Saturday, October 24, 2015

1500: The quest for the philosopher's stone

An alchemist in search of the philosopher's stone in his laboratory.
If you lived with asthma in the medieval world, during the 16th or 17th centuries, perhaps you believed in the power of the philosopher's stone, or that by working ardently in their laboratories an alchemist would discover a substance that would heal all sickness, and offer eternal life with vast riches and unlimited wisdom.

To understand about the philosophers stone we have to travel back in time to the beginning of the world, to a time when the gods realized they were tired of living alone and were eager to create a planet and populate it with people to keep them company. One god had the power to take the four basic elements -- fire, earth, water and air -- to form the sun and all the planets.

He was called Thoth in ancient Egypt, Hermes Trismegistos in ancient Greece, and Mercury in ancient Rome.  He was the messenger to the gods and had access to all the wisdom of the world, and therefore was the first philosopher.  While he was a god in mythology, it's also possible he was an actual person at one time, only turned into a god by his legacy.

As secretary to the gods, he had access to all the wisdom of the heavens.  As messenger, he had the ability to communicate with philosophers on earth. Perhaps the first people he communicated with were the ancient Egyptians, of whom we find our first evidence that alchemy and chemistry was practiced.

As we learned earlier in this history, the term "khemi" comes from the Egyptian term for 'the black earth,' which is in reference to the black soil of the great Nile River.  Yet the terms 'al' and 'khemi' are Arabic terms.  (7, page 21-22)

It was by communicating with the god Thoth, Egyptian philosophers were able to learn all the wisdom of the god.  In this way, they learned the esoteric wisdom necessary to blend various substances in order to create an elixir of life.  It was also by this process that lead to many of the medicines used by Egyptian priest/physicians.  They, in essence, became the first chemists and alchemists.

Through the ancient philosophers Thoth wrote 40 books filled with all the knowledge that he was willing to share.  Since they called him Hermes, the Greeks referred to these writings as the Hermetic Books.  Since they were thought to have been written on an emerald tablet, some refer to them as the 'emerald tablet.'

Regardless, the pages of the Hermetic books contained the wisdom Thoth/Hermes/Mercury used to create the cosmos.  While the book is lost, it is thought that this first philosopher used the four basic elements and combined: (5, page 28)
  • Philosophical Salt, which is all wisdom
  • Mercury, which is personal skill and application
  • Sulphur, which is vital energy and fire of will (5, page 28)(4, page 366)
These primordial substances are often referred to as "the substances of the philosophers and not those commonly designed by these names, said Grillot de Givry, in his 1931 book "Witchcraft, Magic and Alchemy." (4, page 365)

No one knew what was formed by combining these three substances. Since many thought it was stone, it's often referred to as the philosopher's stone. Yet some thought it was a powdery substance used to create a magical elixir, an elixir of life, that would turn basic items into precious items, base metals -- such as copper, aluminum, cobalt, iron and lead -- into precious gold. It would reveal all wisdom, and heal all wounds, and cure all sickness, and create immortality.

Alchemists believed that by working arduously in their laboratories mixing this chemical and that chemical, perhaps by heating them in their athenor (type of furnace that was capable of maintaining a uniform and durable heat for a long time, according to, they would ultimately create a natural environment for a substance similar to the philosopher's stone to form.

After the Arabs conquered Egypt in the 7th century A.D., they absorbed all the Egyptian knowledge of chemistry and alchemy. During the 11th century, European crusaders returned to Europe with Arabic wisdom, including knowledge of alchemy and the quest for the philosopher's stone. (7, page 247)

The stone, or powder, or whatever the primordial substance was, captured the imaginations of some of Europe's most impressive minds, including Paracelsus, Roger Bacon, Pope John XXII, Jon Baptiste van Helmont, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Raymond Lilly, among others.

Because these men must have worked as alchemists sureptitiously, they are often known as chemists. Either way, many went on to make significant contributions to both science and medicine.

Roger Bacon (1214-1294) was one of the early alchemists who lived in England. He performed many experiments and made many discoveries for the medical community, although what held him back, and created angst among the orthodoxy, was the belief that he was also dealing in magic and the black arts. As with other alchemists, he was also a believer in the philosopher's stone. While it was a challenge, he did manage to get his ideas published. (3, page 112-113)

Paracelsus (1493-1541) was an alchemist who believed all other elements -- earth, fire, water and air -- were derived from this element that was yet to be found, and the mysterious element was indeed the philosopher's stone.

While some chemists openly dabbled in alchemy as Bacon and Paracelsus did, some secretly dabbled in order to avoid the risks associated with being accused of dealing in magic, the black arts, or witchcraft.

Fielding Hudson Garrison, in his book "An introduction to the history of medicine," said:
Although the making of gold and silver and other magic practices was opposed by the Church in the famous bulls , "Spondent pariter(1317) and "Super ittius specula" (1326) of (Pope) John XXII, alchemy became an intensive cult of extraordinary magnitude in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, because it appealed particularly to the lust of money, the love of life, and the corresponding fear of death. For the philosopher's stone, otherwise known as "the quintessence" or "grand magistery" was not only supposed to transmute the baser metals into gold, make precious stones and a universal solvent, but also conferred perfect health and length of days. It was described by all who claimed to have seen it as of a reddish luster. Raymond Lully (1232-1315) called it a carbuncle; Paracelsus likened it to a ruby; Berigard de Pisa, to a wild poppy with the smell of heated sea-salt; van Helmont, to saffron with the luster of glass. The choral symphony in praise of its capacity for maintaining health resembled the testimonials of "Vin Mariani" and other nostrums of our time. (1, page 286)
While alchemists used elements of chemistry, the art was essentially based on mythology and magic. This was why the Church opposed the art, thus punishing those accused of practicing alchemy, including those who admitted to searching for the pagan philosopher's stone, as these were the antithesis of Biblical beliefs.

Grillot de Givry said:
Through the whole of the Middle Ages and down to about the end of the seventeenth century -- even later in Germany, Spain, and Italy -- sorcerers were vilified, persecuted, and hunted down.  It was thought that the worst of punishments were reserved for them in eternity, and the tale ran that the Devil was often to be seen seizing a witch when her promised period of grace had run out, and carrying her off to the place in Hell she had undoubtedly earned." (4, page 195
If you had asthma during this period, a time when there were no true remedies for your disease, would it be worth risking eternal damnation to search for it, or would it be better to deal with it as best you can while worshiping the Bible under the hope of eternal comfort in Heaven?

  1. Garrison, Fielding Hudson, "Introduciton to the history of medicine," 1922, London, W.B. Saunders Company
  2. "Dr. Anderson's, or the famous Scot's Pills,"
  3. Bradford, Thomas Lindsley, writer, Robert Ray Roth, editor, “Quiz questions on the history of medicine from the lectures of Thomas Lindley Bradford M.D.,” 1898, Philadelphia, Hohn Joseph McVey
  4. deGivry, Grillot, "Witchcraft, Magic and Alchemy," translated by J. Courtenay Locke, 1931, 1971, New York, Dover Publications, Inc
  5. Swinburne, Clymer, "Alchemy and the Alchemists," volume 3, 1907, PA, The Philosophical Publishing Co.
  6. Anonymous, "The Book of Acquarius: Alchemy and the Sorcerers Stone,"
  7. Regardie, Israel, edited by Chic Cicero and Sandra Tabatha Cicero, "The Philosopher's Stone: Spiritual Alchemy, Psychology, and Ritual Magic," 2013, MN, Llewellyn Publications
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