Alchemy is an early forerunner of chemistry said to have developed within Babylonian Culture. It was such an attractive discipline, it passed through Egypt, the Islamic world and China before taking it’s most widely known form in the Middle Ages. One of the chief beliefs was that combining commonplace things like mercury, salt, and sulfur in the right amounts and with the right processes, would create gold.
So why talk about gold and alchemy in a blog about immortality? Many cultures made gold a symbol of immortality. Gold resists tarnish the way people wish to resist aging. It’s refinement through fire suggested to many that we too could be refined into a perfect, immortal state. I’ve been searching the world’s cultures and mythology to create fictional secret societies for my novel and I found roots for two in the following times and cultures.
In China, people believed immortals had eaten gold and drunk of pearls to gain their indefinite lifespans. Perhapse as early as the first century BCE, Chinese alchemists created immortality elixirs that included gold. Yet these recipes also often contained Mercury and Arsenic, elements associated with gold that are toxic. You might think the deaths of people who took the elixirs would convince everyone they weren’t cures for mortality, but Mercury and Arsenic have embalming qualities as well. It was said that if the corpse did not decay, it was a sign the person had risen to immortality. Chinese alchemy eventually faded, but it is a good root for a fictional secret society.
Many people know the Philosopher’s Stone by it’s appearance in the Harry Potter series. (It was called the Sorcerer’s Stone in the American series.) It gave Frenchman Nicholas Flamel immortality so the badguy Voldemort wanted it. Nicholas Flamel and his wife Perenel were real people, but accounts of his creation of the Philosopher’s Stone probably originated about 200 years after his death in 1418.
Medieval alchemists believed the Philospher’s Stone could turn base metals into the material considered the most perfect on earth, gold, so it was assumed the stone also had the power to perfect mere mortals as well. In most recipes, the Philosopher’s Stone was created from “first matter”, a mysterious unnamed, but pure substance that was destroyed and turned black, resurrected and turned white, and finally, turned into a red powder. The powder could turn base metals to gold, and immortalize the users. Alchemy eventually uncoupled from the perfection of humanity, and gave way to chemistry. Now scientists are back to trying to extend lifespans and even immortalize humans. Is this quest as futile as alchemy? Some would say no, including many in my novel that belong to the secret society I am building. A secret society based on Medieval European Alchemy.