Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Alchemy as a philosophical and spiritual discipline

The best known goals of the alchemists were the transmutation of common metals into gold or silver, and the creation of a "panacea", a remedy that supposedly would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely. Starting with the Middle Ages, European alchemists invested much effort on the search for the "philosopher's stone", a mythical substance that was believed to be an essential ingredient for either or both of those goals. Alchemists enjoyed prestige and support through the centuries, though not for their pursuit of those goals, nor the mystic and philosophical speculation that dominates their literature. Rather it was for their mundane contributions to the "chemical" industries of the day — the invention of gunpowder, ore testing and refining, metalworking, production of ink, dyes, paints, and cosmetics, leather tanning, ceramics and glass manufacture, preparation of extracts and liquors, and so on (It seems that the preparation of aqua vitae, the "water of life", was a fairly popular "experiment" among European alchemists).
On the other hand, alchemists never had the inclination to separate the physical (chemical) aspects of their craft from the metaphysical interpretations. Indeed, from antiquity until well into the Modern Age, a physics devoid of metaphysical insight would have been as unsatisfying as a metaphysics devoid of physical manifestation. For one thing, the lack of common words for chemical concepts and processes, as well as the need for secrecy, led alchemists to borrow the terms and symbols of biblical and pagan mythology, astrology, kabbalah, and other mystic and esoteric fields; so that even the plainest chemical recipe ended up reading like an abstruse magic incantation. Moreover, alchemists sought in those fields the theoretical frameworks into which they could fit their growing collection of disjointed experimental facts.
Starting with the middle ages, some alchemists increasingly came to view these metaphysical aspects as the true foundation of alchemy; and chemical substances, physical states, and material processes as mere metaphors for spiritual entities, states and transformations. Thus, both the transmutation of common metals into gold and the universal panacea symbolized evolution from an imperfect, diseased, corruptible and ephemeral state towards a perfect, healthy, incorruptible and everlasting state; and the philosopher's stone then represented some mystic key that would make this evolution possible. Applied to the alchemist himself, the twin goal symbolized his evolution from ignorance to enlightenment, and the stone represented some hidden spiritual truth or power that would lead to that goal. In texts that are written according to this view, the cryptic alchemical symbols, diagrams, and textual imagery of late alchemical works typically contain multiple layers of meanings, allegories, and references to other equally cryptic works; and must be laboriously "decoded" in order to discover their true meaning.
Some humanistic scholars now see these spiritual and metaphysical allegories as the truest and most valuable aspect of alchemy, and even claim that the development of chemistry out of alchemy was a "corruption" of the original Hermetic tradition. This is the view espoused by contemporary practitioners of spiritual alchemy. Most scientists, on the other hand, tend to take quite the opposite view: to them, the path from the material side of alchemy to modern chemistry was the "straight road" in the evolution of the discipline, while the metaphysically oriented brand of alchemy was a "wrong turn" that led to nowhere. In either view, however, the naïve interpretations of some practitioners or the fraudulent hopes fostered by others should not diminish the contribution of the more sincere alchemists.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Alchemy in ancient Egypt

The origin of western alchemy may generally be traced to ancient (pharaonic) Egypt. Metallurgy and mysticism were inexorably tied together in the ancient world, as the transformation of drab ore into shining metal must have seemed to be an act of magic governed by mysterious rules. It is claimed therefore that Alchemy in ancient Egypt was the domain of the priestly class.
Egyptian alchemy is known mostly through the writings of ancient (Hellenic) Greek philosophers, which in turn have often survived only in Islamic translations. Practically no original Egyptian documents on alchemy have survived. Those writings, if they existed, were likely lost when the emperor Diocletian ordered the burning of alchemical books after suppressing a revolt in Alexandria (292), which had been a center of Egyptian alchemy.
Nevertheless archaeological expeditions in recent times have unearthed evidence of chemical analysis during the Naqada periods. For example, a copper tool dating to the Naqada era bears evidence of having been used in such a way (reference: artifact 5437 on display at [1]). Also, the process of tanning animal skins was already known in Predynastic Egypt as early as the 6th millennium BC [2]; although it possibly was discovered haphazardly.
Other evidence indicates early alchemists in ancient Egypt had invented mortar by 4000 BC and glass by 1500 BC. The chemical reaction involved in the production of Calcium Oxide is one of the oldest known (references: Calcium Oxide, limekiln):
CaCO3 + heat → CaO + CO2.
Ancient Egypt additionally produced cosmetics, cement, faience and also pitch for shipbuilding. Papyrus had also been invented by 3000 BC.
Legend has it that the founder of Egyptian alchemy was the god Thoth, called Hermes-Thoth or Thrice-Great Hermes (Hermes Trismegistus) by the Greeks. According to legend, he wrote what were called the forty-two Books of Knowledge, covering all fields of knowledge—including alchemy. Hermes's symbol was the caduceus or serpent-staff, which became one of many of alchemy's principal symbols. The "Emerald Tablet" or Hermetica of Thrice-Great Hermes, which is known only through Greek and Arabic translations, is generally understood to form the basis for Western alchemical philosophy and practice, called the hermetic philosophy by its early practitioners.
The first point of the "Emerald Tablet" tells the purpose of hermetical science: "in truth certainly and without doubt, whatever is below is like that which is above, and whatever is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of one thing." (Burckhardt, p. 196-7) This is the macrocosm-microcosm belief central to the hermetic philosophy. In other words, the human body (the microcosm) is affected by the exterior world (the macrocosm), which includes the heavens through astrology, and the earth through the elements. (Burckhardt, p. 34-42)
It has been speculated that a riddle from the Emerald Tablet—"it was carried in the womb by the wind"—refers to the distillation of oxygen from saltpeter—a process that was unknown in Europe until its (re)discovery by Sendivogius in the 17th century.
In the 4th century BC, the Greek-speaking Macedonians conquered Egypt and founded the city of Alexandria in 332. This brought them into contact with Egyptian ideas. See Alchemy in the Greek World below.
The proof of alchemic practices in Ancient Egypt also supports that not all forms of alchemy are Christian based.