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What is Alchemy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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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.

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.

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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

Discussion Comments
By anon994067 — On Jan 11, 2016

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.

By anon985262 — On Jan 14, 2015

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.

By anon338418 — On Jun 13, 2013

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.

By anon318319 — On Feb 07, 2013

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.

By anon298538 — On Oct 20, 2012

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?

By anon290939 — On Sep 11, 2012

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

By anon245118 — On Feb 04, 2012

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!

By anon166222 — On Apr 07, 2011

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.

By anon164959 — On Apr 03, 2011

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.

By anon163926 — On Mar 29, 2011

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

By anon147296 — On Jan 28, 2011

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

By anon143502 — On Jan 16, 2011

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.

By anon135011 — On Dec 16, 2010

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.

By anon128104 — On Nov 18, 2010

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!

By anon101729 — On Aug 04, 2010

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.

By anon78327 — On Apr 18, 2010

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.

By anon68864 — On Mar 04, 2010

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!

By trela — On Feb 22, 2010

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...

By anon66015 — On Feb 17, 2010

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.

By anon54979 — On Dec 03, 2009

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.

By anon47356 — On Oct 04, 2009

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!

By anon40104 — On Aug 06, 2009

explain what alchemy was and why it failed?

By anon32151 — On May 17, 2009

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.


By anon13812 — On Jun 04, 2008

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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