Alchemy, The Art Of Knowing Essay, Research Paper
The word “alchemy” is derived from the Egyptian word “chem” which means “black death.” Thus, alchemy can be considered to be “the art of the black death.” It is an extremely mystical art, definitive of the middle ages in which it flourished. The history, and concrete facts involving alchemy are few, but the effects of alchemy and the questions surrounding it are innumerable. Alchemy was simply a chapter in the history of natural philosophy.
The history of the development of alchemy is quite sketchy in comparison to that of other ancient sciences. The first record of alchemy indicates that it was practiced in China and India before the birth of Jesus. However, alchemy may have origins as far back as in the second millenium BC, when the process of smelting iron and other substances was common. For 300 years after the birth of Christ, alchemy developed into a major system in Egypt. In China, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, the alchemist’s techniques of transformation not only included gold and silver, but also of precious stones and some rare dyes. Greek-Egyptian alchemy spread to the Arabs through Persia and Syria, then on to Western Europe in the twelfth century.
Alchemy in Medieval Europe is a blend of science, magic and religion. It has practical, spiritual, and symbolic facets within its art. A simple definition of alchemy, if one is possible, is the transformation of less costly metals into silver and gold. However, any definition of alchemy will almost surely leave out many aspects of the art itself and one should beware of the claim to define alchemy. The Philosopher’s Stone was supposedly able to make the transmutation process easier, however no such object was ever found. Alchemists also searched for the elixir of life, which was a substance thought to cure disease and lengthen life. It was thought that all matter was made of a combination of the four elements of creation-earth, fire, air, and water-when combined with hot or cold and wet or dry. In the early sixteenth century, Swiss scientist Paraclesus tried to substitute three elements-sulfur, mercury, and salt- for the four elements of
creation. Alchemists thought they could change one substance into another merely by changing the balance of these elements, which was essentially the objective of alchemy.
Alchemy has effected the evolution of many modern sciences. Alchemy and astrology became closely related in the middle ages due to the belief that each heavenly body represented a certain metal. The sun represented gold; the moon, silver; Mars, iron; Venus, copper; Jupiter, tin; Saturn, lead; and Mercury, the
metal mercury, also called quicksilver. One legend connects alchemy with Adam and Eve at the time they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. It is believed that an angel instructed them of the secrets of alchemy and astrology. As they descended from the spiritual world to the material world, the secrets told would also change, evolving into astronomy and chemistry (Medieval Wisdom 14). Alchemy also affected the development of poetry. Though secular poets such as Chaucer and Petrarch mainly ridiculed the idea, it already found a place in didactic poetry as early as the thirteenth century, in Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose. Most of the surviving alchemical poems are short and of very poor scientific quality, but of great artistry.
Many questions surrounding alchemy and its ideals are present today. Roger Bacon is always considered in histories of alchemy and chemistry. However, his place in alchemical history is vague and even in his own alchemical writings, he does not justify himself as a contributor towards the history of alchemy. (Brehm 1). Also, it has been proved by several scientists and historians that the transformation of base metals into gold is essentially impossible. However, there are artifacts of gold in the British Museum supposedly produced by transmutation. In China, a decree was made to publicly execute anyone caught preparing gold by alchemical means. The Roman Emperor Diocletian and Henry IV both outlawed the alchemical production of gold (Caezza 3). The reason for these denunciations against alchemy can be attested to the religious connotations presented: issues on morality and whether alchemy is a Christian science. It was believed that the techniques used were symbolically related to death and corruption: two unchristian ideas. The debate on alchemy was so heated that it caused the restriction of the evolution of the art. Scientists and historians agree that the evidence to prove or disprove alchemy will not be uncovered until major advancements in science have been made.
Though alchemy is the least known area of medieval science, and its history has few details involving its spread to Europe, alchemy had an obvious affect on the evolution of today’s sciences and other arts. Being “the art of the black death,” alchemy certainly has mysterious qualities that support the derivation of its name. Indeed, alchemy truly is “the art of the black death.”