From a science fiction/fantasy point of view (I don't want to start a religious debate).

From what I understand from the stories I've read, Alchemy combines magic and science. But then what is sorcery?

Is witchcraft only based on magic? If so, then why are recipes needed for potions/spells etc?

closed as too broad by Valorum, Politank-Z, TheLethalCarrot, SQB, fez Sep 30 '18 at 7:53

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    The correct answer to the question could change depending on the work(s) being cited. – Xantec Sep 6 '11 at 20:26
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    Congrats on a question that just had a bunch of us all get long-winded at once! :) – K-H-W Sep 6 '11 at 20:46
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    Without narrowing it down to a single fictional universe, this question no longer meets the quality standards for the site. – Valorum Sep 30 '18 at 7:27
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    @Valorum Actually there's no clear policy on whether or not non-universe-specific questions are on-topic. (That meta is about fantasy creatures, but clearly the same arguments apply to questions like this.) Stop trying to present your personal preferences on site scope as if they're community policy. – Rand al'Thor Sep 30 '18 at 11:55

Synopsis of my rather long winded answer... It really depends on the author

There are historical answers to what each one is supposed to be, but authors tend to assign their own definitions. Part of the issue, of course, is that historically there have been multiple definitions for each.

Some examples:


  • Commonly known idea: Converting one substance (usually a base metal) into another, of greater value. (Commonly lead->gold.) Seen in multiple cultures, including Indian Alchemy. Greatly relates to chemistry.
  • Chinese Alchemy: Closer to medicine; it sought things such as a universal panacea. Still, in both cases, it's an idea of using something as a catalyst to allow transformation of something else.


  • Witchcraft (as a craft) Etamology of the word actually means the craft of 'Wisdom'; it gets it's origin (sorry for the sterotype) from little old ladies who were good at things their neighbors were not. For example, basic pharmacology, via herbs and powders. (If you doubt such things work, look at the origin of many current medicines; Aspirin, for example, owe's its existance to the traditional Willow bark tea many wise-women (later called witches) would brew.) It's association with magic is nothing more than superstition.
  • Witchcraft (Religion), commonly 'Wicca.' Many flavors exist; some more mystical than others, but, as religions, they have at least SOME degree of mysticism within them. But these two definitions tend to be lumped together into a single concept; despite simply having overlapping origins and aspects. A wise women was NOT necesarily a shaman or cleric of any stripe, yet people ascribed her 'magical' powers due to not understanding what she was doing. (And, in many cases, the 'witches' didn't know, either, but they had a method that worked, like the willow bark tea.)

Then there is:


  • Wikipedia will tell you that a Sorcerer uses tools, whereas a Witch does not need them
  • You will often hear of a Sorcerer as one who has made a 'deal with the devil' for power
  • Sorcerer is often said to be derived from a word meaning 'Oathbreaker' (See Heinlein's 'Job')

It's not exactly surprising that something that has no rigorous scientific analysis has many definitions; arguably, magic is what you say it is, as no consensus exists to define it properly. In general, magic is something that accomplishes goals using methods that science or 'Reason' says can't work, or violate specific physical laws. However, as Clarke points out, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

So, where does this leave us? Basically, each author makes their own definitions.

  • David Edding's Belgariad had 'Sorcery' that followed specific rules, but was driven by the mind and an internal power (or pulled in from the environment.) 'Magic' on the other hand, was accomplished with specific phrases and chants.
  • Christopher Stasheff's Wizard in Rhyme series, on the other hand, had Sorcerer's as those who's power came from evil, and wizards came from good.
  • Diane Duane's 'Young Wizard' books have magic accomplished via an understanding of the fundemental structure of the universe, and the ability to modify it if you understand it at it's root, which is done via it's name.
  • Ursula K LeGuin's Earthsea uses a surprisingly similar concept.. But then added new concepts to the final books, involving underlying sources of power. And so on. I could list these for hours...

So, in general, the answer is quite simply 'It depends.' Specifically, it depends on the author. Tell me the series of books you are looking at, and I may be able to give you a better answer.


Alchemy is very specific. It's a method of transforming one type of material (chemical) into another - with the most frequent implication of the target material being gold (with a side show of Philosopher's Stone being the method of transformation that also - independently - produces Elixir of Life).

The methodology of Alchemy does not necessarily need to be magical though it frequently was non-materially-based to a certain extent. You have to remember that a lot of the "serious" alchemists (as opposed to con artists) were basically early chemists.

To quote from Wiki:

Alchemy is an ancient tradition, the primary objective of which was the creation of the mythical "philosopher's stone," which was said to be capable of turning base metals into gold or silver, and also act as an elixir of life that would confer youth and immortality upon its user.

Alchemy can be viewed as a protoscience, a precursor to modern chemistry, having provided procedures, equipment, and terminology that are still in use. However, alchemy also included various non-scientific mythological, religious, and spiritual concepts, theories and practices.

As far as witchcraft vs. sorcery, Wiki has a fairly decent writeup as well

In anthropological terminology, a "witch" differs from a sorcerer in that they do not use physical tools or actions to curse; their maleficium is perceived as extending from some intangible inner quality, and the person may be unaware that they are a "witch", or may have been convinced of their own evil nature by the suggestion of others.

This definition was pioneered in a study of central African magical beliefs by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, who cautioned that it might not correspond with normal English usage.

In other words, when a witch is using a potion, he/she isn't being a witch but a sorcerer.


It is unfortunate that these terms have such loose definitions these days that it is very hard particularly if you are a writer to try and paint a picture using these in your work. I know. I am a writer. I define them like this:

Alchemy: Alchemy is the forefather to modern chemistry and it was primarily concerned with converting metals from one type to another. Particularly turning lead to gold. Ancient alchemists sensed there was a relationship between the two since their weights were very similar in nearly equal amounts. On the periodic table you can find gold (AU) is very close in atomic weight and atomic mass to lead (PB) so they had the right idea but without advanced atomic technology, they would never be able to make their dream a reality. However, it did not stop them from trying to create magical sigils, images, and processes they believed would do the trick. Somewhere along the way, they began to get predictable results and chemistry was born.

Sorcery: Is one form or name for the creation or manipulation of magical events using rituals, materials and hidden or secret knowledge. The word's literal meaning translates to "one who influences fate." Sorcery has different meanings to different people so it can be difficult to lock down completely, even among writers. Michael Moorcock for example defined sorcery as the ability to attempt to compel or control demonic forces in his Elric/Stormbringer series of works. Other writers such as Steven Brust, define sorcery as the scientific application of magical energies through the Imperial Orb, and artifact within his world of the Jhereg series.

So, it will very widely depending on who you ask. The safest course is to assume it is a means of manipulating reality using complex, hidden rituals, which may use hand signs, bodily postures, exotic materials and information from potentially supernatural beings such as demons, angels, imps or devils. It is commonly part of the lore that sorcery is not considered a favorable practice and is considered a "dark art." This interpretation may vary widely from culture to culture and most human cultures on Earth discuss different types of magical traditions with the most well known being that of the Hermetic Mages, which are the most common origin for magic as it is known in most Western cultures. This is a very complex topic and you can find an incredible amount of information about it in your public library. I have given you just the tip of a very large iceberg.

Witchcraft: Another term which varies widely with the culture discussing it, as well as the storytellers relaying the tales. Generally speaking, when you talk of witchcraft, it is related to the pagan rituals of worshipers of the Gaia force or Mother Nature. It is a non-denominational religious set of beliefs surrounding the worship and adoration of natural phenomena, also known as Wicca. If you are looking to do further research, that would be your preferred starting term.

As with other words in regard to magic and writers, witchcraft resembles sorcery in its use of incantation, physical props including wands, staves and rods, natural herbs, weather-related phenomena and the creation of minor enchantments and spell use. However, books such as JK Rowlings, Harry Potter series, includes a wide array of magical use under the heading of witchcraft.


Alchemy was a real practice centered around the hypothetical transmutation of one material to another, and attempts to do so. (Typically lead to gold) It is the predecessor to modern Chemistry. Famous alchemists include people such as Isaac Newton.

Sorcery and Witchcraft are both general terms for a collection of magical practices that at one time included Alchemy. But other types of witchcraft included Divination, Spellcasting and Evocation.

It is important to remember that all of these were once, and by some still are, considered completely real and legitimate. Often banned and punishable by death. There are still many practitioners of all of these pseudosciences across the globe.

Typically, when we talk about magic in fantasy we use the blanket term magic, because it is less offensive to do so, and also is a larger blanket term for even non-historical practices.

  • I know of the actual historical meanings of each term, but in terms of fantasy stories, what is the difference between the terms? Why is sorcery used in some stories while witchraft in others. Same with Alchemy. I know of several stories that use the combination of science and magic as alchemy, while others use the same premise as sorcery... – OghmaOsiris Sep 6 '11 at 20:21
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    @OghmaOsiris: Author Preference. – DampeS8N Sep 6 '11 at 20:26
  • @DampeS8N - I'd say "Editor/publisher/author preference" :) But yeah. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Sep 6 '11 at 20:31


alchemy, n. medieval chemistry. -- OF. alquemie (13th cent.), alchimie (14th cent.) (F. alchimie), fr. ML. alchemia, fr. Arab. al-kimiya, fr. al-, 'the', and MGk. chimeia, chimia, 'the art of the black land (Egypt)', fr. Gk. Chimia, 'Black-land, Egypt', fr. Egypt. khem, khame, 'black'. The derivation from Gk. chymeia , 'pouring', from the stem of cheein, 'to pour', is folk etymology.

Alchemy is the practice of combining the three principles of Salt, Sulfur, and Mercury to extract the true transcendent nature of a thing from its gross essence (popularized by lead(gross matter) into gold(transcendent matter).

Salt represents stability/sluggishness, Sulfur represents action and activity, and Mercury represents fluidity and enlightenment.

Often alchemists concerned themselves with the creation of a "philosophers stone" which was a tool to achieve the loftiest of goals (immortality, lead into gold, etc).

It is considered to be a metaphysical science in that the application of the correct elements under the correct conditions will achieve a desired result.

Sorcery and Witchcraft are often used, and misused in different contexts.


Sorcery as a practice commonly involves working through an intermediary. This intermediary can take the form of a God, Spirit, Angel or the workers own "higher self". The act of sorcery is to ply the intermediary to exert your will upon the universe.


Who boy has this definition spread out within the last 50 or so years. Witchcraft is the craft of witches (thank you I'll be here all night). The origin of Witch can be argued but many say that it comes from 'Wicca' or "Wise will worker" (depending on which new age book you read). Generally witchcraft has a much more folk magic feel to it involving cauldrons filled with ingredients and natural remedies.

At its more darker level a witch can be seen as a magic user that has sold their soul to in order to gain supernatural powers.

In a modern context a witch is a naturalist magic user, in older terms they are agents of black arts.

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