Who Were the Alchemists? - Joseph Caezza

Who Were the Alchemists?

Joseph Caezza

It has been estimated that in the past 2000 years over 100,000 tomes have been written on Western Alchemy (1). Certainly many of these works were the products of cranks and dilettantes but who were they emulating? What ineffable mystery were the sincere authors attempting to communicate?

Although in the West it is thought to concern the transmutation of base metals into gold, many of today's best scholars agree that Alchemy defies any strict definition (2). Research into its enigmas might best begin with a historical inquiry into the identity of the best known "adepts". These individuals stood distinctly separate from the fanatic "puffers" who constitute a major source of ridicule toward this whole field. "Puffers" , so called because of their use of the bellows, relate to "adepts" just as "quacks" relate to allopathic physicians. A meticulous study reveals the true adept to be sincerely religious, inclined toward natural science and generally free from the greed and vanity that compelled the puffer.

Morienus, who apparently lived during the seventh century, dwelled as a Christian hermit in the mountains near Jerusalem. He was known to send large annual donations of gold to the Christian Church there thus attracting the attention of the Arab king, Khalid, whom he initiated into the secrets of Alchemy (3). Geber (8th century) and Avicena (10th century) were alchemists and physicians both initiated into austere Sufi fraternities (4). Sufism represents the ascetic system of Islamic mysticism that stresses contemplation as a vehicle to ecstatic union with the Divine. Roger Bacon (1214-1292) was a Franciscan monk (5). Ramond Lully (1235-1315), allied for a time to the Franciscans was initiated by Arnold de Villanova. Lully in his turn initiated John Cremer, a Benedictine monk who allegedly held the position of Abbot of Westminster. Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) and his illustrious student, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) both were Dominican monks esteemed in the annals of alchemistic philosophers as adepts (6). Certainly the most famous of fourteenth century adepts, Nicholas Flamel, accomplished the alchemical magnum opus after deciphering the now classic, Book of Abraham the Jew: Priest to the Jewish People, which was intended to help devout Jews pay their Roman taxes. Flamel supposedly used a mysteriously aquired fortune to build hospitals and restore Parisian churches (7). The best known adept of the fifteenth century was the semi-mythical Basil Valentine, a Benedictine monk, prior to St. Peter's at Erfurt. Another great alchemical author of the fifteenth century was Sir George Ripley, a Carmelite monk who supposedly donated 100,000 pounds sterling worth of alchemically produced gold to the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (8). Pope John XXII (1316-1334) has also been indicted as an alchemical adept and a significant work on transmutation is ascribed to him. He bequethed a mysteriously acquired fortune to the church that consisted in part of eighteen million florins of gold bullion rumored to be the product of his labor (9). Dom Anthony-Joseph Pernety (1716-1796), a Benedictine monk , authored a recently republished classic on Alchemy renowned for its encyclopedic clarity (10). Even Martin Luther is quoted for praising Alchemy, "not only for its practicle utility but for its verification of church doctrines" (11). A recent article in the prestigious journal, Nature, sympathetically explored Sir Isaac Newton's preoccupation with Alchemy (12). Was it mere nonsense that engaged the minds of so many great men?

Not only Newton but two other of the most distinguished seventeenth century scientists, G. W. Leibniz and Robert Boyle, "the father of modern chemistry", clearly accepted the theory of alchemical transmutation. The contemporary scholar, B.J.T. Dobbs, exaustively chronicles the mystic climate of this age in her now classic,The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy or the Hunting of the Green Lyon(13). Herein she tracks the final thirty years of Newton's life spent in diligent quest, a quest in the vein of the forge and the crucible for the Lapis Philosophorum, the Philosopher's Stone. In her brilliant sequal, The Janus Face of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton's Thought, Dobbs concedes that Newton's primary alcemical compulsions emmerged from the purest religious aspirations for mystic Truth (14).

Why are there artifacts of gold in the British Museum supposedly produced by transmutation(15)? Why are these specimens exponentially more pure than the technology of their respective ages usually produced? Why are there so many eye witness accounts of transmutation? Why did an Imperial Edict in 144 B.C. China decree public execution for anyone caught preparing gold by alchemical means? Why did the Roman Emperor Diocletian order the burning of all Egyptian alchemical manuscripts in 290 A.D.? Why also did Henry IV outlaw the alchemical production of gold in sixteenth century England?

If Alchemy was indeed the quest for mystic communion with the essential archetypal process of nature then the adept sought to recapitulate this creative process with symbolically affective laboratory gestures and chemical manipulations and of course, with the indispensible cooperation of Providence. Just as all life evolves toward Divine Perfection, so too do metals evolve toward gold. It is this essential process of evolution that the alchemist accelerates with the product of his labor, the catalytic Philosopher's Stone, the red powder that transmutes base metal into purest gold. The enigmatic reality behind such a magnum opus can not be explained but only demonstrated. In just such a manner religious gnosis demands direct personal experience rather than pedestrian faith.


1. Paules, Louis and Bergier, Jacques. 1983. The Morning of the Magicians, Scarborough, p.66 .
2. Grossinger, Richard. 1983. The Alchemical Tradition through the late 20th Century, Io. 31, North Atlantic, p.240.
3. Stavenhagen, Lee. 1974, A Testament of Alchemy, University Press of New England, p. 5.
4. Holmyard, E.J. 1968. Alchemy, Penquin, p. 71.
5. Waite, A.E. 1970. Alchemists through the Ages, Steiner, p. 63.
6. Klossowski de Rolla, Stanislas. 1988. The Golden Game, Braziller, p.114.
7. Ibid. 5, p.108.
8. Ibid. 5, p 135.
9. Ibid. 5, p 9310.
10. Pernety, Anoine-Joseph, An Alchemical Treatise on the Great Art, Weiser, 1995.
11. Courdert, Allison, 1980. Alchemy, Shambala.
12. Gregory, R. 1989. Nature, vol.342, Nov 31, p.471.
13. Dobbs, B.Y.T. 1975. The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy or the Hunting of the Green Lyon, Cambridge.
14. Dobbs,B.Y.T. 1991. The Janus Face of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton's Thought, Cambridge.
16. Powell, N. 1976. Alchemy, Doubleday.