(Image: Joseph Wright of Derby; alchemy and the search for the Philosopher’s Stone)
For hundreds of years, scientists, scholars and philosophers have chased the secret of the elixir of immortality, the transmutation of metals, and the discovery of the alkahest, a universal solvent. Work – and advances – in alchemy were so sought after that those dabbling in it went to great lengths to protect their secrets. Inspired by works like The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, they often wrote in code, describing their experiments and ideas in secret languages that only they could read. The result is an esoteric practice, the history of which remains mysterious to this day. This article examines several aspects of alchemy and its history, and the works of men and women who chased the most fantastic scientific and mythological ideas of their day. We’ve also thrown in a selection of random tidbits for your alchemical pleasure.
Sir Isaac Newton & the Philosopher’s Stone
(Image: Barrington Bramley)
At the same time Newton was discovering the secrets of optics and astronomy, he was also searching for the Philosopher’s Stone. In his work “Humores mineralis”, he describes what he sees as mystical properties found in saltpeter, and suggests that this substance is as close to the stone as anyone has come.
The problem Newton faced, however, was over how there could be so many minerals on the surface of the earth, when the water cycle should have been draining them all away into the underground. Minerals never rose to the surface, after all, and that was a problem.
He speculated that there was some sort of reaction going on near the surface of the earth that was replenishing all of these minerals, and that saltpeter was the active ingredient. Along with mercury and sulphur, saltpeter was thought to be one of the crucial elements in the transmutation of minerals and ore – a reaction he studied in the laboratory.
Mary the Jewess
One of the earliest alchemical writers, Mary the Jewess lived some time between the first and third centuries. None of her actual writings survived, but her work was quoted and used extensively by her successors.
A remarkable number of practical inventions came from Mary’s work and research. She was the first to record the discovery of hydrochloric acid, and she developed ideas for some of the most important chemical apparatuses used today. As she was writing about her experiments with “divine water” (sulfuric acid) and “philosopher’s clay”, she also developed the mechanisms for distillation that we still use in chemistry today. The bain-marie, a double boiler still used in applications like the melting of chocolate and small-scale soap production, is little changed from Mary the Jewess’ invention some 2,000 years ago.
The Real Nicolas Flamel
(Image: filip; Nicolas Flamel’s house in Paris)
When it comes to the world’s great alchemists, Nicolas Flamel is certainly one of the best-known names. All of which is ironic, really, as there is no historical evidence to suggest that he had anything at all to do with practicing alchemy.
The real Nicolas Flamel was born in 1330 and died in Paris in 1410. During his lifetime, he was well-known as a scribe and manuscript-seller, enjoying a comfortable life after marrying the wealthy widow Perenelle. Their fame came from their philanthropy, their dedication to the church and their commissioning of several sculptures. Their home still stands, one of the oldest stone buildings in Paris.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that Flamel’s name was linked to alchemy. During his days as a bookseller, Flamel supposedly published Livre des figures hieroglyphiques (which didn’t appear until 1612), and then spent the rest of his life chasing and – it’s said – eventually achieving immortality and the Philosopher’s Stone. Flamel’s reputation is one of the best examples of pseudepigraphy in history: the practice of publishing works falsely under the name of a historical personality.
Creating the Homunculus
The term “homunculus” was coined by the legendary alchemist and occultist Paracelsus, and the creation of the creature was the subject of numerous 16th century experiments. The basis of the experiment was similar to the creation of the folkloric golem. Numerous alchemists tried it, but we know Paracelsus’s methods.
According to De natura rerum, the process for creating a tiny person was pretty straightforward, if not a bit labour-intensive. Seal some sperm in a horse’s womb until it starts to move on its own, then remove the tiny little man. Feed it human blood for the next 40 weeks, and Paracelsus says that it’ll mature into a little human-like child.
Like-minded individuals loved the idea. It was rumoured that Count Johann von Kefstein had created 10 such beings that could predict the future, and others claimed to have created homunculus that could commune with the spirit world.
Alchemy and Laudanum
Laudanum is well known as the bane of Victorian England, but its discovery dates back to the 16th century and Paracelsus. According to the story, Paracelsus was seeking to unlock the potential healing powers of opium, and discovered that opium was most soluble in alcohol. He would go on to claim that his concoction (which he called his “arcanum”), could cure all illnesses apart from leprosy. He even claimed that it could bring someone back from the dead.
The ingredients of Paracelsus’s laudanum are something of a mystery, as he only gave the recipe to those he initiated into his studies. According to some records, the recipe included opium, henbane, the bezoar stone from a cow’s intestines, musk oil, amber, crushed pearls, coral, mummy, and parts of the heart of a stag and a unicorn.
Later, Thomas Sydenham would claim to have created his own version of the medicine from Paracelsus’s original recipe, and would later be credited with its widespread use across Europe.
The Alchemical Waters
(Image: Thejohnnler; aqua regia seen in a lab)
Alchemical experiments throughout history were incredibly varied, but one common theme that ran through the centuries was the idea of the alchemical waters. Aqua fortis (strong water) was a highly corrosive liquid that could dissolve anything except gold. It was made by combining various percentages of sand, vitriol, alum and saltpeter, then distilling the mixture.
Aqua vitae (the water of life), meanwhile, was originally made from distilling wine, and referred to water with a high concentration of ethanol. Eventually, it became forever linked with the idea of distilling liquors. The king’s water, or aqua regia, was given its name due to its ability to dissolve gold and platinum. A mixture of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid, it has also been called “royal water”.
Perhaps the strangest is aqua omnium florum, or all-flower water. The name is rather deceiving, as this alchemical ingredient was made by distilling the water removed from cow dung – specifically, dung that was gathered from the fields in May and produced by cows that ate meadow grass and wildflowers. It was mixed with white wine and snails.
Cleopatra the Alchemist
(Image: Johann Daniel Mylius)
Cleopatra wasn’t her real name, but she was a very real alchemist and philosopher writing in Egypt during the 3rd century. One of four female alchemists (along with Mary the Jewess) reported to have the knowledge needed to create the Philosopher’s Stone, she also created something that’s had a marked influence on our world today: the alembic still.
Cleopatra (not to be confused with the famous queen, Cleopatra VII) wrote extensively on the transformation of life and the quantification of alchemical experiments. She also coined the term “chrysopoeia”, referring to one of the most well-known alchemical concepts, the search for the method of turning base metals into gold.
John Damian de Falcuis, Scotland’s Flying Alchemist
(Image: Otter; view toward Stirling Castle)
In 1500, the Scottish royal court noted a first of its kind: an alchemical laboratory set up with the blessing of King James IV. It was set behind a door in Stirling Castle that was off-limits to everyone but the alchemist – a shadowy figure named John Damian – and the king himself.
The Scotsman reports that Damian was less than admired at court, and that he earned the nickname of the “French leech” (despite being Italian) for the vast sums of money that the crown sank into his alchemical studies. He had wooed the king with talk of finding a way to create not just the Philosopher’s Stone, but the Elixir of Life. No one could say that he didn’t aim high, however. In 1507, he did – quite literally – just that.
During his studies, he became obsessed with the idea of finding a way to allow man to fly. By September 1507, his hard work and long hours had led to the completion of a pair of mechanical wings that he believed would let him take to the skies – and desperately maintain the patronage of the king.
The alchemist Damian hurled himself from the top of Stirling Castle, but didn’t so much fly as plummet. He broke his leg in the fall, but he retained the patronage of the king. James not only continued to fund his work, but financed a five-year tour of the continent.