Back when we did our guide to the magic-casting classes of RPGs (role-playing games) and other works, we ran smack out of space by the time we got to alchemists. It’s just as well; alchemists aren’t really represented that much in RPGs as a class by themselves separate from wizards, mages, and whatnot (don’t get us started again!).
- Dungeons & Dragons has alchemy as a craft, only accessible to magic-casters
- Tabletop game Promethean: The Created is based almost entirely on alchemy
- In the ancient DOS RPG video game Darklands, alchemy is the closest you get to magic
- Dwarf Fortress has an alchemy skill
- The Elder Scrolls universe allows alchemy practice
- Nethack is one of the few RPGs to have Alchemists as a stand-alone class
- SNES game Secret of Evermore makes most magic use require alchemy ingredients
- World of Warcraft has an alchemy profession
- The Might and Magic franchise lets anybody do alchemy if you have the ingredients
Alchemists deserve their own post anyway. Whether we know it or not, the original practice of alchemy is the one “spell-caster” ability which is the closest to reality.
Alchemy in games tends to be represented as a half-science / half-magic hybrid. More than other magic classes, it has defined mechanics which always involve manipulating ingredients. Most effects produced by alchemy are potion-based, with some nods to transmuting materials or manipulating the elements. Some games end up making alchemists more like wizards, while others limit alchemists to merely being able to produce minor herbal tonics.
Of course, alchemy is a popular plot device in huge chunks of geek fiction, such as the Harry Potter franchise, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Dresden Files, and Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. Manga and anime has taken a particular fascination to alchemy as part of its all-encompassing embrace of fantasy and magic. The franchise Full Metal Alchemist being the prime example.
Alchemy, you see, was the primitive forefather to what we now call “science.” It’s just general science from a less-understanding time, when we had a lot less research to fall back on and far more fundamental principles of the world yet ahead of us to discover. Consequently, early alchemists went barking up a lot of wrong trees, and were regarded by some as laughable quacks while other stood in awe of their advanced wizardry. Nevertheless, alchemy is one of the earliest disciplines to formulate the concept of scientific thinking, on the historic eve of what we now call the Age of Enlightenment.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
That’s a quote from Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws. In the heyday of alchemy (roughly 15th-17th century along its history), there was a lot less science accomplished, and hence what little science you could scare up looked to the untrained eye to be a lot more advanced.
This Tedx show by Andrew Z. Szydlo is a nice introduction to the idea. Szydlo is both an established alchemy expert and a modern day chemistry teacher. Just imagine, if you stumbled upon a few of these reactions while puttering about in the 16th century, would you be able to tell if the color-changing liquids in the beakers were produced through natural laws or witchcraft?
Indeed, an old saying has it that “religion was invented by cavemen to explain lightning.” It’s not that primitive people wanted to dismiss the natural wonders of the world as magic sky goblins and invisible spooks, it’s just that they weren’t equipped to apprehend a more scientific explanation. They came up with the most plausible explanation to them at the time, framed from within their limited understanding of the universe. It is this factor of human nature that makes alchemy so fascinating.
Alchemy was the jumping off point, where humans finally got to the point where they said “Let’s get to the bottom of this.” Either we find out a phenomenon is understandable science or mystical magic; either way, we will master it and not care about the “how” and “why,” but merely find out the “what.”
Alchemists were useful almost in spite of themselves
Alchemists deliberately worked to promote themselves as holders of the secrets of the universe. Whether it was science or magic is none of your business; you paid to see a show, and you got one. This wasn’t so much quackery as working to preserve a trade. Even nowadays, it’s not so easy to carve out a living for yourself doing science except for a few coveted positions within academia or laboring for the military-industrial complex making things go boom or beep. Back in Medieval times, an alchemist was only useful for a few predictable, mundane chores which funded more research behind the scenes.
As this video explains, you didn’t have to turn base metals into gold in order to be an alchemist. Your intense experiments with metallurgy were useful on their own, producing better ways to purify mined metals, or producing new alloys and compounds to occasionally stumble upon a better suit of armor or a more durable sword.
- Chinese alchemists invented gunpowder
- Muslim alchemists invented distilled spirits
- A German alchemist was the first to isolate phosphorus
- A French alchemist was the first to isolate zinc
- Another German alchemist perfected the process to produce porcelain
- Italian alchemists extracted pigments, most notably vermilion (red)
- Arabian alchemists honed the science of toxicology, noting poisons and their antidotes
The list of achievements by alchemists – which includes Isaac Newton and Johannes Gutenberg, by the way – goes on for quite a roll. Even if they didn’t accomplish their primary goals, distilling spirits yielded ethanol, which is even today useful for a powerful antiseptic as well as a solvent for various industrial uses. Here again, nobody cared why ethanol stopped a cut from getting infected. They guessed something about restoring the body’s imbalance of humors. But the science was still there, using what limited tools they had.
If you’re saying about now “It sounds like alchemists dabbled in nearly everything,” that’s actually close to the truth. There were different fields of alchemy, which could each appreciate the impacts they had on each other because the universe is a place of great interconnected mysteries.
Isaac Newton is the poster boy for the most celebrated scientist who still gave alchemy some credibility. Scholars who salvaged his notes later remarked that “Newton was not the first scientist of the enlightenment, but instead the last of the magicians.” While Newton is remembered today for his contributions to mathematics and physics, he not only dabbled in alchemy but the flat-out occult and eschatology. It is partly his influence that has caused many to associate geometric symbols and mathematical constructs with attempts at sorcery. Look in the upper right corner of Durer’s Melancholia, solve the magic square:
We all know, of course, about the most famous quests of alchemy: Attempting to turn base metals into gold, and the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, which would be a panacea to all illness and grant immortality. These were serious pursuits, but you might suspect that maybe sometimes, the base-metals-into-gold bit was a story to get more funding from the local king while you went back to the lab to brew up another batch of liquor.
Alchemy in science culture
To start with, the word “chemistry” comes from “alchemy,” which could be roughly equated with “all chemicals.” An early name for a pharmacist was an “apothecary,” which also had its roots in alchemy. This is why your modern pharmacist still has a picture of a mortar and pestle on their store sign, because that’s what apothecaries used to grind herbs into medicine.
OK, but what’s up with the scary snake symbols?
Snakes were simply seen in mythology as having divine powers of healing, through some confusion of ideas about snake venom. By itself, the mortar and pestle just symbolizes “drugs.” The snake symbolizes health. Put them both together and you have “healthy drugs,” while the “Rx” mark was a traditional symbol for a prescription.
As we’ve shown in the videos we included, alchemy has been getting some heavy vindication in recent decades. It needs it, because by the 19th century alchemy started getting a bad rap. Chalk that up to one too many promises of transmuted gold unfilled, and the way alchemists dressed up perfectly ordinary recipes and chemical interactions with mystical drawings, encoded writing, secret rituals, and the occasional geometric symbol.
This was the turning point when magic and science at last parted ways. The magic end of alchemy would fork off into occult arts, while the science end gathered what notes it could translate and went on to gain more dignity as the foundations of medicine, chemistry, metallurgy, physics, and general science.
Alchemy in magic culture
The other fork of the alchemy camp took a far more colorful turn into full-blown magic.
Hermetic magic continued the tradition of alchemy being a kind of magic with rules and ingredients, and obsessed with the penetration of the mysteries of the universe with little concern for whether supernatural or natural forces were at play. Kabbalah is closely related, and from all this eventually descended theosophy and from there an infinite panoply of beliefs ranging from pseudoscience to outright occult practices. All of this taken together forms the esoteric movement.
Europe and America being the cultural cement mixer that it is, the trappings of alchemy became blended with fantasy magic tropes of the wizards and warlocks (again, don’t get us started). When you see moons and stars on a wizard’s robe, chemistry labs with stuffed alligators hanging from the ceiling, or encounter elaborate geometric symbols including the good old pentagram (Isaac Newton’s mathematical influence), that’s alchemy’s roots shining through the legends.
Alchemy itself, if practiced at all in the modern day, is divided into the esoteric (spiritual matters) and the exoteric (the original science and chemistry branch). In keeping with the spirit of alchemy as carried down through the centuries, it cheerfully mixes science and mysticism.
Alchemy’s occult mystique speaks volumes about the duality of human nature which we still see in effect today. The secrecy was in part to keep the muggles from fiddling with knowledge they aren’t responsible enough to wield, and a way to hide precious scientific knowledge from those who take a dim view of both magic and science, such as our old friends the Spanish Inquisition.
Today, right now in the news headlines, we have people who mix up science and magic. On the one hand we have quacks and pseudo-science practitioners running rampant, and on the other hand, we have people reverting to superstitious savages who mistrust science as skeptics (climate denial and flat-earthers) or who believe science is inherently evil (vaccine deniers and 5G tower conspiracies). That’s just the price we pay for letting go of that whole “enlightenment” thing.
As another old saying goes, “Magic is just science we don’t understand yet.” The less we understand about science, the more ground magic regains. To be sure, our best scientists today wave their hands at quantum physics, string theory, and dark matter as obvious holes in our understanding. But honestly, even if you fully understand the science behind it, isn’t the universe still a magical, mystical place?