The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Wherever it originally came from, classical Western alchemy first flowered in Egypt, in Alexandria, in the first centuries of the Common Era. Alexandria possessed both a large community of cross-cultural occultists and a community of highly proficient metalworkers, many of whom specialized in copper and silver alloys resembling gold.
Alchemy is also known as “the Hermetic Art” and identified with Hermes Trismegistus, “thrice-great Hermes,” an ancient master of what was then considered the three primary occult arts: alchemy, astrology, and magic. (See HALL OF FAME: Hermes Trismegistus.)
Despite later stereotypes, from a very early stage, women were involved with all facets of alchemy, perhaps from its inception.
The first historically documented alchemist was a woman. Maria the Jewess, also called Maria the Prophetess, has been identified with the biblical Miriam, Moses’ sister, (Moses was himself identified with Hermes Trismegistus), however she actually lived in Alexandria, Egypt in the early third-century BCE. The oldest existing description of a still comes from Maria and she is credited with inventing and designing several alchemical apparatuses, including ovens. Her most famous invention, the waterbath, remains named in her honor, the balneum Mariae, bain-marie or Marienbad.
Alchemy allegedly first emerged as an art via the text inscribed on the legendary Emerald Tablet (Tabula Smaragdina), allegedly written by Hermes Trismegistus. According to legend, the Emerald Tablet was discovered when the biblical matriarch Sarah, once a priestess of Inanna-Ishtar, found Hermes’ cadaver in a cave in Hebron and removed the Emerald Tablet from his hands. The Emerald Tablet allegedly contained the first reference to the Philosopher’s Stone.
The earliest documented reference to the Philosopher’s Stone is from c.300 CE in the works of Zosimus whose writings are the oldest surviving alchemical texts. Zosimus was born in Panopolis, Egypt but lived in Alexandria. He was a prolific writer, composing at least 22 treatises independently plus a chemical encyclopedia incorporating 28 volumes written with his sister Eusebeia, of which only fragments now survive. Much of his writings incorporate quotes from earlier works, including those of Maria the Jewess, and so have been used to recreate alchemical history.
Even people who know nothing else about alchemy are often conversant with the Philosopher’s Stone—the legendary substance that was the goal of so many obsessive quests over the centuries. Many understand alchemy to be nothing more than a means of acquiring this miraculous substance. Allegedly the Philosopher’s Stone can:
Change base metals into gold (transmutation)
Heal all ailments and illnesses
Prolong life to the point of virtual immortality while simultaneously maintaining youth, health, and vigor
Despite its name, the Philosopher’s Stone was not usually envisioned as a rock but is generally believed to be a chemical or powder, or sometimes a wax or liquid.
In ancient Egypt, a black powder made from mercury was identified with the body of Osiris and the Philosopher’s Stone is most frequently envisioned as a black powder. Fierce arguments have, however, raged regarding the appearance and true identity of the Philosopher’s Stone. In addition to black, it has been described as vivid yellow, bright red or dark red. An Arabic scholar, perhaps trying to maintain peace, suggested that the Philosopher’s Stone unites and contains all colors, hence the disagreements and differences in perception.
Other medieval names for the Philosopher’s Stone include the “Powder of Projection,” “The Elixir,” and “The Tincture.” New names still evolve: the first Harry Potter novel was published in the United Kingdom under the title Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Publishers, fearing that title would be intimidatingly erudite for American readers, renamed it Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when the book was published in the United States.
Alchemy’s traditional secrecy is often blamed on the alchemists’ selfish desires. They wish the Philosopher’s Stone to be theirs exclusively. However historically there have been many other reasons why alchemists cloaked their work in secrecy, and alchemy has been perceived as dangerous and subversive by those in power:
If alchemists could produce sufficient quantities of precious metals this could cause dire economic consequences.
If alchemists could cause spiritual transformations, then who needs priests, the Church or other religious authorities?
Some rulers, for example Bohemia’s Emperor Rudolph II, sponsored alchemists like Edward Kelley, setting up laboratories for them in the hope that they would eventually be able to produce gold; these alchemists were inevitably kept under close supervision. Other rulers imprisoned reputed alchemists, demanding that they produce gold, torturing and killing them if they were unable to deliver desired results.