What is Alchemy?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Alchemy is a precursor to modern chemistry that was widely practiced all over the world through the 1800s, when more modern chemistry began to displace it. This discipline involved a study of the chemical properties of various substances, with a mystical bent. Ancient alchemists laid the groundwork for the scientific field of chemistry, establishing some basic principles which continue to be used today. They also discovered a number of things with practical applications, from some of the elements to the chemical process used to tan leather.

Alchemy is a precursor to modern chemistry, with a mystical twist, that was widely practiced all over the world through the 1800s.
Alchemy is a precursor to modern chemistry, with a mystical twist, that was widely practiced all over the world through the 1800s.

The practice of alchemy appears to be quite ancient. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and early Arab community all engaged in alchemical investigations, and some exchange of information between these groups seems to have occurred as well. Alchemists had a number of goals in their work, and many of them were looking for a process that would turn base metals like lead into gold or silver. They also pursued a panacea, also known as a cure-all, that would theoretically extend life indefinitely. Needless to say, none of these pursuits were successful, but alchemists did stumble upon a number of things along the way.

One of the goals of Alchemy was turning base metals, such as lead, into gold.
One of the goals of Alchemy was turning base metals, such as lead, into gold.

In Europe, alchemy experienced a resurgence during the medieval era, thanks to an interest in translating ancient texts that exposed people to the concept. In addition to being an exploration of chemistry, medieval work was also about philosophy and metaphysics, and as chemistry began to emerge as a separate discipline, the exploration of alchemy turned metaphysical. People who view this practice as metaphysical believe that alchemical terms are metaphors, rather than literal references to substances.

The term is Arabic in origin, being derived from al-kimya, which means “chemistry.” Alchemy is also sometimes called the spagyric art, in a reference to Greek words which mean “to separate” and “to join.” Many alchemists devoted themselves to separation and purification of various substances in pursuit of their goals, and in the medieval era, this took on a new level of complexity as people searched for the philosopher's stone, rather than trying to directly transform metals into gold and so forth. These alchemists believed that the philosopher's stone was the vital tool that would be needed to create a panacea or to transmute metals into gold, because the stone would somehow enhance their knowledge.

Because alchemy uses a wide variety of esoteric terms and symbols, many people of a mystical bent have become intrigued by it. It is often studied along with astrology, another earlier version of a modern scientific discipline. Many examples of alchemical texts can be seen on display in museums, and some bookstores carry reproductions of such books for people who are interested in this field of study.

Ouroboros was used for the symbol of alchemy during the Middle Ages.
Ouroboros was used for the symbol of alchemy during the Middle Ages.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Alchemy was not considered hidden, after it was a forgotten study the remains, or the majority of them were burnt in the babylonian library and were unsalvagable.


I just wanted to say I had to research what Alchemy was for extra credit, and this site gave me a lot of information and if I were to recommend to someone, I would choose this site.


I'm reading a book called "The Apothecary" and it has a lot of alchemy in it. I like the thought of alchemy, and it is somewhat real in certain ways.


After reading some of these posts I think a lot of people here have what they know from that fictional anime "Full metal alchemist." Good show, but I don't think you should apply much of it to your learning.


Wow, alchemy sounds so interesting, but what I want to know is, if it is a science, why did it "fail" and was even real to begin with?


Why are all of you people calling alchemy a science? It's a pseudoscience guys. It's *fake.*


Wow! Alchemy seems like a pretty cool idea. I love science and learning an older science would be a really great experience! Yay for alchemy!


Alchemy is the art of transmutation of energy and transmutation of self. It is a healing art and a path towards enlightenment before anything else.

And yes it is still being practiced and taught today.


Alchemy is the transformation of the soul, turning your dull inner light, into a bright gold like light.

Just like the bible, it is all symbolic, using metaphors to describe rather than literally.


Is Alchemy still practiced by certain people today? Or is it basically modernized and now simply Chemistry? Or both?


so, alchemy is a science? then how do i study it? I'm still confused on what it is?


I think people really need to read some actual alchemy books that have been copied from preserved research before they can really make any judgment for themselves.


alchemy is, plain and simple, a form of science that requires you to have to understand the fact that you can't create something out of nothing. you must have an equivalent exchange so no, you can't make a potato out of dirt, you can't turn a mineral into an organic object. you can turn grass into bread, or you could turn sand into rock, but not sand into bread. there are rules to this almost all powerful art.


It sounds like to me it's flat out science that people have turned to use as a form of witchcraft. Play with the devil if you want to!


I would love some help on this subject. I would like someone to discuss this with and someone to help me research and become an alchemist.


I love the comment that says "in theory" it is possible to make a potato out of dirt, water, and air - even with all the understanding and rearranging, we're still going to need a potato seedling if we're going to make a potato.


I believe that alchemy is a study of science and a bit of magic. Have you ever heard of Nicholas Flamel and Dr.John Dee? These two are some of the most famous alchemists in the world!


Anon13812 - impressive knowledge base. Bravo. ;)

Signed - Fellow alchemist. :)

PS: This is why the alchemists were so secretive about their knowledge and enshrouded in symbolism - anon13812 basically reveals the secret in a nutshell and gets unnecessary grief.

I wish society was ready for this knowledge, but the kind of criticism below demonstrates it isn't yet - the world would be a utopia if it was.

*sigh* I look forward to the day everyone is pure enough to be a true alchemist...


In my opinion, alchemy is close to nanotechnology. Since alchemy (reference to FMA) is an order of understanding, decomposing, and reconstructing. Nanotechnology seems to go through a similar process, understanding and rearranging. Since in theory it is possible to make a potato out of dirt, water, and air.


Sorry anon13812! It's not just a science! It is s mix of science and religion. I believe summoning spirits was also one part of it. That's why the name was changed to chemistry and not just simply kept alchemy.


Alchemy is so cool! I think I want to study that instead of animals! If you like alchemy you should try to watch an anime called Full Metal Alchemist. It's all about alchemy and the philosopher's stone. It also has a bunch of fighting!


explain what alchemy was and why it failed?


are you kidding me, anon13812?

alchemy is not a mind trap for people to follow a certain belief!

alchemy is a *science*!!!

have you never seen anything like this before?

some people believe that alchemic works are the work of a god, or holy/non-holy being.

alchemy, to the simplest definition, is a science.

plain and simple.



Hi, just a head up that alchemy is systematic method of altering consciousness, in the same way that the Himalayan yogis use special meditation techniques to join their consciousness to the 'universal consciousness' or god. It uses the chemical and metallic symbolism to disguise its true aim from the the jealous priesthood who seek to control you. The word alchemy is said to have come from the ancient Egyptian name for their land - Chem.

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