A few years ago now, when I got into alchemy, the more I read, the more confused I got. At first it seemed fairly simple, but after a few years I managed to find more sources and information and it all got very complicated. After a few more years, with more thinking, reading and experimenting it made more sense again.
So, the complexity and difficulties I have had were in part due to the different streams, or threads, of alchemical thought. It can be thought of a little like this, showing the start of alchemy:
ime is going down the page, and at the top we have two streams of thought and practise, i.e. philosophy and practical workshop recipes, joining together. At this juncture is a circle with dots in, the dots being people, the individuals who imbibed the knowledge and discussed and wrote and used it. Out of these people came the splits up into schools of alchemy, each with their own approach. 200 or 300 years later, Zosimos, himself a gnostic, is referring to Maria the Jewess and her alchemical school, and there are also works that seem to be from schools of thought related to both of them. Each has it’s own recipes and specific philosophical approach, and favour some terms over others, but they are definitely all alchemy.
By the late medieval period in Europe, it’s even worse, with many different people supporting many different ideas at the same time, yet all are some form or other of alchemy.
You’ve got ones whose only aim is making gold, they are the ones you hear about most, even if they don’t leave many texts behind, especially not any clearly written ones. And people using religious imagery to get across the ideas of alchemy, some with and some without intending that you should see parallels with your own religious salvation. Others are probably resolutely practical except they hide it in abstruse language and imagery. Not to mention those who do actually mean what they write. Or the false ideas about how alchemy works or is bad, such as the accusation of demonic magic from an inquisitor. Or are concentrated on medical aspects.
This confusion continued through the centuries, with various ideas becoming popular then dying away again, and various national or international schools and strands of thought persisting for a while. For instance there seems to have been something of a series of English alchemical poetry in the late 15th/ early 16th centuries, unlike that seen in other countries. Or indeed the approach often associated with George Ripley, which is fairly clear on the use of vinegar and lead oxide, if taken literally. Or the homunculus, discussed in great detail by William Newman. And of course not all alchemists believed in homunculi or were interested in making them. Not to mention the rise of the mercury alone theory, which cannot be seen earlier than the 14th century, although like lots of other ideas, there was a seed in earlier works.
So in this picture the various ideas and themes and practises continue through time from their roots, and are influenced by outside ideas, and cross fertilise between themselves. It should of course be remembered that each of these lines represents one or several humans who are thinking and doing related to the ideas.
The other important point is that each individual alchemist tends to interpret other’s works to fit their own concepts of alchemy. Hence the proliferation of cover names and confusion of imagery.
All this means it is very hard to make definite statements about alchemy, since any such statement as “alchemy was about turning lead into gold” is only correct for some alchemists some of the time. Others thought you should use copper, since it was closest in properties to gold already. Others that it didn’t mean real physical lead but was a metaphor for other things. Or that lead was actually antimony sulphide, an imperfect metal that could therefore be made into a proper complete metal.
Blood is another good example; some like pseudo-Avicenna could mean real blood or use it as a cover name. Others are very clear about it being a cover name, perhaps for mercuric oxide. Others refer to the blood produced when you distill metallic acetates. Roger Bacon apparently really meant to use human blood, mercury and stuff to produce a medicine to prolong human life.
The similarity to religion is obvious; the many different flavours of Christianity, for instance, differ in their interpretations and practises, but share a common root.
It would be fun to try and create a visualisation of the different connections of ideas between individual alchemists and the texts they used, with the same text influencing various alchemists in different ways. You can see this somewhat in the magpie approach to texts that was often taken, whereby in the practical works they took what recipes they liked or thought worked, and in more philosophical ones, where they use similar ideas and tropes repeatedly.
But really that would take years and lots of people. Instead I need to get on with some practical experiments once the weather warms up and the day gets longer.