What Was Alchemy? Central Europe in the 16th and 17th Century
Department of Physical and Macromolecular Chemistry, Faculty of Science, Charles University, Prague
An attempt is made to analyze both, the alchemy as a science, and its state in the High European Renaissance. In the first part of the paper the history of alchemy is described in short, from its supposed Hellenistic origin through Arabic world to Latin Europe. The role of myths leading to treatment of metals as living systems, "growing" and "ripening" within bowels of the goddess Mother-Earth is stressed and gnostic ideas leading to the formation of alchemical thinking are mentioned. Simultaneously the opinions of various personalities concerning alchemy are cited. The theoretical background of alchemy is documented on three leading theories of the composition of matter as they appeared over centuries: the Aristotle's theory, the sulphur-mercury theory, and the theory of tria prima. As further examples of alchemical tradition the relation between metals and planets, the Emerald Table, and colour symbolism are discussed. After brief characterization of the European Renaissance two outstanding alchemists of this epoch are introduced as typical representatives of exoteric (Sendivogius) and esoteric (Maier) directions of alchemy. Sendivogius! preparation of the nitric acid and his speculations concerning "sal centrale", potassium nitrate, are analyzed as a prelude to the discovery of oxygen. Attention is paid to Sednivogius! view concerning mutual transmutation of metals and his text is confronted with redox potentials of metals in question. From Maier's work the symbolism of the title of Atalanta fugiens is explained. As further examples some of engravings from this treatise are analyzed on the background of Greek myths from which they are derived (Sphinx, Golden Fleece); ouroboros symbolism is discussed within broader framework of alchemical speculations. In a schematic form the interrelation between various directions of alchemy and crafts is shown.
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