Lesson 9) The Sacred Stone
Good day students and welcome to the end of the penultimate year. It’s not too long before you take your N.E.W.T.s and graduate! … I guess when I put it like that, it sounds a bit scary. I can assure you that you will be fine, well, at least for today’s final. After all, you did make it this far, so I have faith that most of you will succeed. We are all going to be shoulder deep in laboratory work next year and it will be more hands-on than anything else we have done in this course. I’m incredibly excited to guide you through it all, and I hope you find the matter as fun and interesting as I do.
Now with that out of the way, let’s get on with today’s topic, which is probably one of the most anticipated topics of this course: the Philosopher’s Stone. The Philosopher’s Stone is an artifact that I have brought up time and time again over the years, quite possibly just as much as I’ve uttered the name Paracelsus! Despite that, we have never spent considerable time going into depth on the stone itself, which is precisely why we are here today. I will throw in a disclaimer that we will not be creating the Philosopher’s Stone, for the same reasons as to why we didn’t create our own Elixir of Life in addition to the fact that no one has succeeded in creating the stone since Nicolas Flamel. Trust me, if I possessed a Philosopher’s Stone, I would not be here teaching at Hogwarts. Instead we will be looking at what exactly the stone is, the history of it, and various texts and possible theories surrounding what could create it.
From both written accounts of the stone by various alchemists and the notes from Nicolas Flamel that are preserved at the Beauxbatons library, the Philosopher’s Stone is described as a “brilliant ruby-red stone that almost has a black glint in certain lighting.” It is almost “crystalline in appearance, yet it is cloudy when peering through the stone, and it is almost wax-like in touch.” The creation of the stone is often seen as an alchemist’s ultimate goal in their practice. Although it is an actual, physical artifact, the Philosopher’s Stone is also symbolically used in other alchemical practices such as Hermeticism. Generally, “obtaining the Philosopher’s Stone” in a non-literal sense means that one has achieved their ultimate goal; in the case of Hermeticism, it means that they have reached the Rubedo stage of the Great Work. Symbols in allegorical art, such as phoenixes, eagles, the Great King, and Rebis, as well as others, are code for the stone. Even if it isn’t obtaining the Philosopher’s Stone itself, most alchemists’ personal goals involve using the stone in some way, whether it’s to transmute metals into pure gold or to create the Elixir of Life, which as we already know are both abilities of this alchemical artifact. Other rumored abilities include curing illnesses, creating homunculi, reviving dead plants, and turning crystals into diamonds, along with several more. Though to be fair, some of the lesser known abilities attributed to the stone, such as curing illnesses, may have come from mixing it with other alchemical substances (e.g. Panacea) and therefore may not actually be a power of the stone itself. Regardless of whether it possesses these extra abilities, it’s safe to say that the Philosopher’s Stone is the single most powerful sought-after alchemical artifact of all time.
It’s fairly obvious why so many would like to obtain the Philosopher’s Stone: money and immortality. However, it’s also easy to see the consequences should the stone fall into the wrong hands. Luckily, those who have been able to create the Philosopher’s Stone thus far have been morally good. For example, Nicolas Flamel donated much of his wealth to his alma mater, Beauxbatons Academy. However, what if the stone were to make its way into the hands of someone who wasn’t so charitable. Aside from possibly creating a homunculus body as we discussed in Lesson Five, imagine what someone like Voldemort would have been able to achieve if they were in possession of the stone. They would certainly have enough gold to bribe whoever they wanted as well as possess one of the most important ingredients in creating the Elixir of Life. They could perhaps find a way to spread an illness more deadly than dragon pox and be the only one with the cure for it. The possibilities are endless. Although it is a tragedy that the most recent Philosopher’s Stone was destroyed, ending the lives of two of the most brilliant alchemists within the last millennium, it’s also a relief in a way that there isn’t a chance for it to be used for evil. Plus, I’m sure someone will eventually find the secret to creating the Philosopher’s Stone again, as has happened over and over since the beginning of alchemy. I see some puzzled looks around the room. Here, let’s discuss this a bit more, shall we?
With such a powerful artifact floating around throughout the ages, it really brings up the question of how the Philosopher’s Stone come to be. As we know from Year Two, Lesson Three, the first written account of the Philosopher’s Stone is accredited to Zosimos of Panopolis. That’s where the story starts for Muggles, but magihistorians have a much better insight on the origins of the stone. They trace the Philosopher’s Stone’s roots back to ancient Egypt. Knowledge on how to create and use the stone was shared in alchemy circles, possibly during the time of Zep Tepi. Not only that, but there’s speculation that there were several Philosopher’s Stones in circulation, which may partially explain how the ancient Egyptians were so advanced for their time. There is also a theory that pharaohs might have known how to create the stone due to the myth that they were descended from the gods. Although this would make sense with Zep Tepi, there has been no confirmation whatsoever of a pharaoh obtaining a Philosopher’s Stone.
Magihistorians theorize that when the Greeks took over Egypt and knowledge was being recorded in books, information about the Philosopher’s Stone and a recipe for producing it existed in the Library of Alexandria in one of the texts Alexander the Great brought from the Pillar of Hermes. If this is true, it’s unfortunate to say that this knowledge was probably lost in either the fire that destroyed the library or the events that occurred afterwards, where more texts were destroyed during invasions. If all written knowledge of the Philosopher’s Stone was destroyed, how come it wasn’t lost with time? Well, even though explicit written information on how to create the stone was lost, other knowledge wasn’t, and it was brought to Persia and Arabia, as we know from Year Three. Texts written by alchemists like Zosimos, among others, interested those in the Arab empires and eventually the Byzantine Empire. The most notable one is Jabir ibn Hayyan, or Geber. Ah, I can see the recognition in your eyes in… at least for some of you. For those of you who seem to be suffering from a slight case of amnesia, he was our Alchemist Spotlight for Year Three, Lesson Three. As we have learned already, Jabir had a theory wherein if we were to take Aristotle’s basic qualities (hot, cold, wet, dry) and rearrange them in a metal, it would result in a completely different metal, as long as there was a catalyst in the process. In Greek this was called xerion, in Arabic al-iksir (which, fun fact, is what the word “elixir” was derived from), and it was described as a dry red power that was made from the Philosopher’s Stone. Of course there were always going to be critics over whether or not transmutation in general was possible, and many pushed back on Jabir’s theory specifically even a few centuries later. But considering that Jabir created this theory in the eighth century, it was a huge breakthrough in both alchemy and the history of the Philosopher’s Stone.
We’ve talked about Egypt and Arabia, but what about Western Europe? Well, as mentioned in previous years, alchemical texts weren’t brought to Europe until 711 C.E. during the Dark Ages, and there was a serious learning curve when it came to deciphering these texts due to the amount of symbolism in them. The earliest European alchemist connected with the Philosopher’s Stone was Albertus Magnus. It was rumored that he had discovered a way to create the Philosopher’s Stone. Although Magnus is the reason for the many translations of the Emerald Tablet and had written that he witnessed a metal being transmuted into gold, it was never confirmed that he was in possession of the stone, and if he did indeed have it, he certainly wasn’t as public about it as the Flamels were. From then on, interest in the Philosopher’s Stone spread throughout the continent like wildfire, with the height of interest during the Renaissance. Now, with the International Statute of Secret Secrecy in place as well as Muggle implementations of modern science, the interest in creating and using the stone remains only within the magical community; however, the tale of Nicolas Flamel and the stone remains a recurring topic within Muggle pop culture and literature.
During the peak of interest in the Philosopher’s Stone, several texts were written, published, and hidden about possible recipes for creating the stone, and there’s certainly a plethora of theories by credible alchemists for us to go over! As we know from the beginning of Year Five and our discussion of alkahest, Paracelsus believed that alkahest was actually the Philosopher’s Stone. Now we all know that I do love rambling about Paracelsus, but I would have to disagree on this theory. The Philosopher’s Stone is confirmed by the life and texts of Nicolas Flamel to be able to transmute metals and produce the Elixir of Life. Alkahest, if you recall, is the universal solvent and can therefore dissolve any substance. Now, it’s quite possible that alkahest could be created through the use of the Philosopher’s Stone, it may be a byproduct of the stone, or it could be a way to dissolve the stone to see exactly what ingredients were used to make it. However, it’s extremely unlikely that alkahest and the Philosopher’s Stone are the same substance.
One major text on the Philosopher’s Stone is Mutus Liber, an anonymous collection of fifteen illustrations that was published in La Rochelle, France in 1677. It’s considered by alchemists (especially Eugene Canseliet) to be a symbolic instruction manual on creating the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s easy to see why this would be the first interpretation that comes to mind. I have included Emblem 6 on the right, which depicts two alchemists processing a red item that is then handed off to a person in red, who is confirmed to represent the Sun in Emblem 13. The entire text follows these two alchemists in their work and shows several scenes of them gathering materials and completing processes such as calcination and distillation. Other interpretations of the text have been that the illustrations are meant to convey the achievement of the Philosopher’s Stone in a hermetic or spiritual sense. Interestingly enough, a few Muggles have recently taken an interest in Mutus Liber and are trying to decipher the illustrations; however, there has been no luck as of yet in decoding the text.
A much more recent discovery is a recipe of Sir Isaac Newton’s that was originally thought to be a recipe (pictured on the left) for the Philosopher’s Stone. It was hidden in his private collection, and when it was sold to the Chemical Heritage Foundation at an auction in California in February 2016, MACUSA was scrambling to get ahold of it. The original manuscript was quietly switched out for a copy that contained no mention of magic or the wizarding world and is now kept at the Egyptian Centre for Alchemical Studies. Upon further inspection, the recipe unfortunately isn’t for the Philosopher’s Stone, but instead for a material that Newton believed to be used in making the stone, called philosophical mercury, which we learned about briefly in Year Three. This liquid substance could be transmuted from antimony and had the power to make gold multiply and grow, according to Newton. Although transmuting it from antimony seems like an easy enough task, the transmutation is actually quite difficult, and as such, philosophical mercury has gained a reputation for being an elusive substance within the alchemical community. It has also never been confirmed that Newton ever created the Philosopher’s Stone using philosophical mercury, and the substance itself hasn’t been studied enough to confirm Newton’s claims on its wealth producing powers. However, it’s entirely possible that this substance could be an ingredient in creating the Philosopher’s Stone, although I would say it would need to be used in conjunction with an ingredient that would act as a coagulant. I would also like to mention that Newton’s recipe isn’t the original recipe for philosophical mercury - George Starkey is in fact the original creator. Newton simply took Starkey’s version, made a couple of notes on the recipe, corrected a few mistakes, and was able to produce the final product.
Our final text today that might be the key to the Philosopher’s Stone is the Ripley Scroll. Well, this manuscript is less of a published book and actually more of six meter long scroll covered in illustrations (some of which I have included down below), with verses of a text titled “Verses upon the Elixir.” The Ripley Scroll is named after the 15th century alchemist Sir George Ripley, one of England’s most highly revered alchemists. His writings were popular among prominent alchemists even centuries after his death in 1490, his most popular work being The Compound of Alchemy. Keeping this in mind, there is absolutely no evidence that Ripley designed the Ripley Scroll and that the scroll wasn’t merely given this name because it includes poems associated with him. Although both the poems and illustrations are heavily coded in symbolism, like most alchemical texts from both the Medieval and Renaissance eras, it’s considered among the wizarding community to be the closest written work that we have to a step by step recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone. There is so much detail in both the illustrations and the verses that it shows and explains different stages and processes. Of course, it would take someone completely fluent in Renaissance Hermetic symbolism to understand a majority of it, and it does not help that the original 15th century text is lost and all that remains are 23 copies, which are all variations or translations of the original. So far, no one has been able to decode the entire scroll, but if you are interested in reading through the text, you can view it here along with the emblems.
As much I would love to continue talking about theories and texts on recipes for the Philosopher’s Stone (as there are plenty more), all of you still have a final to take! Actually, I suppose now is the time to announce that your final exam won’t be a test, but in fact an essay that involves critical thinking on our subject today. Don’t look so scared, it’s not as bad as it seems. As always, when you are done with your final, place it on my desk, and I will hopefully see all of you in class next year.