Lesson 3 - Famous Alchemists
Welcome back to another week of Alchemy! Before we get started, I would like to bring to your attention that your midterm is next week. It feels like we only started yesterday, yet we're almost halfway through. Time flies way too fast!
Make sure to go over your notes and study hard for your midterm. If you have any questions about the course, the midterm, or your grades, please do not hesitate to ask me. You can always email or owl me. I will try to help anyone who needs it as best as I can!
Today we will be discussing a few significant figures of alchemy. Some of them you may have heard of before and others you probably haven't. If you plan on pursuing alchemy in the future, you will need to know about the past and the milestones that these alchemists have accomplished. This will be a long lecture so make sure to get comfortable and take a lot of notes.
The first alchemist on our list is Kanada. There is much debate as to when Kanada actually lived, but most sources seem to suggest that he was born around the year 600 B.C.E. near Gujarat, India during the Vedic Period. His father was a philosopher named Ulka, and Kanada was noted to have a keen sense of observation as a child.
Kanada primarily studied a branch of alchemy called Rasavādam. As we already know from Lesson One, the Four Aspects are Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Kanada believed there was a fifth aspect that he called Aether. Aether is the matter that fills the universe above the terrestrial sphere. It was used to explain phenomena such as how light travels and gravity. Many philosophers and alchemists debate over whether or not Aether should be added as a fifth aspect even today.
Kanada is also contributed with the first idea of the atom. He got the idea when he was trying to break up some food into smaller pieces. After a while, he realized he couldn't divide the food any smaller and came up with the idea of matter that couldn’t be divided any further beyond a certain point. This indivisible matter was called anu (atom). Kanada explained that anu was indivisible, indestructible, and invisible to the naked eye. He also explained that when atoms of the same substance come together, they can combine into diatomic and triatomic molecules. The interesting part about this whole idea of atoms is that it developed independently from the idea of atoms in the Greco-Roman world!
Along with being an alchemist, Kanada was a Hindu sage and philosopher. He founded the school of Vaisheshika, one of the six orthodox schools of Hinduism from ancient India, as well as writing the Vaisheshika Sutra. The Vaisheshika Sutra was the standard text for the philosophical school of Vaisheshika. The sutra claims that life in the temporary world is futile and that an understanding of god can free an individual from karma. It's split into ten sections, however there are four main concepts about the sutra that I want to stress:
The next alchemist we will be discussing is Dzou Yen, better translated as Zou Yan. Dzou Yen was an admired alchemist from China who lived from 305 B.C.E. to 240 B.C.E. Dzou Yen lived during the Spring and Autumn Period of the Zhou Dynasty in the state of Qi. The Zhou Dynasty lasted from 1046 B.C.E. until 256 B.C.E., making it the longest lasting dynasty in Chinese history. It was also the very same dynasty that gave birth to two major Chinese philosophies: Confucianism and Taoism. The latter of the two strongly ties into Chinese alchemy, which we will learn about in Year Three!
Dzou Yen was not only an alchemist, but a man of many trades. He was a philosopher, a historian, a politician, a naturalist, a geographer, and an astrologer. I don't know about you, but I'd say Dzou Yen was pretty talented. He finalized two theories that had started during the Warring States Period: the five Chinese elements (wood, water, fire, earth, and metal) and the relationship of Yin and Yang. These laid down much of the foundation for Chinese alchemy as well as Chinese healing and geomancy.
As an alchemist, Dzou Yen was credited as the first alchemist able to transmute base metals into noble metals. Alchemists before him had tried to accomplish this feat, but their attempts had all ended in failure. Alchemists who lived after Dzou Yen also had a hard time of recreating this transmutation. For example, Liu Hsiang (79-8 B.C.E.) was another Chinese alchemist who was sought out by Emperor Xuan in 60 B.C.E. to turn lead into gold. He was an imperial adviser of the court and believed that he could create gold by following the recipes written by Dzou Yen and other alchemists. The Emperor let Liu Hsiang use as much money as he needed from the Treasury to fuel his experiment. After several attempts and a lot of money wasted, Liu Hsiang admitted defeat. His failure caused him to be impeached from his position, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. However, Emperor Xuan valued his ability and let Liu Hsiang go when the alchemist's older brother offered up a hefty sum of money.
Needless to say, transmuting metals is much easier today than it was in the Zhou Dynasty and you won't lose your job if you fail!
The next alchemist we will discuss was quite the character. Zosimos of Panopolis was born approximately 300 C.E. in Panopolis (present day Akhmim), Egypt. Known for being a pioneer of alchemy, Zosimos wrote the oldest known alchemical books and manuscripts that have survived until today. They have been translated into multiple languages such as Syriac, Greek, and Arabic. New works by him are still being found; the most recent finding happened in 1995 when an Arabic translation of an excerpt was found inside of a book written by a Persian alchemist named Ibn Al-Hassan Ibn Ali Al-Tughra'i'.
Zosimos' understanding of alchemy was influenced mainly by Hermetic teachings and Gnosticism. He defined alchemy as "the composition of waters, movement, growth, embodying and disembodying, drawing the spirits from the bodies and bonding the spirits within bodies." This was one of the first recorded definitions of alchemy. Zosimos also believed that in metallic transmutations (i.e. lead into gold), the external process of the transmutation had to mirror an inner process of purification and spiritual redemption. Basically that meant that if you planned on transmuting metals, you had to cleanse your spirit and keep your mind free of running emotions and thoughts. This idea itself is heavily based on Hermeticism, an esoteric branch of alchemy that will be covered in Year Four.
What is very interesting about Zosimos is that he was a dreamer. He had several visions of alchemy and meeting the god Ion. These visions weren't exactly uplifting and had heavy symbolic imagery. Often these visions would include some type of self-sacrifice of either Zosimos himself, Ion, or another man by gruesome methods such as mutilation or being boiled alive. After these gruesome events, a new being would emerge as a result of the sacrifice. This was believed by Carl Jung to be the first concept of a homunculus in any type of alchemical literature, although the word "homunculus" wasn't specifically written in Zosimos' writings.
A homunculus, by definition, is a small human or humanoid creature. It is the desired result of the artificial creation or regeneration of man. In alchemy, the concept of balance is very important. There has to be two principles balancing each other, such as masculine and feminine or active and passive. This is the foundation of the eternal cycle of birth and death, represented by the ouroboros. The ouroboros is an image of a snake or dragon biting its own tail. In this sense, self-devouring is the same as self-fertilization. A homunculus stands for the ouroboros because it both destroys itself and gives birth to itself. There is a balance that has to be kept in all of this. Something of equal value must be given in order to receive the desired result.
Our next alchemist is definitely one most of you have heard of: Nicolas Flamel. He is arguably the most famous alchemist in history. His research created a great foundation for the studies of future alchemists.
Nicolas Flamel was born in 1327 around the northeastern suburbs of Paris, France. Flamel attended Beauxbatons Academy of Magic and graduated top of his class. He was known to be quite talented at alchemy and had a love of opera. While he studied at Beauxbatons he met Perenelle Delamere, who he eventually married in 1368. Before marrying Nicolas Flamel, Perenelle had been married to two other men and brought a fortune into her marriage with the alchemist. She generously donated her wealth to churches and hostels by commissioning religious sculptures. She was also skilled in alchemy and often helped out with her husband's experiments.
Sometime during the late 1300's, Flamel and his wife discovered the answers to crafting the Philosopher's Stone. The Philosopher's Stone is a powerful alchemical substance that's said to turn base metals into gold, cure any illness, and create the Elixir of Life. Some of you may have heard of this powerful elixir, and some of you probably have no idea what I am talking about. The Elixir of Life is the most sought out potion by anyone. It extends the life of the drinker as long as they drink it regularly. Other lesser known properties of the stone include reviving dead plants, turning crystals into diamonds, creating perpetually burning lamps, creating flexible glass, and creating a homunculus.
Nicolas and Perenelle used the powers of the stone to create the Elixir of Life, which they lived off of for hundreds of years. The couple also donated copious amounts of money to Beauxbatons Academy along with the churches and hostels that Perenelle had been donating to previously.
Nicolas Flamel was not just an alchemist but also a philosopher. He helped craft the essential rules and ethics of Medieval alchemy and published his own books and manuscripts.
In 1991, Voldemort targeted the Philosopher's Stone. He planned on using the Elixir of Life to create a new body. As you may already know, Harry Potter faced off against Voldemort in order to protect the stone. After securing the Philosopher's Stone, the late Headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, and Nicolas Flamel discussed its fate. They came to an agreement to destroy it so that it wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. Nicolas and Perenelle gave up their longevity by destroying the stone, thus subsequently depleting their supply of the Elixir of Life.
One of the houses Nicolas Flamel owned during his lifetime still stands today. It's the oldest stone house in the city. There are also two streets named after Nicolas and Perenelle near the Louvre. If you have ever had the privilege of visiting the Palace of Beauxbatons, there is a beautiful fountain in the center of the park named after Nicolas and Perenelle Flamel. The fountain’s waters are presumed to have healing and beautifying properties. Who knows, there might be a field trip in store for the future!
Last but not least, we're heading to the home of another great alchemist named Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. That's quite a mouthful, isn't it? You may know him by the name Paracelsus. Here's a fun fact: Paracelsus means "equal to Celsus" or "beyond Celsus" which is actually a reference to Aulus Cornelius Celsus, a Roman encyclopedist from the 1st century.
Paracelsus was born in 1493 and was an important figure during the Renaissance era. He was fiercely intelligent and found his calling in medicine and philosophy. Paracelsus was no stranger to the Muggle world. He received an education at St. Paul's Abbey in the Lavanttal, attended the University of Basel to study medicine, and eventually received his doctorate degree from the University of Ferrara. No one actually knows where he got his magical education from, though many magic historians believe he attended Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry due to him being a descendant of Salazar Slytherin.
After graduating, Paracelsus traveled as a wandering physician. His travels took him through much of Europe, extending out towards areas such as Russia and the Anatolian peninsula, and he even ventured through Africa. Through his travels he gained quite a reputation. Most physicians were angered by Paracelsus, pegging him to be very stubborn and arrogant. Paracelsus lectured in German instead of Latin because he wanted medicinal knowledge to be accessible to commoners. He publicly burned medical books and called his predecessors liars and quacks. Obviously, this did not go down well with the elite and other figures in the medical field. In fact, the city council of Nuremberg, Germany prohibited his writings from being published.
So what did Paracelsus do that was so great? He is credited as the discoverer of the Parseltongue language. Although his ancestor, Salazar Slytherin, originally discovered the language, Parseltongue had been hidden for centuries until Paracelsus discovered that he could communicate with snakes.
Besides being the discoverer of Parseltongue, Paracelsus gave the modern element Zinc its name. He created a script called the Alphabet of the Magi which was used for engraving angelic names into talismans. This alphabet was particularly useful among witches and wizards when enchanting items. Paracelsus is known as the father of toxicology due to his discovery that toxins in small doses can cure illnesses. He created laudanum, an opium tincture that was used to reduce pain up until the 19th century. In the field of psychotherapy, he provided the first clinical mention of the unconscious. Paracelsus even unknowingly observed hydrogen when he noticed that gas was a by-product of acid reacting with metals, however he didn't propose that it could be a new element.
In alchemy, Paracelsus believed that every human needed a balance of minerals and metals in their body. In this theory, certain illnesses had chemical remedies that could cure them. At the time, seven was a very important number in the world. There were seven planets in the sky, seven metals in the earth, and seven centers (major organs) in the human body. Paracelsus showed how everything corresponded in a chart known as the Harmony of Elements and Organs.
Paracelsus taught that every human needs a balance of these elements in their body to stay healthy. He believed that sickness and health relied on the harmony of man and nature. As humans ward off evil influence with morality, they must ward off illness with good health.
Chart courtesy of Bronwyn Hazelwood
Whew! Wasn't that a nice change of pace? That's enough history for today.
Be sure to leave your quizzes on my desk when you're leaving as usual. I'm looking forward to seeing your bright, smiling faces next week when we go over base metals. Remember that your midterm is next week. Until next time my amazing aspiring alchemists!