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A Dictionary of Western Alchemy
By Jordan Stratford
Theosophical Publishing House Copyright © 2011 Jordan Stratford
All rights reserved.
The alchemists in their search for gold discovered many other things of greater value.
The separation of components in a vessel by skimming to remove the top layer. From Latin ablationem, "taking away."
Purification by washing with water. From Latin abluere, "to wash off."
A small cup used for vinegar. From Latin acetum, "vinegar."
Literally, Latin, "vinegar." From Latin acidus, "sour."
A vitriol, likely aqua regia. From Latin, literally, "vinegar of the philosophers."
A compound that transfers a hydrogen ion to another compound; a medium for breaking down a substance. From Latin acidus, "sour."
Unbreakable. Literally, Greek, "diamond."
Verdigris, from copper. From Latin aes, "copper."
Brass; also used generically for any common metallic substance, such as copper or bronze. Literally, Latin, "copper."
Copper. Literally, Latin, "brass of Cyprus."
The hypothetical element that acts as a suspension medium of the celestial realm. In Greek religion, aether is the air breathed by the gods. Plato classifies it as the quintessence, or fifth element. From Greek aithein, "to shine."
A semiprecious stone of quartz used for its resistance to acids and often employed in certain instruments, such as a mortar and pestle. Named for the Greek river Achates.
A (possibly apocryphal) third-century alchemist of Roman Egypt, recalled in later texts for his work with arsenic and silver.
The first and supreme of the four elements of classical philosophy, air was regarded as the arche, or first principle (Greek), of creation. Plato's Timaeus identifies elemental air with the Platonic solid of the octahedron, and Aristotle defines air as having the qualities of hot and wet—distinct from aether, which was immutable and ideal. However, the relationship between alchemical "air" and our atmosphere is not a direct and literal one, as A. E. Waite notes:
Eugenius Philalethes says that the air is not an element, but a certain miraculous hermaphrodite, the cement of two worlds, and a medley of extremes. It is the sea of things invisible, and retains the species of all things whatsoever. It is also the envelope of the life of our sensitive spirit. The First Matter of the philosophers is compared to air because of this restlessness.
Throughout Western cultures, air is associated with spirit and the divine, both in Latin (spiritus, "breath") and in Greek (pneuma, "spirit"), the latter invoking the Egyptian khnum, ("breath"). In magical practice air corresponds to the East, to the suit of swords in the tarot, to intelligence and language, and to the Archangel Raphael. From Greek aer.
Potassium nitrate; saltpeter. Possibly from Arabic, literally "sweet salt."
Whitening, the second stage of the Great Work, arrived at through the burning away of impurity and symbolized by a swan. This phase is associated with lunar forces and influence. In optics this term refers to the ratio of incident light reflected by a surface. From Latin alba, "white."
Egg white. From Latin alba, "white."
Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–1280)
A scholar, philosopher, saint, and doctor of the Church, Albertus applied Aristotelian thought to Roman Catholic teaching. Born in Bavaria and educated in Padua, he entered the Dominican Order in 1221 or 1223 and received his doctorate in Paris in 1245. In 1260 he became the bishop of Regensburg. He was the mentor of Thomas Aquinas, who reported that Albertus witnessed the transmutation of base metal into gold. His extensive alchemical writings are collected under the title Theatrum Chemicum, but later texts such as the Secreta Alberti and Experimenta Alberti are likely pseudepigraphic. Even during his lifetime, Albertus was hailed as Magnus ("The Great") by his contemporaries, including the alchemist Roger Bacon.
See albedo. From Latin alba, "white."
The philosophical and natural science of elements and interactions. Since the Enlightenment, alchemy has been associated with charlatanism and greed, based on a literal interpretation of the desire to turn lead into pure gold. However, the main reward sought by the authors of alchemical texts seems to have been knowledge, both of the natural world and of the place of the Divine within it. In the words of Paracelsus,
When the Philosophers speak of gold and silver, from which they extract their matter, are we to suppose that they refer to the vulgar gold and silver? By no means; vulgar silver and gold are dead, while those of the Philosophers are full of life.
Grounded in a worldview informed by both Hermetic and Neoplatonic influences, the primary activity of alchemists involves three pursuits, each with a practical and a spiritual aspect:
1. the Great Work, being the transmutation of base metals into gold by means of the lapis philosophorum, the philosopher's stone;
2. the concoction of the elixir of life, a universal medicine; and
3. the reintegration, a reconciliation between spirit and matter.
However, as Jakob Boehme states in De Signatura Rerum, "There is no real difference between Eternal Birth, Reintegration, and the discovery of the Philosopher's Stone. Everything having issued forth from Unity, all must return to it in the same manner."
Until the early modern era, alchemy was indistinguishable from chemistry, and alchemists were among those who developed the scientific method.
From Arabic al-kemi, "of Egypt," and khem, referring to black, fertile soil.
An organic compound in the form of a clear, flammable liquid, most commonly ethanol, produced through fermentation or distillation. Its use in English to refer to any distillate dates from the seventeenth century. From Arabic kohl, "stain" or "paint," referring originally to antimony.
A simple distillation apparatus comprised of a retort (a spherical vessel with a long, downward-sloping tube) and a cucurbit (the receiving vessel). A substance is heated in the retort, condensing at the capital and collecting downward into the cucurbit. It is used as a metaphor for rigorous intellectual and spiritual inquiry, distilling only the essence of an idea. From Greek ambix, "mixing cup."
A theoretical universal solvent, in which any substance would be reduced to its elemental form. Paracelsus developed such a mixture of caustic lime, carbonate of potash, and alcohol. A pseudo-Arabic word coined by Paracelcus.
A caustic salt of an alkaline earth-metal element, most commonly magnesium or calcium. From Arabic al- qaliy, "the calcinated ashes."
Dyer's bugloss (Alkanna tinctoria), a borage plant used to make red dye. From Arabic al-kanna, "henna."
A pear-shaped earthenware tube, also called "the Hermetic vase," used for condensation at the end of the sublimation process. Because of its association with completion of the operation, it is often used as a metaphor for personal realization or achievement. Referring to the shape of a lute, from Arabic ud, "wood."
Used to describe a range of compounds, most commonly iron sulfate, used in dyeing. From Greek aludoimos, "bitter."
The product and process of forming a "soft mass" via the reaction of mercury with another substance, most commonly silver or gold. From Greek malakos, "soft."
Fossilized tree resin, believed to prevent infection. In Greek, amber is "elektron," noted for its electrostatic properties. From Arabic anbar, "amber."
A purple quartz used since antiquity in the belief it prevents drunkenness. From Greek a-, "not," and methustos, "intoxicated."
A compound of hydrogen and nitrogen, also referred to in alchemical texts as "volatile alkali." Ammonia is named for the deposits of ammonium chloride located in Libya next to the Temple of the god Amun, the (eventual) supreme creator deity of the Egyptian pantheon.
A two-handled ceramic vase with an elongated neck. From Greek amphi-, "both sides," and pherein, "to carry."
Certain animals, both real and fantastical, are frequently depicted in alchemical texts. Often they are used to signify phases of the Great Work: the toad and the crow (black phase); the eagle, the unicorn, and swans (white phase); and the pelican and the cockerel (red phase). Other commonly depicted animals include the peacock, the basilisk, and the lion, in various colors.
Pimpinella anisum; a flavorful, flowering plant used to combat flatulence.
In metallurgy, to treat with heat to change the properties of a material or to make it easier to manipulate. From Old English aelan, "to burn."
Stibium; a brittle, silver-white crystalline element. Possibly known to Geber in the eighth century, it was first identified in Europe in the sixteenth century by the Italian metallurgist Vannoccio Biringuccio. Antimony was symbolized by a grey wolf because of the propensity for molten antimony to "overcome" other elements by quickly consuming them into alloys. Latinization of the Greek stimmi, from ancient Egyptian stm, "antimony."
A solvent made from saltpeter (potassium nitrate), used for dissolving silver. Literally, Latin, "strong water."
Nitro-hydrochloric acid, a yellow, highly corrosive solvent capable of dissolving gold and platinum. Geber discovered it in the eighth century by combining salt with sulfuric acid. Literally, Latin, "royal water."
Latin, "rain water."
A general term for all distillates, originally applicable to a concentrated aqueous solution of ethanol. A direct translation from the Latin to Gaelic yeilds uisce beatha, the origin of "whisky." Literally, Latin, "water of life."
The inner or hidden nature of a substance. From Greek arkos, "secret" or "that which is locked away or protected."
A neologism that implies superior practice of the art of alchemy. It seems to be used by some alchemists to differentiate their activities from those of their rivals (Giovanni Agostino Pantheo refers to the rival practice as "illicit and duplicitous alchemy" as opposed to his own work published in 1530 as Voarchadumia, "the cabala of metals"). From Norton's Ordinal (1477), comes the quote, "Mastery full marvelous and Archimastry is the tincture of holy alchemy." By the nineteenth century, however, archimie had become a French term for chemical analysis in metallurgy.
Common sand, used in filtration. From Latin harena, "sand."
Elemental mercury; quicksilver. Literally, Latin, "living silver."
A crystalline chemical element known for its poisonous properties. It can be categorized as album, citrinum, or rubrum for white, yellow, or red, respectively. From Persian zarnikh, "yellow orpiment," a yellow mineral found in hot springs.
A euphemism for alchemy.
A set of silicate minerals known for their heat- and fire-resistant properties. In some texts the word is used to describe lime. Legend attributes it to the wool of salamanders (fire spirits). From Greek asbestos, "unquenchable."
The rising of the active component to the top of the vessel. From Latin ascendere, "to climb."
Ashmole, Elias (1617–92)
A famed English intellectual, astrologer, and alchemist and the founder of the Royal Society. His collection of natural history artifacts forms the origin of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. An artillery captain (due to his gift of mathematics), Ashmole served on the Royalist side of the English Civil War. After the Restoration he served the Crown as auditor and herald and held numerous other posts. Ashmole makes one of the earliest references to freemasonry and was possibly a Rosicrucian. He became a doctor of medicine in 1669 and published a collection of alchemical works, the Theatrum Chemicum Britanicum.
The process by which a substance is reduced to ash, effectively by roasting. From Greek azein, "to dry."
A coal-burning furnace, also called "the tower furnace," noted in alchemical operation for its slow burning and infrequent stoking. Philostratus mentions an "occult hill" called Athanor in his Life of Apollonius (c. 200 CE), referring to Apollonius of Tyana, the neo-Pythagorean philosopher.
Vitriol; any black liquid such as ink or dye. From Latin atrox, "cruel."
A golden-toned alloy, possibly bronze, or of gold and copper. From Greek oros, "mountain," and chalkos, "copper" or "bronze."
An ideal formula; the completion or union of opposites in mastery. Generally associated with the element mercury, azoth is frequently depicted by the caduceus. Alternatively "azote." From Arabic al-zauq, "mercury."
Then circulate them so thou shall
To heale in man diseases all
For then thou has Electrum right
The first essence of the Sonne bright
This is the Philosophers Sulfur vive
Theire Tinctur, lead, theire Gold of life
—Edmund Dickinson, 17th Century
Bacon, Roger (c. 1214–94)
One of the pioneers of experimental science, an English Franciscan with an encyclopedic knowledge of physics, astronomy, optics, philosophy, theology, and alchemy. A master of Aristotle at Oxford, Bacon is thought to be the author of the Speculum Alchemiae and possibly of the famed Voynich manuscript.
A double-hulled pot used for warming components slowly and evenly. The outer pot is subjected to direct heat and is filled with a liquid, usually water, into which the second, inner pot is placed. The substance to be heated is placed inside the second vessel. The bain-marie (literally, French, "Mary's bath") is named for "Mary the Jewess," the legendary alchemist who is sometimes associated with the sister of Moses or Mary Magdalene.
An emulsion serving as a suspension medium for essences. Paracelsus considered the balsam of vitriol ("the green lion") to be the vital essence of the human body, repelling putrefaction. From Arabic basham, "perfume."
Barium sulfate, noted in alchemy for its phosphorescent properties. From Greek barus, "heavy."
A fantastical, venomous beast with the head of a cock and the body of a lion or sometimes a dragon. The basilisk is the prima materia, the chaotic base matter from which all organized matter subsequently derives. From Greek basiliskos, "little king."
Becher, Johann Joachim (1635–82)
A physician, metallurgist, encyclopedist, and alchemist, Becher was a German scholar who first proposed the idea of phlogiston. He proposed an invented, universal language and contributed 100,000 words to this effort. He also aspired to concoct an invisibility potion.
Potassium bitartrate, the crude form of cream of tartar.
An aggregate mass formed by the clumping of certain compounds. Such masses found in nature, like balls of hair, root tangles, et cetera, were considered to have magical healing properties. From Persian padzahr, "counter poison."
A dark yellow fluid produced by the liver, thought to regulate depression and aggression. From Latin bilis.
Used to represent phases of alchemical process and spiritual experience: the black crow (nigredo), the white swan (albedo), the peacock (transitional iridescence), the pelican (sacrifice), and the phoenix (completion, resurrection).
A heavy white element similar to arsenic and antimony. In 1980, a microscopic portion of bismuth was successfully turned into gold by the use of nuclear physics. Possibly from Old High German hwiz, "white."
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