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Frequently asked questions about alchemy
What is the derivation of the word alchemy ?
There are three main ideas about the origin of the word alchemy. Firstly, from ancient Egyptian transmitted through Arabic 'al-khem', from the Egyptian hieroglyphics
The second derivation is from the Greek word 'chemeia', found in the writings of Diocletian, the art of making metal ingots.
The third derivation is from the Greek word 'chumeia', the art of extracting juices or infusions from plants, and thus herbal medicines and tinctures. From 'chumos' meaning juice.
Is alchemy practical, spiritual or symbolic?
Alchemy bears all these facets within it. Some people pursue alchemy purely as a practical work with substances and processes in their laboratories, while others investigate alchemy as a purely interior exercise. There is no one correct interpretation of alchemy. Alchemy is in its essence multifaceted, and cannot be reduced to single viewpoint.
How is alchemy defined?
Alchemy is so multifaceted that any definition restricts alchemy to a particular view or excludes aspects that should come within the realm of the alchemical. One cannot reduce alchemy to practical laboratory work, or to interior meditative work with symbols, or to being only a spiritual pursuit. Anthropological, Jungian, esoteric, history of science, semiotic, or other interpretations, are only ways of looking at alchemy. In recent years some people have tended to use the term in a very broad sense.
Definitions of alchemy tend to reflect individual's underlying philosophical preconception. Perhaps it is best if we found our view of alchemy on the body of alchemical writings, the manuscripts and printed books that constitute and embody the alchemical tradition. This body of alchemical knowledge, preserved in many libraries throughout the world, is probably the securest foundation on which to build a view of alchemy. Those who do not found their opinions and perceptions on this body of tradition, are often drawn to airy speculations and personal belief systems, which cannot be investigated and researched, but only accepted through an act of belief. This was not the way of the alchemists of previous centuries - they did not rely merely on belief, but were constantly investigating, exploring the texts and ideas of previous generations of alchemists, and struggled in their own writings to find their own truth.
We should beware of any one-dimensional interpretation or definition of alchemy. When alchemy is reduced to a simple interpretation, we can be sure someone is trying to pull the wool over our eyes.