The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Alchemy is the ancient art of transmutation: most people, if asked to describe alchemy, would say it was the art of transmuting (changing or transforming) base metals into more valuable, precious ones, particularly gold. The stereotype of the power-hungry sorcerer is largely based on negative perceptions of alchemy.
The birthplace of alchemy is hotly contested, however its primal roots lie in metalworking. The first metalworkers to develop alloys, the first ironworkers, and the first smith to forge steel might all be considered primordial alchemists. Marie Curie, in her compulsive attempts to extract, refine, and ultimately transform one element into another, actually changing its nature and molecular structure, might also be considered an alchemist.
Famous alchemists include Dr John Dee and Edward Kelley, Dr Faust, Count Cagliostro, the Comte de Saint-Germain, Nicholas Flamel, and Paracelsus.
The English word “alchemy” derives from Arabic. “Alchemy” translates as either “the science of the black Earth” or as “the Egyptian science.” The word derives from the Arabic al (“the”) and Khemeia or Kimia (“Egyptian”).
The name “Egypt” is actually of Greek derivation; ancient Egyptians called their country Kemet or “the black land.” So alchemy is literally “the black art,” a term now often used to indicate malevolent, diabolical practices. In ancient Egypt, however, black was considered the color of fertility, growth, abundance, eternal life, and resurrection: in short, a very positive color. Red was the color that indicated danger and malevolence to the Egyptians. Malevolent magic would thus have been considered “red magic.”
One theory suggests that the term “Black Arts” originated as a specific reference to alchemy. As alchemy became increasingly disreputable, “Black Arts” developed into a catch-all phrase for malevolent magic or occult practices in general.
Another suggestion is that the Arabic al kimia derives from the ancient Greek chemeia or chymia, which refers to working, fusing or casting metal.
Transmutation of metals may sound silly today but up until the conclusion of the medieval era it was generally believed that minerals were alive and that they grew in soil just like plants, except incredibly slowly. It was believed that metals progressed through stages. Base metals were very young metals; if metals were left alone in Earth to age, they would eventually transmute into other forms, becoming increasingly more valuable and “pure” with time, similar to the way fine wine improves with age. Gold, similar to a person’s “golden years,” was thus the natural outcome of any metal, although it might take millennia to achieve. Techniques of transmuting base metals into gold or silver were considered a method of speeding up a natural process.
Transmutation may be metaphoric as well as literal. Transmutation of metals is only one of the aims of classical alchemy. Ignorance can also be transmuted into enlightenment; the base human soul may be transmuted into the divine.
Alchemy expressed hope for the possibility of human renewal, the yearning of the soul for perfection and unification with the godhead. Just as base metals could be transformed into gold by removing impurities and imperfections, so a human could be transmuted into divinity. Alchemy is a method of perfecting what nature has left imperfect or unfinished. Alchemy transforms the raw into the cooked.
Many traditional alchemical tools resemble those used for cooking and witchcraft: cauldrons, bottles, ovens, vessels, and stills.
Although obviously there were those who studied alchemy in pursuit of material gain, gold wasn’t only desired for its material worth: gold was considered superior to lead (the base metal involved in many experiments) because gold contained the perfect balance of the four elements from which all matter derives.
These four elements (earth, water, fire, and air or ether) ultimately proceed from the quintessence, “the fifth essence” or Spirit which is what fills the universe with life.
An alchemical symbol illustrating this concept consists of a circle containing a cross. Each quarter of the circle (quadrant) represents one element. The point at the very center of the circle from which the lines emanate is the quinta essential or quintessence.
Other alchemical symbols include the ancient geometric short-hand for male and female primal power: an upward facing triangle indicates fire while the downward facing triangle indicates water. Conjoined together, they produce steam or the breath of life.
Alchemical formulas were frequently encrypted in secret codes, verbal but also frequently visual. Alchemy inspired beautiful, mysterious paintings whose symbols may be analyzed and interpreted in the search for alchemical clues. Formulas were encoded in these paintings; for instance antimony might be represented by a gray wolf. Those unfamiliar with alchemy merely saw beautiful, odd paintings; initiates saw a treasure map.
Among the paintings believed to be influenced by alchemy are those of Hieronymus Bosch. Alchemists themselves eventually became popular subjects for paintings, especially between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.
Debate rages as to whether alchemy first emerged in China, Egypt, or Greece, or somewhere in the Middle East. Western alchemy, which is largely based on Alexandrian traditions, and Chinese alchemy seem to have developed independently, although as there were ancient trade routes between China, Egypt, and the Mediterranean, it’s quite possible that they influenced each other and that there was communication between early alchemists. However, their paths diverged and are so different that they must be considered independently.