History of Alchemy

History of Alchemy by M. M. Pattison Muir


I wanted to get a more in depth understanding of what alchemy was in its time and because I love history, I special ordered this book because it was the only one I could find on the history. 

What I like about the book is that it starts off wonderfully.  Most of it are excerpts from ancient alchemist from their journals to give the readers an understanding of what was meant by the words that they chose to use. 

I was enlightened by the thoughts of the early alchemist because it was very clear to me that they are/were also animist believing that everything has a soul or spirit which they termed, sulfur, salt and mercury.  These were their main elements that could be reduced to say, ash and then reformed into a purer state. (they did not claim that mercury could be reduced to ash just to make that clear)

While their quest for the Philsopher’s Stone was based on the assumption that they could turn one element into another with their prime objective being gold because gold (AU) was/is non corrosive and seen as the perfected metal.  They didn’t actually care about the value of the gold but in refining gold into it’s most perfect form. In other words they were removing impurities from gold so that all the say, tarnished specks were removed and what was left was the purest state of gold. 

They did this to almost anything that passed through their “labs” which really consisted of a fire  and distillers in their home.  Nothing too fancy back then yet the quest was spiritual in nature.  They believed that everything followed the same path as Nature and being observant to nature was what fueled and lead their curiosities.  Or simply put, “as above, so below” or “what is within is also with-out”… they just wanted to make themselves and the world better. 

In their journals, it was apparent that the terms they used were interchangeable and used in a cryptic spiritual fashion. This is something I am familiar with because I also use Nature as my guide when it comes to understanding the world and the spirit within and outside of myself and often times, there are things I cannot quit put my finger on so I use words that I believe others will understand to convey the “spirit”, the unseen of the things that I can feel. 

The author, however, “seems” to be a chemist and abhors the spiritual and philosophical insight of those who came before the chemist.  

The history dates back to something like the 4th century BC (don’t quote that, I don’t feel like thumbing through the book again to look for the exact date because there isn’t actually an exact date) to the Greek who realized that everything has a “cell” or a case that keeps them bound until they are released, a seed.  A though that eventually lead to physics and chemistry in the sense that we know them now, it was also the stepping stone to the Nature of all things in the physical world and in the spiritual world. 

However wrong they were back in their days about the primary (also known as Native) elements, it was their thoughts and introspections that allowed for sciences to flourish and alchemy burgeoned for thousands of years up until fairly recently (all time considered) in the 18th century with the introduction of the Principal of Phlogiston. 

This principal replaced the Three Principals of Alchemy: Salt, Sulfur and Mercury with the idea that when something was burnt, the Fire that burned it added something to the matter because there was a phenomenon observed that persisted for a long time, that being burnt metals weighed more than solid metals.  This was the beginnings of what became atomic weights.  

Eventually the discoveries of a man named Stahl and later, Lavoisier paved the way for a more theoretical science based on facts using hypotheses, the standard for measure in science that we use today. 

For a brief understanding of how this came about, it was the idea that there were different kinds of air, some they called “fire air” and/or “good air”, this “air” they called phlogiston and that this was an elements (as they understood it to be) that GAVE matter to burnt substances.  In other words, they believed that when you burnt something, you were giving it more ‘soul’, so to speak. Nonetheless, this lead to the understanding of combustion and eventually the elements that we know to be combustable gases. 

Now, because Alchemist believed that everything was living, they also believed that they could change the world and this idea was either heavily frowned up OR held in the highest regards. To quote the author, “ There is also an intimate connexion between alchemy and witchcraft.  Witches were people who were supposed to make an unlawful use of the powers of life; alchemist were often thought to pass beyond what is permitted to the creature, and to encroach on the prerogative of the Creator.” 

Anyways, so to keep this post a little shorter.  The first 3/4 of the book is very interesting and I could understand the thinking of the Alchemist because I have always held the same view on life, that everything is living and the notion that I/we can change things through our own spiritual inquest ie: magic, that life happens to be very magical and because in my also held view, everything has a spirit, then I can also give new life to anything I wish. 

The author does NOT like this thought process even a little bit which becomes obvious during the last 1/4 of the book using the same lines of thinking that I know well from many atheist, that there is no spirit in anything, no soul, just facts.  He makes it very clear that he holds chemistry in high regards and basically gives me the impression that he hates people like myself who hold the world view that everything we can know, everything worth knowing about the spirit AND life comes from Nature. 

He also is vehemently annoyed with what I understand about the alchemist journals because the author wants to keep everything in boxes while the alchemist often combines their observations from their experiments with the observations of Nature meaning, Alchemy was a philosophy and in the truest sense, was about building your own inner temples to match those on the outside, the unity of Nature within us and outside of us that we aren’t separate from Nature and although we are perfect as we are, we can still be refined, we can always be better.

As a side note, however,  part of me thinks that the author is also not a chemist because he rambles on and on in circular thoughts like he is trying to hard too explain something that would have sufficed in a few words.  

Lao tzu once said that “he who knows doesn’t speak and those who speak don’t know”.  Albert Einstein also said this in other words, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. 

So while I really enjoyed reading the first 3/4 of the book, by the end, I was left with a bitter sense that the author doesn’t understand much of anything; the alchemist thoughts or chemistry but most definitely doesn’t understand the essence of the spirit.   

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