History of alchemy (I): Egypt, Greece and Rome


The word alchemy seems to derive from the Arabic al-kemeia, which appears as such in the 12th century. According to certain scholars, kemeia or kimia would in turn come from the Egyptian kmt or chem, whose meaning was black, referring to the dark color of the earth. Since one of the main functions of alchemy is the transmutation of metals, many considered that this reference to the earth came from its association with minerals. Others, for their part, considered that the Arabic word was actually an adaptation of the Greek word χυμεία (chymeia), which means to squeeze or melt, or even of χημεία (chemeia), from which the word chemistry comes. But trying to see alchemy as simply a precursor to modern chemistry is simplistic, to say the least.


Alchemy emerged in Egypt, but we have an almost parallel birth in China. Many seek to metaphysically interrelate both cultures to deduce how it is possible that two such distant civilizations ended up developing such similar chemical and philosophical practices. In any case, the truth is that the word that has come down to us is Arabic, and that there was undoubtedly a time of singular expansion of alchemy in the Mediterranean, between the 4th centuries BC and the 4th century BC. and III, as well as later in the Middle Ages, through the diffusion brought to Europe by the Arabs.

The study of alchemy in Egypt was reduced by scholars to material alchemy, that is, the transmutation of metals into gold. And it is true that in ancient Egypt we find alchemical references, but gold is also loaded with an inescapable vital symbolism: Ra's flesh is made of gold, which makes it a divine and immortal material. Honey was known as "liquid gold", hence its value as an offering. The use of gold in divine figures and statues, as well as in deified pharaohs, was common and used not only as a sign of power and wealth, but of the condition of divinity itself. The same goes for bitumen, resin, and other minerals that had intrinsically divine value. Alchemy, within religion and magic, would, in any case, be something exclusive to the gods, and therefore, it would only be available for learning in the priestly world, especially in relation to the facet of immortality after death. and medicine in general. There is evidence of the creation in plaster, ceramics and glass of containers that could withstand high temperatures and where different mixtures and tests could be carried out, although many of these would be intended for cosmetics or construction. However, in matters related to medicine or magic, it is well known that astrology or symbolic correspondences, something frequent in subsequent alchemical evolution.

But apart from this, which may seem like obvious symbolism, some scholars have wanted to see in the hieroglyphs a series of representations of alchemical actions, as well as symbolism: for example, in some tombs in the Valley of the Kings they have wanted to see references to alchemy. in pipes and cauldrons, surrounded by divinities who watch over their contents and stoke the fire, interpreting that it is some kind of celestial food or immortality. Through the athanors, the different energies of creation and life, which are used for the resurrection of Osiris, would travel and be diluted, so to speak. In the so-called sacred marriage of Horus and Hathor, we speak of the union, not only of love or social, but of energies and their consequent exaltation.

The French Egyptologist Chassinet (1868-1948) considered that in the Houses of Life, the priests made a divine stone that, extracted from a purifying and essential fire, became the perpetual heart of Osiris. In the same vein, the canopic vessels, also used for the lymph of Osiris, are alchemical tools for immortality. Jean Yoyotte (1927 - 2009), for his part, considered that learning the tasks of the pharaoh included an alchemical value, for example, when he mastered "the fire of Sekhmet", the goddess of war, to be successful against the enemies. enemies. This type of alchemy, therefore, would be an alchemy of immortality, and to a certain extent, a spiritual alchemy.

Of course, there is no shortage of alchemical searches in the texts. To begin with, the relationship between the word neb: skill or art and newb: gold, and also, nebí: melt and swim, which refers to the primordial ocean, and Atum, the creator god who emerged from it. In the Texts of the sarcophagi we find expressions in which Egyptologists identify alchemical symbolism:

<<Whoever manages to master water and fire is illuminated, every day, by the brotherhood of light>> (Chap. 88)

<< I am that oar of Re that does not wet the water nor burn the fire (...) with which Re and the elders row, who raise the lymphs of Osiris towards the lake of Osiris>> (Ch. 361)


Greek alchemy arises from the encounter of Hellenistic culture with Egyptian culture, and has reached us through late authors and then Byzantine compilations. These texts have summaries, cross-references, quotes without an author and numerous interpolations by the different copyists, which use incorrect vocabulary and lead to even greater confusion. The authors of Greek alchemical texts call themselves by the name of great figures of antiquity such as Democritus, Plato, Aristotle, Thales, Heraclitus or Diogenes, but there are also directly "divine authorships" of Hermes or Isis.

Although, as said before, the word alchemy came from Arabic, it is curious to see that one of the authors of alchemical texts takes the name of Chimes, a founding hero, whose name in Greek (Chymes or Chimes) is related to the already mentioned Greek words χυμεία (chymeia) to squeeze or melt, and χημεία (chemeia), chemistry, although Plutarch himself again indicates that this name would come from the Egyptian Chemia, that is, black earth.

In Greek alchemy there are three distinct periods of alchemical interest. To begin with, we have the Physika kai Mystika by pseudo-Democritus Democritus (I-II century BC?) who wanted to identify himself with Bolos de Mendes, considered the first occult writer, of whose text we have copies from the time of Constantine. The alchemical model of the recteas present here consists of mimesis, that is, a series of resources to imitate precious stones, gold and other metals, a kind of coloration that altered the external qualities of the objects. Everything could seem like a simple guide to falsification, but deep down lies the idea of transmutation, which we can see in one of its lines, which appears repeated in many other ancient texts, and which will serve as a basis for later Greek alchemists:

<<a nature is enchanted by another nature, a nature defeats another nature, a nature dominates a nature>>

Who we best know this author from is the quotes from the next great Greek alchemical figure, Zosimus of Panopolis (III century). Although the existence of more than eighty works by this author is known, with regard to the alchemical texts there is much dispute as to whether or not they belonged to those works of authentic reference, or whether they were epigraphic or simple advertising attribution. On the other hand, his supposed chemical works have reached us in fragments, through quotations. The best known are On the Letter Omega, the Three Visions and the Final Exposition. In the Visions, Zosimus or the supposed author narrate the revelation of alchemical knowledge through a dream experience. His work has been translated and reinterpreted in such a way that the only thing that seems reliable about his explained "transmutations" is the recipe for beer fermentation. However, his work, reliable or not, contains a mixture of recipes with a series of mystical and spiritual symbolisms and fables, which have given rise to alchemical and occult reinterpretations, especially due to its ritualistic aspect.

See for example the following fragments attributed to him:

<<Just as the celestial sun is a flower of fire and the right eye of the world, so too can "copper" become a flower (of fire) through purification, transforming itself into an earthly sun.>>

<<One is the All, through him the All is and to him the All returns, and if it did not contain the All, Everything would be nothing. One is the snake, the one that has redness after two treatments.>>

The One, according to Michéle Mertens (2002), would be the universe, and the snake is a reference to the Ouroboros, the snake that devours its own tail forming a circle, which suggests the universal eternal cycle, where everything begins, ends and restarts, or, infinity and continuity. This substance, also, would be gold or the perfect substance, a symbol of perfection, also spiritual and cognitive.

Another alchemical text attributed to Zosimus refers to "divine water", the name that both sulfur and the "mercury of the alchemists" will receive, supposedly coming from common mercury, as a purified and fluid form, as well as its spiritual version, taking into account both cases a transmuting power.

<< This is the divine and great mystery, the object of the search, because this is the All. Two natures, one substance; because one attracts the other and one dominates the other.

This is the silver water, the hermaphrodite that flees incessantly, that rushes towards its own realities, the divine water that everyone has ignored, whose nature is difficult to conceive. In effect, it is not a metal, it is not water in permanent movement, it is not a body because it cannot be grabbed. This is the All in all things, for it possesses both life and spirit and has a destructive power. He who knows her owns the gold and silver.>>

Here the Whole is the union of two powers, two elements, two substances. It is nothing more than a manifestation of the physical and universal polarity, a reference in many other cultures (good and bad, light and darkness, masculine and feminine...) and also the hermetic androgyne, which from the Renaissance onwards will be interpreted as the symbolic character hidden from everything, and the material-spiritual duality, was previously linked to Plato's primordial androgyne, spherical like a cosmic egg.

At the end of the 4th century we entered the era of comments on Greek alchemical works, such as the comments of Synesius to the pseudo-Democritus, of Olympiodorus (5th century) to Zosimus and Stephen of Alexandria (6th century) to Heraclitus, authors who have wanted to be introduced by scholars into Neoplatonic circles, and so on until reaching the Byzantine world with Miguel Psellos, Costas and Nicephorus Blemmides. At this point, alchemy focuses on transmutation into gold, not its simple imitation. Starting from the basis that everything is composed of a primordial matter, the idea of transmutation involves removing all of its characteristics from a metal, until it becomes that primordial matter again, and then setting new characteristics to it, those of gold, everything. this drawing on Aristotelian theories on the matter. Olimpiodorus considered this primordial material to be liquid lead, while others pointed to mercury.

It is precisely in this Greek final stretch, practically medieval Eastern, where we return to the ideas of the arché or origin of matter of the pre-Socratics, or even the four elements of Empedocles. Alchemy was understood within the natural sciences and goldsmithing. But alchemy is not empty of its spiritual meaning, since the ideas about the elements or material mutations are linked to philosophical thought. This can be seen in the fact that revelations about alchemy reach Zosimus through the metaphors of his dreams, for example. Stephen of Alexandria will distinguish between a mythical alchemy and a mystical alchemy, that is, spiritual, initiatory, and revealed by divinity. From the 8th and 9th centuries, Hermetic influences can already be noticed - although we will find the texts of Hermes Trismegistus and the Emerald Tablet, exposed as such, in Arabic literature -, which are mixed with Gnosticism and ideas about the soul, where alchemy also ends up being a personal transformation in which one can free oneself from the human, and return to the divine. In addition, due to its popularity, it will assume characteristics typical of the Greek-Egyptian mystery religions, which include initiations, mystical unions with the divinities, and of course, secrecy and silence surrounding everything that is learned and obtained in them.


The existence of alchemy in Rome has not been attested as such, however, it is obvious that they would receive influences from Greco-Egyptian alchemy, and that although the Romans did not leave testimonies or alchemical texts, that would not mean that in Roman territory there was no there were alchemists, whether they were Latin or not. There are beliefs attested in ancient Rome about the life and natural metamorphosis of metals, as in the Natural History of Pliny the Elder, such as the beliefs that minerals self-regenerated in mines. In mythology, Virgil presents Vulcan, the Greek Hephaestus, as a kind of alchemist, a forge artist capable of turning vulgar metals into fine gold. In any case, in Rome it seems that they were more interested in chemistry and physics for practical purposes such as the architectural use of lead.

Alchemy in Rome seems to have had more place in philosophical and religious issues (Neopythagoreanism, astrology, mystery religions, including Hermeticism). The interpretations about the death and resurrection of matter and the mysterious gods share a lot with certain ideas about material transmutation, and this is what we wanted to see in the work of NIgidio Figulus, the polymatheia. Therefore, it would be a type of esoteric and spiritual alchemy, but it would not be native, but Greco-Egyptian, and there are no traces that it occupied an important place in the lives of the Romans. Part of this is because the mystery religions were very soon confronted by the intransigent and newly arrived Christianity, which would spread rapidly, although it would develop, over time, alchemy in its two aspects.

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada - pietrocarracedo@gmail.com


-Balasch E., Ruiz, Y. Diccionario de Magia antigua y alquimia, Tikal, 2003

-Martínez Rodríguez, T. Historia secreta de la Edad Media. Ediciones Nowtilus, Madrid, 2019.

-Servier, J., Diccionario crítico de Esoterismo. Akal, 2006

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> Heka: Eyptian magic (I)

> Magicology (IV): The magical mindset

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