The origins of alchemy and the search for the philosopher’s stone


Medieval alchemists were concerned with discovering the “philosopher’s stone,” a hypothetical substance they believed could convert base metals into gold.  Though usually held to be a solid, sources sometimes describe it as a liquid also capable of curing diseases and/or staving off death — hence its alternative name, the “elixir of life”.

The first known references to alchemy exist in myths and legends about ancient China.  Alchemy in the Western world seems to have originated in Egypt, though early records were destroyed around the year 300.  The Roman emperor Diocletian was concerned that alchemically obtained gold and silver could be used to fund a revolt.  So Diocletian issued a decree ordering the destruction of all books on the subject.

The word “alchemy” came to English in the 14th century (via French and Latin) from Arabic al (the) + kīmiyā, originally a Greek word meaning either “pouring” (khēmeia) or possibly the native name for Egypt (Khamè).  “Elixir,” too, comes to us via Arabic al (the) + iksir, a word derived from the Greek word xerion, “powder for drying wounds.”

During the later middle ages, the practice of alchemy fell into disrepute.  Rulers were concerned that the transmutation of base metals into gold would interfere with the valuation of coins.  England’s Parliament made alchemy a crime, while the Popes issued bulls forbidding the practice on pain of death.

Were it not for alchemy, however, modern chemistry might never have been born.  Many respected 17th century “philosophers” practiced alchemy — including Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, who lobbied successfully to have the ban in England repealed.  Alchemists made medicines, dyes, glass, ceramics, artificial fertilizers, perfumes, and cosmetics.   They perfected the process of distillation, used not only to make alcohol (another word derived from Arabic), but also powerful acids with industrial applications such as separating metals from their ores.

Today alchemy is making a comeback of sorts, with holistic practitioners rediscovering aurum potabile (drinkable gold).  Advocates claim that liquid gold can treat ailments ranging from toothaches to depression.  In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, gold elixirs were believed to harness the powers of the sun.  And as it is not absorbed well by the body, gold is generally considered non-toxic.  However, the use of drinkable gold to treat disease has not been evaluated by the FDA.

But then 500 years of review seems about right for FDA approval of a new drug.


One thought on “The origins of alchemy and the search for the philosopher’s stone

  1. Pingback: Cagliostro and the Affair of the Diamond Necklace | Nothing Too Trivial

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