As above, so below – Tabula smaragdina

The tasks above are as the flasks below, saith the emerald canticle of Hermes – James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Which came first, the phoenix or the flame? - J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Have you ever cooked ‘au bain-marie’? Without probably being aware of it, you have been practising a little alchemy – as this method of keeping the temperature of fluids on the same level, though not reaching 100°C is attributed to Mary the Jewess or Mary the Prophetess, who lived around the beginning of our Common Era and is reputed to be the first alchemist in the western world. Since that time, it must be said, alchemy became an almost exclusively male preserve. In the early modern period, alchemists were known as ‘the sons of Hermes’ (though there were also some daughters around…).  

As a collecting area, alchemy is closely related to the BPH’s principal collecting area Hermetica. Although nowadays ‘alchemy’ mainly conjures up images of changing lead into gold, it was actually a science until well into the 17th century, whose practitioners believed that God has placed secrets in nature. They accordingly investigated nature to discover, both in theory and in practice, the laws of nature by imitating the forces active in the cosmos in their retorts. They believed that the processes in the laboratory’s retort were the same as the processes taking place in nature. Metals, for instance, grew organically in the earth. Given enough time, the unripe or base metals would grow and change into gold – this is where the idea of alchemists changing lead into gold is based on. To accelerate this natural process, the alchemist interrupted the ‘pregnancy’ of the earth to purify the unripe fruit of her womb by artificial means, in the laboratory. 

An engraving in Michael Maier’s celebrated alchemical emblem book Atalanta fugiens illustrates a line from the famous Emerald Tablet attributed to Hermes Trismegistus: ‘Its nurse is the earth’. ‘Its’ here stands for the famous philosopher’s stone, the ultimate goal to be achieved in the practice of alchemy. The philosopher’s stone was also the universal medicine, which would cure mankind of all illnesses. Most alchemists who prepared chemical medicines produced through either distillation or calcination in their laboratories were motivated by the ‘earnest desire to help their Neighbours’, as one famous Dutch alchemist, Theodor Kerckring, an acquaintance also of Spinoza, put it. Fathoming God’s creation for the ultimate benefit of mankind, therefore, is a better definition of alchemy than the elusive quest to make gold.