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Article from the 1911 Encyclopedia


ALCHEMY. In the narrow sense of the word, alchemy is the pretended art of making gold and silver, or transmuting the base metals into the noble ones. The idea of such transmutation probably arose among the Alexandrian Greeks in the early centuries of the Christian era; thence it passed to the Arabs, by whom it was transmitted to western Europe, and its realization was a leading aim of chemical workers down to the time of Paracelsus and even later. But "alchemy" was something more than a particularly vain and deluded manifestation of the thirst for gold, as it is sometimes represented; in its wider and truer significance it stands for the chemistry of the middle ages. The idea of transmutation, in the country of its origin, had a philosophical basis, and was linked up with the Greek theories of matter there current; thus, by supplying a central philosophical principle, it to some extent unified and focussed chemical effort, which previously, so far as it existed at all, had been expended on acquiring empirical acquaintance with a mass of disconnected technical processes. Alchemy in this sense is merely an early phase of the development of systematic chemistry; in Liebig's words, it was "never at any time anything different from chemistry."

Regarding the derivation of the word, there are two main views which agree in holding that it has an Arabic descent, the prefix al being the Arabic article. But according to one, the second part of the word comes from the Greek chumeia, pouring, infusion, used in connexion with the study of the juices of plants, and thence extended to chemical manipulations in general; this derivation accounts for the old-fashioned spellings "chymist" and "chymistry." The other view traces it to khem or khame, hieroglyph khmi, which denotes black earth as opposed to barren sand, and occurs in Plutarch as chumeia; on this derivation alchemy is explained as meaning the "Egyptian art." The first occurrence of the word is said to be in a treatise of Julius Firmicus, an astrological writer of the 4th century, but the prefix al there must be the addition of a later copyist. Among the Alexandrian writers alchemy was designated as e tes chrusou te kai argurou poieseos techne theia kai iera or e episteme iera. In English, Piers Plowman (1362) contains the phrase "experimentis of alconomye," with variants "alkenemye" and "alknamye." The prefix al begins to be dropped about the middle of the 16th century.

Origins of Alchemy.

Numerous legends cluster round the origin of alchemy. According to one story, it was founded by the Egyptian god Hermes (Thoth), the reputed inventor of the arts and sciences, to whom, under the appellation Hermes Trismegistus, Tertullian refers as the master of those who occupy themselves with nature; after him later alchemists called their work the "hermetic art," and the seal of Hermes, which they placed upon their vessels, is the origin of the common phrase "hermetically sealed." Another legend, given by Zosimus of Panopolis, an alchemistical writer said to date from the 3rd century, asserts that the fallen angels taught the arts to the women they married (cf. Genesis vi. 2), their instruction being recorded in a book called Chema. A similar story appears in the Book of Enoch, and Tertullian has much to say about the wicked angels who revealed to men the knowledge of gold and silver, of lustrous stones, and of the power of herbs, and who introduced the arts of astrology and magic upon the earth. Again, the Arabic Kitab-al-Fihrist, written by al-Nadim towards the end of the 10th century, says that the "people who practise alchemy, that is, who fabricate gold and silver from strange metals, state that the first to speak of the science of the work was Hermes the Wise, who was originally of Babylon, but who established himself in Egypt after the dispersion of the peoples from Babel." Another legend, also to be found in Arabic sources, asserts that alchemy was revealed by God to Moses and Aaron. But there is some evidence that, in accordance with the strong and constant tradition among the alchemists, the idea of transmutation did originate in Egypt with the Greeks of Alexandria. In the Leiden museum there are a number of papyri which were found in a tomb at Thebes, written probably in the 3rd century A.D., though their matter is older. Some are in Greek and demotic, and one, of peculiar interest from the chemical point of view, gives a number of receipts, in Greek, for the manipulation of base metals to form alloys which simulate gold and are intended to be used in the manufacture of imitation jewellery.

Continued on page two.

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