What is Alchemy? - The Art of World Building
Feb 182021
 
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Alchemy is the practice of turning one material into another, usually an ordinary item to a valuable one, such as lead into gold. While this is not possible on Earth, it might be in a world we invent. The practice held other goals of interest, such as creating healing potions, an elixir of immortality, or a universal solvent that can dissolve anything (called an alkahest). If you’ve ever wondered why the British edition of the first Harry Potter book is titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, this refers to a legendary item that combines all of these powers and which was the ultimate goal of an alchemist.

The morphing of material is thought to be an analogy for personal transformation into a better, purer state, meaning alchemy is considered a spiritual matter, not just physical. We could see alchemists as a cross between the wizards and priests of our world. The transmutation of specific materials can be thought to cause specific changes within a person, and we have leeway to invent these. For example, if I turn a piece of lead in your hand to gold, perhaps I’ve made your spirit more noble and high-minded, too. Maybe this can reform a criminal, and the opposite can be done to someone pompous, like an absolute dictator. Or maybe the impact is to make you more knowledgeable, or change your desire or aptitude for learning rather than outright granting knowledge.

Due to the power inherent in these changes, alchemists guarded their knowledge so that any written information was done in a language only they understood or which had a cypher to obscure understanding. Their books and scrolls could be quite cryptic. Most were trying to create the aforementioned stone, a project known as the “magnum opus,” which in ancient times had four stages, each associated with a color, the final state being the goal of personal development via alchemy. In later times, these were expanded, but the original four stages, each with a spiritual or psychological aspect achieved through the listed physical transformation, were:

  1. Nigreo (blackening): facing one’s internal demons, through a cleansing and decomposition/putrefaction of the base material.
  2. Aledo (whitening): achieving an awakened, receptive soul, caused by purification.
  3. Citrinitas (yellowing): achieving wisdom (in one’s soul), by the transmutation of moonlight to sunlight (silver to gold).
  4. Rubedo (reddening): discovering and attaining one’s true nature in body, mind, and soul.

Alchemy has an advantage over magic for writers; magic is often thought to be nothing more than physical manipulation to achieve a physical result. By contrast, alchemy achieves change within the self or others by transmutation of physical objects that represent something. As authors and audiences enjoy symbolism, this makes alchemy useful in adding meaning to an alchemist’s behaviors. It’s a missed opportunity to portray one as solely wanting to become rich by changing lead to gold, for example.

Adopt symbols to represent these stages. On Earth, birds have often been used to represent the progression. This includes the phoenix, already known for its transformation. The colors are sometimes emblazoned on the clothing of those interested in achieving a higher state. We can add both symbols and colors to anything, including government buildings, homes, or institutions that consider themselves to be in pursuit of enlightenment.

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