The Secrets of Alchemy

The Alchemist. Francois-Marius Granet, 19th century. (Gift of Roy Eddleman, CHF Collections/Will Brown)

Detail from The Alchemist. Francois-Marius Granet, 19th century. (Gift of Roy Eddleman, CHF Collections/Will Brown)

Lawrence Principe is one of the foremost scholars of alchemy in the world. He earned his first Ph.D. in chemistry and his second in the history of science. His book The Secrets of Alchemy, was released just as this issue of Chemical Heritage was completed. We asked him to give our readers a taste of his new work, which is aimed at anyone with an interest in the story of chemistry.

Alchemy is full of secrets. Nevertheless, over the past generation scholars have been revealing more and more of its surprising content and importance. No longer is it dismissed as a waste of time or a fool's quest. Alchemy is now increasingly recognized as a fundamental part of the heritage of chemistry, of continuing human attempts to explore, control, and make use of the natural world. Alchemists developed practical knowledge about matter as well as sophisticated theories about its hidden nature and transformations. Their hope of discovering the secret of preparing the philosophers’ stone—a material supposedly able to transmute base metals into gold—was one powerful incentive for their endeavors. But at the same time, they contributed to mining and metallurgy, and pharmacy and medicine, and their achievements and aspirations (as well as failures) inspired artists, playwrights, and poets. Their researches and goals had both commercial and scientific aspects, as well as philosophical and theological ones. Many alchemists expressed (often just implicitly) a strong confidence in the power of human beings to imitate and improve on nature, and their work included the exploration of the relationship of human beings to God and the created universe. The work of historians of science continues to reveal the enormous complexity and diversity of alchemy, its important position in human history and culture, and its continuities with what we now call chemistry.

Much of this new understanding remains little known outside of a small circle of academic specialists. In the wider world the revolution in our knowledge of alchemy might count as one of alchemy’s biggest secrets. But the subject of alchemy remains evocative and alluring for a broad array of people; I have met many who would genuinely like to know more about it. Unfortunately, the resources currently available are rather slim. The readily available general histories of alchemy in English are all over 50 years old, and while they were excellent resources in their day, they now need updating. My goal in writing The Secrets of Alchemy was to bring the results of recent academic work to a broader public. The book surveys the history of alchemy from its origins in late antiquity to the present day. It focuses on a few representative characters and ideas from each of alchemy’s several historical epochs in the West—the Greco-Egyptian, the Arabic, the Latin medieval, the early modern, and the modern. The Secrets of Alchemy also shows how the frustratingly obscure secret language of code and metaphor routinely used by alchemists to hide their knowledge (and hopes) can be deciphered—sometimes into impressive feats of chemical experimentalism—and even replicated in a modern laboratory. The text is written for anyone interested in the story of alchemy and its remarkable practitioners and ideas. Extensive endnotes (almost a third of the book) provide a guide through the current scholarly literature on the subject for those wishing to wade further into the subject’s deep waters.

No treatment of alchemy can be exhaustive. It was too diverse a phenomenon, too widespread geographically, socially, and chronologically. While we’re learning more about the subject every day, there still remain wide gaps in our knowledge. The following excerpts provide glimpses of three alchemical practitioners who carried out their researches in widely different periods and cultures, and often for widely different purposes.

Zosimos: At Alchemy’s Foundations
(Excerpted from pp. 14–17)

In the cosmopolitan crossroads of Greco-Roman Egypt, the two streams of craft traditions and philosophical traditions coexisted. Their merger—probably in the third century AD—gave rise to the independent discipline of alchemy. The intimate mingling of the two traditions is evident in the earliest substantial texts we have about chrysopoeia [gold making]. These writings come from a Greco-Egyptian alchemist who would be revered as an authority for the rest of alchemy’s history, and the first about whom we have any reasonably substantial or reliable historical details: Zosimos of Panopolis.