We picture alchemists as sorcerers and wizards, but in reality they were the pioneers of early science and medicine. Alchemists attempted to understand and utilize the laws of nature. They invented chemical apparatus and perfected the techniques of distillation and sublimation. Historians study the science of alchemy because it flourished in centers of civilization and learning and because it played a significant role in the development of modern day science, philosophy, spiritualism, and religion.
One of alchemy’s key objectives was the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary substance capable of turning base metals into gold or silver. It was also believed to be the elixir of life, and in mystical circles it symbolized wisdom, perfection, and enlightenment.
Alchemists deliberately wrote in code so that their secrets would not be available to the uninitiated. For that reason, the philosopher’s stone was given a number of mystical names. Many texts name and describe the stone. A few of them also indicate that it came in two varieties—a white stone for the purpose of making silver, and a red stone for making gold. The white stone was generally considered a precursor, or immature form, of the red stone.
Also the Stone is called Chaos, a Dragon, a Serpent, a Toad, the green Lion, the quintessence, our stone Lunare, Camelion, most vild black, blacker than black, Virgins milke, radicall humidity, unctuous moysture, liquor, seminall, Salarmoniack, our Sulphur, Naptha, a soule, a Basilisk, Adder, Secundine, Bloud, Sperme, Metteline, haire, urine, poyson, water of wise men, minerall water, Antimony, stinking menstrues, Lead of Philosophers, Sal, Mercury, our Gold, Lune.
The Names of the Philosophers Stone, included in Five Treatises of the Philosophers Stone (1652)
Eirenaeus Philalethes was a 17th-century alchemist who influenced a number of prominent scientists, including Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle. To Philalethes, the Philosopher’s Stone was a “wonder-working stone,” called the Celestial Ruby.
As for the nature of the Celestial Ruby, Philalethes said:
“The Philosopher’s Stone is a certain heavenly, spiritual, penetrative, and fixed substance, which brings all metals to the perfection of gold or silver (according to the quality of the Medicine), and that by natural methods, which yet in their effects transcend Nature…Know, then, that it is called a stone, not because it is like a stone, but only because, by virtue of its fixed nature, it resists the action of fire as successfully as any stone.”
According to Philalethes and many of his contemporaries, all metals were destined to become gold when they matured. The purpose of the Celestial Ruby was to speed up this natural process.
“I have shewn that the transmutation of metals is not a chimerical dream, but a sober possibility of Nature, who is perfectly capable of accomplishing it without the aid of magic and that this possibility of metallic transmutation is founded upon the fact that all metals derive their origin from the same source as gold, and have only been hindered from attaining the same degree of maturity by certain impurities, which our Magistery is able to remove… It is necessary, then, to reduce metallic bodies to their homogeneous water which does not wet the hands, that from this water there may be generated a new metallic species which is nobler by far than any existing metal, namely, our Celestial Ruby.”
In addition to the Philosopher’s Stone, or Celestial Ruby, 17th century alchemists also believed that other stones possessing magical “virtues” could be produced in the laboratory. Among these were an Angelicall Stone and also a Mineral Stone, which could change ordinary flint into rubies, diamonds, sapphires, or emeralds.
During Philalethes’ lifetime, the practice of alchemy fell into disrepute, in part due to unscrupulous practitioners who attempted to swindle their gullible benefactors. Government officials also believed that the successful transformation of metals would devalue the price of gold, and so the penalties for practicing alchemy were sometimes severe. Philalethes deplored the hue and cry against “the noblest of the arts”:
“Some silly persons clamour for an Act making the profession or practice of this Art punishable by statute law. Now, one can hardly be angry with the illiterate and ignorant persons who raise this cry; but when it is taken up by men of exalted station and profound learning, one hardly knows what to say. These men I also reckon among the rude multitude, because they are deplorably ignorant of everything pertaining to our Art, and yet, forgetful of their dignity, they join in the hue and cry against it, like so many cowardly village curs.”
- Pearls and Status in the Roman Empire
- Rubies, Unicorns, and Carbuncolos