When imagining alchemists doing their experiments in their laboratories, it is unclear wither they are doing magic or science. Alchemy seems to be somewhere in the middle, or perhaps a blend of conducting scientific experiments, while at the same time performing magical ceremonies.
Alchemy is both science and magic, as it involves producing hypothesises, performing experiments with very precise measurements, and recording details notes on the results. It is magic because it deals with spirit, or the non-physical world, and promises eternal life, which is considered to be impossible.
It gets even more complicated when you consider that some of the greatest scientists of all time were obsessed with alchemy. However, other alchemists seem to be uninterested in science, and view alchemy as a religious or magical endeavour.
Magic deals with Spirit, Science with Matter
To fully consider wither alchemy is science or magic, it’s important to consider what is meant by the word magic. While it is a difficult word to define exactly, everyone agrees that It involves either supernatural forces, or it is the occurrence of something impossible.
Depending on one’s world view, the world of the supernatural can be defined more precisely. Many would say magic involves the spirit realm, which is another plane of reality that exists along with our physical reality, but is not sensed with our five physical senses.
Alchemy is widely known as the practice of turning lead into gold, but for those who take the time to more closely examen the motives and intentions of the alchemists that have practiced and advanced the art throughout the ages, it is known that the true goal of alchemy is the transformation of the human soul.
During the process of alchemy, the alchemists view all matter as being different combinations of the four elements of fire, water, earth and air. They would also separate matter in salt, sulphur, and mercury, through a series of laboratory processes, involving heating, and distillation.
The alchemists believe that by gaining such a mastery of the building blocks of matter so as to be able to change lead into gold, they would also discover how to liberate the human spirit from the physical incarnation, as well as produce a panacea, a cure for all diseases.
To the alchemists, the practice of alchemy also promises the elixir of life, which grants eternal youth. Like the panacea for all disease, the elixir of life is considered by most to be magical thinking. Although, advances in medical innovations have us wondering if perhaps those archaic alchemical ideas are not quite as far-fetched as once believed.
Magic as a Branch of the Esoteric Canon
The word magic is also used to describe the ancient traditions and practices that involves rituals, casting spells, and invoking supernatural forces in order to manipulate or manifest what happens in our world. In this context the word is sometimes spelled magick or magik. Like alchemy, which is regarded as branch of Hermeticism, the school of philosophy attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, magick also plays a large role in the history of intellectual progress of civilization.
Today the practice of magick lives on in modern occult and neopagan religions. The books of 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley are widely referred to by these current practitioners, as guides to the theory and practice of ritual magick. Read more about the ceremonial magick of Crowley here.
When viewed as this intellectual and spiritual tradition, magick is very related to alchemy. Throughout history, most alchemists considered the study of magick to be another aspect what any well read and scholarly alchemist should be versed in. Similarly, many magicians or witches will claim an appreciation and understanding of alchemy. However, the two practices are ultimately very different things, each occupying a different space in the overall canon of scholarly traditions.
The Magnum Opus and the Scientific Process
To consider a process, practice or activity to be scientific, and a part of science, there is a generally agreed up on set of criteria. And while the ultimate goals of alchemy are rejected by science, there are many aspects of alchemy that are in fact highly scientific. In fact, the practice of alchemy created modern chemistry, as researchers took the lab environment and many alchemical practices but modified them to achieve slightly different things and approach the research a bit differently. The modern chemistry laboratory is the evolution of the alchemy lab, which was designed to perform the following processes:
Calcination: Applying extreme heat.
Dissolution: Blending into a solvent liquid, so that it dissolves.
Separation: separating the parts of the whole.
Conjunction: To unify polar opposites into a nondual state.
Fermentation: The breaking down of a physical substance with microorganisms.
Distillation: Separating parts of liquid through selective boiling and condensation.
Coagulation: Turning a liquid into a solid.
Referring to the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, and other alchemical writers, the alchemists would perform these processes, attempting to replicate the results described in their Hermetic texts. Read more about the three goals of alchemy here.
The Alchemy of Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton lived from 1642 to 1726, and is probably the most important scientist to ever live, at least in regards to modern times. It is also widely known that he was an alchemist. Newton’s scientific accomplishments included inventing calculus, and developing the theory of gravity.
Another important scientific discovery Isaac Newton made that was directly influenced by alchemy was related to pure white light. Newton discovered that contained within pure white light are all of the other colors. It makes perfect sense that through his practice of separation and dissolution his mind was highly attuned to look for the component parts of the whole. And then through exact laboratory processes find ways to divide the substance into its different parts.
Using prisms and a pinhole in his window to let light in, Newton divided white light into the seven visible colours of the rainbow spectrum. This important discovery, which he published in New Theory of Light and Colors in 1672, was a crucial understanding in how humans understand the universe to be constructed. It also paved the way for later breakthroughs in technology, such as lasers.
The Science of Arab Alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan
An important figure in the history of Alchemy, Jabir ibn Hayyan lived during the Golden Age of Islam, in what is now modern-day Iran, during the 8th century. He was a prolific writer who produced many books on alchemy, as well as chemistry, magic, and Islamic philosophy.
Hayyan’s research includes topics such as ceremonial magic including rituals and spells, as well as astrology and metaphysics. However much of his work is undoubtedly science, even by modern standards. He produced the oldest known classification system for chemical substances. He also innovated important ideas in regards to minerology.
Jabir ibn Hayyan is also credited with inventing a lot of the laboratory equipment that is now commonplace in labs. He innovated distillation and crystallisation processes. His writings were later translated into Latin, and his name changed to Geber, and interest in his work spread in Europe during the 14th century.
The Alchemical Magic of Bérenger Saunière
In contrast to Hayyan, the brilliant researcher and author, there is the Catholic priest named Bérenger Saunière. There are countless alchemists whose names have been forgotten, perhaps even the most successful alchemists of all time, who succeeded in finding the Philosopher’s Stone yet never announced it publicly and never became famous. But history remembers Bérenger Saunière, because of the mystery of the Rennes-le- Château. And he serves as an example of a different type of alchemistic, in contrast to Hayyan.
Saunière lived in France between 1852 and 1917, and was a priest in the small village Rennes-le- Château. Many believe that he discovered how to turn base metals into gold and silver, as he seemed to have vast amounts of wealth to spend, with no explanation of where he got it.
Saunière grew up in poverty and then decided to devote his life to the church. While to many being assigned to the small and poor village of Rennes-le-Château would be considered undesirable, Saunière felt at home there, as he refused to leave when he was reassigned to another location by the church.
Before his death he left many mysterious clues in the church about what he may have discovered, which to this day attract visitors from around the world to view. It is also speculated that he buried vast treasure somewhere in the region. His story has been featured in high profile books and movies, and he apparently shared his secret with his mistress upon death, although she suffered an aneurism and was left paralyzed before she ever shared what she had been told.
While much is unknown about Bérenger Saunière and his motivations for his alchemical pursuits, he seems to have been interested in the monetary gain aspect, and perhaps he considered it a part of his Christian faith as well. You can read more about alchemy and its relationship with the church here.
Alchemy is Both a Science and Magic
Alchemy is a broad and multifaceted practice and belief system practiced over thousands of years and by numerous very different cultures. It seems that different alchemists at different times considered it to be more or less scientific, and likewise more or less magical. Some of the most famous scientists in history considered their interests in science and alchemy to be one and the same, while others probably didn’t consider their work to be scientific at all, but rather religious and magical in nature.
If you want to continue exploring this subject more deeply, you can see which books I recommend by clicking here.