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> From Alchemy to Chemistry Issue: 2003-2 Section: Chemistry



“There has always been what has been, and it will always be. Because if it was created, it would have to be non-existent beforehand. And nothing cannot be created from nothing”

Melissos, a Greek philosopher


Alchemy was a philosophy of life, an occult science treating of life, death and resuscitation. This idea, coming from ancient Egypt, patronised the alchemists’ work, who had studied the world for a long time. The biggest mystery of alchemy was resuscitation through fire. This idea was denoted by four letters I.N.R.I. - Igne Natura Renovatur Integra - “In fire the whole nature resuscitates.”

Alchemists conducted many experiments. Among other things they exposed ores of various metals to decrepitation. They considered transition of black ore into shining metal during the process of decrepitation a great act of regeneration and revival, similar to the nature’s spring awakening from the winter lifelessness.

Where and when alchemy was born and where does its name come from? It is difficult to answer this question, especially because the beginnings of this science are rooted in the early dawn of mankind, and its primary sources are scattered all around the globe. Chemistry was not born at once and in one place. Undoubtedly, its main and stimulating source was the fact that man got fire under control. How much trouble, self-abnegation, loss of health or even life did it cost a man to devote himself to this strange, mysterious ‘black science’ called Arab alchemy? Alchemy had its own great teachers, whose works, written in a mystical style, inspired the uninitiated with a feeling of fear and dread.

The oldest legendary master of alchemy, compared by many to gods, was said to be Hermes Trismegistos. His name was uttered with fear, and those more superstitious preferred to call him Megis, like Mefistofeles, one of the archdukes from hell. However, Hermes’ existence raises as many doubts, as the existance of the prince of hell. We can only suspect that the alchemic doings have been considered fiendish arts since the ancient times.

Alchemy originated in Egypt and there it was known under the name of Khemeia. It was so interrelated with religion and its practices that it roused fear among common people. The simple man was afraid not only of the science but also of its students. Astrologists’ mysterious and incomprehensible skills in foretelling future, the chemists’ transformations of one substance into another, cursing people and coming into contact with gods, of which priests were masters, terrified the common man. But fear was bound with admiration and also understandable benefits. Who would dare to oppose sorcerers? Society’s admiration surrounded Khemeia which was closely connected with its complex symbolic representation. There were mysterious matters and powers such as seven heavenly bodies - planets, i.e. wanderers changing their positions on the full of stars firmament regularly; and seven metals - gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, lead and mercury. These coincidental numeral convergences were put together joining the Sun with gold, silver with the Moon, copper with the planet Venus, etc. Transfigurations and chemical processes were explained in a mystical way. This progress of events slowed down the development of knowledge and provoked as well established obscurantism and ignorance among the masses, simultaneously creating and strengthening great division between the initiated and common people. It also allowed for wide and unchastised rise of all kinds of charlatanry, forgeries and quackery, because anybody who could speak mysteriously and intricately enough was treated as one of the initiated.

The first one to be recognized and evidenced as a scholar in the Greek-Egyptian art of Khemeia was Bolos from Mendes. He believed in the theory of four elements, according to which these elements ‘mixing’ themselves appropriately created all other substances in nature. That is why Bolosa claimed that there had to be a way that would allow for transition of grey iron into yellow gold, only this way had not become known until then. Continuators of Bolos’ idea have tried to discover how to make gold from different base metals for ages. They thought it would be much easier than to gain gold in a traditional way from ore. They deeply believed in existence of such way and, hence, they devoted their whole lives to searchings.

In the Roman times the art of Khemeia started to decline. Theories of Greek and Egyptian philosophers that had been created long before then, were still its foundations. Actually, it can be assumed that after 100 A.D. nothing new was discovered and added to the previous statements. Instead, a turn towards the mystical interpretation of events in the surrounding world took place. Together with a development of Christianity all ‘pagan’ sciences fell into disgrace. Khemeia was cursed because it was the essence of forbidden old Egyptian religion - it had to vanish from sight and go into the Underground.

Probably, everything would have been lost if in the 7th century Khemeia had not been taken under Arab’s protection. Inspired by Islam - a new religion created by Mohammed - they began an expansion into all parts of the world. Arabs named Khemeia ‘al-kamija’ (because ‘al’ is an article in Arab language). This word became naturalized in Europe and from then on chemists were called ‘alchemists’ and their science - ‘alchemy’. Today, the term alchemy stands for the historical period of chemistry lasting from 300 B.C. until 1600 A.D., hence, almost two thousand years.


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