Alchemy: An Overview

Alchemy is the art of understanding and drawing out the specific magical properties of natural objects, then transfering those properties into a different concrete form. This usually means taking materials- often plants, parts of beasts or types of minerals- and combining them in some way to produce an item with a specific effect. These effects are varied and depend primarily on not only the ingredients, but also the steps taken in their preparation, which is often a complex and precise phase. To this end, most alchemists rely on long, detailed recipes when practicing their art.

The products of an alchemist's industry are divided into two broad classifications: Potions and Instruments.

  • Potions are liquids that contain their magic effect within them, and expends that magic to produce a specific effect when used, which may be by drinking it, applying it to flesh or an object. It includes things such as recovery potions, filtres to improve one's vision, poisons and oils designed to kill specific creatures, and much more.
  • Instruments are crafted objects that, when activated- often through some key phrase- produces a specific magic result. Often these objects are designed to recharge themselves with time. They are much more difficult to create than potions, yet are often sought after. Wands and amulets are examples of Instruments, but it can also include special ingredients that may be used in the creation of weapons, for example, thus improving that weapon.

One of the key advantages of alchemy is that all the effort and work is put into the creating of the objects, as opposed to using them, which is typically a simple affair. An alchemist can create a potion that anyone can drink, for example, and furthermore that potion might produce an effect in an instant that could take another occultist a minute or more to replicate. Alchemists, then, exemplify the ideal of preparation, and a properly prepared alchemist can be an excellent asset to their friends.

Alchemy is known by other titles, such as the Hunter's Art- since many potions rely on the body parts of dangerous beasts, dedicated monster hunters are uniquely placed to take advantage of their position, often by either selling the parts to alchemists or by using it to create their own powerful concoctions. It is also known as the Scientist's Art due to its high demand for precision, careful measurement and replicable results. Unlike the other major magic disciplines, however, Alchemy is not only a matter of talent but also of access to resources- a talented alchemist is nothing without constant access to a stock of plants, animal parts and minerals. The financial burden only increases with the more powerful products, leading some to call it the Rich Man's Art or, amongst certain elements of society, Bourgeoisie Magic, conveying the image of the 'typical' successful alchemist as being a wealthy individual who had no inclination (or talent) to get their hands dirty on the other Disciplines.

In reality, though, alchemy is a difficult practice that requires a good deal of constant, exacting training and improvement. Mastering recipes can take weeks of study, and the act of becoming an alchemist- that is, someone who can innately identify and tap that natural magic- can take years by itself. It is this which separates the alchemist's art from that of, say, chemistry- indeed, you can take the same ingredients and the same process, but in the hands of an alchemist and the hands of a layman, the result will nonetheless be radically different.

A Brief History

Alchemy is an ancient and widespread art, although specific origin dates and locations are the points of fierce occult-academic argument. Certainly it predates recorded history, and archaeological artefacts identified as alchemical recipes have been found engraved in Shang Dynasty bronze and on the walls of the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs. It's entirely possible that alchemy originated as soon as human beings were able to pass information down orally, teaching the next generation simple recipes. Considering the complexity and wide dispersion, however, most experts agree that alchemy in such a form only became viable with the formation of writing systems that could record the exacting recipes the discipline demands. This reading, then, suggests that structured alchemy has a very rough estimate of being between five thousand and eight thousand years old, with the possibility of it being even older. Experts also agree that the most likely locations for its origin are Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, the Nile basin or the Chinese Central Plains.

Even more interesting is the fact that these archaeological finds have discovered recipes that, once translated into a modern language, match up with recipes still in use today. In fact, one of the more important archaeological discoveries was the Treastise of Iry-Hor, an Egyptian book of alchemy recorded on papyrus (that in turn was made unusually durable through alchemical treatment) dating to the 36th century BC. Practically none of the recipes in the book were new, and more to the point were instantly recognisable to most trained alchemists, suggesting that many of the creations that form the staple of modern alchemy were in use in essentially identical fashion even in the time of ancient Egypt. Most intriguingly, the Treatise also referred to new recipes that use ingredients unrecognised by modern alchemy, and even the treatise says that there are potions made in ages past that are not replicable now. This is not a new phenomenon to Alchemists, who refer to it as the "Liability of Reclamation".

This, then, paints both a simple yet awe-inspiring picture of early alchemy. It demonstrates that the alchemists of the bronze age were sophisticated and advanced, discovering the bulk of alchemical practice that is still used today. The history after that is somewhat easier yet more difficult to trace. It is known that alchemy propagated across Eurasia, and there was probably a lucrative transcontinental trade in rare and expensive ingredients. Early alchemists, augmenting their bodies with alchemy so as to survive the harsh journeys, probably helped spread it and grew prosperous off this same trade. Considering alchemy's reliance on perfectly executed recipes, one might expect that as writing became easier and more prolific, alchemy too would proliferate across civilization. And this seemed to be the case for a good deal of time. However, archaeology and classical documents suggest that the standard of alchemy had actually degenerated by around 900 BC, with several alchemical books being found that have less breadth of content than the Treatise of Iry-Hor as well as plain false or wrong recipes.

  • One theory suggests that this is the result of increasing rivalry and suspicion in the alchemic community, a phenomenon just as familiar to modern alchemists. This theory posits that the alchemists of this period deliberately destroyed or limited exposure of alchemical knowledge to harm rivals, monopolise alchemic ingredients and production and thus secure more patronage from powerful figures.

Nonetheless, by the time of Cyrus the Great, alchemy had suffered increasingly, and there are fragments that suggest alchemy was becoming a discredited practice due to the quacks and charlatans outnumbering true practitioners ten to one. (This suggests that alchemy experienced a surge of demand, but classical alchemists usually adhered to traditional master-and-apprentice teaching, which had the effect of limiting supply- meaning that frauds attempted to cash in on that demand.) The Persian Empire, however, by dint of its size, its internal stability and its location touching three of the four most likely places for the origin of alchemy, led to a revitalisation of the discipline within that ancient state. The safe transport of ingredients from throughout the Empire granted alchemists greater than ever access to the source of their powers and no doubt helped cut down on threats that would make monster hunting harder (in turn fuelling supply of ingredients).

Unfortunately, this golden age of alchemy was brought to a sudden end by the destruction of the Persian Empire at the hands of Alexander of Macedon. The effects of this were apparently traumatic enough on the alchemic community that to this day, many alchemists consider lunar eclipses to be a sign of misfortune (and some even sell poisons and cursed amulets at discounts), due to the fact that a lunar eclipse heralded the last and most crushing defeat of Darius III's army. Alexander's empire quickly fell into civil war, splitting into various successor kingdoms which interrupted the safe network of trade that the alchemists had come to rely upon. Alchemy once again fell on hard times.

This nadir seems to have persisted until 150 BC. In China, the end of the Warring States and the unification of China under the enduring Han Dynasty created the peaceful conditions and broad, safe trade network that alchemy seems to need. Similarly, around 0-100 AD, the Roman Empire controlled enough of Europe, Asia and Africa to create another large, stable region that allowed alchemists to travel, teach and trade in relative safety. The rise of Rome, China and Parthian Persia thus lent the period a sense of stability and continuity.

Yet it was not to last. By 200 AD, China, Rome and Persia were all states heavily beset by internal decay. Rome experienced an extended period of strife known as the Crisis of the Third Century, Persia was wracked by expensive wars with Rome and civil strife that consumed the state by the 220s and China's Han Dynasty crumbled into the Three Kingdoms around the same time. The near-simultaneous collapse of two empires and the chaos of a third threw alchemy into chaos, and as Rome's collapse became terminal and the western half disintegrated, the boundaries of alchemy shrank. By 400 AD it had retreated from most of Europe and much of China, clinging to China's most populous cities as well as the Byzantine Empire.

Starting around the 7th and 8th centuries, however, the tide turned once again. The Muslim conquests destroyed the Sassanian empire and dealt a blow to Byzantium from which it would never recover. However, the Muslims created a massive empire that stretched from India to Spain. Furthermore, the Muslims inherited much of Greece and Rome's literary knowledge, translated it into Arabic and preserved it for future generations, through which it was slowly reintroduced back to Europe. Around the same time, China's long period of chaos, which had started with the Three Kingdoms in 220 AD, finally came to an end with the Tang Dynasty, 400 years later. The rise of these two empires at roughly the same time created the perfect conditions for alchemy to flourish in ways never before seen.

The key to this was paper. Originating in China, paper spread to the Muslim Empire, where it then propagated to the corners of that far-flung hegemony. It was through paper that the Muslims efficiently recorded and translated the ancient manuscripts and recipes of alchemy, ensuring their survival. During this time, academia and scholarship became respected and honoured positions in Islamic society, fed by and feeding a fascination and obsession with gathering scientific and philosophical learnings from all corners of the globe. (It is recorded at this time that the Muslims asked for mathematical and astronomical treatises as tribute from Byzantium in place of gold, so strong was this desire.) The House of Wisdom, centered in Baghdad, became a monument to this great work. A great library sponsored and funded from the caliph's own coffers, the House of Wisdom sought books from afar and translated them into Arabic, not only preserving these works but also allowing their information to be disseminated to new scholars. Academics from afar came to Baghdad to learn, even non-Muslim scholars; and furthermore these scholars often found positions using their newfound skills to improve the Empire. This was the perfect climate for alchemy, and it spread across the Muslim world. The ability to fastidiously record and centralise this information meant that alchemy was, for perhaps the first time in history, standarised and taught as a topic of education. Instead of the one-master-one-apprentice state that had typified antiquity, now an alchemic master might teach a whole class the principles.

  • In fact, the modern term for alchemy draws its name from Arabic- 'al-kimiya'. Arabic influences crop up repeatedly in the discipline- the 'basic rules of alchemy' as modern alchemists understand them were only properly codified in this era, which is why they are known as the 'Arabic Method'. The practice of having one master alchemist teach a class of novices is also traditionally called the 'Baghdadi Practice'.
  • It was also around this time that many common concepts and great ideals of alchemy were codified and- for example, the Philosopher's Stone, Transmutation and Takwin.
  • It is also around this time that 'mundane alchemy', the precursor of modern chemistry (that foundation of scientific greatness!) and medicine develops as a discipline. Mundane alchemy differs from occult alchemy in that it eschews the practices that enable alchemists to draw out the magic in ingredients. Instead, mundane alchemy was more concerned with physical properties. This seems to be entirely deliberate, yet by the 13th century, some European alchemists were attempting to achieve occult outcomes using mundane alchemy- or so it seems. More likely, these alchemists were both occult and mundane alchemists, but hid the extent of their occult abilities to avoid undue attention- a common refrain by occultists of all stripes throughout history.

Although the Muslim Empire fragmented (and the House of Wisdom was burned by the Mongols in the mid-13th century), much of the 'hard work' in making alchemy resilient to these shocks had been done. (Indeed, alchemy largely absorbed the shocks of the Mongol invasions, then used that massive empire to create connections throughout Eurasia.) As the Renaissance began to take form in Europe, alchemical knowledge- aided by paper and scholars from fallen Byzantium- began to spread once more throughout the continent.

The Age of Exploration heralded a new summit for alchemy. European explorers began to map the globe, including the Americas- lands not known to the inhabitants of the Old World. The New World was rich and teeming in resources, both familiar and unfamiliar to alchemists. Furthermore, the civilizations present- the Aztecs, the Incas, the North American nations- all possessed alchemists of their own, at a level of sophistication that surprised the European explorers. Naturally, the learning of these societies was plundered to the benefit of European alchemists, who had a whole raft of new ingredients with which to experiment. New potions and instruments suddenly proliferated, including ones that allowed for the proofing of fragile items- such as paper- against the ravages of time and the elements.

Despite wars across Eurasia, alchemy continued to consolidate itself and grow, helped by a growing middle class (increasingly interested in science, education and the occult) and increased levels of literacy and paper production. The Industrial Revolution affected alchemy hugely by rapidly expanding the output of paper (making it astonishingly cheap) and of many ingredients, making alchemy cheaper and easier to access than ever before. All the while, the growth of European colonial empires gave the European alchemist access to an ever-growing market of new materials to power their creations as well as easier access to alchemical traditions from India, Africa and China (although it's debatable whether these traditions benefitted from European intrusion).

The mid-19th century saw the development of archaeology, which in turn saw European expeditions to many countries, particularly in the Near East and north Africa. Alchemists too were interested in this pursuit, perhaps hoping for lost knowledge or records of the past. It was in the 1880s that the Treatise of Iry-Hor was found and translated. The contents astonished the alchemical community, primarily because of one element: although many of the potions were familiar recipes, some of them had only been 'invented' by European alchemists in the last few centuries, using ingredients thought to be endemic to the Americas. The Treatise of Iry-Hor, then, suggests that the alchemist at the time had access to American flora and fauna millennia before its supposed discovery by Europeans… And that this access was somehow lost and forgotten.

Modern alchemy is a popular and diverse discipline with many schools and organisations of learning dedicated to its furtherment. That said, it is somewhat less 'essential' than it used to be- modern alchemy is forced to compete with modern science, and whereas for millennia alchemy has long surpassed technology, those same eons have seen technology develop whilst alchemy has mostly remained static. Modern medicine is able to treat more people with more efficacy than many alchemists, and the ability of an alchemist to create a magic fire bomb seems rather pat compared to the ability to create the guns of a battleship or the artillery batteries of a German army corps. Nonetheless, alchemy is still useful and still able to do things that technology cannot- and remains appreciated and respected by the other occult disciplines.

The Museum

Today, the most advanced, respected, wealthiest and competent organisation of alchemists is the Imperial Alchemic Society, located underneath the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. For this reason, the organisation is usually referred to as 'The Museum'.

The Museum uses its positioning at the heart of the British Empire to advance its research and maintain its access to rare ingredients from around the world as well as fund archaeological expeditions with the intent to develop a more coherent history of Alchemy. It has ties to the government, and several 'Ministers of Mysteries', the unofficial government position dedicated to issues of the Mystery, have been drawn from the Museum. It runs dedicated classes in the Baghdad Practice, and members pay a yearly subscription in exchange for preferential discounts and right-of-first-refusal to ingredients, particularly rare ones. It also gives members access to laboratories and the collected knowledge of the Museum.

Members of the Museum- and indeed, British alchemists in general- are nicknamed 'Berties', due to the building the Society occupies. Occasionally the nickname 'Vickies' is also used for female alchemists, but some consider this disrespectful to the departed Queen.
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Major Alchemic Ideals

Listed below are some major alchemical ideals- the great concepts that define what the majority of alchemists spend their life's work trying to achieve.

Liability of Reclamation

Considering alchemy's unique susceptibility to historic shocks, much presumed knowledge about alchemy has been lost over the millennia. Thus the Liability of Reclamation is a term that refers to the quest to reclaim all of the learning, techniques and knowledge that alchemy has lost in the past- which could be a massive undertaking indeed. More depressingly, it also refers to the idea that there is no true innovation in the art of alchemy, merely replication- intentional or unintentional- of knowledge gained in the past. Everything has been done before, and modern alchemists can only aspire to scrabble toward a pinnacle already reached and colonised by the ancients. Thus, alchemists are not too surprised when an archaeological work reveals that a potion supposedly invented merely 110 years ago was actually used in the palaces of the Pharaohs or by the kings of Warring China.


Transmutation means multiple things in alchemy, but most commonly it refers to hypothetical the ability to convert one form of matter into a different form of matter at a 1:1 ratio, usually idealised as 'chrysopoeia', the idea of turning things into gold. The idea of converting forms of matter is not new to alchemy and some may wonder why it's considered so important: after all, alchemists can already convert matter. The problem is that the actual forms of conversion used today are prohibitive in the extreme- to create a pound of gold requires huge quantities of other ingredients, to the point that it actually costs more to create a pound of gold than the gold is worth. Furthermore, living organisms cannot be transmuted into anything but non-living forms (plants to liquid, for example). Transmutation, then, is the ideal of being able to take, for example, a pound of sand and turn it into a pound of gold: 1 to 1 conversion. There is no recorded evidence of transmutation having happened. There are plenty of records of alchemists claiming to be able to do so, but either they were lying or they shared erroneous methods which have never resulted in proper replication of the event.

  • Even though transmutation theoretically means any matter can become any other form of matter, it is almost always described as the ability to turn a worthless or 'base' thing, such as lead or iron, into a purer, more 'worthier' substance, such as gold. This probably confuses mundane scientists who find more practical use for iron and steel than gold, or even more use for lead than gold, but in alchemy, gold and silver especially are highly powerful ingredients, but are always scarce.

There is evidence that transmutation has been an obsession of alchemy for as long as alchemists have been writing things down. The Treatise of Iry-Hor refers to transmutation as something that many alchemists could once do, but has now since been sadly forgotten. Some alchemists believe that it simply isn't possible- either because the methods and ingredients used back then have been permanently destroyed, or because it was impossible to begin with. Regardless of these claims, many alchemists set out to discover or resdiscover transmutation, either through experimentation or exploration of ancient civilizations.

Needless to say, transmutation, if discovered, would be an incredibly powerful ability, and one that an alchemist would probably hesitate to share. Transmutation could transform society as we know it, eliminating resource scarcities and making expensive ingredients cheap. More than that, there is some matter that doesn't seem to exist in nature, matter with fabulous qualities which alchemists can currently create in exceedingly small properties… What a revolution could happen if such materials became as common as iron?

Alchemists dedicated to the ideal of transmutation are typically referred to as chrysopoets, and often form their own societies-within-societies. They typically share a specific iconography, that of the ouroboros, the serpent that eats itself. In transmutative thinking, the ouroboros represents the term 'one is the all', which exemplifies the idea that transmutation allows one thing to become anything, breaking down the boundaries between matter's strict separation.

Some alchemists instead subscribe to the notion that transmutation is not a literal process, but a spiritual one, that by pursuing the path of alchemy, one is also 'transmutated', taken from a base, ignorant individual into a nobler, enlightened one. Thus transmutation is not an act, but the effect of the entire journey of alchemy.


Alchemy cannot create life. Although many potions and instruments use the product of living matter- plants, animal parts, blood and so on- the product is never a living thing. It can create liquids that can heal and abet life, but the liquid itself is not alive; it can create golems, but these are vessels with no intelligence of their own. Thus, no matter the ingredients or the methods, alchemy cannot create even the smallest living thing.

Takwin, then, is the goal of developing a form of alchemy capable of creating life- not just existing forms of life but also new forms, possibly improved ones. Alchemical legends abound with tales of alchemists who mastered this ability; the ever-present Treatise of Iry-Hor refers to an ancient alchemist who created an army of iron-skinned crocodiles that walked as a man does, capable of speech and using weapons. However, no records exist substantiating these claims.

However, many proponents of Takwin (who call themselves Geberites, after the Islamic alchemist Geber) remain convinced that it is possible, and involve themselves with experiments attempting to understand life. Although these experiments are often stereotypes as ghastly affairs where they boil down living people, in reality most Geberites shun experimenting on humans, believing that the building blocks of takwin can be achieved through experimentation on plants, animals and monsters.

That said, Takwin is not simply achieving the ability to create life, but rather has specific goals of its own in mind. For example, what if one could create living body parts, that could be grafted onto people with injuries? Or rejuvenate bodies, making them young again? Although alchemy can already create potions that heal and restore grievous injuries, as well as extend life, Takwin promises mastery even beyond that- immortality and more.

And 'More', in this case, is also a specific goal- a controversial one. One of the grails of Takwin is the creation of a 'homunculus', a living, fully functional human being with its own sapience and intellect. The ability to create a human life through alchemy instead of through biological reproduction would represent a pinnacle of alchemic power- and it is this that causes many misgivings. Obviously it echoes the creation of man by God, and there are many opposed to that degree of power being held in the hands of the fallible. Even without this, though, people wonder- would the homunculus be a real human, possessing a proper soul? How would one know? What if it didn't? And if it did, if it was truly a proper human, how might it be treated? What is there to prevent the alchemist from designing the homunculus in such a way as to turn it into a slave? Furthermore, if it is possible to create a human, might it be possible to create a 'modified' human? Perhaps an incredibly strong one, or an immortal one, or one that can gestate offspring in half the time, or some such. To these individuals, the creation of a homunculus could very well pose an existential threat to humanity.

  • Evokers point out that there's plenty of entities that can perceive whether one has a soul or not, so proofing a homunculus as having a soul instead of being a philosophical zombie is not an insurmountable problem. Contrarian alchemists insist that they miss the point.

Philosopher's Stone

In all of the great pinnacles that alchemy craves to reach, none stand higher than the Great Work, the Magnum Opus: the Philosopher's Stone, an expression of nothing less than perfection itself in imperfect reality.

The Philosopher's Stone is said to be an exhaustible red stone (often depicted as perfectly round to incorporate the 'round' symbolism of the ouroboros) capable of effortlessly performing transmutation, even harmlessly transmuting living matter into different forms. Furthermore, it can also be used to produce the Elixir of Life, which can heal any injury and make the user immortal. If damaged, the Stone can repair itself. Some even say that it can create things out of nothing- a truly divine effect if possible, although others say that it's more likely that it shears parts of itself off and transmutes that, but in such precise methods that it seems as though it is created out of nothing.

All of this, of course, is conjecture. Despite thousands of claims over the millennia, no Stone has been found to exist, and so its powers cannot be tested. Every claims about its powers come from secondary sources, including (as always) the Treatise of Iry-Hor, which refers to it as being created and used a long time ago.

The effects of the Stone are obvious- they accomplish essentially every other ideal listed here and more. A skilled alchemist, armed with a Philosopher's Stone, could become an almost unstoppable force- for good or for ill.

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