March 16, 2012

Nicholas Flamel and the Philosopher's Stone

Nicholas Flamel
Anyone who has read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or seen the film based on it knows of Nicholas Flamel, the immortal alchemist and creator of the Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemical substance capable of turning base metals into pure gold and granting eternal life. Less well-known is the fact that Nicholas Flamel was a real historical figure – as was his quest for the Philosopher’s Stone. This is how his legend goes.

Nicholas Flamel’s Early Life

Nicholas Flamel was born somewhere in France in 1330. From early adulthood, he earned his living as a bookseller, starting from a small stall near the Cathedral of Saint-Jacques la Boucherie in Paris. A humble trade, but it provided him with the ability to read and write – fairly rare skills in that day and age.

Flamel’s business grew over the years, and he bought a house in the old rue de Marivaux. Copyists and illustrators did their work on the ground floor, and Flamel conducted his business from there. Somewhere along the line, he met his wife Perenelle, with whom he would spend the rest of his life.

Nicholas Flamel had acquired some knowledge of the ancient art of alchemy. He dreamed, like many others, of discovering the Philosopher’s Stone. However, it was not unlimited gold he was after. Rather, he dreamed of finding the fundamental secrets of nature through the Stone. In other words, perfect wisdom. He believed the Stone had already been found and that knowledge of it existed in the hands of unknown sages. But a small Parisian bookseller had little possibility of getting in contact with these sages.

The Book

One night, Flamel had a strange dream of an angel appearing to him. The winged and radiant being presented a book to him and spoke these words: "Look well at this book, Nicholas. At first you will understand nothing in it - neither you nor any other man. But one day you will see in it that which no other man will be able to see." Just as Flamel reached out his hands to receive the book, the dream faded and he woke up.

Flamel in his studySome time afterwards, Flamel was alone working in his shop when a stranger in desperate need of money approached him with a book to sell. Flamel immediately recognized it as the same book the angel had shown him and, without bargaining, paid two florins for it.

The book had a very old covering of worked copper, engraved with strange diagrams and characters. Its pages were unlike anything he had encountered before – instead of parchment, they were made of the bark of young trees and covered with clear writing done with an iron point. The pages were divided into three groups of seven and separated by a page containing a diagram unintelligible to Flamel. The words on the first page named the author of the book: Abraham the Jew, prince, priest, Levite, astrologer and philosopher. This was followed by threats and curses against anyone not a priest or a scribe who dared lay their eyes on it.

Due to a combination of the memory of his vision and his own intuition, Flamel felt strongly that Abraham the Jew’s book contained secrets of nature, life and death – knowledge he feared he was not qualified to understand.

Flamel was familiar with the symbols and writings of alchemists of his day. But the book eluded him. He copied some of the pages and set them out in his shop, hoping someone with knowledge of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, would be able to help him understand them. He met with nothing but the laughter and derision of skeptics.

The Journey South

For 21 years Nicholas Flamel strove to decipher the mysteries of the book. Unfortunately, no one in Paris could help him understand it, since parts of it were written in ancient Hebrew and Jews had recently been driven out of France by persecution. Flamel knew that many of them had settled in Spain. Traveling was extremely dangerous those days, however, especially for a solitary person, so Flamel donned a pilgrim’s attire and made a vow to make a pilgrimage. Pilgrims were ensured a certain measure of safety in Christian countries, and it also concealed the real purpose of his journey. Only Perenelle was aware of his true plans.

Unwilling to expose the entire manuscript to the dangers of traveling, Flamel took with him only a few carefully copied pages and set out on his quest. After fulfilling his vow of pilgrimage, Flamel wandered around Spain, trying to make connections with scholarly Jews. But they were understandably suspicious of Christians. Besides, he had to remember Perenelle waiting for him, and his shop, which was managed only by his servants. Finally he was forced to admit defeat and began his journey home.

At an inn in Leon, he met by lucky chance a French merchant who introduced him to a Maestro Canches, an old, learned Jew living in the city. He, too, was reluctant to help the French bookseller. But then Flamel mentioned the name of Abraham the Jew. It turned out Abraham was one of the greatest masters who studied the mysteries of the Kabbalah, and his book had disappeared centuries ago. Tradition said it had never been destroyed but had been passed from hand to hand, always to those who were destined to receive it. Maestro Canches had dreamed of finding it all his life.

Canches was able to translate the few pages Flamel had with him. But they were not enough to reveal the secret, and Canches immediately made up his mind to accompany Flamel to Paris. But his extreme age was a problem, and Jews were not even allowed in France. Regardless, Canches vowed to rise above his physical weakness and to convert to Christianity. He had been above religions for many years, after all. And so the two men headed north.

As fate would have it, Canches’ health became worse and worse the closer they came to Paris. Finally he fell ill in Orleans and, despite Flamel’s care, died seven days later. Maestro Canches was buried in the Church of Sante-Croix, and Flamel resumed the journey alone.

The Philosopher’s Stone

Flamel reached Paris and found his shop and Perenelle as he had left them. But everything had changed. Even though Maestro Canches had only translated a few pages, Flamel was able use that knowledge to decipher the entire book. He spent three more years completing his knowledge, and at the end of this period he accomplished something alchemists had been trying to do for centuries – transmutation. Carefully following the method outlined by Abraham the Jew, he succeeded in transforming half a pound of mercury into silver, and then into pure gold. It was accomplished with the Philosopher’s Stone, which involved some strange, reddish ”projection powder”.

Historical records show that Flamel became inexplicably rich around this time. He and Perenelle built houses for the poor, founded free hospitals and made donations to churches. But he didn’t use his newfound wealth to improve his own way of life. It is said that he achieved the transmutation of his own soul, the victory of spirit over matter.

Inevitably, people became curious about how a humble bookseller could make such generous donations. Eventually rumors reached the king of France, Charles VI, who ordered an investigation into the matter. But thanks to Flamel’s cautious and reticent nature, nothing of interest was found. He never revealed his knowledge of the Philosopher’s Stone.

Nicholas Flamel's tombstone engravings
The figures Flamel had carved on his tombstone.
The Death of Nicholas Flamel

Perenelle died first. Flamel spent the last years of his life writing books on alchemy and carefully settling his affairs. He designed his own tombstone, engraved with arcane alchemical symbols, before dying at the age of 88 – a very old age in the 15th century.

After Flamel’s death, rumours of his alchemical powers and discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone began to spread throughout France and the world. His house was repeatedly ransacked by greedy opportunists seeking the secrets of his riches, but nothing was ever found.

The Fate of Abraham’s Book

Flamel left his manuscripts and library to a nephew named Perrier he was very fond of. Nothing at all is known of Perrier. Some believe he inherited Abraham’s book, learned the mysteries of the Philosopher’s Stone and spent his life in the obscurity his uncle prized but wasn’t quite able to maintain.

Two centuries passed before Flamel’s legacy was heard from again. Traces of it resurfaced during the reign of Louis XIII in the 17th century. A descendant of Flamel named Dubois reportedly abandoned his ancestor’s reserve and, undoubtedly seeking fame and prestige,transformed lead balls into gold before the king himself using the projection powder. As a result of this experiment, the powerful Cardinal de Richelieu demanded to know how the powder worked. But Dubois, unable to understand Flamel’s manuscripts or Abraham’s book, could tell him nothing. He was imprisoned and condemned to death for some past offences, and Richelieu seized his properties.

It is said that the cardinal gained possession of the book of Abraham the Jew and built a laboratory to exploit it. However, the knowledge contained within it proved to be an insurmountable challenge for him. The book, whose secrets had taken over 20 years of pondering for a sage like Flamel to understand, was not accessible to a politician like Richelieu. After Richelieu’s death, all traces of the book were lost, save perhaps for a few illustrations.

The Old Sage

Later in the 17th century, Louis XIV sent an archaeologist named Paul Lucas on a scientific mission to the East. According to his account, while in Broussa, Turkey, Lucas met a philosopher who spoke almost every known language and who he described as ageless. The man told him he was a part of a group of seven philosophers who belonged to no particular country and traveled the world in search of wisdom. According to him, a man could live for a thousand years if he had knowledge of the Philosopher’s Stone. He went on to say that there were sages in the world who possessed such knowledge and kept it to themselves. Nicholas Flamel was one of them.

The man even told Lucas how Flamel had gained Abraham’s book. Abraham the Jew had been a member of the group before being betrayed and murdered by a rabbi for his book and papers. The murderer was sentenced to death not long before the persecution of Jews in France began, and the book was sold to Flamel by a Jew unaware of its value and in a hurry to get out of Paris.

Even more amazingly, the man stated that both Flamel and his wife were alive. They had supposedly faked their deaths and moved to India, where they still lived.

True or not, Nicholas Flamel’s legend certainly excites the imagination. The thought of him still being alive somewhere in the world along with other ancient sages is an intriguing one.

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