Alchemy runs alongside the traditional narrative of Western thought like a shadow. Long ignored, often discredited as pseudoscience, it has nonetheless had important effects on the cultures of Europe and the Middle East for the past two thousand (or more) years. It’s always been a hermetic field of inquiry, sealed off from mainstream intellectual pursuits, but its traces linger. The phrase “hermetically sealed,” after all, derives from the “Seal of Hermes,” the nickname for the stopper on the long-necked glass jar used in making the Philosopher’s Stone (the substance that would allow for a direct transmutation of an impure metal like lead into the pure silver or gold). We have alchemists to thank for the French name for a double boiler, the bain-marie (bagno-maria in Italian) — a reference toanother apocryphal alchemist, Maria the Jew, and her method of heating slowly using water — and for the fact that we refer to quicksilver as “mercury.”
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