The Neo-Platonicians introduced at an early period of the Christian era an apparently new science, which they called .............…, or the Sacred Science, which materially influenced the subsequent condition of the arts and sciences. In the fifth century arose, as the name of the science, alchemia, derived from the Arabic definite article al being added to chemia, a Greek word used in Diocletian's decree against Egyptian works treating of the ...... or transmutation of metals; the word seems simply to mean "the Egyptian Art," ......, or the land of black earth, being the Egyptian name for Egypt, and Julius Firmicius, in a work On the Influence of the Stars upon the Fate of Man, uses the phrase scientia alchemiac. From this time the study" Of alchemy was openly followed. In the Middle Ages, and up to the end of the seventeenth century, it was an important science, studied by some of the most distinguished philosophers, such as Avicenna, Albertus Magnus, Raymond Lulli, Roger Bacon, Elias Ashmole, and many others. Alchemy has also been called the Hermetic Philosophy, because it is said to have been first taught in Egypt by Hermes Trismegistus.
Alchemists are those who practised the art or science of alchemy, the pioneer chemistry of the Middle Ages, either alone or in a group with others seeking the transmutation of base metals into gold the elixir of life, etc, The word alchemy is evidently from the same root as chemistry and is related to Khem, the name of the Egyptian god of curative herbs. The Greeks called Egypt Chemita and in the ancient Egyptian, according to Plutarch, the country was called Khem because of the black color of the soil but the standard Dictionary prefers the first of these explanations. An Egyptian priest, Hermes Trismegistus, the Thrice-greatest Hermes, supposed to have lived about 2000 B.C., was one of the first to practice alchemy. Although our accounts of him are of a purely legendary character; so closely has the name of alchemy been connected with him that it became generally referred to as the Hermetic Art.
Toward the end of the eighth century. we have another famous alchemist, Geber, who wrote many books and treatises in Latin on the transmutation of metals and kindred subjects, setting forth many of the formulas, as well as the scientific, mystical and philosophical aspects of the art at that early period.
In the tenth century there was an Arabian medical philosopher named Rhazes or Rhasis, who numbered among his writings one, The Establishment of Alchemy, which caused him great misfortune. It is said that he presented a copy of this work to his prince, who immediately demanded that he verify some of his experiments. Failing in this, he was struck across the face with a whip so violently by the prince that he was blinded. During the next three or four centuries alchemy was studied by the scientists or chemists, as they are called today, and to them must be reedited the development of science such as it was until the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the mystical terms in which the art was clothed, the great secrecy in which all knowledge was kept and the esoteric quality of the teaching made it a natural prey of the charlatans, quacks, necromancers and fortune-tellers who thrived upon the ignorance and superstition of the people. There are on record several instances of these adepts being put to death as a result of their inability to demonstrate certain claims made by them. Many sincere and learned scientific men came under the ban owing to the disrepute into which the art had failed and their work had to be done in secret to avoid punishment and death. J. E. Mercer in his Alchenly says that Marie Ziglerin was bummed to death by Duke Julius of Brunswick in 1575. David Benther killed himself in fear of the anger of the Elector Augustus of Saxony. In 1590 the Elector of Bavaria had Bragadino hanged and the Margrave of Bayreuth caused a like fate to befall William de Krohnemann.
A well-known example of the use to which alchemy was put was the case of Cagliostro. Kings and rulers retained alchemists in their employ, consulting them as to future events and often basing their campaigns upon the prophecies of their wise men. It was when these prophecies turned out contrary to expectations that the rulers took their revenge by condemning their counselors to death or imprisonment.
The first man of record to put alchemy to medical use was Paracelsus, probably born near Zurich, in 1493 and dying in 1541. He became a great teacher of medicine and has been proclaimed by the Encyclopedia Britannica as ''the pioneer of modern chemists and the prophet of a revolution in science. " Many new and powerful drugs were produced in his laboratory among which was laudanum. He was in great disfavor with the medical men of his time, he having done much to destroy many of the traditions and errors practiced by them, After his death a score of alchemists claimed the power of euring bodily ailments by the mystical powers of the philosopher's Stone, health and long life being among the benefits supposed to be derived from the art. Thory says that there was a society of alchemists at The Hague in 1622 which called itself Rose Croiz. It is claimed that Rosenkreutz founded the Order in 1459 with the ordinance that its existence should be kept a secret for two hundred years. Another organization of alchemists was known to have been in existence in 1790 in Westphalia, the Hermetic Society, which continued to flourish until about 1819. During the Middle Ages alchemy came in for the attention and study at least of many of the foremost men of the time. Raymond.
Lully, Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas made it the subject of many of their writings and it was not until the middle of the fifteenth century that the science as practised by the earlier artificers was relegated to the past. At that time an alchemical center was established in England at Oxford, Robert Boyle organizing a class for experiment and research. Such men as Elias Ashmole and Sir Isaac Newton assisted in the project and John Locke and Christopher Wren were among the pupils. A renowned Rosicrucian chemist was brought over from Strasburg. As a result of this determined and consistent work a new understanding of chemistry and physics was developed, marking the beginning of the modern science as it is known today.
For a more detailed account see J. E. Mercer's Alchemy, M. M. Pattison Muir"s The Story of Alchemy and Lewis Spence's An Encyclopedia of Occultism.
Astrology and the magic arts are usually associated with alchemy but we may fairly look upon it as having had a wider scientific scope. Indeed alchemy was the pioneer of our modern systematic chemistry. The alchemists of old sought by observation and experiment, by research and reflection, to gain the secret of nature's operations. Their early dreams were ambitious but not idle of a discovery of the means to change base metals into gold, and the concoction of an elixir to cure all diseases and overcome death.
From these hopes have come less revolutionary results but the gains have nevertheless been wondrously beneficial. Even the language of the ancient alchemists persists with a curious tenacity. They applied moral qualities, virtues and vices, to things of nature and today we still speak of noble and base metals, of gases perfect and imperfect, of good and bad electrical conductors, and so on. A meed of gratitude is due from us to these laborers who trod a thorny path in their zealous studies of physical forces. Against the prevailing superstitions, the lack of ready communications with other investigators and of a complete practical working knowledge of recent or remote discoveries, these hardy students laid the foundation for later conquests.
Fraud was tempting, fakers were easily made, yet honesty and fervor was manifest in so much of what was accomplished that we owe a distinct debt to the alchemists. Poor they were, yet rich, for as Alexander Pope says of them and their successors in his Essay on Man (ii, line 269) : "The starving chemist in his golden views, supremely blest.''
Freemasonry and alchemy have sought the same results (the lesson of Divine Truth and the doctrine of immortal life), and they have both sought it by the same method of symbolism. It is not, therefore, strange that in the eighteenth century, and perhaps before, we find an incorporation of much of the science of alchemy into that of Freemasonry. Hermetic Rites and Hermetic Degrees were common, and their relics are still to be found existing in degrees which do not absolutely trace their origin to alchemy, but which show some of its traces in their rituals.
The Twenty-eighth Degree of the Scottish Rite, or the Knight of the Sun, is entirely a Hermetic study, and claims its parentage in the title of Adept of Masonry, by which it is sometimes known.
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