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Alchemy: The Ultimate Guide to the Mysteries of the Great Work

Alchemy (from Arabic: al-kīmiyā; from Ancient Greek: χυμεία, khumeía)[1] is an ancient branch of natural philosophy, a philosophical and protoscientific tradition that was historically practiced in China, India, the Muslim world, and Europe.[2] In its Western form, alchemy is first attested in a number of pseudepigraphical texts written in Greco-Roman Egypt during the first few centuries AD.[3]


Islamic and European alchemists developed a basic set of laboratory techniques, theories, and terms, some of which are still in use today. They did not abandon the Ancient Greek philosophical idea that everything is composed of four elements, and they tended to guard their work in secrecy, often making use of cyphers and cryptic symbolism. In Europe, the 12th-century translations of medieval Islamic works on science and the rediscovery of Aristotelian philosophy gave birth to a flourishing tradition of Latin alchemy.[2] This late medieval tradition of alchemy would go on to play a significant role in the development of early modern science (particularly chemistry and medicine).[7]

Modern discussions of alchemy are generally split into an examination of its exoteric practical applications and its esoteric spiritual aspects, despite criticisms by scholars such as Eric J. Holmyard and Marie-Louise von Franz that they should be understood as complementary.[8][9] The former is pursued by historians of the physical sciences, who examine the subject in terms of early chemistry, medicine, and charlatanism, and the philosophical and religious contexts in which these events occurred. The latter interests historians of esotericism, psychologists, and some philosophers and spiritualists. The subject has also made an ongoing impact on literature and the arts.

Alchemy encompasses several philosophical traditions spanning some four millennia and three continents. These traditions' general penchant for cryptic and symbolic language makes it hard to trace their mutual influences and "genetic" relationships. One can distinguish at least three major strands, which appear to be mostly independent, at least in their earlier stages: Chinese alchemy, centered in China; Indian alchemy, centered on the Indian subcontinent; and Western alchemy, which occurred around the Mediterranean and whose center shifted over the millennia from Greco-Roman Egypt to the Islamic world, and finally medieval Europe. Chinese alchemy was closely connected to Taoism and Indian alchemy with the Dharmic faiths. In contrast, Western alchemy developed its philosophical system mostly independent of but influenced by various Western religions. It is still an open question whether these three strands share a common origin, or to what extent they influenced each other.

The start of Western alchemy may generally be traced to ancient and Hellenistic Egypt, where the city of Alexandria was a center of alchemical knowledge, and retained its pre-eminence through most of the Greek and Roman periods.[15] Following the work of André-Jean Festugière, modern scholars see alchemical practice in the Roman Empire as originating from the Egyptian goldsmith's art, Greek philosophy and different religious traditions.[16] Tracing the origins of the alchemical art in Egypt is complicated by the pseudepigraphic nature of texts from the Greek alchemical corpus. The treatises of Zosimos of Panopolis, the earliest historically attested author (fl. c. 300 AD),[17] can help in situating the other authors. Zosimus based his work on that of older alchemical authors, such as Mary the Jewess,[18] Pseudo-Democritus,[19] and Agathodaimon, but very little is known about any of these authors. The most complete of their works, The Four Books of Pseudo-Democritus, were probably written in the first century AD.[19]

The central figure in the mythology of alchemy is Hermes Trismegistus (or Thrice-Great Hermes). His name is derived from the god Thoth and his Greek counterpart Hermes.[28] Hermes and his caduceus or serpent-staff, were among alchemy's principal symbols. According to Clement of Alexandria, he wrote what were called the "forty-two books of Hermes", covering all fields of knowledge.[29] The Hermetica of Thrice-Great Hermes is generally understood to form the basis for Western alchemical philosophy and practice, called the hermetic philosophy by its early practitioners. These writings were collected in the first centuries of the common era.

Most of the Greco-Roman alchemists preceding Zosimos are known only by pseudonyms, such as Moses, Isis, Cleopatra, Democritus, and Ostanes. Others authors such as Komarios, and Chymes, we only know through fragments of text. After AD 400, Greek alchemical writers occupied themselves solely in commenting on the works of these predecessors.[37] By the middle of the 7th century alchemy was almost an entirely mystical discipline.[38] It was at that time that Khalid Ibn Yazid sparked its migration from Alexandria to the Islamic world, facilitating the translation and preservation of Greek alchemical texts in the 8th and 9th centuries.[39]

Greek alchemy was preserved in medieval Byzantine manuscripts after the fall of Egypt, and yet historians have only relatively recently begun to pay attention to the study and development of Greek alchemy in the Byzantine period.[40]

The 2nd millennium BC text Vedas describe a connection between eternal life and gold.[41] A considerable knowledge of metallurgy has been exhibited in a third-century AD[42] text called Arthashastra which provides ingredients of explosives (Agniyoga) and salts extracted from fertile soils and plant remains (Yavakshara) such as saltpetre/nitre, perfume making (different qualities of perfumes are mentioned), granulated (refined) Sugar.[43][44][45] Buddhist texts from the 2nd to 5th centuries mention the transmutation of base metals to gold. According to some scholars Greek alchemy may have influenced Indian alchemy but there are no hard evidences to back this claim.[41]

have a science similar to alchemy which is quite peculiar to them, which in Sanskrit is called Rasāyana and in Persian Rasavātam. It means the art of obtaining/manipulating Rasa: nectar, mercury, and juice. This art was restricted to certain operations, metals, drugs, compounds, and medicines, many of which have mercury as their core element. Its principles restored the health of those who were ill beyond hope and gave back youth to fading old age.

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The goals of alchemy in India included the creation of a divine body (Sanskrit divya-deham) and immortality while still embodied (Sanskrit jīvan-mukti). Sanskrit alchemical texts include much material on the manipulation of mercury and sulphur, that are homologized with the semen of the god Śiva and the menstrual blood of the goddess Devī.

Two famous early Indian alchemical authors were Nāgārjuna Siddha and Nityanātha Siddha. Nāgārjuna Siddha was a Buddhist monk. His book, Rasendramangalam, is an example of Indian alchemy and medicine. Nityanātha Siddha wrote Rasaratnākara, also a highly influential work. In Sanskrit, rasa translates to "mercury", and Nāgārjuna Siddha was said to have developed a method of converting mercury into gold.[47]

The contents of 39 Sanskrit alchemical treatises have been analysed in detail in G. Jan Meulenbeld's History of Indian Medical Literature.[50][n 2] The discussion of these works in HIML gives a summary of the contents of each work, their special features, and where possible the evidence concerning their dating. Chapter 13 of HIML, Various works on rasaśāstra and ratnaśāstra (or Various works on alchemy and gems) gives brief details of a further 655 (six hundred and fifty-five) treatises. In some cases Meulenbeld gives notes on the contents and authorship of these works; in other cases references are made only to the unpublished manuscripts of these titles.

A great deal remains to be discovered about Indian alchemical literature. The content of the Sanskrit alchemical corpus has not yet (2014) been adequately integrated into the wider general history of alchemy.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the focus of alchemical development moved to the Islamic World. Much more is known about Islamic alchemy because it was better documented: indeed, most of the earlier writings that have come down through the years were preserved as Arabic translations.[51] The word alchemy itself was derived from the Arabic word al-kīmiyā (الكيمياء). The early Islamic world was a melting pot for alchemy. Platonic and Aristotelian thought, which had already been somewhat appropriated into hermetical science, continued to be assimilated during the late 7th and early 8th centuries through Syriac translations and scholarship.

In the late ninth and early tenth centuries, the Arabic works attributed to Jābir ibn Hayyān (Latinized as "Geber" or "Geberus") introduced a new approach to alchemy. Paul Kraus, who wrote the standard reference work on Jabir, put it as follows:

To form an idea of the historical place of Jabir's alchemy and to tackle the problem of its sources, it is advisable to compare it with what remains to us of the alchemical literature in the Greek language. One knows in which miserable state this literature reached us. Collected by Byzantine scientists from the tenth century, the corpus of the Greek alchemists is a cluster of incoherent fragments, going back to all the times since the third century until the end of the Middle Ages.

It is different with Jabir's alchemy. The relatively clear description of the processes and the alchemical apparati, the methodical classification of the substances, mark an experimental spirit which is extremely far away from the weird and odd esotericism of the Greek texts. The theory on which Jabir supports his operations is one of clearness and of an impressive unity. More than with the other Arab authors, one notes with him a balance between theoretical teaching and practical teaching, between the 'ilm and the amal. In vain one would seek in the Greek texts a work as systematic as that which is presented, for example, in the Book of Seventy.[52]

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