Distillation: between Alchemy and Science


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How distillation was discovered in nature and used for human purposes

We need to distinguish between alcoholic drinks such as wine or beer ˗ which are fermented but not distilled and contain a much lower proportion of alcohol ˗ and spirits or liquors (like the all-Italian grappa) obtained by the distillation of products of alcoholic fermentation, including wine or other fermented juices of fruit, grains, or vegetables. (You’ll find some references at the end of this article.)

Distillation purifies the liquid and removes diluting substances like water, in order to increase alcohol content.

Rudimentary methods of spirit distillation and other types of distillation might have existed in various parts of the world, but this is more a hypothesis than anything we can establish through clear evidence.

The English word “distillation” stems from the Latin term “destillatio”, which is derived from “stilla”, or “drop”: it is the technique that consists in extracting essences from substances turned into steam by a heat source, then condensing these essences again through cooling and recovering them in liquid form, drop by drop.

While the remote background of alcoholic and other forms of distillation lies between history and legend, what we know for sure is that this distillation technique (described above) was widely practised in classical antiquity by the Greeks and the Romans in perfumery.

Distillation is a physical process occurring in nature which was discovered by man (presumably around 500 BC) and used by him artificially for his purposes.

Aristotle developed a method of desalination of sea water to obtain fresh water, that enabled Alexander the Great to always be superior to enemies in speed on the sea

In the 4th century BC the Greek Aristotle, one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived and an advanced scientist ante litteram, developed a method of desalination of sea water, inspired by the natural process of distillation, which was still only partially understood.

Wine is fermented but not distilled
Wine is fermented but not distilled

By placing sheepskins, stretched out in a sort of rudimentary umbrella, over amphorae containing sea water, fresh water could be obtained, taking advantage of the water’s evaporation caused by the sun and of the subsequent condensation.

This method, that Aristotle taught his famous pupil Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, allowed the latter’s fleet to always be superior to enemies in speed during strategic movements on the sea, because its opponents were forced to make stops on the coast for water provisions.

Alexander the Great, never once defeated in battle, was one of the most successful military commanders of all time. By his death, he had conquered most of the world known to the ancient Greeks.

Alexander the Great united Greece and, in just ten years from 334 to 324 BC, conquered Asia Minor or Anatolia (present˗day Turkey), Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, Gaza, Egypt, Babylonia, Samarkand, Bactria, Mesopotamia, Punjab and Persia (today’s Iran). The Persian Empire, the greatest that the world had until that moment known, was destroyed in three battles. All those areas became part of the Hellenistic (from the Greek word for “Greece”, “Hellas”) Empire, which corresponds to the late period of ancient Greek history, and those regions became permeated by the far more advanced Greek civilisation.

He also founded in Egypt the city of Alexandria, named after him, which was to become the home of the Great Library.

Dioscorides observes puddles of rainwater dry in the sun, explains distillation as imitating the sun that vaporises the water and returns it as rain, and perfects the first alembic

In the first century AD (around 70 AD) in Rome, we have a crucial milestone in the birth of medicine as a science: Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician in the Roman army and a pharmacologist, authored the first systematic pharmacopoeia, namely De Materia Medica, a 5-volume encyclopaedia about herbal medicine, covering 600 plants and 1,000 drugs, that was to be used for over one and a half millennnia.

In addition Dioscorides, after having observed the puddles of rainwater dry in the sun, explained the process of distillation thus: “Distillation is like imitating the sun that vaporises the water and returns it as rain.”

Dioscorides perfected the first alembic, named after the Greek word ἄμβιξ (ambix, meaning “cup”), term appropriated by the Arabs in the 10th century in their translation of Dioscorides, to which they added the definite article in the Arabic language “al” (“the”).


In our politically correct world it is exceedingly frequent to see the attribution to non˗Western cultures of Western ideas, inventions and discoveries: a typical example is that of algebra, invented by Greeks. Alchemy, the predecessor of chemistry, is another example. A word beginning with “al” does not guarantee Arabic creation, but only that Arabs borrowed it.

There are various types of alembic of differing complexity, but in its simplest form the alembic is an apparatus for distilling chemicals, consisting of a spherical, pot-like container communicating through a long nozzle with a receiver, a container to which the products were transferred. There were alembics with two and three receivers (respectively “dibikos” and “tribikos”, also names of Greek etymology).

Alchemy, the forerunner of chemistry, was born in Alexandria, in Roman-Hellenistic Egypt, as a development of the four elements theory of the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles

As mentioned above, the creation of alchemy has been erroneously attributed to the Arabs. In reality, alchemy was born in Alexandria, in Roman-Hellenistic Egypt, and is originally owed to Greek philosophy.

Some texts mention alchemy in India, China and other regions of the globe, but there are so many important differences between these disciplines, which originated from religious ideas and other beliefs belonging to those cultures, and alchemy as it evolved in the western world, that it’s impossible to see them as the same subject. One fundamental diversity, of course, is that western alchemy progressed into the science of chemistry and those other fields of endeavour did not.

The ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles, from the Sicilian city of Agrigentum, or today’s Agrigento in Italian (southern Italy and Sicily were the part of Hellas known as Magna Graecia), was a 5th˗century˗BC pre-Socratic who, influenced by the Pythagorean school of nearby Croton (now Crotone), in Calabria, was a vegetarian. Empedocles developed the cosmogenic theory of the four classical elements, according to which all matter is made up of the four elements of nature: fire, earth, air and water, a theory which remained the paradigm of the next 2,000 years and is very modern in nature.

In fact, it’s easy to see how the idea of the analysis of more complex matter into simple, foundational elements is the backbone of chemistry, which developed from western alchemy.

These four elements are indestructible and immutable. It is only by the different proportions in which they are combined together that the diversity which we see around us is caused. Nothing new is ever formed and nothing is destroyed: all change is due to transformation, namely the aggregation and segregation of elements. Here again, the modern principle of mass and energy conservation and the development of thermodynamics are prefigured.

Science, a systematic way of looking at nature following a precise method and believing that the universe has an order, developed within western civilisation as a consequence of the belief in a creator who is a rational person like us and whose laws we can understand

We can see that it’s no coincidence that science, which is not isolated observations but on the contrary a systematic way of looking at nature following a precise method and believing that the universe has an order, could only have developed within western civilisation: we had extremely solid foundations to build on, not least the belief in a creator who is a rational person like us and whose laws we can understand. Galileo, who invented the experimental method, famously said that the book of nature is written in mathematical language by God and that’s why we can read it and decipher it.

Busts of ancient Greek philosophers
Busts of ancient Greek philosophers

We think that the idea that the universe has an order must be obvious, but we only believe that because it’s what our tradition has taught us. In fact, it’s a concept that has been completely unknown and even contrary to most peoples of the world. When Christian missionaries went to China and tried to teach science to the Chinese, they found total incredulity and rejection: traditional Chinese religion could not admit that the universe is regulated. Without belief in a rational order of nature, science cannot develop.

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This in no way diminishes the immense value of Greek culture and its great impact on Christian theology and European intellectual life. However, as historian of religions Rodney Stark observed, the birth of science was not the continuation of classical knowledge but the natural consequence of Christian doctrine: nature exists because it was created by God and, to love Him and honour Him, it is necessary to have a profound appreciation of the wonders of His actions.

The Chinese, when they came into contact with Western culture, found the idea of laws of nature and an order in the universe absurd. We now take it for granted, but it is by no means an easy notion to arrive at.

Bertrand Russell found the absence of science in China puzzling, but in fact it is understandable, since the Chinese scholars did not assume the existence of rational laws. Therefore, over millennia, what was sought was “enlightenment”, not explanations.

British biochemist and science historian Joseph Needham (1900-1995), who devoted most of his career to the history of Chinese technology, reports that in the 18th century the Chinese rejected the idea of a universe governed by simple laws capable of being investigated by man – idea brought to them by Western Jesuit missionaries. Chinese culture, according to Needham, was not receptive to such concepts. He concluded that the obstacle to science in China was its non-Christian religion, because that prevented the development of the conception of a heavenly, divine legislator imposing laws on non-human nature. The Chinese believed that the natural order was not established by a rational individual being.

Aristotle introduced a fifth element, the ether, or quintessence (from the medieval Latin “fifth essence”), which for alchemists became the main compound of the philosopher’s stone to turn all metals into gold

Empedocles’ theory of the four elements was also embraced by the two giants of Greek and all philosophy: Plato (427-347 BC), and Aristotle (384-322 BC). The latter added a fifth element, the ether (in ancient Greek αἰθήρ, in Latin aether), synonymous with quintessence (from the medieval Latin “fifth essence”, variation of the Greek pémpton stoichêion, fifth element). For the alchemists, ether would be the main compound of the philosopher’s stone.

According to Aristotle, ether was the essence of the celestial world, the substance of which heavenly bodies were composed, different from the four essences (or elements) of which the earthly world was composed. Aristotle believed that ether was eternal, immutable, weightless and transparent. Because of the eternity and immutability of the ether, the cosmos was an immutable place, as opposed to the Earth, a place of change.

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In 1631, Czech philosopher Jan Amos Komensky wrote in the book Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart:

Later, medieval alchemists identified with the ether or quintessence the life force of the bodies, a sort of elixir of long life:

The same thing that turns metals into gold possesses other extraordinary virtues: for example, to preserve human integrity until death and not to let death go through (if not after two or three hundred years). Indeed, anyone who knew how to use it could become immortal. This stone is certainly nothing but a seed of life, kernel and quintessence of the whole universe, from which animals, plants, metals and the elements themselves take root.

Between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, alchemists thought of quintessence as not just the fifth substance in addition to the four elements, but also as the refined essence or extract of a substance. From this sense the word “quintessence” has assumed a broader meaning of fundamental characteristic of a substance or, more generally, of a branch of knowledge.

Going back to the origins of alchemy, it developed mostly between the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC) and the closure of the Academy in Athens (529 AD).

Of particular relevance for its development was the role played by the the Great Library of Alexandria, one of the most important centres of knowledge of the time, housing thousands of Hellenic science and medicine texts.

Ancient Greece is where something resembling medical science was born, and during the age of Pericles Athens reached an unrivalled position in the intellectual development of humanity. In that golden age we find Hippocrates of Cos (c. 460 BC–c. 370 BC), considered the model physician, so much so that we still have the Hippocratic Oath, traditionally taken by physicians to uphold certain ethical rules and standards.

Hippocrates and his followers developed the empirical study of disease, separating medicine from the superstitious pagan religion.

In Rome around 20 AD, Celsus wrote De Medicina, one of the very first medical texts, used for centuries since.

In Roman-Hellenic Alexandria, medicine as a science continued its Greek tradition, and Greek was reinforced as the language of science and knowledge at that time.

We shouldn’t therefore be surprised that “alchemy”, like “alembic”, is a word of ancient Greek etymology: it derives from χημεία (khēmeia), meaning “blending”. Another possibility that some people have proposed is that it stems from another Greek word: χημία (khēmia), a name for Egypt. I find this little convincing, though, since the main ancient Greek name for Egypt was Αἰγύπτος (Aigyptos), not to mention that it’s an odd roundabout way to name a discipline.

Either way, it’s a Greek word for a Greek protoscience. When Egypt was invaded by the Arabs in the 7th century, they added their definite article “al” to the word, and voilà, every western person who wants to appear liberal says that we got alchemy from the Arabs.

What the Arabs did is mainly preserve and translate ancient knowledge mostly from Greek and sometimes, as in the case of the so-called “Arabic” numbers (which were in fact invented by Indians), from Sanskrit.

The first known book on alchemy was written by Zosimos of Panopolis in the 4th century. In 400 AD, the Greeks perfected a distillery.










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