They were metallurgists who experimented relentlessly with metals and minerals. They were chemists who worked with tinctures and potions. They were magicians who performed witchcraft and the dark arts. They were philosophers who strived to blend spirituality with science. For over 4,000 years, alchemists around the world relentlessly slogged in dark laboratories, amidst boiling cauldrons and blazing hot furnaces. They were on a mission to perfect the process of alchemy and successfully transform lead into gold.
Alchemy originated in Hellenistic Egypt and the Nile Delta around 300 CE. The practice primarily hinged on Aristotelian notion that all matter is composed of four basic elements of nature (air, earth, fire and water). Building on this, medieval alchemists propounded that all metals were ‘born’ in the bowels of the earth and were made of four fundamental elements of nature. They further held that the metals were constantly ‘growing’ and ‘evolving’ until they transformed into the perfect noble metal—gold.
What made gold noble? The alchemists believed that gold was nature’s work of perfection—it had earth, fire, water and air in ideal proportions. Gold didn’t react with other metals, as it was superior. On the other hand, metals like lead were thought to have the four elements in imbalance. ‘Yearning’ to become gold, these base metals reacted with other metals. They were believed to be in the process of evolving into the perfect metal and were considered inferior.
To speed up the process of the ‘evolution’ of these metals, alchemists decided to intervene and transmute inferior metals such as lead, tin, copper, iron, and mercury into gold. They believed that by adjusting the proportions of the four elements within the metal, a balance could be achieved manually. Thereafter, a base metal like lead would get transformed into the noble metal gold. But their efforts didn’t yield any results. When they were unsuccessful in their approach, they realised that they were missing a key ingredient in the process. This secret ingredient was the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’.