September 13, 2016

The Philosopher's Stone

        The philosopher’s stone is one of the premiere magical items in all of European mythology, with versions in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, and related Chinese concepts, as well.  It was popularized by Harry Potter (despite the American publisher’s use of “sorcerer’s stone” because of their inexplicable assumption that readers in the USA wouldn’t be able to handle philosophers), and it has two properties with which people are most familiar: the ability to change base metals, such as lead or mercury, into precious metals such as gold or silver; and the ability to cure illness and prolong life indefinitely.  Either of these properties alone would make the philosopher’s stone a major goal for many an alchemist, but there’s actually a lot more to it than just greed.  As the most perfect substance, it is the original essence of Eden before the Fall and the key to understanding all the other elements of the world - religion and science all rolled into one.  It symbolizes and confers enlightenment and even salvation.  No wonder the search for the philosopher’s stone was the Magnum Opus - The Great Work - for more than thirteen centuries.
        To make the philosopher’s stone, let’s begin with Jabir ibn Hayyan in the eighth century.  He reckoned that since all substances were combinations of the four elements (fire, water, earth, air) and their four qualities (hot or cold, wet or dry), one ought to be able to change one substance into another by shifting its basic qualities.  Keep in mind that Jabir invented the process of dissolving gold out of ore with acid, a process still used today (with enormous environmental toxicity, by the way), so the idea of starting with base substances and ending up with gold isn’t really so farfetched.
        The philosopher’s stone can have a variety of appearances.  It is often a clear reddish-purple stone like glass, which can be ground into a reddish-orange powder.  It is heavier than gold and incombustible in any fire.  A less-thoroughly matured version is white and is capable only of transmutations into silver.  In addition to upgrading base metals and prolonging life, the philosopher's stone can also turn common crystals into precious stones, revive dead plants, make a lamp that burns forever, and create a homunculus.
        To create the philosopher’s stone you have to begin with prima materia or alkahest, the über-element from which the four classical elements are derived and the original substance from which the universe was created.  You also need a catalyst for the process, and on a linguistic side-note, this catalyst for transformation was called al-iksir, from which we get English elixir.  (While I’m at it, our word alchemy comes from the Arabic word for the philosopher’s stone: al-kīmiyā’.)  And then you lock yourself into your laboratory and begin to tinker.  You pore over ancient texts and tinker some more, you decode mystical writings and tinker some more, you make calculations, interpret diagrams, and tinker some more…  
        After about a thousand years of tinkering alchemists at work, Albertus Magnus may or may not have succeeded in discovering the philosopher’s stone.  Given that he died in 1280, albeit at the impressive age of 87, and that shortly before his death he allegedly gave the stone to his student Thomas Aquinas - who died in 1274 - and given also that most if not all alchemical writings attributed to him were not, in fact, written by him, I’m going to guess that he never did discover it.  Nicolas Flamel is another contender.  He may have discovered the philosopher’s stone, but if so, this is how it must have gone down: he spends his life in top-secret alchemical study, so that there’s no historical evidence that he was an alchemist at all.  Some time around the age of 80, he succeeds in creating the philosopher’s stone, at which point, in 1410, he designs his tombstone and begins planning for his “death.”  He fakes his death in 1418, and goes on to live in secret for two hundred years until the truth is revealed in an alchemical biography of 1612.  Once the secret is out, he cannot avoid occasional sightings  through the seventeenth century.  According to Albus Dumbledore, towards the end of the twentieth century he gives up the stone and allows himself to die in order to ensure that the stone doesn’t fall into the hands of Voldemort.
        Here’s the thing, however: the philosopher’s stone really should be called a substance rather than an item, because it isn’t a single object.  Theoretically any alchemist can make some of this substance if he or she only knows how.  So who’s to say that there aren’t any other immortal alchemists out there with philosopher’s stones of their own?  Perhaps you could be the next to make your own.  All you need is a Junior’s Own Chemistry Set, a used copy of Mutus Liber or De Occulta Philosophia, and ultimate Enlightenment.

[Pictures: Wood block print from Rosarium philosophorum, 1550 (Image from here);
An alchemist trying to transmute metals, wood block print from Margarita philosophica, 1503 (Image from Wellcome Library);
Plate 10, copper engraving from Mutus liber by Isaac Baulot, 1677 (Image from e-rara);
Frontspiece, copper engraving from Fasciculus chemicus edited by A. Dee and translated by E. Ashmole, 1650 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

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