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Alchemy is an ancient branch of natural philosophy, a philosophical and protoscientific tradition that was historically practiced in China, India, the Muslim world, and Europe. In its Western form, it is first attested in a number of pseudepigraphical texts written in Greco-Roman Egypt during the first few centuries CE.
Alchemists attempted to purify, mature, and perfect certain materials. Common aims were chrysopoeia, the transmutation of "base metals" (e.g., lead) into "noble metals" (particularly gold); the creation of an elixir of immortality; and the creation of panaceas able to cure any disease. The perfection of the human body and soul was thought to result from the alchemical magnum opus ("Great Work"). The concept of creating the philosophers' stone was variously connected with all of these projects.
Islamic and European alchemists developed a basic set of laboratory techniques, theories, and terms, some of which are still in use today. However, they did not abandon the ancients' belief that everything is composed of four elements, and they tended to guard their work in secrecy, often making use of cyphers and cryptic symbolism. In Europe, the 12th-century translations of medieval Islamic works on science and the rediscovery of Aristotelian philosophy gave birth to a flourishing tradition of Latin alchemy. This late medieval tradition of alchemy would go on to play a significant role in the development of early modern science (particularly chemistry and medicine).