Part 29

The science of alchemy Icon

January 11, 2022

This studies the substance through which the generation of gold and silver may be artificially accomplished, and comments on the operation leading to it. The alchemists acquire knowledge of the tempers and powers of all created things and investigate them critically.

They hope to come upon the substance that is prepared to produce gold and silver. They even investigate the waste matter of animals, such as bones, feathers, hair, 955 eggs, and excrements, not to mention minerals. 956

Alchemy, then, comments on the operations through which such a substance may be transformed from potentiality into actuality, as, for instance, by the dissolution of bodies (substances) into their natural components through sublimation and distillation, 957 by the solidification of meltable (substances) through calcification, by the pulverization of solid materials with the help of pestles and mullers and similar things. The (alchemists) assume that all these techniques lead to the production of a natural substance which they call “the elixir.” 958

When some mineral substance, such as lead, tin, or copper, which is prepared, in a manner (and degree) that closely approaches (preparedness) in actuality, for receiving the form of gold or silver, is heated in the fire and some (quantity) of the elixir is added 959 to it, that substance turns into pure gold.

In the technical terminology that the (alchemists) use for purposes of mystification, they give the cover name of “spirit” to the elixir and that of “body” to the substance to which the elixir is added.

The science that comments on this technical terminology and on the form of the technical operation by which predisposed substances are turned into the form of gold and silver, is the science of alchemy. In both ancient and modern times, people have written works on alchemy. Discussions of alchemy are occasionally ascribed to people who were not alchemists.

The chief systematic writer on alchemy, according to the alchemists, is Jabir b. Hayyan. Alchemists even consider alchemy Jabir’s special preserve and call it “the science of Jabir.” He wrote seventy treatises on alchemy. 960 All of them read like puzzles.

It is thought 961 that only those who know all that is in (Jabir’s treatises) can unlock the secrets of alChemy. 962

At-Tughra’i,963 a recent Eastern philosopher, wrote systematic works on alchemy and disputations with alchemists and other philosophers.

Maslamah al-Majriti, a Spanish philosopher, wrote on alchemy the Rutbat al-hakim. He wrote the Rutbah as a counterpart to his work on sorcery and talismans entitled Ghayat al-hakim. He thought that the two arts (alchemy and sorcery) were both results and fruits of philosophy and science, and that those who were not acquainted with them would miss the fruit of scholarship and philosophy altogether. 964

Maslamah’s discussion in the Rutbah and the discussions of all the (alchemists) in their respective works employ puzzling means of expression which are difficult for those who- have not familiarized themselves with the technicalterminology of (alchemists), to understand. We shall mention the reason why the alchemists had recourse to these cover names and puzzling means of expression. 965

Ibn al-Mughayribi,966 a leading alchemist, has (written alchemical) maxims in verses the rhyme letter of which is each letter of the alphabet, taken up in turn.

The verses belong among the most original poetry there is. All of them employ a puzzling manner of expression, (and they are) like elusive riddles. They can hardly be understood.

Works on alchemy are attributed to al-Ghazzali, 967 but this attribution is not correct, because al-Ghazzali’s lofty perceptions would not have permitted him to study, or, eventually, to adopt the errors of alchemical theories.

Some alchemical theories and opinions are occasionally attributed to Khalid b. Yazid b. Mu’awiyah, 968 a stepson of Marwan b. al-Hakam. However, it is very well known that Khalid was an Arab by race and close to the Bedouin attitude. Thus, he was not familiar with the sciences and crafts in general. How, then, could he have known an unusual craft based upon knowledge of the natures and tempers of composite things, when the physical and medical works of scholars who did research on those subjects had not yet appeared and had not yet been translated?

The only possibility is that there existed another Khalid b. Yazid among persons versed in the various crafts, and that the mix-up was caused by identical names. I shall pass on here an epistle on alchemy written by Abu Bakr b. Bishrun 969 to Ibn as-Samh.

Both were pupils of Maslamah. If considered as carefully as it deserves to be, the discussion of (Ibn Bishr(n) will show my 970 attitude toward alchemy.

After some introductory (remarks) in the epistle, which have nothing to do with the subject, Ibn Bishrun said= “The premises of this noble craft were mentioned by the ancients. All of them were reported by the philosophers. Such premises are knowledge of the generation of minerals, of the creation of rocks and precious stones, and of the different natures of regions and localities. As they are well known, we shall not mention them. But I shall explain to you what one needs to know of this craft. Thus, let us start with that knowledge.

“It has been said= The students of this science must first know three things:

  1. whether it exists
  2. what brings it into being
  3. how it comes into being.

If the student of alchemy knows these three things well, he achieves his object and knows as much as can be known about this science.

“As to the problem of the existence of alchemy and the proofs for the (forces) that bring alchemy into existence, the elixir that we have sent to you is a satisfying answer.

“The question of what brings alchemy into being implies, according to alchemists, search for the stone that makes the (alchemical) operation possible.

Potentially, the operation may be performed with any (conceivable) thing, because the (potentiality to perform the operation) comes from the four natures (elements). It originated from their composition at the beginning and will revert to them at the end.

However, there are things that might be used for the operation (only) potentially, not actually. This comes about as follows. There are some things that can be decomposed. There are others that cannot be decomposed.

Those that can be decomposed can be processed and treated. They are the things that can be transformed from potentiality into actuality. On the other hand, the things that cannot be decomposed cannot be processed and treated, because they have nothing but potentiality in them.

They cannot be decomposed, in order to give some of the elements they contain an advantage over the others and to have the power of the bigger (elements) predominate over the lesser ones.“You - may God give you success - must therefore know the most suitable of the decomposable stones that can be used for the operation. You must know its genus, power, action, and which kind of dissolution or solidification, purification, calcification, absorption, or transformation it may be able to effect. People who do not know these basic principles of alchemy will never be successful or achieve any good results.

You must know whether (the stone) can be aided by something else or is sufficient by itself, and whether it is one (thing by itself) at the beginning or is associated with something else and becomes one (thing by itself) during the treatment, and is therefore called ‘stone.’

You must also know how it works; how much its components must weigh and what times (are suitable) for it; how the spirit is inserted and the soul made to enter into it; whether fire can separate (the soul) from (the stone) after it has been inserted (in it); if not, why (not), and what makes it necessary that it be that way. This is what one wants (to know). “It should be understood and realized that all philosophers have praised the soul and thought that it is the soul that governs, sustains, and defends the body and is active in it. For, when the soul leaves the body, the body dies and gets cold. It cannot move or defend itself, because there is no life in it and no light.

The body and the soul only because this craft (alchemy) is similar to the body of man, which is built up by regular meals 971 and which persists and is perfected by the living, luminous soul, which enables the body to do the great and mutually contradictory things that only the living power of the soul can do. Man suffers from the disharmony of his component elements.

If his elements were in complete harmony and (thus) not affected by accidents and (inner) contradictions, the soul would not be able to leave his body. Man would then live eternally. Praised be He who governs all things, He is exalted.

“It should be known that the natures (elements) producing the (alchemical) operation constitute a quality that pushes (forward) at the beginning, and a process of emanation requiring an end. When they have reached this limit, they cannot be transformed (back) into the (state) that (formed the starting point of) their composition, as we stated at the outset with regard to man 972 The natures of the substance had been separate, but now they adhere to each other and have become one thing, similar to the soul in power and activity, and similar to the body in having composition and pulse. 973 There is a strange thing about the actions of the elements.

It is the weak (element) that is powerful, since it has power over the decomposition, composition, and completion of things. It is in this sense that I use (the words) ‘powerful’ and ‘weak.’ Change and nonbeing in the first composition occur only as the result of disharmony (among the component elements).

They do not occur in the second composition, because there then is harmony (among the component elements).

“An early (philosopher-alchemist) has said= ‘Decomposition and division mean life and duration, as far as the alchemical operation is concerned, while composition means death and nonbeing.’ This statement has ‘a subtle meaning. The philosopher meant by ’life and duration’ its 974 transformation from nonexistence into existence. As long as it remains in (the state of) its first composition, it is, no doubt, nonbeing. But when the second composition takes place, nonbeing no longer exists.

Now, the second composition comes about only after decomposition and division. Thus, decomposition and division are peculiar to the (alchemical) operation. If it 975 is applied to the soluble body (substance), it spreads in it, because it has no form, since it has come to take in the body the place of the soul which has no form.

This is because it has no weight as far as (the substance) is concerned. You will see this, if God - He is exalted - wills.“You must realize that mixing a fine thing with another fine thing is easier than mixing a coarse thing with another coarse thing. I have in mind here the similarity in form among spirits (on the one hand) and bodies (substances, on the other), for it is the form of things that causes their union. I mention this to you, so that you may know that the (alchemical) operation is more agreeable and simpler if it is undertaken with fine spiritual elements than if it is undertaken with coarse corporeal (substances).

“It is logical that stones are stronger in their resistance to fire than spirits. Likewise, gold, iron, and copper are observed to offer more resistance to fire than sulphur, mercury, and other spirits. Therefore, I say= The substances were spirits at the beginning.

When the heat of the natural process (kiyan) affects them, they are transformed by it into coarse, coherent substances. Fire is not able to consume them, because they are exceedingly coarse and coherent. When an exceedingly great amount of fire is applied to them, it turns them again into spirits, as they had been when they were first created. If fire (then again) affects the fine spirits, they flee and are not able to endure it. Thus, you must know what brought the substances to their particular condition and (what) brought the spirits to theirs. That is the most important knowledge you can have.

“I say= The spirits flee and are burned, because of their combustibility and fineness. They became combustible because of their great share of humidity. When fire notices humidity, it attaches itself to it, because (humidity) is airy 975a and (thus) similar to fire.

The fire does not stop eating it, until (the humidity) is consumed. The same applies to substances when, (noticing) the approach of fire, they flee,976 because they have little coherence and are coarse. (But) they are not combustible, because they are composed of earth and water which offers resistance to fire, in that the fine (components of water) unite with its coarse (components) through a long (process of) cooking which softens and mixes things. For, anything that is annihilated through fire 977 is annihilated only because its fine (components) separate (under the influence of fire) from its coarse (components), and its parts merge with each other without dissolution and adaptation, Thus, the resulting combination and interpenetration is (mere) aggregation, not (real) mixture.

Therefore, (the fine and the coarse elements) are as easily separated (under the influence of fire) as water and oil (are), or similar things. I describe this merely so that you may learn from it (the facts) about composition and opposition with regard to the elements.

If you have a sufficient knowledge of this, you know as much about the (elements) as can be known by you. “You must (further) know that the mixtures, which are the elements of alchemy, agree with one another. They are derived from one substance.

One order and one treatment unite them all. Nothing strange enters into either a (single) part or into the whole of it.978 In this sense, the philosopher has said= ‘If you have a good knowledge of the treatment and composition of the elements, and if you do not permit anything strange to enter into them, you 979 have a good knowledge of what you want to know well and definitely, since the (alchemical) element is one (element) and contains nothing that is strange to it. He who brings something strange into it falsifies it and commits an error.’

If a cognate substance is properly dissolved for this (alchemical) element, so that it becomes similar to it in respect of fineness and subtleness, the (alchemical) element expands in it and follows it wherever it goes. As long as substances remain coarse and rough, they cannot expand or be paired, and they can dissolve only with the help of spirits.

“You - may God guide you - should understand this statement in that sense.You - may God guide you - should know that such dissolution in the animal substance is the truth, which neither perishes nor decreases. It is the thing that transforms the elements, holds them, and produces for them marvelous colors and blossoms. Not every substance dissolves in this way, 980 which is (the way of) complete dissolution, because it is contrary to life.

It dissolves only in so far as (the process of dissolution) is agreeable to it and serves to defend it against the burning action of fire, until it is no longer coarse and the elements are transformed to the degree of fineness or coarseness possible for them. When the substances have reached their limit of dissolution and refinement, they then obtain a power that holds, immerses, 981 transforms, and pervades.

An (alchemical) operation, the test of whose truthfulness does not appear at the beginning, is no good.

The cold nature dries things out and ties down their humidity, while heat causes the humidity of things to appear and ties down their dryness. I have singled out heat and cold because they are active, and humidity and dryness (because they) are passive.

The passivity of (the two opposites) toward each other creates and generates the substances. Heat, however, does so more actively than cold, because the cold cannot transport and move things, while heat is the cause of motion. When the heat that causes generation is weak, it never achieves anything.

Correspondingly, if the heat affecting a thing is excessive, and there is no cold there, it burns the thing and destroys it. For this reason, some cold is needed in (alchemical) operations, so that the power of opposites may be balanced and there may be protection against the heat of fire.

“There is nothing the philosophers have warned against more insistently than burning fires. They have commanded (alchemists) to cleanse the elements and the breaths, to remove their dirt and humidity, and to keep away their harmful (actions) and uncleanliness from (fires).

That is the sound basis of their doctrine and treatment. The (alchemical) operation begins with fire and ends with fire. Therefore, the philosophers have said, ‘Beware of burning fires.’ By that they meant that one should keep away the harmful (actions) that go with (fire). (Otherwise,) two kinds of harmful (actions) would combine against the substance and speed its destruction.

Also, anything may suffer annihilation and corruption through itself, 982 because its elements are opposed to each other and there is disharmony in it. It thus stands in the middle between two things 983 and does not find anything to strengthen and aid it, but the harmful (actions) overpower and destroy it.

The sages have mentioned that spirits return repeatedly to bodies (substances), so that they may have greater coherence with them and greater strength to fight the fire, since they (the spirits) come into contact with (the fire) at the moment of union - I mean here elemental fire. This should be realized.

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