The popular image of alchemists is of mad, greedy old men in the Middle Ages who engaged in daft experiments in musty cellars, trying to turn lead into gold. There is some truth to this picture, but it's not the whole truth. Greed wasn't their only motivation and some of the alchemists were men of distinguished intellect, names we remember today for their contributions in other fields.
IntroductionAlthough alchemy is most often associated with the European Middle Ages, its roots stretch back to antiquity in the Near East and alchemical traditions existed in widely disparate cultures such as those of China, India and Egypt.
The core goal, for which all alchemists strived, was to create the Philosopher's Stone: a transmutation agent which could be used to turn base metals into gold and which, according to legend, had other properties, such as the ability to grant eternal life and perhaps to transmogrify the human form into some new type of androgynous perfection, blending the male and female into one.
But there was a spiritual aspect to the alchemists' quest which is often not appreciated today. Indeed, some believe that what the alchemists sought was essentially spiritual perfection and that the messing around with potions and alembics was only the earthly analogue of this higher pursuit. Some alchemists believed that only angels could carry out the required transmutation and that their task was to invoke angelic assistance in the correct way. As a result, alchemical literature is often deeply obscure, infused with mystical allegories and the rich interplay of symbols.
The Philosopher's StoneIn considering the history of alchemy, one obvious question is: was the goal ever achieved? Did the fabled transmutation from lead into gold ever take place? Was the Philosopher's Stone ever found? Although there is certainly no definitive proof, there are rumours within the alchemical literature that the ultimate success was, at times, achieved. Albertus Magnus, a bishop in 13th century Germany, is said to have perfected the alchemical arts and created the Philosopher's Stone. He reportedly bequeathed it to his pupil, the future saint, Thomas Aquinas, who is said to have destroyed it, fearing any association with things occult.
The alchemist Helvetius in 17th century Amsterdam claimed to have been visited by a mysterious stranger who transmuted lead to gold before his eyes and gave him a small portion of the precious catalyst needed to carry out the transmutation. When the stranger had departed, Helvetius demonstrated the process to all and sundry. He was visited by various Dutch notables, including the philosopher Spinoza, all of whom agreed that a transmutation from lead into gold had taken place. In the end, though, Helvetius' supply of the catalyst ran out and he never met the stranger again.
Another who allegedly perfected the art was the Comte de Saint-Germain, a mysterious nobleman who bewitched the courts of Western Europe during the 18th century. Frederick the Great called him the man who could not die, though die he supposedly did in 1786. Several people claimed to have had communication with him after this date, however, so the truth is unclear.
In the 20th century, the ultimate secret of the alchemists was said to have been arrived at by a mysterious Frenchman, known only by the pseudonym Fulcanelli, who has been called the last of the alchemists. Fulcenelli published a book entitled "The Mystery of the Cathedrals" in which he laid out his belief that the secrets of alchemy had been encoded in the symbols and statuary of the cathedrals of Europe. Debate still continues about who Fulcenelli was or is, though there are some who claim he was, in fact, the Comte de Saint-Germain!
Alchemy and ScienceA number of those involved in alchemy also made distinguished contributions to mainstream science. In fact, Isaac Newton, one of the pillars of modern science, not only engaged deeply with alchemical studies, but they were his obsession. He regarded his alchemical studies as far more important than the scientific contributions for which he is remembered today. Other renowned figures in the Western scientific tradition, such as Roger Bacon and Tycho Brahe, are also known to have been fascinated by alchemy.
In the 20th century the reputation of the alchemists has undergone a great rehabilitation thanks to the work of Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung. Jung, who was one of the founders of modern psychology, pioneered, along with Sigmund Freud, the study of the unconscious, as revealed particularly in dreams. He became immersed in the study of symbols and found in alchemical literature, with its rich but obscure world of symbol and allegory, what he believed was a treasure trove of insight into the workings of the human psyche.