Tag Archives: alchemy

The Many Small Details

 

The seasons change in an alchemist’s patois – using a language that is rich in subtleties and mystery.  It is a sum of transmutations that have been distilled in an earthly alembic ever since the world spun itself into existence.

The change is as delicate yet invasive as a drop of paint falling into a bowl of water, spreading in a fading bouquet of coils and tendrils.  The cusp between seasons is a time of winsome details, tiny births and hushed deaths.  There is an anthology of detail to regale one of what is to come, a silent speech of promises to be fulfilled once the threshold is crossed.  This new dialogue, rough and poignant, contains a revelation of detail that curves into being every three months.  It begins with a change as delicate as twilight dripping into dawn, as elusive as the stars twisting into a new formation.

It is on a periphery, a borderland familiar yet altered, a soft and gradual rift.  If one is clever enough to look and see, to gather together the many small details like a bouquet the change does not go ignored and Nature’s herculean sweat will not be wasted.  Nor will go unheeded the four conversions of the year: fraught with as much magic as a forgotten chemist’s lab, hung with colored glass, philosophies and saucers of bubbling gold.

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The Stuff Of Dreams

The pearl is my birthstone. I have always been proud of its history, of its oblique beginnings at the bottom of the sea. I have always been proud of its fame: of La Peregrina (“priceless and incomparable in this world”), La Huerfana, Hope, Arco Valley. They’ve done time hanging from the necks of royalty, aristocrats, and criminals. I’ve seen the pearl featured in paintings: resting against the trussed chests of Isabella of Portugal

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and Mary I;

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hanging from a young woman’s ear in astral splendor in “The Girl With A Pearl Earring”.

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Pearls symbolize innocence and decorate the veils of brides; yet they also decorate the chariot of Neptune, raw and swarthy. Pearls have traditionally symbolized the tear drops of the moon: a delightful thought.

On the other hand, I’ve always had pity for the lapis lazuli birthstone. The name is unwieldy and unpronounceable. Uncomfortably foreign, I was never even sure of its color. It is the birthstone of December, and I have since learned that it isn’t even its primary gem – losing to the turquoise and blue topaz in an azure competition. I knew nothing of its meaning, its worth, its use.

But I know now, and I am somewhat ashamed to have held such a noble stone in contempt for so many years.

First, there is the look of it. Its color is a rich, royal blue; it sparkles with pyrite, giving it a look of a twilight sky dazzled with golden stars. Its color was of such intense opulence and rarity, it was mined as far back as the 7th millennium BC to be used as the finest jewelry. Minutely carved scarabs and beads have been found in Neolithic burials in the Caucasus and Mauritania. The Babylonians and Assyrians used it for jewelry as well, for amulets and cylinder seals, the small engraved cylinders used to roll impressions onto clay. Invented around 3500 BC, they have been found in gravesites, to provide good fortune for the dead.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, from the 17th-18th century BC, is recognized as one of the oldest known works of literature. Many times lapis lazuli is mentioned, the first time, many agree, a precious stone has appeared in a narrative:

From the prologue:
“Pick up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out
the travels of Gilgamesh, all that he went through…”

Ishtar beseeches Gilgamesh:
“Be you my husband, and I will be your wife.
I will have harnessed for you a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold”

Gilgamesh declares in “The Flood Myth”:
“Ye gods, as surely as I shall not forget this lapis lazuli [amulet] around my neck, I shall be mindful of these days and never forget them!”

It was saved for the most exclusive of adornments. Powdered lapis was used as eyeshadow by Cleopatra. It was used to embellish the funeral mask of Tutankhamun.

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Royal and priestly garments were shamelessly dyed with the mystic blue in order to designate their status as gods. Catherine the Great used lapis lazuli to decorate The Lyons Hall of the Catherine Palace, saturating ceiling and furniture with impenetrable majesty.

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By the end of the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli was being ground into the most valuable of all blue pigments, ultramarine “the most perfect of all colors”. It found its way into lush Baroque skies, Renaissance frescoes; it was an exalted color, used for Annunciations and the Virgin’s cloak. It was even used to color the turban the young woman wore, as thick with light as her celestial earring.

So in history, art and literature the lofty excellence of lapis lazuli has played a significant part. But its fame does not stop there; it has one more role to play: the leading one, the force that drives the tangled mythos of alchemy.

Lapis is the Latin word for “stone”. And every transmutation, equation, calculation and alteration that burns in the alchemical retort is for one purpose: to purify the “dark matter” the earthy “chaos” that had putrefied the four elements since the fall of Adam and to elevate them once more towards the celestial belt, the Elysian “lapis”.

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It is the “lapis philosophorum”, the Philosopher’s Stone, the sun and moon tree, the Treasure-house of Wisdom “from there that wisdom rises” (Umail at-Tamimi, 10th century), and described by Hermes Trismegistus in The Emerald Tablet: “the father of it is the Sun, the mother of it is the Moon; the wind carries it in its belly; the nurse thereof is the Earth”.

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Now, it is true that the surname of ‘Lazuli’ does not appear in these obscure teachings, but the lapis lazuli is universally known to represent truth, enlightenment and inner vision – perhaps a nod and a wink to the twisted logic and bizarre mathematics of its alchemic ancestry.

In “The Tempest”, Shakespeare wrote the words, ‘We are such stuff/As dreams are made on’. They were spoken by the magician Prospero, as he reflected on the similarity between the spiritual and the corporeal, the confrontation between the dreaming and waking states. In very different circumstances, a rumpled cynic contemplated the statue of a dark falcon, naming its strange appeal as ‘the stuff that dreams are made of’ – the futility, the greed, the desperation, the hopeless competitive spirit that keeps people reaching for what they can never grasp.

But I still insist that the stuff of dreams are buried in the earth, that they are swimming beneath the waves. They have complexities of color and shape; they shine in the darkness. And they were born out of the most extraordinary circumstances: from the irritation of a grain of sand to the formative power of sediment, rivers and volcanoes.

But it was the caprice of humanity which gave the gemstones added meaning and value – long after they were pulled out of their earthly homes. But we can’t help it. We will always dream.

The Wandering Alchemist

I’ve always felt an affinity to alchemy.  Not for the practice, or the ingredients, or its somewhat doubtful practitioners.  I’ve always appreciated what it represented:  the path that it chose between magic and science for thousands of years.  It paused between the two arts – borrowing from each one, twisting logic, assembling the mathematics of dreaming.

I could imagine the alchemist in his undefined hospice, surrounded by plates of dragons’ scales – their fires caught in jars, burning like imprisoned galaxies.  Flowers harvested from hidden countrysides hung from the rafters, their scent only a dusky memory, their colors confused and in transition.  Charts of odd symbols and obscure equations covered the walls, creating an endless map of nonsense and wishful thinking.

But in the 18th century, science put its fist down, frightening its whimsical intruder  into hiding – clouds of powdered bones and jewels rising from its trembling shoulders.  Science, bearing a quiver of rationale and common sense, made its presence known with such authority that this time became its own, and was called the Age of Reason.

The laboratories of scientists and chemists were as thrilling as those of the alchemists’.  Sinewy arms of smoke embraced those small rooms:  from the furnaces and fire-places used to burn elements down to their fundamental DNA, from the crucibles and Balneum Mariaes filled with metals reduced to lava.  They reeked with the brimstone smell of flowers of sulphur and hartshorn – the rutting scent of the deer’s antlers and hooves melted into a dark oil.  Ceramic gallipots populated the shelves, full of medicines and chemicals powdered into the consistency of deserts.  A network of glass tubing circulated around the scientist’s dank offices, creating an anatomy of desire and discovery.

The laboratory of Richard Siddall, at the Golden Head in Panton Street, near the Haymarket, London contained even more legitimate wonders:

All Sorts of Druggs

Hanging from the ceiling and braced against walls was a zoological garden of taxidermy:  a crocodile, the head of an elephant and of a rhinoceros; there were fish and shells – their glow of ocean life long lost.  Stoves and instruments, jars and clocks cluttered this sanctum of discovery – elements were boiled and split, their physical coil pulled apart and rebraided.  And overseeing this chemical mischief was a bust of Galen, surgeon to gladiators, vivisector, dissector, theorist, anatomist, philosopher – antiquity’s greatist physician and herald to a new type of scientific thought.

Buoyed by natural law and Galen’s benign profile, Mr. Siddall could make his claim, “Makes and sells all manner of chymical and Galenical medicines, with all sorts of druggs; wholesale & retail, at very reasonable rates. N.B. the elixir for the asthma, as also for the gout and rheumatism”

And alchemy’s defeat seemed absolute.   But during a century littered with the corpses of myth, a legend lived.

The Count of St. Germain was born in the early 18th century.  Descriptions of him were curious and tempting:  courtier, adventurer, charlatan, inventor, alchemist, musician, composer.  His mind was confused and courageous, buzzing into mysticism, occultism, secret societies and conspiracies like a foolish bee.  European society was charmed with this charming new toy, and gave him many titles:  Wonderman, The Wandering Jew, The Wandering Alchemist.

To Believe Or Not Believe

Details about the Count are scarce.  Some said he was the son of the Prince of Transylvania, or of Sultan Mustapha II – others claimed he was the illegitimate son of the widow of Charles II of Spain.  There were other theories too, storied vines twisting around a family tree that had long become obscured.

Horace Walpole was wryly impressed:  “he sings, plays on the violin wonderfully, composes, is mad, and not very sensible”.  The peeress Lady Jemima Yorke with a flutter of fingertips and diamonds, was fascinated by this “Odd Creature… I can’t but fancy he is a great Pretender in All kinds of Science, as well as that he really has acquired an uncommon Share in some”.  Casanova dined with him and wrote at length about “This extraordinary man, intended by nature to be the king of impostors and quacks, would say in an easy, assured manner that he was three hundred years old, that he knew the secret of the Universal Medicine, that he possessed a mastery over nature, that he could melt diamonds… I thought him an astonishing man as he was always astonishing me.”

Salons – bored and rarefied – purred with gossip about his fabulous stories: and wished that every word was true. For this was as much the time of Cagliostro and Muchausen as it was of Rousseau and Schiller.

The Count had gained the favour of Madame de Pompadour and Louis XV.  Their jaded approval found him a suite of rooms in Chambord château, the filigreed jewel of the Loire Valley.  A laboratory was constructed for him, where – it was said – he invented dyes of new, subtle colors, melted and created jewels, and was seen to convert “iron into a metal as beautiful as gold”.  Within the depths of chemistry, the dreams of alchemy re-asserted themselves as he continued the search for eternal life and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The Count de St. Germain dared to make many claims:  he spoke many languages and possessed several identities.   He also asserted that he had lived many lives.  And the aristocracy devoured the proof he offered,  that life spanned for centuries until it disappeared beneath the horizons like a distant sun and that for thousands of years he had wandered across the sky, gathering histories – holding them like stars in his hands.

He said he was part of the legend of the Wandering Jew, a Christian tale first printed in 1223.  He had met Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba.  He had anecdotes of life at the Valois court, the 16th century pit of politics and despair.  He had known Jesus Christ.  He had lived for thousands of years.

Voltaire described him as a “man who never dies, and who knows everything”.  He himself didn’t believe the Count…yet he knew that many did.

The Count of St. Germain died on February 27, 1784.  He was buried in a private grave.  There were no jewels left behind, or gold, or gallipots full of fabulous color.  There were no manuscripts or letters.  Perhaps they never existed.  Perhaps he took them with him, on another journey.

Yet he might have left something after all, an odd kind of hope – a faith in wonder.  He had once confided to Madame de Pompadour,   “Sometimes I amuse myself, not by making people believe, but by letting them believe, that I have lived in the most remote period”.  Anything could have happened, Count; it is just up to us to believe.