By Rebecca Shaw
The saying, “You can’t turn lead into gold” has been tossed around for generations when someone is trying to say something is impossible. This saying stems from those who practice alchemy, a mixture of science and magic that tries to turn base metals into more pure substances, with gold being the purest. As you can imagine, the alchemists were unable to transform lead into gold. However, in recent decades, gold was cultivated from other metals on a microscopic level, though the cost outweighs the amount of gold one can produce by this method.
Besides the physical manifestations of the art, alchemy was used for spiritual development as well. In China, these two parts are called neitan (spiritual) and waitan (scientific).
Another main teaching of alchemy was the idea of a philosopher’s stone. The stone was thought to have the power to cure illness and to purify base metals. You can see current references to the stone in the Harry Potter series and in the manga Fullmetal Alchemist. Both take different approaches to the stone’s history and use but keep the idea of its healing properties intact.
Despite its wide reputation of being unrealistic and more based in magic than in science, alchemy was a thoroughly researched field, even gaining the attention of Isaac Newton. However, throughout much of its existence, alchemists have tried to keep their work secret. They even went as far as to create their own alphabet and symbols to use when researching rather than traditional language. Alchemy was practiced in several different countries, but this alphabet did little to bridge the language barrier for the alchemists.
Over the years, many versions of the alchemical alphabet have been discovered. Some symbols are consistent, but many change from one version to the next. Some symbols are ones many people have come across before. For example, a crescent moon was used to represent silver, a triangle with a line across the top was used for air, and the symbol commonly used today to represent females or Venus was used by alchemists to represent copper.
Many of these symbols were said to be found on the Smargdina Tablet that was supposedly found by Alexander the Great in the tomb of Hermes Trismegistus, who is now considered the founder of alchemy. The tablet was said to be made of emerald and contained instructions on how to make gold. Ever since its founding, alchemy has sparked the interest of scientists and writers alike.
Cockren, A. “Alchemical Theory: A Look at the Basic Principles of Alchemy.” AlchemyLab.com, www.alchemylab.com/alchemical_theory.htm.
Nozedar, Adele. The Illustrated Signs and Symbols Sourcebook. Harper, 2016.
Radford, Benjamin. “What Is Alchemy?” Live Science, 24 Mar. 2016, www.livescience.com/39314-alchemy.html.