By Kate Daley Bailey
Ever wondered where J. K. Rowling got inspiration for her magical world of the Harry Potter series? Did you know that Nicholas Flamel was a real man and famed alchemist, who according to mystical lore had created the illusive Philosopher’s/ Sorcerer’s Stone? Alchemy, the ancient mystical practice of trying to turn crude metals into gold, while seemingly fantastic to modern people, was the precursor to Enlightenment Sciences and various forms of Christian mysticism. Not purely an entrepreneurial venture, alchemy was not only viewed as a path to fame and wealth but also a spiritual practice grounded in religious symbolism.
Some modern readers view Rowling’s alchemical leanings as advocating witchcraft and thereby denounce the series as promoting what they see as an anti-Christian agenda. Ironically, much of the alchemical history, which Rowling utilizes, is linked to Christian mysticism. Religious critics of Rowling are not the first to be made uncomfortable by alchemy: they have been pre-empted by the Catholic Church’s Inquisition, western academia’s understandable skepticism of alchemy’s secretive and spiritual language, numerous monarchs’ laws against gold “creation” (much like current governments’ laws against currency counterfeiting), and the general public’s vision of alchemists as bumbling oddball eccentrics who were consequently labeled as religious fanatics dabbling in witchcraft, misinformed quacks, or charlatans engaged in shady business dealings and faked precious metals.
How can we know that the history of alchemy influenced Rowling work? Rowling tells readers in the interview quotation below that she used her knowledge of alchemy to “invent this wizard world.”
I’ve never wanted to be a witch, but an alchemist, now that’s a different matter. To invent this wizard world, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy. Perhaps much of it I’ll never use in the books, but I have to know in detail what magic can and cannot do in order to set the parameters and establish the stories’ internal logic. J. K. Rowling
Rowling’s wizard world does have an internal logic and her depiction of how magic works is consistent. While I would not recommend reading the series as an allegory of alchemy or any alchemical text, I would advise readers to view the series through the lens of alchemical transformation… and to see Rowling’s use of magic as a method or technology and not a glorified representation of magic or a endorsement of witchcraft (in its various forms).
Rowling also repeatedly uses popular alchemical symbols and legends to advance her storylines: the legends surrounding the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life, the symbol of the Phoenix, references notable alchemists such as Nicholas Flamel and Paracelsus, and many more subtle references to the alchemical world.
Rowling’s theme of transformation (from childhood to adulthood) embodied in the seven book series mimics an alchemist’s ultimate goal, to transform base metals into precious gold and silver and to transform themselves (from merely ‘crude matter’ to a more perfect reflection of the Creator and cosmos) and to purify themselves of the taint of human frailty. For many alchemists, these practices were about spiritual transformations as well as physical ones. It is often times difficult to separate the threads of mystical lore (primarily from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) from the purely material observations these alchemists made through years of research.
Alchemy: What is it?
This question is difficult to address for a multiplicity of reasons. Many historians debate when and where this practice actually began. Most historians divide the practice by its place of supposed origin. Western traditions are said to originate in Egypt and adapted later by the Greeks. Eastern traditions are linked back to both ancient China and India. No matter which line one follows, the “origin” of alchemy remains in the murky and mythic past.
Another complication is that the hallmark attribute of alchemical practices is that they were intended to be secret and only passed on to the properly trained and initiated. This translates into a slew of cryptic texts and images that are intentionally enigmatic. Many of the stories about noted alchemists themselves are more akin to legend and fable than what a modern reader might view as a historical account. These earliest “histories” do not cite dates, present conflicting information about said alchemists, and include unusual anecdotes (reading more like hagiographies than biographies).
Reading the texts written by these alchemists themselves is even more confounding as many of the texts are written under pseudonyms or take on the mantle of earlier, more venerated authors from the alchemical community. For example, a text written by a second century Greek alchemist whose was influenced by Jewish and Christian mystical traditions, might write under the name of a great patriarch, matriarch, or prophet from the Hebrew Scriptures. Not only is authorship undeterminable, the texts themselves are designed to discourage the uninitiated reader… rendering them almost impossible to decipher with any accuracy.
Etymologically, we can turn to the term ‘alchemy’ itself for some kind of hint to the tradition’s origin. Some sources link the base of the word itself to the Egyptian ‘keme’ which means roughly ‘black earth’—believed to be associated with the fertile soils of the Nile. Another source states that the term comes to us via the Greek word ‘chymia’ meaning ‘working with metals.’ Later alchemists will view this dark fecund muck as the much coveted ‘original matter’ from which all creation came, and see its possession as a requirement for the production of the Philosopher’s Stone.
The ‘Stone’ was thought to have the ability (when used properly) to transform base metals into silver and gold and create the Elixir of Life (which granted one health and immortality). Once historic and linguistic inquiries have hit a theoretical brick wall, we must turn to the mythic foundations of alchemy, which is choke full of symbols, images, and terms which practitioners of alchemy used to elucidate and obviscate their art.
The Egyptian god Thoth—god of writing/hieroglyphics and magic—is idealized as the mythic founder of the tradition. The Greek god Hermes/Roman god Mercury—god of messages (between worlds), magic, and healing—is depicted by the western alchemical tradition as the deity most comparable to the Egyptian Thoth. Hermes/Mercury’s iconic staff, the caduceus, represents his healing attributes and is now most frequently recognized today as an emblem of the medical profession. While these cultures (Egyptian, Greek, and Roman) are distinct and disparate, among later alchemists, the practice of syncretism (the mixing and blending of various religious and cultural traditions) was common.
Probably the most enigmatic contributor to alchemical writings was Hermes Trimegistus (thrive-great). While numerous texts are ascribed to this person, there is no biographical information available regarding when or where they/he lived. Hermes Trimegistus is the supposed author of an ancient text on alchemical transformation known as The Emerald Tablet, which highlights perhaps the most consistent theme in alchemical writing: the correspondence between worlds.
That that which is Above is like that which is Below and that which is Below is like that which is Above, to accomplish the Miracle of Unity. The Emerald Tablet
One of the primary themes of western alchemy is the concept of correspondence… that the natural world reflects the cosmic structure and that man is a microcosm (the cosmos in miniature). Due to the microcosm/ macrocosm relationship, harmony and balance are perceived as vital to physical and spiritual health. Each of the planets, which according to the ancients numbered seven, corresponds to a metal, and gold, representing the sun, was the embodiment of perfection, cosmically and spiritually.
Even before Aristotle, the four elements (air, earth, water, and fire) had been perceived by the Greeks as the four components that make up all matter. A harmonious balance of these elements was seen as vital to the wellbeing of individuals, society, and the cosmos. Rowling’s series often refers to the significance of the four elements. In an interview, Rowling explained the correlation between the four elements and the four houses at Hogwarts:
It is the tradition to have four houses, but in this case, I wanted them to correspond roughly to the four elements. So Gryffindor is fire, Ravenclaw is air, Hufflepuff is earth, and Slytherin is water, hence the fact that their common room is under the lake. So again, it was this idea of harmony and balance, that you had four necessary components and by integrating them you would make a very strong place. But they remain fragmented, as we know.
This emphasis on elemental harmony, which shows up in Rowling’s series, made its way from Greece and Rome to Europe via Arabic translations of the Greek philosophers. When Europe emerged from the infamous ‘dark ages’ and numerous ancient Greek texts, preserved primarily in Arabic resurfaced, many scholars, physicians, statesmen, and artisans had access to a forgotten world of knowledge. The European Renaissance (literally ‘rebirth’) spanning roughly between the 14th-17th centuries profoundly affected western thought. While Western Europe devolved into chaos during the Middle Ages, Arab mystics and scholars within Islamic empires generated a plethora of alchemical texts based on Greek philosophy, Islamic principles, and observation of the natural world. Translations of Aristotle, Pythagoras, and Democritus made their way into Christian monasteries in the 11th century and lead to the west’s ‘rediscovery’ of many ancient Greek philosophical texts.
These scholars saw that silver and gold (and other precious metals) were the result of natural processes developing over many, many years. Alchemists were trying to expedite (speed up) these natural processes in order to reproduce the dark riches of the earth in their very own forges. These pre-scientists experimented in their homemade laboratories which often contained a hearth/ forge/ open flame, bellows (which earned them the nickname ‘puffers’), a sundry mix of mineral compounds and natural materials, as well as alchemical texts which promised to lead initiates to their goal, the Philosopher’s Stone. Many European alchemists were religious men and even built home altars in their laboratories.
However, there were certain hurdles novices and masters alike had to address. They didn’t know very much about the natural world and how these processes exactly worked… so many of them decided that in order to mimic nature processes—they were going to have to observe natural processes. The crude materials they were using were not pure so many of their experiments returned inconsistent results and there was no consistent way for alchemists to measure the temperatures needed to produce changes in material.
Patronage, Heresy, and Secrecy
In addition to these logistical limits, European society was unsure in its feelings toward alchemy. Monarchs and nobles compelled by desire to fill their countries treasuries and intrigued by the prospect of health, prolonged life, and possible immortality, often patronized alchemists. For example famed alchemist John Dee was an astrologer for Mary Tudor, advised Sir Walter Raleigh, picked Queen Elizabeth’s coronation day and was her advisor for many years. Even the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II was a patron of alchemy.
However, regal patrons turned on their pets when they felt they had not gained what was promised to them. Some felt deceived, and rightly so, and so extracted vengeance upon their former employees and other alchemists. Alchemists who fell out of favor were lucky to escape with their lives. Other dangers lurked in the lives of alchemists. Although many early alchemists were religious (a number were men of the cloth), some popes (like John XXII) issued papal bulls denouncing alchemy.
European nobility, when not utilizing alchemists’ arts, outlawed alchemy (especially the search and procurement of the Philosopher’s stone) fearing that artificially created or counterfeit precious metals would destabilize their economies. The Catholic Church also targeted alchemists (and any mystic for that matter) in the Inquisition. Alchemy was not only illegal, according to many civil officials, its acceptance of mystical interpretations of Christianity and secretive nature made it suspect in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Not only was the Catholic Church skeptical of the activities alchemists did in secret, many un-initiated Christians saw alchemy as demonic. John Dee, mentioned above, believed he had been visited by the angel Uriel and was given the power to communicate with other realms. According to The Secrets of the Alchemists, his laboratory and library were destroyed by angry mob who thought he was in league with the devil.
So why were alchemists secretive, if secrecy—in some cases—led to persecution?
The standard ‘textbook’ answer is that alchemists only passed on information to other initiated alchemists… fearing those who would use their newfound ‘powers’ for evil. It seems more likely that alchemists, whose power was wrapped up in their discoveries, feared theft. Without intellectual property laws or patents to protect them: alchemists horded their knowledge. They also feared persecution from the church, civil authorities, and angry mobs… writing in code, using cryptic symbols revealed information to those they wished to reveal it to and cloak it to those they did not wish to see it.
***The exploration continues in tomorrow’s feature: Alchemical Traces in Harry Potter, Part II***
Resources for further inquiry:
- Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts, Edited by David Baggett and Shawn E. Klein
- From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy by Matthew T. Dickerson and David O’Hara
- Secrets of the Alchemists, editors of Time-Life books
- Alchemy: An Illustrated A to Z, by Diana Fernando
- The Philosopher’s Stone: Alchemy and the Secret Search for Exotic Matter by Joseph P. Farrell
- The Hermetic Cabinet: Alchemy and Mysticism by Alexander Roob (great images)
- Creations of Fire: Chemistry’s Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age by Cathy Cobb and Harold Goldwhite
- Alchemy, The Ancient Science by Neil Powell
- Alchemists through the Ages by Arthur Edward Waite
- Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer by Michael White
- The Chymistry of Isaac Newton project-online access to all of the chemical and alchemical manuscripts of Isaac Newton.