Alchemy (Alchymy)

On the Other Side of the Sky

A novel combining history, adventure, and more than a little touch of the arcane

Alchemy plays an important part in the story of On the Other Side of the Sky. At least one of the characters in the story is an alchemist, and some of the elements of alchemy run through the plot.

While writing the book, I dived into several of the 17th and 18th century works on the subject. Not enough to consider myself an expert on it, but enough to be able to speak with a little authority on the principles of this important intellectual undertaking – and make no mistake, it does form an important part of scientific progress, and there are very strong theoretical underpinnings to it. It may be nonsense, but it’s deep nonsense.

But what exactly was alchemy? On the one level, it was superstitious magic. On another, it was a primitive form of science, which morphed into chemistry in the way that astrology morphed into astronomy. And on yet another level, it was a mystical practice leading to spiritual enlightenment.

The picture I’ve chosen for this page combines all these elements. It’s by Joseph Wright of Derby (one of my favourite English artists, and one who makes an appearance in my story). Usually simply entitled The Alchemist discovering Phosphorus, it actually has a very grand full title in the great 18th century tradition.

The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers.

Catchy, eh? But as I say, the painting and its title combine all of the elements that I’ve just listed.

The Alchymist (I like that spelling, let’s stick with it for now) is in search of the Philosopher’s Stone. And what exactly was that? It was the magical element that could transform base metals or substances into gold – at least at one level of understanding. The alchymist in my story claims to have a small amount of the Stone which he can use to produce gold from lead.

But then, look at what’s happened in Wright’s painting. The alchymist has discovered phosphorus. A chemical element that miraculously glows in the dark. This is chemistry. The whole business of alchymy was concerned with repeatability, and the necessity to perform operations in precisely the order and method prescribed. Of course, the methods were almost impossible to replicate with any accuracy with the technology available, but sometimes there was some discovery that could be replicated, such as this reduction of urine to produce phosphorus. This is the start of the scientific method, along with the development of the precise observational techniques needed for astrology.

And I actually refer to the discovery and use of phosphorus in the book, as a kind of homage to Wright and this painting.

Talking of astrology, note how Wright compares the alchymist to an Ancient Chymical Astrologer. The distinction between alchymy and astrology is weak at times. All elements had a ruling “planet” and were represented by a symbol which also doubled as the astrological symbol for that heavenly body.

Alchemical and astrological symbols

The aspect of the heavenly bodies was considered by some alchymists to be a vital part of the process. And there was very much an element of “as above, also here below” to alchymy. Elements, metals, and planets all had near-human attributes, wishes and longings, and affinities.

But here, with the discovery of a new substance, Wright is looking here at the birth of chemistry – and there was at that time an overlap between alchymy and “proper” science. At the same time that alchymy was flourishing in some corners, Lavoisier and Priestley were discovering new chemical elements. In fact, I talk about Lavoisier’s “inflammable air” (hydrogen) in my book. And a hundred years earlier, Newton was heavily engaged in alchymy – perhaps devoting as much time to it as to his other sciences, such as optics and celestial mechanics. Elias Ashmole, the founder of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum (and a native of Lichfield) was also an alchymist.

And this leads us to the last, and to my mind, the most significant element of alchymy – the quest for spiritual perfection. It’s the only reason why, in my opinion, Newton pursued the subject with the dedication that he did, and why the alchymists used such obscure poetic terminology to describe their craft. They were on the trail of something much bigger than themselves, and they didn’t want incompetent ignorant outsiders meddling with it and spoiling it. Indeed, the idea of “lead into gold” may have been a pons asinorum to weed out the gold-diggers, leaving the true adepts to seek the higher good. The section below is the kind of nonsense that my alchymist spouts, knowing it to be nonsense (but his victim doesn’t). All the terms and the processes described below were ones that I discovered in my reading of alchymical texts.

And that spiritual aspect is exactly what Wright depicts in the alchymist’s prayer – there is no conflict between religion and alchymy – alchymy is a spiritual discipline, and God guides it and is to be thanks for his assistance in it. As I read more and more of the alchymists, I came to realise that this was more than a misguided interpretation of the laws of chemistry – at its best, it was a serious path to spiritual enlightenment.