What is Alchemy?

Alchemy, as a field of study, was thought to answer several different questions making it hard to define. Alchemy was used to study ontology; that is, alchemists asked what stuff is made of and how does that stuff interact with other stuff. Analysis and synthesis reactions along with the more systematic attempts at classification are all concerned with matter theory and the ontological understanding of nature.

Alchemy can also be approached from a more pragmatic angle. We can take that which we find in nature and try to improve it. An alchemist can pick grapes and use the process of fermentation to create wine. An alchemist can take mined ore and smelt it into useful minerals. Alchemists studied the properties of natural materials to find useful ingredients for the creation of medicine and production of a wide variety of craft goods. Thus there is an epistemological use of alchemy as well as a mundane, economical practice of alchemy.

Ancient Alchemy

The alchemists who were seeking to transform base metal into gold were interested in refining and purifying nature.  Those who were seeking to prolong life and to attain immortality were trying to transform their base nature into a more spiritual form, their gross body into a subtle body!
-Peter Marshall


The four Greek elements displayed as interconnected squaresMany of the well known Greek philosophers were interested in matter theory. Thales of Miletus believed that water was the prime matter. The flow of water and its central role in the growth of plants and animals, convinced Thales that all matter was originally composed of water. The idea that all you needed to grow a tree was a seed and water persisted into the 17th century and the experiments of Jan Baptist van Helmont.

Heraclitus thought that fire was the prime matter and Anaximenes thought it was air. Aristotle proposed that the four terrestrial elements were coequally basic. Earth, water, fire, and air each have two properties and through those properties, they are transmutable. Thus the hot, wet air could be converted into fire if it was dried out. These terrestrial elements were corruptible and impure, but quintessence, the fifth, celestial element was incorruptible and perfect and it was the substance that all of the heavens were made from. Aristotle’s philosophical system became a foundational principle for much of European and Arabic thought for the next two millennia, and his concept of four transmutable elements can be found throughout the writings of subsequent philosophers.

Another part of Aristotle’s matter theory that proved interesting for philosophers was the idea that metals and minerals ‘grow’ over time in a slow progression towards their highest state. In Meteorologica, Aristotle argued that if left in its natural state for long enough, lead would mature through various phases eventually becoming silver and ultimately gold. This theory had immense importance for alchemy. If metals naturally grew more pure over time, alchemists simply had to find ways to speed up nature.

In addition to this Greek interest in matter theory, the Greeks were also interested in the more practical arts. Greeks were smelting copper as early as 2200BCE. Jewelers were interested in producing both genuine gold pieces and in gold-plating baser metals, just as modern jewelers do. Greeks were interested in dyes for clothe produced from plants, animals (beautiful purples can be made from crushing the shells of cochineal insects), and minerals (arsenic can produce a wide variety of oranges, yellows, and reds). Around 200BCE, the Greeks found that urine could be collected and used as a mordant to prepare clothe for later dying.


In China, a parallel alchemy grew with a similar interest in both matter theory and the practical application of alchemy. Taoism promotes a matter theory that has five elements known as the Wu Xing.

Diagram of the Wu XingAs with the Greek theory of four elements, the Taoist fivefold matter theory has implications not only for the composition of natural materials, but also for cosmology and medicine and more cultural traditions like martial arts and tea ceremonies.

As with the Greeks, the Chinese were interested in practical applications of alchemy as well as the theoretical. Chinese alchemy is particularly known for its interest in medicine. Taoist beliefs about balance were applied to the composition of medicines. Yang rich substances like gold, jade, and red-blooded cinnabar (mercuric sulphide) could be added into the human body’s natural yin state to reach a higher level of balance. ‘Wai tan,’ codified by Ko Hung in the 4th century BCE focused on drinking elixirs made of yang rich substances to achieve the higher planes of existence.

Summon spirits and you will be able to change
cinnabar powder into yellow gold.  With this yellow gold you may make vessels to eat and drink out of.You will increase your span of life, you will be able to see the hsien of the Pʼeng-lai [home of the immortals] that is in the midst of the sea. Then you may perform
the sacrifices fang and shang and escape death.
-Li Shao-chun to Emperor Wu Ti in 133 BC

Unfortunately, drinking elixirs that have mercury or gold in them often proved fatal, and eventually this form of alchemy lost favor. From the 6th century CE, Wai tan was replaced by ‘Nai tan’ which focused instead on finding the inner elixir. Physiological techniques focused on breathing, controlled movement, and sexual exercises could be used to purify ones own body and thus achieve higher planes of existence.

Arabic Alchemy


The Islamic world was a melting pot of the world’s people. In the 8th and 9th centuries, the Islamic empire was amongst the largest in the history of the world with partial control of lands from modern day Afghanistan in the East to Spain and Morocco in the West. Mirroring the equally brutal Pax Romana that was now collapsing, the Caliphs often ruled by law over a broad variety of people and they actively sought to bring together the accumulated knowledge of the world. Thus, Greek philosophy was translated into Arabic as was Indian mathematics, Chinese medicine, Egyptian mathematics, and Persian astronomy and religion.

Jabir ibn Hayyan

15th century European portrait of Jabir from wikimedia

One of the most noted Arabic alchemists was Jabir ibn Hayyan (721-815CE), known in the west as Geber. Jabir ibn Hayyan developed a theory that said that all metals and minerals were composed of two more fundamental elements: sulphur and mercury. Historians initially thought this was an adaptation of Aristotle’s mineralogical theories from Meteorologica, but more recently they have come to believe that Jabir drew more from Chinese and Indian sources. Whatever the origin, Jabir’s theory proved influential for alchemists and chemists well into the eighteenth century as they classified metals and minerals along this spectrum of sulphur and mercury. The more sulphureous elements were thought to be more brittle. Actual sulphur and other minerals far on this end of the spectrum (arsenic for example) would vaporize on heating. Metals and minerals with more mercury were more malleable and shiny. Transmutation could be performed by adding or removing these two constituents through complex alchemical procedures.

Jabir’s theory proved influential in the understanding of metals and the pursuit of the philosopher’s stone, but his practical experimentation may be even more influential. He used a wide variety of apparatus that modern chemists would still be comfortable with and used reagents that are still common in the modern lab. Jabir’s work is a wonderful example of historical science that was done under a different theoretical paradigm that shares the experimental epistemology and material practices that span a much broader span of time. His work clearly contributed to the development of what we would now comfortably call chemistry.

Arabic Pharmacy

Medicine advanced dramatically during the Islamic Golden Age. Because of the geographic span of the empire and the extensive translation efforts promoted by various caliphs and wealthy doctors, pharmacists had access to European, African, middle-Eastern, Indian, and Chinese biological and mineralogical materials. The great works of Galen and Dioscorides were translated along with Indian toxicology. These traditions were synthesized and extended by Jabir ibn Hayyan in his book On Poisons and their Antidotes.

A professional pharmacy (Saydanah) developed from the 9th century, and one could find numerous pharmacies in major cities like Baghdad. Pharmacists had to go through specialized education before sitting for board-review style examinations. The polymath doctor al-Razi compiled a book called al-Hawi which listed 829 simple and compound recipes.

European Renaissance Alchemy

During the 13th through 16th centuries, translators were extremely active in the centers of trade and cultural overlap between the Islamic Caliphates and the growing European states. Islamic advances in astronomy, natural philosophy, and medicine were translated and retranslated into Latin and studied in both the courts and universities. The reintroduction of various Greek texts along with the sharing of the newer works by al-Razi and Jabir amongst many others contributed to intellectual Renaissance.

Debates about the natural world and man’s ability to improve upon it through study and art transcended works on theology and natural philosophy. Noted theologians like Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas wrote on these issues. At various times the universities debated the relationship between Aristotle’s theories and the Catholic doctrines.

Portrait of Paracelsus by Quentin Matsys courtesy of Wikimedia CommonsIn the sixteenth century, Paracelsus came onto the scene and ultimately became one of the best known alchemists in history. Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim called Paracelsus was a self-educated doctor who moved around what would now be Switzerland, the low countries, France, and Germany. Unable to ever gain acceptance from the various medical guilds/faculties of the cities he visited, he was an iconoclast who called for medical reform.

Paracelsus learned in his travels about mineralogy and developed mineral-based liquid medicines as part of what he would call the ars spagyrica. His medical alchemy was at the same time practical in that it was administered to patients and theoretical in that it challenged all prior matter theories. Paracelsus proposed a blend of the four Aristotelian elements with his own tria prima of chemical principles: salt, sulphur and mercury. This philosophical conglomeration of Greek and Arabic elements, combined with Paracelsus’s aggrandizing claims of medical supremacy elevated him to a legendary status amongst those who would study alchemy for the coming centuries. Stories of Paracelsus discovering the philosopher’s stone or the elixir of immortality drove alchemical research amongst his students in France and later by government administrators in Germany and even the scientific elite of the Enlightenment.

A baker is an alchemist when he bakes bread, the vintner when he makes wine, the weaver in that he makes cloth.  Thus the individual who harvests natural fruits useful to humans in ways prescribed by nature is an alchemist.
Now all crafts are founded on imitating nature and experiencing the properties of nature, so that crafts people know that in all their work they follow in the path of nature and bring out what nature is in her. 
– Paracelsus

Paracelsus was less concerned with chrysopoeia (the conversion of base metals into more valuable metals like gold) than with the medical and practical aspects of alchemy. However, Paracelsus was interested in one of the more far-fetched goals of alchemy, the homunculus. In De natura rerum (1537), Paracelsus denied that the mandragora root which can at times look like a small human was of any importance. Instead he suggested that the key to producing alchemical life was to combine sperm with blood in a warm, artificial womb. He argued that by removing women from the process or human reproduction, you could shield the offspring from Eve’s original sin and thus create a perfect human. In some writings, this concept of the homunculus was thought to promise a second Christ.

German Betrüger

Tara Nummedal has documented a wonderful story about a group of alchemists who claimed to be disciples of Paracelsus. In her article “Alchemical Reproduction and the Career of Anna Maria Zieglerin,” Prof. Nummedal talks about how Zieglerin and her husband Heinrich Schombach came to work for Philipp Sömmering in the court of Duke Julius of Braunschweig-Wolfenbuttel (in modern day Germany) in 1571.

Anna ingratiated herself to Duke Julius with the claim that she had studied alchemy from Count Carl von Oettingen, whom she said was the illegitimate son of Paracelsus. Anna claimed that Count Carl had taught her all of Paracelsus’ secrets and that she would both write down these recipes and produce their products for Duke Julius. Amongst these products was a powdered ‘tincture’ that could turn base metals into gold, ie the Philosopher’s Stone. Even more fantastic was a product called the ‘Lion’s Blood’ that could accelerate the growth of biological things like fruit or even animals. In fact Zieglerin claimed that she could take the ‘Lion’s Blood’ to shorten the process of giving birth from the usual 9.5 months to 1 month.

Anna, Heinrich, and Philipp worked for Duke Julius for three years and during that time they produced small samples of various alchemical goods and wrote several of the recipe books that they had promised. However, in the summer of 1574, they were brought to trial for murdering a courier, attempting to poison the Duchess, failing to fulfill their alchemical promises, and fraud in their claims to alchemical expertise. In particular, Zieglerin was charged with making up the entire story about Count Carl von Oettingen. Upon conviction, the two men were flayed, drawn and quartered. Zieglerin as the fabricator of the lie, was also flayed and then burnt alive while strapped to an iron stool (Nummedal 56).

There are a couple of things to take away from this trial. The first is that alchemists sought employment at the courts of Europe, and Duke Julius along with many other rulers sought to bring alchemists into their courts.  Duke Julius entered into a contract with his alchemists laying out the terms of their work. He promised them room and board, he brought them under his protection, and at times he gave them a currency or other valuable goods. In return the alchemist promised to deliver a good or a set of goods like a proscribed volume of a medical remedy or a given weight of worked metals. Zieglerin and Schombach promised to deliver a recipe book for the philosopher’s stone, ‘Lion’s Blood’ (a product that would cause fruit to ripen or even speed up human gestation), and various other alchemical wonders along with samples. Zieglerin grounded her promises in her own expertise and training.

This contractual record is really interesting in that it suggests that when an alchemist failed to deliver on their promises, they were sued for breach of contract. However, it was only in rare cases like that of Zieglerin and her colleagues, that they were killed for these failings. Normally you might only require repayment or simply fire an alchemist. However, Zieglerin was found to be a charlatan who had committed fraud in her basic claims. Her story about Count Carl and her own ability to birth alchemical children both brought her great respect and admiration and ultimately caused her brutal end.

The contractual record also describes the extensive facilities at the court of Duke Julius and the variety of activities that his various alchemical workers were pursuing. Through her extensive archival work, Nummedal has found blueprints for alchemical workshops and shown how these facilities and contracts were used to structure alchemical work. The work contracts, architectural plans, and inventories of these labs shed insight on the day-to-day practice of alchemy. She has also found many contract proposals that were dismissed as impractical or never pursued because of cost.

That the Germans had a word for such charlatan alchemists, Betrüger, shows that not all alchemists were charlatans. Many fulfilled their basic promises of creating a medicine or improving the process for refining metals or producing jewelry or other goods. People with alchemical expertise were hired to manage mines and mints, run pharmacies, refine sugar, or set up textile bleaching and dying operations.

The End of Alchemy?

I will write a second post about alchemy after 1600 in the coming days.

Sources and Further Reading

This sketch of alchemy was compiled from my readings of Bruce Moran’s Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution; Tara Nummedal’s Alchemy and Authority; Pamela Smith’s books The Business of Alchemy & The Body of the Artisan; and the wonderful corpus of Bill Newman and Larry Principe. The scholarly journal Ambix, edited by Jennifer Rampling, is devoted to the history of alchemy and chemistry, and is another wonderful resource. Please read any of these works for a more thorough analysis of the history of alchemy.