The History of Alchemy

The word alchemy evokes images of mysterious bubbling potions and strange apparatus. Although many people associate it with the medieval ages, alchemy traces its roots thousands of years earlier than that. The most commonly known version of alchemy combined scientific research with astrology, religion, and supernatural beliefs. More than this, a defining feature of alchemy was that a lot of its motives were based on myths. For example, the extensive search for the elixir of life was based on a fabled potion that was rumored to bestow the drinker with immortality. There were several precursors to medieval alchemy that started with the Ancient Egyptians and was continued by the Ancient Romans and Greeks, and then among various pockets of scholars in the East and West. Read on to follow the historical evolution of alchemy through the centuries.

2000 BC – It was the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Babylon who first delved into the study of science and manipulation of materials. Despite their interest in the subject, they did not get very far. Their successes included refining metals and extracting natural dyes. A notable experiment included using egg yolks painted on lead in an attempt to create gold.

600 BC – 500 AD – Science was largely at a standstill for a long time, until the Greeks took it up again much later. Unlike today’s scientists, in those times it was philosophers who studied science theory. Interestingly, the Greek philosophers focused more on theory rather than useful application of science. However, they did determine several important principles that are still used as the base of modern science and math. The Romans consequently followed their studies, adapting it to more practical uses.

500 – 1350 AD – The decline of the Roman Empire resulted in a great fall in advances in science and theory. Mass illiteracy confined scientific writings to the possession of learned monks. Even so, they were careful to only keep those writings that complimented the Bible’s teachings. Eastern Islamic intellectuals began to study and hone the early scientific principles of the Greeks.

1000 AD – Other academics over in China were also producing their own scientific theories and experiments. This led to notable inventions, such as tanks and gunpowder. Their geographic distance from Western civilization kept this knowledge retained in the East for a long time.

1350 AD – Europe started to overtake China in terms of science progress when they adapted glassblowing techniques from the Islamic world. This was particularly significant since many chemistry experiments require glass containers and tools. The Renaissance also introduced new attitudes towards Muslim scholars. Instead of viewing them negatively, Europeans (particularly Christians) saw them in a positive light.

1500 – 1600 AD – During the Medieval period, there was still much fear and apprehension caused by the Church. Anything, including advances in science, that contradicted religious beliefs was deemed to be witchcraft or the Devil’s work. This led to the division of “magic”. Alchemists decided that there was good magic, which included natural science, and bad magic, which included the dark arts, spells, and sorcery. Alchemy was most alive during this time. There was an unspoken race to find the Philosopher’s Stone (said to transform base metals into precious ones), and the Elixir of Life. Astrology was included in good magic, and was relied on heavily to predict the outcomes of journeys, wars, and personal events.

1600 – 1700 AD – When James I ascended the throne, he introduced a hatred of all magic in general. Alchemists went into hiding and had to practice their craft secretly. Nobles and learned people focused more on practical sciences that were not related to magic. Many findings from this time formed the basis of today’s sciences. It was difficult for the hazy magic theories of alchemy to stand up against the tested and proven facts of newer science.

Modern Times – Over the next few centuries, alchemy quickly faded into obscurity, but it was not completely lost. At least one London alchemist was actively working around the time of the Second World War. From the 1970s onwards, renewed interest in nature and nature-based religion, such as Wicca, have created a slight resurgence in some aspects of alchemy. Although modern science has proven many areas of alchemy to be untrue, there are still some who turn to old alchemy principles and practices for herbal or traditional medicine.

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