This section is from the "Elixirs And Flavoring Extracts. Their History, Formulae, & Methods of Preparation" book, by John Uri Lloyd. Also available from Amazon: Elixirs and flavoring extracts,: Their history, formulae, and methods of preparation;
Through the courtesy of Dr. Charles Rice, to whom application was made by the author for notes on the derivation of the word "elixir," we are enabled to present his reply verbatim, and in addition presume to say a few words concerning the "elixir" of the past and of the present which may interest the reader:
Dear Friend: In reply to your inquiry concerning the etymology of the word " elixir," I would say that the word is proximately derived from the Arabic , being composed of the article (al or el) and .
The latter is an arabicized form of the Greek word (xirion, the being pronounced like ee). This derivation was first recognized and announced by Fleischer in 1839, but it seems to have been overlooked by later writers. Hermann Kopp, the historian of chemistry, in his "Beitrage zur Geschichte der Chemie" (1869, p.209), quotes a number of passages from later Greek authors and from writers of the alchemistic school, in which he shows that the Greek and the Arabic are identical in signification, but he fails to notice their etymological identity. The Arabs cannot pronounce an initial (x) without placing an auxiliary or supporting vowel in front of the double consonant, thus making . This peculiarity of avoiding an initial double consonant (sc, sp, etc.) occurs also in other languages, for instance in Spanish, where we have espera, escila, espiritu, etc.
The word , in medical works, means any "dry powder" (from , dry), such as is used for dusting wounds. In alchemy it was used to denote the magical transformation powder so much sought after, a pinch of which would convert a whole mass of base metal into gold. Iksr, in this sense, is identical with another interesting Arabic term, viz., from which our word chemistry is derived, but which is itself derived from the Greek). This was also applied to a concrete thing, namely, the substance supposed to be capable of making gold. For instance, we meet such expressions as ,"the making of the kimiya," and , " the making of the iksr," both meaning the same thing.
In later, technical language, "Elixir" was used to denote various preparations more or less alchemistic. It was, for instance, synonymous with "Liquid Tincture," the first step in the preparation of the philosopher's stone; and there was a white and a red elixir distinguished. Or, it designated any compound preparation of supposed " sublime " properties, reputed to prolong life and to ward off disease.
Sincerely yours, CHARLES RICE.
By referring to the letter of Dr. Rice it will be seen that at an early period the term elixir designated "the magical transformation powder so much sought after, a pinch of which would convert a whole mass of base metal into gold." Afterward the word was used " to denote various preparations more or less alchemistic," and it is to be presumed that curious or potent liquids were gradually introduced and included among powders. Finally, the word elixir was applied only to liquids, but these, like the original magical powder, were supposed to possess the power of transmuting base metals into noble metals.
Dr. Rice states that particular emphasis was once placed on a white and a red elixir. From a curious little work in our possession, bearing date 1682, we present, for the reader's inspection, a facsimile of the processes recommended for making these preparations; and that the quaint formulae may be rendered more intelligible, we give a facsimile of a table which explains the characters employed in the book, as follows: [a 2-page facsimile]
An Explanation of Characters used in this Book. [a 1-page facsimile]
It will be observed that the white elixir, "Elixir Album," can only produce silver, while the red elixir, "Elixir Rubrum," will transmute mercury into pure gold. We call attention to the red powder which is formed near the completion of the process in making elixir rubrum, and which is used to prepare the magical "oyl," and to the assertion that this same red powder "cureth most diseases in man's body." Here we have an approach to the elixir of life (elixir vitae) of the alchemists, together with the properties ascribed to the philosopher's stone. In this connection, a quotation from the writings of that celebrated author of the eighteenth century, Boerhaave, is of interest concerning the elixir vitae, which, in Boerhaave's language, was "one of the chief things which the alchemists promise." Their aim was to "discover an artificial body of such virtue and efficacy, as that being applied to any body of any of the three kingdoms, it shall improve its natural inherent virtues, so as to make it the most perfect thing in its kind. Thus, for instance, if applied to the human body, it will be come an universal medicine, and make such a change, both in the solid and fluid parts thereof, as shall render it perfectly sound, and even maintain it in that state, until the parts being slowly worn away and spent, death gently and without a struggle takes possession."
We find, therefore, that the alchemists, by the term elixir, intended to designate substances which could either convert base metals into gold or silver, or could prolong life and heal the sick, or embody both properties; and also, that this substance might be either a liquid or a solid. We do not generally accredit the alchemists with a desire to heal diseases after the manner of physicians of the present day, and doubtless the majority searched only for riches. However, while they mostly desired gold and silver, they realized that the use of only an ordinary amount could be enjoyed in the usual lifetime allotted to man. Again, many of these infatuated men were on the brink of the grave when their hopes seemed most likely to be realized, and of vital importance would be the possession of a substance which could prolong life. Hence we find that some of them were searching directly for gold, or the philosopher's stone by means of which all base metal could be changed into gold, while others desired most the elixir of life, "elixir vitae." which could extend life and change old age into youth. Indeed, as incentives to their labors were the assertions that these wonderful elixirs had been discovered by others, and we quote from "The Birth of Chemistry" that "S. Thomas Aquinas was, like his master (Albertus Magnus), a magician. We are told that between them they constructed a brazen statue, which Albertus animated with his elixir vitae."
Culi asserted that "he converted fifty thousand pounds weight of base metals into gold," and is said to have furnished his king with six millions of money. Paracelsus (born 1493, died 1541) is generally accredited with instituting a new era in the study, for he was prominent in showing that alchemy, which flourished in his day, and of which he was a zealous student, could be of value to physicians, and that the knowledge derived from their investigations could be turned to advantage in the treatment of disease. Like the old alchemists, however, Paracelsus surrounded his process with mysterious expressions, and disjointed them until they were incomprehensible.
He originated the "Elixir Proprietatis," stating that it was so potent as "to continue health and long life to the utmost possible limits" (Boerhaave). This wonderful elixir was concocted by cumbersome processes from such simples as saffron, aloes, and myrrh; and notwithstanding Paracelsus claimed that by using the vaunted elixir proprietatis "he should live as long as Methuselah," he died a broken wreck in his forty-seventh year. We find that this elixir, which is a record of Paracelsus' egotism, has been recognized in our dispensatories and in the older pharmacopoeias, with more or less alteration, even to the present day. Boerhaave gave five different processes for making it, each of which produced, in his opinion, a most potent remedy. As a curiosity, and to illustrate the wonderful properties attributed to these concoctions in those days, and to the virtues of which even such a chemist as Boerhaave could certify, we reproduce from his "Elementa Chemiae," which was published in 1724.