AskDefine | Define alchemy

Dictionary Definition



1 a pseudoscientific forerunner of chemistry in medieval times
2 the way two individuals relate to each other; "their chemistry was wrong from the beginning -- they hated each other"; "a mysterious alchemy brought them together" [syn: chemistry, interpersonal chemistry]

User Contributed Dictionary



From alkemie, arquemie (French alchimie) < alkimia < sc=Arab < sc=polytonic or sc=polytonic originally “a mingling, infusion, juice, liquid, especially as extracted from plants” and later “alchemy” < perhaps both sc=polytonic and sc=polytonic. (Compare Spanish alquimia and Italian alchimia).



  1. obsolete uncountable Chemistry and in particular pharmaceutical chemistry (as practised in the Middle Ages); searching for a panacea.
  2. The speculative medieval philosophical art of changing objects from one element into another, principally (historically) attempting to turn lead and other base metals into gold; pseudo-science.
  3. The causing of any sort of mysterious sudden transmutation.
  4. Any elaborate transformation process or algorithm.


chemistry searching for panacea
  • Chinese: 煉金術, 炼金术
  • Croatian: alkemija
  • Finnish: alkemia
  • French: alchimie
  • German: Alchemie
  • Greek: αλχημεία
  • Hungarian: alkímia
  • Japanese: 錬金術, 黄金術, 煉丹術
chemistry searching for method to turn cheap metals to gold
  • Chinese: 鍊金術, 炼金术
  • Croatian: alkemija
  • Czech: alchymie
  • Finnish: alkemia
  • French: alchimie
  • German: Alchemie
  • Greek: αλχημεία
  • Hungarian: aranycsinálás
  • Japanese: 錬金術, 黄金術, 煉丹術
causing of mysterious transmutation
  • Croatian: alkemija
  • French: alchimie


Webster 1913 Online Etymology Dictionary

Extensive Definition

In the history of science, alchemy (from the Arabic الكيمياء al-kīmiyā' ) refers to both an early form of the investigation of nature and an early philosophical and spiritual discipline, both combining elements of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, medicine, astrology, semiotics, mysticism, spiritualism, and art all as parts of one greater force. Alchemy has been practiced in Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Persia, India, Japan, Korea and China, in Classical Greece and Rome, in the Muslim civilization, and then in Europe up to the 19th century—in a complex network of schools and philosophical systems spanning at least 2500 years.

Alchemy as a philosophical and spiritual discipline

Alchemy was known as the spagyric art after Greek words meaning to separate and to join together. Compare this with the primary dictum of Alchemy in Latin: SOLVE ET COAGULA — Separate, and Join Together.
The best-known goals of the alchemists were the transmutation of common metals into gold (called chrysopoeia) or silver (less well known is plant alchemy, or "spagyric"); the creation of a "panacea ," or the elixir of life, a remedy that supposedly would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely; and the discovery of a universal solvent. Although these were not the only uses for the science, they were the ones most documented and well known. Starting with the Middle Ages, European alchemists invested much effort on the search for the "philosopher's stone", a legendary substance that was believed to be an essential ingredient for either or both of those goals. The Philosophers Stone was believed to mystically amplify the user's knowledge of alchemy so much that anything was attainable. Alchemists enjoyed prestige and support through the centuries, though not for their pursuit of those goals, nor the mystic and philosophical speculation that dominates their literature. Rather it came from their mundane contributions to the "chemical" industries of the day—the invention of gunpowder, ore testing and refining, metalworking, production of ink, dyes, paints, cosmetics, leather tanning, ceramics, glass manufacture, preparation of extracts, liquors, and so on (it seems that the preparation of aqua vitae, the "water of life", was a fairly popular "experiment" among European alchemists).
Starting with the Middle Ages, some alchemists increasingly came to view metaphysical aspects as the true foundation of alchemy; and organic and inorganic chemical substances, physical states, and molecular material processes as mere metaphors for spiritual entities, spiritual states and ultimately, spiritual transformations. In this sense, the literal meanings of 'Alchemical Formulas' were a blind, hiding their true spiritual philosophy, which being at odds with the Medieval Christian Church was a necessity that could have otherwise lead them to the "stake and rack" of the Inquisition under charges of heresy. Thus, both the transmutation of common metals into gold and the universal panacea symbolized evolution from an imperfect, diseased, corruptible and ephemeral state towards a perfect, healthy, incorruptible and everlasting state; and the philosopher's stone then represented some mystic key that would make this evolution possible. Applied to the alchemist himself, the twin goal symbolized his evolution from ignorance to enlightenment, and the stone represented some hidden spiritual truth or power that would lead to that goal. In texts that are written according to this view, the cryptic alchemical symbols, diagrams, and textual imagery of late alchemical works typically contain multiple layers of meanings, allegories, and references to other equally cryptic works; and must be laboriously "decoded" in order to discover their true meaning.
In his Alchemical Catechism, Paracelsus clearly denotes that his usage of the metals was a symbol:
Q. When the Philosophers speak of gold and silver, from which they extract their matter, are we to suppose that they refer to the vulgar gold and silver? A. By no means; vulgar silver and gold are dead, while those of the Philosophers are full of life.


Alchemical symbolism has been occasionally used by psychologists and philosophers. Carl Jung reexamined alchemical symbolism and theory and began to show the inner meaning of alchemical work as a spiritual path. Alchemical philosophy, symbols and methods have enjoyed something of a renaissance in post-modern contexts.
Jung saw alchemy as a Western proto-psychology dedicated to the achievement of individuation. In his interpretation, alchemy was the vessel by which Gnosticism survived its various purges into the Renaissance. In this sense, Jung viewed alchemy as comparable to a Yoga of the East. The act of Alchemy seemed to improve the mind and spirit of the Alchemist. His interpretaion of Chinese alchemical texts in terms of his analytical psychology also served as the same function.

Magnum opus

The Great Work; mystic interpretation of its three stages:
  • nigredo(-putrefactio), blackening(-putrefaction): individuation, purification, burnout of impureness; see also Suns in alchemy - Sol Niger
  • albedo, whitening: spiritualisation, enlightenment
  • rubedo'', reddening: unification of man with god, unification of the limited with the unlimited.
Within the Magnum Opus, was the creation of the Sanctum Moleculae, that is the 'Sacred Masses' that were derived from the Sacrum Particulae, that is the 'Sacred Particles', needed to complete the process of achieving the Magnum Opus.

Alchemy as a subject of historical research

The history of alchemy has become a vigorous academic field. As the obscure hermetic language of the alchemists is gradually being "deciphered", historians are becoming more aware of the intellectual connections between that discipline and other facets of Western cultural history, such as the sociology and psychology of the intellectual communities, kabbalism, spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, and other mystic movements, cryptography, witchcraft, and the evolution of science and philosophy.


Alchemy encompasses several philosophical traditions spanning some four millennia and three continents. These traditions' general penchant for cryptic and symbolic language makes it hard to trace their mutual influences and "genetic" relationships.
Famous alchemists include Wei Boyang in Chinese alchemy; Calid, Geber and Rhazes in Islamic alchemy; Nagarjuna in Indian alchemy; and Albertus Magnus and pseudo-Geber in European alchemy; as well as the anonymous author of the Mutus Liber, published in France in the late 17th century, and which was a 'wordless book' that claimed to be a guide to making the philosopher's stone, using a series of 15 symbols and illustrations.
A tentative outline is as follows:
  1. Egyptian alchemy [5000 BCE – 400 BCE], beginning of alchemy
  2. Indian alchemy [1200 BCE – Present], related to metallurgy; Nagarjuna was an important alchemist
  3. Greek alchemy [332 BCE – 642 CE], studied at the Library of Alexandria
  4. Chinese alchemy [142 CE], Wei Boyang writes The Kinship of the Three
  5. Islamic alchemy [700 – 1400], Geber a very important chemist introduces experimental method and theories on philosopher's stone and creation of life
  6. Islamic chemistry [800 – Present], Alkindus and Avicenna refute alchemy and Tusi discovers conservation of mass
  7. European alchemy [1300 – Present], Saint Albertus Magnus builds on Arabic alchemy
  8. European chemistry [1661 – Present], Boyle writes The Sceptical Chymist, Lavoisier writes Elements of Chemistry, and Dalton publishes his Atomic Theory


Alchemy, generally, derives from the old French alkemie; and the Arabic al-kimia: "the art of transformation." Some scholars believe the Arabs borrowed the word “kimia” from the Greeks. Others, such as Mahdihassan, argue that its origins are Chinese.
Thus, an alchemist was called a 'chemist' in popular speech, and later the suffix "-ry" was added to this to describe the art of the chemist as "chemistry".
A connection has been made between alchemy and Egypt. One source in particular gives further background into the probable founding of the name itself in the following passage: "...The concept is a very ancient one, which seems to answer to deep human motivations. It came to Medieval Europe by way of Egypt. When they invaded Egypt, which they called Khem, in the seventh century, the followers of the moon god discovered that the Egyptians were masters of the art of working in gold. They called gold-working al-kimiya - 'the art of the land of Khem' - and so, according to one account, the word 'alchemy' was born."

Modern alchemy

Islamic alchemy was a forerunner of modern scientific chemistry. Alchemists used many of the same laboratory tools that are used today. These tools were not usually sturdy or in good condition, especially during the medieval period of Europe. Many transmutation attempts failed when alchemists unwittingly made unstable chemicals. This was made worse by the unsafe conditions.
Up to the 16th Century, alchemy was considered serious science in Europe; for instance, Isaac Newton devoted considerably more of his time and writing to the study of alchemy (see Isaac Newton's occult studies) than he did to either optics or physics, for which he is famous. Other eminent alchemists of the Western world are Roger Bacon, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Tycho Brahe, Thomas Browne, and Parmigianino. The decline of alchemy began in the 18th century with the birth of modern chemistry, which provided a more precise and reliable framework for matter transmutations and medicine, within a new grand design of the universe based on rational materialism.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, one established chemist, Baron Carl Reichenbach, worked on concepts similar to the old alchemy, such as the Odic force, but his research did not enter the mainstream of scientific discussion.
Matter transmutation, the old goal of alchemy, enjoyed a moment in the sun in the 20th century when physicists were able to convert platinum atoms into gold atoms via a nuclear reaction. However, the new gold atoms, being unstable isotopes, lasted for under five seconds before they broke apart. More recently, reports of table-top element transmutation—by means of electrolysis or sonic cavitation—were the pivot of the cold fusion controversy of 1989. None of those claims have yet been reliably duplicated.

Alchemy in traditional medicine

Traditional medicines involve transmutation by alchemy, using pharmacological or combination pharmacological and spiritual techniques. In Chinese medicine the alchemical traditions of pao zhi will transform the nature of the temperature, taste, body part accessed or toxicity. In Ayurveda the samskaras are used to transform heavy metals and toxic herbs in a way that removes their toxicity. In the spagyric processing of herbal medicine similar effects are found. These processes are actively used to the present day.

Nuclear transmutation

In 1919, Ernest Rutherford used artificial disintegration to convert nitrogen into oxygen. From then on, this sort of scientific transmutation is routinely performed in many nuclear physics-related laboratories and facilities, like particle accelerators, nuclear power stations and nuclear weapons as a byproduct of fission and other physical processes.

In popular culture

The subject of alchemy is extensively used in many cartoons and comic books, often in the form of superpowers. In some Japanese anime and manga, most notably Fullmetal Alchemist, alchemy and transmutation are treated as sciences, mixed with magic but fully understandable and utilizable with proper knowledge. Fullmetal Alchemist also refers to equivalancy or equivalent exchange for alchemy to work; i.e nothing gained without losing something in return, thus making something into something related or new. In Buso Renkin, alchemy is used primarily as a means for superpowers.

See also

Substances of the alchemists



  • Cavendish, Richard, The Black Arts, Perigee Books
  • Encyclopedia of the Occult
  • Chemical History Tour, Picturing Chemistry from Alchemy to Modern Molecular Science
  • Why does a ball bounce? 101 Questions that you never thought of asking
  • On the Elements Trans. Richard Dales.
  • The World of Physics
  • Chemistry

External links

commons Alchemy
alchemy in Afrikaans: Alchemie
alchemy in Arabic: خيمياء
alchemy in Bengali: আলকেমি
alchemy in Bulgarian: Алхимия
alchemy in Catalan: Alquímia
alchemy in Czech: Alchymie
alchemy in Corsican: Alchimia
alchemy in Danish: Alkymi
alchemy in German: Alchemie
alchemy in Estonian: Alkeemia
alchemy in Modern Greek (1453-): Αλχημεία
alchemy in Spanish: Alquimia
alchemy in Esperanto: Alkemio
alchemy in Persian: کیمیاگری
alchemy in French: Alchimie
alchemy in Irish: Ailceimic
alchemy in Galician: Alquimia
alchemy in Korean: 연금술
alchemy in Armenian: Մատենադարանի ձեռագրերը քիմիայի մասին
alchemy in Croatian: Alkemija
alchemy in Ido: Alkemio
alchemy in Indonesian: Alkimia
alchemy in Icelandic: Gullgerðarlist
alchemy in Italian: Alchimia
alchemy in Hebrew: אלכימיה
alchemy in Latin: Alchemia
alchemy in Latvian: Alķīmija
alchemy in Lithuanian: Alchemija
alchemy in Hungarian: Alkímia
alchemy in Macedonian: Алхемија
alchemy in Malayalam: ആല്‍കെമി
alchemy in Marathi: अल्केमी
alchemy in Malay (macrolanguage): Alkimia
alchemy in Dutch: Alchemie
alchemy in Japanese: 錬金術
alchemy in Norwegian: Alkymi
alchemy in Norwegian Nynorsk: Alkymi
alchemy in Polish: Alchemia
alchemy in Portuguese: Alquimia
alchemy in Romanian: Alchimie
alchemy in Russian: Алхимия
alchemy in Albanian: Alkimia
alchemy in Simple English: Alchemy
alchemy in Slovak: Alchýmia
alchemy in Slovenian: Alkimija
alchemy in Serbian: Алхемија
alchemy in Serbo-Croatian: Alkemija
alchemy in Sundanese: Alkémi
alchemy in Finnish: Alkemia
alchemy in Swedish: Alkemi
alchemy in Tagalog: Alkimiya
alchemy in Thai: การเล่นแร่แปรธาตุ
alchemy in Vietnamese: Giả kim thuật
alchemy in Turkish: Simya
alchemy in Ukrainian: Алхімія
alchemy in Contenese: 煉金術
alchemy in Chinese: 炼金术

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