Change perhaps comes closest to a definition of alchemical practice: the science of alchemy is the science of change and is concerned with the question of processes, in nature and in man. To understand these processes and to use them for the good of mankind was the highest objective of alchemy. The purpose of alchemical practice, therefore, was to bring about a change for the better. In 1330 Petrus Bonus from Ferrara called the alchemist’s work the search for what not yet is.
Hermes Trismegistus is already called ‘Philosophorum et Alchymistarum pater’, father of the philosophers and alchemists, in the Testamentum, the oldest and by far the most important of the alchemical works attributed to Ramón Llull, while the practitioners of alchemy were traditionally known as the sons of Hermes: ‘filii Hermetis’.
The first alchemical book to be introduced to the Latin West was De compositione alchemiae, which was translated from the Arabic into Latin by Robert of Ketton in 1144. In this work, which is presented as a compendium of alchemical practice offered by the hermit Morienus, the art of alchemy is referred to as the ‘Magisterium Hermetis’, the instruction of Hermes. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, alchemy was part of the scientific framework, and it flourished as a method of inquiry into the mysterious processes and substance of nature, as an exploration of the very act of creation itself: the alchemist in his laboratory re-enacted the act of creation, and God was seen as the proto-alchemist. The Great Work, the Opus Magnum in the laboratory, formed a reflection of the cosmos in which the creation was fulfilled anew.
A number of alchemical source texts (with translations) and secondary works on Greek alchemy has already been published in the series Les alchimistes grecs. The earliest alchemical manuscripts to have survived were written in Greek, the oldest alchemist whose work has been preserved is Zosimos of Panopolis.
There is a modest offering of works on Chinese alchemy, which was traditionally divided in waidan or ‘external alchemy’ and neidan or ‘internal alchemy’.
In the middle of the 12th century the first translations of alchemical works from Arabic appear in the Latin West, such as Secreta Secretorum, Tabula Smaragdina and Morienus’ De compositione alchemiae, translated by the Englishman Robert of Ketton in 1144. Arabic alchemy to a large extent relies on the Greek alchemical corpus. Jabir ibn Hayyan (c. 721-c. 815) is one of the most prolific and seminal Arabic alchemical authors; simply known in the West as ‘Geber’, the works by a 13th-century alchemist writing in Latin were often confused with those of Jabir ibn Hayyan; only fairly recently has it been established that the Geber who wrote Summa perfectionis and other works cannot be identified with the famous Arabic alchemical author of that name.
Medieval Western alchemy
After the introduction in the Latin West of the ‘royal or Hermetic art’, as alchemy is also known, alchemical treatises were written from the 14th century onwards containing allegories based on biblical texts. A striking example is Petrus Bonus’ Pretiosa margarita novella. At the same time alchemy belonged to the experimental scientific setting, as appears from Roger Bacon’s natural philosophical work.
Western alchemy 16th-17th centuries
There is almost no printed alchemy in the 15th century. Around 1550 compendia are published with Latin translations of by now classical alchemical texts such as the Rosarium Philosophorum and the Turba Philosophorum. Metallurgical textbooks, such as Agricola’s De Re Metallica (1556) were also brought on the market, so that the whole alchemical trajectory, from natural resources (ores and mines) to the laboratory was covered. The appearance of Paracelsus (see also Hermetica 16th-18th centuries) determined the future course of the history of alchemy in the West. Paracelsus advocated using alchemical processes to prepare medicine. At the beginning of the 17th century, in the wake of other emblem books, alchemical emblem books appear (e.g. Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens) enriched with allegories based on classical texts open to alchemical interpretation, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Western alchemy 18th century
In the late 17th century alchemical insights were incorporated in the new corpuscular theories which would eventually determine the atomistic-mechanistic world picture. The new type of alchemy became increasingly experimental, and depended on clear vocabulary. Traditional alchemical terminology largely became the domain of pietists, and was used more and more symbolically. The distinction between a chemist and an ‘adept’ – who knows the secret of alchemy – became ever greater. Around the middle of the 18th century, Hermann Fictuld attempted to distinguish between true and false adepts in his Probierstein.
Western alchemy 19th century-present
With the development of gas chemistry and the dissolution of the elements, the universe lost much of its mystery. The life force pervading the universe, formerly known as the Philosophers’ Stone, the Quinta Essentia, or the World Soul, was now identified as oxygen. This century marks the rise of ‘spiritual alchemy’, as characterized by Mary Ann Atwood’s anonymously published A suggestive Inquiry, in which Hermetic and alchemical principles are reconsidered and characterized as a discipline offering profound insights into mental, physical and spiritual powers. Practising alchemists continue working in laboratories to the present. In France François Jollivet-Castelot carried out transmutational experiments; Fulcanelli (a pseudonym which has not been resolved) was an alchemical celebrity who still fascinates researchers and practitioners, as does his pupil Canseliet. The psycho-analyst Carl Gustav Jung for his part was highly interested in the symbolical language of alchemy (his Psychologie und Alchemie was published in Germany in 1944). He was preceded by Herbert Silberer, whose Probleme der Mystik und ihrer Symbolik was published in 1914.