Metals From Metaphors

Transcribed from Omni Magazine - Archeology section, October/ November 2004:


Alchemical manuscripts are famous for their symbolic language. Just what is meant, for example, when a text says "add to the Eagle the icy Dragon that has long had it's habitation upon the rocks", or that "the twofold fiery male must be fed with a snowy swan"? Do reproducable chemical processes lie beneath the florid metaphors? And do they work?

Using Basilius Valentinus' influential "The Twelve Keys", a fifteenth century text, (from which the above phrases were taken), Marcos Martinon-Torres decided to find out.

Each of the keys is an allegorical step in the chemical process leading to the Philosopher's Stone.

The unhelpful text for prima clavis, or the first key, (shown above) reads, "Let the diadem of the king be of pure gold, and let the queen that is united with him in matrimony be chaste and immaculate.....Take a fierce grey wolf which is found in the valleys and mountains of the world, where he roams savage with hunger. Cast to him the body of the king, and when he has devoured it, burn him entirely to ashes in a great fire....". It gets no clearer from there.

Using his knowledge of metallurgy of the time period, and clues in other alchemical manuscripts, (some imagery is common- lead for example, is usually depicted as Saturn.), Martinon-Torres substitued the metaphors with their metallurgical equivalents, noting the crucible and cupel in the lower corners of the key as well.

He translated the first key as a straightforward recipe for using stibnite (the wolf) to separate silver (the queen) from gold (the king) in the crucible, and then using lead (Saturn) to retrieve silver from the stibnite ashes in the cupel.

And it does work. For all his mysticism, Valentinus knew his Metallurgy, and an alchemist familiar with the imagery would have been able to rely on the text.

The first key isn't a step leading to gold via the Philosopher's Stone, but it does lead to gold via metallurgical separation. Matinon-Torres notes wryly, "Our analysis is a lot more explicit than the alchemists themselves".

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