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By E. J. HOLMYARD
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THE art or science of alchemy is of great antiquity, for it was practised before the birth of Christ. It has also had a long history, for there are still alchemists to be found, not merely in such less enlightened countries as Morocco and parts of the East, but in England, the United States, France, Italy, and Germany. Its heyday was from about A.D. 800 to the middle of the seventeenth century, and its practitioners ranged from kings, popes, and emperors to minor clergy, parish clerks, smiths, dyers, and tinkers. Even such accomplished men as Roger Bacon, St Thomas Aquinas, Sir Thomas Browne, John Evelyn, and Sir Isaac Newton were deeply interested in it, and Charles II had an alchemical laboratory built under the royal bedchamber with access by a private staircase. Other alchemical monarchs were Herakleios I of Byzantium, James IV of Scotland, and the Emperor Rudolf II. There are several references to alchemy in Shakespeare; Chaucer devoted one of his Canterbury Tales to it (p. 177); and Ben Jonson wrote a play, The Alchemist, in which he shows considerable knowledge of the subject. Romance and adventure, religious and mystical emotion, fraud and trickery, scientific inquiry, skilful technology, tragedy and comedy, poetry and humour, are all to be found on turning the variegated pages of its history.
Alchemy is of a twofold nature, an outward or exoteric and a hidden or esoteric. Exoteric alchemy is concerned with attempts to prepare a substance, the philosophers' stone, or simply the Stone, endowed with the power of transmuting the base metals lead, tin, copper, iron, and mercury into the precious metals gold and silver. The Stone was also sometimes known as the Elixir or Tincture, and was credited not only with the power of transmutation but with that of prolonging human life indefinitely. The belief that it could be obtained only by divine grace and favour led to the development of esoteric or mystical alchemy, and this gradually developed into a devotional system where the mundane transmutation of metals became merely symbolic of the transformation of sinful man into a perfect being through prayer and submission to the will of God. The two kinds of alchemy were often inextricably mixed; however, in some of the mystical treatises it is clear that the authors are not concerned with material substances but are employing the language of exoteric alchemy for the sole purpose of expressing theological, philosophical, or mystical beliefs and aspirations. In the present book we shall deal principally with exoteric alchemy, but this cannot be properly appreciated if the other aspect is not always borne in mind.
It has further to be remembered that the practical alchemists were well aware that if (they could not know that the emphasis was on the 'if') they succeeded in making gold artificially their lives might be in grave danger from the avaricious princes and other evilly disposed persons. Even the suspicion that they had discovered the secret was often sufficient to imperil them. One alchemist complained that, falling under this suspicion because he had happened to effect some rather spectacular cures during an epidemic, he had to disguise himself, shave off his beard, and put on a wig before he was able to escape, under a false name, from a mob howling for his elixir; he added that he knew of persons who had been found strangled in their beds simply because they were thought to have found the Stone, though in reality they knew no more about it than their murderers. It will appear in the following pages that the possession of alchemical lore was in fact a perilous liability, even when royal licences to practice the Art were granted, as they often were by Henry VI of England and other rulers.
For reasons of safety, therefore, as well as from a cupidity that did not wish to share knowledge that might prove invaluable, the alchemists used to describe their theories, materials, and operations in enigmatical language, efflorescent with allegory, metaphor, allusion, and analogy. Some of this language can be interpreted by one familiar with the literature and with the substances commonly used in alchemy, and no doubt more of it could be understood by the adepts themselves; but the result of such cryptic modes of expression is that it is not always possible to decide whether a particular passage refers to an actual practical experiment or is of purely esoteric significance. The point is referred to again in Chapters 2 and 7, but meanwhile it may be useful to provide a sample in illustration.
According to an anonymous seventeenth-century book entitled The Sophic Hydrolith, the philosophers' stone, or the ancient, secret, incomprehensible, heavenly, blessed, and triune universal stone of the sages, is made from a kind of mineral by grinding it to powder, resolving it into its three elements, and recombining these elements into a solid stone of the fusibility of wax. The details of the process are scarcely as simple as this outline would suggest. It is first necessary to purge the original material of all that is thick, nebulous, opaque, and dark in it, an operation to be effected by means of 'our Pontic water', which is sweet, beautiful, clear, limpid, and brighter than gold or diamonds or carbuncles. Then the extracted body, soul, and spirit must be distilled and condensed together by their own proper salt, yielding an aqueous liquid with a pleasant, penetrating smell, and very volatile. This liquid is known as mercurial water or water of the Sun. It should be divided into five portions, of which two are reserved while the other three are mixed together and added to one-twelfth their weight of the divinely endowed body of gold. Ordinary gold is useless in this connexion, having been defiled by daily use.
When the water and the gold have been combined in a solutory alembic (p. 48) they form a solid amalgam, which should be exposed to gentle heat for six or seven days. Meanwhile one of the two reserved fifths of the mercurial water is placed in an egg-shaped phial and the amalgam is added to it. Combination will slowly take place, and one will mingle with the other gently and imperceptibly as ice with warm water. This union the sages have compared to the union of a bride and bridegroom. When it is complete the remaining fifth of the water is added a little at a time, in seven instalments; the phial is then sealed, to prevent the product from evaporating or losing its odour, and maintained at hatching-temperature. The adept should now be on the alert for various changes. At the end of forty days the contents of the phial will be as black as charcoal: this stage is known as the raven's head. After seven days more, at a somewhat higher temperature, there appear granular bodies, like fishes' eyes, then a circle round the substance, which is first reddish, then white, green, and yellow, like a peacock's tail, a dazzling white, and finally a deep red. That marks the climax, for now, under the rarefying influence of the fire, soul and spirit combine with their body to form a permanent and indissoluble Essence, an occurrence that cannot be witnessed without admiration and awe. The revivified body is quickened, perfected, and glorified, and is of a most beautiful purple colour; its tincture has virtue to change, tinge, and cure every imperfect body.
That is, if everything has gone well; but sometimes mishaps threaten. There are four bad signs: a red oil floating on the surface, too rapid a transition from white to red, imperfect solidification, and refusal of a test portion of the substance to melt like wax when placed on hot iron. If these are not given immediate attention no success will be attained. If any of them should be observed, the compound must be taken out of the phial and treated with more of the mercurial water. It is then to be heated till any sublimation or evolution of vapour has ceased, when it may be replaced in the phial and the original treatment continued.
The author concludes by reminding the successful operator that the Stone thus prepared includes all temporal felicity, bodily health, and material fortune. By its aid Noah built the Ark, Moses the tabernacle with all its golden vessels, and Solomon the Temple, besides fashioning many precious ornaments and procuring for himself long life and boundless riches. Yet the Stone cannot be applied for purposes of metallic transmutation in the form in which it was left at the completion of the operation described, but must be further fermented and adapted; otherwise it could not be conveniently projected upon imperfect metals. The additional treatment consists in melting in a crucible one part of the Stone with three parts of the purest gold available, whereupon an efficacious tincture will be obtained capable of transmuting one thousand times its own weight of base metal into gold. Many other things may be done with the tincture which must not be revealed to this wicked world.
The word alchemy is derived from the Arabic name of the art, alkimia, in which 'al' is the definite article. On the origin of 'kimia' there are differences of opinion. Some hold that it is derived from kmt or chem, the ancient Egyptians' name for their country; this means 'the black land', and is a reference to the black alluvial soil bordering the Nile as opposed to the tawny-coloured desert sands. In the early days of alchemy it was much practised in Egypt, and if this derivation is accepted the name would mean 'the Egyptian art'. Against this etymology is the fact that in ancient texts kmt or chem is never associated with alchemy, and it is perhaps more likely that kimia comes from the Greek chyma, meaning to fuse or cast a metal. As practical alchemy dealt very largely with this particular operation, it might well have been named from it. Whatever the truth, our word alchemy and its modern formation, chemistry, come directly from the Arabic, and provide reminders that in the early Middle Ages the principal students of the Art were Muslims (Chapter 5).
The origins of alchemy itself were diverse. When men had become cultivators of the soil and stockbreeders, instead of mere food-gatherers, they took to building towns, thus inaugurating the change in methods of living known as the urban revolution. As a result of this revolution, communities were able to support specialized craftsmen on the surplus of the harvests procured by the agricultural workers, and by at latest 3000 B.C. such crafts as metallurgy, weaving, carpentry, building, and the making of dyes and pigments were well established. The art of writing and recording had also been invented, probably in Mesopotamia, one of the earliest known documents being a clay tablet of about 3600 B.C. giving a statement of the financial accounts of a temple.
During the 3000 years or so before the first definite appearance of alchemy in the last couple of centuries before Christ, the accumulation of technical knowledge went steadily on, and some of the achievements of ancient craftsmen have never been surpassed. Coloured alloys and artificial gems were manufactured, glass-making was well established, and the useful properties of very many minerals and plants had been discovered (Chapter 4). But all such familiarity with material objects and the changes that could be effected in them did not imply the segregation of what we should now call technology from the other aspects of daily life. The operations of the craftsmen were carried out to the accompaniment of religious or magical practices, and supposed connexions were seen between metals, minerals, plants, planets, the Sun and Moon, and gods. Thus in Babylonia gold was connected with the Sun and with the god Enlil, and silver with the Moon and the god Anu. Astrological considerations became of increasing importance, and by the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. a very complex science of astrology had been elaborated. Since many of the crafts later drawn upon by the alchemists, particularly metallurgy and colouring, were much influenced by the observance that had to be paid to astrological beliefs, it is worth while to examine this point more closely; with the operations they took over, the alchemists also accepted much of the astrological speculation.
In the first place, astrology emphasized a harmony between the macrocosm or universe and the microcosm or man; all that went on in the universe had its influence on, and its parallel in, man. The soul of man was believed to enter the body by way of a particular star, and at death to return to heaven by the same path. The signs of the zodiac, by then established as twelve, had a magical significance and could be used for casting horoscopes, not merely for man but for discovering the favourable conditions for carrying out, say, the preparation of a certain drug or alloy. The calculations involved in making the horoscope often required the use of mystic numbers such as magic squares, so that an esoteric numerology arose. Such a numerology was further developed by Pythagoras (c. 530 B.C.) and is frequently encountered in alchemical treatises (pp. 38, 76).
With the Greeks of about the fourth century B.C. astrology was still regarded as concerned with the regulation of all happenings in the universe, as it had been in ancient Mesopotamia, but whereas the Babylonian astrologers had given pride of place among the heavenly bodies to the Moon, the Greeks gave precedence to the Sun. The Moon and the five planets then known were assigned each to a special deity and endowed with the characteristics of that deity; on this system the reddish planet was called after Mars, the god of war, and astrologically governed warlike affairs, while the planet assigned to Venus was potent in matters of love. The old idea that the planets were connected with metals was also adopted, so that the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn were often metaphorically used to signify gold, silver, iron, mercury or quicksilver ('argent vive'), copper, tin, and lead.
Besides astrology, other philosophical sciences were now being cultivated. Greek physicians and thinkers visited the centres of learning in Mesopotamia and Persia, and brought back ideas not merely from those centres themselves but from other visitors who had come from the opposite direction, namely from India, central Asia, and even China. All this crude material was worked up by such great philosophers as Plato and Aristotle into the imposing body of Greek thought that has fundamentally affected Western civilization ever since.
With their growing intellectual achievements the Greeks of this period combined military prowess, and under Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) they destroyed the Persian power, invaded north India, conquered Tyre and Gaza, and occupied Egypt. The last country, with its delightful climate and its air of inscrutable wisdom, attracted Greek settlers in great numbers, and in 332 B.C. Alexander founded in the Nile delta the city named after himself, Alexandria.
The stage was now set for the rise of alchemy, but before beginning our story proper it will be profitable to spend a little time in a brief examination of the views of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) on the constitution of matter, for those views were to form much of the background of exoteric alchemical theory. According to Aristotle, then, the basis of the material world was a prime or primitive matter, which had, however, only a potential existence until impressed by 'form'. By form he did not mean shape only, but all that conferred upon a body its specific properties. In its simplest manifestation, form gave rise to the 'four elements', fire, air, water, and earth, which are distinguished from one another by their 'qualities'. The four primary qualities are the fluid (or moist), the dry, the hot, and the cold, and each element possesses two of them. Hot and cold, however, and fluid and dry, are contraries and cannot be coupled; hence the four possible combinations of them in pairs are:
Hot and dry, assigned to fire.
Hot and fluid (or moist), assigned to air.
Cold and fluid, assigned to water.
Cold and dry, assigned to earth.
This may be expressed diagrammatically as shown in figure 1.
In each element, one quality predominates over the other; in earth, dryness; in water, cold; in air, fluidity; and in fire, heat. None of the four elements is unchangeable; they may pass into one another through the medium of that quality which they possess in common; thus fire can become air through the medium of heat, air can become water through the medium of fluidity; and so on. Two elements taken together may become a third by removing one quality from each, subject to the limitation that this process must not leave two identical or contrary qualities; thus fire and water, by parting with the dry and cold qualities could give rise to earth. In all these changes it is only the 'form' that alters; the prime matter of which the elements are made never changes, however diverse and numerous the changes of form may be.
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