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Alchemy and the alchemists laid the foundations for the fields of chemistry, mining and metallurgy, pharmacy and medicine. Next time you go into your doctor's office, pay attention to the symbol of medicine, the caduceus — two snakes winding around a winged staff. It derives from Hermes Trismegistus, or Thrice-Great Hermes, who is considered the father of alchemy.
A guiding principle of alchemy was the transmutation of elements, some 2,000 years before the actual mechanisms of transmutation were known. Nuclear transmutation is the conversion of one chemical element into another chemical element. Since an element is defined by the number of its protons and neutrons, nuclear transmutation occurs when the number of protons or neutrons in the nucleus is changed.
All elements in our universe have been created by stellar nucleosynthesis, where a star's fusion reactions involving hydrogen and helium create elements up to iron. Elements heavier than iron are created in supernovae.
Another form of transmutation occurs when radioactive elements undergo alpha or beta decay, for example, potassium-40 naturally decays into argon-40. The goal of the alchemists was chrysopoeia, the transformation of base metals into gold.
The History of Alchemy
The history of alchemy can be divided into five periods: the Greco-Egyptian, the Arabic, the Latin medieval, the early modern, and the modern.
Alchemy was first practiced during the first century AD. Then, the center of knowledge was the Egyptian city of Alexandria, and it was there that the philosophies of Pythagoreanism, Platonism, Stoicism and Gnosticism mixed.
Hermes Trismegistus's name derives from the god Thoth. This is the same Thoth who was much beloved by the occultist Aleister Crowley. In the first century AD, Hermes Trismegistus wrote the "forty-two books of Hermes", which covered all fields of knowledge, and are considered the basis for alchemical knowledge.
The greatest alchemist of that period was Zosimos of Panopolis who did his work around 300 AD. Zosimos was perhaps the first feminist, he addressed many of his writings to a female pupil, Theosebeia, and he praised the earlier work of Mary the Jew, an early woman alchemist. Her legacy has come down to us in the form of the bain-marie or bagno maria used in French and Italian cookery.
Zosimos knew that the heated vapors of calamine, a zinc-containing earth, could turn copper golden by transforming it into brass, which is an alloy of zinc and copper. He also knew that the vapors of mercury and arsenic whiten copper to a silvery color.
In 292 AD, the Roman emperor Diocletian suppressed a revolt in Egypt, and ordered that all alchemical books be burned. The only Egyptian alchemical texts to survive are the Stockholm Papyrus and the Leyden Papyrus, which date to between 250 and 300 A.D. They contain recipes for dyeing and making artificial gemstones, cleaning and fabricating pearls, and making imitation gold and silver.
The Arabic Period
By the 7th century AD, Khalid ibn Yazid brought alchemy from Alexandria to the Islamic world and preserved the Greek alchemical texts. Greek views that matter is made up of Fire, Earth, Air and Water, merged with the ancient Egyptian science, and the result was Khemia, the Greek word for Egypt. Adding the Arabic definite article al, alchemy meant "black earth", which referred to the fertile soil of the Nile River valley.
In the late 8th century, Jabir ibn Hayyan introduced a scientific methodology to alchemy and the use of experimentation in a laboratory. Jabir is considered to be the father of chemistry. He also proposed the theory of corpuscularianism, whereby all physical bodies are comprised of minute particles or corpuscles. This is over a thousand years before the discovery of the atom.
The Latin Medieval Period
The Arabs brought alchemy to Spain during the 8th Century. Then, in 1144, Robert of Chester translated the Arabic Book of the Composition of Alchemy into Latin. Other translations coming out of Toledo, Spain introduced new words to Europe, such as alcohol and elixir.
"As above so below" -- Hermetic axiom
The Arabic belief was that all metals are made of mercury and sulfur in varying proportions, and that lower, or base, metals could be transmuted into gold by means of a substance known as the Philosopher's Stone. The Philosopher's Stone was also believed to be able to confer immortality.
During the 12th century, French philosopher, theologian, and logician, Peter Abelard, wrote about alchemy and Aristotelian thought. This is the same Abelard who is known for his love affair with Heloise.
Following Abelard was English philosopher and Franciscan friar Roger Bacon (1219 - 1292) who wrote extensively on the topics of optics, linguistics, and medicine. Bacon produced his Great Work for Pope Clement IV, to be used as a university curriculum. Bacon considered both alchemy and astrology to be parts of natural philosophy.
By the end of the 13th century, alchemists were experimenting with chemicals and making observations and theories about medical, pharmaceutical and occult subjects.
The Early Modern Period
During the Renaissance, Swiss physician, alchemist, and astrologer Theophrastus von Hohenheim (1493 – 1541) came to be known as Paracelsus. His theory was that humans must have certain balances of minerals in their bodies and that illnesses of the body had chemical remedies that could cure them. In other words, the first pharmaceuticals.
At this time, alchemists were working in mining, assaying, metallurgy, as physicians, in chemical production, and working with gemstones. They were employed by eminences such as Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, and King James IV of Scotland.
Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) was a Danish astronomer, astrologer and alchemist, who was known for his accurate astronomical and planetary observations. Brahe had a laboratory built at his Uraniborg observatory so he could carry out his alchemical researches.
Sir Isaac Newton wrote more on the subject of alchemy than he did on the subjects of optics or physics. Newton spent 30 years assembling the research of previous alchemists, with the goal of finding the key to the world’s mysteries.
It was 17th-century German alchemist Henning Brand who could most lay claim to having found the elusive Philosopher's Stone. Brand experimented with human urine, distilling it down to a white powder that burst into flame when exposed to air. Brand named it after the Philosopher's Stone, phosphorus.