Some scholars say the name alchemy comes from the Greek
cheo, meaning I pour or I cast, since much of alchemy has
to do with the working of metals. But many believe the word
comes from the Egyptian Khem, meaning the black land (land
with black earth), and see that as indicating Egypt as alchemys
place of origin. The Arabic article al was added to Khem to give
alchemy. Later, as the science (some call it a pseudoscience) progressed,
the article was again dropped, to become chemistry.
Alchemy certainly is the early history of chemistry.
There was an early Egyptian alchemist whose name was
Chemes. He wrote a book, called Chema, about his experiments
trying to turn base metal into gold. Some few believe
that the word alchemist comes from his name.
Whatever the origin of the word, it seems certain that the
practice of alchemy had its beginnings in the Hellenistic culture
of Alexandria, Egypt, which was the center of the world
of learning at that time. In fact alchemy is a blending of
Egyptian technology, Greek philosophy, and Middle Eastern
mysticism. The first alchemists were the metallurgical workers
who prepared precious metals for the nobles but also produced
cheap substitutes for the less affluent. These cheaper substitutes
were often disguised to look like the more precious metals. It
didnt take long for the idea to develop that it might be possible
to actually produce the precious metals themselves. This idea, in
fact, was backed by Aristotles theory that there was a prime
matter that was the basis for all substances. Astrology added the
concept that the greater outer world of planets and stars reflected
the inner world of humankind: a macrocosm and a microcosm.
It was believed that under the proper astrological influences,
it should be possible to change one metal into another;
for example, lead into gold. In the same way that humankind
perfected, going through death and rebirth, so might metals perfect
and grow from one base form to another higher form.
The Philosophers Stone was the term given to a stone
thatif it could be developedwould serve as the catalyst to
transform metals and other raw material into gold. Although
referred to as a stone, it was not necessarily an actual stone for
it was believed that it might be a combination of fire and
water, or other unlikely mixtures.
So the original alchemy became an operation of passing
substances through a series of chemical processes. The actual
workings were noted, but in symbolic form to protect them
from the dabblers and the uninitiated, and also to protect the alchemists
themselves from charges by the Church that they
were involved in heresy. The metals were represented by the astrological
sign of the controlling body, and frequently the components
and the actions were assimilated with Greek and
Roman myths and mythological beings. The more the individual
alchemists tried to hide and protect the results of their experiments,
the more obtuse and confusing became much of
what they did and said. In describing necessary actions, they
used language such as: When we marry the crowned king
with the red daughter, she will conceive a son in the gentle fire
. . . the dragon shuns the light of the sun, and our dead son
shall live. The king comes forth from the fire and rejoices in the
Hermes Trismegistus, also known as Thrice Great Hermes
(it is from his name that the term the hermetic art was
given to alchemy), has been variously described as an earthly
incarnation of the Egyptian god Thoth and as an Egyptian
priest, or a pharaoh, who taught the Egyptians all their magic.
He is credited with having written several thousand books, including
the Emerald Tablet, or Tabula Smaragdina, which contained
all the hermetic teachingsthe thirteen preceptsincluding
the fundamental principles for the Grand Arcanum, or
great secret. There are many references to the Emerald
Tablet in alchemical writings.