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Alchemy in Europe and the Middle East

Practical Origins In Hellenistic Egypt, Theoretical Foundations In Antiquity, Medieval Arabic Alchemy, The Latin Middle Ages

To a modern observer, alchemy likely connotes only the transmutation of base metals into gold, or perhaps a more metaphorical transformation of the soul. In its roughly two-thousand-year history, however, alchemy's practices and ideas have ranged much more broadly, encompassing everything from the production of dyes, medicines, precious metals, and gemstones to assaying techniques, matter theory, and spiritual practices linking the manipulation of matter to changes in the alchemist's soul. Although all of these dimensions were present from alchemy's beginnings, practitioners have chosen to highlight particular facets of their art at different times. Any definition of alchemy, therefore, must be both sensitive to its historical permutations and broad enough to include each of its chemical, pharmacological, metallurgical, and spiritual components. To be more precise, one may speak of technical or practical alchemy, spiritual alchemy, natural philosophical alchemy, transmutational alchemy, and medical alchemy (often referred to as iatrochemistry or chimiatria). This essay offers an overview of alchemy's changing meaning over its rich and long history.

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