The Flight of the Sorceress

The Flight of the Sorceress
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Friday, June 3, 2011

ALCHEMY: Science or Sophistry?

ALCHEMY: Science or Sophistry?

When you hear the word “alchemy” do you think of a wizened, myopic geezer toiling over smoldering ethers while attempting to turn base metal into gold? Do you think of sorcerers? Witches? Do you conjure up images of evil? Would you be surprised to learn that the very earliest theoreticians propounding an atomic theory called themselves alchemists? Or that they came up with their atomic theories nearly three thousand years ago! Would you believe that their theory was essentially correct?  Can you imagine that alchemy once was synonymous with reputable scientific inquiry? 

For those who have read, or intend to read The Flight of the Sorceress, you will find several references to alchemy. My research, in preparation for writing the novel revealed that Hypatia, who is portrayed in my novel as a philosopher, mathematician and scientist, was accused by her enemies of being an alchemist. By the time of the novel, (410-415 A.D.) “alchemy” was becoming associated with magic and the occult as a result of a Church-instigated campaign to destroy the study of science. Why? What the hell happened that turned science into magic? What was the Church worried about? To figure that out, I delved into the history of alchemy and learned something about how its suppression as the study of science caused it to be warped into something occult.

Alchemy didn’t start out as a pastime of kooks, crazies, magicians and sorcerers.  It had its origins in the search for knowledge.

“The word “alchemy” is actually a combination of two words: Al means the Mighty Sun. Chemi means Fire. Khem was the name of ancient Egypt, where alchemy is believed to have begun. Someone named Hermes Trismegistus is supposed to have invented the concept of alchemy. Whether this was a single person or a group of “initiates” is in dispute. Hermes is a generic name associated with “initiates.” Trismegistus means "Thrice-Great." Whether one man or a group, Hermes Trismegistus produced a collection of writings, at least 42 volumes, called the Books of Hermes. Supposedly, this encyclopedia contained all of the knowledge of the world at that time, including six volumes specifically dedicated to medicine.

As early as the seventh century B.C. the Books of Hermes was being used to teach by Greek philosophers including the noted Greek alchemist Anaxagoras. Anaxagoras was the originator or an atomic theory. He taught that space was filled with a countless number of atoms and that the atoms formed physical substances. Later alchemists refined this atomic theory by theorizing that these atoms were always in motion.

The practice of alchemy seems to have become so popular that by the third century A.D. Diocletian felt threatened.  In the year 296, he set out to destroy all Egyptian books on alchemy. Despite this attack by Diocletian, neo-Platonists adopted alchemy as part of their philosophy in the fourth century A.D. By then, the word “alchemy” was in common usage.

Since alchemy claimed to be able to explain the secrets of creation, the newly empowered Catholic Church declared it to be (knowledge) a forbidden fruit, given to humanity by the fallen angels. Acquiring such knowledge, like eating the apple, allowed man to become more like God.  As such, investigations into the hidden works of nature were deemed sacrilegious. In addition, since a large body of alchemy originally had to do with the healing arts the Church was not only attacking an entire compilation of everything people knew, it was specifically attempting to eradicate the teaching of medicine. [1] In many parts of the civilized world, healing was an occupation allowed to women, and thus this attack had both scientific and misogynistic impact.

It took the concerted efforts of the Church over the next two centuries to eradicate alchemy’s association with real science. This involved the systematic destruction of hundreds of years of research and experiments. When The Flight of the Sorceress takes place (the early fifth century A.D.) the Church was well into its own campaign to wipe out all teaching and references to this subject.

The destruction of the records of scientific discoveries paved the way for a bastardization of alchemy, allowing for the publication of a work called The Divine Art of Making Gold and Silver in the early fifth century. No longer would alchemy be portrayed as the study of pure science in combination with philosophy. Now it would become associated with greed: a search for devilish knowledge on how to transform God’s creations into physical wealth. This was the beginning of the end for alchemy as a science and the beginning of its transformation into a cult of magic. And it permitted the Church to ban alchemy (meaning the quest for scientific knowledge) as an evil, even diabolical activity of witches and sorcerers who were condemned to death by stoning in the Bible.

Hypatia was a neo-Platonist. That is why, as related in The Flight of the Sorceress, Cyril, the Alexandrian prelate, accused Hypatia of teaching from the Book of Hermes and of being an alchemist.  Her murder in 415 A.D. caused pagan scholars to flee Egypt for Athens where they managed to survive until 529 A.D. when Emperor Justinian closed down their last academy.

From then until the present alchemy has evoke images of wizened crackpots toiling over steaming cauldrons while attempting to find a solution that would turn base metals into gold —precisely the image the Church desired to pin on anyone who might have the temerity to search for knowledge through scientific experimentation.

[1] . A facsimile of one of these medical treatises of Hermes apparently exists at Astor Library of New York and contains descriptions of over 700 medicines, some of which can not be identified.

1 comment:

  1. Imagine where we would be by now in terms of science and engineering if it had not been for the church (and Visigoths etc.)Of course messing with mercury and lead wasn't too good for alchemists either.