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’.
Naturally, discovering the Philosopher’s Stone through inner transformation became priority. It was considered ‘great work’ and became the end goal of alchemy.
Philosopher’s Stone, the alchemists believed, was matter in its finest state of perfection. This alchemical substance, they thought, would be capable of changing lead into gold, and even make man immortal. In the book Alchemy, noted scholar E J Holmyard writes: “According to an anonymous 17th century book titled The Sophic Hydrolith, the philosopher’s stone or the ancient secret, incomprehensible, heavenly, blessed, and triune universal stone of sages, is made from a kind of mineral by grinding it to powder, resolving it into three elements, and recombining these elements into a solid stone of the fusibility of a wax.” Believing that the Stone could only be discovered with the help of divine providence, alchemists developed yet another facet of alchemy—an esoteric aspect which focused on the inner transformation of the alchemist himself.
The medieval alchemists philosophised, that just the way lead strives to become gold—the ultimate state of perfection—in the core of the earth, human beings too must strive to become a better version of themselves, by perfecting their souls. What’s more, they further proposed that when an alchemist aspires to outwardly transmute lead into gold, they would also simultaneously undergo a spiritual process and an inner transformation. So, lead came to be associated with a sinful and an unrepentant individual shrouded in darkness. And discovering the Philosopher’s Stone (and hence turning lead into gold) was equated with inner perfection and achieving enlightenment.
Naturally, discovering the Philosopher’s Stone through inner transformation became priority. It was considered ‘great work’ and became the end goal of alchemy. Interestingly, what started out as an experiment to convert lead into gold, turned into a powerful philosophy. Writes alchemy consultant and author Dennis Willian Hauck in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Alchemy: “Changing lead into gold was only a metaphor for a larger process that involved rejuvenation of the body, the integration of the personality, and the perfection of the human soul. Though they spoke of retorts, furnaces, acids and chemicals, the alchemists were really talking about changes taking place in their own bodies, minds, and spirits.”
Evidently, alchemy as a discipline is multifaceted with exoteric as well as an esoteric side. As much as alchemy is about converting a base metal into the noble gold, it is also about perfecting ourselves, and undergoing a spiritual transformation by discovering the Philosopher’s Stone. Sure, the alchemical processes are arduous. They require lifelong commitment and perseverance. But in the end, our inner transformation—wherein we spiritually become radiant and perfect as gold—is assured.