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Alchemy Essay

1423 words - 6 pages

In the middle ages, alchemy covered a broad and complex group of operations and theories. Most frequently, alchemy describes “the art and science of transforming base metals into the noble metals, silver and gold” (Halleux 134). Alchemy also represented different aspects of each great civilization it developed in with distinct symbols and purposes. The term “alchemy” evolved from the Arabic “al-kimiya” which transformed as it transitioned into Latin and later English (“Alchemy,” New Dictionary). The first textual evidence of alchemy dates to around 400 CE (Grun 31), but it likely extends as far back as the invention of metallurgy itself. Alchemy later developed into the science of chemistry, pioneered by Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle who desired to incorporate the principles of alchemy into a proper science (Gribbin 146). Throughout history and throughout old world, alchemists studied alchemy for scientific reasons. Despite being persecuted in various places and times, alchemists continued to be a powerful force in the advancement of all three’s interests well into the Renaissance. Alchemy originated in China, where alchemists strove to create the elixir of life, but their goal transformed as the concept of alchemy travelled west.
Many alchemists studied not to make personal gains or scientific research, but rather because their religious beliefs compelled them to. Families would pass down the secrets of alchemy to children or trusted friends. Eventually cults formed around it, with actual practitioners being the priests. Even common religions during the middle ages such as Daoism, Gnosticism, and Hermetism contained elements of alchemy. At the core of alchemy-related religions, many beliefs grew from the basic ideas. One popular belief was that one’s soul or spirit is trapped inside his or her body, and alchemy can release it, and that this same soul exists in other things. Maria Prophetissa, one of the founding figures of alchemy, believed in parallelism: “Just as a man results [from the association] of liquids, of solids, and of spirits, so does copper” (“Alchemy,” Encyclopedia). Another precursor to medieval alchemy, Zosimos of Panopolis states, “What is within is also without” (“Alchemy,” Encyclopedia). Alchemists also believed in the unity of matter, which suggests decomposition and recomposition can transform it (Halleux 139). Similar to how alchemy created many religious constructs, other religions contributed to alchemy. From the Valentinian Gnosticism came many terms, such as pneuma, natural sublimation; ebullient, distillation; and sperma, the seed of gnosis (“Alchemy,” Encyclopedia). At the same time, however, alchemists encountered the most trouble from religious authorities. Controversy formed over whether or not alchemy could match or even surpass nature. The criticism reached a crescendo in 1317 when Pope John XXII condemned alchemists as frauds who did not deliver on what they promised (“Alchemy,” New Dictionary).
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