Origin of Alchemy
The name alchemy itself reflects the art’s mysterious origins. We have inherited the word from the Arabic al-kimia, as it was the Islamic world that did most to keep its practice alive during the early Middle Ages. However, the Arabs took the word from the Greek word chemeia, when they occupied Alexandria in the seventh century. And, chemeia, which is also the origin of the word chemistry, meant “those who have knowledge of the Egyptian arts.” As is often the case with the quest for immortality, all roads lead back to the Nile.
Two Goals of Alchemy
The oldest mention of alchemy in history is in the records of the first-century BC Chinese historian Sima Qian. He describes how the royal court alchemist sought to transform cinnabar, a bright red mercury ore, into gold – and that if this was used for eating and drinking it would ensure “you will never die.” Thus, from its earliest days, alchemy has been associated with the pursuit of two goals united by the idea of transformation: the transformation of base metals into gold and of mortal humans into immortals.
Although now more associated with the transformation of base metals into gold, most alchemists would have considered at the very least that they were inextricably linked, and very often, as in Sima Qian’s description, that the production of gold was merely the means to the end of achieving immortality.
When aspiring to live forever, the elixir was whatever helped to stave off aging and death a little bit longer, and its pursuit encompassed what we would now consider to be very disparate traditions, from medicine to magic and science to religion. Yet, despite these many strands, the quest for the elixir has come to be known by one name: alchemy.
Taoism and Life Extension
In China, at the time of the First Emperor (220-210 BC), alchemy was a vital part of Taoism – the prevalent religious-philosophical system. Taoist practitioners developed life-extension techniques that are now, over 2000 years later, continuing to prosper: meditation, breathing exercises, the gymnastics of tai chi and qigong, and the consumption of tea, ginseng and many other herbs and minerals. One of Taoism’s core texts, known as The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon, remains the central source for Chinese traditional medicine.
Stephen Cave is Executive Director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge. He has a PhD in Philosophy from Cambridge. Before turning to full-time writing, he worked as a diplomat. He writes regularly for the Financial Times and also contributes to the New York Times.
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