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Philo and Sophia

Alchemy For Beginners - Part 1
A Condensed history Of Alchemy


Religion and Science have in recent times not been comfortable bedfellows. Strange then that the earliest scientists were priests, people who chose todevote their lives to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. One early science much derided by modern scientists was Alchemy, the quest to turn base metals like lead into Gold. But was the althemists idea reeally daft?

Existentialism For Beginners
Alchemy For Beinnners - Condensed History Of Alchemy


by Ian R Thorpe.
2011-02-08
CREATIVE COMMONS: Attribute, non commercial, no derivs.
KEYWORDS: alchemy,beginners, science, history, faith, religion, belief, superstition, metal, alloy, steel, gold, suphur, mercury, islam, egypt,moors, morocco, culture, philosopher, philosophy, celtic, celts, smith, rome, christian, greenteeth, human, humanism, society, social, political, progressive

Alchemy originated in ancient Egypt, where the word Khem was used in reference to the fertility of the flood plains around the Nile. Khemia to the Greeks was 'the dark land', a reference to the rich, fertile soil of the River Nile's flood plain. Al in the Arabic languages means 'The', as in Al Qaeda, (The Base). Form that, by a convoluted linguistic evolution we get Chemistry. The aim of the alchemists was to turn lead or some other base metal into gold. We now know such a process, were it possible, would be more to do with physics than chemistry, but whichever science needed to be employed, for all our modern knowledge we still could not achieve it without destroying our world.

Egyptian beliefs in life after death, and the mummification procedures they developed, probably gave rise to rudimentary chemical knowledge and a goal of immortality. It is tempting to think of the Egyptians as being similar to the early Greek but with bizarre dress sense and a preference for incest rather than buggery. Their understanding of things was different but in its own way as advanced as that of the Greeks and the Persians to the east.

That may have been the case by the time Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in the fourth century BC. Greek philosophers had become interested in the Egyptian ways. Simultaneously the mores, legal system of the Hellenic city states which included those on the Greek mainland and the Agean archipelago, Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and the Phonecian trading ports in what are now Lebanon, Israel and Palestine along with those on the coast of North Africa had spread to the Egyptian empire.

Greek views of how matter is made up of the four elements of nature - Fire, Earth, Air and Water, were superimposed on the Egyptian sacred science. The result was Khemia, the Greek word for Egypt. After the fall of Rome and the division of the Empire into Byzantium and the Western Empire, Egypt continued much as it had for centuries, influenced by Byzantine ways but still very much a culture apart. When Egypt was eventually occupied by the Arabs in the 7th Century, they added 'al-' to the word Khemia and al-Khemia meaning 'the Dark Land' is now seen as a likely origin for the word alchemy.

Most of that is based on supposition among scholars from the late eighteenth through to the twentieth century. It is unfortunate that more is not known about this early period in the history of alchemy. In 391AD fanatical Christians Christians burned the great library Alexandria, destroying many relevant works. Chemistry or Alchemy was also developed independently in China by Taoist monks.The aim of these early scientists was rather different in that they pursued both the outer elixir and the inner elixir, a more holistic approach. The former comprised the tradition of Chinese medicine, using minerals, plants and animal extracts to treat illness and prolong life. Longevity has always been revered in China. The inner elixir they sought was the use of exercise and meditation techniques, such as Qigong, to manipulate the chi (life force) of the body.

Like China, the Hellenic culture and Egypt, India developed alchemy independently. They had beliefs similar to the Chinese, in that they used external and internal methods to purify the body and prolong life.

In their research the Indian alchemists invented steel (and possibly bronze but the origins of that alloy can not be proved) and long before Bunsen and Kirchhoff's work, understood the importance of flame colour in the identification of metals.

According to the orthodoxy the re-introduction of alchemy to the west came in the 8th Century when the Moors invaders from Islamic Morocco brought the knowledge to Spain where Toledo became as famous a centre for steel making as Damascus in Syria. This is completely untrue however, we know that the Celtic smiths of Britain and Ireland, Western France and the Germanic lands. There is also evidence that the Vikings of the north land understood how to heat iron to a temperature at which certain changes in the molecular structure happened and then fix those changes by rapidly cooling the almost white hot metal in icy water.

The reason the Roman Empire never learned how to make steel was that among the Celts and Goths, the metalworkers, smiths, had an almost religious status. To possess the skill and knowledge needed to work metal was regarded as a magical power and those who mattered that skill were only a tiny step down the status ladder from the Druids who were true rulers of the tribal societies. The smiths of the northern tribes were sworn not to reveal the secrets of their craft (a bit like modern Freemasons) and though they would sell their products to Romans would choose death before they would teach somebody who was not of their tribe how to form the blade of a long sword or drop a circular hoop onto a wooden wheel and shrink it without burning the wood to make a hard, resilient tyre.

We have no record of whether the Celtic smiths had any beliefs about the metal they worked but as the pagan religions believed that everything had a spirit and indeed was part of 'the oneness' the continual cycle of destruction and renewal it is unlikely they simply though, 'it works. The Arabs an Moors held to a pre - Islamic believed that all metals are made up of mercury and sulfur in varying proportions. Gold was seen as the perfect metal and all others were less perfect. Naturally this an idea caught on among western alchemists. Gold was wealth and wealth was power, the idea that base metals were made of the same stuff as gold and by manipulation of the chemical mix could be turned into gold was always going to prove popular, human nature being what it is.

The medieval Alchemists' catastrophic attempts to transform lower metals led them to believe the process could only be accomplished with the aid of a substance known as the Philosophers Stone. The Stone was also alleged to be able to confer immortality, the Chinese name for it being the Pill of Immortality.

Though Alchemy is now derided by modern scientists and dismissed with their favourite 'catch all' phrase, 'magical thinking' it led to the discovery of manufacture of amalgams and alloys and advances in many other chemical processes and the creation of apparatus required for them. By the 16th Century, European alchemists had divided into two groups. The first focused their efforts on the discovery of new compounds and their reactions - leading to what is now the science of chemistry. The other faction continued to study the more spiritual, metaphysical side of alchemy, continuing the search for immortality and the transmutation of base metals into gold through occult methods and seeking the legendary Heremetic Wisdom through dabbling in the occult and flirting with necromancy. This led to the modern day idea of alchemist.

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