patrons started to become concerned at the never-ending cost, they would disappear into the night, emerging in some new city, looking for another patron.
However, this is not to say they were all frauds. A few Alchemists were genuinely seeking the philosophical rewards that lay at the foundations of Alchemy. Unconcerned with monetary reward, they had a vision of the world that made them very humble, and set them apart from the rest of mankind, spending their lives studying obscure books and conducting what was, because of the chemicals they used, often dangerous research.
The philosophical side of alchemy identified the objective of converting common metals into gold as a mere analogy, reflecting the ‘real’ spiritual objectives of the conversion of the ordinary man into something finer and more precious, a superior, more spiritually evolved being.
The Alchemists were much involved in esoteric symbolism. They adopted the Egyptian concept of the Uroboros (the unbroken circle, represented by a snake with its tail in its mouth), as well as many other ancient and mystical symbols. Like most ancients who pursued the arcane arts they created their own secret language, describing their work in complex, esoteric terms. Thus, very common substances such as lead were called ‘Black Crow’, Sal ammoniac was ‘White Eagle’, while Mercury became ‘Celestial Dew’.
They taught that the world contained the Anima Mundi, a ‘living soul’ that formed a mystical connection between the physical world and the Creator in the same strange and inexplicable way that men were linked to women. They built various strange furnaces, in which they hoped to achieve their objectives, such as making the Powder of Projection (the Philosopher’s Stone), which they believed had both curative and toxic properties. They represented it as a fertilizing agent, or the Elixir of Life, which if found, could make plants grow and bear fruit within a few hours.
The Philosopher’s Egg or Vase, in which the Great Work took place was filled with raw materials to produce the seven metals, and developed into three variations of ‘a bird more sublime than all the others’, the double egg of Crede Mihi, a concept of classical origin of the dragon and serpents. The Primordial Strength (symbolized by the serpent) had to be massacred before the Great Work could come into being.
The idea that the Philosopher’s Stone could transform any metal into gold was based upon their belief that because all substances in the universe had been involved in the Chaos, then every single substance contained a form of life. Each metal carried within itself a Ferment, which they believed could be extracted; thus Royal Gold could produce Gold Ferment. In that era ‘life’ was believed to be a spontaneous act (it was believed that flies were born out of rotten meat), so the idea that a particular substance could be changed into another form seemed quite logical. This explained why they were so certain that lead could be changed to gold. By ‘converting’ the inherent nature of the lead, refining it into a purer form in the same way that a sinful man could be changed by the converting power of religion and his own faith, into a different, finer person, common lead could be converted into the finest of metals, royal gold.
They believed all metals were composed of only two substances, metallic earth and sulphur. If properly combined, they formed gold, but if contaminated with impurities, they formed other more common metals. The secret of the Philosopher’s Stone was its claimed ability to remove these impurities, and turn the imperfect metal into ‘pure’ gold.
Another strange theme was the ‘killing of the king’, which referred to the sublimation of matter. This was an allegory of the Christian theme where the Son, Jesus, had to be sacrificed before he could become one with the Father. The Alchemists claimed that the ‘king’, who represented primordial matter (God), had to devour (consume) the son, and then for him to be saved he had to then be impregnated with the seed (the power) of the father.
Like most ancient mystics they believed in the idea of the conjunction of opposites, the concept that natural opposites would combine to create balance, and form new substances. Similar to the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang, they believed that while male and female are so different, nevertheless they can unite to create new life. While the secret of this ‘uniting’ remained ever elusive, they explained away their failures with the totally pointless rationale that they would finally be successful when ‘that which was hidden should become known.’
They tended to present their teachings in the most abstruse terminology, proclaiming that only those who were properly ‘enlightened’ could hope to understand the esoteric secrets. Yet in fact the whole system, especially their written texts, were nothing more than complete nonsense, for their complex and abstract terms made them completely unintelligible. Consider the following quotation, taken from The Rosarium, an ancient alchemical text, which claimed to ‘explain’ how to create the Philosopher’s Stone: ‘Out of man and woman make a round circle and extract a quadrangle and from the quadrangle the triangle. Make a round circle and you will have the Philosopher’s Stone.’
It was not only ‘magicians’ and pseudo-scientists who practised Alchemy: there is evidence that many Christian monks, in their monasteries, dabbled in this pseudo-science. According to one old poem, the famous Christian saint
St Dunstan stood in his ivied tower,
Alembic, crucible, all were there;
Their theories concerning the concept of matter and the origins of life were based upon a framework of false religious and philosophical assumptions. Once real science started to evolve the theories of the Alchemists were revealed for what they really were, totally unworkable, superstitious nonsense. None of them ever found the Philosopher’s Stone, but on a more positive note, as a result of their empirical experiments some did occasionally make important discoveries. However, those who did tended to be those who were more practical in their approach. Paracelcus, the discoverer of ether, was one. Although an Alchemist, he was also a brilliant theorist who refused to blindly accept the traditional methods, and introduced empirical testing: this format, the basis of scientific chemistry, sounded the death knell of Alchemy.
Of the others, all that can be said is that they wasted their entire lives searching for something that existed only in their fertile imaginations.