Contents Index

Contexts -- Science -- Alchemy

Especially in its early history, alchemy is difficult to distinguish from its more legitimate cousin, chemistry. Only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries does the modern science definitively part ways with the ancient pseudo-science.

Like the word alchemy itself, derived from the Arabic al-kimiya', the study came to Europe from Arabia, although there are records of similar chemical endeavors in nearly every ancient civilization, including Greece, Egypt, and China. The Greek background proved important in alchemy's medieval revival in Europe. Often called Hermetic philosophy after its legendary founder, Hermes Trismegistus, alchemy combined a mystical philosophy with empirical research into the reactions of various substances. The most famous objective of the alchemists throughout their long history is the transmutation of the "base metals," especially lead, into the "noble metals," especially gold. It is not surprising that the passion for gold attracted con artists and mountebanks such as are depicted in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist (performed 1610, printed 1612), in which alchemy is merely an excuse to swindle the credulous. According to various reports, Frederick of Wurzburg kept a special gallows for hanging alchemists.

But alchemy is more than mystical metallurgy and charlatan counterfeiting. Another central concern was the discovery or creation of the elixir of life or the philosopher's stone (see Frankenstein 1.1.8), capable of prolonging life indefinitely -- or even "bestowing animation upon lifeless matter," as Frankenstein achieves in 1.3.4. More than this, though, alchemy was a systematic mystical philosophy integrating astrology, numerology, and even theology into the study of matter. To the alchemists, physical matter was an expression of underlying essences and principles. The reactions of various substances, then, could be explained as the attraction of the male and female principles inherent in them. Gold, the perfect metal, represented to the alchemists the perfect balance of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), and the perfect balance of the male and female principles in them.

Although many alchemists were either naïve dabblers or simple frauds, some of their work was indispensable in the development of modern chemistry. Alchemists discovered gunpowder (attributed to Roger Bacon) and many of the basic techniques of metallurgy and pharmacology. Paracelsus was the first to discover and describe zinc.

Victor Frankenstein lists several prominent alchemists among his boyhood reading material in 1.1.6 and 1.1.7, Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus. The dismissals by Victor's father (1.1.6) and Professor Krempe (1.2.7) serve to point up the distance the late eighteenth century saw between these mystics and the modern experimental chemistry as practiced by such scientists as Boyle, Priestley, and Davy.