Why was gold so important to alchemists and how does the work of these ancient mystics and proto-scientists relate to our modern understandings of the world?
Since ancient times, gold has been recognised not only for its beauty but also for its unique chemical and physical properties. Nowhere was gold more valued than in the mysterious practice of alchemy: a philosophical and protoscientific tradition that sought to create gold from other elements and practiced throughout history, from Ancient Egypt right up until the European Enlightenment.
The first records of alchemic practice date back to the advent of metallurgy around 3500 BC. Historians have identified traditions of alchemy, in China, India, the Middle East and Europe. The Egyptian alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis writes around 300 BC about the concept of a ‘philosopher’s stone’ a legendary material central to alchemy which could allegedly cure all ills, grant eternal life and turn metals into gold. It was believed by some to have been given to Adam by God.
Alchemy primarily focuses on the transmutation of common metals (e.g. lead, copper) into ‘noble metals’, particularly gold, as well as the creation of a ‘panacea’ – a remedy which would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely. Gold was believed to be the origin of all metals, a view well illustrated by George Starkey (known by the pseudonym of Eirenaeus Philalethes) – a 17th century Colonial American alchemist who wrote “All metallic seed is the seed of gold: for gold is the intention of nature with regard to all metals. If the base metals are not gold, it is only through some accidental hindrance: they are all potentially gold.”[i]
Such an interpretation of gold’s chemical properties motivated alchemists from around the world to search for the ‘philosopher’s stone’ – a legendary substance or elixir that was thought of being capable of turning base metals into gold.
Even Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), recognised as one of science’s seminal geniuses and perhaps the most influential figure in the scientific revolution, devoted a great deal of time to alchemy. He believed that in the entire mineral kingdom, metals were the only materials that could ‘vegetate’ whereas other minerals could only form mechanically.[ii] Newton spent days locked up in his laboratory practising alchemy and trying to perform a transmutation of lead into gold. Some believe he finally succeeded in it. Perhaps that explains why, at the peak of his career, he was appointed director of England’s Royal Mint, with the duty of securing and accounting for England’s repository of gold.[iii]
Having the ability to turn lead into gold would have obvious benefits today, but the reason behind why ancient and medieval alchemists sought to change base metals into gold was not simply greed. As Nevill Drury and Lynne Hume wrote in their book The Varieties of Magical Experience: Indigenous, Medieval, and Modern Magic: “The alchemists did not regard all metals as equally mature or ‘perfect.’ Gold symbolized the highest development in nature and came to personify human renewal and regeneration. A ‘golden’ human being was resplendent with spiritual beauty and had triumphed over the lurking power of evil. The basest metal, lead, represented the sinful and unrepentant individual who was readily overcome by the forces of darkness… If lead and gold both consisted of fire, air, water, and earth, then surely by changing the proportions of the constituent elements, lead could be transformed into gold. Gold was superior to lead because, by its very nature, it contained the perfect balance of all four elements.[iv]’
Many of the goals sought by ancient and medieval alchemist have now been attained by today’s chemists and nuclear physicists. Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity in 1896 and Joseph John Thomson’s discovery of the electron a year later, led to an understanding of natural transmutation. Further to this, the joint experiments carried out by Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy in the early 20th century proved that the radioactivity of thorium was the result of a disintegration or decay process of one element into another. This transmutation and other consecutive discoveries facilitated the liberation of tremendous amounts of energy which scientist TJ Trenn referred to as ‘the gold of newer alchemy.[v]’
Although the creation of gold from other metals proved impossible for alchemy, alchemists played an important role in formulating our understanding of the material world and in laying the foundations of modern science. And their legacy lives on: in the 21st century we have now found a way to create gold and other elements by replicating exploding stars.
Image top: the alchemist Michael Sendivogius by Jan Matejko