By Sherika Tenaya
Much of this blog series has been based off the work of Mandy Aftel in her groundbreaking book Essence & Alchemy, and this blog is a tribute to her and the pivotal role she says alchemy played in the creation of perfumery.
In her words, “Perfume as we know it could not have taken shape without alchemy, the ancient art that undertook to convert raw matter, through a series of transformations, into a perfect and purified form.”
While little is universally understood about the practice of alchemy - famously secretive as its practitioners were - and how how avidly they jealously guarded their secrets; they seemed to be the bridge between the spiritual ministrations of the priests who characterized the practice of perfumery in ancient Egypt, and the world of science that benefited enormously from some of the alchemist’s more practical contributions to the world.
So what IS alchemy? Alchemy, from what I gather of Aftel’s poetic descriptions, appears to be a kind of fusion between self-realizing spirituality and incumbent chemistry; a sort of unsupervised priesthood, tempered by poignant philosophy, completed with a neurotic twist of God complex.
“Theirs was not a profession in the usual sense; it was a calling.” Aftel writes. “Alchemists can be said to have much in common with priests (albeit heretical ones), but it is more to the point to say that the distinctions between religion, medicine, science, art, and psychology were not nearly so absolute in their time as they are now. Nor was the boundary between matter and spirit so firm.”
It was this boundary between matter and spirit, or perhaps more accurately, the lack of it, that so thoroughly consumed the alchemists. According to Aftel, they believed in a sort of oneness of the cosmos: that there is a corresponding relationship between the physical world and that of the spiritual, and of utmost interest to them, “that the same laws operate in both realms.”
Aftel puts it succinctly when she says, “The philosophy of alchemy expressed the conviction that the spark of divinity - the quinta essentia - could be discovered in matter....The ultimate goal was to reunite matter and spirit in a transformed state, a miraculous entity known as the Elixir of Life (sometimes called the Philosopher’s Stone).”
The words of sixteenth century doctor and alchemist, Paracelsus, corroborate the concept of quinta essentia when he wrote, “The quinta essentia is that which is extracted from a substance - from all plants and from everything which has life - then freed of all impurities and perishable parts, refined into highest purity and separated from all elements….the inherency of a thing, its nature, power, virtue, and curative efficacy, without any….foreign admixture….that is the quinta essentia.”
It makes a great deal of sense that, following this spiritual or scientific belief - pursuing the quinta essentia as it were - is precisely what led alchemists to make their greatest contribution to perfumery: distillation. “Indeed the alchemists deserve credit for refining the process of distillation,” Aftel imparts. “which was of enormous importance to the evolution of perfumery, not to mention wine-making, chemistry, and other branches of industry and science.”
Though alchemy eventually faded out of the human story, giving way to a more logic-based scientific approach, the lofty aspirations and impassioned conviction from which the alchemists operated continues to inform modern day science. “The practical legacy of the alchemists passed to the chemists,” Aftel concludes. “who put it in service of the effort to dissect and analyze the elements of the natural world. The spiritual legacy of the alchemists can be seen as having passed to the psychologists, who strive like alchemists to reconcile dualities.”
Perhaps humanity is still striving to reconcile those dualities, to pare down living matter to its pure and spiritual core and find the meaning therein; a worthy desire, that fueled arguably one of the most important discoveries in the perfumery world, distillation, a “philosopher’s stone” in its own right.