The Philosopher's Stone



The philosopher's stone is a legendary substance, allegedly capable of turning inexpensive metals into gold. It was sometimes believed to be an elixir of life, useful for rejuvenation and possibly for achieving immortality. For a long time, it was the most sought-after goal in Western alchemy. In the view of spiritual alchemy, making the philosopher's stone would bring enlightenment upon the maker and conclude the Great Work. It is also known by several other names, such as 'materia prima.'

The Philosopher's Stone, the White Stone by the River, The Sword in the Stone, all the same, meaning that which contains the knowledge of creation, a symbol that represents the final outcome of man's inner transformation, of the conversion of the base metal of his outer character to the golden properties of his higher self. It is all about the evolution of consciousness in the alchemy of time.




The Stone in Alchemy

Transmutation of Metals

The concept apparently originated from the theories of the 8th century Islamic 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 came to be 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.

Geber's theory and the concept of the philosopher's stone may have been inspired by the knowledge that metals like gold and silver could be hidden in alloys and ores, from which they could be recovered by the appropriate chemical treatment. Geber himself is believed to be the inventor of aqua regia, a mixture of muriatic and nitric acids, which is one of the few substances that can dissolve gold (and is still often used for gold recovery and purification).




The Stone as a Spiritual Metaphor

Alchemy has always made extensive use of analogy, symbolism, and so forth to relate chemical and physical concepts to esoteric and mystic ones. In some epochs and contexts, these metaphysical aspects came to predominate, and the chemical processes were then viewed as mere symbols of spiritual processes.

In this hermetic side of alchemy, the "philosopher's stone", supposed to to be the most tangible and dense crystalization or condensation of a subtle substance, became a metaphor for an inner potential of the spirit and reason to evolve from a lower state of imperfection and vice (symbolized by the base metals) to a higher state of enlightenment and perfection (symbolized by gold). In this view, spiritual elevation, the transmutation of metals, and the purification and rejuvenation of the body were seen to be manifestations of the same concept.

The mystical revival in the late 20th century renovated the public interest on alchemy, and particularly on this metaphysical and philosophical conception of the philosopher's stone - which is now subscribed by many people, especially within several New Age movements.




The Stone and Modern Science

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.




The Stone in Art and Entertainment

The philosopher's stone has been subject, inspiration, or plot feature of innumerable artistic works novels, comics stories, movies, animations, and even musical compositions. It is also a popular item in many video games.




Azoth

Azoth was considered to be a 'universal medicine' or 'universal solvent' sought in alchemy, its symbol was the Caduceus and so the term, which being originally a term for an occult formula sought by alchemists much like the philosopher's stone, became a poetic word for the element Mercury.

The term was considered by occultist Aleister Crowley to represent a unity of beginning & ending by tying together the first and last letters of the alphabets of antiquity; A/Alpha/Alef (first character of Roman, Greek & Hebrew), Z (final character in latin), O as Omega (final character in Greek) and Th as Tau (final character in Hebrew).

In this way permeation & totality of beginning and end was considered the supreme wholeness and thus the universal synthesis of opposites as a 'cancellation' (i.e. solvent) or cohesion (i.e. medicine), and in such a way is similar to the philosophical "absolute" of Hegel's dialectic. Crowley further made reference in his works refering to Azoth as "the fluid."

Azoth is also used in the video game Haunting Ground. The game has components of alchemy, horror, and strategy. The main character (Fiona Belli) is the wielder of the Azoth, and is chased by various characters who want to extract the Azoth within her, all for serveral different but none the less selfish reasons. It is refered to as the "essence of life" and also has some things to do with the God Stone and the staff of Caduceus - which is the rod of Hermes, the Magician. Alchemy is a big part in this game.




Panacea (Medicine)

The panacea (pan-ah-SEE-ah), named after the Greek goddess of healing Panacea, was supposed to be a remedy that would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely. It was sought by the alchemists as a connection to the elixir of life and the philosopher's stone, a mythical substance which would enable the transmutation of common metals into gold.




The Net (Substance)

The Net was a term in alchemy for a copper-antimony alloy, named for its crystaline "net" like surface separated by interstices & thought to be one step in the creation of the philosopher's stone. It was discovered by the American alchemist George Starkey aka Eirenaeus Philalethes, who believed the ancient Greek & Roman myths were really encoded recipes for substances needed in the creation of the philosophers stone.

It was in the particular myth of the god Vulcan (the medieval alchemical term for fire) finding his wife Venus (alchemical symbol for copper) in bed with the god Mars (whose symbol meant iron in alchemy), that inspired Starkey for the experiment which led to the discovery and creation of the substance he called "The Net".

In the myth, the god Vulcan (fire) hung Venus & Mars from a high ceiling with an especially crafted metal net, being the craftsman of the gods, as punishment. The creation process included antimony regulus being reduced from antimony sulfide aka stibnite by the addition of iron from whence the influence of Mars in the alloy comes. Isaac Newton, in his private notes, wrote how he himself followed the steps to the creation of 'the net' and took to Starkeys theory that the Classical mythology was indeed a collection of secret formulas in the creation of a metaphysical substance, which Newton pursued covertly for fear of being ostracized in his time.




Claims and Frauds

The concept of a substance that could turn inexpensive 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 materials like sulphur, 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.


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