A Brief History of Alchemy

What Is Alchemy?

When we think of alchemy, the first thing that comes to mind is probably a group of ridiculously dressed individuals gathered inside a dim laboratory. Although Western alchemy was prominent during the 12th century, alchemy was definitely not limited to Medieval Europe. In fact, what we have come to know as Western alchemy first appeared around the Mediterranean and shifted to Greco-Roman Egypt into the Islamic world to finally arrive in Europe. The important thing to remember about alchemy, whether it is Chinese, Indian, or Western is that these branches are intimately connected to the religions of the areas they appeared in. In other words, Chinese alchemy corresponds to Taoism; Indian alchemy relates to Dharmic faiths; and, Western alchemy is interwoven into the various Western religions.

In a nutshell, alchemy is the esoteric approach to transforming the soul using kernels of truth found from exoteric religion throughout the ages. It is for this reason that alchemy is considered a hermetic and mystical art deemed too sacred to reveal to the masses. Because of this, we can think of alchemy in two ways (which are not exclusive to one another): physical and spiritual. Back then, there was no separation between mind, matter, science or religion. All of these disciplines helped illuminate the other subject instead of dividing it.


The Aim of Alchemy

The aim in alchemy has always been to make gold. This is true in both the physical and tangible value of gold as a precious metal and as a source of being adaptable to circumstances in life. By understanding that this has two meanings; a historical (and physical art) as well as a spiritual goal of purifying the soul, we can begin the great work inside ourselves. What this means is that as a hermetic practice, alchemy is a method of psychological transmutation directed by the conscious mind in order to better the self, soul, and physical body leading to a balanced state of health in every aspect of being.


A Brief History of Alchemy

Much of what we know about Pre-European alchemy lies in the myths and legends of Ancient China, documents such as the Tabula Smaragdina of Hermes and various writings from the Arabian alchemists of the 10th century. It is from the ancient Chinese alchemists that a similar (some would argue, identical) aim of alchemy is procuring the Elixir of Life, alongside the creation of gold in the Western world. Ancient alchemists also taught the doctrine of the One Substance in which all forms arose and could be transmuted carefully through science. They also wrote extensively about astrology and how the classical elements worked in alignment with the One Substance.

During the Arabian occupation, alchemy arrived in Spain and spread into the rest of Europe around the 12th century. After the 14th century, alchemy became closely associated with magic, and many were forbidden to practice it. Because of this, a lot of alchemists during this era had no choice but to intentionally obscure their writings, making it even more difficult to understand the true nature of this hermetic art today.


Alchemy in Modern Spirituality

It’s no secret that the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl G. Jung was fascinated with alchemy. Jung is considered the first modern alchemist to translate its symbolic language into psychological terms for use in dream analysis and therapy. He discovered that alchemy’s aim was synonymous with his in that it tried to describe the symbolic journey we all must take towards embodying our own intrinsic wholeness. He called this process “individuation.” In this projection of a cosmic and spiritual drama, the great work of alchemy consists of both rescuing the human soul and saving the cosmos.

Another contribution to modern spirituality from alchemy is the usage of the five elements. These developed from the Ancient Greek classical elements: earth, water, air, fire, and ether. The Ancient Greeks used these concepts to explain the complexity of all matter. Alchemy is the process in which we utilize and transform these substances.

During the Golden Age of alchemy, Islamic alchemists worked hard to use experiments and observations in order to classify materials using these elements. Nowadays, these five elements are commonly employed for rituals of personal development and help us to understand the fundamental nature of our being.

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