The History Of Western Alchemy

The History Of Western Alchemy Cover Around the middle of the twelfth century the first translations from the Arabic begin to appear. (Arabic alchemy partly goes back to Greek texts). At the same time the works of Aristotle are introduced in the Latin West. Although Aristotle does not discuss alchemy at all, his Meteorologica becomes an authoritative text, not in the least because of Arabic additions relating to alchemy. Following the introduction of the art, alchemical texts are produced in the fourtheenth century containing allegories which draw on Biblical texts. After the invention of printing it is still another century before a wave of alchemical texts begins to flood the market. Around 1550 a number of compendia appears with Latin translations of by now classical texts such as the Rosarium Philosophorum and the Turba Philosophorum. Metallurgic manuals are also brought on the market, including Georg Agricola' s De Re Metallica (1556). A new genre is introduced, that of the 'libri secreti' , books of secrets, a sort of DIY-books with 'secret' recipes in all kinds of fields, including alchemy. Natural-philosophical handbooks appear which indirectly relate to alchemy, such as Giambattista della Porta' s Magia Naturalis (1558). The appearance of Paracelsus (1493-1541) on the scene is decisive for the subsequent history of alchemy. Paracelsus set little store by transmutation, but he did prepare iatro-chemical medicine with the aid of distillation, and many physicians in the seventeenth century made use of iatro-chemical methods of healing. One of Paracelsus' best-known followers in this respect is the Danish physician Petrus Severinus. Paracelsistic terminology came to be adopted by mystics and theosophers, amongst whom Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605), Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) and his followers, particularly English Behmenists like Jane Lead and John Pordage. Their natural-philosophical speculations are generally set within a neoplatonist framework and are heterodox and anti-Aristotelian. The early seventeenth century witnesses a flowering of emblematic literature which makes use of earlier trends, at the same time enriching these with allegories based on classical texts which may be interpreted alchemistically, such as Ovid' s Metamorphoses. Classic examples of alchemical emblematical literature are works by Michael Maier (notably Atalanta fugiens, Symbola aureae mensae duodecim nationum) and Lambsprinck, De lapide philosophico. In the late seventeenth century, finally, alchemistic insights are incorporated into the new corpuscular theories which come to dominate the atomistic-mechanistic world picture. This type of alchemy gradually takes on an experimental character whereby an attempt is made to express its findings in clear language. The traditional alchemical termimology is retained by Pietists, and increasingly acquires a symbolical nature. The distinction between a 'chymist' - a practitioner of the chemical discipline - and an 'adept' - who knows the secret of alchemy - becomes ever larger. With the advance of gas chemistry and the dissolution of the elements at the end of the eighteenth century the universe becomes less of a mystery. The life force pervading the universe, once called the Philosopher's Stone, the Quinta Essentia, or the World Soul, is identified as oxygen. The now abstruse symbols of alchemy slumber in esoteric societies to awaken eventually in Jungian psychoanalysis.

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