In Alchemy, we have a very sacred science for bringing the Lead of an undeveloped consciousness, up to the level of a fully developed consciousness of Gold, magnificent and incorruptible.
Cast out all images of the ruby-red gemstone that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has plagued us all with; a Philosopher’s Stone isn’t just a magical MacGuffin, but a key tenant and symbol for [insert wizened Victorian scholar voice here] Western Hellenistic and Hermetic alchemical ideology and practices [end old scholar voice].
The general idea conjured up of alchemy involves secretive scholars working over alchemical symbols and distillation vials by candlelight, and striving to change a lump of lead into pure gold (also called transmutation or chrysopoeia). That’s actually pretty much the case, although your general alchemist and their motivations did change throughout history and the evolution of alchemy. Nevertheless, it was secret work, as laws were made banning the attempts at lead-to-gold transmutation; if the alchemists were successful, the economy would fall into ruins. Yet, there always seemed to be a handful of alchemists roaming around the courts of many kings. There, they were given funds to pursue their studies; more namely, the discovery of the Philosophers Stone.
The Stone itself is described in a myriad of different forms and descriptions throughout various texts. It’s almost like no one could agree on the appearance of their most sought after object. Weird. A red powder, a black stone, a liquid, the list goes on. Some texts describe it as, obviously, a red stone, that can be ground into an orangey, saffron coloured, powder, which can then be re-purposed. Some texts write that the Stone can also be a cloudy white colour, which is indicative of the Stone being underdeveloped or immature, and needs more work. Either colour, the ‘stone’ Stone is transparent, heavier than gold, can be dissolved in liquid, and is fireproof. Neat!
Hellenistic (named after the historical period it developed in) and Hermetic (named after the writings of a scholar named after the god Hermes/Thoth) alchemy are differing ideologies, but both involve striving for perfection of the mind and soul, and needing a Philosopher’s Stone to do so. It began during the rule of Alexander the Great, in the dusty libraries of Alexandria, where Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians alike formed a society of sorts to further their similar goals.
Egyptian and Eastern alchemy soon diverged, but information and new offerings were often swapped across all alchemical traditions. The idea of the ‘Great Work’, the ‘perfection of the soul’, is the name for the process of creating or discovering a Philosopher’s Stone. Once you had the Stone, you had achieved the goals of alchemy; long-life elixir (not everlasting life as pop-culture steadfastly argues), the power of true transmutation (including being able to turn lead into gold), and the opportunity to become a truly God-like figure, for once you know how to transmute the base elements, you can do the same to the workings of your body and soul. In short, getting the Stone = spiritual enlightenment, or vice versa.
As to how the Stone did its work, Greek philosopher Aristotle developed the main theory as to how transmutation occurs. He taught that everything in the universe was made of four main elements; blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phleg- hold on, wrong Greek quadruplet there – uh, fire, water, earth, and air. The ideological definitions behind these elements read as such;
The Fire is our Will, the Life-Force or Chi/Qi as it is seen in eastern tradition. The Water is our emotions, and describes how they can easily flow from one temperature to the next when not under our control, The Air is our Intellect, and the Earth, is our body or matter here on the material plane.
Jabir ibn Hayyan, writing in the 8th century, developed this idea further by pairing up the elements with physical qualities as follows; fire = hot and dry, earth = cold and dry, water = cold and moist, and air = hot and moist. Proposing that metals, given their different physical characteristics, were each a combination of these four properties, and that maybe changing these around could result in the physical changing of these metals into new ones. This aspect-shifting would be done with a substance, an ‘al-iksir’ (where our Western word ‘elixir’ comes from!), including an ingredient made from a Philosopher’s Stone, usually noted as a red powder.
As the centuries progressed, alchemy began to include more and more elements of it being not a scientific pursuit, but a philosophical and religious one. A Franciscan monk, called Roger Bacon, wrote his ‘Great Work’ to be donated for a project by the Pope Clement IV. This work was full of alchemical references, but intertwined with ideals of morality, prolonging of life, and finding spiritual salvation through alchemy. Christianity also began to view it as a process of purifying the soul, making it a big draw for those pesky Puritans.
Another selling point for alchemy was that the aesthetic of the candle-lit labs, and the coded jargon that many, many alchemists used when taking notes, meant that highly educated scholars looking for an outlet quickly found a niche.
Let’s allow one Harry Potter reference here, Nicolas Flamel. He was a real alchemist, although it appears that most of his writings weren’t actually written by Flamel, just another scholar using his name. This doesn’t diminish the writing’s content, but take it with a larger grain of salt than the ones you’ve been taking now. Critics write that Flamel’s work wasn’t as focused on religion as the rest, signifying the secular work of the other alchemists, but that he writes a lot on the processes and chemical reactions, and further Stone mythology, but no actual instructions on how to transmute a material. Probably because he never had a Philosopher’s Stone of his own.
As science evolved however, the scientific approach of alchemy was gradually abandoned in favour of chemistry, with the publication of more and more ‘proven’ chemical science, especially so when the Periodic Table began its circuit around schools and scientists in the 17th and 18th centuries. Alchemy was then seen as outdated scientifically, but philosophically, it remained. Well, more accurately, it gained a quick reputation for being mystical, spiritual, and supernatural, what with the whole ‘playing God’ thing, that wasn’t cool in the 18th century. Royal Society of Chemistry members, including scholar Robert Boyle, had a brief spell where they and many others believed that a white Philosopher’s Stone could be used to communicate to and summon angels from Heaven.
Since that spate of supernatural practice, alchemy in a modern view is delegated to a mystical ideology, with elements of the occult scattered in there. Although the influence from Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythical elements is very much seen and looks jarring in comparison to standard Christian imagery, it is no different to any other way-of-life ideology. It is important to recall the history of frequently used imagery in pop-culture, especially if it held a historically important position- no matter the impact.
After all, the entire point of writing this was to get more recruits to search for the Philosopher’s Stone for the Midnight Society. Let’s topple some economies by creating our own pure gold for as long we live with the elixir before the great apocalypse occurs!
“As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all – the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things which are worst for them.”