What was the Elixir of Life and how did work?
In ancient Greek chemical manuscripts, the word “elixir,” which derives from the Arabic “aliksir,” described the substance that allowed base metals to be transmuted into gold and silver.
European alchemists believed the Philosopher’s Stone, which they thought could heal everything, was an essential component of Elixir of Life. However, many ancient writers said that the Elixir may also be created from other stones and doesn’t have to be the same as the Philosopher’s Stone.
The Universal Lexicon of H. Zedler, an 18th century encyclopedia still used today as a reference, says that an “elixir” is a dark-colored medicine made of many ingredients and dissolved in a strong solvent.
People have believed in a “cure-all” or “panacea” since ancient times, when it was thought the gods were able to live forever because they ate and drank mystical substances like the Greek gods’ ambrosia or the mead of Norse gods. Gold, pearls, and other gems were thought to be likely components of these pricey, youth-restoring cures.
During the first centuries A.D., Alexandria was the home of a secret school of philosophy that promised to turn dirty metals into gold and transform people into all-knowing sages. These alchemists, philosophers, and wise men sought the ultimate prize for their alchemical work: creating the “universal remedy.”
The idea was that if a philosopher or alchemist was capable of transforming one metal into another, he could then be able to use this knowledge to overcome the many challenges of human life, such as curing any illness or even death itself.
In this sense, the goals of Western and Chinese alchemists overlapped since they both sought immortality in some form.
In ancient China in particular, there was a great quest for a universal cure. Myths tell of a brilliant teacher of the hidden art named Wei Po-Yang who, according to legend, achieved immortality alongside one of his followers and his tiny dog, who inadvertently ate the remainder of the magical panacea.
In Europe, the quest for gold was the greater focus of alchemists, so “synthesizing” gold is talked about more than the creation of an Elixir of Life or other sources of immortality.
Typically, medications are created to treat specific illnesses, but alchemists sought the panacea, which would be able to treat all diseases and significantly extend human life (hence “elixir vitae” – Elixir of Life).
The belief that all diseases share a common cause, such as a disturbed equilibrium of the “elements” and “humors,” is the starting point for this quest. If it were feasible to discover a substance that could restore this equilibrium, then the universal cure could be achieved.
Even the knowledgeable Paracelsus, who constantly rebelled against the antiquated humoral beliefs, claimed to have discovered some sort of universal remedy and spoke of the numerous illnesses it had been able to treat.
German alchemist Gerhard Dorn penned these words as recently as the 16th century:
Who, besides a person devoid of all senses, can dispute such a remedy when there is one universal source of regeneration, restoration, and life-giving virtues and one single and most general fountain of all corruptions?
That “corruption” lies at the heart of all disease and illness served as the theoretical foundation for alchemists and physicians, similar to the Christian belief that Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden was the primary cause that ushered in the age of sin and decay that supposedly haunted mankind.
The fundamental belief is that disease and death are a part of everyday life because of corruption, and that the master alchemist will be able to inevitably overcome these limitations by continual purification, refining, and purging, ideas that are central to alchemical philosophy.
Consequently, an Elixir of Life must be effective against all diseases, because it removes the corruption itself. The panacea must increase vitality to the point where the patient is able to withstand all illnesses.
Many alchemists, notably Paracelsus and Jan Baptist van Helmont (1577–1644), were alleged to be in possession of such a powerful, mystical cure.
There is a great deal of speculation concerning the enigmatic “tinctura philosophorum,” or Philosophers’ Tincture, particularly in the works of Paracelsus’ followers, the medical alchemists who treated using inorganic compounds rather than medicines.
One of these manuscripts, written about 1560, claims that the ultimate purpose of true physicians is the revival and renewal of nature and that the tincture is prepared using the technique of a true alchemist. Curiously, the first tinctura philosophorum supposedly appeared as a divine miracle and not through the work of an alchemist.
Thus, early alchemists always wrote what the tinctura philosophorum could do but not how to produce it. According to them, the only ones who could produce the Philosophers’ Tincture were a few, secretive masters of the spagyric art.
The word “spagyric” means “made by the art of separating and putting back together in the right way.” It comes from the alchemical phrase “solve et coagula,” which means “dissolve and coagulate.”
Secret medications are thus frequently referred to as “spagyrical remedies,” and it appears that the vast majority of prescriptions outlining how to create strange substances from rare minerals, alcohol, metallic solutions, acids, and other ingredients seem to be nothing more than imitations of the Elixir of Life, the substance that so deeply obsessed the alchemists.
Zedler’s Lexicon talks about a strange panacea called “panacea aqua.” It was just water that had been distilled several times and had no taste, smell, or color. It was reported to have been utilized by a certain M. de Villars of Paris to treat a variety of ailments.
Many more chemists and alchemists were credited with creating other elixirs and universal remedies, most of which were made from rare minerals and plants.
In Zedler’s encyclopedia, a letter from one of Paracelsus’s students to M. Michael Neander describes how a distraught widow warned the famed doctor that her husband would die the next night. After looking at the patient’s urine, Paracelsus said to her:
“Your husband will have breakfast with you and get better tomorrow.”
Then Paracelsus took a small amount of a white powder (called “white elixir”) and told her to mix it with warm beer and give it to the sick man. The patient would then start sweating and get better, which is exactly what happened.
There are several more tales of this nature, although it is unclear whether they date back to Paracelsus’s time or were later credited to him.
In any case, Paracelsus further claimed in his own writings that he had successfully recovered from a number of horrible illnesses.
Using the techniques of the alchemists, the Dutch alchemist van Helmont claims to have discovered the Elixir of Life after receiving divine inspiration. From then on, he would style himself “philosophus per ignem,” which literally translates to “philosopher through fire.”
Van Helmont believed that Paracelsus had discovered the Elixir of Life, which he defined as a “universal ferment” essential to the balancing of all humours and substances.
According to legend, he treated a number of illnesses by dipping a mysterious “stone” into milk or oil, which the sufferers then drank.
Van Helmont occasionally mentions the “alkahest,” which is apparently the same as the Elixir of Life, namely a universal solvent that can dissolve everything “like warm water melts ice.”
The following statements are included in a book attributed to Paracelsus and originally printed in 1570 under the title De Tinctura Physicorum (On the Tincture of the Physicians):
“Some of the first doctors in Egypt and thereafter, up until the present, have survived for 150 years on this tincture. Because of its miraculous strength, which can enlighten the body and strengthen it to the point where the body will remain free of all diseases and, despite being afflicted by old age, will appear as it did in its youth, many of them lived for several centuries, despite the fact that this does not seem to be true to anyone. As a result, tinctura physicorum is a universal treatment that eats away at all illnesses as fire eats wood. Although it is small in quantity, it has strong properties.”
The writer then claims to have treated several ailments, including leprosy, dropsy, and epilepsy.
The quest to create the Elixir of Life
The creation of this enigmatic medication is described in the following manner by Bordeaux-born French alchemist Jean d’Espagnet in the 17th century:
“Mix three parts red earth (the Philosophers’ Stone), three parts water, and three parts air to make a metallic paste the consistency of butter where the earth can no longer be felt with the finger.
Add one and a half parts of fire, put it in a well-dosed vessel, and give it first-degree fire to help it ferment. After that, an extract of the elements is prepared in accordance with the degrees of the fire until they are condensed into a solid earth.
The substance is ready when it takes on the appearance of a transparent, ruby red stone. Place it in a saucepan over a low flame and add drops of oil to it until it becomes a fluid that doesn’t release smoke.
Do not be concerned that the mercury will evaporate since the ground quickly consumes the moisture because it is a component of its natural state.
At this point, your elixir is ready for use. Give thanks to God for the favor he has given you; use it to glorify him; and keep it a mystery to others.”
For alchemists of his time, the meaning of these instructions was surely obvious, but we have no idea to what materials d’Espagnet refers when he says to add one and a half parts of fire.
Evidence suggests that faith in the Elixir’s power was not exclusive to the dark ages before modern science was born.
K. C. Schmeider, the author of History of Alchemy, a book that was published in 1832, strongly believed a universal remedy or Elixir of Life was possible when he stated the following about the enigmatic Salomon Trismosin, who lived in the 15th century:
“In addition to discussing the effectiveness of the panacea in general, Trismosin also cited specific instances that demonstrated its miraculous effects. By using a half grain of it, he rejuvenated himself, turning his yellow, wrinkled skin smooth and white, his cheeks red, his grey hair black once again, and his bent spine straight. He was convinced that by taking this universal remedy, one may live longer and perhaps until the end of the world.”
Schmeider seems skeptical at this point since he continues:
Exaggerations that were in disagreement with the ways of nature were always a cause for suspicion toward their author and led to the condemnation of both the physician and the alchemist.
Even in the 20th century, alchemists—by now only a handful remaining after being replaced by modern doctors and chemists—were still trying to create the Elixir of Life.
A Californian couple by the name of Ingalese publicly announced in 1917 that they had discovered a substance they dubbed both the Philosophers’ Stone and the Elixir of Life.
They said that minute amounts of it functioned as a rejuvenator, and they used it to keep themselves healthy. They also said that they were able to effectively “resurrect” a lady who had been declared medically dead for a brief period of time.
It is difficult to separate between what the alchemists tried to teach via allegories and allusions that should be interpreted as metaphors and what they were actually claiming to be true and achievable in the real sense of the word.
Of course, the metaphorical did not necessarily rule out the achievable, since alchemy was in large part seen as a mystic union of the spiritual and the material.
Therefore, if archaic manuscripts mention cleansing, rectification, refining, and other similar concepts that grant the adept supernatural capabilities to alter his reality, this is to be interpreted as the first indication of the alchemist’s new spiritual freedom from conventional human constraints.
At the same time, though, when spirit and matter come together, the alchemist is free to believe in legends like the one about the universal remedy that gives life and renews it. This remedy is made from the same “hidden stone” (or Philosopher’s Stone) that can transform impure metals into gold.
For us, it would be simpler to believe that the ancient alchemists only used metaphors to talk about the wondrous parts of the universe that only those who received God’s grace could perceive.
It would be easier to interpret these myths as symbols of a strictly spiritual immortality, one that is separate from the mortal body and its many illnesses, and to admire only the metaphysical light of the cleansed mind. However, this interpretation would only consider one-half of the beliefs that the alchemist thought to be true.
We may grasp the synchronicity of the spiritual and material aspects if we use the alchemical process in the Jungian sense and explain it by projecting a subconscious process onto the outside world.
The presence of alchemical laboratories where physicians sincerely and fervently searched for occult remedies for the body could never be explained by an exclusively spiritual theory of alchemy.
At the very least, the ambition to get rid of sickness and pain by reaching a high level of spiritual wisdom and obtaining God’s creative powers is a noble purpose, so it can be interpreted with more sympathy than the greedy desire to turn impure metals into gold.
The ultimate goal of the “philosopher” since the beginning of Hellenistic alchemy has been to free the “pneuma” (soul) from its physical restraints.
The pneuma is invulnerable to any worldly suffering, so by setting it free, the highest level of evolution could be reached, where any illness could be easily overcome, including death itself.
Whatever the alchemical stories surrounding the Elixir of Life are true or not, there is little doubt the work invested to create the universal remedy improved the knowledge of the alchemist and helped push medicine forward.
It’s possible that man’s never-ending search for the Elixir opened the door to many of nature’s secrets. Otherwise, physicians of old would have been happy with their traditional materia medica, as outlined in ancient tomes written centuries ago.
Dealing with inorganic substances (which for the alchemist were not without a secret life) opened new doors, and if it could not bring into existence a genuine Elixir of Life, it surely enabled man to search, to labor, and to attempt, and this is the true beginning of all human development.
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