Alchemy
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Basic Information

Alchemy is a philosophy, art, and alternative science related to chemistry. It predated chemistry, and in many ways contributed to the development of that science. The name Alchemy comes to us from the Arabic words for "Art of Transformation". The most familiar claim of Alchemy was the oft-pursued goal of turning base metals into gold.

As a result, Alchemy was at various times and places declared illegal and criminal. The field was filled with charlatans and con men, happy to sell you a non-working formula for making gold. Should any alchemist succeed in cheap man-made gold, it could easily destabilize the economy of nations, so monarchs were given yet another reason to criminalize or monopolize such research. The last reason for it's illegality was that the transmutation of metals had occult roots and all those chemical formulas were readily compared to magic or witchcraft. Punishment for Alchemy tended toward flashy and extreme - in England the penalty was to be dressed in a coat of tinsel, then hung from a gilded scaffold.

The History of Alchemy runs back to the classical era. Ancient Egypt may have pursued alchemy as far back as 5,000BC, and it was explored by the Greeks and Romans of Antiquity as well. Alchemy was explored heavily during the Islamic Golden Age.

Besides creating gold from base metals, the most prestigious goal of alchemy was (or at least was meant to be) The Great Progression - a mastery of "great works" associated with each of the classical elements that would eventually lead to the alchemist creating the elixir of life and living forever. This may have been exactly what it appeared to be - a genuine attempt to create a potion of immortality - or may have been an allegory for a process of spiritual refinement and self discovery. Interpretations vary depending on whether you cleave more closely to the pseudo-chemical or the mystical picture of alchemy.

Alchemy had it's own terminology and flowery language, with many clever expressions and layered tiers of knowledge. In fact, some students of Alchemy (including Sir Isaac Newton, who spent decades as a secret alchemist) believed that many of the classic myths were encoded alchemical recipes - see Coded Myth. Each Roman God corresponded not just to a particular heavenly body (as in astrology) but also to a particular metal or process. Other alchemical names involved Dog Latin, seemingly-racy puns, or clever word play. These methods allowed alchemical recipes to be encoded as stories, puzzles, or parables. Thus the alchemist's notes would be safe from prying eyes.

The other possible interpretation of alchemy is as a mystical tradition to do with purification of the self and the search for wisdom in the same sort of vein as the various gnostic traditions. This would make far more use of coded myth and make many of the "great works" of alchemy actually allegories of various revelations and purifications.

Popfinition … or at any rate adaption decay … tends to lead to alchemy being used as a general term for magic/fantasy chemistry and/or potion making, especially in fRPGs.

Alchemical Substances

A list of alchemical experiments, recipes, and theoretical substances.

  • Algarot - purges the body violently via both vomiting and diarrhea
  • Alkahest - a universal solvent that dissolves anything
  • Aqua Fortis - "strong water", an acid that dissolves most metals, but not gold
  • Aqua Vitae - "water of life", distilled spirits of wine, or other ethanol solutions
  • Arcanum Corallinum - red powder used to treat gout, dropsy, and scurvy
  • Arcanum Duplicatum - made from aqua fortis, it's a diuretic
  • Arcanum Joviale - used to treat jaundice, distemper, and epilepsy
  • Ardent Spirit - made from fermented vegetables, it will take fire and burn nicely
  • Azoth - universal medicine, the alpha and the omega, and one of the prime goals of alchemy
  • Berith
  • Bezoardicum
  • Cadmia - produced in the furnace, used to dessicate or to treat ulcers
  • Caput Mortuum - can refer to either the worthless remains (unwanted residues left over after the experiment) or a pigment made from ground Mummy
  • Chalcanthum - copper based pigments in blue, green, or red
  • Elixir of Life - a solution that grants immortality or great health
  • The four humours - Blood, Phlegm, Yellow Bile and Black Bile, and the philosophy and medicine based around them.
  • Homunculus- a tiny person, possibly a familiar or golem or even clone
  • Iliaster - similar to Prima Materia, this is a primal substance from which both body and soul are formed
  • Mosaic Gold - a golden pigment used in bronzing, also given as medicine for nervous convulsions and disorders of the reproductive system
  • The Net (substance) - purple alloy, also a great example of a coded myth containing an alchemical recipe
  • Oil of Brick - literally a brick dissolved in olive oil, used to treat palsies and tumors, sometimes epilepsy
  • Panacea (medicine) - a medicine that cures all known diseases
  • Philosopher's Stone - the white stone from which can be derived eternal life and transmutation of the elements, sometimes a metaphor for Christ
  • Prima Materia - the formless base matter from which all else is formed
  • Principle (chemistry) - five principle substances believed to collectively make up all other substances, there is some disagreement as to which 5 exactly:
  • Spider silk - that of which webs are made - used as crosshairs in telescopes, or in large quantities for it's healing properties
  • Spyragic - plant alchemy
  • Suns in Alchemy including Sol Niger - related to Magnum Opus (above)
  • Verdigris - toxic pigment or patina from weathered copper, used as dye or fungicide

There's a strong temptation when viewing this from the modern lens to ask why some of these substances would be wanted. A few have little or no practical value. But to the alchemist of days gone by, any could be a step towards achieving the end goal of "The Great Work" - immortality and enlightenment. Many experiments were done just to learn the process involved, and glean a bit of insight into the way the world works. Alchemy has one foot in science, and one in magic.

Processes and Experiments

Methods and Experiments are just as important as the end results.

  • Calcination - crushing and roasting a substance to remove certain components
  • Ceration - adding liquid to a substance in stages while you heat it, tends to make substance softer and waxier
  • Chromatography - using filters to separate and analyze the components of a solution or chemical
  • Chrysopoeia - transmuting into gold
  • Congelation - causing something to congeal or become more viscous
  • Cupellation - heating process by which noble metals (gold and silver) are extracted from ores and alloys
  • Distillation - separating liquids by boiling them
  • Fusion - not typically in the modern physics "nuclear fusion" sense, but more likely just melting things together
  • Fixation - process by which a volatile substance is made to be resistant or immune to fire
  • Sublimation - turning a solid into a gas without going to liquid stage first. Also can refer to boiling or vaporizing something, then cooling it quickly to resolidify.
  • Vegetation of Metal - experiments where crystals or metals are "grown" in solution like a plant.
  • the four stages of the Magnum Opus - the Great Work - these are the steps to the Philosopher's Stone, Chrysopoeia, and the Elixer of Life
    • Nigredo - blackening, corruption and dissolution
    • Albedo - whitening, purification, the burning of impurity
    • Citrinitas - yellowing, spiritualization and enlightenment
    • Rubedo - reddening, unification, and communion with the divine

Laboratory Trappings:

Other things you may find in an Alchemist's lab:

  • Acari - tiny mites theoretically born out of electrical experiments
  • Books, scrolls, and papers full of formulas, coded formulas, and observations on experiments.
  • Centrifuge (manually-operated via crank or kick-operated like a potters wheel)
  • Charcoal Biscuits, to aid in minor cases of ingestion of toxic chemicals.
  • Crucible (clay bowls to hold items being heated in the furnace) and similar items:
    • Aludel - A series of stacked or nested ceramic tubes of descending size, to condense evaporated substances in a furnace.
    • Cupel - A shallow cone-shaped crucible with a layer of bone ash, wood ash, or crushed seashells. Used for cupellation (see Processes, above).
  • Filters made of heavy paper or cloth. Also used filter paper with colorful bands of sediment from previous experiments.
  • Forge, Furnace or Oven. Alchemists often have many of these in different forms for different purposes.
    • Athanor - a slow-burning, self-feeding furnace
    • Descensory Furnace - built with a funnel on top, intended for heating liquids
  • Glassware in various strange shapes and sizes:
    • Alembic - two (often large) vessels connected by a (narrower) tube
    • Beaker - cylindrical, with a flat bottom and a pouring lip
    • Burette - cylindrical, with a spigot or stopcock at the bottom
    • Retort - spherical, with an extremely long downward-pointing neck
    • Vial - small glassware to hold liquids or powders
  • Gold, Lead, Gold-plated Lead, or various experimental nuggets or alloys suggesting success or failure.
  • Mortar and Pestle
  • Occult Symbols and Alchemist's Symbols
  • Sand Bath, Water Bath, or Dung Bath for keeping items and experiments at temperature, regulating cool-down, etc.
  • Still - More likely to produce dangerous alcohols for cleaning or experimenting than to have tasty homebrew.
  • Tabletop or workspace with a hard and smooth surface, such as granite, marble, or beaten metal.
  • Weighing Scale and/or Balance.

See Also:

Sources

Game and Story Use

  • Alchemy is a practical application for magic in a low-fantasy setting. The best way to make money is to make money! Gold, in particular.
    • Indeed you could go the Darklands root and replace magic completely (for most purposes) with alchemy.
  • Alchemists can't shoot magic missiles, but they might have pyrotechnics, poison, or greek fire.
    • You could distinguish your Wizards by requiring them to prepare their spells via lengthy experiments and brewing up sorcery in a furnace.
    • A way to get a Mad Scientist feel into the fantasy genre.
  • As Isaac Newton proves, science and alternative science can go hand in hand. There's no real need for characters (especially in a historical game) to subscribe to one and not the other.
    • Newton's not the only (or the last) great thinker to explore alchemy. Carl Jung explored it in the 1930s.
  • A cold war exists between two kingdoms, of which one has Gold mines and an economy based on it. The enemy kingdom hires alchemists, counterfeiters and con men to produce gold (and false gold) to undermine the economic advantages of its rival.
  • A culture (or planet full of cultures) that doesn't value gold might develop an alchemy variant that seeks to produce whatever element or resource they most cherish.
  • Most of the substances listed on this page could serve as a MacGuffin, Green Rocks, or Applied Phlebotinum.
  • The alchemist could be a con artist, playing on the mark's greed.
    • The Alchemist, an Elizabethan Era play by author Ben Johnson tells of two such alchemists running multiple cons simultaneously, each representing a different facet of alchemical claims.
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