Review

“A deftly crafted and thoroughly fun read … especially and unreservedly recommended for elementary school, middle school, and community library Fantasy Fiction collections.” —MBR Midwest Book Review

The Gifts of Alchemy

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Dee is sitting at a table writing in a notebook with alchemical equipment in front of him. There are shelves behind him holding more colourful jars and a window.

The heart of alchemy is transformation. Something new is created based on how you transform the existing elements. – Dee, The Caves of Wonder

Dee is fascinated by alchemy because he focuses on its quest to find the formula to transmute base metals into gold. He needs the gold to continue his search for his missing parents. And he will do almost anything to get the key to transmutation. But he’s missing just how important the early alchemists have been to life today.

Alchemy has had a long history as an integral part of many cultures and religious practices. It is often considered to be the precursor to modern chemistry, with its origins dating back to the dawn of human civilization, the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian one, that flourished in the Fertile Crescent, that wedge of geography between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Known as Mesopotamia, it was home to the great cities of Babel, Kish and Ur.

This is a brief timeline of alchemical achievements over time:

c. 4100-1750 BCE Sumer: metalworking and the smelting and casting of ores; glassmaking; using natural substances for dyes; the tanning of leather; and the blending of perfume.

c. 5,000 BC – 400 BC: Egypt. Cosmetics, advances in metallurgy, not only in their skill working with metals, especially gold, but they also developed sophisticated practices to extract the metals from ores and combine them into alloys; glassmaking in intricate shapes and with subtle colours; artificial colours which were used in textiles and dying.

c. 400 B.C.-800 C.E.: India. Alchemy was closely associated with Ayurveda, a system of traditional medicine based on natural remedies. Similarly, in China, alchemists developed Taoist practices which aimed at achieving spiritual immortality through various techniques such as herbs and meditation.

c. 7th – 9th centuries C.E.: The Islamic World saw a flourishing of alchemical ideas and practices. Alchemists from this period developed new techniques for distillation and sublimation, which are still used by chemists today.

c. 15th – 17th centuries C.E: One of the most famous alchemists from this period was Paracelsus. He believed that there was a connection between the microcosm (the individual) and the macrocosm (the universe). He also developed the concept of the “three primes,” which were salt, sulfur, and mercury. These were thought to be the basic building blocks of matter and could be transformed into different substances through various alchemical processes.

John Dee, an English mathematician, astronomer, and occultist who lived in the 16th century was one of the most famous alchemists in history. Dee was a close advisor to Queen Elizabeth I and was known for his experiments in alchemy, as well as his interest in the occult.

Sir Isaac Newton, the famous English physicist and mathematician, was also a practitioner of alchemy. Newton sought to unlock the secrets of matter and believed that all substances could ultimately be transformed into gold. His experiments in alchemy led him to the discovery of universal gravitation. He argued that gravity could explain the movement of planets in the solar system.

During the same period, many renowned scientists such as Robert Boyle and Andreas Libavius experimented with chemical reactions and studied elements like mercury and sulfur to try to understand their properties better. Eventually, they succeeded in creating new elements such as phosphorus, chlorine, iodine, boron, nitrogen oxides and potassium nitrate by combining different substances together. This marked the beginning of modern chemistry as we know it today.

Alchemy still has an influence on many people today who are attracted to its esoteric and spiritual roots as well its focus on using natural ingredients to obtain desired results. Even though our understanding of science has advanced significantly since then, many aspects of alchemical practice remain relevant today; for instance, its focus on transmutation is still used by modern chemists while attempting to turn one element into another through nuclear reactions or particle accelerators. Gold is an optional extra.


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