The Origins of Alchemy
The roots and origin of the practice known as Alchemy take us back all the way to ancient Egypt, although many cultures throughout time have been involved in the seeking out of alchemy's secrets. Alchemy, the transmutation of base elements into gold for the purposes of both chemistry and metaphysical exploration, has been a field cloaked with mystery and controversy.
Throughout its history, alchemy has often had practioners of two kinds. One was the true adept who sought transmutation that alchemy could bring for spiritual enlightenment, while the other groups who sought the teachings of alchemy did so for the purposes of earthly wealth and often greed as well. Those who practiced the art for it's metaphysical and spiritual benefits had contempt for those that sought alchemy as a short-cut to material wealth. That was not the real purpose of purified gold, was the thought the true alchemy adept. Indeed, the alchemist got his concept of this by observing how the process of purification occurred in nature. They understood that the four elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire, plus the element of Spirit as the fifth element, were what all things were comprised of. They believed that as the base metal lead perfected and purified themselves in the belly of the earth through fire, eventually turning into gold or silver through a process of natural transmutation, so too could this be done in a lab, they reasoned. What was needed, though, was something they referred to as the Philosopher's Stone. A 4th century alchemist named Zosimus referred to it as "the stone which is not a stone", as it allegedly had amazing properties which afforded it the ability not only to transmute base metal into gold, but also to soften glass, or give the alchemist the ability to levitate, or to communicate with angels. The reason for these powers of the Philosopher's Stone was said to be because of its being comprised of what they called prima materia, or the prime material, from which every thing on earth is made. The prima material, it was believed, was the essence of physical matter which contained pure Divine essence. The first order of business of early alchemists, then was creating a philosopher's stone from the revered prima material. This often proved to be the bane of alchemy however, as the Stone remained elusive.
Roots of Alchemy
As we look at the roots of alchemy, we first find the concepts of it in ancient Egypt, going back between 5,000 400 B.C. Egyptians sought immortality via the manipulation of the elements. Egyptian alchemists used their knowledge about transmuting elemental metals to create metal alloys, dyes and perfumes as well as jewelry & cosmetics.
The ancient Greeks also had practiced in the art. There is, as far as is known, only one manuscript regarding the history of the art of alchemy in Greece. Between 340-640 B.C. we do know that what is known of Greek alchemy was located in the great libraries at Alexandria.
Between the fifth and sixth centuries BC, we find evidences of alchemy in China, mostly associated with the religion known as Taoism. Taoist monks also had a hand in the development of alchemy, though their lean on it was more an herbal transmutation, as opposed to the metallurgy that most other alchemists sought. They would seek to make elixirs from various herbs and plants to heal the physical, outer body, while also developing techniques to manipulate the life force of the body ("chi"). Most of the origins of the Chinese practices with alchemy are found in the 100 books, or recordings, of the Taoist teachings. There are also allusions to the Chinese form of alchemy in Commentary on the I Ching, a book of interpretation for relating the art of alchemy to mathematical formula used in divination. Among Chinese alchemy's biggest chemical inventions was that of black powder (gun powder). The best known Chinese alchemist was Ko Hung, who lived from 283-343 A.D.
Fear and mystery
Alexandria, Egypt was known as "the Queen City of the Mediterranean" because of its huge libraries and universities, as well as the place where many concepts, beliefs and ideas would commingle. Streams of alchemical ideas from Egyptian and Greek cultures found their way into Alexandria, Egypt. However, a large library in Alexandria, which contained the recordings of alchemists, was burned by Christians in 391 AD. They feared that alchemy was of the devil' and thus sought to destroy it's knowledge.
Even though alchemy is not evil, yet even alchemists themselves were often fearful of it's secrets falling into the wrong hands. They knew that if greed-driven people got a hold of the secrets of alchemy, it may be used as yet another catalyst for control and manipulation as some may have the art form for purposes of wealth and knowledge monopolies. Indeed as alchemy spread across the West, this fear would prove to be well-founded as many sought out alchemy's secrets for their own personal desire to control wealth and to consolidate it into their own hands. To guard the secrets of the craft, rather than recording many of their findings in words, many alchemists recorded symbols that had special meanings to the adepts practiced in the art. Even the symbols themselves are said to contain consciousness-altering imagery.
As the practice of alchemy worked its way to Palestine, the results of the practice was that of discovering more about the use of chemicals. Toxicology began to form as an offshoot of the practice, as it was discovered which plants were poisonous, as well as discoveries of antidotes for the poisonous substances. This part of alchemy's history as practiced in the Arab world was predominantly in use between the third to ninth centuries.
As people began to travel about, the Arabs brought the ideas of alchemy to Spain and from there the concepts of Alchemy spread into Europe. In fact, Pope Silverster II was one such instrumental person in bringing the Islamic teachings of alchemy to Europe during the Middle Ages (1300-1500 AD). Once alchemy began to be practiced in Medieval Europe, it spawned several great philosophers who were also alchemist. One such was Roger Bacon (1214-1294 A.D.), whose alchemical discoveries and works were used by alchemists from the 15th to 19th centuries. Some of his findings showed how it was that minerals and other natural elements have an affect upon the body. However, after a brief period of acceptance among those of the clergy, alchemy came under fire once again since it sought immortality of the body and physical life on earth, as opposed to the Church's view that the goal of man was life in heaven. So in the 14th century once again alchemy became hidden and controversial after it was banned by the Roman Catholic Church, once again due to fears of being demonic.
Spread to the Western World
As Europe continued to embrace alchemy, it reached it's golden age during the Renaissance, when many kings, as well as common folk saw the alchemist quest for gold as a pathway to quick wealth. Due to this upsurge of interest in the sacred art of alchemy, many opportunistic types like charlatans took advantage of people's desire for both wealth and spiritual and metaphysical enlightenment that alchemy held. It was during this time throughout the Renaissance period, that the art of alchemy spread across the western world.
Alchemy in Modern Times
Today, alchemy is seen for its contribution to the field of modern chemistry. Indeed, modern chemistry has its roots in the science of alchemy. Those who studied alchemy for its spiritual and metaphysical benefits sought the betterment of man and so, indeed it is fitting that the alchemists' skills were later applied to the field of medicine and chemistry. Through the labor of alchemists in times past, we have been able to learn about how various chemical compounds work and interact. This enabled us to be able to make forward strides in the field of chemistry.
Though alchemy has had a wide and varied history, it remains one of the useful learning tools for mankind. Through it we have uncovered concepts, ideas and discoveries that would have otherwise been left unknown.