ALCHEMY and the Philosopher's Stone, article in The World of Wonders 1883
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As astrology was the forerunner of astronomy, so was alchemy the forerunner of chemistry. Its origin has been traced by its different disciples back to the days of Adam, to those following the flood, to the time of Diocletian, to Job, to Noah, and to the ancient Egyptian monarch, Hermes Trismegistus, who, it is said, invented it. Pliny says the first alchemist was the Emperor Caligula. The earliest well-authenticated mention of alchemy is, however, a treatise on "The Divine Art of Making Gold," written by Zosimus, the Panopolite, who lived in the fifth century. This ancient MS. was preserved among the treasures of the royal library in France. The Romans denounced alchemy, and punished its professors. The golden age of alchemy existed amongst the Arabians. It spread with their conquests in Asia and Africa, and the superstitious Saracens practised it with implicit faith, firmly believing in its power to create gold, raise the dead, restore to the aged their youth, give the ugly beauty, and even, with the aid of certain herbs and cinders only, to create human beings! It was honoured throughout the entire world of Mohammedanism, and amidst the power and magnificence of such courts as those of Alamanazor, Haroun-al-Raschid, and Abdallah Almammon, professors of the Hermetic arts held high rank and were rewarded with great wealth.
Geber, in the eighth century, whose real name was Abou Moussah Djafar, a native of Mesopotamia, is said to have written more than five hundred works upon the philosopher's stone, and the elixir, or water of life. He believed in a preparation of gold to cure all known diseases, and in the course of his experiments discovered corrosive sublimate, red oxide of mercury, nitric acid, and nitrate of silver, without which photography could never have attained its present perfection and popularity.
Alfarabi, in the tenth century, was not only a wonderful musician, but a famous alchemist, who devoted all his time and energies to discovering the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life. After writing many learned works on alchemy, he was murdered by some robbers in the year 954. Avicenna, whose real name was Ebn Cinna, Sultan Magdal Douleth's physician and Grand Vizier, wrote several treatises on alchemy before he died of premature old age and diseases created by debauchery, in 1036. The conquests of the barbarian Turks swept away alchemy from Egypt and Syria, to rest briefly at Constantinople, and be revived in the West.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, and Raymond Lullius were famous alchemists, who interwove with its wild absurdities some valuable applications and discoveries of real permanent value. Many learned ecclesiastics, influenced by their example, became enthusiastic experimentalists, and Pope John XXII. asserted that by the aid of alchemy he had himself manufactured two hundred ingots of gold, each weighing one hundred pounds! Physicians practised the art with a view to discovering—as many asserted they had discovered—the great panacea, or universal medicine, whereby all diseases of whatever kind were to be immediately cured. Albertus Magnus, who had been, it was said, miraculously endowed with wisdom by the Virgin Mary, and was made Bishop of Ratisbon, was famous as an alchemist, and one of his pupils was Thomas Aquinas. The latter devoted his main efforts to the discovery of the philosopher's stone and elixir vitae. He and his master, we are told, endowed a brazen statue with life to act as their servant, and Thomas is said to have destroyed it because, while performing its various duties, it made strange unpleasant clattering noises which disturbed him in his studies. Thomas strongly objected to noises. On another occasion, some grooms exercising their horses before his door so annoyed him by their shoutings and clatterings, that on their refusing to go away he invented a bronze magic horse, which so terrified the real steeds that they obstinately refused to come near it.
Raymond Lullius, a student of Arabic, became a follower of Geber, and devoted the latter part of his life to a search for the philosopher's stone. It is said that our first or second King Edward invited him to England, and that in the Tower of London he converted iron, quicksilver, lead, and pewter into gold valued at six millions. It was also said that he worked in Westminster Abbey, and that, in the cell he there occupied, long afterwards a great quantity of gold dust was discovered. Lullius states in his Testamentum that he converted fifty thousand pounds' weight of the baser metals into gold. Roger Bacon was another alchemist, who sought for the philosopher's stone with a firm belief in its existence and marvellous powers. Like Lullius, he was a man of great learning, and to him we owe some of the earliest discoveries in optical science as well as the discovery of gunpowder. His treatise on the "Admirable Power of Art and Nature in the Production of the Philosopher's Stone," and his "Mirror of Alchemy," have been translated into several languages.
Artephius wrote two famous treatises on the preservation of human life to an extraordinary length, and the philosopher's stone, in the thirteenth century. His disciples said he was Apollonius of Tyna, who lived soon after the advent of Jesus Christ; and he said at that time that he had reached the thousand and twenty-fifth year of his age! He also stated that in search of the philosopher's stone he had, by means of his magic art, descended into hell. Alain de Lisle, of Flanders, known as the "Universal Doctor," claimed the possession of the water of life, and Doctor Arnold de Villeneuve, who won immense fame as a physician, was supposed to have also won the power of converting lead and copper into gold. He narrowly escaped punishment as a sorcerer. His recipe for prolonging life to the extent of a few hundreds of years has been published, and here it is: First, you must rub yourself well two or three times a week with the juice of cassia. Each night you must place over your heart a plaster of Eastern saffron, red-rose leaves, sandal-wood, aloes, amber dissolved in oil of roses, and the best white wax. This is removed every morning, and preserved, for use on the following night, in a leaden box. You must then take sixteen chickens, if you are of a sanguine temperament, and twenty-five if you are lymphatic, and, having confined them where the air is perfectly pure, you must deprive them of all nourishment. When they are nearly starved you proceed to feed them with a mixture of wheat and bran steeped in abroth madeof serpents and vinegar, giving them to drink water which is perfectly pure. This must be done for two months. In making broth for the chickens certain mystic ceremonies have to be observed. You eat one of these birds every-day for sixteen or twenty-five days, drinking a moderate quantity of claret or other wine. If this diet, etc., is adopted once in every seven years, you may, it was said, attain the age of Methuselah!
Another eminent physician, Pietro of Apone, born in 1250, studied alchemy, and had the reputation of a magician. The money he paid away, however securely locked up, flew back to him, so it was said. The Inquisition seized him, and put him to the torture with such severity that he died before he could be tried. He was a personal friend of Raymond Lullius, and Pope John, already mentioned as a famous alchemist, was one of his pupils and admirers. The famous poet, Jean de Meung, was a well-known disciple of alchemy. Nicholas Flamel acquired the art from a book said to be written by the mighty Father Abraham himself in the Latin tongue! This book puzzled him half his life, but when eighty years of age he discovered a clue to its secrets whereby he was enabled to manufacture gold, and add five-and-twenty years to his span of life. Living meanly, and in apparent poverty, he certainly acquired great wealth, as the records of the hospitals and churches he endowed survive to show. He left behind him several works on alchemy; and a hundred years after his death there were those who refused to believe in it, and resolutely affirmed that he was still alive, and would be until he had attained his six hundredth year. In 1404, some rumour gaining ground of alchemists having found the philosopher's stone, an English Act of Parliament was passed declaring the manufacture of gold or silver felony. In support of this act it was urged that, supplied by alchemy with boundless wealth, any tyrannically-disposed monarch might readily enslave the country. Yet Henry VI. granted four successive patents and commissions to alchemists for their encouragement, as the patents say, "to the great benefit of the realm, and the enabling of the king to pay all debts of the crown in real gold and silver." This king also appointed a commission of ten learned and eminent men to investigate the possibility of making the precious metals.
George Ripley was famous as an alchemist in the fifteenth century. He was the Canon of Bridlington, in Yorkshire, and at one time the Pope's domestic chaplain. He dedicated one of his many works on alchemy to King Edward IV., and was popularly credited with the power of making gold. Amongst the most famous German alchemists were Basil Valentine, Prior of St. Peter at Erfurt, the Abbot of Trithemius, and Bernard of Treves, the son of a physician, who wasted his entire life and large fortune in unavailing chemical experiments, reducing himself to beggary in his struggles after riches. His chief inspiration was found in the works of Rhazes and Geber, and at one time he was for three years incessantly occupied in his laboratory, eating, drinking, and sleeping in it. It is said that in his eighty-second year the labours of a long life were rewarded. He died at Rhodes in 1490, leaving several treatises on alchemy and chemistry. Trithemius, the son of a vine-grower of Trittheim, in Treves, and Abbot of St. James in Wurzburg, where he died in 1516, was said to have made marvellous discoveries in alchemy, enabling him to create gold and raise the dead to life. From him comes the story of Dr. Faustus and the devil, for the truth of which he solemnly vouches. Gilles de Laval, Lord of Rays and a Marshal of France, attained fame as an alchemist in the fifteenth century. His wealth was enormous, and his love of display proportionately large. When poverty began to threaten him he resorted to alchemy, and, failing in it, to magic arts, in the pursuit of which murder on a wholesale scale was adopted, leading at last to his arrest, trial, and execution. The great merchant Jacques Coeur, into whose long purse the royal hand was so freely and frequently dipped, to be generously welcomed, and who attained boundless wealth with the utmost height of worldly power and grandeur, was popularly said to have made his position by alchemy, but there is very insufficient evidence to support the idea.
During the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, alchemists continued to play prominent parts, and to find both disciples and believers throughout Europe, encouraged by many monarchs, some of whom regarded an alchemist much as their predecessors had a wealthy Jew, subjecting him to prison and torture to compel him to supply the royal purse with gold. Numerous works on the subject continued to be written, and many men attained the widest fame as alchemists, the stories told of their magical doings remaining as incredibly absurd and strange as they had been in the earlier times. The eccentric Christina of Sweden listened not incredulously to the alchemists, and Frederick III, was their patron. Glauber, the inventor of the salts still bearing his name, established a school in Amsterdam for the study of alchemy, and lectured upon it. The Emperor Leopold of Austria was credulous enough to express his faith in it. Even in the eighteenth century cheats and pretenders continued to call themselves alchemists, and some infatuated self-deceivers still pursued its experiments. Nor has the present century been without its alchemy, one of the modern alchemists being Baron Cagniard de la Tour, if we may so call a chemist of genuine scientific acquirements, whose experiments on the real nature and construction of diamonds appear to the unlearned almost as wonderful as those which were intended to lay bare the tremendous secret of the philosopher's stone.
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