Thesaurus of Alchemy, ca. 1725. Image: Wellcome Library, London

These Surreal Ancient Alchemy Manuscripts Are Terrifyingly Cool

Behold, the weird and wonderful world of alchemy.

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Aug 15 2016, 11:00am

Thesaurus of Alchemy, ca. 1725. Image: Wellcome Library, London

Elixirs of immortality, transmutation, and the philosopher's stone. Today, the most famed pursuits of ancient alchemy are seen as mythological quests, and it's easy to forget that "black magic" once paved the way for modern science.

Alchemy, or the Arabic al-kimiya, is derived from the old name for Egypt: Khemia, meaning "black earth." It was more than just primitive chemistry—it was also a complex worldview based on the belief that all matter could be transformed, or liberated into its most perfect form. And unlike the fictional wizards of modern lore, alchemists were as diverse as the philosophy itself, representing China, India, the Middle East, and Europe.

The entire history of alchemy spans four thousand years, but most of us are familiar with its medieval and Renaissance eras. Thanks to the illuminated manuscripts of European scholars, it's easy to conjure up images of bubbling cauldrons, wild beasts, strangely-shaped vessels, and spiritual beings. It was during this time that alchemy became widely known through the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Dante Alighieri, and the cryptic Nicholas Flamel.

So, to pay homage to the weird and wonderful world alchemy, behold the surreal symbolism of centuries-old manuscripts. Some are strange, and some are scary, but all are certain to bewitch you with their hypnotic beauty.

Manly Palmer Hall collection of alchemical manuscripts, 1500-1825. Image: Getty Research Institute

Two peasants hold a red robe; cherubs blow wind and Mercury rests on water below; representing a stage in the process of alchemy. Colored etching, ca. 18th century. Image: Wellcome Library, London

Thesaurus of Alchemy, ca. 1725. Image: Wellcome Library, London

Thesaurus of Alchemy, ca. 1725. Image: Wellcome Library, London

Compendiolum de praeparatione auri potabilis veri, attributed to M[arcus] E[ugenius] Bonacina, ca. 1790. Image: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

Donum Dei, a German or Austrian alchemical treatise, second half of the 15th century. Image: The British Library

Donum Dei, a German or Austrian alchemical treatise, second half of the 15th century. Image: The British Library

Compendiolum de praeparatione auri potabilis veri, attributed to M[arcus] E[ugenius] Bonacina, ca. 1790. Image: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

"Solvtio Perfecta", illustration in Donum Dei: Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei, 17th century. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Splendor Solis, a German alchemical treatise, 1582. Image: The British Library

Image of the "Black Sun", from Splendor Solis, a German alchemical treatise, 1582. Image: The British Library

Section of the Ripley Scroll, 16th century. Image: Wellcome Library, London

Aureum vellus, by Salomon Trismosin, 18th century edition. Image: The Getty Alchemy Collection

Philosophia hermetica, linked to Federicl Gualdi, ca. 1790. Image: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Collection, Yale University

Gemma Sapientiae et Prudentiae, 18th century. Image: Wellcome Library, London

The Manly Palmer Hall collection of alchemical manuscripts, 1500-1825. Image: Getty Research Institute

The Manly Palmer Hall collection of alchemical manuscripts, 1500-1825. Image: Getty Research Institute

The Vessels of Hermes, ca. 1700. Image: The Getty

Von der Universal Tinctur, by Christian Wilhelm von Krohnemann, 1677. Image: Wellcome Library, London

h/t Public Domain Review