Alchemy Research Paper

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Often thought of simply as the precursor to chemistry, the study and practice of alchemy actually was part science / part philosophy, ranging into spiritual practices and techniques aimed at transforming the human consciousness. With the ancient goal of discovering life’s secrets, alchemists studied the relationship between humanity and nature and the processes by which they were altered.

As it is most commonly understood, alchemy was a medieval scientific and philosophical endeavor with the central practical aim of finding a method for transforming base metals into gold. The primitive exercises in chemistry, however, were only the practical manifestations of a more ancient, quasireligious search for what might be termed the fountain of youth: the alchemist’s ultimate quest was to uncover the secrets of matter and of life itself, so that it might be prolonged indefinitely.

Alchemy has long been of interest to historians of science, anthropologists, and a host of other scholars with an interest in the human religious impulse and the shaping of rituals aimed at the transformation of individuals and social groups. It is a topic perhaps best approached from four distinct avenues of inquiry: the first has to do with the etymology of the word; the second concerns its history; the third focuses on both the practice of alchemy and its ideological foundations; the fourth deals with alchemy as a global phenomenon with a set of universal precepts identifiable through cross-cultural comparison. The story of alchemy must, in sum, be understood from a highly nuanced standpoint that takes into account its complex history and global diffusion. More than just a simple precursor of the modern science of chemistry, it is a way of thinking about the relationship of humanity and nature that emphasizes the importance of transformation in both. It also focuses on the role that human agency plays in mediating the processes by which substances—natural and human—are transmuted, or raised to a higher form.

The word alchemy enters the English language by way of a long philological journey that parallels, in some respects, the evolution of the practice in the Western world. Its semantic core comes from one of two possible Greek terms: the first, chymeia, is a noun denoting something poured or infused. The second, chemeia, is a noun that refers specifically to the transformation of metallic substances. One or the other of these terms was likely the source for the Arabic term al-kimiya, which comes into the lexicon of Medieval Latin as alchimia, into Old French as alkemie, and ultimately into English as alchemy.

This linguistic evolution provides some clues as to the origin and spread of the art in Greece, North Africa, and the Near East. Its first flowering is believed to have been in Egypt around 300 BCE, a time when scientific inquiry was in full bloom in the Hellenistic world. Some four and a half centuries later, Islamic scholars adopted the tradition and added to its cosmological conceptions, precepts, and practices; ultimately, it was their stewardship and mediation that enabled it to spread throughout Europe in the fourteenth century CE. Although considered of questionable merit at best by Christian ecclesiastical authorities, alchemy had become a vital part of the European intellectual ethos by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Many of history’s well-known personalities, including, in England, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Isaac Newton, and King Charles II, have been favorably inclined toward its esoteric and exoteric dimensions.

Moreover, the symbolism of alchemy has had a profound impact on the literary and artistic traditions of the West. Evidence of its influence can be seen in the work of William Shakespeare, John Milton, Johann von Goethe, John Dryden, Victor Hugo, and William Butler Yeats. Alchemical processes and symbolism have proved to be of enduring interest to scholars, artists, and literati down to the present era. In the twentieth century, they provided the brilliant psychologist Carl Jung with a template for understanding the processes associated with the maturation of the human psyche, and they continue to inform the work of many contemporary Jungian psychoanalysts. The alchemical quest for the so-called philosopher’s stone (the substance that would change metal into gold, emblematic of that which is primal and in a state of eternal stasis) and elixir vitae (the potion that bestows boundless health and everlasting life) remains an inspiration to modern religious seekers, some of whom see in them guideposts for the human quest for communion with nature and the supernatural.

Alchemy can be described as a cosmological, philosophical, and metaphysical system that views the created world and everything in it as both vibrant and evolving. For the alchemist, the developmental processes that govern life are not easily discernible without the aid of special insight; it is the aim of alchemy to uncover and chart these hidden dynamics. By so doing, the alchemist would gain the knowledge that makes effective stewardship of the world possible. This includes not simply the ability to be a passive guardian, but the skills needed to engage in proactive intervention that can bring all that has not reached maturation to full flower. Thus, the alchemist is one who understands the processes of nature at an intimate level and has the capacity to use this knowledge to promote cosmic, environmental, social, and individual metamorphosis.

The stock-in-trade of alchemy consisted of observation, the gathering of empirical data, experimentation, and contemplation of the unseen verities that lay behind the phenomena that could be apprehended with the five human senses. Whether couched in terms adapted from Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Islamic, Indian, Daoist, or Christian lore, the overarching goal of alchemy appears to have been relatively uniform: that is, to uncover the forces governing unity, diversity, stasis, and flux in the world. Having mastered them, the alchemist would possess knowledge of the primal element from which all matter was created and the ability to distinguish between the mutable and the immutable, the finite and the infinite.

In time, the art would develop two distinct trajectories. The first was limited to the study of natural processes (chemistry). The second—consisting of alchemy and the allied hermetic disciplines—would be concerned primarily with the esoteric and spiritual dimensions of these processes. In the alchemical lore of the West, the practice is often characterized as a quest for the substance that has the power to perfect that which is incomplete and to make noble that which is base. This element or compound is superior to and prized above all others. It is known by many names, the most famous of which is the philosopher’s stone. In order to produce it, base matter—whether animal, vegetable, or mineral—must be reduced to materia prima (the primary substance). This symbolic death is the precursor for the generation of a new element through coagulation. The process was understood to involve internal and external dimensions, in that an alteration in the alchemist’s state of consciousness was expected to accompany the manipulation of physical elements.

A more precise description of the aims, underlying philosophy, and processes associated with alchemy is difficult. Many of the texts produced by its practitioners are written in a manner that veils this information in allegories and symbols, a strategy intended to conceal its secrets from all save those who had been initiated into its mysteries. Some treatises appear to employ an alchemical language consisting of commonly shared and easily intelligible images; these include the biblical flood (symbolizing dissolution), the pelican (symbolizing the instrument used to distill the elixir vitae), the phoenix (symbolizing rebirth), blood (symbolizing mercury as solvent), the egg (the matrix in which the philosopher’s stone is made), and the philosophical tree (emblematic of growth and the alchemical process). Others writers appear to delight in confronting the reader with a confusing array of polyvalent symbols that defy precise classification and bedevil would-be interpreters. Certain alchemical writings remain today virtually inscrutable to even the most highly trained specialists.

Certain universal elements have been identified in alchemical practice across cultures. One particularly attractive view of alchemy’s origins was proposed in the mid-twentieth century by the historian of religions Mircea Eliade, who traced them to the rituals and specialized skills of early metallurgists. Eliade believed that these artisans—along with agriculturalists and those who learned to transform moist clay into vessels, bricks, and works of art—were the first to develop an awareness of humanity’s ability to make strategic interventions capable of altering the rhythms of nature. Through the use of fire, they could hasten the development of that which grew in the Earth, and shorten the interval of time needed to bring things to perfection.

Over time, this idea was applied to human beings and the cosmos, thereby giving rise to distinct alchemical traditions in Africa, the Near East, Asia, and Europe. The smith came to be seen as a powerful figure, one with specialized knowledge of how to forge tools that could generate life or cause death. Early metalworkers were also viewed as masters of esoteric knowledge related to architecture, song, poetry, dance, and healing. They were peerless makers whose secrets were jealously guarded and passed on through initiatory guilds. In sum, for Eliade the various alchemical traditions known to us from around the world owe their origin, at least in part, to the lore and praxis of the ancient smith.

The modern legacy of alchemy consists of experimental disciplines such as chemistry, as well as those applied sciences aimed at harnessing the Earth’s natural, mineral, and other resources. It also consists of spiritual practices and techniques aimed at transforming the human consciousness. Thus, mystical religious traditions (Eastern and Western) as well as psychoanalytic theory are built upon older alchemical foundations. Recognition of the limited and nonrenewable state of many of our global resources will likely fuel continuing interest in careful observation of the natural world and cultivation of a global awareness of human interconnectedness. By means of such endeavors, future generations may continue to build on and carry forward a rich alchemical heritage.


  1. Abraham, L. (1998). A dictionary of alchemical imagery. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Eliade, M. (1978). The forge and the crucible: The origins and structures of alchemy (2nd ed., S. Corrin, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. Lindsay, J. (1970). The origins of alchemy in Greco-Roman Egypt. London: Frederick Muller.
  4. Pritchard, A. (1980). Alchemy: A bibliography of English language writings. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  5. Raff, J. (2000). Jung and the Alchemical Imagination. Jung on the Hudson book series. Berwick, ME: Nicholas-Hays.
  6. Roob, A. (2001). Alchemy and mysticism (S. Whiteside, Trans.). Koln, Germany: Taschen.
  7. Smith, S. (Ed.). (1995). Funk and Wagnalls new international dictionary of the English language (Vol. 1). Chicago: World Publishers.
  8. von Franz, M.-L. (1980). Alchemy: An introduction to the symbolism and the psychology. Toronto, Canada: Inner City. Books.

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