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 stone in alchemy
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 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.
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.
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 Mike'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:
Hans Christian Andersen, Philosopher's Stone .
- The Trumpeter of Krakow (1928) by Eric P. Kelly
Carl Barks's Donald Duck comic story The Fabulous Philosopher's Stone . Walt Disney (1945), 24pp. Story code W US 10-02.
- Max McCoy , Indiana Jones and the Philosopher's Stone .
Diana Wynne Jones' novel The Ogre Downstairs (1974)
J. K. Rowling's novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997) and its movie version (2001); retitled Sorcerer's Stone in the US.
- Computer game World of Warcraft, where an Alchemist uses the Stone as a mediating component in transmuting metals and elemental materials.
- Japanese anime and manga series Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), in which the Elric brothers seek after the Philosopher's Stone to perform human transmutations.
- In the video game Valkyrie Profile, Lezard Valeth has possession of the Philosopher's Stone, referring to it as "the ten-billion-page codex."
- In the video game Devil May Cry, the Philosopher's Stone is the second key required to enter the underworld.
- In the video game Shadow of Destiny, the Philosopher's Stone is the source of the Homunculus.
- In Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum a character asserts that the Philosopher's Stone is actually the mythical Holy Grail.
- In Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, an unusually heavy sample of gold is believed to contain Philosopher's stone, perhaps because scientists of the 18th century were unaware of isotopes.
- In the Justice_League episode "A Knight of Shadows" the Philosopher's Stone (a rock instead of a powder) is sought after and ultimately destroyed.
In modern times, Philosopher's Stone has become a slang name for an hallucinogenic mushroom, Psilocybe mexicana or P. tampanensis, closely related to the more well-known Psilocybe cubensis. See Psilocybe.
Philosopher Stone, a Van Morrison song that appeared in the Wonder Boy album.
Last updated: 05-17-2005 04:16:59