The Sopho-Spagyric Art

BCC welcomes guest blogger AdamS!.

I am currently finishing a PhD in chemistry, with an emphasis on chemical physics. To avoid graduating too soon, I spend my time reading up on the history of science or exploring some new thing.

In 1691 the “Father of Modern Chemistry”, Robert Boyle, passed away leaving behind a legacy of experimental science. Many of you may know him through his much memorized equation for gasses, and fewer of you may know of his canonical text, The Sceptical Chymist. What had been absent from the history books for many years, however, is that he was an enthusiastic practitioner of alchemy. In fact he and other founding members of the Royal Society were actively pursuing the Philosopher’s Stone. Their search was not peripheral, but formed an integral piece of their science and search for truth. One recently reported anecdote is that shortly after Boyle’s death, Sir Isaac Newton wrote an enthusiastic letter to John Locke, who had been given custody of Boyle’s papers and laboratory notes. He demanded that Locke reveal Boyle’s recipe for the philosopher’s stone. Newton was sure that Boyle had the recipe for the “red earth”, and that he had been deliberately keeping it from him.[1]

These revelations regarding the founders of modern science have led to a revolution in the history of science. I’ve made a sort of hobby out of reading historical summaries and alchemical texts from the 14-16th centuries. As a chemist I am fascinated at the mystical world-views that lead to such ground-breaking science. As a Mormon, I am equally fascinated by the inventive ways that the alchemical adepts searched for truth. They seemed obsessed with peering behind the natural veil in order to assemble a deeper explanation for the world and using that knowledge directly in their laboratory practices.

Alchemy as a word bears a heavy burden. It is at once used in a list of occult systems of belief, and yet somehow describes a historical precursor to modern chemistry. Even in the centuries before Newton and Boyle, alchemy incorporated a diverse set of ideas and goals that can be divided into three practical arenas. The first is broadly described as spagyria, or laboratory chemistry. It includes things like distillation chemistry and the search for the alkhest, or the universal solvent. A second area was iatrochemistry, or medicinal chemistry, which was championed by Paracelsus, who was instrumental into bringing medicinal chemistry into the academic world. The third area, chrysopeia, is the most well known. This was the search for the Philosopher’s Stone with the final goal of turning base metals into gold.[2]

It is not hard to imagine how these practical laboratory pursuits simultaneously developed a spiritual dimension. How can one watch a liquid turn to a gas and float away without imagining the relationship between the physical realm on earth and the spiritual realm of the angels? Something as simple as an egg, mainly consisting of two elements a yolk and white, somehow grows into a living organism. Why couldn’t it follow that all elements could be reproduced from gold and silver? These correspondences led to a rich literature, ranging from kitchen alchemy manuals to spiritual/philosophical explications of complex cosmologies.

Here and in the next few posts, I am going to explore a few of my favorite themes in alchemy. Of course, my Mormon-ness influences the way I approach the subject, and in the end I plan to briefly address the relationship between alchemy and early Mormonism. For discussion, what do you know about alchemy? What images does it bring to mind?

1. Principe, L., The aspiring adept: Robert Boyle and his alchemical quest. 1998, Princeton University Press.
2. Read, J., Prelude to chemistry; an outline of alchemy, its literature and relationships. 1966, M.I.T. Press.


  1. I can’t help but think of Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist when reading this post. My idea of alchemy has been colored by his book. Before that, I think it was the idea of healing and things that healed.

  2. This is great. When I was working on my Ph.D., I was perusing the Chemistry library for a few texts and as I had the habit, I just kept wandering. I stumbled across Waite’s (1926) The Secret Tradition in Alchemy. I grabbed it right away. I don’t even think I finished it, but it was fun to connect myself to the long tradition, especially as I felt a spirituality to the science.

    I’m fascinated by folks like Newton. Here he is, alchemist, mathematician extraordinaire, and writer of New Testament commentaries. I love it!.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    My understanding is that it was in the 16th century when people began to drop the Arabic definite article al– (seen in many Arabic-derived words, like algebra), thus transforming the word from the medieval alchemy to the modern chemistry.

    Also, IIRC, the first Harry Potter novel used Philosopher’s Stone in its title in Great Britain, but it was dumbed down to Sorcerer’s Stone in the USA, since the Yanks wouldn’t have had any notion what a philosopher’s stone was.

    I have to admit, when I think of alchemy I think exclusively of the third type you mention; I was unfamiliar with the other two or,indeed, with the close relationship between alchemy and modern chemistry.

  4. I read a lot of alchemy books when I was on my spiritual forray looking for God. They gave me great comfort and the tying together of physics, chemistry and sprituality seemed so right. Still does, actually.

    That said, there are also some far-out ideas with practitioners of other beleif systems who co-opt and cherry-pick pieces of alchemy to suit their own needs. I never want to do this.

    Looking forward to more of your posts.

  5. Oh and Kevin- why on Earth do the insist on dumbing stuff down for the US market?? I had a friend send me the first HP book from the UK, and was disappointed when the US version came out. Drat.

  6. Paulo Coehlo’s novel is a perfect example of one modern view of alchemy. The alchemist is seen as a master of ‘secret’ knowledge of nature. His knowledge is so deep that he can seemingly break natural laws. One manifestation of this is the way that alchemy is used in alternative healing settings. In this case the alchemist has the power to concoct medications that produce results unexplainable by traditional means.

    J. Stapely:
    I’ll have to check out The Secret Tradition of Alchemy. It sounds like a fun read.

    You’re explanation of the word changes highlights the changes to the field as it moved into an academic setting. Modern historians have adopted the word Chymistry to describe that tricky area between the early-late middle age alchemy and the early modern field of chemistry that developed into the field as we know it today.

  7. Quick question if anybody knows: When evangelical fundamentalists look back on folk like Newton, do they view the alchemy as occult or devilish?

  8. Tracy M.

    I like the way you describe your interaction with alchemy. It reminds me of the post on the Eyrings from a few days ago. The Eyring quotes capture a modern version of the spiritualization of natural science that many people can relate with. I think you’re also right to be suspicious of people that emphasize the spiritual to the point that they warp the science from which they are gaining their inspiration.

  9. So Adam — are you going to explain the strange title to your post?

  10. The Harry Potter book was “Philosopher’s Stone” in Canada too.

    Does dropping the -al change the meaning?

  11. Dave:

    It comes from the long subtitle of The Hermetic Museum, which was a compendium of essential alchemical treaties first published in 1678:

    Restored and enlarged, most faithfully instructing all disciples of the sopho-spagyric art how that greatest and truest medicine of the philosopher’s stone may be found and held.

    I like the phrase because it stresses both the philosophical side of alchemy as well as the practical separation/purification aspects of the “art”.

  12. Adam,
    What’s the picture? Love it.

    (Kevin and Tracy: be assured that most Brits don’t know what the PS is either. But that was their problem, not Rowlings.)

  13. What I meant in #10 was, why were the al- prefixes dropped at the time? Did the change correlate with a change in meaning across the board?

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Joanne, from Wikipedia (s.v. “Chemistry (etymology)”:

    It was the famous mineralogist and humanist Georg Agricola who first dropped the Arabic definite article and began, in his Latin works from 1530 on, to write “chymia” and “chymista” instead of the earlier “alchymia” and “alchymista”. As a humanist, Agricola was intent on purifying words and returning them to their classical roots. He had no intent to make a distinction between a rational and practical science of “chymia” and the occult “alchymia”, for he used the first of these words to apply to both kinds of activities. The modern denotational distinction arose only in the early eighteenth century.

    During the rest of the sixteenth century Agricola’s new coinage slowly propagated. It seems to have been adopted in most of the vernacular European languages following Conrad Gessner’s adoption of it in his extremely popular pseudonymous work, De remediis secretis: Liber physicus, medicus, et partim etiam chymicus (Zurich 1552), which was widely translated and re-published.

  15. I’m glad you appreciate the picture. What good Mormon can’t resist the literalist depiction of crawling up to the veil and just looking through to the celestial sphere on the other side?

    The picture is called Universum, by Camille Flammarion. I found it on a couple of alchemy web sites. Here is a wikipedia article with more info than you might have wanted.

  16. I’ll be reading with interest.

  17. Alchemy (in all three of the varieties you mentioned) is one of the major themes through Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle books.

    I believe the idea of searching out the mysteries of nature that is a cornerstone of modern science traces its roots partly to the yearnings of the alchemists. Keep it coming!

  18. I like what Dr. Sanford L. Drob’s said on Alchemy in his paper; JUNG AND THE KABBALAH.
    “Jung’s Interpretation of Alchemy_Jung provides a similar if more daring and far reaching interpretation of alchemy. According to Jung, what the alchemist sees in matter, and understands in his formulas for the transmutation of metals and the derivation of the prima materia, “is chiefly the data of his own unconscious which he is projecting into it” (Jung, 1937/1968, p. 228). For example, the alchemist_s efforts to bring about a union of opposites in the laboratory and to perform what is spoken of as a “chymical wedding” are understood by Jung as attempts to forge a unity, e.g., between masculine and feminine, or good and evil aspects of the psyche (Jung, 1937/1968). “The alchemical opus”, Jung tells us, “deals in the main not just with chemical experiments as such, but with something resembling psychic processes expressed in pseudochemical language” (Jung, 1932/1968, p. 242).”

    “In his Mysterium Coniunctionis Jung (1955-6/1963) provides a catalog of alchemical symbols which are rich in spiritual and psychological significance. Many of the most significant of these symbols, including the notions of Adam Kadmon, the divine spark in humanity, the union of the cosmic King and Queen, and the divine nature of evil (each of which Jung regarded as foundational for his later psychology) were imported into alchemy from the Kabbalah.” [LINK]

    I had previously posted this on Kerry Shirts has a good posting regarding Alchemy LINK.

    May I also suggest my posting LINK.


  19. Great post, Adam. I’m impressed that no one has started arguing about Brooke’s book. Staples: you can rest assured that anything that don’t fit into one modern vision of the Bible is considered devilish by the fundamentalist evangelicals (apologies for generalization, though I think Newton’s alchemical fixations would count).

    Adam, do the alchemists comment much on decomposition? that seems to be the mirror image of their goal. anybody look at images of anti-decay in alchemy?

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