Alchemy (from Arabic: al-kīmiyā; from Ancient Greek: χυμεία, khumeía)[1] is an ancient branch of natural philosophy, a philosophical and protoscientific tradition that was historically practiced in China, India, the Muslim world, and Europe.[2] In its Western form, alchemy is first attested in a number of pseudepigraphical texts written in Greco-Roman Egypt during the first few centuries AD.[3]

Depiction of an Ouroboros from the alchemical treatise Aurora consurgens (15th century), Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Switzerland

Alchemists attempted to purify, mature, and perfect certain materials.[2][4][5][n 1] Common aims were chrysopoeia, the transmutation of "base metals" (e.g., lead) into "noble metals" (particularly gold);[2] the creation of an elixir of immortality;[2] and the creation of panaceas able to cure any disease.[6] The perfection of the human body and soul was thought to result from the alchemical magnum opus ("Great Work").[2] The concept of creating the philosophers' stone was variously connected with all of these projects.

Islamic and European alchemists developed a basic set of laboratory techniques, theories, and terms, some of which are still in use today. They did not abandon the Ancient Greek philosophical idea that everything is composed of four elements, and they tended to guard their work in secrecy, often making use of cyphers and cryptic symbolism. In Europe, the 12th-century translations of medieval Islamic works on science and the rediscovery of Aristotelian philosophy gave birth to a flourishing tradition of Latin alchemy.[2] This late medieval tradition of alchemy would go on to play a significant role in the development of early modern science (particularly chemistry and medicine).[7]

Modern discussions of alchemy are generally split into an examination of its exoteric practical applications and its esoteric spiritual aspects, despite criticisms by scholars such as Eric J. Holmyard and Marie-Louise von Franz that they should be understood as complementary.[8][9] The former is pursued by historians of the physical sciences, who examine the subject in terms of early chemistry, medicine, and charlatanism, and the philosophical and religious contexts in which these events occurred. The latter interests historians of esotericism, psychologists, and some philosophers and spiritualists. The subject has also made an ongoing impact on literature and the arts.

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