What’s the Matter?

This is part 2 in my series on alchemy – part 1 is here.

So, changing iron into gold – turning one metal into another – that’s something the alchemists were pretty keen on accomplishing.

How did they figure that’d work?

These days, we know that matter is made out of atoms. These atoms have a nucleus, made of various proportions of neutrons and protons, and electrons spinning around that nucleus like planets around a sun.

More or less, anyway – this is the simplistic way we tend to visualise it.

The ancient Greeks, and the ancient Indians, came up with the idea of atoms. They theorised that everything was made of even tinier things, down and down until you reached an indivisible unit which the Greeks called the “atom”. Democritus tends to be the name associated with the philosophy of “atomism“.

These days, we know atoms are divisible. When the nucleus is split, immense amounts of energy are released – giving us nuclear energy, and nuclear weaponry. But back in Ye Olden Tymes, in the days of the alchemists, none of this was even theorised. We now know that the 100+ elements that make up all of matter are differentiated by their atomic weights and the composition of protons, neutrons, and what have you. The Alchemists didn’t have the first idea about any of this.

So, what were their ideas, then? How did these scholars and sages, who invested so much effort into manipulating matter, think that matter even worked?

The basis of alchemical theory and philosophy – the basis of almost all theory and philosophy for hundreds of years, in fact – were the works of the Ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle. Aristotle’s writings influenced Christianity and subsequent Christian scholarship, and later Islamic scholars as well.

It’s not hard to see why: Alexander the Great conquered Greece, Egypt, the Middle East, and all the way through Persia – he nearly made it to India, but his troops weren’t having any of it, though that’s another story.


Why does it matter where Alexander the Great conquered? Well, Alexander was interested in scholarship, and he spread Greek learning and culture wherever he went – establishing cities, with libraries and universities, all throughout his Empire. You would’ve heard of the Library of Alexandria, that near mythical repository of all ancient wisdom and learning – built in a city that Alexander named after himself.

Oh, and Alexander’s personal tutor as he was growing up? Just this guy named Aristotle.

Makes sense, then, why Aristotle’s theory of matter formed the basis of ancient understandings of how the universe worked and how everything fit together.

Aristotle’s theory of matter is outlined in his voluminous work on Physics, and goes something like this: everything originates from the sun touching our world – from the heavens mingling with the earth. When the rays, or “exhalations”, of the sun touch dry land, this is a “smoky” exhalation. When the rays touch the water, these exhalations are “vaporous”.

Smoky exhalations are dry and hot, while vaporous exhalations are wet and cold. These are the four principles that combine to form all matter, which constitute the four elements: fire, which is hot and dry; wind, which is hot and wet; earth, which is cold and dry; and water, which is cold and wet.

When these principles combine in different proportions, they create the various kinds of matter and materials and minerals that are found throughout the earth. Drier substances, like ochre or sulphur, contained more of the smoky exhalations – hot and dry. Other, more malleable materials, like iron or gold, contained more of the vaporous exhalations – cold and wet.

Stands to reason, then, that if you could manipulate the principles within matter – if you added more heat, or more moisture, or extracted the moisture, or cooled the materials down, you could change the very composition of the elements within.

You could combine minerals and metals with various medicinal properties into a mixture – a mega-medicine, able to cure all ills, even ageing.

You could even, theoretically, transform iron into gold.



Want to know more? Find my sources here.


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