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.