When Did Alchemists Become Alchemists?

When people first tried to turn lead into gold, what were they called? Chemists? Witches? Magicians? Wizards? I assume we didn’t know these people were alchemists until the science of chemistry came about. [Extra Credit: Along these lines, when did people stop following Aristotle’s concept of only 4 elements?]

  • Jinx

Alchemy is often regarded as a kind of trial-and-error version of chemistry, a primitive forerunner of science which lacked the scientific method.

It is probably better thought of as a cult movement. Alchemists sought the Philosopher’s Stone and the other treasures of alchemy because they were convinced that leading members in the movement had done it in the past and, moreover, had left cryptic clues as to how they did these things.

Alchemy got its name from the Arabs. It more-or-less means “the Egyptian stuff”,Khemt having been the name the ancient Egyptians had for their country. It translates as black; then as now, most of the population of Egypt was concentrated on the narrow rich strips of black soil to either side of the Nile.

Alchemy dates back at least to the time of Bolos of Mendes, a writer in the second century B.C. In the third century A.D. an Egyptian writer named Zosimus wrote reams of gibberish on the subject which gave the subject the air of a moral movement. Ever after, practitioners spoke of the search for the secrets of alchemy as a kind of holy quest requiring discipline, patience and self-sacrifice; to learn to transform base metal into gold, one had to first transform oneself.

Alchemists generally did not follow the Aristotelian theory of the elements. Rather, in their teachings matter was composed of three fundamental substances: salt, suphur and water.

Alchemists were often caricatured as bending over a cauldron working an enormous bellows, and the least orthodox of their number were derisively called “puffers”. It was with these puffers that the first foundations of authentic chemistry were laid.
Many chemical terms, in fact, drive from alchemy. “Nickel” was originally “copper-nickel”, that is, the copper of Old Nick, the devil (unrefined, the two metals resemble each other, and copper was the more highly prized; the name has the same sort of logic as calling iron pryite “fool’s gold”.) “Cobalt” comes from “kobold”, a kind of genie or demon. “Ammonia” gets its name from the highly-prized camel dung from the Temple of Jupiter in Ammon, Egypt.

Chemistry grew out of alchemy, but not in a straight line. Many elements of chemistry, pardon the pun, evolved and were put into use right alongside alchemical nonsense.

Despite its title, Mendeleyev’s Dream: The Quest for the Elements, by Paul Strathern is not very good on Mendeleyev but is very good as a history of alchemy and the first very tentative understandings of chemistry. There was much more to alchemy than merely trying to turn lead into gold.

Your bonus question is also answered in the book, but it also is not as straightforward as you might think. There were many other schemes than Aristotle’s in use before and after him.