A legendary substance which enabled adepts in alchemy to compass the transmutation of metals. Alchemists believed that one definite substance was essential to the success of the trans-mutation operation. By the application or admixture of this substance, often called the "Powder of Projection," any metal might be transmuted into gold or silver.
Zosimus, who lived at the beginning of the fifth century, was one of the first to allude to the philosophers' stone. He said that it was a powder or liquor formed of diverse metals, fused under a favorable astrological condition. The stone was supposed to contain the secrets not only of transmutation, but of health and life, for through it the elixir of life could be distilled.
The author of a Treatise on Philosophical and Hermetic Chemistry, published in Paris in 1725, stated:
"Modern philosophers have extracted from the interior of mercury a fiery spirit, mineral, vegetable and multiplicative, in a humid concavity in which is found the primitive mercury or the universal quintessence. In the midst of this spirit resides the spiritual fluid….
"This is the mercury of the philosophers, which is not solid like a metal, nor soft like quicksilver, but between the two. They have retained for a long time this secret, which is the commencement, the middle, and the end of their work. It is necessary then to proceed first to purge the mercury with salt and with ordinary salad vinegar, to sublime it with vitriol and salt-petre, to dissolve it in aquafortis, to sublime it again, to calcine it and fix it, to put away part of it in salad oil, to distill this liquor for the purpose of separating the spiritual water, air, and fire, to fix the mercurial body in the spiritual water or to distill the spirit of liquid mercury found in it, to putrefy all, and then to raise and exalt the spirit with non-odorous white sulphur— that is to say, sal-ammoniac—to dissolve the sal-ammoniac in the spirit of liquid mercury which when distilled becomes the liquor known as the Vinegar of the Sages, to make it pass from gold to antimony three times and afterwards to reduce it by heat, lastly to steep this warm gold in very harsh vinegar and allow it to putrefy. On the surface of the vinegar it will raise itself in the form of fiery earth of the colour of oriental pearls. This is the first operation in the grand work.
"For the second operation, take in the name of God one part of gold and two parts of the spiritual water, charged with the sal-ammoniac, mix this noble confection in a vase of crystal of the shape of an egg: warm over a soft but continuous fire, and the fiery water will dissolve little by little the gold; this forms a liquor which is called by the sages "chaos" containing the elementary qualities—cold, dryness, heat and humidity. Allow this composition to putrefy until it becomes black; this blackness is known as the "crow's head" and the "darkness of the sages," and makes known to the artist that he is on the right track. It was also known as the "black earth." It must be boiled once more in a vase as white as snow; this stage of the work is called the "swan," and from it arises the white liquor, which is divided into two parts—one white for the manufacture of silver, the other red for the manufacture of gold. Now you have accomplished the work, and you possess the Philosophers' Stone.
"In these diverse operations, one finds many by-products; among these is the "green lion" which is called also "azoph," and which draws gold from the more ignoble elements; the "red lion" which converts the metal into gold; the "head of the crow," called also the "black veil of the ship of Theseus," which appearing forty days before the end of the operation predicts its success; the white powder which transmutes the white metals to fine silver; the red elixir with which gold is made; the white elixir which also makes silver, and which procures long life—it is also called the white daughter of the philosophers."
In the lives of the various alchemists, we find many notices of the philosophers' stone in connection with those adepts who were supposed to have arrived at the solution. Thus in the story of Alexander Seton, a Scotsman who came from Port Seton, near Edinburgh, it is stated that on his various travels on the continent he employed in his alchemical experiments a black-ish powder, the application of which turned any metal given him into gold.
Numerous instances are on record of Seton's projections, the majority of which were verified by multiple observers. On one occasion, while in Holland, he went with some friends from the house at which he was residing to undertake an alchemical experiment at another house near by. On the way there, a quantity of ordinary zinc was purchased, and reportedly Seton succeeded in projecting the zinc into pure gold by the application of his powder. A similar phenomenon occurred at Cologne, and even the most extreme torture could not wring the secret from him.
Seton's pupil or assistant, Sendivogius, made great efforts to obtain the secret from Seton before he died, but without success. However, out of gratitude Seton bequeathed him what remained of his marvelous powder, which Sendivogius employed with the same results Seton had achieved.
Sendivogius fared badly, however, when the powder came to an end. He had used it chiefly in liquid form, and into this he had dipped silver coins which immediately had become pure gold. When the powder gave out, Sendivogius was driven to the practice of gilding coins, which, it was reported, he had previously transmuted by legitimate means, and this brought upon him the wrath of those who had trusted him.
There are many intriguing accounts of successful alchemical operations with the philosophers' stone, but most students of the field have surmised that the great work accomplished was a personal and spiritual transformation rather than any chemical miracle. The close association of ideas of the philosophers' stone with the elixir of life reinforces this view.
The idea of the philosophers' stone is an ancient one. In Egyptian alchemy, which seems one of the oldest, the idea of a black powder (the detritus or oxide of all metals mingled) is already found.
The ancient Chinese believed that gold was immortal and that when absorbed in the human body could bestow immortality, thus we find here ideas of the mystical value of gold again associated with the concept of the elixir of life.
The art of Chinese alchemists can be traced back to circa 100-150 B.C.E., long before records of alchemy being practiced in the West appear. Gold was regarded as a medicine for long life, and there is a story that the great Wei Po-Yang (ca. 100-150 C.E.) succeeded in manufacturing the gold medicine and he and his pupil Yu, together with the wise man's dog, thereby became immortal.
The idea that the philosophers' stone could grant wishes is found in ancient Indian religious tradition, where this magical stone was named "Chintamani" and cited in scriptures. Similar ideas were carried over into Buddhism.
The antiquarian Sabine Baring-Gould suggested that legends of the philosophers' stone ultimately could be traced to reflections upon the life-giving properties of the sun, which was a prominent symbol in many alchemical works. He reviewed such concepts in a chapter on the philosophers' stone in his book Curiosities of Olden Times (1895).
Bacon, Roger. Mirror of Alchemy. London, 1597. Reprint, Los Angeles: Globe Bookshop, 1975.
Barring-Gould, Sabine. Curiosities of Olden Times. London, J. T. Hayes, 1895.
Chkashige, Masumi. Oriental Alchemy. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1936.
Eliade, Mircea. The Forge and the Crucible; The Origins and Structures of Alchemy. New York: Harper & Row, 1956.
Jung, C. G. Alchemical Studies. Vol. 13, Collected Works. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967.
Redgrove, H. Stanley. Alchemy: Ancient & Modern. London: William Rider, 1911. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1969.
Regardie, Israel. The Philosophers' Stone. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1958.
Waite, Arthur E. Alchemists Through the Ages. Blauvelt, N.Y.: Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1970.
——, ed. The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus. 2 vols. London: James Elliott, 1894. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1967.