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Alchemy: An introduction

Raising the subject of alchemy in modern, scientific society is to invite polite smiles and tutting that anyone could ever have believed it was possible to turn lead into gold: not without the aid of a nuclear reactor anyway. To say that you are an alchemist yourself is tantamount to an admission of insanity. Yet this is what I am going to do today and I hope you will bear with me as I explain why.

It is well-known that medieval alchemy is the precursor of our modern science of chemistry and that indeed it was alchemists who invented much of the equipment used in the laboratory: the retorts, condensers, flasks and crucibles. Versions of these can be seen represented in many of the lithographic prints that make sixteenth and seventeenth century text-books of alchemy such a joy to behold. Even a cursory glance at these pictures reveals that alchemy was more than just a quest for fools’ gold: it was something more akin to cooking.

A clue to the true nature of alchemy can be deduced from the root of its name, al-chem, an Arabic word deriving from Kmt , the ancient Egyptian word for the arable part of thier country, the ‘black land’, as opposed to Dsrt, the ‘red land’ or desert. Alchemy, therefore, is inextricably woven with the romance of Egypt. In the minds of it medieval, European practitioners it was the science pas excellence that was taught to the Egyptians by their one-time great prophet who they called Thoth but the later Greeks knew by the title of Hermes Trismegistus, i.e. ‘Hermes the Thrice-greatest’.

As the teachings of Hermes (under the blanket title of Hermeticism) are to be the subject of other articles, little more need be said about him here other than to remark that probably the most influential of all alchemical writings was the so-called Tabula Smaragdina or ‘Emerald Table’ of Hermes. We will return to that subject in a later essay.

During Roman times Egypt, with its pyramids, temples and schools of philosophy, was looked upon as a repository of ancient mysteries. Following the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC it became a province of the Roman Empire with the Emperor Augustus the new pharaoh. From the Roman perspective the Egyptian religion, with its many cults, its animal-headed gods and strange mummification rituals was not only mysterious but rather enticing. In much the same way that many modern-day Europeans and Americans have embraced Buddhism, Islam or Hindu Yoga in preference to the Christianity of their birth, so Romans were attracted to the Egyptian cults of Isis and Serapis. Temples to these gods appeared throughout the Roman Empire, even in places as remote from Egypt as Paris and Cologne. By this means Egyptian ideas on the nature of the universe were widely disseminated.

The fact that alchemy, at least in its western form, has its origins in Egypt gives us a further clue to its real nature. It was always something much more scientific than the futile pursuit of a means of transmuting lead into gold. Ordinary Egyptians (other than Greeks of Egyptian birth) had a low status within the Roman Empire. However, the learned were highly esteemed as doctors of medicine and what we would now call apothecaries. They knew how to make medicines out of herbal and mineral extracts, zealously guarding recipes which they passed down from one generation to the next.

The Egyptians also had long experience, gained over thousands of years of practice, in the blending of metals to make amalgams with the appearance of gold.  The most valuable of these was electrum, a mixture of silver and gold, that was used, among other things, for covering the tips of obelisks.  They also blended copper with tin to make bronze. Though no distinction is made between bronze and brass (a mixture of copper with zinc rather than tin) in the ancient texts we have in our possession, it seems likely that they knew how to make this as well. The similarity in colour of polished brass and gold would have made this an ideal substitute for the latter and given rise to the idea that gold could be manufactured from base metals.

 

 

The Egyptians of Roman times (if not before) compiled ‘recipe books’ which bear some similarity to those of today’s master chefs. Two of these books have survived to this day in the form of the Leyden Papyrus  and Stockholm Papyrus. They contain  recipes for making coloured dyes as well as details for how to make metals with the appearance of gold and silver, and like the Corpus Hermeticum  (discussed elsewhere on this website) they were written in Greek, probably by an Alexandrian Greek.

Many of the recipes involve the making or use of a substance called ‘Asem’, which appears to be an amalgam of several metals, usually white but sometimes gold in colour. Here are several typical recipes:

 

Manufacture of Asem.

Tin, 12 drachmas; mercury, 4 drachmas; earth of Chios, 2 drachmas. To the melted tin, add the crushed earth, then the mercury, stir with an iron, and put into use.’

Manufacture of fusible Asem.

Copper of Cyprus, 1 mina; tin in sticks, 1 mina; stone of Magnesia, 16 drachmas; Mercury, 8 drachmas, stone of Paros, 20 drachmas. Having melted the the copper, throw the tin on it, then the stone of Magnesia in powdered form, then the stone of Paros, and finally the Mercury; stir with an iron rod and pour at the desired time.’

The Doubling of Asem.

One takes: refined copper, 40 drachmas; asem, 8 drachmas; tin in buttons, 40 drachmas; one first melts the copper and then and after two heatings, the tin; then  the asem. When all are softened, remelt several times and cool by means of the preceding composition. After having augmented the metal by these means, clean it with talk.. The tripling is effected by the same procedure, the weights being proportioned in conformity with what has been stated above.

Natural Asem was the naturally occurring amalgam of silver and gold that we today call Electrum. Alchemically produced ‘Asem’  —and the Lyden Papyrus X contains  many different recipes for making it —seems to have been the name applied any alloy with the appearance of either silver or gold. In the latter case it was probably similar in appearance and properties to modern-day brass. As far as the Egyptian alchemists were concerned, if it looked like gold, then it was as good as gold and could be used as such.

What is very interesting about all of these recipes is that they are essentially concerned with practical chemistry. The identity of the metals used is self explanatory and needs no further explanation; “Earth of Chios” was evidently a type of clay that was found on that island, in which case it was probably a rich source of silica; ‘Stone of Paros’ would have been a type of limestone and therefore composed chiefly of Calcium Carbonate; ‘Stone of Magnesia’, on the other hand, is not Magnesium and had nothing in common with modern-day ‘milk of magnesia’: a suspension of Magnesium. Oxide. Rather it would have been understood as meaning an iron-rich magnetic lode-stone from the region of Magnesia in Thrace.

Asem could be made from lead as well as tin, as this recipe shows:

 

Purify lead carefully with pitch and bitumen, or tin as well; and mix cadmia and litharge in equal parts with the lead, and stir until the alloy is completed and solidified. It can be used like natural asem.

Besides creating fake gold from base metals, the Egyptians also had recipes for bulking out of real gold by diluting it, just as we do today when making 18 or 9 carrot gold for jewellery.

 

Augmentation of gold:

‘To augment gold, take cadmia of Thracia, make the mixture with cadmia in crusts, or that from Galacia…Misy or Sinopian red, equal parts to one part of gold. After the gold has been thrown in the furnace and it has become of good colour, throw upon it these two ingredients, and removing let it cool and the gold is doubled.’

What is referred to here as cadmia is not the metal we would today call Cadmium (though it may have contained quantities of this) rather this is a generalised term for the crusty accretion of a multiplicity of metals that was found condensed in the flues of copper and brass smelters. Sinopean red, on the other hand, was either iron ochre or red lead. It seems likely that Misy was something of similar, red appearance, perhaps cinnabar.

What these recipes tell us is that Egyptian alchemy was an empirical science. Being essentially practical people, they used what came to hand—Earth of  Chios, Stone of Paros, Synopian red etcetera—to change the properties of amalgams of tin, copper and lead so that they would more resemble gold and silver. This was not as much of a deception as it at first seems. Gold has always been expensive and for many purposes such amalgams were a perfectly suitable substitute. In any case, the Egyptians did not have any knowledge of the Periodic Table of the Elements and were therefore unaware that gold is an element in its own right with an atomic weight of  196.97 and atomic number of 79. As far as they were concerned it was a metallic substance with certain properties: yellow colour, resistance to corrosion, weightiness etcetera. To a greater or lesser extent, any amalgam that approximated to these properties could be mixed with gold to bulk it up without any falsification being implied. The alchemist was not a con-artist but simply a practical artisan performing a useful function for the community.

Nearly all of the recipe books of the ancient Egyptian alchemists were destroyed at around 290 AD on the orders of the Emperor Diocletian. The two that we have in our possession, the Leyden X and Stockholm papyri, survived because they were buried with their owners and were therefore unknown to the authorities. However, not all such works disappeared, some were out of reach of the Romans and later passed to the Muslim world. These works, either in Arabic or translated back into Greek, found  their way their way back to Europe in the early middle ages. There they had a profound effect, encouraging whole new generations of philosophers to attempt the impossible: the transmutation of base metals into gold. In doing so they brought about a revolution in thought that paved the way not just for our modern science of chemistry but also the development of a new science of human advancement. This was as much concerned with the practitioner as the practice, opening the doors to new methods of understanding both nature and ourselves.

 

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