History & Mythology

Alchemy in 8 Minutes: Is It Science or Magic?

Contrary to the image in your mind, alchemy is not about robed, wizard-like figures involved in some occult practice in his dimly lit apothecary. The practice is old – ancient, in fact – but what is alchemy, really? Is it science or is it magic? What does it have to do with the philosopher’s stone? Alchemy isn’t magic, although the last question may have piqued the interest of a certain fandom. Anyhow, let’s find out what alchemy is!

So if alchemy is not magic, is it science? Well, yes and no. Things seem to be getting a little confusing here, so let’s break it down.
What is alchemy then? In part, it can be viewed as a precursor to chemistry. In fact, the word “alchemy” comes from the Arabic word “al kimia” which means chemistry. “Al kimia”, in turn, is rooted in the Greek word, “chem”, passed down from the ancient Egyptians. Quite a civilizational thread. The practice has a shared history, while it also developed separately in various regions throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. Each civilisation, from the ancient Chinese, Egyptians and Greeks, to the medieval Islamic world and Renaissance Europe, have added their wisdom and findings to this form of science, art, or metaphysics. We use these terms very loosely.

We could even go so far as to call alchemy “protoscience”. Alchemy has two sides – the operative side and the speculative side. The operative side deals mostly with something called “transmutation” – where the intent is to transform base metals, like lead, into gold. This is related to the symbols of alchemy, including the four elements of matter, as well as of metals that correspond to the planets in our solar system.
The speculative side has a more introspective aspect to it – it deals with using symbolism, language, and allegory to speak of spiritual truths and lead one along the path to wisdom and maybe even transcendence, in some ways. We can see its scientific side related to chemistry, but we also see that alchemy has a spiritual aspect to it – something more mystical in nature. This is why some argue that science is part of alchemy but it addresses the non-material as well as the material – something that science lacks, for lack of a better word!
For us in the modern world, transmutation seems a little out there, but it’s something that the alchemists were quite preoccupied with. Base metals, like lead, iron and tin, were seen as more primitive than gold and silver, which were regarded as “noble”. Transmutation, as a branch of alchemy, sought to “improve” the state of these base metals, just as the speculative side of alchemy aims to seek truth and enlightenment. But turning cheap metals into gold has more material benefit, too, after all!

Eighth and ninth century Persian alchemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan, known as the Father of Chemistry, made many contributions to the modern world through alchemical practice. Practical experimentation is key to chemistry, he believed. 
Through an understanding of alchemy and the properties of the elements, he created aqua regia, one of the few substances that can dissolve gold. Yet, his practice of alchemy led to his goal of Takwin - creating artificial life. By rearranging the properties of the elements and employing numerology, his Book of Stones includes recipes on how to purportedly create scorpions, snakes, and even human life, which would be under the control of the alchemist who created them.

There was a legendary substance that alchemists believed was the key to transmutation – the philosopher’s stone. It had legendary status. Alchemists examined countless substances in their laboratories, believing that something has to be able to unlock ability. The philosopher’s stone went by other names, too. Some called it “materia prima”, others called it “the tincture” or “the powder”. This stone might not have been a stone at all, but it could take any form or state. Many alchemists believed that the stone could also be an elixir of life, possessing the power to cure illness or even grant immortality to the one who possessed it. The alchemical symbol of the stone is understandably familiar to fans of the Harry Potter series – it’s no secret where J.K. Rowling drew her inspiration for the Deathly Hallows symbol.
Isaac Newton sought the philosopher’s stone, so did Roger Boyle – both revered in the world of science. But in Paris in the 14th in 15th century, there lived a bookseller and alchemist by the name of Nicolas Flamel who was helped by a Spanish scholar who was familiar with Kabbalah, an esoteric method of Jewish mysticism. Flamel claimed to have transmuted lead into gold. No one knows for sure whether this was true. What we do know is that records show that he did not become wealthy overnight and donated his wealth to charity.


Today, thanks to science, we know that we can’t turn lead into gold, but alchemy has influenced the fields of chemistry and even psychology, particularly the Jungian school. The practical applications of alchemy are even apparent in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine, while you might notice alchemical symbols on certain types of tarot cards. Contemporary alchemist and chemist Lawrence Principe warns us to not dismiss the practice as cheap tricks, saying that alchemists had been using the best theories they could come up with to try to understand our very complex world.
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