The Philosopher’s Stone

17 Dec

In the popular consciousness the term ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ now conjures up images of Harry Potter and, indeed, J K Rowling’s first novel is concerned in part with the real-life figure of Nicholas Flamel, who was a successful French scrivener and manuscript-seller who developed a posthumous reputation as an alchemist due to his reputed work on the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’. Alchemy is the ancient art of trying to change metals such as mercury and lead into gold and silver. Although it was first brought to Europe by the Muslims who conquered Spain in the 8th century, alchemy in fact originated in Egypt four or five thousand years earlier. In the kingdoms of the pharaohs their funerary priests were said to be adept at obtaining silver and gold from the very earth. In 1144 an Englishman, Robert de Chester, made the first translation of many old Arabic writings into Latin. These writings contained the knowledge of most of the ancient Egyptian alchemists and were used by Flamel and others in pursuit of the mystical goals of alchemy. These were to create the elusive Philosopher’s Stone, which turned lead into gold, and to achieve immortality through the fabled ‘Elixir of Life’.

In the middle ages people still believed that the Greek philosopher Aristotle had been right when he said that everything was made up of the four elements earth, air, fire and water. It was commonly thought that by changing the amounts of these substances in a metal, another metal could be made out of it. For hundreds of years alchemists searched for the Philosopher’s Stone so that they would be able to change mercury and lead (which were ‘base’ metals) into the ‘noble’ metal gold. Many of these so-called alchemists were rascals and cheats but some, like Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus were honest and were said to have made wonderful discoveries in alchemy. Today, much about alchemy and the men who practiced it remains a mystery. The few writings that remain from the age of alchemy contain many strange drawings and spells, often written in unknown languages. It was a time when strange men muttered magical words over boiling cauldrons in castles and dungeons in the hope of gaining riches beyond imagining for their work. Many noble families employed alchemists to try to make them rich. Even Queen Elizabeth I employed one to make gold for her at Somerset House in London (when he failed to do this he was imprisoned in the Tower of London).

Today no one believes that anyone ever made or discovered the Philosopher’s Stone. In fact, alchemy is largely regarded with derision because of the prevalence of cheats and charlatans among the ranks of the alchemists. Some who said that they had discovered gold used lead in which a little gold had been dissolved; when the lead was burnt away, the gold was left. Others stirred melted lead with a hollow iron tube filled with wax in which was hidden some gold dust. False claims were also made by alchemists who managed to colour the outside of a metal yellow or who made yellowish mixtures of metals. None who claimed that they had discovered the Elixir of Life ended up living any longer than other men, thus placing considerable doubt on their claims. The Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III was famously hoodwinked for a time in 1648 by an alchemist named Richthausen, who said that he had succeeded in changing lead into gold. Even as recently as 1929, a number of rich Germans gave thousands of pounds to a plumber who said that he had made gold. Of course in both cases the alchemists had not actually accomplished what they proclaimed and their donors lost all their money. It is unsurprising therefore, with all of these fraudsters parading around as alchemists, that the art fell into disrepute and was largely abandoned by the 17th century.

Flamel, who was born in France in 1330, was an exceptional case among the alchemists of his age because he is considered by some to have succeeded where the majority of his peers failed. Flamel lived into his 80s, and in 1410 designed his own tombstone, which was carved with arcane alchemical signs and symbols. What gave rise to his legend is the fact that when his tomb was dug up it was empty and his body has never been found. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J K Rowling makes use of this legend by depicting Flamel and his wife as still alive in the early 1990s, having gained immortality from the eponymous object of power. Another alchemist of rather more recent note is Fulcanelli, who disappeared in 1922 at the age of 80, only to be spotted in 1971 apparently looking like he was now aged a mere 50! Like Flamel, Fulcanelli became famous through fiction, appearing in the best-selling novel The Morning of the Magicians, which contributed to the occult revival of the 1960s. As a final postscript, it should be noted that a lot of useful knowledge was discovered by alchemists and alchemy was really the forerunner of modern chemistry.

7 Responses to “The Philosopher’s Stone”

  1. The Heretic December 17, 2011 at 11:09 am #

    That was a very awesome read!

  2. rombizcompany December 17, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

    You have been nominated for the Versatile Blog Award. Please visit:

  3. Just A Smidgen December 18, 2011 at 4:47 am #

    This is certainly fascinating to me (given I have kids who read, as I did, all of the Potter books)! Thanks!

  4. Caroline January 8, 2012 at 9:46 pm #

    I’ll admit that you post title sparked my interest with Harry Potter. Thanks for the informative post about alchemy.

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