Derived from the Arabic root “kimia”, from the Coptic “khem” (referring to the fertile black soil of the Nile delta), the word “alchemy” alludes to the dark mystery of the primordial or First Matter (the Khem). The discovery of this elusive original matter, from which all others are deemed simply polluted variants (the purist being Gold), is considered the alchemist’s central goal — along with the discovery of the Stone of Knowledge (The Philosophers’ Stone) and the key to Eternal Youth.

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As you can imagine, not the simplest of day jobs. As well as reams of text, the ins and outs of the alchemist’s task, steeped as it is in a dizzyingly complex symbology, has given birth to a whole host of strange and wondrous imagery over the centuries. Here we pick out some favourites, many found on Wellcome Images and the brilliant Manly Palmer Hall collection at the Internet Archive.

From the Manly Palmer Hall collection of alchemical manuscripts, 1500-1825
From the Manly Palmer Hall collection of alchemical manuscripts, 1500-1825
Two peasants hold a red robe; cherubs blow wind and Mercury rests on water below; representing a stage in the process of alchemy. Coloured etching, ca. 18th century
Two peasants hold a red robe; cherubs blow wind and Mercury rests on water below; representing a stage in the process of alchemy. Coloured etching, ca. 18th century
From Thesaurus of Alchemy, ca. 1725
From Thesaurus of Alchemy, ca. 1725
From Thesaurus of Alchemy, ca. 1725
From Thesaurus of Alchemy, ca. 1725
From Compendiolum de praeparatione auri potabilis veri, attributed to M[arcus] E[ugenius] Bonacina, ca. 1790
From Compendiolum de praeparatione auri potabilis veri, attributed to M[arcus] E[ugenius] Bonacina, ca. 1790
From Donum Dei, a German or Austrian alchemical treatise, second half of the 15th century
From Donum Dei, a German or Austrian alchemical treatise, second half of the 15th century
From Donum Dei, a German or Austrian alchemical treatise, second half of the 15th century
From Donum Dei, a German or Austrian alchemical treatise, second half of the 15th century
From Compendiolum de praeparatione auri potabilis veri, attributed to M[arcus] E[ugenius] Bonacina, ca. 1790
From Compendiolum de praeparatione auri potabilis veri, attributed to M[arcus] E[ugenius] Bonacina, ca. 1790
“Solvtio Perfecta”, illustration in Donum Dei: Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei, 17th century
“Solvtio Perfecta”, illustration in Donum Dei: Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei, 17th century
From Splendor Solis, a German alchemical treatise, 1582
From Splendor Solis, a German alchemical treatise, 1582
Image of the “Black Sun”, from Splendor Solis, a German alchemical treatise, 1582
Image of the “Black Sun”, from Splendor Solis, a German alchemical treatise, 1582
Section of the Ripley Scroll, 16th century
Section of the Ripley Scroll, 16th century
From Aureum vellus, by Salomon Trismosin, 18th century edition
From Aureum vellus, by Salomon Trismosin, 18th century edition
from Philosophia hermetica, linked to Federicl Gualdi, ca. 1790
from Philosophia hermetica, linked to Federicl Gualdi, ca. 1790
From Gemma Sapientiae et Prudentiae, 18th century
From Gemma Sapientiae et Prudentiae, 18th century
From the Manly Palmer Hall collection of alchemical manuscripts, 1500-1825
From the Manly Palmer Hall collection of alchemical manuscripts, 1500-1825
From the Manly Palmer Hall collection of alchemical manuscripts, 1500-1825
From the Manly Palmer Hall collection of alchemical manuscripts, 1500-1825
From The Vessels of Hermes, ca. 1700
From The Vessels of Hermes, ca. 1700
From Von der Universal Tinctur, by Christian Wilhelm von Krohnemann, 1677
From Von der Universal Tinctur, by Christian Wilhelm von Krohnemann, 1677

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