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Philosopher's Stone

From Thelemapedia

The Philosopher's stone, a longtime "Holy Grail" of Western alchemy, is a mythical substance that supposedly could turn inexpensive metals into gold and/or create an elixir that would make humans immortal. The Great Work, or Magnum Opus, refers to the quest for this stone. In addition, making the Philosopher's Stone is understood to confer a type of initiation upon the maker, and this initiation is the proper culmination of the Great Work.

Table of contents

The stone in alchemy

The concept apparently originated from the theories of the 8th century Arab-Yemeni (Persian-born) alchemist Geber. He analyzed each Aristotelian element in terms of four basic qualities of hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness. Thus, fire was both hot and dry, earth cold and dry, water cold and moist, and air hot and moist. He further theorized that every metal was a combination of these four principles, two of them interior and two exterior.

From this premise, it was reasoned that the transmutation of one metal into another could be effected by the rearrangement of its basic qualities. This change would presumably be mediated by a substance which they called al-iksir in Arabic (from which comes the Western term "elixir"). It was often imagined as a dry powder, made from a mythical stone - the philosopher's stone. The stone was believed to have been composed of a substance called carmot.

Claims and frauds

The concept of a substance that could turn cheap metals into valuable gold naturally attracted the attention of many entrepreneurs of all sorts — learned and amateurish, skeptical and gullible, honest and dishonest. An example that illustrates the spirit of the times is that of Rudolf II (1552-1612). This king of Bohemia, having found himself in financial difficulties, decided to invest heavily in the search for the philosopher's stone. He thus attracted to Prague a large number of alchemists, who were given ample material and financial support, and promised rewards if they could solve the problem. This "virtual gold rush" may have involved even the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, then at Rudolf's court, who had an alchemical lab built on the grounds of his observatory.

Rudolf never saw his dream realized, and he eventually became insane and had to be deposed by his relatives. It is not known whether his insanity was due to natural causes, or to misuse of alchemical remedies — which often included toxic metals like lead, mercury, arsenic, and antimony.

Edward Kelley

Among those who took Rudolf's offer were the English scholar John Dee, and his assistant Edward Kelley, one of the many alchemists who have claimed possession of the philosopher's stone.

Specifically, Kelley claimed that he had acquired in England small amounts of two powders, one white and one red, which had allegedly been found in Wales, in the raided tomb of a Bishop. From these two powders, Kelley would prepare a red "tincture", one drop of which could turn a larger quantity of heated mercury into gold. There are reports that he performed this feat several times, once even in the presence of Rudolf's court officials, and the gold was later tested and found to be genuine. He is also reported as sending to queen Elizabeth I of England a copper bed warmer which had been partly transmuted into gold.

Kelley also carried with him a cryptic manuscript, which he claimed had been found with the powders, and which presumably held the secret of their manufacture. On the basis of these claims, Kelley obtained much support from Rudolf — so much so that, when Dee broke with him and returned to England, Kelley chose to remain in Prague. However, Kelley eventually ran out of his magic powders, was jailed by Rudolf in a tower of his castle, and died of injuries sustained in an extravagant escape attempt.

The nature of Kelley's powders is open to conjecture. Gold can be dissolved by aqua regia to give a red-colored chloride, from which the metal can be easily recovered by heat or simple chemical means. Although that salt has a tendency to decompose on its own, it seems at least possible that Kelley simply plated a layer of gold on some other metal (possibly dissolved in the mercury to form an amalgam) and then used sleight-of-hand or bribery to pass the goldsmith's test.

Modern views

Though the notion of a simple philosopher's stone of the alchemic sense fell out of scientific conception by at least the 19th century, its metaphors and imagery persisted: man's attempt to discover the essential secret of the universe, redemptively transforming not just lead into gold, but death into life. In 1901, Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy discovered that radioactivity was a sign of fundamental changes within elements, and it was Soddy who quickly made the connection between this and the ancient search for the philosopher's stone (Soddy had studied alchemy extensively as a hobby). At the moment of realization that their radioactive thorium was converting itself into radium, bit by bit, Soddy later recalled that he shouted out: "Rutherford, this is transmutation!" Rutherford snapped back, "For Christ's sake, Soddy, don't call it transmutation. They'll have our heads off as alchemists." However the term stuck, in part because it drew the new discoveries in nuclear physics into a longer cultural and mystical web. When it was discovered that radioactivity was also tapping into a latent source of energy bound inside atoms, this furthered the thought that radioactive decay might be the ultimate philosopher's stone. Later, the discovery of nuclear fission would become consciously connected into the same narrative, especially with optimistic hopes of energy "too cheap to meter" and great utopian cities of the future run on nuclear energy.

Within the philosophical system of Western alchemy (hermeticism), metal transmutations and the philosopher's stone are sometimes symbols for inner spiritual transformation of the alchemist. Thus, in some religious contexts the concept is as valid as ever, in a way.

The stone in fiction

The philosopher's stone has appeared in several works of fiction, such as:

See also


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