This paper will trace the ancient history of alchemy, its goals and objectives, and explain the Seven Stages of Alchemical Transformation. Later, I will discuss the books one at a time, discussing the alchemical imagery and symbolism in each as it relates to both the Seven Stages and to the plot. Finally, I will attempt to make some predictions about the coming book based on the principles of alchemy and the elements necessary for Harry to finish his journey to enlightenment and spiritual immortality.
I. A (Very) Short Introduction to Alchemy
Alchemy is an early protoscientific practice combining elements of chemistry, physics, astrology, art, semiotics, metallurgy, medicine, mysticism, and religion. Two intertwined goals sought by many alchemists were the philosopher’s stone, a mythical substance which would enable the transmutation of common metals into gold; and the universal panacea, a remedy that would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely. Alchemy can be regarded as the precursor of the modern science of chemistry prior to the formulation of the scientific method.
The word alchemy comes from the Arabic al-kimiya or al-khimiya and the Greek word khumeia, meaning “cast together”, “pour together”, “weld”, “alloy”, etc. (from khumatos, “that which is poured out, an ingot”). Another etymology links the word with “Al Kemi”, meaning “the Egyptian Art”, since the ancient Egyptians called their land “Kemi” and were widely regarded as powerful magicians throughout the ancient world.
That is the standard textbook definition of alchemy as a science, one that is found verbatim on any number of alchemy websites. As we shall see, however, the alchemists themselves were anything but crackpots, heathens and Occultists. Alchemy was far more than an infantile protoscience based on quasi-scientific principles and steeped in allegory and metaphor, although it certainly had plenty of that.
No one really knows how old alchemy is. According to alchemylab.com, there is some evidence that the advent of alchemy predates the Agricultural Revolution, which occurred around 8,000 years ago. Some sources connect alchemy with shamanism and metallurgy; it was certainly known in Sumer, Egypt and Babylonia and later in Greece, blending more and more with metallurgy and divination until the advent of Christianity, when it became a full-fledged philosophy in its own right. Many of the medieval alchemists were devoutly Christian or Muslim, and began every day with prayers and devotions.
Alchemy as a philosophy (as well as Tarot, the Kabbalah, astrology and all occult studies) owes its existence to a single document called The Emerald Tablet, also known as the Smaragdine Table, The Secrets of Hermes or Tabula smaragdina of Hermes Trismegistus. It is a short, cryptic text that claims to reveal the secret of the primordial substance and its transmutations. Until the twentieth century, its earliest known sources were Medieval Latin manuscripts, but the oldest documented source for the text is the Kitab Sirr al-Asrar, a book of advice for rulers authored by Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani in around 800 AD. This work was translated into Latin as Secretum Secretorum (The Secret of Secrets) by Johannes “Hispalensis” or Hispaniensis (John of Seville) around 1140 AD and by Philip of Tripoli around 1243 AD.1
The key word here is “documented.” The origins of the Emerald Tablet may well go back several thousand years; it was translated into Greek by Alexandrian scholars and was actually put on display in Egypt in 330 BC. Around the year 400 AD, it was reportedly buried somewhere on the Giza plateau to protect it from religious zealots who were burning libraries around the world at that time. Many believe the tablet still lies hidden there, hidden under a hypogeum beneath the rear paws of the Sphinx. According to legend, the Egyptian god Thoth built a Hall of Records there, storing all of the records of mankind from before the universal flood.
To clarify one point: Hermes Trismegistus is not to be confused with the Greek god Hermes. While the name Hermes Trismegistus means “Hermes Thrice Great”, the name is really a combination of the Greek god and Thoth, the Egyptian god of knowledge, wisdom, and writing. Incidentally, the Greeks, and the Romans after them, refused to identify Thoth with Hermes or Mercury, and Cicero noted several individuals known as Hermes. Hermes and Thoth did, however, share many similar traits. Both are gods of writing, communication and magic, and both were regarded as psychopomps, or gods that acted as guides to souls in the afterlife.
In the 14th century, the alchemist Ortolanus wrote The Secret of Hermes, which was influential on the subsequent development of alchemy. Many manuscripts of this copy of the Emerald Tablet and the commentary of Ortolanus survive, dating at least as far back as the 15th century. The Tablet has also been found appended to manuscripts of the Kitab Ustuqus al-Uss al-Thani (Second Book of the Elements of Foundation) attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan or Geber, and the Kitab Sirr al-Khaliqa wa San`at al-Tabi`a (Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature), dated between 650 and 830 AD.
From the beginning of the text comes the motto of the alchemists: As above, so below. It is a metaphor for recreating heaven on earth via the secrets of the ancients, who certainly knew far better than we how to do it. From The Emerald Tablet:
That which is above is from that which is below, and that which is below is from that which is above, working the miracles of one.
As all things were from one.
Its father is the Sun and its mother the Moon.
The Earth carried it in her belly, and the Wind nourished it in her belly,
as Earth which shall become Fire.
Feed the Earth from that which is subtle, with the greatest power.
It ascends from the earth to the heaven and becomes ruler over that which is above and that which is below.
And I have already explained the meaning of the whole of this in two of these books of mine.
II. Alchemy’s Goals and Objectives: Harry Potter and Tom Riddle
The medieval alchemists pursued three objectives:
· The transmutation of base metals into gold
· The immortality of the soul and spirit
· The creation of artificial life
While many alchemists spent decades trying to turn base metals into gold by means of a vague substance called the Philosopher’s Stone, others, like William Lilly and Nicholas Flamel, pursued the spiritual enlightenment of the soul. While these objectives may seem incompatible or even mutually exclusive, it is important to remember that alchemy was both a philosophy and an experimental science, and the transmutation of the metals enabled the alchemists to try to prove that the Above could be recreated in the Below; in short, recreating heaven on earth and in the soul. We see the genuine scientific spirit in the saying of one of the alchemists: “Would to God . . . all men might become adepts in our Art -- for then gold, the great idol of mankind, would lose its value, and we should prize it only for its scientific teaching.” 2 Unfortunately, however, not many alchemists came up to this ideal; and for the majority of them, alchemy did mean merely the possibility of making gold cheaply and gaining untold wealth.
The third goal of alchemy—the creation of life from nothing—belonged almost entirely to the Islamic alchemists. This will come into play later when we discuss Goblet of Fire. The Islamic alchemists, especially Jabir ibn Hayyan or Geber, experimented with the principles of the elements in the hopes of producing takwin, the artificial creation of life, including human life, in the laboratory. As far as we know Geber did not succeed, but Mary Shelley played on this theme in her novel Frankenstein, as did many other authors of the time. They called their creations homunculus, or “little man,” and it appears that the great medieval alchemist and physician Paracelsus coined the term after he supposedly created a false man that stood only about 12 inches tall. The concept is similar to the Jewish golem, which was the creation of life from inanimate objects, and the homunuculi usually did the work ascribed to golems.
Alchemy contains a profoundly mystical element, and anyone trying to study it with a modern viewpoint or from a purely scientific standpoint will not understand or appreciate it. The alchemists always spoke of their art as a Divine Gift, one whose secrets could not be learned from any book, and could only be achieved by long years of study and devotion. Enlightenment, when and if it came, occurred all at once and without warning. More than one alchemist marveled at how simple the answer was and how long it took them to grasp it. The right mental attitude with God was the crucial first step to achieving The Great Work (magnum opus), because alchemy is a three-fold transformation: physical, spiritual and psychological.
According to The Hermetic House: “From the ascetic standpoint…the development of the soul is only fully possible with the mortification of the body; and all true Mysticism teaches that if we would reach the highest goal possible for man -- union with the Divine -- there must be a giving up of our own individual wills, an abasement of the soul before the Spirit. And so the alchemists taught that for the achievement of the magnum opus on the physical plane, we must strip the metals of their outward properties in order to develop the essence within. As says Helvetius:
“... The essences of metals are hidden in their outward bodies, as the kernel is hidden in the nut. Every earthly body, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral, is the habitation and terrestrial abode of that celestial spirit, or influence, which is its principle of life or growth. The secret of Alchemy is the destruction of the body, which enables the Artist to get at, and utilise for his own purposes, the living soul.” This killing of the outward nature of material things was to be brought about by the processes of putrefaction and decay; hence the reason why such processes figure so largely in alchemistic recipes for the preparation of the “Divine Magistery.” 3
The seeker must enter his studies with a pure heart. Those that fail to do so—to use alchemy for power or financial gain—would never achieve spiritual perfection and immortality. I suspect that this is what happened to Tom Riddle. In his quest for knowledge about the Horcruxes and in his experiments to become immortal, his heart and his motives were not pure. He used his gain to mutilate his soul, an act that went against the laws of nature and of God. And he paid for it: In the chapter, “Lord Voldemort’s Request”, we see the result of his folly. His good looks are gone—not yet snakelike, but only a shadow of what they once were. The outside mirrors the inside. A mutilated and maligned soul cannot be encased in a beautiful package:
“In the first place, let every devout and God-fearing chemist and student of this Art consider that this arcanum should be regarded, not only as a truly great, but as a most holy Art (seeing that it typifies and shadows out the highest heavenly good). Therefore, if any man desire to reach this great and unspeakable Mystery, he must remember that it is obtained not by the might of man, but by the grace of God, and that not our will or desire, but only the mercy of the Most High, can bestow it upon us.
“For this reason you must first of all cleanse your heart, lift it up to Him alone, and ask of Him this gift in true, earnest, and undoubting prayer. He alone can give and bestow it.” 4
Thomas Norton in his Orindall of Alchemy puts it quite nicely when he says:
“...A singular grace and gift of the Almighty
Which never was found, as witness we can,
Nor this science was ever taught to man...
ALSO NO MAN SHOULD THIS SCIENCE TEACH
For it is so wonderful and so selcouth
That it must needs be taught fro mouth to mouth,
Also he must (if he be never so loath),
Receive it with a most sacred oath,
That, as we refuse great dignity and fame,
So he must needly refuse the same...
So that for doubt of such pride and wealth
He must beware that what this science teach
No man therefor may reach this present
But he has virtues excellent.” 5
Tom Riddle also sought the knowledge of the alchemists; he, too, sought immortality of the soul and spirit in order to remain here on earth. The difference between Riddle and Harry, however, is their motivations for seeking the knowledge to begin with. Tom wanted power and gain while Harry did not. A prime example of this is one of the final chapters of the first book—”The Mirror of Erised.” Dumbledore, himself an alchemist, was well aware of the principle of love and enlightenment, and hid the Stone in a place where only the pure at heart would be able to obtain it. Professor Quirrell could see himself with the Philosopher’s Stone but could not get it. Why? Because he wanted it for material gain and power—to return his master to strength. Harry, on the other hand, wanted to get the Stone to keep it safe; in no way did he ever intend to use it for himself. This is why he was able to get the Stone from the Mirror.
This is the path on which Harry finds himself—the path to enlightenment. Only by seeking that part of himself—his goodness and love—will he find the means to destroy Voldemort once and for all. He must become the physical embodiment of the Philosopher’s Stone, achieving spiritual perfection and immortality, before he will finally be free of the bond between himself and Tom Riddle.
III. The Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life
First mentioned by Zosimos the Theban in the third century BC, the concept of the Philosopher’s Stone is truly ancient. It is known by many names in many civilizations, but the concept is still the same: the Philosopher’s Stone is a means by which humans can achieve spiritual perfection and immortality. It represents the force behind life and the universal binding power between the mind and the body.
One of the oldest manifestations of the Stone is as old as civilization itself. The Sumerian Water of Life, now known as alcohol or aqua vitae, was also called “the living water” or “water with spirits” and was used in alchemy as a distillation agent. It was mentioned in The Epic of Gilgamesh and featured prominently in the myth of the goddess Inanna’s rebirth after her sister Eriskegal, the wife of the god of death, murdered her in the Underworld.
The Benben Stone of Egyptian legend was also called “the stone that fell from heaven” (lapsit ex caelis). It was the symbol of the sun, pyramidal in shape, and resided in the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis, the center of religion and astronomy in ancient Egypt. The Benben Stone was rumored to have the secrets of life inscribed on it. The Latin translation of the Philosopher’s Stone/Elixir of Life is ex lapis elixir, which is eerily similar to the name that Wolfram von Esenbach gives to the Holy Grail in his Arthurian romance Parzival (lapsit exillis). In fact, Wolfram goes out of his way to describe the Grail as a stone, and his choice of words does not seem coincidental. The term lapsit exillis could also be translated as lapsit ex caelis: the “stone that fell from heaven,” which implies that both the Stone and the Grail can be traced back at least to ancient Egypt, although it is probably far older than that.
Some of the Stone’s other manifestations include:
· Lia Fail, Ireland/Stone of Destiny, Scotland
· Keridwen’s Cauldron of Immortality, Ireland
· Jacob’s Stone, Biblical
· Bran’s Cauldron of Rebirth, Wales
· The Holy Grail, European
· Kaba’a, Islam
The Stone was viewed as a magical substance that could immediately perfect any substance or situation. The Philosopher’s Stone has been associated with the many other mystical and religious examples and phenomena, including the Salt of the World, the Astral Body, the Elixir, and even Jesus Christ. The Elixir of the alchemists has essentially the same ability to perfect any substance. As the universal panacea, the Elixir cures diseases and restores youth.
If the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone was difficult, the creation of the Elixir of Life was next to impossible. The Elixir of Life must contain the four elements (fire, earth, air and water) plus the three principles of animal, vegetable and prima materia (tan). To work with these ingredients many thought it was necessary to use crocodile livers, human skeletons, mandrake roots, and gall bladders of antelopes as well as other bizarre ingredients.
The prima materia or tan is thought to be the mineral cinnabar, or mercury sulfide, also known as Dragons Blood. We learned in The Philosopher’s Stone that Albus Dumbledore was the partner of Nicolas Flamel, who possessed “the only known Philosopher’s Stone.” As we shall see, Flamel was one of alchemy’s premier students, and that Dumbledore was his partner is surely no accident on Rowling’s part. Dumbledore was then familiar with the knowledge of the alchemists, their goals and objectives, and the attitude necessary to succeed in their quest. Rowling credits Dumbledore with the discovery of the twelve uses of Dragons Blood, which is a very crucial ingredient in the construction of the Philosopher’s Stone. Long used by the ancients as a drug of longevity, cinnabar has been mined since ancient times and is highly toxic due to its mercury content.
Dragon’s Blood is also the name of a plant, Dracaena draco, which is native to the Canary Islands, and another plant, D. cinnabari, which is found only on the island of Socotra off the south coast of Arabia. The dried resin from these plants was thought to have magical properties due to their bright red color. Dragon’s Blood is now used in a variety of industrial applications—as a varnish and in photoengraving among others. It is still used in India for ceremonial purposes. Although it has many more than twelve uses, none of them is oven cleaner!
Cinnabar, also called vermellion, combined the two important substances in alchemy: mercury and sulfur. According to Paracelsus:
“NATURE begets a mineral in the bowels of the earth. There are two kinds of it, which are found in many districts of Europe. The best which has been offered to me, which also has been found genuine in experimentation, is externally in the figure of the greater world, and is in the eastern part of the sphere of the Sun. The other, in the Southern Star, is now in its first efflorescence. The bowels of the earth thrust this forth through its surface. It is found red in its first coagulation, and in it lie hid all the flowers and colours of the minerals. Much has been written about it by the philosophers, for it is of a cold and moist nature, and agrees with the element of water.
So far as relates to the knowledge of it and experiment with it, all the philosophers before me, though they have aimed at it with their missiles, have gone very wide of the mark. They believed that Mercury and Sulphur were the mother of all metals, never even dreaming of making mention meanwhile of a third; and yet when the water is separated from it by Spagyric Art the truth is plainly revealed, though it was unknown to Galen or to Avicenna. But if, for the sake of our excellent physicians, we had to describe only the name, the composition; the dissolution, and coagulation, as in the beginning of the world Nature proceeds with all growing things, a whole year would scarcely suffice me, and, in order to explain these things, not even the skins of numerous cows would be adequate.
Now, I assert that in this mineral are found three principles, which are Mercury, Sulphur, and the Mineral Water which has served to naturally coagulate it. Spagyric science is able to extract this last from its proper juice when it is not altogether matured, in the middle of the autumn, just like a pear from a tree. The tree potentially contains the pear. If the Celestial Stars and Nature agree, the tree first of all puts forth shoots in the month of March; then it thrusts out buds, and when these open the flower appears, and so on in due order until in autumn the pear grows ripe. So is it with the minerals. These are born, in like manner, in the bowels of the earth. Let the Alchemists who are seeking the Treasure of Treasures carefully note this. I will shew them the way, its beginning, its middle, and its end. In the following treatise I will describe the proper Water, the proper Sulphur, and the proper Balm thereof. By means of these three the resolution and composition are coagulated into one…” 6
As we know, the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life were the primary goals of the alchemists. The Philosopher’s Stone was the substance that could turn inexpensive lead into gold and create a universal panacea that would make humans immortal—the Elixir of Life. The Great Work, or Magnum Opus, refers to the quest for this stone. In addition, making the Philosopher’s Stone was understood to confer a type of initiation upon the student, and this initiation is the proper culmination of the Great Work. The Philosopher’s Stone is a symbol for the journey to enlightenment by breaking down and recombining elements within us (solve et coagula).
Although there were traditionally seven stages to the completion of the Philosopher’s Stone, other authors put the number higher. According to the Ripley Scroll, there were 12 steps involved in making the Philosopher’s Stone. Basil Valentine wrote The Twelve Keys. The difference in the systems is that the traditional seven-step system dates back to The Emerald Tablet, while the 12-step system deals more with astrological archetypes.
Ripley wrote about the four known elements: fire, earth, air and water:
You must make Water of the Earth, and Earth of the Air, and Air of the Fire, and Fire of the Earth.” 7
According to Wikipedia, the alchemists believed that all four elements were interdependent on each other, and that any process would yield the four elements. This idea goes back to the philosophers, specifically Empedocles of Agrigent (440 B.C.), who considered that there were four elements -- earth, water, air, and fire. Aristotle added the so-called Fifth Element, “the ether.” (alt: aether) These elements were regarded, not as different kinds of matter, but rather as different forms of the one original matter, whereby it manifested different properties. It was thought that this was due the four primary properties of dryness, moistness, warmth, and coldness, with each element having two of these properties: fire was equated with hot and dry, hot and wet to air, wet and cold to water, and dry and cold to earth. Thus, moist and cold bodies (most liquids) were called “waters”. Also, since these elements were not regarded as different kinds of matter, the alchemists thought transmutation was possible. In fact, it is possible, but it took the development of nuclear fission to make the alchemists’ dreams a reality.
According to Rowling, the four Houses of Hogwarts are used to represent these four elements. Gryffindor is Fire, Ravenclaw is Air, Hufflpuff is Earth and Slytherin is Water. But what about Aristotle’s Fifth Element, the ether? This is where Harry comes in. The ether, or quintessence, stands alone above the other elements. It is pure and incorruptible, the essential presence of something or someone. The quintessence combines the Above and the Below, the mental as well as the material. It can be thought of as the ethereal embodiment of the life force that we encounter in dreams and altered states of consciousness. According to the Greeks, the ether was the celestial fire in the Greek view, the pure essence in which the gods lived and breathed, and the Greeks likened it to the radiant heat from the sun, which could move in empty space; this prompted Aristotle to claim that “nature abhors a vacuum.” 8
The classical elements are often used together thematically in modern fantasy, science fiction, film and television. Typically, a magician, wizard or someone able to wield magic has the ability to influence one of the elements, or can use the elements to affect the world around him. The fifth element or quintessence is embodied in the hero, who is usually the epitome of love, and pure love at that. Examples of this theme include Captain Planet, where Captain Planet is summoned by combining the power of five rings that each represent one of the four classical elements, as well as a ring that represents “Heart”; Terry Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth series and the children’s television show Avatar, where four nations representing the four elements are at war. Each nation’s “wizards” have the ability to control the element for which their nation is named. The Avatar, Ang, a young child, is the only one who can control all four elements and bring the nations back into harmony. Yet another example is the feature film The Fifth Element, where the main character (played by Bruce Willis) must use the four elements to power a weapon for Earth’s defense, along with love, the “fifth element.” More recent examples include two popular films from the past year: The Incredibles and The Fantastic Four (which was originally a comic book).
Harry is on a quest to discover the quintessence within himself. He is the one who can unite the four houses as one. He alone contains all four characteristics within himself. The search for the quintessence is the search for the Philosopher’s Stone—his awakening and spiritual immortality.
In The Half Blood Prince, we even find Harry reading a book on the quintessence:
“Harry did not answer, but pretended to be absorbed in the book they were supposed to have read before Charms next morning, Quintessence: A Quest.” (US Deluxe HBP, p. 304)
IV. The Tools of Alchemy and Harry Potter
The alchemists believed that the universal formula contained in the Emerald Tablet was the basis for a spiritual philosophy first introduced in ancient Egypt in remote antiquity—some sources say more than 10,000 years ago. This formula consists of seven consecutive operations performed on the “matter” - whether it be of a physical, psychological, or spiritual nature.
Basil Valentine, in his Azoth of the Philosophers, describes the full meaning of the One Thing, which are both the chaotic First Matter at the beginning of the Work and the perfected Stone at its conclusion. The word “Azoth” is from the Emerald Tablet; the “A” and “Z” in the word related to the Greek alpha and omega, which means simply the beginning and end of all things.9
In the above drawing, taken from The Seven Stages of Alchemical Transformation, a salamander engulfed in flames and a standing bird are touching the wings of a caduceus. Below the salamander is the inscription Anima (Soul); below the bird is the inscription Spiritus (Spirit). Corpus means Body. According to the Alchemy Electronic Dictionary, the soul is “ the passive presence in all of us that survives through all eternity and is therefore part of the original substance (First Matter) of the universe. Ultimately, it is the One Thing of the universe. Soul was considered beyond the four material elements and thus conceptualized as a fifth element (or Quintessence).” The spirit is “the active presence in all of us that strives toward perfection. Spirit seeks material manifestation for expression. Ultimately, it is the One Mind of the universe.” In other words, the soul is what we’re born with; it’s the spirit and the choices that we make in life that molds us into who we are, a point that Rowling drives home again and again in the novels.
Spiritus, Anima, and Corpus form a large inverted triangle that stands behind the central emblem. According to McLean, together they symbolize the three archetypal celestial forces that the alchemists termed Sulfur, Mercury, and Salt. In the philosophy of alchemy, these are not chemicals at all, but our feelings, thoughts, and body.
Before we discuss the books and how Rowling cleverly weaves the threads of alchemy through them, it is necessary to give a few brief definitions and descriptions of the basic substances used in alchemy. There were seven metals known to the alchemists: gold, silver, mercury, lead, copper, tin and iron (see figure 1). Each one played a specific role in the formation of the Philosopher’s Stone; however, as we shall see, the alchemists were not always clear on the names of the substances, often couching them in metaphor and symbolism. In addition, prior to the nineteenth century there was no universal nomenclature system in place for chemical elements. What one alchemist called sulfur another might call mercury and vice versa; this makes interpreting their texts extremely difficult.
Figure 1: The Seven Metals of Alchemy and their ruling planets.
In addition to the seven metals, there were also other elements and compounds in use: vitriol, antimony (the Grey Wolf or stribite), saltpeter (potassium nitrate), a combination of sulfuric acid and nitric acid (called aqua regis), nitric acid (aqua fortae), water, sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride), alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) and salt, among others.
It is important to remember that elements that had the same properties were classified under the same name; for example, the more combustible compounds the alchemists worked with were given the name “sulfur”, although clearly they are not all elemental sulfur. Mercury was well known for its ability to bond, and was famous for its luster and malleability. But the alchemists labeled many substances as “mercury”— those that were soft, shiny and easy to work with, which includes most metals --and sometimes it is difficult to determine just what they are talking about. Again, the alchemists themselves are never clear about just which “sulfur” or “mercury” they were referring to, which only compounds the problem of translation.
The three most important substances in alchemy were mercury, sulfur and salt. The alchemists believed that all metals were made up of mercury and sulfur, in different proportions and degrees of purity. Mercury was also known as quicksilver or unicorn blood and was used to make red mercury oxide by heating it in a solution of nitric acid. A thick red vapor hung over the solution, and bright red crystals precipitated at the bottom. This convinced the alchemists that mercury transcended the liquid and solid states, and consequently both heaven and earth and life and death. Mercury was the cause of “perfection” in the metals, and gave gold its luster. An unknown alchemist, quoting Arnold de Villanova, writes: “Quicksilver is the elementary form of all things fusible; for all things fusible, when melted, are changed into it, and it mingles with them because it is of the same substance with them. Such bodies differ from quicksilver in their composition only so far as itself is or is not free from the foreign matter of impure sulphur.” 10 The “philosophical mercury”, which was present in the seeker’s quest for enlightenment, was absolutely necessary for the completion of the Magnum Opus. In alchemy, a serpent or snake often represents mercury.
The alchemists believed that an excess of sulfur in the metals caused impurities. By sloughing off the excess sulfur through a purification process, they would be left with pure mercury or quicksilver. Geber called sulfur “the fat of the earth, by temperate Decoction in the Mine of the Earth thickened, until it be hardened and made dry.” 11 He considered an excess of sulfur to be a cause of imperfection in the metals, and he writes that one of the causes of the corruption of the metals by fire “is the Inclusion of a burning Sulphuriety in the profundity of their Substance, diminishing them by Inflamation, and exterminating also into Fume, with extream Consumption, whatsoever Argentvive in them is of good Fixation.” 12 He assumed, further, that the metals contained two kinds of sulfur: incombustible as well as combustible sulfur, the second being apparently regarded as an impurity.13 A later alchemist says that sulfur is “most easily recognised by the vital spirit in animals, the colour in metals, the odour in plants.” 14 To make matters worse, the term sulfur was also given to any brightly colored substance.
According to The Hermetic House: Alchemy Ancient and Modern, this “sulphur-mercury theory of the metals was held by such famous alchemists as Roger Bacon, Arnold de Villanova and Raymond Lully.” 15 Salt, on the other hand, was a late addition to alchemy. Salt was the beginning and the end of the Great Work, and that concept that will be extremely important in our analysis of the books. As with mercury and sulfur, the alchemists were not referring to table salt here. Any substance that was resistant to fire was called a “salt.” Isaac of Holland and Basil Valentine attempted to explain the differences in the metals by the amount of mercury, sulfur and salt they contained. For example, copper, which is brightly colored, was said to contain an excess of sulfur, while iron, which is hard, was said to contain an excess of salt. Paracelsus and others heartily approved of the addition of salt to the list of alchemical substances, although salt remained less important than either mercury or sulfur.
Vitriol is another substance that we will come across in the course of our analysis. It is the most important liquid in alchemy, bar none, serving as a catalyst for all subsequent reactions. It was distilled from an oily, green substance (copper sulfate) that formed naturally from the weathering of sulfur-bearing gravel. This Green Vitriol is symbolized by the Green Lion in alchemical drawings. After it was collected, it was heated and broken down into iron compounds and sulfuric acid. The acid was then separated out by distillation. The first distillation produced a brown liquid that smelled like rotten eggs (sulfur), but further distillation yielded a nearly odorless, yellow oil called simply vitriol. The name was also used for various sulfate salts, such as copper sulfate (blue vitriol, or rarely Roman vitriol), zinc sulfate (white vitriol), iron (II) sulfate (green vitriol), iron (III) sulfate (vitriol of Mars), or cobalt sulfate (red vitriol). Vitriol readily dissolves human tissue and is severely corrosive to most metals, although it has no effect on gold. Vitriol’s importance in the novels cannot be underestimated; without it, Harry cannot move through the stages of transformation to enlightenment, even when things look irrepressibly bleak.
Sulfuric acid reacts with most metals to produce hydrogen gas and a metal sulfate. These reactions cause the acid to boil, and it can explode. The only way to fight a sulfuric acid fire is with foam or other dry earth agents to keep it from boiling. Once it boils, it releases acidic fumes that can kill.
In Harry Potter, these four substances are symbolized by the following characters, and these will be discussed in greater detail: Mercury=Dumbledore, Sulfur=Hagrid, Salt=Sirius and Vitriol=Snape. The other characters have their places as well. Three couples represent the union of sulfur and mercury or the Great Marriage: James and Lily; Ron and Hermione (the “quarreling couple”); and Bill and Fleur. In addition, Ginny’s full name, Ginevra, means “white foam.” As mentioned in the paragraphs on vitriol, the only thing that can fight a sulfuric acid fire is foam.
V. The Seven Stages of Alchemical Transformation
According to traditional sources, there were seven stages of alchemy, the end product of which was the Philosopher’s Stone. The first four steps take place in the Below, in the realm of matter. The last three steps take place in the Above, in the realm of mind and creative imagination. While each book represents a stage in the transformation, the cycles of alchemy are also present within each book, beginning with Harry at the Dursley’s (the Black stage) and ending with the all-important talk by Dumbledore and the train ride home (the Red stage).
Each stage is related to a color, alchemical substance and metal, and each has a specific place in the creation of the Stone. According to other sources, such as George Ripley and Basil Valentine, there were Twelve Keys or Gates. For the purposes of this discussion, however, we will confine ourselves to the traditional seven stages and analyze them as they relate to the world of Harry Potter. (see figure 2) The first five phases together are called the Black Stage or melanosis; the White Stage is distillation or leukosis and the Red Stage is coagulation or iosis. Iosis is also known as the purple phase, because the material turns purple during the coagulation process.
Year 1: The Philosopher’s Stone
In Rowling’s universe, the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life played the major role in the first book. Lord Voldemort, ripped from his body eleven years before, needs the Stone to remain alive until he can construct a new body, reducing himself to preying on unicorn blood, a travesty so horrible that from then on he will lead a cursed half-life. Hogwarts becomes a place of intrigue and danger to Harry and his friends as they try to unravel the mystery of the theft at Gringott’s Bank and prevent the Stone from falling into the wrong hands. Eventually, Harry succeeds, in the process discovering within himself his own abilities and the secret of his mother’s sacrifice for him. Voldemort does not get the Stone and is forced to flee to Albania, no better off than when he returned to Britain.
This is the beginning of Harry’s journey. He starts out as a confused mass, alone in the care of abusive relatives, and then he gets the shock of his life when Hagrid tells him he is a wizard. From there, he has to break down (dissolve) everything he has learned and begin building again (coagulate). He learns in the process that he is not just a wizard; he is The Boy Who Lived. In order for him to be completely free from Voldemort, he must dissolve the bond between them, a process that will take six more books to complete.
We first meet Harry in Chapter 2, abused by his Muggle relatives and confined to his cupboard under the stairs. The impression we get is that of a boy who is alone in the world, without a friend, and without hope of his situation ever changing. And then, suddenly, his whole world changes. He finds out he is a wizard. The agent of this profound change is Rubeus Hagrid, who will come to play a crucial role in the series. The name Rubeus means “red”, and we quickly learn that Hagrid has a penchant for dangerous creatures. He is caring and nurturing, something we would not expect in a man so large; that he is depicted as such by Rowling is no accident, as we shall see in the later books.
According to Adam McLean in his The Seven Stages of Transformation, this first stage of the Great Work, called calcination, is the breaking down of the massa confusa (confused mass) by fire. It is represented by sulfuric acid, a potent corrosive that eats the skin and reacts with all metals except gold. The alchemists created sulfuric acid from vitriol, the highly corrosive agent discussed earlier. The chaotic massa confusa has to undergo a long process in which it is repeatedly dissolved and coagulated (solve et coagula) and from this the prima materia appears, which is the raw material for making gold. The psychologist Carl Jung was very occupied with the archetypal aspects of alchemy, and was struck by the similarities between opus magnum and the psychoanalytical process. In Jung’s psychoanalysis, the massa confusa of the subconscious is the prime instrument for reaching a state of mental balance and completeness. Calcination itself represented the breaking down of the ego and attachments to material possessions. Through this process the Seeker becomes introspective and begins to evaluate his life.
The massa confusa is depicted as a snake holding its tail--the Ouroborus. The snake often was used as a symbol for duality - its long drawn out body separating the polarities of head and tail. Sometimes the figure of a winged dragon was used here in place of the snake, in order to close the circle with the dragon at the beginning of the work. When the snake or dragon seized its tail it united the polarities into a circle, a symbol to the alchemists for achieving solidity amongst the dualistic energies of the soul forces. The creation of the Philosophers’ Stone was the formation of solid inner ground upon which the alchemical philosophers could build their personalities, and experience the full potentiality of being human.16
This is what Harry begins to experience from the moment he sets foot on the Hogwarts Express. He is entering a whole new world; one of magic and wonder, one that forces him to evaluate who he is and what purpose he serves. Platform 9 3/4 represents his initiation into this world of wonder, crossing the boundaries between the mundane and the higher realms. He meets Ron and Hermione, who immediately take a dislike to each other. Together, they represent the Quarreling Couple; king and queen, mercury and sulfur, gold and silver, whose Great Marriage at the end of the Great Work will allow Harry to reach his full potential. We will discuss that more later on.
Hermione’s name finds its roots in the Greek god Hermes, but even more importantly in Hermes Trismegistus, the author of The Emerald Tablet, from which all alchemy and occult studies are derived. It is also significant that St. James (Potter) is the patron saint of alchemy, and the symbol for the White Stage of transformation is the lily.
At this point, we meet two of the most important characters in the entire book: Albus Dumbledore and Nicholas Flamel. Ron’s Chocolate Frog Cards are a veritable fountain of information for us on the first reading of the book. We discover that Dumbledore and Flamel were partners; moreover, it is stated unequivocally that they were alchemists. Dumbledore is credited with discovering the twelve uses of Dragons Blood, which as we have seen is not a fantastic turn of Rowling’s imagination. Dumbledore repeatedly shows himself well acquainted with alchemic principles throughout the book and indeed throughout the series.
On the other hand, Nicholas Flamel is the most important person in Harry Potter to never be memorialized on a Chocolate Frog Card. The reason for this is unclear; the fact that he was still alive cannot be the reason, as Dumbledore is alive and has his own card. In any case, Flamel’s life was real enough—his house in Paris, built in 1407, still stands, at 51 rue de Montmorency, where it has been made into a restaurant. His exploits, however, are legendary among students of esoterica and the occult.
This is the end of Part I. Part II discusses Flamel’s life, his infamous manuscript and tackles the question: Did Flamel really find the Philospher’s Stone? I also trace alchemical symbolism in Chamber of Secrets through Half Blood Prince and beyond, making some predictions for the fate of the characters and the ending of the series.
Note: Part II can be found in Issue Two.