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History and Folklore Podcast

Nov 28, 2021

This month we look into the history of alchemy and the worldview and aims of early alchemists. 

Find out how metal gets married, why poisons are good and how humans reflect the entire universe. 



‘From a man and a woman make a circle, then a square, then a triangle, finally a circle, and you will obtain the philosopher’s stone.’

Hello, welcome to the History and Folklore podcast, where we look at different folk beliefs through history and how these beliefs shape people’s perceptions of nature. In this episode we will be looking at alchemy, what alchemists were hoping to achieve, and what alchemical theories can tell us about how people perceived the natural world.

Alchemists are often depicted as eccentric men in dark rooms conducting strange experiments with toxic and expensive chemicals with the aim of living forever or of turning lead into gold. Their experiments are often seen as being haphazard, illogical and dangerous, a stereotype that goes back a long way as seen in a legend regarding Roger Bacon and Thomas Bungay, thirteenth century friars who apparently blew themselves up in an alchemy experiment. This story was later adapted to the stage in a comedy written by sixteenth century playwright Robert Greene. However, alchemy has a complex history and the observations and experiments of alchemists around the world have helped shape our understanding of chemistry, metallurgy and medicine.

It is believed that the origins of alchemy stretch back to ancient Egypt, with Plutarch describing alchemy as ‘the Egyptian art’. It has been argued that the ‘chem’ part of the word alchemy derives from the Egyptian word ‘km’, which meant the black land, a term used to differentiate between the black fertile soil of the Nile valley and the barren desert sand that surrounded it. Assuming this origin, the arabic word ‘al-kimiya’ was claimed by Egyptologist EA Wallis Budge to mean ‘the Egyptian science’, however this origin has been refuted by others who claim that there is no evidence of the word ‘kmt’ ever being used for anything resembling alchemy in Egypt, and it is therefore likely that this supposed translation is a case of folk etymology, where a well-known similar sounding words are erroneously linked.

Others point toward alchemy having a Greek origin, arguing that the ‘chem’ portion of alchemy originates from the Greek word ‘chemia’, which first appeared in the fourth century and was used to refer to the art of metalworking, particularly the creation of gold and silver from base metals.

It is clear that the influences of alchemy are varied, and draw from a mixture of technology, philosophy and science from areas and cultures as wide ranging as Iran, India, Egypt and Greece. Metal workers in Egypt were highly skilled and were known to be able to create alloys that mimicked the appearance of gold and silver. They also created a body of knowledge that grouped metals according to their external characteristics which was built on their experience of working with them.

As well as this, the city of Alexandria became an intellectual hub and, following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 330BC, attracted scholars from across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, allowing different ideas to develop and merge. Two theories that developed during this period were particularly influential in the formation of later alchemical practice. The first was Aristotle’s theory on the composition of matter, which adopted an older idea that everything was made up of the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, and built on it by hypothesising that these elements could be changed by the application of heat, cold, wetness or dryness.

The second was a philosophy that originated in Persia and claimed that the human body was a smaller version, the microcosm, of the larger universe, the macrocosm. The microcosm-macrocosm theory claimed that the study of the universe would give direct insight into the workings of the human body, and vice versa. Therefore techniques that worked for the manipulation of metal could be applied in the same way, and to the same effect, on the human body. As the universe was a macrocosm of the body it followed that it must also be alive and in possession of a soul. This is interesting as, as we will see later, the process of transmutation of metal was often described and understood in human terms of birth, marriage and death.

Alexandria’s influence eventually waned with the disintegration of the Roman Empire. The destruction of many texts from this period mean that none of the original Egyptian writing regarding alchemy survives from this time.

However, at least some of the theories and practices developed by alchemists and philosophers during this period did survive and were translated into Arabic by scholars and alchemists such as Ali Ibn Sina, Jabir Ibn Hayyan and Abu Bakr Al-Razi, who built on these existing ideas to create a thriving body of alchemical work and thought in the Middle East. This eventually made its way to Spain, and from there to the rest of western and central Europe, with the first alchemical text titled ‘the book of the Composition of Alchemy’ being translated into English in 1144 by Robert of Chester.

Despite these wide ranging origins, a legend concerning the origins of alchemy was particularly tenacious. This concerned an emerald tablet, apparently found by Alexander the Great himself in the tomb of a god named Hermes-Thoth, Hermes Trismeditus or Thrice-great Hermes. This emerald tablet, also known as the Smaragdine Tablet, was seen by alchemists to be the foundation of their craft, leading alchemy to become known as the ‘hermetic art’ after the god that created it.

While this would be an amazing origin story, the text that was apparently found on the emerald tablet actually seems to appears much later. It was first seen in Arabic sources in the late eighth century and eventually came to be translated to Latin in the twelfth century. This text outlines the philosophy of alchemy through an overarching metaphor of the creation of the world, saying:

‘Truth! Certainty! That in which there is no doubt!

That which is above is from that which is below, and that which is below is from that which is above, working the miracles of one. As all things were from One.

Its father is the Sun and its mother the Moon.

The Earth carried it in her belly, and the Wind nourished it in her belly,

as Earth which shall become Fire.

Feed the Earth from that which is subtle,

with the greatest power. It ascends from the earth to the heaven

and becomes ruler over that which is above and that which is below.’

This text is significant, as it highlights the underlying concepts of alchemy - that of the microcosm and macrocosm and of the interconnectedness of all things. It also uses common metaphors for certain metals and alchemical processes that were used in the written codes of later alchemists, as we shall touch on later.

In the West, alchemy had two main aims, to purify and transmute base metals into gold and to purify and transform the individual into a physically healthier, enlightened being. These two apparently disparate goals were believed to be entirely achievable through the same processes due to the connection between the microcosm and the macrocosm. .

While some alchemists strove to achieve both of these goals, in England most alchemists were predominantly concerned with transmuting base metals into gold and silver, partly because the discovery of gold in the South America by the Spanish, combined with the need to fund ongoing wars against Europe drove a desire to find a more easily accessible source of wealth. This led to a number of fraudsters covering small amounts of gold with a substance that would dissolve in a demonstration, giving the appearance of true transmutation. This became so much of a problem that the Crown restricted the conducting of alchemical experiments through a system of royal licences.

Those hoping to achieve actual transmutation tended to use the work of eighth century alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayyan, particularly his theory on the qualities of the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. He claimed that each element had two for four basic qualities which he stated was hot, cold, dry and wet, so fire was hot and dry, air hot and wet, earth, cold and dry and water cold and wet. He went on to analyse different metals, claiming that every metal had a combination of these four principles, two being interior and two being exterior. Therefore, if someone was able to change these qualities, they would be able to change the metal itself.

The basis of all metals was believed to be mercury. In its perfect state mercury was known as ‘philosopher’s mercury’ and was said to be the first metal to ever have existed. Sulphur in its purest state was called ‘Philosopher’s Sulphur’, a substance said to be related to elemental fire. When combined, it was believed that the Philosopher’s Sulphur would act as fire, working like a blacksmith’s furnace to transform the Philosopher’s Mercury, which would imbue its metallic essence into the gold. The idea that fire was the element needed to achieve transmutation came from observations of fire’s effect on mercury, as it caused the metal to dull and turn light red in colour. As nothing was known about oxidation at this time, it was logical to conclude that  fire was responsible for the change.

It is clear that many of the overarching beliefs surrounding the transmutation of metals comes from experience, observation and experimentation. The Liber Sacerdotum, translated from Arabic into Latin described how a lead ore known as Galena, loses sulphur when heated, leaving the more malleable and fusible lead. As in this experiment heating the metal produced a more useful and superior metal, it would be logical to assume that heating it further could lead to the production of silver and even gold. Interestingly, Galena also tends to contain a significant amount of silver, which did actually separate from the lead upon further heating, thus supporting the theory of transmutation.

It was believed that transmutation of base metals into gold could only be achieved through the mean of an elixir which when added to Philosopher’s Mercury and Philosopher’s Sulphur would work to rearrange the properties of these two metals. The master elixir that alchemists were working to create through a process often referred to as the ‘Great Work’ was the Philosopher’s Stone. Zosimus, in the sixth century, described it as ‘a stone which is not a stone, a precious thing that has no value, a thing of many colours and shapes. This unknown that is known to all.’

Descriptions of the Philosopher's Stone vary but it was most commonly said to appear as a red powder that had the ability to transform base metal into gold, common gemstones into diamonds, heal all illnesses, strengthen morality, increase wisdom and prolong the life of any who consumes a small quantity of it. As well as purifying metals, it was believed to be able to purify people, spiritually, physically and intellectually, transmuting an imperfect human into a perfect being.


There were many theories and descriptions regarding the process of creating a Philosopher’s Stone. Some believed that it could be created through the purification of an ordinary substance, such as hair, eggs, plants, rocks or metals. Others believed that certain mythical elements such as alkahest or carmot. Descriptions of the creation of the stone include a series of colour changes, or a series of up to twelve chemical processes that included calcination, dissolution, putrefaction, fermentation  and multiplication.

There have been a number of claims that the Philosopher’s Stone has been discovered by different people through history, the most famous being the French scribe Nicolas Flamel, whose wealth led to rumours that he was a successful alchemist.

The earliest alchemist rumoured to have discovered caput mortuum, a substance believed to be the first step to the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone was an individual known as Mary the Jewess or Miriam the Prophetess, said by later historians to have lived in Alexandria some time between the first and third centuries, and one of the twelve sages of alchemy. None of her original work survives, leading to questions as to whether she was a real or mythological individual, or a combination of different figures in the study of early alchemy, but she is credited with the creation of a number of inventions including the bain marie, which she gave her name to.

The Greek historian Zosimos referenced Miriam extensively, often directly quoting her in his work. In this, Miriam often describes metals as living beings with bodies, souls and spirits. She regarded metals as having a sex and believed that joining together metals of two different sexes would lead to the creation of a new metal, stating ‘join the male and the female, and you will find what is sought.

Alchemists often imbued inorganic matter such as metals with human or animal qualities, which is entirely understandable within the microcosm-macrocosm worldview. The joining of substances was often depicted as a marriage or coupling, while the creation of a new metal was seen as a birth. The Philosopher’s Stone was seen as being similar to a seed or an egg, the starting point of growth and creation.

Alongside the idea of the birth of metals, there was a co-existing concept of transmutation being the death and resurrection of metals, which linked to popular beliefs of the afterlife. Humans had to die and undergo pain and torture, often by fire, in purgatory, before they could be born again as perfect humans into eternal life.

These concepts are most obvious in the codes used by alchemists to conceal their work from outsiders, both to protect their research and to protect untrained individuals from the dangerous processes of alchemy. In these the combination of sulphur and mercury is expressed as a marriage or union. As in the text of the emerald tablet, Philosopher’s Sulphur is often depicted as the sun, while Philosopher’s Mercury is the moon, and these are often shown as being the father and mother of the philosopher's stone. Celestial symbols to refer to metals and processes were very common, as it was believed the movement of stars and planets had a real impact on events and actions of people on earth.

A common symbol referenced in the quote at the start of this episode was a circle drawn around a man and a woman, symbolising the union of feminine and masculine. This would be surrounded by a triangle to depict the three primary principles of sulphur, mercury and salt, a square to represent the four elements and finally a circle to represent the universe or the Philosopher’s Egg, another name for the Philosopher’s Stone.

Given that humans and metals were considered to be a reflection of each other it is unsurprising that people started to turn towards alchemy as a means of medicine. The Swiss Physician Paracelsus was one of the first medical professionals to argue that a knowledge of chemistry was essential to the development of medicine, stating ‘many have said of Alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines.’

Paracelsus built on the concept of the human body as the microcosm of the macrocosm universe  to argue that humans needed a specific balance of minerals to survive, and that illnesses could be cured by chemical remedies. He rejected the popular theory of medicine that had been introduced by Galen, that the body relied on a balance of the four humours of phlegm, balck bile, yellow bile and blood and that disease was caused by an imbalance of humours. Instead, he drew from medieval alchemical practice to argue that the human body actually needed the correct balance of three humours, changeable mercury, stable salt and combustible sulphur. These three elements were also reflected within the makeup of humans - salt represented the body, mercury the spirit and sulphur the soul.

Paracelsus argued that disease was caused by the separation of one of these elements from the other two due to contaminating poisons. Instead of trying to balance internal humours to treat disease, he argued that like was needed to cure like and the poison that caused the disease could be used to cure it.

This theory was incredibly controversial with those who followed the humoural theory of medicine who saw the ingestion of metals and minerals as being extremely dangerous. Paracelsus, however, was adamant that it was the dosage, and not the substance, that made the poison, and that the aim was to use these to purefy the body.

Although this explanation of disease proved to be ultimately incorrect investigation, Paracelsus’ use of alchemy marked a shift away from humoural theory of medicine and natural remedies to practices that are still used to this day including chemical medicines, an emphasis on dosage of medicine and chemical urinalysis to diagnose disease.

Paracelsus’ inventions and discoveries are a just few examples that have been gained through the study of alchemy. While some of the assumptions of alchemists seem irrational and superstitious to modern audiences, such as animism, the interconnectedness of the universe and the belief that a single substance can help achieve both gold and immortality, many of these beliefs stemmed from a lack of knowledge or technology that was eventually filled with the aid of the work of alchemists. There is a consistent logic that runs through the process of alchemy, making it difficult to argue that alchemists were entirely irrational. Although flawed, it is clear that the work of alchemists through the centuries has shaped modern scientific methods and have helped build current understanding of medicine, chemistry and the natural world.

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