Alchemy fascinates me, primarily because it cannot really be pinned down. Historians cannot be sure of their actual pursuits or motivations in spite of the fact that alchemists documented much, because what they did document was often cryptic and nonsensical and in obscure code. Were they focused primarily on spirituality, pseudo-science, or charlatanism?
It is known that they drew heavily on spirituality, philosophy and astrology, and yet had a fundamental influence on modern day chemistry, physics, medicine, metallurgy and the scientific method. We can also credit alchemists with the invention of gunpowder, and of the words “alcohol” and “elixir”. Isaac Newton was heavily into alchemy.
Many alchemists focused on the pursuit of the philosopher’s stone, a substance which could either turn base metals into gold or was the elixir of life. (The fact that we can’t be certain of which of the two was the more prevailing belief is one of the many things I love about alchemy.) Some claimed to believe that if you can purify gold, you can purify the human soul.
But given that I have the soul of a cynic, I tend to think that they were primarily motivated not by spirituality or the improvement of mankind, but by greed. Who doesn’t want gold? But that just goes to show that they were weak in another area: basic economics. If they could have produced gold, it would surely have flooded the market, and that substance would have become as worthless as lead. Centuries of experiments, all for nothing. What cruel irony.