Wizards and Sorcerers
By Tom Ogden
Alchemy-a precursor to the modern field of chemistry, alchemy first came to Europe from the Arabic world, where it was called al-Kimia. The word was Latinized into alchemy, the name for its practitioner, an alchemist. The words formed the basis for the modern terms chemist and chemistry.
To most people, the world alchemy conjures up images of a medieval scientist and his search for the philosopher’s stone, the magic substance that could change any base metal into gold.
This was indeed one of the goals of the alchemist, but his true aspirations ran much deeper. Just as, through scientific means, he attempted to “perfect” metal to its purest form, so too did the alchemist wish, through mythical means, to perfect himself and his soul. It was believed that the quest for the philosopher’s stone itself would help transform the alchemist’s soul into its purest form.
Many of the experiments and discovers were kept secret through oval tradition, passing from mentor to apprentice. Written knowledge often remained hidden because it was clothed in symbolism and purposely obscure language.
There were many reasons for this secrecy. Scholars during this period, especially those who proposed scientific theory at odds with accepted church doctrine, often found themselves accused of heresy and sorcery because they appeared to be questioning the authority of the church.
In addition, many of the chemical experiments and alchemic procedures were dangerous, some times causing explosions or releasing toxic gases. The cryptic writings kept out the uninitiated and merely curious. Years of study, accompanied by prayers to god for guidance, were thought to be necessary for a true understanding of the alchemic manuscripts. This has to be followed by years of practical experience in mixing chemicals and laboratory work, all the time searching for new revelations in the art. Unfortunately, few early manuscripts remain, and those that do exist are full of cabalistic symbolism rather than straight forward text.
It is thought that the type of alchemy practiced in Europe and Great Britain during the Middle Ages began in Egypt in the last few centuries before the birth of Christ, with most of the basic alchemical beliefs being established by A.D. 400. From its beginnings, alchemy was a blend of practical metal working and mythical beliefs, such as those of Hermes. Trismegistus, whose name gave rise to alchemy’s being known as the hermetic art. The desire to produce gold was also central to alchemy. Metallurgy was an established trade in Egypt by the time of the Pharaohs, and there were many different names for various kinds and blends of gold. A papyrus manuscript, written in Greek around 300 A.D. and discovered in Thebes, gives a method for changing the color of metal to make it look like gold or silver. The text also says that the new metals would fool expert goldsmiths.