Brief History of Alchemy, A

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A Brief History of Alchemy

by Willem van Thorne, Prof Emeritus, Asemath Academy

The Elvish miralicaon, tzu-bratzhen in Dwarven, borton-maden in Gor-Tog, s'rranteng in S'kra; change, growth, development: all express the same concept, one which is central to all intelligent species inhabiting our world, to a greater or lesser extent. When the thing-to-be-changed is oneself, the operator is a hermeticist, and the science is that of Hermetics. When the thing-to-be-changed is external, not of-oneself, then the operator is an alchemist, and the science is the learned and oft-misunderstood one of Alchemy.

Now, many objects may be changed. A stone can be sculpted, a seed can grow into a tree...or a child. But in the former case the substance itself remains the same; and whether the latter is truly an act of alchemy or not I leave to other heads, clever clerical ones versed in dogmatics, to decide. For the purposes of this book alchemy will be considered as the transformation of substance utilizing those techniques (The Basic Seven: heating, drying, crushing, cooling, combining, breaking and mixing) commonly recognized as pertinent to our art. Where these are employed, alchemy begins, and we may in turn begin our brief social history of the science up to the point where we currently observe it.

Alchemy: The Early Years

Alchemy has this distinction, learned reader: it is the father of mechanical sciences. From alchemy sprang smithing, masonry, and those forms of engineering that have produced such wonders of the world as the Guardian of Ras'skon, Lanival's Tomb and the Elevators of Mountain Razortip. Even the ships of the River Elven owe their master workmanship to the first experiments of alchemists, loathe though they be to admit it.

Yet 2000 years ago alchemists moved beyond these mundane matters. They recognized that they could do more than fashion monuments or ingenious pathways; they could change the very nature of matter itself. And so began the timeless, tireless pursuit of alchemists for those keys which would unlock all substances and reform them according to the dictates of one in tune with the fundamental nature of things.

Alas, it was a pursuit that often ended in failure, or worse. The guiding principles of our art-- the techniques involved, the elements, herbs, suffumigants, the planetary influences, metals to be used, godnames to be invoked-- remained a matter of speculation, of hit and miss. Judging by what little we know from fragmentary records the best alchemists of ancient times achieved results largely via personal talent and inspiration, while the worst relied upon fraudulent means for success. Most alchemists never published the fruit of their labors, and took their observations to their graves. The notion of an alchemical guild or clan formed to provide mutual support and the exchange of information would have seemed incomprehensible to these distant, solitary pioneers.

Alchemists of this period also found it necessary to employ expensive materials in the study and experimentation of their art. It was therefore vital to seek out noble patrons, but these people were often ignorant, and made foolish demands upon the powers of alchemists in exchange for protection and support. The court documents of this time that record transactions with visiting alchemists furnish latterday entertainment that is half-funny, half-sad in this respect.

Our brothers and sisters were asked to display the Mother and Father in all Their Glory to rural dukelettes and arrogant bishops, for instance. Or to bring forth the Guardians to answer as to their purpose in stopping the Elven-Human War. Or to cause an armor of invincible iron-cloaked spectres to instantly appear and fight a nation's battles. Some nobility wished for peace, or friendship between all the peoples of Elanthia. These last were the hardest to dissuade, for people with good intentions are often the most zealous, narrow-minded people in the world.

Demands like those listed above betoken a common view of alchemy which is based upon ignorance. But it also furnished fertile soil for folktales and songs, at a time when alchemists wandered the lands alternately shunned, feared, distrusted and eagerly sought by rulers who completely misunderstood their fledging power and would cheat those who wielded it. These tales and songs are a history too, in their way. For if we cannot say how many alchemists were employed by the Republic of Adamantia or the dwarven redoubt of Highhold, we none the less know how alchemists were viewed within those lands thanks to the stories of that time. They were transcribed into print and collected for private enjoyment many generations later, and copies still exist.

One of these tales, culled from the S'kra Mur Archives in Mirs Krang, is

The Sixth Tale of S'Ren and S'Rra

from the Book of Lovers

By this time, S'Ren and S'Rra were acquiring reputations as learned practitioners of the alchemical art. They knew their services would be in demand; indeed, they knew that their services might even be commandeered. For in their many journeys the Sk'ra Mur couple had much opportunity to observe the less pleasant side of Elanthian nature, as has been told before.

Therefore the alchemists made plans against such eventualities, should they come to pass. And fortunate it was that they did so, for it was not long before their plans, their love and resolve would be severely tested.

It happened as they entered the rugged domain of Faturthir III. This monarch, heir to the once-prosperous Altib Soldain, had lost much of his wealth and land in futile battles waged against his neighbors. Faturthir was a violent warrior; so were others of his time, and before, and since. He differed from most in this respect: he did it poorly. A terrible strategist who executed his generals, overtaxed his people and betrayed his friends, Faturthir yet had one redeeming feature. He saw a good thing when it appeared on his doorstep. And when two good things appeared in the shapes of S'Ren and S'Rra, his eyes glistened, and he sent out a small, elite band of rangers to secure captives.

All was done as ordered. Under cover of darkness the lovers were taken and separated, then each brought to a separate dungeon within Castle Soldain. There, Faturthir III paid them independent visits.

Is my lover alive? he was asked. Yes, he replied. -But only as long as you do as you are told. What do you wish? he was asked. To convert this scrapmetal into gold, he smiled, pointing at a huge pile of rusted weapons, armor and building materials. It cannot be done! he was told. It shall, he said calmly, or your lover will be impaled upon a spear before my drawbridge as you are cast out, minus your hands. You have 30 days. When finished, I shall give you the greatest gift I can find.

Then Faturthir was handed a list of supplies and asked to procure them most urgently. And he smiled, and nodded. Thus did Faturthir play upon the love of S'Ren and S'Rra for one another, knowing that what they feared not for themselves they feared for that they most loved.

At the end of 29 days the dungeons glowed beneath their shut doors with unearthly lights, and powerful bewitchments were heard from within. At the end of 30 days the doors were thrown open, and each dungeon stood revealed, laden from top to bottom (and they were very high-ceilinged dungeons, too) with all manner of golden wealth. There were coins, and bracelets; anklets and chains. Golden statuary stared from the corners, and golden necklaces dropped like snakes from the rafters.

Without a word Faturthir reentered his throne room and summoned the two S'kra Mur thence. You have fulfilled your part of the bargain, he declared solemnly to the overjoyed couple. Now I shall fulfill mine: the greatest gift I can give you is your freedom. Go, and never return to my kingdom again! Alchemists are dogs, and I have been lenient thus far, but my patience shall not last. Then S'Ren and S'Rra bowed low, and left swiftly, so swiftly, it seemed, that alchemical means must have been employed.

But the story does not end there. For Faturthir called forth all his guards, and had them move the two piles of gold into a gigantic Treasure Chamber created especially to house his new, enormous wealth. -However, as the two mounds of gold touched, a muffled explosion occurred, and a cloud of heavy, noxious smoke arose.

When it cleared, the gold was gone-- and in its place was a pile of fresh yak dung as large as the two golden hordes had been, filling the Treasure Chamber to overflowing.

King Faturthir roared and demanded its removal, but yak dung is notoriously slippery; and the Treasure Chamber stood at the farthest end of a long castle corridor that lay past the throne room, the dining hall and the royal bedchambers. Another two weeks were to elapse between removing it and scrubbing away the smell...though wind of this got to the Aldibian people, first. Faturthir's reputation was never the same after that, and the tyrant became a laughingstock who was shot from his throne through a noose in less than 3 subsequent years.

Alchemy: The Middle Era

Very gradually over the next 1000 years the immutable principles of alchemy were established, shared and published by its greatest minds. To The Basic Seven operations already mentioned were added The Three: sublimation, corruption and purification. The proper days and hours for achieving specific results were notated, and the best herbs and metals for each kind of working carefully recorded.

Much experimentation remained to be accomplished-- indeed, this has never ceased. But the practicum itself was fixed. Alchemy became less a series of stabs into the darkness and more a matter of moving forward over a gradually expanding, boldly outlined landscape.

Because the alchemists of this period had their observations published, we have on record at the very least their names, experiments and opinions. In some cases, we have considerably more. Several of the figures from this distant time recorded their own biographies, or were honored with biographies by students and peers. A few became figures of legend, not unlike S'Ren and S'Rra, though usually with a stronger basis in fact.

Given the strong emphasis on individual effort and solitaire research during this alchemical era, the next portion of our manuscript will present brief profiles of its most important personalities.

Noted Figures of Alchemy's Early Recorded History

Loril Kith'laen.

A half-elven warrior mage, she was fearless in battle and a notably cool-headed tactician. (Her book "The Art of Administering Death" remains the earliest work on warfare still consulted regularly by modern authorities.) After a vision of the Black Mother she broke her swords and learned the healing arts.

Kith'laen opposed contemporary practice which fostered the direct ministering of fresh herbs to injured sites, and advocated the combination of preserved substances into powders. She claimed that herbs kept poorly, but adequately prepared powders could be added to aqua vitae at any time without loss of potency. She also suggested that powdered mixtures could produce effects not common to single ingredients.

Tilas Neilron.

Human alchemist, proponent of the view that all mechanical lore was by nature alchemy. Neilron was a brilliant engineer who designed and oversaw the erection of the Guardian of Ras'skon. He was, however, completely unimpressed by the theoretical implications of alchemy. His dictum, "There is no way to quantify a change from man to horse," sums up the limitations of alchemy in Neilron's lifetime and his own hardheaded refusal to breech them.

Santrano Archidiani.

Human cleric who eventually rose to become head of her guild. Archidiani studied Kith'laen's writings, and experimented with the preservation of herbal ingredients that in combination simulated clerical spell effects. She was the first figure in recorded history to conclude that alchemical potions could duplicate recited spells, ignoring low harness availability or skill.

Deeder Jonathan.

A halfling moon mage by profession, alchemist by natural inclination. Sole heir through a series of calamities to the enormous Jonathan fortune (Jathur was originally named Jonathan's Town, after Deeder's grandfather who founded and largely owned it), Deeder expended all his wealth in alchemical studies.

Though largely self-taught his early years were crowned with success. He established the Principle of Opposing Forces as a process of sublimation rather than incorrigible antagonism, and combined alchemically created substances with magical incantations to produce extraordinary results. It may be said that no alchemist before his time even imagined the Unity of Magics. Deeder envisioned it and put the matter into practice, achieving effects that would force his more ambitious colleagues to engage in cross-disciplinary studies. What is more, Deeder Jonathan was generous with his time and money. The art of alchemy is forever in his debt.

Deeder's final 20 years were, alas, sad ones. He sought a means to turn lead into gold and vice versa, but being single-minded decided to concentrate exclusively on the latter operation, first.

Deeder sold all his worldly goods and begged for years in order to purchase small quantities of gold for his experiments. Having achieved this goal, he was heartbroken to discover that nobody particularly cared to have their gold reduced to lead. Deeder vanished the following year, most likely a desperate suicide.

Hyperbanabalion Nur.

Few dwarves are alchemists. Nur was the exception, and a formidable one. His research into alternate dimensions led to the development of tzu-teralden dust, that mainstay of summoning mages for everything from ordinary talisman wood to elemental simulacrums and illusirans.

Fariz Suralain.

Human thief and alchemist. Though a man, Suralain was often called "Mother Fariz" during his lifetime because as one contemporaneous satirical broadside put it, he "ended the grief of young wives and impatient youths by poisoning the bodies of elderly husbands and fat merchant fathers everywhere." Solicitous he wasn't but knowledgeable he most certainly was. Since poisons are no longer tested on intelligent subjects to determine their varied effects we are indebted to Suralain for publishing his entire research shortly before his death-- from (legend has it) food poisoning.

Valas Mortende.

A S'kra Mur alchemist who was rumored to descend from S'Ren and S'Rra, and did nothing to contradict this. Although primarily concerned with the establishment of a series of shops to market his line of alchemical wares, Mortende also published innumerable polemics and broadsides urging the formation of an alchemical guild.


This legendary blind elven bard caroused frequently with alchemists and thieves, and devoted the bulk of her now celebrated songs to their exploits.

Balint Broadspan.

Halfling book publisher renowned for his cheap editions, marketing abilities, and summaries of complicated texts. At some time in his middle years Broadspan received a state contract to collate and publish a new series of magical texts for Asemath Academy. He developed a personal interest in these, and soon progressed from publisher to dedicated alchemist.

Broadspan's personal contribution to alchemy was slim but telling. One volume in his Asemath series focused upon a debate over the resource consumption of 3 creature types (living, metallic constructs, elemental beings). "Why use up resources to create something permanent when you only want to kill temporarily?" Broadspan wrote in a brief forward. "Why not just fake it like I do when I toss a magical but fictitious wet rag down some snobbish Elothian's back?" This single remark sparked a new debate on the subject of magical glamouri, and ultimately led to the development of illusory creatures.

Zeno Marticiu.

Second in the Marticiu barony of Rendimion, and accurately described by noted historian Pan-Lavan Toriu as "the creator of the feast." Marticiu's enthusiastic patronage of the magical and mercenary arts barely masked a very pragmatic approach to rulership. A shrewd merchant and bold dynastic schemer, he employed alchemy as a tool of statescraft, requiring poisons, fireworks, explosives, summonings, curses, transformations and other effects throughout his varied career.

(A 20th descendent of Zeno Marticiu, Dorin Marticiu, is Rector at the Cluj-Poriest Library and Academy at the time of this writing. He occasionally journeys to Asemath Academy as a guest lecturer.)

Modern Times: The Alchemical Clans

By gathering a number of alchemists at his court, Zeno Marticiu enabled them to compare successes, failures and personal backgrounds in a relaxed, constructive environment. The experience was not lost on professionals and amateurs alike. They approached the Baron, requesting permission to establish an Alchemists' Clan-- a physical location that would lend an air of permanence to their efforts, testing areas for their experiments, and a relaxed, congenial atmosphere to their discussions.

After much thought, the Baron acquiesced. He gave them the house of his former Chief of the Stables. This was not a rustic cottage by any means, but an 8 room, two-story dwelling on the edge of the palace grounds. It was far enough away from the center of activity to provide some semblance of peace, and close enough to the court that Marticiu could summon any of his alchemists at a moment's notice without having to wait more than a moment for that alchemist to appear.

An offshoot of this group comprising dedicated S'kra Mur alchemists desired still greater privacy than the Baron's gift afforded. Over the next 40 years they repeatedly petitioned first Zeno, then his brother Gheorghe, their nephew Anatol and his brother, Ede, for unoccupied land on which to build a self- sustaining alchemists' community. This request fell on deaf ears, in part because the territory of Rendimion was in a constant state of flux at that time, and the Marticius could not spare builders and guards for such a village; in part, because the S'kra Mur were typically haughty and alienating in their presentation. (Lest the matter be questioned, a copy of the original S'kra Mur petition exists in the Asemath Academy archives.)

It was Baron Teodor Marticiu (6th of that line, grandnephew of Zeno) who finally granted the S'kra Mur alchemists' request. He chose swampland for the Trefan Maug settlement, hoping that this would provide its inhabitants with greater safety than more valuable pieces of real estate could supply.

Teodor's shrewdness was repaid. Trefan Maug, or "Serpent Clan Home" as outsiders refer to it, has been bypassed by all subsequent warfare on Rendimion soil. It isn't difficult to locate the place, but the muck that permits only pairs of visitors to enter or leave at a time makes attacking difficult. There is also the matter of "secure" areas that permit completely unrestricted movement, Serpent Clan members alone being privy to knowledge of these sites. Local legend has it that a massive Gor'Tog sergeant once bet his soldiers he could enter Trefan Maug, kill 2 dozen S'kra Mur, and escape unharmed. He entered raving drunk, flashed his two-headed jade axe around his head, uttered a battlecry and sank in less than 5 seconds beneath the "walkway." The S'kra Mur, being S'kra Mur, gather each year ceremoniously around the site to taunt his ghost.

Undoubtedly the swamp helped keep Trefan Maug clear of war- strife, but characteristic S'kra Mur neutrality in the provision of services to other races didn't hurt, either. The Seord, or Dark Quarter, has long been an unbiased source for some of the most unpleasant alchemical potions in Elanthia, including venoms, liquid curses and poison-impregnated weapons of all sorts. The village's better areas are known for their cottage industry devoted to healing tinctures drawn from herbs growing deep in the spongy turf. Travelers take note, however: Serpent Clan members seldom sell their finer goods directly to outsiders. They honor long-standing contracts that supply serums, lotions, creams, extracts and other stock to middlemen who in turn deal with Martyr Saedelthorp.

Alchemists of other races are welcome to join the Serpent Clan community, and several have spoken with favorably inclined surprise of their reception. They overlook the fact that S'kra Mur distrust even other S'kra Mur, and traditionally give their first allegiance to the ru'at, or clan. Even amateur alchemists have been well- received in Trefan Maug, though the inhabitants are quick to judge the seriousness of all inquiries. They are not overgentle with q'alri (outsiders) masquerading as alchemists, seeking to buy goods for sale elsewhere or pry loose their innermost secrets.

The governmental structure of Trefan Maug is exceptional. It would be called democratic in the sense that Arthe Dale is democratic, save that S'kra Mur maintain equality of formal community control out of a sense of suspicion rather than idealism. The village is ruled by a Council of Three universally elected officials known as the Tys Arna'grah, or 3 Watchers of the Rock. Every 3 months in rotation one of the Arna'grah also bears the title Poho'Danath, or Anointed Groundfather. The Poho'Danath can break voting ties between the other 2 Arna'grah, but otherwise has no special powers. Most decisions in any case are made by the community at large, general consensus being formally announced by the Tys Arna'grah. To do otherwise and counter the prevailing will is to risk loss-of-face, lra'tnah.

Internal security is maintained by the Disth'Mekiel, "One Who Senses the Air," but Trefan Maug is unusually peaceful and generally free from crime. No one wants to risk offending even the mildest citizen who might be distantly related to a Seord'eis (one whose soul resides in the Dark Quarter)-- much less incur the ultimate punishment for severe infractions, banishment.

-And the community of alchemists that remained in the Baron's stronghold? The sacking and fire of the Matriciu capital Ostrcil by freebooters more than 300 years ago effectively put an end to that, and more. Rendimion became a land without a main city, and fell off that map of history which looks only to great affairs. Archaeologists and students of past cultures scour its ruins these days; that is all.