The Real History of Alchemy in Relation to the Journey of Santiago in The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
In The Alchemist (1988) by Paulo Coelho, a young Andalusian shepherd by the name of Santiago is troubled by a recurring dream, which he has every time he sleeps under a sycamore tree growing out of the ruins of an old church. In it, a child tells him to seek treasure at the foot of the Egyptian pyramids.
In Tarafia, he consults with a gypsy and meets a magical elder named Melchizedek, both of whom advise him to take the trip to Egypt. Santiago decides to embark on the journey, so he sells his flock and sets sail for Tangier, a Moroccan port on the Strait of Gibraltar, where he is robbed upon arrival. The unfortunate event forces him to take a job at the local crystal shop.
Though Santiago earns good money, and enjoys a healthy relationship with the shop owner, he decides to continue with his journey to pursue his Personal Legend (one's destiny in life) now that he is financially able to do so. He joins a caravan heading towards Egypt, and meets an Englishman studying alchemy, who shares some of his learnings with the young man.
While the story goes on, the ideas pertaining to alchemy expressed in the book are based on objective truths. Alchemy, which bridges the early study of nature with an early philosophical and spiritual discipline, combines elements of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, medicine, astrology, semiotics, mysticism, spiritualism, and art.
Though alchemy was practiced throughout much of the ancient world, most scholars suspect that it really originated in Hellenistic Egypt due to the word khem, or chemia, which refers to both the fertility of the flood plains around the Nile and the refining of metals. That, and the fact that the Egyptians discovered some of the world’s first elements, such as gold and copper.
“The earliest chemical manuscripts from Egypt, translated and referred to as the Leyden and Stockholm papyri, cover numerous chemical processes, such as making alloys, coloring the surface of metals, writing in gold, dying in purple, and many other techniques.” Greco-Egyptian alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis (circa 300/400 BCE) also echoed these in his writings.
It is fitting, then, that Santiago’s dream directs him to Egypt, where he will find his Personal Legend. But the route of his journey, too, is inspired by the history of alchemy; it’s no coincidence that he first arrives in Tangier, considering the embrace of and the influence on alchemy by the Arabic world.
“In the 7th century the Arabs started a process of territorial expansion that quickly brought them empire and influence ranging from India to Andalusia.” The absorption of ancient cultural traditions and the reinterpretation of the technical and theoretical innovations of previous civilizations were natural byproducts of that expansion; al was added to chemia.
By the second half of the 8th century, Arabic knowledge of alchemy was advanced enough to compile the Corpus Jabirianum, a voluminous body of alchemical works attributed to polymath Jabir ibn Hayyan (721 - 815), otherwise known as the father of Arabic chemistry. His books on the subject were translated into Latin and various European languages.
According to the 10th-century scholar Ibn Al-Nadim (932 - 995 0r 998), Persian philosopher and physician Muhammad ibn Zakariya Al-Razi (854 - 925 or 935) believed that “the study of philosophy could not be considered complete, and a learned man could not be called a philosopher, until he has succeeded in producing the alchemical transmutation.”
Alchemical transmutation refers to one of the core tenets of ancient alchemy, which states that under the correct astrological conditions, lead could be perfected into gold, a process that theoretically could be hastened by heating and refining the metal in a variety of chemical reactions, most of which were kept secret.
The thing is, base metals such as lead were thought to be spiritually and physically immature forms of higher metals, like gold. “To the alchemists, metals were not the unique substances that populate the Periodic Table, but instead the same thing in different stages of development or refinement on their way to spiritual perfection.” As such, streamlining processes was hard.
Secrecy, likely due to alchemy’s association and tampering with the divine, plus the lack of common terms for chemical concepts and processes, led alchemists to borrow words and symbols from other mystic and esoteric fields. As a result, even the simplest of chemical recipes ended up reading like super involved and frequently illustrated magic spells in need of decoding.
“The doctrines on which Arabic alchemy relied derived from the multicultural milieu of Hellenistic Egypt and included a mixture of local, Hebrew, Christian, Gnostic, ancient Greek, Indian, and Mesopotamian influences.” Similarly, Santiago’s journey puts him in contact with different people from different places, all of whom contribute insight that helps him on his journey.
The journey leads him back to Europe, so does the evolution of alchemy through translations of Arabic texts into Latin. “Before the first infiltrations of Arabic alchemical texts, the Latin West knew only a few translations of Greek books of recipes, largely out of context.” But all of this changed in the 12th century, when alchemy was taken up by religious authorities and more.
The Spirituals, who were staunch followers of St. Francis, embraced radical poverty and fiercely criticized church hierarchy as well as the more mainstream branch of Conventual Franciscans. Their fondness for prophecies, particularly related to the imminent coming of the Antichrist, made them turn to alchemy as a way of deterring him and protecting them.
In the book, Santiago’s journey starts at a church. Along the way, he learns that the Emerald Tablet contains the secret of alchemy; that the ultimate goal of alchemy is to turn lead into gold using the Philosophers' Stone; and to find or create the Elixir of Life, which cures all ills, And, as such, the other two tenets of alchemy relate to immortality and health.
In Medieval Europe, alchemy led to the development of pharmacology and the rise of modern chemistry under the influence of German-born Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493 - 1541). He anticipated the treatment of syphilis with mercury compounds by centuries, realized that inhaled dust caused miners’ silicosis, and connected goiter with minerals in drinking water.
By the 16th century, European alchemists fractured into two groups; the first focussed on the discovery of new compounds and their reactions, while the second continued to look at the more spiritual, metaphysical side of alchemy, like continuing the search for immortality and the transmutation of base metals into gold.
Santiago is a symbol of the former. In the end, he returned to Europe, and applied the lessons he learned on his eventful and often trying journey to living his life on his own terms, as that is what he was destined to do. The merchant is a symbol of the latter; by refusing to leave his comfort zone and giving up on his personal legend, he abandoned the possibility of evolving.
We are familiar with many of the alchemists of the day, who include physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton (1643 - 1727) as well as natural philosopher and theological writer Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691). Relying on experimentation, traditional know-how, and speculative thought, they spearheaded some of the most important and game changing research of the modern era.
People have been uncovering the working principles of chemistry since prehistoric humans were first exposed to fire. Though they were unaware of the underlying principles, they were able to observe that matter was being changed due to the application of a catalyst. Thus began our relationship with alchemy, and the evolution from ignorance to enlightenment.
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