Contrary to popular belief, the science of alchemy was not simply about turning base metals into gold but had various aspects that influenced many areas of our lives.
Alchemy has its origins in the ancient civilisations of the Babylonians and the Egyptians who had the ability to mine and refine metal ores, turning them into precious metals. Early texts give recipes for producing various precious metals, gemstones and dyestuffs. One example of a popular alchemist practice was to add silver or copper to gold which made it appear that there was an increase in gold.
The theories behind alchemy in Renaissance Europe owe much to the ancient Greeks. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, matter consisted of four elements, earth, water, air and fire. It was believed that as everything was made up of these four elements, it was possible to transmute any starting material into anything else.
Aristotle’s Elements. Source
Although turning base metals into gold, known by the Greek term chrysopoeia, was not the only aspect of alchemy, it was seen as the ultimate goal and it was believed it would be possible if the right combination of ingredients was mixed together. Although some believed finding the secret would be a long process of mixing the exact ingredients in the right way, others searched for what became known as the ‘philosopher’s stone’, a material that would turn anything into gold. Despite thousands of years of trying, the formula for transmuting base metals into gold was never found.
Alchemy is and was seen by many as a mystical art, some alchemists however took an approach that was more scientific. From the medieval period, the name for it was ‘chymistry’ and it laid the basis for the modern practice of chemistry. By the renascence the discipline of alchemy could be split into three parts.
Firstly, was the act of turning base materials into more valuable ones, secondly, alchemists were involved in a large group of technologies that included making dyes, perfumes and manufacturing minerals and acids. The third aspect of the alchemist’s trade was being at the forefront of pharmacology that by the early modern period had an emphasis on mineral based drugs.
From the dawn of civilisation, man has been mixing various materials together in order to increase their value and usefulness. Despite the fact that the ultimate goal of chrysopoeia was never achieved and the practice of alchemy died out, many discoveries made by alchemists still prove useful in society today and the science of alchemy lives on through the other disciplines it helped form and influence, in particular chemistry and modern medicine.