Read CHAPTER V of The Story of Alchemy and the Beginnings of Chemistry, free online book, by M. M. Pattison Muir, on ReadCentral.com.

THE ALCHEMICAL ESSENCE.

In the last chapter I tried to describe the alchemical view of the interdependence of different substances. Taking for granted the tripartite nature of man, the co-existence in him of body, soul, and spirit (no one of which was defined), the alchemists concluded that all things are formed as man is formed; that in everything there is a specific bodily form, some portion of soul, and a dash of spirit. I considered the term soul to be the alchemical name for the properties common to a class of substances, and the term spirit to mean the property which was thought by the alchemists to be common to all things.

The alchemists considered it possible to arrange all substances in four general classes, the marks whereof were expressed by the terms hot, cold, moist, and dry; they thought of these properties as typified by what they called the four Elements fire, air, water, and earth. Everything, they taught, was produced from the four Elements, not immediately, but through the mediation of the three Principles mercury, sulphur, and salt. These Principles were regarded as the tools put into the hands of him who desired to effect the transmutation of one substance into another. The Principles were not thought of as definite substances, nor as properties of this or that specified substance; they were considered to be the characteristic properties of large classes of substances.

The chemist of to-day places many compounds in the same class because all are acids, because all react similarly under similar conditions. It used to be said that every acid possesses more or less of the principle of acidity. Lavoisier changed the language whereby certain facts concerning acids were expressed. He thought that experiments proved all acids to be compounds of the element oxygen; and for many years after Lavoisier, the alchemical expression the principle of acidity was superseded by the word oxygen. Although Lavoisier recognised that not every compound of oxygen is an acid, he taught that every acid is a compound of oxygen. We know now that many acids are not compounds of oxygen, but we have not yet sufficient knowledge to frame a complete definition of the term acid. Nevertheless it is convenient, indeed it is necessary, to place together many compounds which react similarly under certain defined conditions, and to give a common name to them all. The alchemists also classified substances, but their classification was necessarily more vague than ours; and they necessarily expressed their reasons for putting different substances in the same class in a language which arose out of the general conceptions of natural phenomena which prevailed in their time.

The primary classification of substances made by the alchemists was expressed by saying; these substances are rich in the principle sulphur, those contain much of the principle mercury, and this class is marked by the preponderance of the principle salt. The secondary classification of the alchemists was expressed by saying; this class is characterised by dryness, that by moisture, another by coldness, and a fourth by hotness; the dry substances contain much of the element Earth, the moist substances are rich in the element Water, in the cold substances the element Air preponderates, and the hot substances contain more of the element Fire than of the other elements.

The alchemists went a step further in their classification of things. They asserted that there is One Thing present in all things; that everything is a vehicle for the more or less perfect exhibition of the properties of the One Thing; that there is a Primal Element common to all substances. The final aim of alchemy was to obtain the One Thing, the Primal Element, the Soul of all Things, so purified, not only from all specific substances, but also from all admixture of the four Elements and the three Principles, as to make possible the accomplishment of any transmutation by the use of it.

If a person ignorant of its powers were to obtain the Essence, he might work vast havoc and cause enormous confusion; it was necessary, therefore, to know the conditions under which the potencies of the Essence became active. Hence there was need of prolonged study of the mutual actions of the most seemingly diverse substances, and of minute and patient examination of the conditions under which nature performs her marvellous transmutations. The quest of the One Thing was fraught with peril, and was to be attempted only by those who had served a long and laborious apprenticeship.

In The Chemical Treatise of Thomas Norton, the Englishman, called Believe-me, or the Ordinal of Alchemy (15th century), the adept is warned not to disclose his secrets to ordinary people.

“You should carefully test and examine the life, character, and mental aptitudes of any person who would be initiated in this Art, and then you should bind him, by a sacred oath, not to let our Magistery be commonly or vulgarly known. Only when he begins to grow old and feeble, he may reveal it to one person, but not to more, and that one man must be virtuous.... If any wicked man should learn to practise the Art, the event would be fraught with great danger to Christendom. For such a man would overstep all bounds of moderation, and would remove from their hereditary thrones those legitimate princes who rule over the peoples of Christendom.”

The results of the experimental examination of the compositions and properties of substances, made since the time of the alchemists, have led to the modern conception of the chemical element, and the isolation of about seventy or eighty different elements. No substance now called an element has been produced in the laboratory by uniting two, or more, distinct substances, nor has any been separated into two, or more, unlike portions. The only decided change which a chemical element has been caused to undergo is the combination of it with some other element or elements, or with a compound or compounds.

But it is possible that all the chemical elements may be combinations of different quantities of one primal element. Certain facts make this supposition tenable; and some chemists expect that the supposition will be proved to be correct. If the hypothetical primal element should be isolated, we should have fulfilled the aim of alchemy, and gained the One Thing; but the fulfilment would not be that whereof the alchemists dreamed.

Inasmuch as the alchemical Essence was thought of as the Universal Spirit to whose presence is due whatever degree of perfection any specific substance exhibits, it followed that the more perfect a substance the greater is the quantity of the Essence in it. But even in the most perfect substance found in nature which substance, the alchemists said, is gold the Essence is hidden by wrappings of specific properties which prevent the ordinary man from recognising it. Remove these wrappings from some special substance, and you have the perfect form of that thing; you have some portion of the Universal Spirit joined to the one general property of the class of things whereof the particular substance is a member. Then remove the class-property, often spoken of by the alchemists as the life, of the substance, and you have the Essence itself.

The alchemists thought that to every thing, or at any rate to every class of things, there corresponds a more perfect form than that which we see and handle; they spoke of gold, and the gold of the Sages; mercury, and the mercury of the Philosophers; sulphur, and the heavenly sulphur of him whose eyes are opened.

To remove the outer wrappings of ordinary properties which present themselves to the untrained senses, was regarded by the alchemists to be a difficult task; to tear away the soul (the class-property) of a substance, and yet retain the Essence which made that substance its dwelling place, was possible only after vast labour, and by the use of the proper agent working under the proper conditions. An exceedingly powerful, delicate, and refined agent was needed; and the mastery of the agent was to be acquired by bitter experience, and, probably, after many disappointments.

“Gold,” an alchemist tells us, “does not easily give up its nature, and will fight for its life; but our agent is strong enough to overcome and kill it, and then it also has the power to restore it to life, and to change the lifeless remains into a new and pure body.”

Thomas Norton, the author of The Ordinal of Alchemy, writing in the 15th century, says the worker in transmutations is often tempted to be in a hurry, or to despair, and he is often deceived. His servants will be either stupid and faithful, or quick-witted and false. He may be robbed of everything when his work is almost finished. The only remedies are infinite patience, a sense of virtue, and sound reason. “In the pursuit of our Art,” he says, “you should take care, from time to time, to unbend your mind from its sterner employments with some convenient recreation.”

The choice of workmen to aid in the mechanical parts of the quest was a great trouble to the alchemists. On this subject Norton says “If you would be free from all fear over the gross work, follow my counsel, and never engage married men; for they soon give in and pretend they are tired out.... Hire your workmen for certain stipulated wages, and not for longer periods than twenty-four hours at a time. Give them higher wages than they would receive elsewhere, and be prompt and ready in your payments.”

Many accounts are given by alchemical writers of the agent, and many names are bestowed on it. The author of A Brief Guide to the Celestial Ruby speaks thus of the agent “It is our doorkeeper, our balm, our honey, oil, urine, maydew, mother, egg, secret furnace, oven, true fire, venomous dragon, Theriac, ardent wine, Green Lion, Bird of Hermes, Goose of Hermogenes, two-edged sword in the hand of the Cherub that guards the Tree of Life.... It is our true secret vessel, and the Garden of the Sages in which our sun rises and sets. It is our Royal Mineral, our triumphant vegetable Saturnia, and the magic rod of Hermes, by means of which he assumes any shape he likes.”

Sometimes we are told that the agent is mercury, sometimes that it is gold, but not common mercury or common gold. “Supplement your common mercury with the inward fire which it needs, and you will soon get rid of all superfluous dross.” “The agent is gold, as highly matured as natural and artificial digestion can make it, and a thousand times more perfect than the common metal of that name. Gold, thus exalted, radically penetrates, tinges, and fixes metals.”

The alchemists generally likened the work to be performed by their agent to the killing of a living thing. They constantly use the allegory of death, followed by resurrection, in describing the steps whereby the Essence was to be obtained, and the processes whereby the baser metals were to be partially purified. They speak of the mortification of metals, the dissolution and putrefaction of substances, as preliminaries to the appearance of the true life of the things whose outward properties have been destroyed. For instance, Paracelsus says: “Destruction perfects that which is good; for the good cannot appear on account of that which conceals it.” The same alchemist speaks of rusting as the mortification of metals; he says: “The mortification of metals is the removal of their bodily structure.... The mortification of woods is their being turned into charcoal or ashes.”

Paracelsus distinguishes natural from artificial mortification, “Whatever nature consumes,” he says, “man cannot restore. But whatever man destroys man can restore, and break again when restored.” Things which had been mortified by man’s device were considered by Paracelsus not to be really dead. He gives this extraordinary illustration of his meaning: “You see this is the case with lions, which are all born dead, and are first vitalised by the horrible noise of their parents, just as a sleeping person is awakened by a shout.”

The mortification of metals is represented in alchemical books by various images and allegories. Fig. I. is reduced from a cut in a 16th century work, The Book of Lambspring, a noble ancient Philosopher, concerning the Philosophical Stone.

The image used to set forth the mortification of metals is a king swallowing his son. Figs. II. and III. are reduced from Basil Valentine’s Twelve Keys. Both of these figures represent the process of mortification by images connected with death and burial.

In his explanation (?) of these figures, Basil Valentine says:

“Neither human nor animal bodies can be multiplied or propagated without decomposition; the grain and all vegetable seed, when cast into the ground, must decay before it can spring up again; moreover, putrefaction imparts life to many worms and other animalculae.... If bread is placed in honey, and suffered to decay, ants are generated ... maggots are also developed by the decay of nuts, apples, and pears. The same thing may be observed in regard to vegetable life. Nettles and other weeds spring up where no such seed has ever been sown. This occurs only by putrefaction. The reason is that the soil in such places is so disposed, and, as it were, impregnated, that it produces these fruits; which is a result of the properties of sidereal influences; consequently the seed is spiritually produced in the earth, and putrefies in the earth, and by the operation of the elements generates corporeal matter according to the species of nature. Thus the stars and the elements may generate new spiritual, and ultimately, new vegetable seed, by means of putrefaction.... Know that, in like manner, no metallic seed can develop, or multiply, unless the said seed, by itself alone, and without the introduction of any foreign substance, be reduced to a perfect putrefaction.”

The action of the mineral agent in perfecting substances is often likened by the alchemists to the conjoining of the male and the female, followed by the production of offspring. They insist on the need of a union of two things, in order to produce something more perfect than either. The agent, they say, must work upon something; alone it is nothing.

The methods whereby the agent is itself perfected, and the processes wherein the agent effects the perfecting of the less perfect things, were divided into stages by the alchemists. They generally spoke of these stages as Gates, and enumerated ten or sometimes twelve of them. As examples of the alchemical description of these gates, I give some extracts from A Brief Guide to the Celestial Ruby.

The first gate is Calcination, which is “the drying up of the humours”; by this process the substance “is concocted into a black powder which is yet unctuous, and retains its radical humour.” When gold passes through this gate, “We observe in it two natures, the fixed and the volatile, which we liken to two serpents.” The fixed nature is likened to a serpent without wings; the volatile, to a serpent with wings: calcination unites these two into one. The second gate, Dissolution, is likened to death and burial; but the true Essence will appear glorious and beautiful when this gate is passed. The worker is told not to be discouraged by this apparent death. The mercury of the sages is spoken of by this author as the queen, and gold as the king. The king dies for love of the queen, but he is revived by his spouse, who is made fruitful by him and brings forth “a most royal son.”

After dissolution came Conjunction, wherein the separated elements were combined. Then followed Putrefaction, necessary for the germination of the seed which had been produced by calcination, dissolution, and conjunction. Putrefaction was followed by Congelation and Citation. The passage through the next gate, called Sublimation, caused the body to become spiritual, and the spiritual to be made corporal. Fermentation followed, whereby the substance became soft and flowed like wax. Finally, by Exaltation, the Stone was perfected.

The author of The Open Entrance speaks of the various stages in the perfecting of the agent as regimens. The beginning of the heating of gold with mercury is likened to the king stripping off his golden garments and descending into the fountain; this is the regimen of Mercury. As the heating is continued, all becomes black; this is the regimen of Saturn. Then is noticed a play of many colours; this is the regimen of Jupiter: if the heat is not regulated properly, “the young ones of the crow will go back to the nest.” About the end of the fourth month you will see “the sign of the waxing moon,” and all becomes white; this is the regimen of the Moon. The white colour gives place to purple and green; you are now in the regimen of Venus. After that, appear all the colours of the rainbow, or of a peacock’s tail; this is the regimen of Mars. Finally the colour becomes orange and golden; this is the regimen of the Sun.

The reader may wish to have some description of the Essence. The alchemists could describe it only in contraries. It had a bodily form, but its method of working was spiritual. In The Sodic Hydrolith, or Water Stone of the Wise we are told:

“The stone is conceived below the earth, born in the earth, quickened in heaven, dies in time, and obtains eternal glory.... It is bluish-grey and green.... It flows like water, yet it makes no wet; it is of great weight, and is small.”

Philalethes says, in A Brief Guide to the Celestial Ruby: “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. In species it is gold, more pure than the purest; it is fixed and incombustible like a stone, but its appearance is that of very fine powder, impalpable to the touch, sweet to the taste, fragrant to the smell, in potency a most penetrative spirit, apparently dry and yet unctuous, and easily capable of tinging a plate of metal.... If we say that its nature is spiritual, it would be no more than the truth; if we described it as corporeal, the expression would be equally correct.”

The same author says: “There is a substance of a metalline species which looks so cloudy that the universe will have nothing to do with it. Its visible form is vile; it defiles metalline bodies, and no one can readily imagine that the pearly drink of bright Phoebus should spring from thence. Its components are a most pure and tender mercury, a dry incarcerate sulphur, which binds it and restrains fluxation.... Know this subject, it is the sure basis of all our secrets.... To deal plainly, it is the child of Saturn, of mean price and great venom.... It is not malleable, though metalline. Its colour is sable, with intermixed argent which mark the sable fields with veins of glittering argent.”

In trying to attach definite meanings to the alchemical accounts of Principles, Elements, and the One Thing, and the directions which the alchemists give for changing one substance into others, we are very apt to be misled by the use of such an expression as the transmutation of the elements. To a chemist that phrase means the change of an element into another element, an element being a definite substance, which no one has been able to produce by the combination of two or more substances unlike itself, or to separate into two or more substances unlike itself. But whatever may have been the alchemical meaning of the word element, it was certainly not that given to the same word to-day. Nor did the word transmutation mean to the alchemist what it means to the chemist.

The facts which are known at present concerning the elements make unthinkable such a change as that of lead into silver; but new facts may be discovered which will make possible the separation of lead into things unlike itself, and the production of silver by the combination of some of these constituents of lead. The alchemist supposed he knew such facts as enabled him not only to form a mental picture of the change of lead into silver, or tin into gold, but also to assert that such changes must necessarily happen, and to accomplish them. Although we are quite sure that the alchemist’s facts were only imaginings, we ought not to blame him for his reasoning on what he took to be facts.

Every metal is now said to be an element, in the modern meaning of that word: the alchemist regarded the metals as composite substances; but he also thought of them as more simple than many other things. Hence, if he was able to transmute one metal into another, he would have strong evidence in support of his general conception of the unity of all things. And, as transmutation meant, to the alchemist, the bringing of a substance to the condition of greatest perfection possible for that substance, his view of the unity of nature might be said to be proved if he succeeded in changing one of the metals, one of these comparatively simple substances, into the most perfect of all metals, that is, into gold.

The transmutation of the baser metals into gold thus came to be the practical test of the justness of the alchemical scheme of things.

Some alchemists assert they had themselves performed the great transmutation; others tell of people who had accomplished the work. The following story is an example of the accounts given of the making of gold. It is taken from John Frederick Helvetius’ Golden Calf, which the world worships and adores (17th century):

“On the 27th December 1666, in the forenoon, there came to my house a certain man, who was a complete stranger to me, but of an honest grave countenance, and an authoritative mien, clothed in a simple garb.... He was of middle height, his face was long and slightly pock-marked, his hair was black and straight, his chin close-shaven, his age about forty-three or forty-four, and his native province, as far as I could make out, North Holland. After we had exchanged salutations, he asked me whether he might have some conversation with me. He wished to say something to me about the Pyrotechnic Art, as he had read one of my tracts (directed against the Sympathetic Powder of Dr Digby), in which I hinted a suspicion whether the Grand Arcanum of the Sages was not after all a gigantic hoax. He, therefore, took that opportunity of asking me whether I could not believe that such a grand mystery might exist in the nature of things, by means of which a physician could restore any patient whose vitals were not irreparably destroyed. I answered, ’Such a medicine would be a most desirable acquisition for any physician; nor can any man tell how many secrets there may be hidden in Nature; yet, though I have read much about the truth of this art, it has never been my good fortune to meet with a real master of the alchemical science.’ ... After some further conversation, the Artist Elias (for it was he) thus addressed me: ’Since you have read so much in the works of the alchemists about this stone, its substance, its colour and its wonderful effects, may I be allowed the question, whether you have not prepared it yourself?’ On my answering his question in the negative, he took out of his bag a cunningly-worked ivory box, in which were three large pieces of substance resembling glass, or pale sulphur, and informed me that here was enough of the tincture for the production of twenty tons of gold. When I had held the precious treasure in my hand for a quarter of an hour (during which time I listened to a recital of its wonderful curative properties), I was compelled to restore it to its owner, which I could not help doing with a certain degree of reluctance.... My request that he would give me a piece of his stone (though it were no larger than a coriander seed), he somewhat brusquely refused, adding, in a milder tone, that he could not give it me for all the wealth I possessed, and that not on account of its great preciousness, but for some other reason which it was not lawful for him to divulge.... Then he inquired whether I could not show him into a room at the back of the house, where we should be less liable to the observation of passers-by. On my conducting him into the state parlour (which he entered without wiping his dirty boots), he demanded of me a gold coin, and while I was looking for it, he produced from his breast pocket a green silk handkerchief, in which were folded up five medals, the gold of which was infinitely superior to that of my gold piece.” Here follows the inscriptions on the medals. “I was filled with admiration, and asked my visitor whence he had obtained that wonderful knowledge of the whole world. He replied that it was a gift freely bestowed on him by a friend who had stayed a few days at his house.” Here follows the stranger’s account of this friend’s experiments. “When my strange visitor had concluded his narrative, I besought him to give me a proof of his assertion, by performing the transmutatory operation on some metals in my presence. He answered evasively, that he could not do so then, but that he would return in three weeks, and that, if he was then at liberty to do so, he would show me something that would make me open my eyes. He appeared punctually to the promised day, and invited me to take a walk with him, in the course of which we discoursed profoundly on the secrets of Nature in fire, though I noticed that my companion was very chary in imparting information about the Grand Arcanum.... At last I asked him point blank to show me the transmutation of metals. I besought him to come and dine with me, and to spend the night at my house; I entreated; I expostulated; but in vain. He remained firm. I reminded him of his promise. He retorted that his promise had been conditional upon his being permitted to reveal the secret to me. At last, however, I prevailed upon him to give me a piece of his precious stone a piece no larger than a grain of rape seed.... He bid me take half an ounce of lead ... and melt it in the crucible; for the Medicine would certainly not tinge more of the base metal than it was sufficient for.... He promised to return at nine o’clock the next morning.... But at the stated hour on the following day he did not make his appearance; in his stead, however, there came, a few hours later, a stranger, who told me that his friend the artist was unavoidably detained, but that he would call at three o’clock in the afternoon. The afternoon came; I waited for him till half-past seven o’clock. He did not appear. Thereupon my wife came and tempted me to try the transmutation myself. I determined however to wait till the morrow. On the morrow ... I asked my wife to put the tincture in wax, and I myself ... prepared six drachms of lead; I then cast the tincture, enveloped as it was in wax, on the lead; as soon as it was melted, there was a hissing sound and a slight effervescence, and after a quarter of an hour I found that the whole mass of lead had been turned into the finest gold.... We immediately took it to the goldsmith, who at once declared it the finest gold he had ever seen, and offered to pay fifty florins an ounce for it.” He then describes various tests which were made to prove the purity of the gold. “Thus I have unfolded to you the whole story from beginning to end. The gold I still retain in my possession, but I cannot tell you what has become of the Artist Elias.”