According to legend some of them even achieved that! But there are other types of alchemy. Often the definition of ‘alchemy’ has more to do with the idea of tranmutation – of which turning lead to gold is just one example. This can go way beyond metals. These are some good examples of different types that I mention:
Medical Alchemy where the idea is to transmutate a sick body into a healthy one. Practical doctors who would get their knowledge from life experience rather than books were often labeled ‘Alchemists’ and sometimes were thought more of like magicians, or old pagans (Albertus Magnus, Paracelsus, Al-Ghazali. Here the [philosopher’s stone](philosophers stone) has much more to do with the elixir of life or the ‘universal medicine’. What interests me is these ‘alchemists’ furthered medicine more than other scholars of the time. Spiritual Alchemy was key to late antiquity’s alchemists. “Tranmutation of the soul” See Hermeticism and Neoplatonism, both of which I’ve done podcasts on. Here the philosopher’s stone is still mentioned, but it’s an internal process to be achieved by contemplating God, or meditation etc. Alchemical writing of this type and period (let’s say 4th century, but just as an example) often used double meanings -‘gold’ rarely meant gold and ‘mercury’ almost never meant the element we know- were often misinterpreted by later medieval and renaissance alchemist and were taken more literally and used (without success) as recipes for making gold. The interesting thing here, is that these were the ‘real alchemists’ (if you ask them at least) that trace their roots (but probably falsely) back to ancient Egypt. Practical Alchemy is probably why most people came by this site and listen to my podcast. However even the most practical recipe for making gold involved astrology, sometimes magic or kabbalah (numerology) and other occult beliefs (which is why I do podcasts on them and mention them in this website – it’s needed to get a real picture of Alchemy). This practical alchemy still involved many double meanings. It was deemed dangerous knowledge, or worth too much and was therefore esoteric and used a lot of code and obscure meaning.
It’s not important whether they turned lead into gold (they didn’t), but what they believed was possible. Alchemists are a good example of how medieval thinking directly influenced the renaissance and the age of enlightenment. Call it a “protoscience” something from which medicine and chemistry evolved from. Below is a list of occult systems that tie into those beliefs. You can dig deeper into them, I’ve given an overview within those pages.
|Astrology Hermeticism Neoplatonism
Kabbalah, Christian Kabbalah
Theurgy, Thaumaturgy and Theosophy
|gunpowder, ink, dyes, paints, ceramicscosmetics, leather tanning element: antimony, phosphorous hydrochloric acid, Mercury oxide glass manufacture, preparation of extracts, liquors, invented the Bain-marie, medicines for saffron distillation, periodic tables…|
But on the flip side of the scientific method coin, it’s interesting to note that some of the great thinkers that genuinely advanced science also believed some pretty bizarre and far out theories of the supernatural. As alchemy lead to additional knowledge in math, medicine, chemistry etc, the following section shows more of how alchemy was not an empirical science in itself. The first step in creating the philosopher’s stone is creating a universal solvent. Hence to experimentation with acids.
How other occult systems tie in to Alchemy:
Click on the titles to see the whole pages on those occult beliefs themselves. This is just how they relate to alchemy. Astrology The simplest connection is between the elements and planets. As matter is made up of elements on earth, so the heavenly bodies have certain aspects too. Things above influence things below (see hermeticism and neoplatonism below) Hermeticism Transmutation of lead into gold is sometimes seen as a metaphorical transmutation of the soul or self. Hermetecism is the foundation of Western Alchemy and needs to be taken into account when studying the historical tradition. Early Christians tried to incorporate Hermes Trismegistus in their beliefs. Lactantius (advisor to Constantine I) and Augustine said he was a prophet that foresaw Jesus coming. Neoplatonism, Kabbalah/Christian Kabbalah Many medieval alchemists were within the church, while Martin Luther supported alchemy for going along with christian teachings. The transmutation of the soul while striving toward perfection. This ties in with Christian Cabala, but there is a more direct cabalist link: through numerology the letters of a substance would give the physical properties. Prima materia is, according to alchemists, the alleged primitive formless base of all matter, given particular manifestation through the influence of forms. (possibly according to Aristotle)
For the curious:
Theurgy, Thaumaturgy and Theosophy