The ancient pseudoscience of alchemy is the forerunner of modern chemistry. It began in China, India and Greece, and then was adopted by Egypt. Astrology was intertwined with their beliefs and practices of this primitive art. In order for any of their concoctions or their alchemy’ to work, the signs of the zodiac must be just right.
Most of their assumptions were proved false, although some important discoveries were made: They believed that lead could be converted to gold and they attempted to bring about this catalytic change by heating certain chemicals. This, of course, was false but their discovery of mineral acids and alcohol is still in use today.
Alchemy later flourished in Europe in the 13th century. It was probably a hit or miss affair but it did lead to the uncertain fields of medicine and science and the associative fields that we have today. Medicine, as any good doctor will tell you is an inexact science and often the results are not as expected.
But the difference between regular medicine and alchemy is that regular medicine readily throws out what will not work, and regular medicine does not dabble in astronomy. Alchemy had its heyday and what was good about it led on to modern medicine, and more of the same discoveries that is beneficial to mankind. Alchemy as it is practiced today seems to celebrate the hidden, the unknown, the false and is attempting to dig up the obscure, the could-have-been, the preposterous.
One person stands out as the one that stepped out front and practiced his quasi science that led indirectly to our chemical and pharmaceutical industry of today. His name was Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoehenheim, (1493-1541) a German Swiss physician and alchemist.
He changed his name to Paracelsus. The meaning behind the name is ‘above Celsus’. He did this probably to show that he knew his stuff; Celsus, a Roman, was then the accepted authority on medicine. Or maybe he changed his name to rid himself of such a long one. (Alus Cornelius Celsus was a first century medical writer and is not to be confused with Anders Celsius, the Swedish astronomer, the inventor of the thermometer scale.)
Paracelsus taught all over Europe and the Middle East and learned from other alchemists. He lectured and taught and was more in touch with the common folk than with those who leaned toward the dry dull methods of Aristotle, Galen and Avicenna. (Aristotle was a Greek philosopher; Galen a Greek physician in the first or second century; and Avicenna, an Islamic philosopher and scientist, living in the seven or eight hundreds A.D.)
He healed mainly by natural means and he lectured both in German and in Latin. Those in charge were surprised and not at all happy about his methods of delivery; his lectures were easily understood by the common people. Therefore, not liking his ways, they forced him out.
Despite the controversy, he left his mark. He was the first to treat syphilis by mercury compounds; he knew then that the lungs were damaged by breathing dust. Silicosis is known today as the rock dust disease of coal miners; also, the idea of homeopathy as is known today was known and practiced by him. (homeopathy is giving a minute bit of the chemical causing the disease to immunize against the disease); and he believed that Goiters were caused by minerals in drinking water.
Alchemy has been discredited but it led to discoveries and to possibilities in science. When seen in the context of its time, it is probably more related to modern medicine than the scientific and medical community will allow.
Now, as one would suppose, alchemy, having been discredited by recent scientists and other truth seekers, would shrink back to its few books on library shelves in faraway places and be content to have had its say. Not so. If anything the opposite seems to be happening. I was surprised to find so much interest in a subject that has little to offer mankind except curiosity.
It has its own website where text and other occult’ writings can be read. Apparently the site owner is trying to revive an interest in this ancient form. But beware. Don’t we have enough trouble with modern skepticism without going back into antiquity and dragging forward its malcontents? While researching on the Internet, the last words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Khan, boldly flashed this warning:
“Weave a circle around him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of paradise.”
Merrian-Webster’s Collegiate Encyclopedia
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Kubla Khan, Immortal Poems of the English Language, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1952, pp.268