Alchemy, Distillates and other Loves

Why the ice melts in the water? Why the rays can set on fire the dry tree branches? Why the flavor and texture of food change after cooked? Why you can obtain bronze from the fusion of copper and tin? Why, Why and Why. You can imagine thousands of questions of this kind, which were formulated many years ago. They are primitive questions, of course, and today they would be formulated inside the more sophisticated minds, but not the most surprised ones.

The mother of all questions would be: why some things convert into others, why from some substances can derive many others? For instance, at that time they might be asking themselves: Why you can get wine from grapes if you store the juice for some time? or why the gold structure doesn't change whereas the iron oxidizes? What is the force that moves all of these transformations?

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569) An Alchemist at work, mid. 16th cent.




For centuries, dominated the idea that the universe was divided into two separated zones: the zone of immutable things, the planets and celestial beings, and the zone of the mutable things which lies on the Earth. The Greek philosopher, Empedocles, born in Agrigento, believed that everything mutable on Earth could be explained through the implementation of 4 basic factors: earth, water, air, and fire. Aristotle would later call them "elements". This idea was nurtured in all evolutions of the philosophy and western ideologies for almost 2,000 years. From all 4 elements, the earth was considered soon as one paradoxically complex (or compound) and only at the end of the 18th century, it was discovered that the air and the water were also compounds, although in 1789 the French chemist Lavoisier (considered the father of modern chemistry) still believed that fire was an element. Few hypotheses have survived for so long as the one from Empedocles. The Earth was, according to him, the world of mutable things, where all elements interacted together, whereas the skies, which started from the area above the Moon, were the place for immutable things, the place where water, earth, air, and fire couldn't be found. Instead, it was only present what later many intellectuals would call as the "5th element", the ether.

Could be explained all the transformations which presented the substances on the Earth by using the 4 elements theory? Some ancient philosophical facets, like the Aristotelian theory, covered this question, but we are not going to look into this any deeper. The important thing here is to highlight that some believed that, was not only possible to understand the transformations that take place on nature, but also, it was possible to intervene in them, that is, in the holy processes of Nature. The myth of Prometheus stealing the holy fire to give it to human beings would be a very good metaphor to explain the challenge of wanting to change the natural order of life.

But, to be honest, the human being has been always a transgressor and he always wanted to modify that natural order, in such a way that, nowadays, it is considered "natural" to change this order by using the technology. The metallurgy is a great example of this wish, although it never had much of a social significance. It was considered necessary because it transformed the nature of minerals and extracted precious metals for the subsistence of the civilizations. The same happened with weaving, with those who dyed the clothes and with those who brewed beer and wine. These were technical jobs treated as necessary activities, although they weren't prestigious. However, human curiosity didn't stop there. Some people wanted to take a step further and desired to look into more primordial processes, and therefore more accessible. The metals were considered the most interesting bodies in nature, the most amazing because of their characteristics and their usefulness. This way, the historians talk about the "Bronze Age" and the "Iron Age" as periods to understand the development of cultures. And, above all of them, was the gold, which stood out by its stability, as it seemed like an immutable element of solar nature. How were formed such interesting bodies? The question arose curiosity among groups of intellectuals who wished to know the secrets of the metal world.

In the Islamic Middle Ages, a new science was born: the alchemy. The alchemy was the study of the transmutations which suffered the matter. Just before our millennium, we have at our disposal, a vast collection of writings about alchemy attributed to Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan, better known as Geber. The reading of those writings tell us the main objectives of that science. In those texts, one can read that metals are the most relentless kinds of earth in the world, but not all of them are at the same level. There are more pure metals and others more impure. The knowledge about alchemy was aim to be able to transform the former into the latter ones, and reach the supreme purification, as well as, to obtain the most precious metal of all: the gold. Geber was not the only alchemist of the time; physicians like Avicena, and philosophers like Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon, among many others, shared the same worries. The interest for alchemy wasn't limited to the Middle Ages, as in the Renaissance period in the 16th century, the physician Paracelso was one of the most genuine alchemists of all times.

Actually, Geber was not the first alchemist. The name "alchemy" comes from the Arabs, who took a Greek word about the mixture of liquids and they implemented it into their language. Probably, this science could also be found in the Alexandrine World, centuries before our current age, and it could have merged some relation between the natural philosophy in Athens and the ancient Egyptian practices. Today we know that in ancient times, they were aware of the existence of 7 metals: gold, silver, copper, tin, iron, lead, and mercury. These metals were related to the 7 celestial bodies. The natural Hellenistic philosophy didn't consider metals to be elements, but mixtures of sulfur and mercury in different proportions, so they can take out the sulfur until obtaining the metal considered to be the most precious, in other words, the most similar to mercury, and that metal was gold. All medieval alchemy nurtured from these ancient assumptions and ended up as the science that Geber made patent.

The question in alchemy par excellence was: How could someone trigger a reaction to obtain gold? The alchemy was a type of science that covered the problems from two different points of view: the practical and the theoretical. At first, it treated the problem as an empiric science, that is, establishing a series of experimental practices that had to take place to achieve the extraction of other elements from the metals. Also, it was a theoretical science committed to guiding conceptually the proceedings of the alchemist, who had to know the different practices to handle the substances and the principles that govern those proceedings. Actually, it was required the knowledge of the secrets of how nature managed to get those metals, besides experimentation, of course. This resulted in practical proceedings to be expressed in a symbolic, and up to a certain point, a mysterious way.

But let's go back to metals. For centuries, it was believed that those bodies were created in the depths of the mountains, where the fire, primordial element for any type of transformation, cooked the mixture of sulfur and mercury in different proportions. If the process resulted to be perfect, gold was produced; if it was imperfect, any of the rest metals. So, the labor of the alchemist consisted of eliminating the "impure part" of these metals for basically getting gold.

How to achieve the same thing? For a very long time, alchemists tried to find a formula to produce a mystic substance, an elixir that could to penetrate the nature of metals and be able to eliminate the impurities. The discovery of this substance, known as "philosopher's stone", became one of the obsessions in alchemy and it was soon associated with symbolic, magical and allegorical theories before becoming a "mystique luck". This way, people started to believe that the alchemist, in the course of his research, was at the same time transmuted, affected by the powers of the philosopher's stone, which not only was useful to transform metals but also to convert its discoverer into an immortal being. The alchemists worked secretly, they didn't make public their discoveries and they believe that their experiments were closely related to the most profound and mysterious secrets in nature. However, their works were productive and not only words. In parallel with the alchemical works, a lot of experimental processes were being developed, which later would set the foundations of scientific chemistry.

The first example of these experimental processes, was the calcination, a process where the action of the fire destroys the minerals and reduce them to dust. The fire has always been matched with a principle related to the gods. The medieval alchemy realized that, in the process of calcination, the minerals gave off a sulfur-like smell, and when they mix the ashes resulted from calcination with charcoal, and the mix was heated up, metal was formed. This experiment reinforced the theory that metals were all a mixture of sulfur and mercury in different proportions. This theory was the seed of the Phlogiston Theory, in the 17th and 18th centuries, until Lavoisier's works on oxidation changed the way to understand this process, although the alchemical calcination had already provided a theoretical and practical guide that was used by the first chemists of the 16th century.

Other of the experimental processes of the alchemy that derived into scientific chemistry, was the distillation, process through which the alchemists tried to imitate the conditions in which the metals were formed, in the bowels of the mountains. It was, without a doubt, one of the most important alchemical practices of the time. The word destillare means "dropping", but in general, distillation meant "separation", used in different processes, from simple decantations to experiments where substances were heated up, changing their compositions, and the vapors once condensed, were extracted. One of the products obtained in the Middle Ages from distillation was alcohol. Alcohol is a substance known by humans practically since their own existence, but it was not before the 13th century when "spirits" or distilled alcohol was produced. Alcohol surprised the alchemists: it was liquid and, however, it burned, possessing the properties of two opposite elements: water and fire.

The stills of the medieval distillers, with their refrigeration towers, were present in almost all research cabinets. Close to them, was very often to find calcification grills, sublimation ovens, and devices for dissolving the different substances. Towers, ovens and retorts appear in all engravings which describe the alchemical works. The influence of all of this laboratory material subsisted till the 18th century when chemistry substituted the archaic alchemy. Chemistry inherited many practices from the alchemy, even its symbols, but especially the curiosity and capability of transgression.

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