alchemy

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

alchemy

alchemy (ăl´kəmē), ancient art of obscure origin that sought to transform base metals (e.g., lead) into silver and gold; forerunner of the science of chemistry. Some scholars hold that it was first practiced in early Egypt and others that it arose in China (in the 5th or 3d cent. BC) and was carried westward. It consisted chiefly of experiments with metals and other chemical materials. Alchemical apparatus included the alembic (or ambix) for distillation and the kerotakis for sublimation. In its beginnings alchemy was essentially a craft and embraced many kinds of metalwork, including the use of alloys resembling gold and silver. Alexandria is generally considered a center of early alchemy, and the art was influenced by the philosophy of the Hellenistic Greeks; the conversion of base metals into gold (considered the most perfect of metals) was part of a general striving of all things toward perfection. Since the early alchemists were mainly artisans, they tried to conceal the secrets of their work; thus, many of the materials they used were referred to by obscure or astrological names. It is believed that the concept of the philosopher's stone (called also by many other names, including the elixir and the grand magistery) may have originated in Alexandria; this was an imaginary substance thought to be capable of transmuting the less noble metals into gold and also of restoring youth to the aged. Alchemy, strongly tinged with magic, reached the Arabs (perhaps in the 8th cent.) and remained for several centuries under Muslim influence; in the 12th cent. it reached parts of Europe through translations of Arabic writings (the early Greek treatises were not known in Europe in the Middle Ages). Arab alchemy was preserved especially in the works of Jabir, and the earlier Greek alchemy in those of Zosimus and others. The alchemical writings of the Middle Ages continued to be couched in symbolic and cryptic language. The alchemists became obsessed with their quest for the secret of transmutation; some adopted deceptive methods of experimentation, and many gained a livelihood from hopeful patrons. As a result, alchemy fell into disrepute. However, in the searching experimental quests of the alchemists chemistry had its beginnings; indeed, the histories of alchemy and chemistry are closely linked. Transmutation of elements has been accomplished in modern chemistry.

See L. Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science (8 vol., 1923–58); A. J. Hopkins, Alchemy: Child of Greek Philosophy (1943); C. A. Burland, The Arts of the Alchemists (1967); J. Lindsay, The Origins of Alchemy in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1970); L. M. Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy (2012).

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