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AlchemyAlchemy is a multifaceted subject. In the history of science, alchemy refers to both an early form of the investigation of nature and an early philosophical and spiritual discipline, both combining elements of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, medicine, astrology, semiotics, mysticism, spiritualism, and art all as parts of one greater force. It is also a philosophy of the cosmos and of mankind’s place in the scheme of things. Simply put, alchemy is the art of transformation.

There are three main ideas about the origin of the word alchemy. Firstly, from ancient Egyptian transmitted through Arabic ‘al-khem’, from the Egyptian hieroglyphics Km.t which form the native name of Egypt, ‘Chem’, meaning ‘black earth’. Thus one derivation of the word alchemy is the ‘Egyptian art’, or the ‘art of the black earth’. The second derivation is from the Greek word ‘chemeia’, found in the writings of Diocletian, the art of making metal ingots. The third derivation is from the Greek word ‘chumeia’, the art of extracting juices or infusions from plants, and thus herbal medicines and tinctures. From ‘chumos’ meaning juice.

Alchemy developed an amazing language of emblematic symbolism which it used to explore the world. It had a strong philosophical basis, and many alchemists incorporated religious metaphor and spiritual matters into their alchemical ideas.

About four thousand printed books were issued from the 16th through to the late 18th centuries, exploring alchemy from a multiplicity of different perspectives. Many thousands of manuscripts, hand written works, letters, notes and commentaries exist in the libraries of Europe and North America. Many beautifully illustrated with coloured images. Alchemy was thus, through the sheer volume of writings, influential throughout the early modern period. Its influence can often be seen in the work of writers, poets, and artists of the time.

Alchemy was practiced in Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Persia, India, Japan, Korea and China, in Classical Greece and Rome, in the Muslim civilizations, and then in Europe up to the 19th century in a complex network of schools and philosophical systems spanning at least 2,500 years.


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