Alchemy - Overview


The defining goals of alchemy are often given as the transmutation of common metals into gold (known as chrysopoeia), the creation of a panacea, and the discovery of a universal solvent. However, this only highlights certain aspects of alchemy. Alchemists have historically rewritten and evolved the explanation of their art, making a singular definition difficult. H.J. Sheppard gives the following as a comprehensive summary:

Alchemy is the art of liberating parts of the Cosmos from temporal existence and achieving perfection which, for metals is gold, and for man, longevity, then immortality and, finally, redemption. Material perfection was sought through the action of a preparation (Philosopher's Stone for metals; Elixir of Life for humans), while spiritual ennoblement resulted from some form of inner revelation or other enlightenment (Gnosis, for example, in Hellenistic and western practices).

Modern discussions of alchemy are generally split into an examination of its exoteric practical applications, and its esoteric aspects. The former is pursued by historians of the physical sciences who have examined the subject in terms of proto-chemistry, medicine, and charlatanism. The latter is of interest to the historians of esotericism, psychologists, spiritual and new age communities, and hermetic philosophers. The subject has also made an ongoing impact on literature and the arts. Despite the modern split, numerous sources stress an integration of esoteric and exoteric approaches to alchemy. Holmyard, when writing on exoteric aspects, states that they can not be properly appreciated if the esoteric is not always kept in mind. The prototype for this model can be found in Bolos of Mendes' second century BCE work, Physika kai Mystika (On Physical and Mystical Matters). Marie-Louise von Franz tells us the double approach of Western alchemy was set from the start, when Greek philosophy was mixed with Egyptian and Mesopotamian technology. The technological, operative approach, which she calls extraverted, and the mystic, contemplative, psychological one, which she calls introverted are not mutually exclusive, but complementary instead, as meditation requires practice in the real world, and conversely.

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