The philosophers' stone or stone of the philosophers (Latin: lapis philosophorum) is a legendary alchemical substance said to be capable of turning base metals such as lead into gold (chrysopoeia) or silver. It was also sometimes believed to be an elixir of life, useful for rejuvenation and possibly for achieving immortality. For many centuries, it was the most sought-after goal in alchemy. The philosophers' stone was the central symbol of the mystical terminology of alchemy, symbolizing perfection at its finest, enlightenment, and heavenly bliss. Efforts to discover the philosophers' stone were known as the Magnum Opus (“Great Work”).
Mention of the philosophers' stone in writing can be found as far back as Cheirokmeta by Zosimos of Panopolis (c. 300 C.E.). Alchemical writers assign a longer history. Elias Ashmole and the anonymous author of Gloria Mundi (1620) claim that its history goes back to Adam who acquired the knowledge of the stone directly from God. This knowledge was said to be passed down through biblical patriarchs, giving them their longevity. The legend of the stone was also compared to the biblical history of the Temple of Solomon and the rejected cornerstone described in Psalm 118.
The theoretical roots outlining the stone’s creation can be traced to Greek philosophy. Alchemists later used the Classical elements, the concept of anima mundi, and Creation stories presented in texts like Plato’s Timaeus as analogies for their process. According to Plato, the four elements are derived from a common source or prima materia (first matter), associated with chaos. Prima materia is also the name alchemists assign to the starting ingredient for the creation of the philosopher’s stone. The importance of this philosophical first matter persisted through the history of alchemy. In the seventeenth century, Thomas Vaughan writes, “the first matter of the stone is the very same with the first matter of all things”.
The 8th-century alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (Latinized as Geber) analyzed each classical element in terms of the four basic qualities. Fire was both hot and dry, earth cold and dry, water cold and moist, and air hot and moist. He theorized that every metal was a combination of these four principles, two of them interior and two exterior. From this premise, it was reasoned that the transmutation of one metal into another could be affected by the rearrangement of its basic qualities. This change would presumably be mediated by a substance, which came to be called al-iksir in Arabic (from which the Western term elixir is derived). It is often considered to exist as a dry red powder (also known as al-Kibrit al-Ahmar الكبريت الأحمر—red sulphur) made from a legendary stone—the philosopher's stone. Jabir's theory was based on the concept that metals like gold and silver could be hidden in alloys and ores, from which they could be recovered by the appropriate chemical treatment. Jabir himself is believed to be the inventor of aqua regia, a mixture of muriatic (hydrochloric) and nitric acids, one of the few substances that can dissolve gold (and which is still often used for gold recovery and purification).
In the 11th century, there was a debate among Muslim world chemists on whether the transmutation of substances was possible. A leading opponent was Avicenna (Ibn Sina), who discredited the theory of transmutation of substances, stating, "Those of the chemical craft know well that no change can be effected in the different species of substances, though they can produce the appearance of such change."
According to legend, the 13th-century scientist and philosopher Albertus Magnus is said to have discovered the philosopher's stone and passed it to his pupil, Thomas Aquinas, shortly before his death circa 1280. Magnus does not confirm he discovered the stone in his writings, but he did record that he witnessed the creation of gold by "transmutation".
Renaissance to Early Modern period
The 16th-century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus (Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim) believed in the existence of alkahest, which he thought to be an undiscovered element from which all other elements (earth, fire, water, air) were simply derivative forms. Paracelsus believed that this element was, in fact, the philosopher's stone.
A mystical text published in the 17th century called the Mutus Liber appears to be a symbolic instruction manual for concocting a philosophers' stone. Called the "wordless book", it was a collection of 15 illustrations.
In Buddhism and Hinduism
In Buddhism, Chintamani is held by the bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara and Ksitigarbha. It is also seen carried upon the back of the Lung ta (wind horse) which is depicted on Tibetan prayer flags. By reciting the Dharani of Chintamani, Buddhist tradition maintains that one attains the Wisdom of Buddhas, is able to understand the truth of the Buddhas, and turns afflictions into Bodhi. It is said to allow one to see the Holy Retinue of Amitabha and his assembly upon one's deathbed. In Tibetan Buddhist tradition the Chintamani is sometimes depicted as a luminous pearl and is in the possession of several of different forms of the Buddha.
Within Hinduism it is connected with the gods Vishnu and Ganesha. In Hindu tradition it is often depicted as a fabulous jewel in the possession of the Nāga king or as on the forehead of the Makara. The Yoga Vasistha, originally written in the 10th century AD, contains a story about the philosopher's stone.
A great Hindu sage wrote about the spiritual accomplishment of Gnosis using the metaphor of the philosophers' stone. Saint Jnaneshwar (1275–1296), wrote a commentary with 17 references to the philosophers' stone that explicitly transmutes base metal into gold. The seventh century Indian sage Thirumoolar in his classic Tirumandhiram explains man's path to immortal divinity. In verse 2709 he declares that the name of God, Shiva or the god Shambala, is an alchemical vehicle that turns the body into immortal gold.
The philosophers' stone has been attributed with many mystical and magical properties. The most commonly mentioned properties are the ability to transmute base metals into gold or silver, and the ability to heal all forms of illness and prolong the life of any person who consumes a small part of the philosophers' stone. Other mentioned properties include: creation of perpetually burning lamps, transmutation of common crystals into precious stones and diamonds, reviving of dead plants, creation of flexible or malleable glass, or the creation of a clone or homunculus.
Numerous synonyms were used to make oblique reference to the stone, such as "white stone" (calculus albus, identified with the calculus candidus of Revelation 2:17 which was taken as a symbol of the glory of heaven), vitriol (as expressed in the backronym Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem), also lapis noster, lapis occultus, in water at the box, and numerous oblique, mystical or mythological references such as Adam, Aer, Animal, Alkahest, Antidotus, Antimonium, Aqua benedicta, Aqua volans per aeram, Arcanum, Atramentum, Autumnus, Basilicus, Brutorum cor, Bufo, Capillus, Capistrum auri, Carbones, Cerberus, Chaos, Cinis cineris, Crocus, Dominus philosophorum, Divine quintessence, Draco elixir, Filius ignis, Fimus, Folium, Frater, Granum, Granum frumenti, Haematites, Hepar, Herba, Herbalis, Lac, Melancholia, Ovum philosophorum, Panacea salutifera, Pandora, Phoenix, Philosophic mercury, Pyrites, Radices arboris solares, Regina, Rex regum, Sal metallorum, Salvator terrenus, Talcum, Thesaurus, Ventus hermetis. Many of the medieval allegories for a Christ were adopted for the lapis, and the Christ and the Stone were indeed taken as identical in a mystical sense. The name of "Stone" or lapis itself is informed by early Christian allegory, such as Priscillian (4th century), who stated Unicornis est Deus, nobis petra Christus, nobis lapis angularis Jesus, nobis hominum homo Christus. In some texts it is simply called 'stone', or our stone, or in the case of Thomas Norton's Ordinal, "oure delycious stone". The stone was frequently praised and referred to in such terms.
It needs to be noted that philosophorum does not mean "of the philosopher" or "the philosopher's" in the sense of a single philosopher. It means "of the philosophers" in the sense of a plurality of philosophers.
Descriptions of the Philosophers' Stone are numerous and various. According to alchemical texts, the stone of the philosophers came in two varieties, prepared by an almost identical method: white (for the purpose of making silver), and red (for the purpose of making gold), the white stone being a less matured version of the red stone. Some ancient and medieval alchemical texts leave clues to the supposed physical appearance of the stone of the philosophers, specifically the red stone. It is often said to be orange (saffron colored) or red when ground to powder. Or in a solid form, an intermediate between red and purple, transparent and glass-like. The weight is spoken of as being heavier than gold, and it is said to be soluble in any liquid, yet incombustible in fire.
Alchemical authors sometimes suggest that the stone's descriptors are metaphorical. It is called a stone, not because it is like a stone. The appearance is expressed geometrically in Michael Maier's Atalanta Fugiens. "Make of a man and woman a circle; then a quadrangle; out of the this a triangle; make again a circle, and you will have the Stone of the Wise. Thus is made the stone, which thou canst not discover, unless you, through diligence, learn to understand this geometrical teaching." Rupescissa uses the imagery of the Christian passion, telling us it ascends "from the sepulcher of the Most Excellent King, shining and glorious, resuscitated from the dead and wearing a red diadem...".
The various names and attributes assigned to the philosophers' stone has led to long-standing speculation on its composition and source. Exoteric candidates have been found in metals, plants, rocks, chemical compounds, and bodily products such as hair, urine, and eggs. Justus von Liebig states that 'it was indispensable that every substance accessible... should be observed and examined'. Alchemists once thought a key component in the creation of the stone was a mythical element named carmot.
Esoteric hermetic alchemists may reject work on exoteric substances, instead directing their search for the philosophers' stone inward. Though esoteric and exoteric approaches are sometimes mixed, it is clear that some authors "are not concerned with material substances but are employing the language of exoteric alchemy for the sole purpose of expressing theological, philosophical, or mystical beliefs and aspirations." New interpretations continue to be developed around spagyric, chemical, and esoteric schools of thought.
The philosopher's stone is created by the alchemical method known as The Magnum Opus or The Great Work. Often expressed as a series of color changes or chemical processes, the instructions for creating the philosopher's stone are varied. When expressed in colors, the work may pass through phases of nigredo, albedo, citrinitas, and rubedo. When expressed as a series of chemical processes it often includes seven or twelve stages concluding in multiplication, and projection.
Art and entertainment
- Biological transmutation
- Elixir of Life
- Filius philosophorum
- Nicolas Flamel
- Nuclear transmutation
- Panacea (medicine)
- The Net (substance)
- The Layer Monument
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