I love fantasy, I always have. It brings more possibilities than any other type of fiction and has been the way we as a people have told stories our entire existence But for all the amazing things in fantasy, so many authors seem to draw from European history and myth, as well as other familiar tropes. While that’s all and good, with these posts I will explore the other realms of fantasy, the lore we don’t see too much, and the potential they have for the fantasy of the future.
Alchemy is one of those magics you hear about every now and then in fantasy. It’s usually something mysterious and halfway explained (think Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone) or unexplained altogether (H.P. Lovecraft’s the Alchemist). One of the most famous instances of Alchemy I am aware of in fiction is Full Metal Alchemist, something I have almost no knowledge of and can’t really expand on.
But alchemy is ripe with fascinating lore and has a mythos that spans time and national boundaries. In fact, it’s so damn complicated I really had a hard time putting this together (between that and getting the book up, that’s why it’s late). Alchemical ideas were propagated throughout the world, and religion almost always played a hand in it in some way or another. When you have different branches of science based on different religions, well, things get tricky.
My favorite tale of a famous alchemist is Fulcanelli, a french alchemist and author in the early nineteen hundreds. He worked on various alchemical projects with his apprentice, Eugene Canseliet. He disappeared in twenties but that is where things get interesting. He contacted physicist Jacques Bergier to warn him of the danger of nuclear weapons, that man had seen their use before, much to our detriment. He also met his protegee once again in 1953 in Spain. Canseliet was taken up to a castle high in the mountains. When he set eyes upon his master, who had been in his eighties thirty years prior, he was now in his fifties.
While most probably have the image of English scholars hunched over their desks in a dark castle, alchemy actually began in Egypt, though there is some debate as to when. Before coming to Europe, it was practiced in the Islamic world, India, and China, tied up in everything that was known about science in each of these regions and often times influenced by their religious beliefs. This created a unique cocktail of mythos for each region.
The thing alchemy is most often noted for is chrysopoeia or projection, the transmutation of base metals into noble ones. Turning lead into gold in other words. For most of its history, that was the idea behind it and that’s what most people think of, but it was so much more. It was an scientific art of sorcery, a artistic discipline of wizardry. They believed hundreds of materials would react, and went about testing these theories in a scientific manner, but always to achieve an effect we would consider magic.
Different regions have different materials, but they often have a connection. Common mythos uses salt, sulfur, and mercury. In India they used nectar, mercury, and juice. Islamic alchemy had eight elements; fire, water, air, earth, aether, salt, sulfur, and mercury.
They believed minerals could change, be grown, or used to manipulate the world around them. There were ideas of seeds, growing, other things like that. Islamic Alchemy has the idea of Takwin, which is the idea of being able to create synthetic life. You see this in such creations as the homonculus and the mandrake. In Indian alchemy, it was all about manipulating the body, bringing about eternal youth and immortality through the use of mercurial compounds.
By the time it moved to Europe, John Dee’s and Roger Bacon’s work began to add more Christian overtones. It has always had religious influences, but at this point you see them actually drawing on the resources of the divine, trying to communicate with angels and discover a language that would actually be able to influence the real world with its power.
Several authors have used alchemy or the principles behind it in their work. Patrick Rothfuss and his principles of sympathy come from alchemy. H.P. Lovecraft has a whole short story, The Alchemist. Even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, while never citing the science as alchemy, draws from that type of idea. Loose science and the use of what was thought about energy, matter, and tissue to instill life into a homonculus of sorts.