The Alchemist’s basic quest was to turn base metals, such as lead, mercury or iron, into gold. The way to do this was to use fire to control the passage of matter, in this case the base metals, from one state to another. The alchemists did not simply mean to go from the liquid state to the gas state, but rather, they figured on actually changing the molecular structure of the metals, at a time when subatomic features such as molecules were not even known yet. The end result sought was that what used to be lead, is now gold. Alchemy started in pharaonic Egypt, reached its height in the Renaissance, and then tailed off in the 17th century, until today, when there are actually a few practicing alchemists left.
The changes that the alchemists sought in metals, were thought to be similar to those that take place in the potter’s kiln. The potter was held in particular reverence, because the potter took a soppy lump of wet clay, shaped it into a utensil such as a cup, bowl or plate, and then fired that product in an oven (kiln) at a relatively high temperature, to change the clay into a hard ceramic utensil. Ceramics were first known from the neolithic period, about 9,000 to 5,000 BCE, and the potter was considered to be magical because of this change of state in material that they could produce.
The metals, however, which were the specialty of the alchemists and metallurgists, were a more difficult matter. The softer metals, such as gold and lead, were relatively easy to smelt, because of their lower melting temperatures. The ore rock that contained the softer metals, would begin to dribble liquid gold or lead, at camp fire temperatures. Copper, silver and, ultimately iron ores, with higher melting temperatures, were more difficult to smelt, and so were discovered later. Copper, which is the primary metal in Bronze, was smelted in about 5,000 BCE, and Iron, which requires a temperature of about 1,700 degrees to melt, was achieved only around 1,500 BCE. The metallurgists who possessed this technology were regarded as magicians, and nearly god-like.
Iron was always seen as having a dual nature, both good and evil. This is probably because iron was so versatile and strong, that it could be used to make both agricultural implements, and also weapons of war. An iron sheath over a basically wooden plowshare, meant that the same plow could be used season after season, while before, a wooden plow might not last even one planting season. And for the harvest, an iron scythe could cut tens of acres of grain in a day. These advantages helped to feed and provide sustenance for families and the society. As to weapons of war, an iron sword, but especially a sword made of steel (iron with the addition of carbon), could literally cut a bronze sword in half. And when we add in iron shields, helmets, spear points and arrow points, it made an iron-bearing army nearly invincible.
All metals come from ore rocks, which were originally found in caves, but then in mines, which were extensions of caves. In the ancient Mediterranean, mines were always seen as the entrance to the belly of mother Gea, the earth mother. Gea, her name in the Greek and Latin roots, is of course the base of such earth words in English as Geology, Geography, Geopolitics, etc. It was natural, therefore, that the ore rock, especially bearing gold or iron, were seen as embryos of the natural metals, waiting to be born.
The alchemists, miners and metallurgists sped the gestation period of metals waiting to be born. With their large furnaces and smelters, they produced liquid metal from ore rock. What should have taken, perhaps tens of thousands of years to be produced in the belly of Gea, they could produce in only a day or two removed from the mine. Because they took on themselves the task of changing nature, the alchemists, miners and metallurgists put themselves in the place of time itself.
And what of the alchemists plans to produce gold from the base metals? Ancient texts from Egypt refer to a material necessary to perform that transformation, called “The Philosopher’s Stone.” This is described, not as a stone, but as a reddish or orange colored gel, which had the power that, whatever it came in contact with, would achieve perfection. Perfection among the metals was gold. Gold cannot be destroyed, although of course it can be melted. Gold is found in Mediterranean shipwrecks over 3,000 years old, where iron is just a rusted mass, silver is just a black stain, but the gold coins are as shiny as the day they were minted.
Similarly, then, if an alchemist had actually produced/discovered the Philosopher’s Stone, and he was touched by it, he would achieve perfection, freedom from disease, and aging, and ultimately, freedom from death. Just as gold is indestructible, so the alchemist, with “the stone” in his possession, achieves eternal life. No one seems to have actually done this. There is a curious story, though, about a Parisian alchemist during the Renaissance, Nicholas Flammel, who earned his living as a Scribner (also called a copyist). This would have produced a very modest salary, at best, but Flammel is shown in the Paris City Records to have endowed hospitals and churches all across the city. There were also reports about him and his wife, being sighted years after their death, in French and Italian towns, still quite alive, but with their skin having a strange golden hue.
Alchemists were not precursors of the sciences, or of scientists. They completely lacked the scientific method: a form of linear thinking, hypothesis formation and testing, and experimentation; this was quite the opposite of their unguided puttering in their laboratories. But individuals, recognized today as the great precursors of modern science, were also part-time alchemists: Paracelsus, “the father of modern medicine”; and Sir Isaac Newton, the great optical physicist, and astrophysicist, the discoverer of the laws of gravity and motion. Your reading from Biringuccio, writing in the early 1500’s, points out that some alchemists were just charlatans, and were to be avoided. But, to give credit where credit is due, he says that some alchemists produced some remarkable things in their labs, such as perfumes and dyes (he says “scents and colors”).
Biringuccio was an excellent observer and recorder of life in early 1500s Italy. He not only reported on alchemy, but his main interests were in mining and metallurgy, and distilling. He was one of the early European capitalists, and he was always giving advice about how to improve the financial bottom line.
Writing in Tuscany in central Italy, Biringuccio gives advice on how to lacate metallic ores. He goes back to Mediterranean tradition from a millennium before him, noting how prospectors back then would look for springs of water bubbling out from between the rock strata. That is where to dig for metallic ores. He commented that the logic of this was that the springs of water were known to attract mountain spirits and fairies, and THEY were there because they were protecting Mother Gea’s ore rocks. Biringuccio said that, whatever the reason, he has found that, digging into strata with springs bubbling out, DID seem to produce good veins of meal ore. However, modern (21st century) geologists tell us that the Hills of Tuscany are so rich in ores, especially gold and copper, that virtually ANYWHERE you dig in with a pick and shovel will produce a good yield of metals. In fact, those Tuscan Hills are known as the “Colline Metallifere” or the metallic hills, because they are so filled with ore rock.
In any case, once a mine was opened, it was full of perils. Your reading from Gouldner documents the deep traditions and long-held magical beliefs that even modern union miners hold on to. The mine can kill in many ways. Toxic gasses accumulate in mine shafts. These can kill instantly, such as Methane; or more slowly build up in the miners’ bodies, like Radon, and kill after a long period of exposure.
The traditional control for gas exposure, was to have the mine safety leader for the team carry a cage with a small bird in it, usually a canary, down into the mine shaft. With a high metabolism and a small body mass, the canary would react to lethal gasses much more quickly than the bulky miners. If the canary fell off its perch and lay on its back, It was time to get out of the mine. This is the origin of the phrase, “the canary in the coal mine,” meaning any warning or harbinger of danger,. or coming disaster. Today, of course, the mine-safety leader carries an impressive electronic sensor, with flashing lights and dials, which tells not only which gasses are present, but in what quantities.
Additionally, several of the gasses, such as Methane, are extremely explosive, and the possibility always exists that a mere spark sill set off a gas explosion. Globally, at least a few times each year, there are news reports of a mine explosion with a number of casualties. Even without explosions, cave-ins are a constant danger, caused by natural slippage of rock strata, or roof collapse, along any of the mine shafts and tunnels.
In order to counter these threats, Gouldner tells us that miners have a series of folk traditions, to make them feel that they are in control of the situation below ground. So, the “propping complex” is a coping mechanism, aimed right at the timber or steel shoring or “props,” that are designed to hold back a cave-in. Mining engineers and geologists tell us that, if a cave-in is coming, no amount or strength of shoring will do anything to stop it. But no matter, the mine safety man, now called the prop man, is the one who inspects the shoring, and works to repair it if it seems under strain, and that is comforting to all.
The prop man is elected by each team of 12 to 15 miners, up in the Union Hall. He has to be the biggest, meanest miner on the team. It is thought that his physical strength will transfer to his props (timber work) and keep the team protected. If a smaller miner, say 5′ 2″, and 98 lbs., wants to be elected prop man, he is vigorously discouraged, but he will definitely lose if he persists. The prop man is thought to be able to hear the timbers talking to him, to let him know of an imminent cave-in. To support these beliefs, the miners point to stories like “Big Bad John”, in a song by the same name by Jimmy Dean from 1961. Based on a true story in West Virginia, Big Bad John was a prop man, Big and Bad just as required by legend, who died saving his miners by briefly holding up a sagging timber in a cave-in, while his team scrambled out. (Go to you tube video and choose Big Bad John with lyrics by Jimmy Dean, and you can sing along).
The miners have to face the possibility, each morning that they go down the mine shaft, that they may not come back up alive that night. They have made their peace with this frightening and dangerous place, and even express the feeling that the mine tunnels are the best place to work. They note that it is always a constant, and comfortable, 60 degrees, with no summer or winter down there, and no snow or rain. The miners are very difficult to supervise, they dislike authority, and so the management below the surface tends to leave them alone. They even feel that Nature down below in the mine, is kind to them. They have stories about the rats running out of the mine shaft ahead of a cave-in, as if to warn them, and they appreciate the warning. It is similar to when the timbers creak and groan to warn the prop man that a cave-in is coming. In the face of constant and uncontrollable danger, these tales and beliefs give them a sense of control, a sense of well-being, and a sense that something is being done to protect them. They believe that they will stay alive, and that is what keeps them going down the tunnel day after day.
Read the narrative above.
Read the selections by Biringuccio and Gouldner in your Alchemy module.
Go to you tube videos and watch “Big Bad John” (with lyrics) by Jimmy Dean.
Answer these three questions, and respond to two other students’ answers.
1. Why was Iron considered to be particularly magical?
2. Why were mines always considered to be dangerous places, both physically and spiritually?
3. Why is alchemy considered NOT to be a forerunner of, or earlier version of, modern science?