DeLancett, Heather 1 2003 There are many ideas that pervade the modern mind in its contemplation of what

the study and craft of ‘alchemy’ is and has been throughout the course of history. Alchemy is casually mentioned in the common teachings of our day as being the forerunner of our modern and superior science of chemistry. In this way, some merit is given to the alchemists of times past for creating the laboratory and equipment, thus paving the way for the ‘science’ of chemical experimentation upon which chemistry is based. Our ‘pure’ science of chemistry is customarily thought to be free of the charlatans, quacks and kooks that our modern mind conjures around the concept of alchemy. Upon a more thorough and unbiased analysis of our ‘superior’ science, one may question this assumption. Conversely, our modern minds, in analysis of the worth, goals, and the nature of alchemy, will benefit greatly from understanding some of the ‘common assumptions’ on which alchemy is based. Though alchemy has its earliest traceable roots in the metallurgical techniques of ancient Egypt (Constable, 18-19), the majority of the philosophical concepts at the heart of the matter were rooted in the ideas of the pre-Socratic Greeks. Their ideas, in turn, were a reflection of humankind’s basic assumptions employed toward understanding the nature of matter. Throughout medieval ages, the study and craft of the alchemists developed, as did the secrecy, misconceptions, and general distrust shrouding the work. The Renaissance in Europe provided a break from some of the common assumptions associated with both man and matter, leading to a breakthrough for alchemy. To truly gain perspective into the minds and works of our Renaissance alchemists, we must consider the historical and cultural ideas about the constitution of the metals with which these men and women worked. Pure gold had long ago been deemed and discovered as the most precious and valuable of metals. Mining into the ‘womb’ of the ‘Great Mother’ Earth had been enveloped in ritual, initiation, and reverence from the very beginning of its practice (Eliade, 8). It was believed that nature’s geological rhythm would develop all ores in time to a ripe and perfect state of being gold. All other metals would eventually be turned to gold if left to mature, or were considered nature’s ‘freaks’ or ‘abortions’ in attempt to give birth to her inherent golden goal (Eliade 42, 50). These notions may seem silly to us today, but we must keep in mind that they were only dispelled as being false fairly recently by the findings of the chemistry and geology born from works of the alchemists and metallurgists whom held them to be true. Such is the nature of scientific progress. The contributions of the Ancient Greeks came from the Pre-Socratic assumptions that matter is made up of admixtures of different ‘elements,’ which they associated with earth, air, water and fire. Aristotle also acknowledged this idea, but added a fifth element into the mix – prime matter. His idea of prime matter was that it was the ‘potential’ of matter within the admixture of the other four elements that gave the possibility of form (Constable, 20-21). These ideas were essential for a more spiritual understanding of alchemy as a ‘sacred science,’ rather than a base quest to turn lead to gold for financial gain. As the revival of Greek thought grew in the Renaissance, so did the philosophical and spiritual goals of our alchemists. Certainly a vivid picture of the alchemist is formed in some of the literature leading up to the Renaissance. Chaucer paints us a long description in the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale,” a later part of the Canterbury Tales. The Yeoman tells the tale of his master’s obsession with alchemical workings and

DeLancett, Heather 2 2003 how they fail, as well as how the Canon is deceiving a greedy London priest with the promise of turning base metals to gold. Dante, in The Inferno , places his alchemical character in the eighth level of Hell with the Falsifiers, even further a descent than the Diviners, Astrologers, & Magicians. Dante places them here for their sin of ‘falsifying nature’; which would correspond to the medieval ideas the author was drawing from regarding the natural hierarchy of spirit and matter that was thought to be immutable. Whether the medieval alchemist was deliberately deceiving a patron with the promise of gold or not, the trade itself was in direct opposition to the ideas of the “Great Chain of Being,” which society rested on and therefore was always regarded with suspicion and distrust. In the writings of the Renaissance period, the authors began to approach the figure of the alchemist in a different light. The rigid belief of the structure of ‘hierarchy of being’ was questioned and replaced as the movement of Humanism gained favor in opposition to the Scholasticism of the medieval period. The new ideological space focused on the individual as having worth, the ability to improve oneself, and some mobility within society. The newly encountered surplus of personal choices and options for the individual was accomplished by an intensely distinct sense of personal responsibility for the life choices made. Authors grappled with this new sense of accountability by showing more depth of their characters, and eliciting compassion for them with a sort of moral relativism while showing the complexities that often underlie the choices each person must make. Christopher Marlowe, in Doctor Faustus, portrayed his alchemist/magician/philosopher as a man making extremely excessive choices from what nearly seems to be necessity. Ben Jonson, in The Alchemist, further exemplifies the return to the reliance on experience and curiosity in the Renaissance period. The definitive boundary of good and evil in application to a person or a field of study disappeared, becoming occupied instead by lessons of the dangers of hubris. An actual Renaissance alchemist ever in danger of hubris, Philippus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohnheim, went by the self-coined sobriquet ‘Paracelsus.’ He chose this name to signify his superiority to the ancient Greek medical authority Celsus (Cobb, 97). Paracelsus applied his knowledge of alchemical practice and philosophy with a much broader scope than his predecessors in the art, extending the definition of alchemy itself to any process of the transmutation of naturally occurring substances (Cobb, 99). This added a third dimension to alchemy, stretching on and between the ‘science’ of chemically altering metals and the lofty expanses of esoteric philosophical speculations, by providing some grounding in the larger public world and its affairs. Paracelsus was driven by the idea that alchemy could be used for something other than making gold, and so turned his attention to making medicine to transmute disease into health. The processes he employed to do this became known as iatrochemistry, which involve the use of mineral waters and mineral oils in medical treatments (Cobb, 97-98). Paraclesus gained success by treating several famous and influential Humanists of the period, leading him to a lecturing position at the University of Basel. His lecturing style broke from tradition, as Martin Luther’s did, by lecturing in his native German instead of Latin (Cobb, 101). He criticized the physicians of the time, rejected the teachings of the time honored medical authorities – Galen, Hippocrates & Avicenna – and even tossed some of their books into the fire.

DeLancett, Heather 3 2003 The legacy to medicine that Paracelsus left was the idea that doctors should act on what they observe instead of a blind adherence to accepted authority (Cobb, 100). The infectious ideals of Humanism also spread to matters of religion and spirituality in ways that were beneficial to the growth of the ‘sacred science’ of alchemy. The idea of the alchemist as ‘brotherly savior of Nature’ helping to fulfill her final goal and attain the ideal was still present, but extended now to matters of the soul much more evidently (Eliade, 52). The Renaissance was a revival of Greek philosophy, which the Church had used in various ways throughout medieval ages to justify its theology. Now that translations of ancient texts were becoming more available to the layman, much of the material that failed to support the Christian doctrines began to raise questions about Church authority, and more importantly, doubts about authority in general. Now the alchemist was seen as taking the dross ‘matter’ of the soul’s transmutation into his own hands. Much of the secrecy surrounding the esoteric writings of previous alchemists was due to fear of persecution. Most of the alchemists at the birth of the Renaissance were impoverished clerics, either working to try to produce gold for the Church coffers or else hiding their practice for fear of being accused of doing the devil’s work (Cobb 92-94). There was also another reason for the esoteric symbolism and language, and it was a matter of initiation. The true alchemist, as opposed to the charlatan, was trying to obtain the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ - far more precious than any gold. It was only through a philosophical training, as well as laboratory experimentation, that this Philosopher’s Stone could be pursued. In the Renaissance, as the Church’s iron grip on the spiritual realities of the general public began to slip, the philosophical pursuit could move towards the light. The publishing of a wide variety of alchemical texts at this time, coupled with a much bolder public interest in the subject, led to many more practitioners of the ‘sacred science.’ The Reformation was beginning, and the distrust of authority led these new practitioners, uninitiated into the tradition of alchemy, to experiment in radical new ways with radical new aims. As the tradition of initiation broke down, so did the ideas of the ‘sacred’ in the ‘science.’ Alchemy was not ever intended to be an empirical science or a rudimentary chemistry. From the traditional alchemist’s viewpoint at this time, chemistry was being born from the disintegration of the philosophy of alchemy, from the secularization of a sacred science (Eliade, 8-9). The alchemists saw this separation of the sacred/spiritual and the profane/physical as a ‘fall’ for the character of alchemy (Eliade, 9). Chemistry went in the direction of exploring the physical transmutations, and has brought much change to our world and our way of life in its wake. Perhaps the sacred/spiritual alchemy of the soul went into the individual’s personal relationship to God, after the Reformation made room for such personal theological and philosophical pursuits. The Renaissance gave a transmutation to alchemy, changing how it was perceived and accepted within society as a noble practice, quickly followed by its division between spirit and matter, science and philosophy. Nature works in mysterious ways, human nature perhaps the strangest, and perhaps this is merely a case of the redistribution of elements and prime matter into more effective forms and combinations in a cosmic scale alchemical operation.

DeLancett, Heather 4 2003

Works Cited
Cobb, Cathy, and Harold Goldwhite. Creations of Fire: Chemistry's Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age. New York: Plenum, 1995. Constable, George, ed. Secrets of the Alchemists. Alexandria: Time Life, 1990. Eliade, Mircea. The Forge and the Crucible. Translated by Stephen Corrin. New York: Harper & Bros., 1962.

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