The Development and Diffusion of Alchemy from Antiquity to the Renaissance

Brenda S Gardenour. Science, Religion, and Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy. Editor: Arri Eisen & Gary Laderman. Volume 1. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines alchemy as the art and science of transforming base metals into gold, particularly through the use of the universal solvent, or philosopher’s stone. Alchemists believed that, by applying the universal solvent, any metal could be purified into gold, which was merely the perfect state of all metals. It was thought that even iron, if left to grow in the ground over time, would mature into gold; alchemical practice merely expedited this natural process. Alchemy involved techniques originally developed by craftspeople seeking to create objects of simulated gold, silver, gems, and pearls, as well as by dyers who attempted to counterfeit the rare and valuable Tyrian purple dye. Elements of alchemy also evolved from the demands of medical practice and pharmacology.

Alchemy has a second, mystical component. The alchemist sought not only the universal solvent, but the universal panacea or elixir, a miraculous substance that, when applied to the body, had the power to heal or even provide immortality. The elixir allowed for the purification and perfection of the human body, just as the philosopher’s stone affected base metals. Alchemy, then, was a process by which the practitioner sought to uncover divine truths, hidden in nature behind the veil of physical forms. The uncovering of the occult, the perfection of metal, healing, and immortality were all made possible because of the connections that were believed to exist between the macrocosm, especially the cosmos beyond the moon, and the microcosm, including both the earth and the human body. The alchemist, if pure of spirit and intent, and connected to the greater forces of creation, could rearrange matter and manipulate it into the desired form.

Two major challenges are presented in this discussion of alchemy. First, alchemy was not one thing, but many things at the same time; it was never solely theoretical, technical, or spiritual, but was almost always a combination of the three, each in varying amounts. The second challenge is the elusive nature of alchemical practice. Alchemists sought to keep their art a secret, and so wrote treatises in a cryptic style, filled with allusions and veiled secrets. Alchemical works were often written under pseudonyms and attributed to gods, goddesses, and heroes of the alchemical world. The authors and dates of manuscripts are not easily discernable; lines of transmission are difficult, if not impossible, to identify. Just as the sources for a single manuscript are multifold, so are the various influences on alchemy as a whole. There was no single alchemical tradition; instead, it is an amalgamation of ideas and practices from China, India, Persia, and Greece, and Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. The alchemical undercurrent pulses beneath the surface of these diverse regions and cultures, from antiquity to early modern Europe, maintaining many tributaries, all of them interconnected in diverse and subtle ways. This connectivity must be born in mind through the following discussion of the theoretical, technical, and mystical aspects of alchemy, and alchemy’s impact on history. For each facet of the alchemical gem we view, several are obscured.

Ancient Greek Sources

The roots of alchemical theory can be found in the philosophies of Milesians in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. From their poleis on the coast of Iona, they pondered the nature of the cosmos. No longer satisfied with mythological explanations for natural phenomena, they developed their own epistemologies. Key to the development of alchemy was the belief in an ultimate substance from which all things are made. Thales believed that the underlying substance of creation was water. Anaximander postulated that a vast nothingness called the “apeiron,” from which emerged a seed, was the source of all creation. Other theories abounded: Anaximenes cast his lot for air, rarified and condensed; Heraclitus of Ephesus, for fire; and Leucippus of Miletus, for tiny particles called atoms. While these philosophers were not alchemists, their theories were essential to the development of alchemical theory. For if there is a single substance from which all matter is made, then copper is in essence the same as gold, with only a different physical appearance.

In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle, like the Milesians, believed in a universal prima materia. Objects in nature were composed of “matter,” the underlying substance from which all things are made, and “form,” the qualities impressed upon the matter to create different objects. While the form of objects might change, the matter itself did not. Aristotle postulated that change in matter took place through the shifting balances of the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. The foundation of the four elements were the four qualities: dry, wet, cold, and hot. The combination of cold and dry yielded earth, cold and wet yielded water, hot and wet yielded air, and hot and dry yielded fire. Aristotelian elemental theory is of the greatest importance for alchemical theory. Not only is all of creation made of the same substance, but the form of matter can be manipulated through processes of combination and dissolution.

Belief in an ultimate substance and Aristotelian elemental theory contributed to the understanding of the physical nature of matter. Stoicism, which developed between the fourth and third centuries BCE, explored the spiritual dimension of matter. Stoics argued for the power of pneuma, or breath, in the creation of matter and the generation of all of its physical qualities. Heavenly pneuma descends to create matter; therefore, within matter is the indwelling nature of the divine. Future Gnostics, Hermeticists, and alchemists would seek to commune with the heavenly pneuma and, through divine revelation, understand the fundamental workings of the physical world. Stoicism introduced the link between the practitioner and the divine. For later alchemists, Stoicism was to provide the foundation for their belief that the state of the practitioner was elemental to the success of the experiment. Only the alchemist who was rightly guided and spiritually pure would be able to manipulate the elements of nature to create noble substances.

While elements of alchemy are founded in Greek philosophy, still others find their sources in the techniques developed by Greek, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian artisans and magicians. As theorists like Aristotle contemplated the nature of matter, potters mixed various glazes, experimenting to discover which provided the best luster. As the Stoics discoursed, jewelers attempted to augment gold and silver, and other craftspeople sought to create the illusion of gold, even if only its color, in their works. Cloth workers experimented with different dyes, mixing and matching different substances until the perfect color was reached.

The attempt to alter nature was important also to the practitioner of magic. Despite the work of historians such as Lynn Thorndike, Richard Kieckhefer, Valerie Flint, and Karen Jolly, many still consider magic the folly of the ancients. However, magic at all levels, particularly the use of ritual incantation and recipes, is vital to the development of alchemy. Whether practicing natural or demonic magic, individuals believed it possible to manipulate nature and the forces behind it in order to procure a desired effect. Perhaps to the modern mind, combining experimentation with natural elements and spiritual practices seems primitive and ineffective; nevertheless, we must accept that such practices were in force throughout the period, that many of those who practiced the magical arts believed in their efficacy, and that the attitudes inherent in the practice of magic were fundamental to the development of alchemy, and perhaps even to modern science.

Hellenistic Sources

In the Hellenistic Period, Egypt was believed to be the birthplace of the alchemical art, in part because of the high level the metallurgic craft had reached there, but also because ancient Egypt was imagined as the source of magical practices and as possessing secret wisdom. Although the etymology of the word alchemy is the Arabic prefix al- plus the Greek word chemeia or chymeia, meaning “to melt,” practitioners claimed that Egypt was once known as the land of “Khem” and argued that this was the root which, with the addition of the Arabic prefix, became “al-Khemia.” Authors of alchemical treatises purposefully invoked the name and images of ancient Egypt as a source of prestige for their craft, similar to the way in which they attributed authorship of treatises to Egyptian deities such as Isis and Hermes Trismegistos (Greek for the Egyptian god Thoth). In this way, the use of Egyptian identities and imagery in alchemical works can be seen as topoi.

While the role of ancient Egyptians in the development of the technologies that would be used in alchemy is vital, the Egyptian contribution to alchemical theory is unclear. The first alchemical treatises do emerge in Egypt, but in the Hellenistic period, and in the Greek language. They may claim for themselves interesting lines of transmission, but most of these are impossible to verify. These treatises deal not only with theory, but also praxis, and include recipes for concoctions and decoctions, as well as instructions for the construction of alchemical equipment. Between the first and fourth centuries, several alchemical treatises by unidentifiable authors were in circulation, including those contained in the Leiden and Stockholm Papyri and the Hermetic corpus, as well as works attributed to Isis, Kleopatra, Sophia, and Agathodaemon.

The first known alchemical treatise by an identifiable author is the Physica Kai Mystika of Pseudo-Democritus, which may have been the pen name of Bolos of Mendes, who flourished sometime between 100 BCE and 100 CE. In this treatise, Bolos reveals the threefold doctrine taught to him by his master, the magus Ostanes. The threefold doctrine is a system of sympathies, in which nature enjoys nature, nature conquers nature, and nature dominates nature, and by which different qualities within a substance can be mutated through the manipulation of physical qualities. Parts of the Physica Kai Mystika are written in Hebrew. Because of this, and because of references within the text to keeping the secrets of the alchemical art among the followers of Abraham, Patai has argued that Bolos the alchemist was a Hellenized Jew.

A second alchemical corpus, dating possibly from the early third century CE, is attributed to Maria the Jewess, or Maria Hebraea, whose works we learn through the writings of Zosimus of Panopolis, who flourished in Alexandria around 300 CE. A prolific writer, he not only produced alchemical treatises, many of which have survived, but also a twenty-eight volume chemical encyclopedia, coauthored with his sister, Eusebeia. In his treatises on alchemy, he quotes frequently from earlier sources, sometimes from Bolos of Mendes but most frequently from Maria the Jewess, to whom he attributes the invention and improvement of several pieces of alchemical equipment, including the water-bath or “balneum mariae,” the three-pronged still, called the tribikos, and another type of distillation device called the kerotakis. Maria not only improved the technology of alchemy but also contributed to the development of alchemical theory. Through Zosimus, we learn that Maria held all of nature to be composed of an underlying substance; that metals had bodies, souls, and spirits, just like human beings; and that the incorporeal spirits of metals were the conduit for manipulation and change. Metals grew slowly in the ground, but could also mature into gold, as well as die in the fire. Maria also held that there were female and male metals, and that through their union, a third entity could be created, and then a fourth, through which unity of substance would be achieved.

Zosimus used not only Neo-Platonic and Gnostic sources in developing his alchemical theory but also Hebrew scripture. He is the first to describe the biblical origin of alchemy, positing that the name Adam actually stood for the four elements as well as the four cardinal points on earth. In his Book of Imouth, Zosimus writes that alchemy is the art of angels. Relying on the apocryphal Hebrew Book of Enoch (first century CE), Zosimus recounts the tale of how rogue angels fell in love with beautiful human women and not only mated with them but also taught them the secret art of alchemy. The belief that alchemy was a divine secret, revealed through Adam, angels, the prophets, and select Jewish alchemists, would have a long life in alchemical history.

Patai asserts that some of the earliest alchemists were Jewish, including Bolos of Medes, Maria, and perhaps Zosimus himself. There were undoubtedly a myriad of Jewish alchemists in the Hellenized world, especially at Alexandria, the scientific center of learning. Jews who practiced alchemy, like most other alchemists, engaged in activities other than the alchemical arts, and were probably involved in trade, handcrafts, literary and religious arts, and politics. The Jews of the Hellenized world maintained a broad network of connections, extending throughout the Roman Empire and into the Middle East, where the next stage in the development of alchemy would commence.

Arabic Alchemy

Zosimus was the last of the truly inventive alchemists of the Hellenized world. The fifth century, for alchemy and for the arts and sciences in general, was a period of decline in the Greek orbit, a time in which encyclopedias, aimed at retaining information, replaced in-depth treatises on specific subjects. Alexandria became a storehouse of alchemical knowledge rather than a dynamic center of experimentation. At this point we must shift our focus from the Hellenized world to that of the Arabian peninsula. The advent of Islam in the seventh century acted as a catalyst to development in the Middle East. The Abbasid revolution of 750 continued the process of vitalization and, with the founding of Baghdad and the translation movement of the eighth and ninth centuries, changed the course of the arts and sciences, including that of alchemy.

The Arabic translation movement, often portrayed as a monolithic event with clear boundaries and even steps, took place via many pathways. Nestorian Christians performed the translation of Greek texts into Syriac, and some of these were then translated into Arabic from Syriac. This is especially true of medical texts translated at Jundishapur, an early Christian center of learning. Individual scholars also sought out Greek and Syriac texts for translation. The greatest impetus for translation, however, was the cultural milieu of Baghdad itself, which attracted Arab and Persian Muslim, Zoroastrian, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu scholars, each of which contributed to the selection and translation of texts. Al-Mamun’s founding of the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, was neither the earliest nor the sole cause of the translation movement, but it acted as a catalyst for the continued translation and absorption of much of Greek science. As the libraries of the Hellenistic world were brought back to Baghdad, alchemical treatises traveled along with other scientific works and entered into the orbit of Islam, where they were absorbed and augmented by Muslim and Jewish practitioners.

Arabic alchemy remained consistent with Hellenistic theory and practice, while continuing to emphasize the biblical basis of the art, including the belief that alchemical secrets were revealed by Allah to Adam, and that this knowledge was not only passed on through Jewish family lines but also revealed to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Isa, Muhammad, and in Shiite sources, Ali. From the prophet Muhammad, alchemists claimed that occult wisdom was passed down to three individuals: Khalid ibn Yazid (660-704), Jafar al-Sadiq (d. 765), and Jabir ibn Hayyan (d. 812). Alchemical authors in the ninth century traced their knowledge back to these individuals and even assigned authorship to them. Over a century after his death, Khalid ibn Yazid, not an alchemist but an Umayyad prince, was falsely credited with writing the Liber Secretorum Alchimiae, Firdaws al Hikma, and the Liber Secretorum Artis. He was also at different points believed to have had as a master a Byzantine monk, Morenus, or an unnamed Jewish alchemical master. Later tradition claims that Khalid was a Jew. The true author of the treatises, Pseudo-Khalid, may very well have been Jewish and certainly knew Hebrew.

While the identity of Pseudo-Khalid cannot be solved here, it does serve to remind the student that, like the Persian and Egyptian Magician, the Jewish Alchemist must be seen not only as a potentially real individual, since there were myriad Jews involved in all levels of translation, science, and medicine, but also as a stock character, a stereotype used to evoke a set of images and presumptions in the reader. The ambivalent image of the Jewish Alchemist in the Islamic world was transformed into the negative image of the Maleficent Jew in the medieval Christian world. In evoking Jewish roots, Arabic alchemists not only honored the wisdom of their Jewish predecessors but also played on the topos of Judaism as a repository for esoteric and occult knowledge. Throughout alchemical history, Jewish scripture was seen as particularly laden with alchemical secrets, and Hebrew seen as the mother tongue of alchemy.

The Jabir or Geber corpus contains several alchemical treatises, including the Liber Misericordia, The One Hundred Twelve, The Book of Balances, Liber Fornacum, and De Inventione Veritatis. The research of Paul Kraus, building on that of Julius Ruska, indicates that the treatises of the Jabir corpus were written by a variety of individuals, many with Shiite leanings, between the ninth and tenth centuries. While the provenance of the treatises attributed to Jabir, or Geber, cannot be ascertained, this does not lessen the validity of the treatises themselves, which evidence the presence and growth of the alchemical art in Islamic science. The Jabir corpus not only contains translations and fragments of earlier alchemical works but also develops the art of manipulating the letters of creation, “alef, mem, and shin” in Hebrew, and “ain, mim, and sin” in Arabic. God created the cosmos through words composed of these letters; therefore, the letters must retain some element of creative power, as well as holding the secrets of nature within them. Furthermore, numbers could be transformed into letters, letters into numbers. Such ideas not only acted as a catalyst for the development of science in general but also for the development of the Jewish Kabbalah.

Arabic alchemy was furthered by Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn-Zakariyya al-Razi (825-924), a physician who also authored works of poetry, philosophy, and practical alchemy. Healing and alchemy were closely allied sciences, due not only to the understanding of basic chemical processes necessary for pharmacology, but also to the belief that inner healing, or the healing of the spirit, led to the healing of the body. On the later topic, al-Razi wrote The Spiritual Physic; on the former, he is credited with The Book of Alums and Salts, although Ruska attributes this alchemical text to an eleventh-century Iberian scholar. The Book of Alums and Salts exists in Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin versions; the Hebrew version appears to be the source text, although this is a matter of dispute as well. The text deals with basic alchemical processes but also discusses the properties and souls of minerals and how they can be combined to form a medicine for lesser metals, bringing them to wholeness and healing in the form of perfect gold. The Liber Secretorum, also attributed to al-Razi, classifies and describes in detail various minerals, salts, and liquids, as well as specialized equipment and alchemical procedures. The Turba Philosophorum, perhaps spurious, seeks to synthesize elements of alchemy, Hellenistic philosophy, and the Quran.

While some Muslims saw alchemy and Islam as mutually exclusive, most were ambivalent, admitting that elements of alchemical practice were useful, but doubting its ability to radically transform matter. Representative of this latter attitude was Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037), the poet, philosopher, and physician. His works include a compendium on medical practice called Al-Qanun, which he also produced in a poetic and therefore easily memorized form. Although he occasionally alludes to alchemical processes, in his Kitab al-Shifa he denies the possibility of transmutation of base metals into noble ones without first reducing the elements to their “primal matter.” Since this primal matter cannot be discerned, Ibn Sina believed alchemy impossible. In arguing against alchemy, however, he illuminates the persistence of alchemical tenets in scientific culture.

Alchemical treatises, and the technology contained in them, circulated throughout the Muslim world, from Samarkand to the northern limits of the olive on the Iberian peninsula. Arabic alchemy contributed to advances in the distillation process and the development of specialized equipment, such as the Moor’s Head still. Albucasis built a multilevel distillation device for the production of medicines and refining perfumes. Attributed to Arabic chemists also are the discovery of alcohol, the perfection of petroleum distillates, refined petroleum oil, various types of waxes, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, alkalis, refinement of natron, caustic soda, and soaps. Perhaps the most valuable contribution of Arabic and Jewish alchemists is the development of a concise, technical vocabulary; many of its terms would remain in European alchemy from the twelfth century forward.

Alchemy in the West

The eleventh and twelfth centuries mark the shift to the next geographical stage in the story of alchemy. Alchemical knowledge, based on treatises from the Hellenistic world, translated and augmented by Arabic and Hebrew authors, circulated throughout the Islamic world, including the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the Iberian peninsula. The Arabic to Latin translation movement germinated in Toledo, which in 1085 had been conquered by Alfonso VI and incorporated in the Christian kingdom of Leon. As urban areas once under Islamic control fell to the Christians, vast Arabic libraries became available for translation. Twelfth-century Christian scholars such as Gerard of Cremona, Plato of Trivoli, Herman of Carinthia, and Robert of Ketton traveled to the Iberian peninsula in order to translate scientific works from Arabic into Latin; peninsular translators include Hugh of Santalla, Dominicus Gondisalvi, Petrus Alphonsi, Savasorda, and Abraham ben Ezra. To facilitate this process, Latinate scholars often worked in translation teams with peers fluent in Hebrew and Arabic. Soon the works of Aristotle and texts discoursing on physics, optics, surgery, medicine, and alchemy were circulating throughout medieval Europe, at first in the monasteries but ultimately in the urban milieu of the developing urban universities. Alchemy as art and science was never accepted into the curriculum of the medieval universities, but alchemical texts were still sought for translation by scholars.

Alchemical treatises of the twelfth through fourteenth centuries fall roughly into four categories: translations, encyclopedias, treatises seeking to interpret the alchemical tradition, and manuals for the practice of the alchemical arts. The first category would include Michael Scot’s translation Alchimia and Robert of Ketton’s translation De Compositione Alchemiae (1144), taken from Morenus. The encyclopedic tradition is represented by Bartholomew Anglicus, a Franciscan who composed On the Properties of Things (1260), a compendium of natural philosophy for the general reader, and by Vincent of Beauvais, a Dominican who produced two volumes on natural philosophy, theSpeculum Doctrinale and Speculum Naturale (1244-1250). Interpretive treatises were written by Albertus Magnus, whose De Mineralibus (1250) postulated the alchemical healing of metals, achieved by strengthening the spiritual and celestial powers within them, and thus perfecting them. Albertus Magnus argued that it was not the alchemist who transmuted the metal; instead, like the priest performing a baptism, he only prepared it for a more perfect form provided by heaven. Roger Bacon, in his Opus Tertium (1266), also wrote on alchemy, which he argued should be the basis of reforming the university curriculum. In his Communium Naturalium, Bacon further argued that alchemy, especially the transmutation of metals, was realistically possible.

As in the Hellenistic and Arabic worlds, alchemy was seen as the art of a select few. Treatises were often written in an enigmatic format, using the same ancient symbolism present in Bolos of Mendes and Zosimus. Like their ancient predecessors, medieval alchemical authors who sought to expound upon the actual practice of alchemy often wrote under pseudonyms; alchemical treatises were attributed to Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Arnau de Vilanova, Ramon Llull, Avicenna, and Aristotle.

Jewish alchemists continued to translate texts and participate in the alchemical arts. Representative would be the thirteenth-century Gershon Ben Shlomo of Arles, a Provencal scholar who wrote a summa of the natural sciences, including alchemy, called the Gate of Heaven. In this treatise, he borrows heavily from an Arabic text by Abufalah. While texts flowed across cultural borders in large numbers during the translation movements, we must always bear in mind the connectivity of the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean. As an alchemist, Gershon ben Shlomo had access to a wide variety of texts from varied traditions. The major contribution of the medieval West to alchemy was the act of translation and synthesis of alchemical ideas; the true revolution in alchemical theory came in the thirteenth century with the development of the Jewish Kabbalah.

From Kabbalah to Renaissance Magus

The first practitioners of the Kabbalah flourished in Jewish communities of mid-twelfth-century Provence. The first surviving Kabbalistic treatise is the Sefer Yetzira. From Provence, the Kabbalah traveled to thirteenth-century Spain, gravitating toward Toledo and then spreading northward. The most important book in the Kabbalistic corpus is the Sefer ha-Zohar of Rabbi Moses of Leon (fl. 1275). From the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, the Kabbalah developed in various directions as it gained in popularity. The expulsion in 1492 brought Jews from Spain to Italy in large numbers, and with them the Kabbalah, especially the Zohar. Flavius Mithridates, a Florentine scholar who flourished in the early sixteenth century, translated a variety of Kabbalistic texts, thus making them available to a Latinate public. Humanists such as Pico Della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino adopted ideas from the Kabbalah, especially those concerning the manipulation of numbers and letters in an attempt to uncover occult knowledge.

Kabbalistic techniques of exegesis, coupled with Neo-Platonic philosophy and the recovery of the Hermetic corpus, served as a powerful tool for Renaissance occultists. These three elements breathed new life into the art of alchemy. Alchemists no longer constrained themselves to traditional recipes; instead, they experimented with different materials, hoping to find the hidden truths stored in them. They believed that God had conveyed the secrets of the cosmos to Hermetic Adam, that part of the alchemist still connected with prelapsarian perfection. The Renaissance magus, a reflection of Hermetic Adam, was thought to have mastered the skills necessary to refine nature, manipulate astrological powers, talk to angels, see the future, and create gold from base metals. This confidence led alchemists to explore nature in search of the divine secrets hidden there. While they searched, they experimented, making discoveries about the substances that they manipulated. Suddenly, nature was worth exploring and examining, if only in search of hidden knowledge.

In the sixteenth century, the occult remained important; however, as books of alchemical and Hermetic secrets were published, a change occurred. No longer was it necessary to be an initiate, to have a master, to speak the language of alchemy. Alchemical books of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries read like how-to manuals, and their secrets were open to all who could read. The development of print culture allowed scientists to critique and correct earlier treatises; the mystical elements of alchemy were neutralized, leaving behind the elements from which modern chemistry would emerge.

Alchemy is often dismissed as a failed science. Alchemists never found the philosopher’s stone, never created gold from lead, and never discovered the elixir of life. However, the importance of alchemy isn’t in its success rate but in its failures. The history of science is not only that of grand experiments but also botched ones; the scientist can learn from both. The alchemical tradition was composed of science, technical craft, and mystical art in varying proportions. Alchemical knowledge in all of its forms was passed from culture to culture, its exterior changing while its essence remained indelibly the same. The mystical aspects of alchemy intensified with the advent of the Kabbalah, and its incorporation into Renaissance Hermeticism. Not until the nineteenth-century advent of modern chemistry were craft and science separated from mysticism and spirituality. Alchemical curiosity, with all of its dubious sources and impossible dreams, served as a foundation for scientific inquiry. Perhaps the questions we ask of past sciences should not be why they failed, but why they were so persistent.