To most of us, the word “alchemy” calls up the picture of a medieval and slightly sinister laboratory in which an aged, black-robed wizard broods over the crucibles and alembics that are to bring within his reach the Philosopher’s Stone, and with that discovery, the formula for the Elixir of life and the transmutation of metals. But one can scarcely dismiss so lightly the science — or art, if you will —that won to its service the lifelong devotion of men of culture and attainment from every race and clime over a period of thousands of years, for the beginnings of alchemy are hidden in the mists of time. Such a science is something far more than an outlet for a few eccentric old men in their dotage.
References about alchemy are to be found in the myths and legends of ancient China. From a book written by Edward Chalmers Werner, a late member of the Chinese Government’s Historiological Bureau in Peking comes this quotation from old Chinese records: “Chang Tao-Ling, the first Taoist pope, was born in A.D. 35 in the reign of the Emperor Kuang Wu Ti of the Hari dynasty. His birthplace is variously given as T’ien-mu Shan, Lin-an-Hsien in Chekiang, Feng-yang Fu in Anhui, and even in the “Eye of Heaven Mountain.” He devoted himself wholly to study and meditation, declining all offers to enter the service of the state. He preferred to take up his abode in the mountains of Western China where he persevered in the study of alchemy and in cultivating the virtues of purity and mental abstraction. From the hands of the alchemist Lao Tzu, he received supernaturally a mystical treatise, by following the instructions in which he was successful in his match for the Elixir of Life.” This reference demonstrates that alchemy was studied in China before the commencement of the Christian era and its origin must lie even further back in Chinese history.
From China we now travel to Egypt, from where alchemy as it is known in the West seems to have sprung. The great Egyptian adept king, named by the Greeks “Hermes Trismegistus” is thought to have been the founder of the art. Reputed to have lived about 1900 B.C., he was highly celebrated for his wisdom and skill in the operation of nature, but of the works attributed to him only a few fragments escaped the destroying hand of the Emperor Diocletian in the third century A.D. The main surviving documents attributed to him are the Emerald Tablet, theAsclepian Dialogues, and the Divine Pymander. If we may judge from these fragments (both preserved in the Latin by Fianus and translated into other languages in the sixteenth century), it would seem to be of inestimable loss to the world that none of these works have survived in their entirety.
The famous Emerald Tablet (Tabula Smaragdina) of Hermes is the primary document of alchemy. There have been various stories of the origin of the tract, one being that the original emerald slab upon which the precepts were said to be inscribed in Phoenician characters was discovered in the tomb of Hermes by Alexander the Great. In the Berne edition (1545) of the Summa Perfectionis, the Latin version is printed under the heading: “The Emerald Tables of Hermes the Thrice Great Concerning Chymistry, Translator unknown. The words of the secrets of Hermes, which were written on the Tablet of Emerald found between his hands in a dark cave wherein his body was discovered buried.”
An Arabic version of the text was discovered in a work ascribed to Jabir (Geber), which was probably made about the ninth century. In any case, it must be one of the oldest alchemical fragments known, and that it is a piece of Hermetic teaching I have no doubt, as it corresponds to teachings of the Thrice-Greatest Hermes as they have been passed down to us in esoteric circles. The tablet teaches the unity of matter and the basic truth that all form is a manifestation from one root, the One Thing or Ether. This tablet, in conjunction with the works of the Corpus Hermeticum are well worth reading, particularly in the light of the general alchemical symbolism. Unhappily, the Emerald Tablet is all that remains to us of the genuine Egyptian sacred art of alchemy.
The third century A.D. seems to have been a period when alchemy was widely practiced, but it was also during this century, in the year 296, that Diocletian sought out and burnt all the Egyptian books on alchemy and the other Hermetic sciences, and in so doing destroyed all evidence of any progress made up to that date. In the fourth century, Zosimus the Panopolite wrote his treatise on The Divine Art of Making Gold and Silver, and in the fifth Morienus, a hermit of Rome, left his native city and set out to seek the sage Adfar, a solitary adept whose fame had reached him from Alexandria. Morienus found him, and after gaining his confidence became his disciple. After the death of his patron, Morienus came into touch with King Calid, and a very attractive work purporting to be a dialogue between himself and the king is still extant under the name of Morienus. In this century, Cedrennus also appeared, a magician who professed alchemy.
The next name of note, that of Geber, occurs in or about 750 A.D. Geber’s real name was Abou Moussah Djfar-Al Sell, or simply “The Wise One.” Born at Houran in Mesopotamia, he is generally esteemed by adepts as the greatest of them all after Hermes. Of the five hundred treatises said to have been composed by him, only three remain to posterity: The Sum of the Perfect Magistery, The Investigation of Perfection, and his Testament. It is to him, too, that we are indebted for the first mention of such important compounds as corrosive sublimate, red oxide of mercury, and nitrate of silver. Skillfully indeed did Geber veil his discoveries, for from his mysterious style of writing we derive the word “gibberish,” but those who have really understood Geber, his adept peers, declare with one accord that he has declared the truth, albeit disguised, with great acuteness and precision.
About the same time, Rhasis, another Arabian alchemist, became famous for his practical displays in the art of transmutation of base metals into gold. In the tenth century, Alfarabienjoyed the reputation ofbeing the most learned man ofhis age, and still another great alchemist ofthat century was Avicenna, whose real name was Ebu Cinna. Born at Bokara in 980 A.D., hewas the last ofthe Egyptian alchemical philosophers ofnote.
About the period of the first Crusades, alchemy shifted its center to Spain, where it had been introduced by the Arabian Moors. In the twelfth Century Artephius wrote The Art of Prolonging Human Life and is reported to have lived throughout a period of one thousand years. He himself affirmed this:
"I, Artephius, having learnt all the art in the book of Hermes, was once as others, envious, but having now lived one thousand years or thereabouts (which thousand years have already passed over me since my nativity, by the grace of God alone and the use of this admirable Quintessence), as I have seen, through this long space of time, that men have been unable to perfect the same magistry on account of the obscurity of the words of the philosophers, moved by pity and good conscience, I have resolved, in these my last days, to publish in all sincerity and truly, so that men may have nothing more to desire concerning this work. I except one thing only, which is not lawful that I should write, because it can be revealed truly only by God or by a master. Nevertheless, this likewise may be learned from this book, provided one be not stiff-necked and have a little experience."