What made chemistry out of alchemy

The Alchemy (also Alchemy or alchemy) is an old branch of natural philosophy and was founded in the 17th and 18th centuries. Gradually replaced by modern chemistry and pharmacology in the 19th century. The Alchemists also refer to alchemy as Royal art. Today some representatives of the pseudosciences also call themselves "alchemists". It is often assumed that the "production" of gold (see gold synthesis) and other precious metals (see precious metal synthesis) is the only goal of the alchemists, but the adepts (great alchemists) see these transmutations as a by-product of an inner change.

Etymology and Origin

The word Alchemy derives from the arabic "Al-kymiya" and was taken from the Greek, hence the derivation "χυμεία" (chymeia). The interpretation of the meaning of the word is as complex as alchemy itself: "Al" is an Arabic article, "Kemet" or "Chemi" is the Egyptian expression for "the black" and also means "black earth" or the black fertile soil of the Nile Delta. Black earth describes the most original object of "chemical" occupation, the earth, but is also the name the ancient Egyptians used to describe their country. So one could say "alchemy" z. B. translate as "divine art of the Egyptians". The Greek "chymeia", however, means "melting"; in this sense alchemy means "Doctrine of Pouring". Based on the etymology, its origins in ancient Egypt or (Hellenistic) Greece become clear. The basic text of alchemy is the originally Arabic Tabula Smaragdina, which "Bible of Hermetics", which goes back to Hermes Trismegistus.

Area of ​​responsibility and achievements

Alchemy was only partly driven by the idea of ​​the artificial production of gold, in search of the philosopher's stone or the universal solvent alkahest. The production of a panacea was also a goal of alchemy. The alchemists believed that chemical elements could be transformed into one another (transmuted). More fundamentally, it was generally believed that all substances are not only built up from properties but also from principles (Aristotelian hylemorphism). So it was theoretically possible to redesign any material (hyle), preferably taken from base metals, with the noble principles (eidos) of gold or silver. Ideally, this was possible if one had previously removed all the base principles from the base material and thus made it receptive to new principles. The unqualified "prima materia" and the universally applicable principles, also often called "quinta essentia", which can be transferred to it, were the real research area of ​​the alchemists.

These assessments were based on natural philosophies that were common at the time and also binding for non-occult researchers. Even if the opinions of that time seem absurd from today's point of view, such hypotheses were necessary links on the way to modern natural science due to the lack of viable alternatives. In general, the transition from alchemy to most of the material sciences that are still common today, such as metallurgy, medical research, etc., was a very fluid one, often nonexistent (see also planetary metals). In contrast to the occasional misstatement, alchemists only dealt allegorically with the production of living artistic beings (homunculus, basilisk). Echoes of these occult experiments can still be found, for example, in Goethe's Faust I and Faust II, in Hoffmann's Sandmann and in Meyrink's Golem. There are several allegorical representations that personify chemical elements. From the union of man and woman, for example, hermaphrodites were born, which bore the characteristics of both raw materials. As mentioned above, this does not mean the creation of an artificial being, but only explains a chemical reaction result graphically. It should be noted about these picture books that they were mostly art books or, better still, jewelery volumes that were intended to illustrate more than to encourage real experiments.

We owe the (re) invention of porcelain and black powder in Europe to the interpretation of natural knowledge and the experimental application of alchemy. Porcelain, for example, is a waste product from the search for gold. An alchemist at the Saxon court, Johann Friedrich Böttger, saved his life by delivering at least “white gold” to his employer. Famous alchemists were e.g. Vincenzo Casciarolo from Bologna, who in 1604 produced a phosphorescent dye for the first time, the so-called "Bolognese light stone" or "Lapis Solaris". This discovery encouraged discussions about the nature of light and led to the first spectroscopic investigations as early as 1652. Hennig Brand from Hamburg was another important alchemist. In 1669 he discovered white phosphorus and its chemiluminescence ("Phosphorus mirabilis") and thus the first chemiluminescence reaction at all. This chemiluminescent reaction took place as Mitscherlich trial Entrance into forensic chemistry and is still an impressive experiment today.

Work equipment


  • Alembik (alembic) - a helmet attachment for a still
  • Aludel - a vessel for sublimation
  • Athanor - a special type of furnace used by alchemists
  • Books: An important basis and, so to speak, the bible of the alchemists was the Tabula Smaragdina. It is a collection of a few, difficult to understand and in need of interpretation, originally Greek, later in a Latin version, ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, which should contain all of the world's wisdom.
  • Cupelle - a vessel pressed from plant or bone ash for cleaning and separating precious metals from alloys
  • Retort - a still

Some of the alchemist's vessels are named after animals. B. Hedgehog or Goose or the Human Couple.

The magnum opus

The Great work, a term from medieval European alchemy that refers to the successful conversion of the raw material into gold or to the creation of the Philosopher's Stone. After that it was used as a metaphor for a spiritual transformation in the Hermetic tradition. The way to the production of the Philosopher's Stone or Lapis Philosophorum ran over four, later three stages. The practical application of the magnum opus was to transform base materials into gold by transmutation, by guiding the base material through the "red stone". It was the opposite of the simpler one Small plantin which the “white elixir” was used to transform base materials into silver.[1]

In alchemy there was always a dispute about how the steps should be designed in detail. However, there was clarity in the sequence of the individual stages. The "blackness" (nigredo) formed the beginning and symbolized the original state of matter. This state was also referred to as the materia prima. This ran through the phase of "whitening" (albedo), "yellowing" (citrinitas) and ended in the highest level of "reddening" (rubedo). The basis of these stages was the Greek philosophy of quaternity, or of dividing a process into four melanosis (Blackening), leukosis (Whitening), xanthosis (Yellowing), iosis (Redness). This idea was based on the ancient theory of the four elements of earth, water, air and fire. It was not until the late Middle Ages that the quaternity became the Trinity, with the level of xanthosis or yellowing was omitted.[2]

Over the centuries the magnum opus developed into an inextricable mixture of the most diverse instructions and experiences, which made the practical process increasingly incomprehensible. Mostly one wanted to hide one's own ignorance or disguise failures. The instructions were also symbolic, ambiguous and written in puzzling language. Paracelcus, for example, goes beyond the four levels and describes, among other things, in his De natura rerum the process of a seven-step transmutation. With George Ripley it's after his Liber duodecim portarum already 12 stages to gold production.[3] It is precisely this inextricable web of thoughts and images that led scientists of analytical psychology, such as Carl Gustav Jung, to the conclusion that the step from quaternity to trinity can be explained with internal and psychological reasons. External or practical processes were not included in the Great work described, but subconsciously projected inner connections into the matter and working method.[4] An approach that developed parallel to practical alchemy in occidental mysticism. The Rosicrucians also spoke of spiritual or theoretical alchemy, which should bring about a perfection of one's own person. Gustav Meyrink ties in with this tradition in his works.

Mystical interpretation of its three levels: [5]

  • nigredo (putrefactio), Blackening (putrefaction): individuation, cleaning, burning out of impurity; see also Sol niger
  • albedoKnowing: spiritualization, enlightenment
  • rubedo, Redness: union of man with God, union of the limited with the unlimited

Psychological importance

As already explained in Opus Magnum, according to some psychologists, alchemy was not just a practical discipline in the sense of a metachemy; Rather, it also has a philosophical dimension: the various alchemical processes - such as the transformation of a certain metal into another - stand here for the development of man, i.e. H. for inner psychological processes. This psychological aspect of alchemy was particularly emphasized by the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung, who studied it in detail and tried to make it fruitful for his analytical psychology.


The term "spagyric" (from the Greek spao = "Separate" and ageiro = "Unite, merge") is a term introduced by Paracelsus, which he used synonymously for alchemy. He saw the task of alchemy not in the manufacture of gold, for example, but in the manufacture of medicines. He chose the term "spagyric" to distinguish it from other directions. As a result, spagyric was seen as the medical field of alchemy. Spagyric drugs are therefore medicinal products that are produced on the basis of alchemical or spagyric knowledge. Vegetable, mineral and animal substances were used as the starting material for spagyrika.

Great alchemists

Alchemists of ancient Egypt and ancient Greece and Rome

Chinese alchemists

In China, those of the inner change Neidan and those of the outer change Waidan have developed within Taoist currents, which, however, were not yet separated in their beginnings. The pursuit of immortality linked to the principle of Dao - but actually in the sense of perfection and unification in Dao - was holistically related to body and mind, so that there were also some alchemists within Chinese history who tried to refine metals, incidentally discovered gunpowder and looked for an elixir [dan] that would enable earthly immortality. But this was intended as a supplement to the inner work Qigong, meditation, fasting, etc.

The first specialists in the arts of immortality were the Fangshi, who lived as a reclusive sage in the mountains, offered shamanistic practices, were visited by emperors and nobles, and were occasionally supported.

From this tradition comes Wei Boyang, author of the oldest Chinese alchemical treatise Thouyi cantong qi ("On the unification of correspondences"), who according to legend is said to have lived during the 2nd century AD. The following myth is said to him: After the dog fell dead in an experiment concerning the right elixir, the master said: “I have given up the way of the world, my family and friends in order to live in the mountains. It would be ashamed to go back without finding the Dao of the Sacred Immortals. To die by this elixir cannot be worse than to live without it. So then I have to take it. ”He also swallowed the elixir and fell dead on the spot. After the disappointed students left, the dog and master woke up and soared up to heaven to become immortals.

Another was Ge Hong (284–364 AD). His main work is called Baopuzi ("He who embraces the uncut block" or "The master who embraces simplicity"). The Shangqing School later adopted some of his techniques.

Lü Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals, is said to have been one of the first to focus exclusively on Inner Alchemy. His student was Liu Haichan; Zhang Boduan (987-1082 AD) is said to have received his knowledge from this. He wrote the Wuzhen pian ("About the comprehension of reality"), which transfers the expression of external alchemy to internal changes. The aim is to create the shengtai ("spiritual embryo" of immortality). Many schools of Neidan were founded after his death. His students founded the southern branch of the "School of Perfect Reality" (literally: the path to the realization of truth ").

Alchemists of the Islamic culture


  • Kalid ben Jazichi (7th-8th centuries)
  • Kalid ben Jesid (born 702?)
  • Encoder (approx. 721–815), Father of chemistry
  • Rhazes (approx. 860 – approx. 930)
  • Avicenna (980-1037)
  • Kalid Rachaibibi (approx. 11th century)
  • Muhyi-d-Din Ibn Arabi (1165-1240)
  • Abdul-Qasim al Iraqi (13th century)

Western alchemists




  • Johann Agricola: Chymic Medicin: a compendium of the preparation and application of alchemical remedies (Original title: Commentariorum, notarum, observationum & animadversionum in Johannis Poppii Chymische Medicin), After the first edition Leipzig, Schürer and Götze, published in 1638/39, introduced and provided with a biographical sketch by Oliver Humberg, Elberfeld 2000 ISBN 3-9802788-5-9

Older issues in new edition

  • Alexander von Bernus: Alchemy and healing arts 5th edition Dornach 1994 ISBN 3-7235-0757-3 (1st edition from 1936)
  • Gottlieb Latz: Alchemy, that is the doctrine of the great secret resources of the alchemists and the speculations that were tied to them: a book that was initially written for doctors [but is also offered to every educated thinker]. 1st edition Bonn 1869, 2nd edition Cologne 2003 (reprint) ISBN 3-89836-342-2
  • Dr. Musallam: Alchemy: The Philosopher's Stone Berlin around 1925
  • Friedemann Rex: Alchemy of Andreas Libavius. Verlag Chemie, Weinheim 1964, ISBN 3-527-25004-2

Older literature

  • H.J. Holgen: About the age of the two alchemists J.I. and Isaac Hollandus. Chemiker-Zeitung 41, pp. 643-644 (1917), ISSN 0009-2894
  • Julius Ruska: Al Razi (Rhases) as a chemist. Zeitschrift für angewandte Chemie 35 (103), pp. 719-721 (1922), ISSN 0932-2132
  • R. Winderlich: Arab alchemists. Zeitschrift für angewandte Chemie 38 (16), pp. 348-350 (1925), ISSN 0932-2132

Current literature

  • Ulrich Arndt: Metal essences - elixirs of life according to the teachings of alchemy and Ayurveda, Freiburg 2003, Hans-Nietsch-Verlag, ISBN3-934647-53-7
  • Ulrich Arndt: Treasures of Alchemy - Gemstone Essences, Freiburg 2001, Hans-Nietsch-Verlag, ISBN 3-934647-41-3
  • Manuel Bachmann & Thomas Hofmeier: Secrets of Alchemy, Basel 1999, Schwabe Verlag, ISBN 3-7965-1368-9
  • Titus Burckhardt: Alchemy - meaning and worldview, ISBN 3-926253-85-1
  • Mircea Eliade: Blacksmiths and alchemists, 2nd edition (Klett-Cotta) 1980, ISBN 3-12-932120-9
  • Julius Evola: The Hermetic Tradition.ISBN 3-7787-7042-X
  • Helmut Gebelein: Alchemy. 2nd edition Munich 1996, ISBN 3-424-01062-6
  • Hans-Josef Fritschi: Spagyric: textbook and workbook, G. Fischer, 1997, ISBN 3-437-55230-9
  • Helmut Gebelein: Alchemy. (Diederichs compact), Kreuzlingen, Munich 2004, ISBN 3-7205-2501-5
  • Bernhard Dietrich Haage: Alchemy in the Middle Ages: Ideas and Images - from Zosimos to Paracelsus. Düsseldorf, Zurich 2000, ISBN 3-7608-1222-8
  • Daniel Hornfisher: Lion and phoenix.ISBN 3-591-08432-8
  • Johannes Helmond: The unveiled alchemy.ISBN 3-87683-044-3
  • C.G. Young: Psychology and alchemy. Collected Works, Vol. 12, ISBN 3-530-40712-7
  • C.G. Young: Mysterium Coniunctionis. Collected Works, Vol. 14, 3 Vols, ISBN 3-530-40714-3 (Vol. 3 by Marie-Louise von Franz, ISBN 3-530-40799-2)
  • C.G. Young: Studies of Alchemical Concepts. Collected Works, Vol. 13, ISBN 3-530-40713-5
  • Otto Krätz: 7000 years of chemistry: alchemy, the black art - black powder - explosives - tar chemistry - paints - plastics - biochemistry and more. Publishing house D.W. Callwey GmbH & Co., Munich 1999, ISBN 3-933203-20-1
  • Gottlieb Latz: The alchemy. Fourier Verlag, Wiesbaden 1991. ISBN 3-925037-52-7
  • Christoph Meinel: Alchemy in the European history of culture and science. (Wolfenbüttler Research, Vol. 32), Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden 1986, ISBN 3-447-02655-3
  • Claus Priesner, Karin Figala (Eds.): Alchemy: Lexicon of a Hermetic Science. Munich 1998, ISBN 3-406-44106-8
  • Gabriele Quinque: Splendor Solis - The purple bath of the soul, 22 doors of initiatic alchemy. Esoteric interpretation of an old illuminated manuscript, ISBN 3-935937-26-1
  • John H. Reid III: Practical plant alchemy courseISBN 3-929588-22-6
  • Karl Christoph Schmieder: History of alchemy. ed. and with a foreword by Marco Frenschkowski. Newly set and revised Edition. Wiesbaden: Marixverlag 2005. ISBN 3-86539-003-X
  • Alexander Roob: The Hermetic Museum. Alchemy & Mysticism. Cologne 1996, ISBN 3-8228-8803-6
  • Ulli Seegers: Alchemy of sight. Hermetic art in the 20th century. Antonin Artaud, Yves Klein, Sigmar Polke. Cologne: König 2003 (Art History Library; Vol. 21), ISBN 3-88375-701-2
  • Dierk Suhr: The alchemists. Goldmakers, healers, philosophers. Ostfildern: Jan Thorbecke, 2006, ISBN 3-7995-0163-0
  • Franz Wegener: The alchemist Franz Tausend. Alchemy and National Socialism, Gladbeck 2006, ISBN 3-931-300-18-8


The famous book The alchemist by Paulo Coelho deals only marginally with alchemy, it is more about self-discovery.

The book The secret knowledge of the alchemist by Rainer M. Schröder, ISBN 3-401-02160-5, is about alchemy, among other things. You can learn a lot about the techniques and backgrounds of alchemy around 1700.

"The Alchemist's Game" by Richard Dübell (ISBN 3-431-03005-x) connects a series of true and fictional murders in Augsburg in 1478 with the symbolism of alchemy and deals with the actual power of this science: namely that which the unreflected belief in it gives it.

The guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen deals with the subject on two albums, Alchemy and Magnum Opus.


  1. Priesner, Claus / Figala, Karin: Alchemy. Lexicon of a Hermetic Science. Article: Opus magnum. Munich, 1998. p. 261.
  2. Jung, Carl G .: Collected Works. Psychology and alchemy. 7th ed. Zurich, 1994. p. 268.
  3. Ripley, George: Liber Duodecim Portarum. In: Theatrum Chemicum. Strasbourg 1659. Vol. III. P. 797 ff.
  4. Jung, Carl G .: Collected Works. Psychology and alchemy. 7th ed. Zurich, 1994. p. 268.
  5. Meyrink and the theomorphic image of man
  • Alchemy and the individuation process
  • An alchemical dictionary
  • Permanent exhibition on alchemy in Weikersheim Castle

Category: Alchemy