Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 4.djvu/621

This page has been validated.
603
THE FUTURE OF ALCHEMY.

phases of life, the determining influences of all the others—the face of alchemy wears a different aspect.

At the time when alchemistic views were most widely disseminated and accepted, and alchemistic pursuits most widely, frequently followed, alchemy had one chief central object the production of the philosopher's stone, a substance of marvelous properties and power. By those who claimed to possess it, it was generally described as a red, glass-like powder. When it was projected, that is to say, inclosed in wax, and thrown upon any base metal in a state of fusion, it instantly ennobled it, converting it into gold. When it was taken as a medicine, it was not only productive of perfect health, but even effaced the effects of time, bestowing all but eternal youth. And, even more than this, it was held to purge its fortunate possessor of all sin and moral evil. The transcendent value of such a substance is readily understood, and it is not to be wondered at that philosophical voyages, undertaken in its search, formed at a time the favorite enterprise of the alchemistic adventurer. But these attempts at its preparation were fraught with innumerable difficulties, beset by untold obstacles. The philosopher's stone was not held to be obtainable from any and every substance, but only from the peculiar material known in those days as primeval matter. Where this material was to be found no one could clearly state; the alchemists refer to its origin in dark, mysterious, unintelligible language. Hence it was sought far and near; in all countries; in the mineral, the vegetal, and the animal world; in the earth, the air, and the waters. According to the statement of the alchemist, he converted this peculiar material into another—the philosophical mercury or pure spirit of metallicity. Joining this with philosophical gold—that is to say, the pure spirit of goldenness—he placed the strange mixture in a certain vessel, the philosopher's egg, heated it in the philosopher's furnace, and hatched the philosopher's stone. It is scarcely necessary to say that the substances named do not exist. The process of making the stone was expressed in dark, enigmatical language. The open communication of the secret was held to be sinful, and liable to be punished by the instantaneous annihilation of the offender. These were the means and purposes of alchemy in the most exalted stage of its development, which it had attained toward the middle of the fourteenth century. Before the thirteenth it was immature; after the fifteenth it fell into decay.

The current of alchemistic opinions and pursuits issued from the dark ground of the Egyptian temple. Gathering the influences of Oriental Christianity, and taking in those of the Mohammedan torrent, it flowed away to the bleak shores of culture in the Christianized North. Egypt endowed it with its veil of mystery and its sacred character. The philosophy of antiquity bestowed upon it its fatal birth-gift of theoretical error. In Egypt it had been combined with astronomy and astrology, and, when that country passed under the sway of the Moham-