THE PURPOSE OF ALCHEMY
Surely there is a vein for the silver, and a place for gold where they find it. Iron is taken out of the earth, and brass is molten out of the stone. He setteth an end to darkness, and searcheth out all perfection: the stones of darkness, and the shadow of death. (OldT:Job 28:1-3)
Alchemy is extremely complicated. It is based on the practical skills of early metal workers and craftsmen, on Greek philosophy, and on Eastern mystic cults that sprang up in the first centuries after Christ and influenced so much of magic and occult thought. It must be remembered that when alchemy flourished there was no dividing line between science and magic. Ideas such as the influence of the planets and the effect of certain numbers or letters on people's lives might today be regarded as superstitious. At that time they were perfectly acceptable to those who were making the kind of accurate observations about the material world that paved the way for modern science.
Long before the beginning of alchemy, gold was regarded as the most valuable metal. Its possession indicated wealth and power, and it was prized for its beauty. Known as the most perfect metal, it soon required symbolic meaning. It came to stand for excellence, wisdom, light, and perfection. For serious alchemists gold had both a real and a symbolic significance, which at first seems confusing. The reason is that alchemists embarked on two different and difficult quests at the same time, and success in one meant success in the other. The first aim is the one that most people know about. The alchemist was attemping to find a way of transmuting, or changing, ordinary metals into the most perfect metal, gold. The second aim is less known but far more important. The alchemist was trying to make the soul progress from its ordinary state to one of spiritual perfection.
External Link: Alchemical Timelines.
For many centuries Western alchemists ceaselessly searched for the Philosopher's Stone. What was this elusive object? It was not some giant boulder on which ancient sages sat and meditated. Nor was it a closely guarded tablet inscribed with words of wisdom. It was a substance that alchemists were convinced they could make, with divine assistance, by subjecting certain raw materials to complex and lengthy chemical processes. The problem was to find the right raw materials and the correct chemical processes. It was a widely held belief that the Universe was permeated by a spirit that linked everything together. Alchemists thought that this spirit could somehow be reproduced and compressed into a magical substance which they named the Philosopher's Stone. Once discovered, a small quantity of this magical substance added to ordinary metal would change it into gold. Taken as a medicine, the Stone would act as a miraculous cure. It was even believed by some to confer immortality, and was often called the Elixir of Life.
All the patient experiments that the alchemists carried out in their laboratories over the centuries were motivated by one overwhelming desire--to produce the Philosopher's Stone. In the course of their painstaking and dedicated work they established many important chemical facts which, even if they did not lead to the Philosopher's Stone, helped to form the basis of chemistry as we know it today.
The greatest alchemists were skilled in many fields. The scope of knowledge in those days was small enough that a person might hope to master all there was to know about subjects as diverse as medicine and religion, philosophy and alchemy, logic and magic. The seeker of knowledge would see nothing incompatible in the different fields of study. Knowledge was thought of as a unity, and all the different branches were different aspects of this unity. They all led toward a greater understanding of the Universe.
[From Alchemy, the Ancient Science by Neil Powell; pages 8 and 11. Boldface and italics added.]