Alchemy was a precursor to chemistry. The word is derived from the Arabic الكيمية (Al Kimia), meaning "the art of transformation". The key pursuit of alchemy was to create what was known as the philosopher's stone, which was reputed to turn any base metal into gold; additionally alchemists searched for the elixir of life, which could cure any ailment and extend life indefinitely. This was as much a spiritual quest as it was a scientific one. Unbeknownst to alchemists at the time, gold is an element, and therefore cannot be produced by combining any other elements except through nuclear fission or fusion. Sir Issac Newton, in addition to his scientific endeavors, was a devoted alchemist.
Symbolism of alchemy
The symbolism of alchemy is rich and employs many western and eastern traditions. Some of the important symbols of alchemy are Solomons seal, the hermaphrodite, and the four Elements of wind, fire, earth and, water. These symbols are said to be from the period of the legendary alchemist Hermes Trismegistus, founder of the Hermetic arts. These and the other symbols of alchemy are regarded as having psychological significance by Carl Jung, contemporary of Sigmund Freud.
Why it failed
- Medieval alchemists wanted to turn lead into gold. It was a fruitless endeavor because they used chemical reactions. Nowadays, we know why: Chemical reactions cannot change one element into another. Only nuclear processes, which involve intense energies not available until the 20th century, can accomplish this.