A term employed by the philosophers of the seventeenth century to denote the "resurrection of plants," and the method of achieving their astral appearance after destruction.
The Roman poet/philosopher Lucretius (ca. 98-55 B.C.E.) attacked the popular notion of ghosts by claiming they were not spirits returned from the mansions of the dead, but nothing more than thin films, pellicles, or membranes, cast off from the surface of all bodies like the exuviae (sloughs of reptiles).
An opinion by no means dissimilar to that of the Epicureans was revived in Europe about the middle of the seventeenth century and the process was performed by the likes of Sir Kenelm Digby, Athanasius Kircher, Abbé de Vallemont, and others. The complicated and exacting procedure began with a selected plant, a rose, for example. The operator then bruised it, burnt it, collected its ashes, and, in the process of calcination, extracted from it a salt. This salt was then put into a glass vial and mixed with some peculiar undisclosed substance.
When the compound was formed, it was pulverulent (crumbly) and blue. The powder was next submitted to a gentle heat. With its particles instantly set into motion, it then gradually arose (it was claimed) from the midst of the ashes—a stem, leaves, and flowers. It appeared as an apparition of the plant, which had been submitted to combustion. But as soon as the heat was removed, the form of the plant that had been sublimed was precipitated to the bottom of the vessel. Heat was then reapplied and the plant form was resuscitated; when it was withdrawn the form once more became latent among the ashes.
This notable experiment was said to have been performed before the Royal Society of England, and to have satisfactorily proved that the presence of heat gave a sort of life to the plant apparition, and that the absence of nourishment caused its death. The poet Abraham Cowley was quite delighted with the story of the experiment of the rose and its ashes, since he believed that he, too, had detected the same phenomenon in letters written with the juice of lemons, which were revived with the application of heat. He celebrated the mystic power of caloric in a poem:
"Strange power of heat, thou yet dost show, Like winter earth, naked, or cloth'd with snow. But as the quick'ning sun approaching near, The plants arise up by degrees, new line A sudden paint adorns the trees, And all kind nature's characters appear. So nothing yet in thee is seen, But when a genial heat warms thee within, A new-born wood of various lines there grows; Here buds an A, and there a B, Here sprouts a V, and there a T, And all the flourishing letters stand in rows."
The rationale of this famous experiment made on the rose ashes was attempted by Kircher. He supposed the seminal virtue of every known substance and even its substantial form resided in its salt. This salt was concealed in the ashes of the rose, and adding heat put it in motion. The particles of the salt were quickly sublimed and by being moved about in the vial like a vortex, the particles arranged themselves in the same general form they had possessed from nature. Other particles were subject to a similar law, and accordingly, by a disposing affinity, they resumed their proper position, either in the stalk, the leaves, or the flowers.
The next object of these philosophers was to apply their doctrine to explain the popular belief in ghosts. As the experimenters claimed the substantial form of each body resided in a sort of volatile salt, it was believed that superstitious notions must have arisen about ghosts haunting churchyards. When a dead body had been committed to the earth, the salts were exhaled during the heating process of fermentation. Each saline particle then resumed the same relative situation it had held in the living body, and thus a complete human form was induced.
Palingenesy was similar to the early claims of Lucretius involving a chemical explanation of the discovery of filmy substances, which he had observed to arise from all bodies. Yet, in order to prove that apparitions might really be explained on this principle, a crucial experiment was necessary.
Three alchemists obtained a quantity of earth-mould from St. Innocent's Church in Paris, believing that this matter might contain the true philosophers' stone. They subjected it to a distillatory process. They saw (it was claimed) the forms of men produced in their vials, which immediately caused them to end the project. This was brought to the attention of the Institute of Paris (under the protection of Louis XIV), which, in turn, took up the business with much seriousness. The result of its own investigations appeared in the Miscellania Curiosa. James F. Ferrier, in a volume of the Manchester Philosophical Transactions, made an abstract of one of these French documents:
"A malefactor was executed, of whose body a grave physician got possession for the purpose of dissection. After disposing of the other parts of the body, he ordered his assistant to pulverize part of the cranium, which was a remedy at that time admitted in dispensatories. The powder was left in a paper on the table of the museum, where the assistant slept. About midnight he was awakened by a noise in the room, which obliged him to rise immediately. The noise continued about the table, without any visible agent; and at length he traced it to the powder, in the midst of which he now beheld, to his unspeakable dismay, a small head with open eyes staring at him; presently two branches appeared, which formed into arms and hands; then the ribs became visible, which were soon clothed with muscles and integuments; next the lower extremities sprouted out, and when they appeared perfect, the puppet (for his size was small) reared himself on his feet; instantly his clothes came upon him, and he appeared in the very cloak he wore at his execution. The affrighted spectator, who stood hitherto mumbling his prayers with great application, now thought of nothing but making his escape from the revived ruffian; but this was impossible, for the apparition planted himself in the way, and, after divers fierce looks and threatening gestures, opened the door and went out. No doubt the powder was missing next day."
But older analogous results are on record, suggesting that the blood was the chief part of the human frame in which those saline particles resided. These arrangements gave rise to the popular notion of ghosts. John Webster's book The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (1677) related an experiment, given on the authority of Robert Fludd, in which this conclusion was drawn.
"A certain chymical operator, by name La Pierre, near that place in Paris called Le Temple, received blood from the hands of a certain bishop to operate upon. Which he setting to work upon the Saturday, did continue it for a week with divers degrees of fire. But about midnight, the Friday following, this artificer, lying in a chamber next to his laboratory, betwixt sleeping and waking, heard a horrible noise, like unto the lowing of kine, or the roaring of a lion; and continuing quiet, after the ceasing of the sound in the laboratory, the moon being at the full, and, by shining enlightening the chamber suddenly, betwixt himself and the window he saw a thick little cloud, condensed into an oval form, which, after, by little and little, did seem completely to put on the shape of a man, and making another and a sharp clamour, did suddenly vanish. And not only some noble persons in the next chambers, but also the host with his wife, lying in a lower room of the house, and also the neigh-bours dwelling in the opposite side of the street, did distinctly hear as well the bellowing as the voice; and some of them were awaked with the vehemency thereof.
"But the artificer said, that in this he found solace, because the bishop, of whom he had it, did admonish him, that if any of them from whom the blood was extracted should die, in the time of its putrefaction, his spirit was wont often to appear to the sight of the artificer, with perturbation. Also forthwith, upon Saturday following, he took the retort from the furnace, and broke it with the light stroke of a little key, and there, in the remaining blood, found the perfect representation of an human head, agreeable in face, eyes, nostrils, mouth, and hairs, that were somewhat thin, and of a golden colour."
Regarding this narrative Webster added: "There were many ocular witnesses, as the noble person, Lord of Bourdalone, the chief secretary to the Duke of Guise; and he [Fludd] had this relation from the Lord of Menanton, living in that house at the same time from a certain doctor of physic, from the owner of the house, and many others."
Apart from such credulous statements, the claimed results of early experiments in palingenesy have long since been abandoned by science, but curious echoes of the subject have appeared in twentieth-century borderland researches. For example, Charles W. Littlefield, a physician of Seattle, Washington, published a book titled "M. M. M."—Man, Minerals and Masters (1937) in which he described his experiments as showing by demonstration and illustration that thoughts are things, and that their power may be expressed through certain mineral compounds occurring in organic nature. Littlefield claimed the crystallization of solutions of organic salts could be modified by mental energy, and stated that he had produced microscopic animal or human-like forms in this way.
The work of another experimenter was reminiscent of the seventeenth-century Royal Society claim of the restoration of the form of a destroyed plant. In the 1920s a British biological chemist named Morley-Martin claimed the forms of fishes, plants, and animals continued to exist in miniature in ancient azoic rocks. Morley-Martin experimented by taking fragments of such rock and submitting them to a temperature of 2,000-3,000 degrees Fahrenheit in an electric oven. He isolated what he named "primordial protoplasm" from the ashes, which he transformed into crystalloids with Canada balsam. In the course of time the crystalloids condensed and produced numerous organisms that were creature-like, even having life and movement.
These little-known and bizarre experiments are described by Maurice Maeterlinck in his book La Grande Porte (Paris,1939), and the work of both Littlefield and Morley-Martin is described in the booklet The Morley-Martin Experiments issued by the Borderland Sciences Research Associates. In these experiments palingenesy merged with the old theory of spontaneous generation, which was considered to have been solved by Louis Pasteur's experiments on micro-organisms, although P. J. A. Béchamp in France and H. Charlton Bastian in Britain claimed Pasteur's work did not cover all the facts.
Of possible relevance to the palingenesy experiments were the "osmotic growths" produced by Dr. Stéhane Leduc of Nantes. These were formed from crystal solutions and not only presented the cellular structure of living matter, but also reproduced such functions as food absorption, metabolism, and the excretion of waste products. These beautiful growths are described in Leduc's book The Mechanism of Life (1914).
Littlefield, Charles W. "M. M. M."—Man, Minerals and Masters. Los Angeles: DeVorss, 1937.
The Morley-Martin Experiments. BSRA booklet No. 1. San Diego: Borderland Sciences Research Associates, 1948.