Turns water into wine, dross into gold and headache pills into e (see: Jesus was way cool). Mythical entity, of course, but based on the idea that everything can be distilled down to its essence and this catalyst can change (or transmute) one form to another.

The religious symbolism, especially the christian notion of transubstantiation, is clear. Nowadays, lead can be turned to gold by particle accelerators (with a lot of energy expenditure) and the chemical industry is full of alchemical catalysts.

See: phytomining

The Philosophers' Stone

(Latin: lapis philosophorum; also called variously an elixir or tincture)

In alchemy, a magical substance, whereby base metals can be transformed into noble metals (notably, gold). In alchemical thinking, a base metal is a condition of "disease" in a noble metal, a condition which can potentially be cured. The philosophers' stone is thus a sort of universal curative, which can heal both sick metals and sick people (by implication, ensuring eternal life, or at least great longevity).

The stone (of which it was generally assumed that there could only be one) was considered the alchemical center of the world, axis mundi, and would be composed of a perfectly balanced distribution of the four alchemical elements: earth, air, fire and water

For over 2000 years, different alchemists have claimed to be in possession of the philosophers' stone, or the means for creating it. With the decline of alchemy as a serious field of study, the stone has achieved a different significance. In analytical psychology, C.G. Jung interpreted the philosophers' stone as a symbol of the self.


Note: Take a moment's time to parse the Latin version, listed above, paying close attention to the fact that philosophorum, "of the philosophers", is plural, a fact that somehow seems lost on most writing on this subject. For some reason, few people grasp that this object is necessarily both unique and the subject of the interest of many of the Wise, not just one.

In the fifteenth century, the alchemist Norton of Bristol said, "Red last in the work of Alkimy." This meant that the final step in changing a metal into gold would be something reddish in color, like an oxygennated metal or mercuric compound. The philosopher's stone, created by guiding a base metal such as lead through color changes would, therefore, be red in color.

In the eighth and ninth centuries, Islamic alchemists thought that all metals were mixtures of mercury and sulfur. They thought that changing lead into gold only involved finding the perfect balance between the two elements. They also used vermillion.

While trying to make the "Red King" as they called it, medieval alchemists used several different compounds. One was the highly expensive and synthetic vermillion, a red pigment made of sulfur and mercury that had been first discovered by the Chinese. Another was cinnabar, a natural mineral form of mercury sulfide.

Some of the last alchemists, Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton, used mercury to create their own rudimentary versions of the stone. Newton suffered from a nervous breakdown shortly after his experiments, and preserved samples of his hair examined in the 20th century point to mercury poisoning as the cause.

Thanks to the April 2002 edition of Natural History.

Myth no more? I came across an interesting segment of text in my own search of information about the Philosopher's Stone that stated that, some centuries ago, an arabian alchemist managed to grow a red crystaline substance now classified as AuCI4 or gold tetrachloride dihydrate. The crystal was reported to be soluable and able to enrich other materials with gold, but only to the extent of the gold within the crystal.

I may be jumping the gun here, but if you take away all the myth and legend, doesn't this substance sound like a likely candidate for a REAL Philosopher's Stone?

Alchemists claimed the ability to change base metals into gold by means of the philosopher's stone, a substance prepared in their laboratories. The myriad scientific, pseudo-scientific, metaphysical, and philosophical theories inspired by the notion have filled entire books - here offered is a simple overview of the concept (at least those aspects not already covered under alchemy), as it pertained to practical Medieval alchemy.

In late Antiquity, techniques of coloring metals by the application of volatile substances (i.e., turning copper a silvery color by the application of arsenic) were well known. These techniques led to speculation that density, ductility, etc., could also be altered, perhaps in a similar fashion - and that real gold (considered "the perfect metal") could thereby be generated.

The creation of the philosopher's stone was envisioned as a generative rather than fabricant process, in which the stone would be incubated and finally "born" out of a kind of union between Art and Nature - a union which was seen as sexual, or was at least commonly represented through sexual allegory. Ancient Egyptian alchemists described their procedures in ellipses of agrarian metaprose, while Medieval alchemists went straight for the good stuff:

"There was a red Lion, a bold youngster, married to the Lily in the lukewarm bath; And then with an open fire, chased from one bridal chamber into another. Next, with motley colours, the young Queen appeared in the glass vessel."
-Faust

The "motley colors" in question were black, white, motley, and red (in sequence), more poetically denoted as the raven, the swan, the peacock, and the lion.

See also: alchemy, for an overview of general alchemical process and method.
Source: Reijer Hooykas, Fact, Faith, and Fiction in the Development of Science

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