I had the opportunity last month to speak with a few people who had attended classes by another metaphysical/occult teacher in my area. I got a little excited when they started talking about Alchemy and being Alchemists (that’s what they said…”We are Alchemists, we study Alchemy and Magic”). As the conversation went on, it became readily apparent that they were talking about a very different type of Alchemy than that of the practical/laboratory alchemy with which I was familiar. As I began to ask questions, and showed them some pictures of some of my lab equipment, they became confused. “What is that used for,” I was asked. I began to ask some more probing questions. As it turns out, the class is labeled as a “Spiritual Alchemy” class.
So next, I assumed that this teacher was using Alchemical phases, processes and principles and relating them to other occult or everyday meanings and practices. Nope, wrong again, no such teaching of any ancient Alchemical philosophies was to be found. My immediate thought was that using the term “Spiritual Alchemy” and calling themselves “Alchemists” was likely the teacher using a buzzword to get attention and to draw interest. But, it sparked the question to me, what exactly IS Alchemy, and MAKES one an Alchemist? I call myself an Alchemist, and I call what I practice Alchemy, am I correct in doing so? Are they correct in calling themselves Alchemists as well? Am I being over protective of the word ‘Alchemy’? I’ve read and been taught lots of definitions of this over the years, but I thought it sounded like a good topic to research and to share.
Let’s start with my good friend Webster:
al·che·my – alkəmē/noun – 1. a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life. 2. a power or process of transforming something common into something special. 3. an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting.
alchemy – [al-kuh-mee] – 1. a form of chemistry and speculative philosophy practiced in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and concerned principally with discovering methods for transmuting baser metals into gold and with finding a universal solvent and an elixir of life. 2. any magical power or process of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value.
Late Middle English: via Old French and medieval Latin from Arabic alkīmiyā ‘, from al ‘the’ + kīmiyā ‘ (from Greek khēmia, khēmeia ‘art of transmuting metals’). First Known Use: 14th century.
Mid-14c., from Old French alchimie (14c.), alquemie (13c.), from Medieval Latin alkimia, from Arabic al-kimiya, from Greek khemeioa (found c.300 C.E. in a decree of Diocletian against “the old writings of the Egyptians”), all meaning “alchemy.” Perhaps from an old name for Egypt (Khemia, literally “land of black earth,” found in Plutarch), or from Greek khymatos “that which is poured out,” from khein “to pour,” related to khymos “juice, sap” [Klein, citing W. Muss-Arnolt, calls this folk etymology]. The word seems to have elements of both origins. Mahn … concludes, after an elaborate investigation, that Gr. khymeia was probably the original, being first applied to pharmaceutical chemistry, which was chiefly concerned with juices or infusions of plants; that the pursuits of the Alexandrian alchemists were a subsequent development of chemical study, and that the notoriety of these may have caused the name of the art to be popularly associated with the ancient name of Egypt. The al- is the Arabic definite article, “the.” The art and the name were adopted by the Arabs from Alexandrians and thence returned to Europe via Spain. Alchemy was the “chemistry” of the Middle Ages and early modern times; since c.1600 the word has been applied distinctively to the pursuit of the transmutation of baser metals into gold, which, along with the search for the universal solvent and the panacea, were the chief occupations of early chemistry.