Alkahest

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"Alcahest" redirects here. For a video game that was only released in Japan, see Alcahest (video game).

Alkahest is a hypothetical universal solvent, having the power to dissolve every other substance, including gold. It was much sought after by alchemists for what they thought would be its invaluable medicinal qualities.

Image of Alchimia, the embodiment of Alchemy Woodcut published by Leonhard Thurneysser in 1574. Thurneysser was a student of Paracelsus.

Ideology[edit]

The name is believed to have been invented by Paracelsus from Switzerland, who modeled it on similar words taken from Arabic, such as ‘alkali’. Paracelsus' own recipe was based on caustic lime, alcohol, and carbonate of potash.[1] He believed that this element alkahest was, in fact, the philosopher's stone.

Issues with a "Universal Solvent"[edit]

A potential problem involving alkahest is that, if it dissolves everything, then it cannot be placed into a container because it would dissolve the container. However, the alchemist Philalethes specifies that alkahest dissolves only composed material into their constituent, elemental, parts. The old remark, "Spit is the universal solvent” mocks a very old idea that, somewhere, there might be found a solvent that will dissolve anything. In modern times, water is sometimes called the universal solvent as well, because it can dissolve a large variety of substances, due to its chemical polarity.

Paracelsus' Successor[edit]

A later great alchemist named van Helmont picked up where Paracelsus had left off, in his major texts he also gave attention to transmutation of metals, to techniques for separating the pure from the impure parts of nature, and, of special significance, to a substance, called the liquor alkahest, which he accepted as one of the greatest secrets of Paracelsus and which he referred to as incorruptible dissolving water that could reduce any body into its first matter.

Van Helmont's writings point to even earlier medieval descriptions of a substance called sal alkali. Sal alkali, in turn, appears to have been a solution of caustic potash in alcohol, which reduces many substances. Helmont describes a process in which his alkahest -- this sal alkali -- is applied to olive oil. The result was identified as a sweet oil, which would've been glycerol.[2]

In Religion[edit]

Alkahest is a Catholic and Universal Menstruum, and, in a word, may be called (Ignis-Aqua) a Fiery Water, an uncompounded and immortal ens, which is penetrative, resolving all things into their first Liquid Matter, nor can anything resist its power, for it acteth without any reaction from the patient, nor doth it suffer from anything but its equal, by which it is brought into subjection; but after it hath dissolved all other things, it remaineth entire in its former nature, and is of the same virtue after a thousand operations as at the first. It is a noble circulated salt, prepared with wonderful art till it answers the desires of an ingenious artist; yet it is not any corporal salt made liquid by a bare solution, but is a saline spirit which heat cannot coagulate by evaporation of the moisture, but is of a spiritual uniform substance, volatile with a gentle heat, leaving nothing behind it; yet is not this spirit either acid or alkali, but salt.[3]


See also[edit]

Literature[edit]

  • P.A. Porto: "Summus atque felicissimus salium": The Medical Relevance of the liquor Alkahest. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76(1), p. 1 - 29 (2002), ISSN 0007-5140
  • Eyrénée Philalèthe: "Anthoposophia theomagica", 1650.
  • Balzac's 1834 alchemical novel "La Recherche de l'Absolu" has been published in English both as "The Quest of the Absolute" and "The Alkahest".
  • The short story "Alkahest: The Deathtoll Solution", by John M. Ford.

Popular culture[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Paracelsus' recipe is popular with chemists even today; a bath of potassium hydroxide in ethanol leaves laboratory glassware sparkling clean
  2. ^ Leinhard, John. "No.1569 Alkahest". University of Houston. Retrieved 14 May 2014. 
  3. ^ Philalethes, Eirenaeus. "The Secret of the Immortal Liquor Called Alkahest or Ignis-Aqua". Retrieved 14 May 2014.