Alchemy is a topic that has inspired some of the most popular works of fiction from around the world, from the use of the alchemical concept of the philosopher's stone by JK Rowling in the first Harry Potter book, to the Japanese manga and anime series, Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa, which is widely agreed to be one of the best pieces of popular Japanese modern fiction around.
While the idea of alchemy can certainly capture a fiction writer's imagination, it does pay to know something of the history and mystery behind alchemy if you want to use it as a device in a piece you are writing. It is a remarkably interesting topic to explore, too.
Here are just a few interesting facts about alchemy to get you started:
The True Goals of Alchemists
The simplified explanation is that alchemy 'turns lead into gold'. However, this was far from the main obsession of the people who experimented with it, from ancient Greek times through the Renaissance and even into more modern times. While transmutation of metals into finer metals was one thing alchemists attempted, the ultimate goals were even more ambitious.
Many alchemists believed alchemy could be used to create a panacea – something that would cure all illnesses, and the other big end game for alchemy was to discover how to create the philosopher's stone (yes, the one from Harry Potter), which would grant immortality. The 'real' philosopher's stone of alchemical theory was also said to turn mercury into gold, though this wasn't an aspect Voldemort was overly concerned with in Rowling's version.
Sir Isaac Newton was Fascinated by Alchemy
People who have studied ancient alchemy all tend to converge on one item – the legendary Emerald Tablet. This is a green tablet inscribed with old text and its origin stories are many and varied. A lot of people have translated the text on the tablet, and surprisingly, one of them was Sir Isaac Newton.
While Newton is best known as a scientist, and alchemy seems rather at odds with modern scientific knowledge, he also had a keen interest in the occult, and alchemy in particular. He actually wrote more words about his research into alchemy than he wrote about physics and maths combined. You can read more about Newton and alchemy, and see excerpts of his Emerald Tablet translation, at fabweb.org.
Alchemy is Technically Considered a Science
While alchemy has never actually been shown to work or have any grounding in what we know about nature and science today, it is still considered a science. This is because alchemists followed a version of the scientific method, which meant testing and exploring hypotheses and theories in an attempt to prove or disprove them. It is for the same reasons that other things that have no evidence of actually being scientifically true, such as astrology, can also be considered sciences.
If you are interested in history or looking to write a work of fiction set in a fantasy setting where alchemy actually works, researching it can be a lot of fun!