This is the latest in a series of articles about alchemy. In the first I discussed the career of Sir Isaac Newton, and how his passion for alchemy and its related philosophy influenced and led to his scientific ideas. In the second I addressed the question of how alchemy might be achieved. In the third I made an argument as to why this is important. Here I’ll tell the stories of some of those who have succeeded, so it would appear, in the alchemical quest.
I’ll begin with Isaac Newton himself. In the introduction to this series (before the three just mentioned), I speculated as to whether he had succeeded in his endeavours, in that he had urged another alchemist Robert Boyle to keep “high silence” about knowledge “that is not to be communicated without immense damage to the world”. Why would he say this, and how would he know, if he did not have access to this knowledge? However, one of Newton’s biographers, Michael White, thinks that it is “an obvious fact that no single alchemist has succeeded throughout history”¹. (By the end of this article I hope you will be questioning whether he has done enough research, as he may have jumped too hastily to this conclusion.) He nevertheless describes Newton as “the self-proclaimed, but deluded, discoverer of the philosopher’s stone” (p5). Unfortunately he does not give the source for this remark, but it suggests that somewhere in his writings Newton declared himself successful. Given that he devoted a major part of his life to the quest, and that he was an undisputed scientific genius, this would perhaps not be surprising.
That is just a tantalising fragment. There are other examples about whom we have more knowledge. My primary sources for what follows are chapters 8 and 9 of Mysteries by Colin Wilson², and a talk entitled Alchemy: The Science of Spiritual Transformation, given by Tim Wyatt at a conference of Leeds Theosophical Society on June 9th 2019. (I am extremely grateful to him for providing me with a written transcript of the talk.)
I’ll begin, however, with an anecdote from Michael White’s book (p 104–105), summarised here. Helvetius (real name Johann-Friedrich Schweitzer) was a philosopher and outspoken sceptic of magic and alchemy. After publishing an attack on the alchemist Kenelm Digby, he had an unannounced visit from a stranger “who professed to be a master of the magic arts”. He showed Helvetius three pieces of stone which he said were “fragments of the legendary philosophers’ stone and had the power to transform any base metal into the highest-quality gold”. Helvetius asked him to demonstrate, but he refused, saying that “he would return in three weeks and perform a demonstration of transmutation” in order to persuade him. He kept his promise, and handed Helvetius “a tiny piece of one of the stones, no larger than a mustard seed. When Helvetius suggested that nothing could be done with so small a fragment, the stranger broke it in half, threw one piece into the fire, and handed back the other half, saying that that was enough to make several ounces of gold”.
Helvetius and his wife “melted down some lead coins and threw the tiny grain of stone into the molten metal. When the crucible had cooled they removed it from the fire, and there, at the base of the container, lay a piece of gold which they later found weighed six ounces. Amazed but still doubtful, they took the nugget to the best goldsmith of the region for his validation. After a brief examination of the metal he declared it to be of the finest quality and offered them fifty florins per ounce for it”.
News of the story spread. Helvetius knew the philosopher Spinoza who, also a sceptic and doubtful about the story, visited the goldsmith and was convinced, having seen the gold himself.
Colin Wilson also mentions this story, saying that Helvetius left a detailed account of the events, which suggests that he was impressed. He then quotes E. J. Holmyard: “In most cases of ‘transmutations’ it is not difficult to perceive where trickery could have entered, but in the case of Helvetius, no one has yet discovered the loophole”.
Tim Wyatt identifies this mysterious stranger as the English alchemist Thomas Vaughan, otherwise known as Eirenaeus Philalethes, who “is said to have produced large quantities of both gold and silver”. He adds the following detail: “The gold had even more curious properties. It was shredded and dissolved in nitric acid. Silver was added and then the whole concoction re-separated. Astonishingly it was found that there was more pure gold than there had been originally. Some of the added silver had actually been turned into gold”.
If this example of alchemy is indeed genuine, then Vaughan must have discovered the ultimate secret. Wilson mentions Philalethes, but is unaware of his real identity, calling him “an unknown Englishman”. He says that he “claimed to have completed the Work at the age of twenty-two” (p416). He would seem to be an outstanding candidate for the description of successful alchemist.
Both Wilson and Wyatt mention the Frenchman Nicholas Flamel, and tell a similar story. He had by chance come across an alchemical manuscript, the Book of Abraham the Jew. He and his wife studied it for twenty-one years. Wilson says that he then “made a pilgrimage to Spain, where he met a Jewish doctor who was able to offer him further enlightenment. In 1383, he succeeded in making the ‘red stone’ (the Philosopher’s Stone), and transmuted mercury into gold. He did this three times, obtaining enough money to live comfortably for the remainder of his life”. Wyatt expands upon this last detail, saying that “Flamel had lived a life of poverty but within months he owned 30 separate properties in Paris alone”. Wilson accepts that his manuscript could be a forgery, “but we know that Flamel existed, that he was an alchemist, and that he became a rich man and gave away large sums of money”. That much is fact. Readers can draw their own conclusions.
ALBERT RIEDEL (Frater Albertus)
Wilson tells this story. Israel Regardie is a well-known name in the world of esotericism. He had studied alchemy deeply, and written about it, principally in Philosopher’s Stone, which was essentially a Jungian interpretation, thus claiming that the transformations described in alchemical texts were psychological, spiritual, rather than physical transmutations. Wilson says that this is “one of the best and most stimulating of all works on alchemy, and certainly one of the clearest”. It was surprising therefore when in 1968 Regardie made “a public confession of error”. He had “met a real laboratory alchemist” by the name of Albert Riedel, and had been dumbfounded by his laboratory work, which he had witnessed. He said that “in insisting solely on a mystical interpretation of alchemy, I had done a grave disservice to the ancient sages and philosophers”. Wilson says that he continues: “when Basil Valentinus tells the alchemist to take some antimony, pulverise it and place it in a dish over a fire, he means exactly what he says. There is no spiritual symbolism involved”.
Regardie doesn’t actually “describe the experience that caused this astonishing change of heart”. He did, however, go on to write a preface to The Alchemist’s Handbook by Frater Albertus (Riedel), and this book “gives us a clear idea of at least some of the things Regardie witnessed in Riedel’s laboratory”.
Albertus makes a distinction between the Great Work — the transmutation of metals — and the Lesser Work — “the extraction of the essence of plants or the vegetable stone”. Both works involve the extraction of the essence of the material. He says, however, that the lesser work “can be carried out by any competent chemist”. “But the Greater Work is a different matter; ordinary men cannot do it, for it requires some special power in the alchemist himself”. That is why “he has no intention of giving away the secret of the Great Work, the transmutation of metals. But he offers a clear and detailed account of the ‘lesser work’ ”, with plants. He then adds, tantalisingly, that even though it is not permitted to reveal the secret of the Great Work, anyone who can accomplish the procedures in this current book “can surely accomplish the Grand Arcanum, if he is ready”. All this clearly suggests that Albertus knows the secret of the Great Work, the ability to transmute metals.
The alchemical work with plants (thus the Lesser Work, according to Albertus) is said to have great medicinal value. Someone mentioned by both Wilson and Wyatt pursuing this path was Armand Barbault. According to Wyatt, inspired by a book called The Mutus Lieber, he aimed to produce a universal medicine. “In his book Gold of a Thousand Mornings Barbault describes the long series of cyclical distillations and the remarkable results he achieved. After three years he produced his elixir — his potable gold. But when he sent it off for analysis even the most sophisticated tests failed to identify what it actually was, although it yielded spectacular results when used on terminal patients. Despite this, many scientists were outraged by something they didn’t understand”. Wilson adds the detail that Barbault “prints letters from scientists who have tested it, including one that describes how it cured a woman of multiple sclerosis”.
One of the names in this field best known in modern times is Paracelsus, the Swiss practitioner of alternative, esoteric medicine. He was undoubtedly an alchemist but, given that his preoccupation was with healing people, it is reasonable to assume that he was more involved with the Lesser Work. As Wyatt says: “For Paracelsus alchemy was all about curing disease, not amassing glittering fortunes”.
Another alchemist mentioned by both sources is Alexander Seton, a Scotsman who, according to Wilson, in the sixteenth century demonstrated the transmutation of lead into gold to Jacob Haussen, a Dutch pilot, who left an account. Seton “then travelled around Europe, repeating the demonstration in front of many ‘doctors’, who wrote their own accounts”.
Others mentioned by Wilson are:
- the Belgian chemist Van Helmont, who “described how he had converted four ounces of mercury into gold by means of a powder obtained from a stranger. Van Helmont seems to have been an honest and thoroughly scientific investigator; his account of the Stone was published by his son, who was a disbeliever in alchemy, so the chance of forgery seems minimal”.
- James Price, who claimed that he had transmuted mercury into gold. “In May 1782 he invited a distinguished gathering of men to witness the transmutation. They saw him add a white powder to mercury together with nitre and borax, heat them in a crucible and produce an ingot of silver. When he used a red powder, the result was gold. The specimens were submitted to a goldsmith, who found them to be genuine”. That is the impressive part of the account; it becomes less so as the story continues, since he failed to reproduce the demonstration.
Other alchemists mentioned by Wyatt are: Lascaris, the Comte de St-Germain, Jean Dubuis, Count Bernard of Treviso, and François Jollivet-Castelot. Most worthy of note is Fulcanelli, which is a pseudonym. As well as apparently being a successful alchemist, he wrote The Mystery of the Cathedrals, in which he claimed “that France’s magnificent Gothic cathedrals are basically esoteric textbooks in stone. Alchemy’s secrets — suitably disguised behind symbols — are intricately carved into these giant structures. They are openly displayed — but only to those able to see beyond the allegorical veils”.
In conclusion, I’ll recount the story of Mary Anne South and her father Thomas; Wilson weaves his account of the history of alchemy around them. He does not say that they were alchemists themselves, but that they were “practising occultists, members of a secret society called the Zojese, founded by platonist Thomas Taylor”. As we shall see, however, they had a great interest in, and deep knowledge of, alchemy and its history, which leaves open the question whether they experimented themselves.
They were both accomplished (amateur) scholars, especially of the classics. Thomas “attached particular importance to the Mysteries of Orpheus and Eleusis. These were secret rites of purification and initiation, often involving days of ‘ordeal’. Solemn secrets were imparted to the initiate, and he swore never to divulge them on pain of death”. (This sounds remarkably similar to alchemy on both counts.) They then began to study the Magi, and Mary Anne translated into English the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, “one of the earliest treatises on alchemy”. They had the revelation “that this ancient science of alchemy was not, as is generally assumed, a crude form of chemistry, based on misconceptions about the elements, but a coded form of the Mystery religion of the ancients”, “that alchemy enshrined the ancient Mysteries in symbolic form”.
Mary Anne’s first published work was Early Magnetism, in which she hints that she herself had “received some kind of mystical illumination”. She then went on to write A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery With a Dissertation on the More Celebrated of the Alchemical Philosophers”, which was printed at her father’s expense. However, he was “too absorbed in his vast poem³ to do more than glance at the manuscript and nod approvingly. The book appeared in 1850, and about a hundred copies were sent to libraries and reviewers”.
“Then a strange thing happened. Thomas Smith took the trouble to read the book. His reaction was instantaneous. He went to enormous trouble to call in the copies that had been sent out, made a pile of all the available copies… and burnt them. A very few managed to survive”. Mary Anne “apparently agreed with his verdict”, for after his death “she made no effort to have the book reprinted, although she admitted that its destruction had been a ‘crushing sorrow’ and had permanently destroyed her literary ambitions”. She did, however, much later present one of the few remaining copies of her book to the mystic Anna Kingsford”, and the book was finally reprinted in Belfast in 1918” after her death.
Why did Thomas have this extreme reaction? This can only be a speculation, but the very likely deduction is that he thought his daughter was either revealing, or coming dangerously close to revealing, the great secrets of alchemy which it was forbidden to reveal. Wilson says that “her long ‘Preliminary Account’ is a history of alchemy showing that there is plenty of evidence to prove that alchemists really could transmute base metals into gold”. He had previously expressed his opinion that “Mary Anne knew perfectly well what she was writing from the moment she put pen to paper…”.
She describes the basic aim of alchemy, but this does not seem to add anything to what can be found in earlier texts by practitioners. Then the first chapter of part 2 is entitled “On the True Subject of the Hermetic Art, and Its Concealed Root”, which is tantalising, and we wonder whether the great secret is about to be revealed. She refers to “pseudo-Alchemists”, but then, as Wilson puts it, “we read on, waiting for her to explain what she means by a true alchemist”. Instead she refers to “the secrets of the king” which it is honourable not to reveal. She says that she will offer evidence of the forbidden truth, without directly revealing the king’s secret.
She nevertheless gives the impression that she knows what is required for success, and that “she is withholding tremendous secrets”. Whether this is knowledge of the precise details, or merely a theoretical general understanding, is not clear. Wilson concludes that the Souths “believed they had stumbled on the basic secret which no alchemist had ever stated in so many words, and that they had no right to break the silence of more than a thousand years. Mary Anne did her best to be as discreet as any of her predecessors. Yet she was writing the first general treatise on alchemy in the whole of its long history… No one had ever written a book aimed at the general public”. That is why she chose to express herself in obscure terms, and “in later life she realised that the secret was safe”. “No one seemed to guess what she was talking about”, and “we have not penetrated the whole secret of… her remarkable book”.
In the next article I’ll discuss the implications of alchemy for the future of science, and humanity in general.
1. Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer, Fourth Estate, 1998, p122
2. Panther, 1979
3. an epic about the ancient wisdom