Opinion: while alchemy has never been considered a science, the practice was not so different from that of modern chemistry

In 1923, Eugène Canseliet was a 24 year old student of alchemy in Paris. His master, who went by the name Fulcanelli (meaning "fire of the sun"), was an old man. "A beautiful old man," Canseliet described him, "but an old man nevertheless".

One day, Canseliet opened the door to find his master waiting, but the man in front of him was far from elderly. In fact, he looked in the prime of his life. Canseliet understood then that his master had finally found the philosopher’s stone, the aim of all alchemists, which as well as transforming base metals into gold also cured all diseases and conferred immortality.

Fulcanelli handed Canseliet three manuscripts and disappeared, never to be seen again. His true identity remains a mystery, but his existence is not contested. In fact, US army intelligence searched for him during the Second World War, as they suspected he might have information regarding atomic bomb research. They did not find him.

The Alchemist by David Ryckaert III (1634). Photo by Imagno/Getty Images

Alchemy has never been considered a science, not even by alchemists. They saw it more as a philosophy, a way of understanding the universe that went beyond chemical reactions and into the spiritual. To an alchemist, every single body, including minerals, had a spirit that permeated it, and this spirit could be isolated from the material and condensed into the philosopher’s stone.

We live in a time where knowledge is divided into a series of branches, subdivided themselves into specialties and subspecialties. From the point of view of alchemy, this is inconceivable: it would have been considered an obstacle to try and penetrate the mysteries of nature, which the alchemists considered as a whole. We are astronomers or physicists, chemists or biologists, medics, philosophers or literates: an alchemist had to be all of these, and probably more.

Differences in worldview aside, the practice of alchemy was not so different from that of modern chemistry. Indeed, alchemists made several discoveries of importance to science such as the isolation of hydrochloric acid, the acid present in our stomach. Closer to home, the bain-marie or waterbath – a widely used technique for melting chocolate – has been attributed to the ancient alchemist Mary the Jewess.

Alchemy treaties are thus collections of riddles, sometimes written and sometimes in graphic form

Gold was not sought for its value, but because it was believed to be the most perfect metal. Transforming base metals into gold was a way of enhancing them, bringing them closer to perfection. As the metals transformed so did the person that was operating them. Alchemy was then believed to be a way of perfecting oneself.

Alchemic knowledge was considered precious, and as such could not be allowed to fall into anyone’s hands. Plenty of men would be willing to turn base metals into gold without any interest in spiritual elevation, and so the trade had to be kept secret. The first rule of alchemy club: you do not talk about alchemy club.

Alchemy treaties are thus collections of riddles, sometimes written and sometimes in graphic form. Images would depict the chemical operations that must be performed using complicated drawings involving astronomical signs and greek gods, such as those in the Mutus Liber (mute book), published in 1677. The combination of two elements with opposite qualities, for example, is drawn as the marriage of the sun and the moon.

Who would have known that the bible could be used as a chemistry manual?

The need for secrecy gave rise to a wonderfully lyrical language full of evocative images. Sublimation, a process through which a solid directly becomes a gas without turning into liquid first, was described as eagles flying. "The eagle flew seven times" is an instruction for the material to be sublimated seven times. Another metaphor used is the slaying of the dragon or serpent, which represents the fixing or solidifying of philosopher’s mercury (not to be confused with the element mercury). To fix the element, the moisture must be removed.

"The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly […] Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth."

This fragment is indistinguishable from ancient alchemic treaties, but the source is quite different. In case you didn’t recognise the lines, it’s Revelations 12:14. Who would have known that the bible could be used as a chemistry manual?

What happened to Canseliet?

The meeting with his master spurred Canseliet on and he continued in his personal pursuit of the philosopher’s stone. In 1938, he had completed most of the work and was waiting for the final process to finish. At this stage, the treaties describe the chemical mixture ("the philosopher’s egg") emitting a series of musical notes as it approaches its final transformation. Canseliet heard all the right notes, but something went wrong and the process stopped.

"A small sun rose from the [furnace]," he describes, "and disappeared through the ceiling. Every single dog in the neighbourhood started barking. That night, our hemisphere was covered in an immense red fan, with long green branches, irradiating from the north: it was the giant northern lights of January 1938."

The northern lights of that year have indeed been reported by many sources as some of the most spectacular in history, visible throughout Europe, and even from the north of Africa. Canseliet attributed them to the enormous amounts of energy that escaped his chemical mixture when the "egg" broke. Curiously, a rival interpretation purported them to be one of the Fatima prophesies, announcing the Second World War. You never know with supernatural stuff.

Canseliet tried again in 1951 in his laboratory in Savignies, but this attempt was also unsuccessful. Nevertheless, he wrote articles and books, was interviewed several times by French newspapers and TV and continued publishing about alchemy until his death in 1982. He had several students at the time of his death and it is conceivable that they and others are still carrying out alchemic operations today. Transforming lead into gold will always seem like a far-fetched idea, but there is something to be said about how the appreciation of nature can help turn us into better people.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ