All Greek to Me

This is part 3 in my series on alchemy – part 1 is here.

When I think of alchemists, I think of wizened old men in the basement of a medieval castle, robes draped past their ankles, beards hanging down to their waists. Maybe they’re pouring over some dusty tome while surrounded by stacks of scrolls, or else they’re delicately pouring some mysterious substance from one glass beaker into another.

Yet before the times of wizardly robes and crumbling castles, in the year 200 AD (or there abouts) there lived an alchemist of Ancient Greece whose name was Bolus Democritus.

Bolus, also known as Bolus of Mendes, was a philosopher in the Democritean school. This might be why he got the name of “Bolus Democritus”.

I said Bolus was from Ancient Greece, but really I mean the ancient Hellenised world. Hellenisation was the spread of Greek culture, thanks in large part to Alexander the Great’s conquests. As Greek culture spread to the world, the world’s cultures spread back to Greece. Cultural, philosophical and technological exchanges stimulated arts including dyeing, jewellery, and metalworking.

Bolus was not writing in the ancient agoras of marbled Greece, but in the tomb shadowed sands of Hellenised Egypt. Supposedly, this is where alchemy comes from. The word “alchemy” comes from the Arabic alkimia, and perhaps -kimia comes from Khem – the ancient Egyptians’ name for their own land. So al-Khem-ia would be something like “the Egyptian science”. Or it might be from the Greek khemia, meaning “to cast metal”, which is the accepted etymology in our modern times.

In that frenetic intellectual milieu, as great minds in medicine, astronomy, philosophy, and more were throwing ideas about Alexandria and the rest of the Hellenic world, Bolus caught some wisdom from the rarefied air and nailed it down into a book: Physika.

Physika was about dyes, it was about gems, and it was about gold and silver. Bolus had found bits and pieces from here and there, snipped texts up and stitched them back together again, no doubt twisting some of them wildly out of context. He had wisdom from Persian craftspeople and recipes from distant Babylon.

But Bolus wasn’t just concerned with working metals. He sought to transform them one into another – though he was more concerned with the colour of the metals than their actual properties.

Bolus wasn’t a metallurgist. He didn’t know pure gold from any other gold-coloured rock, but it wasn’t all that important. After all, everything was just made of various mixtures of dry and damp exhalations of the earth. So the more something resembled gold, the closer you were getting to really transforming it.

E J Holmyard tells us, in Alchemy:

From making a metal that resembled gold to believing that the artificial product really was true gold was only a short step for the alchemists, who lacked the technical training of the goldsmiths, and whose fundamental curiosity was philosophical rather than directed to mercenary gain. If a metal had a golden lustre, they thought, it must be gold… (p26)

Greek alchemists focused on the colours of materials and the sequences of changes the materials were supposed to go through. Different alchemists had different ideas about how things were supposed to go, based on their theories and philosophies.

There are nuggets of real chemical knowledge in Physika, and in the writings of the Greek alchemists. Doubtless, they carried out true and effective metallurgical experiments – but the bulk of it all comes down to theorising and philosophising and noting the patterns of colours in heating and cooling materials.

Soon, we’ll see where this focus lead them: in some pretty weird and wild and metaphorically metaphysical directions.

 

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