The Origins

Alchemy is so old that there is disagreement as to the origin of its name. According to some authors, it is a derivation from the Arabian translation of a late-Greek word, according to others it is a toponym from al-Ham, i.e., Egypt, the biblical land of Ham, son of Noah. In fact, it is quite likely that alchemy was first practiced extensively in Egypt, possibly coming from Mesopotamia, the great plains between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, where the first great empires of the Near East flourished more that ten thousand years ago; it was certainly also practiced in ancient China, and there are historians who think it was first born there.4

However that may be, it stands to reason that alchemy appeared soon after the discovery of fire. It probably took our early ancestors a long time to tame fire. Eventually they did so, but their relation with it was always that with a friend-enemy; fire helped them in many things, to get light and heat, to make certain foods eatable, to reclaim land, and yet it could not be touched, and if left to itself it could cause disasters and suffering. It is not surprising, therefore, that it should be considered in a way sacred, something of which humanity could not freely dispose. The myth of Prometheus, the giant who stole fire from the gods and was cruelly punished, reveals that mankind, in its mythopoeic age, was already conscious of that double nature of fire, and feared the consequences of using it against the will of the gods. This feeling of strangeness was reinforced by the realization that fire opened the way toward the knowledge of the most recondite secrets of nature. As with astronomy and astrology, the very first origin of alchemy should perhaps be looked for in the world of the shepherds of Mesopotamia, after the discovery of fire. Perhaps it

4. A detailed discussion, albeit slightly biased in favor of the gnostic-esoteric face of alchemy, has been given by one of the best students of alchemy as distinct from chemistry, the Swiss T. Burckhardt, Alchemie: Sinn und Weltbild (Olten, Switzerland: Walter, 1960).

was born when, in the frosty nights of those vast plains, they would sit in silence around the bonfire lit to cook foods and to provide heat. Perhaps it was they who, in the morning, while looking at the remains of the fire, would sometimes find that the stones that had been most intensely exposed to heat had changed their color and consistency, and perhaps had produced small shining spheres, gray or reddish in color: new materials, sometimes very beautiful, had mysteriously been formed. Further observations followed. People realized, for example, that ash had the power to scour tissues, and that certain stones, after calcination, would heat water while changing it into a strange mineral milk.

This was how chemistry was born.5 But it was a very special chemistry, because the people of those times would not make the rigid distinction between matter and spirit, between outer and inner experience, which was introduced in the seventeenth century, and produced both the great successes and (in the long run) the antihuman tendencies of modern science. In those very ancient times there was indeed a separation, but it was between the secret recipes that artisans had developed for dyeing tissues, preparing materials for building, tanning skins, etc., and yet more secret studies, aimed at penetrating the secrets of the gods, and therefore considered as belonging to the sphere of religion. Those researches, by which man proposed himself as the apprentice or the competitor of the gods, were what was called alchemy. It was not just a science, therefore, but also a collection of rituals with the purpose of partaking with the gods (indeed with God, in Christian and Islamic alchemy) of the power to act on matter to transform it. The foundations of this religious dimension do not seem evident today, possibly because we have lost the ability to appreciate how marvelous the chemical transformations of matter appeared even to the people of the nineteenth century. We modern men, even when we know very little chemistry, think of atoms as tiny balls, which unite to form extremely complicated molecules, and learn from the "experts" that the rules of construction and destruction of these edifices are known, or at least will be known as research goes on. In short, we believe that the methods of science will allow us to know or discover without the help or the permission of anybody what nature can and cannot do, how it can do something or why it cannot do something else.

Actually, a simple experiment suffices to remind even the specialist of the marvels and mysteries to be found in the simplest chemical transformation. Buy some copper sulfate, such as is used in vine growing, and some middle-size iron wire. Fill a glass jug with water in which you have dissolved as much copper sulphate as necessary to make a light-blue solution. With the iron wire make a small tree, possibly with a clay base to

5. A brief but rich description of the chemical processes known to antiquity can be found in the already cited book by T. E. Thorpe.

make it stand upright, of a size such that, when placed in the glass jug, it will be completely covered by the blue solution. Then, if you have the patience of a true alchemist, sit down and silently watch nature at work. For a few minutes nothing seems to happen. But then a tiny copper-red spot appears somewhere on the little wire tree. After a few minutes more such spots appear. An attentive eye realizes that the ultramarine blue of the liquid is taking on a faint green shade. As time passes, the spots grow into little rhomboidal leaves of copper, while the liquid turns decidedly to green: the "tree of Venus" of the alchemists has put forth its leaves. At this stage you should choose. Either you banalize the whole thing, and say to yourself that after all there is nothing strange in what has taken place, for the difference in electrochemical potentials causes iron to displace copper in the solution; or you can listen to your sense of wonder, which tells you that you are watching an operation of nature which, though very simple and easily accessible, is similar to those that take place in the womb of a volcano or in living matter.

The alchemists made the latter choice. One might say that it was only because they lacked rigor and a critical mind; yet, truly speaking, even if they had known the explanation in terms of electrochemical potentials, it is likely that they would not have found that explanation satisfactory. The tree of Venus is never the same: imperceptible variations in the reaction conditions suffice to change the number of leaflets, the times, and the quantity of copper powder that settles on the bottom of the vessel. To the attentive observer of facts, the mystery surrounding the details of that particular process is not greatly reduced by the knowledge that there is a general rule telling which metals displace which from their solutions.

This example probably suffices to show why alchemy had a religious dimension — emphasized, of course, by the fact that before the invention of the microscope it was not easy to treat as real a world of objects so small as to be invisible. The philosophical framework (and hence the theory) of alchemy therefore started from a conception of the animistic type founded on the four-element doctrine and on gnostic views of Pythagorean and Platonic origin. That general approach to the relation of man to nature and to supernatural realities was initially the only theoretical foundation of alchemy, although, unlike magic, little or no place was granted to demons and Words of Command. Thus, as we said already, alchemy was essentially an empirical exploration, and experience in the laboratory had a prominent place; at first sight, it would seem that the alchemists did not feel the need for general rules in the sense of modern science, and that the rational fabric of chemistry was born only when the Galilean revolution restored the priority of facts. Yet, the doubts expressed above remain: is it possible that there should be no scientific spirit in a science which counted among its students Albertus Magnus and Isaac Newton?

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