The earliest known Elixir Alchemy originated in India during great antiquity based on ancient Vedic texts. The early systemic approach to the development of Indian Elixir Alchemy can be found in two classic Indian medical texts based on the Vedas, the oldest of which dates to the 1st century BCE. Indian Elixir Alchemy incorporated gold, silver, copper, iron and the copper alloys bronze and brass as primary metallic alchemical substances. Later along the Indian alchemical timeline, lead and tin along with naturally occurring minerals and gems found medical use as elixirs. Fine powdered elixirs were created from these via reduction by grinding with various plants or their juices and then roasting to create medicinal powders and ashes. The use of quicksilver and arsenic was imported into Indian alchemy from the Chinese alchemical tradition sometime between the 5th – 7th centuries CE, resulting in Indian alchemical methodology undergoing refinement throughout the 8th – 9th centuries. The full flowering of Indian alchemy continued until the 15th century, by which time technological preparation had become fully developed to the point that even extremely toxic materials such as arsenic could be converted to non-toxic, therapeutic powdered elixirs.
The worldwide alchemical timeline of potent calcined mineral and metal alchemical elixirs began in India. Indian alchemical products and technology heavily influenced later Islamic and Persian alchemy during the period of Islamic Empire. Living traditions owing their origins to Indian alchemy survive outside India in traditional Persian, Tibetan and Burmese medico-alchemical traditions.
China has an alchemical tradition that arguably pre-dates its Indian cousin, yet Chinese alchemy has always maintained a love affair with cinnabar and quicksilver from the outset. One of the earliest reactions involves combining quicksilver and lead in such a way that the mixture crystallizes into a yellow dendritic structure resembling a growing plant or coral. From this, purified mercury was then extracted and considered alchemically fit for further use as a reagent. The Chinese discovered that quicksilver in combination with sulfur, gold and other substances could be sublimated to achieve fine powdered elixirs. The chemical technology of using quicksilver, sulfur and arsenical sulfide ores to calcine metals was eventually exported to India via cultural intercourse, where it was preserved and continued long after operative Chinese alchemy died out. The primary objective was to compound a therapeutic powdered gold elixir or one composed of gold and cinnabar. These historical products are preserved and routinely compounded today, available as over-the-counter traditional medicines in modern Indian and Persian medico-alchemical systems.
Quicksilver has little or nothing to do with archetypal Alexandrian alchemy. It entered European alchemy as a product of Islamic alchemy and mostly in the form of calomel and corrosive sublimate, which were incorporated into the Islamic tradition from India where they were used medicinally and as reagents. Quicksilver-based alchemy as a foundational European tradition can generally be traced back to Nicholas Flamel during the 14th century. However, Flamel was trying to reconstruct the process by seeking help translating a Jewish source book. He can be considered successful in that his process actually yielded a unique chemical reaction and product, yet assuming Flamel misinterpreted quicksilver to be an ingredient in, or the identity of, Sophic Mercury, and the misinterpretation is then corrected, the result is the original Alexandrian archetypal recipe. His was likely an incorrect interpretation yet this fortuitous error founded a new methodology. European quicksilver-based alchemy bifurcated and formed a new and much later branch of the alchemical tree. Eirenaeus Philalethes was a 17th century alchemist attempting alchemical reconstruction similar to Flamel, who misinterpreted many standard alchemical cover-terms. His use of quicksilver was derived from experimental reconstruction and van Suchten’s writings, which also appear to have been misinterpreted.
Nearly all authentic alchemical texts deride the use of quicksilver and state clearly that it has nothing to do with Sophic Mercury. Paracelsus employed quicksilver successfully and incorporated it into his system, but primarily as a reagent in the form of calomel or corrosive sublimate salts – which suggests a received technology from Islamic sources during his stay in Constantinople. A fine example of a Philosophers’ Stone variation based upon the use of quicksilver is the Sacerdotal or Priestly Path of Roger Caro, also known as the Cinnabar Path – possibly derived from Indian methodology based on Indian cover-terms historically associated with the process and its author.
Acetate alchemy is premeditated upon the chemistry of two compounds derived from wine – concentrated acetic acid sourced from reduced or distilled vinegar and ethanol from distilled wine. One of the finest examples of Acetate Tincture Alchemy is preserved in the work of 13th century English philosopher and Franciscan friar Roger Bacon. Bacon worked primarily with antimony to create antimony acetate oils, tinctures and a type of Philosophers’ Stone based upon gold and two different antimony compounds, which he referred to as Lapidus Stibii. Bacon’s Acetate Tincture Alchemy was preserved and expanded upon a few centuries later by Basil Valentine, who provided variations on Bacon’s primary substances and processes – including a version of Bacon’s Lapidus Stibii that Valentine termed the Fire Stone. During the early 17th century in London, Dr. Francis Anthony sold an acetate tincture that contained gold and tin acetate in wine – an apothecary-style product marketed and sold as Potable Gold. This unique side-branch of alchemy gained considerable following during the 16th and 17th centuries, yet royal physician and court-sponsored alchemist Heinrich Khunrath, expressed contempt for both Mercurialists and Antimonialists of his time in his landmark alchemical classic Vom Chaos, where he details the Great or Universal and Lesser or Specific variants of the Philosophers’ Stone from the classical perspective.
Spagyrics and Iatrochemistry are the legacy of 16th century alchemist-physician Paracelsus, who elevated alchemy to previously unheard of levels. As a young man, Paracelsus was introduced to mining, mineralogy, botany and natural philosophy alongside medicine. He was exposed to alchemy during childhood via the writings of Johann and Isaac Hollandus and later by famous exponent of the occult, Johannes Trithemius, in addition to becoming fully familiar with works of contemporary herbalist-distillers. There is enough evidence to suggest that in his youth he learned to confect the Hermetic White Stone and the Tincture, which he referred to as the Stone of the Philosophers and the Tincture of the Philosophers respectively. His alchemical prowess came to full maturation in Constantinople where he acquired the secret of the Alkahest under the tutelage of Islamic alchemist-physicians, likely of al-Razi’s tradition, causing him to declare that among Islamic physicians he had finally discovered men of scientific stature and the scientific attitude of natural inquiry. Aside from archetypal alchemy, which he summarized as The 4 Arcanum, he also mastered production of mineral, metal and plant-based alchemical medicines. Paracelsus’ pioneering work had a tremendous impact on European alchemy, medicine and pharmacy to come, infusing alchemy with a level of reproducibility and relevant application. His most remarkable substance however, the universal solvent he called the Alkahest, remains a mystery. Modern applied chemistry and specifically pharmacology owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to this alchemical pioneer. His work influenced and inspired nearly every alchemist that followed to such a degree that adherents to Spagyrics preserve his tradition today.