Do you still remember the Philosopher’s Stone in the Harry Potter movie? Any Harry Potter fan would definitely remember it. “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (“Sorcerer’s Stone” in the United States) made people familiar with a number of amazing magical folks.
However, one of the characters was a real-life alchemist. In the story of J.K Rowling, the stone that was able to give eternal life to people was made by Albus Dumbledore’s old friend, Nicolas Flamel. Many would have assumed that J.K Rowling had just made up the character and the story, but Nicolas Flamel was a real person, one of the most famous alchemists in European history.
Before getting to know more about Nicholas Flamel, let’s get an idea of alchemy.
Alchemy and Eternal Life
Some people in ancient Greek times believed that it was possible to convert lead metal into gold with the help of the Philosopher’s Stone. Some other people had a hope that they would find an elixir that would give them immortal and eternal life. Yet some others looked for universal medicine in order to cure all kinds of diseases.
All such expectations of people in ancient times show a mystical desire to discover the secrets of the universe. While it may seem to be quite ridiculous and strange in the present, it was considered to be serious even by the knowledgeable men of those times.
Until the late 18th century, the terms “chemistry” and “alchemy” were largely interchangeable. Lead and gold, for instance, were observed to be very similar metals: unreactive, dense, malleable. It seemed reasonable to assume one could change to the other.
But in all these endeavors the Philosopher’s Stone kept appearing, as a sort of catalyst or essential part to these experiments. Accordingly, many alchemists devoted a lot of energy into finding the Philosopher’s Stone. One among them was Sir Isaac Newton, who devoted years of his life to alchemical studies.
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However, the works of the French Chemist Lavoisier in the late 18th century brought an end to alchemy as a scientific discipline. Instead, alchemy became associated with esoterism and magic. Although some alchemists are still searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, they are not taken seriously by the scientific community.
Ironically, as it turns out you could convert lead to gold if you wished. You just needed a particle accelerator.
Nicolas Flamel is believed to have lived during the 14th century in Paris. He was tall, with brown hair, and was known to be a smart, kind, and pious person.
In the crowded, noisy, dirty, and smelly streets, Flamel used to work as a copyist. He was a public writer who used to write for illiterate people. He was also a bookseller and bookbinder too. Flamel had married a widow named Pernelle, continuing to work as a bookseller after marriage.
The couple was known to be wealthy as they had many properties and regularly donated money to the Catholic Church. This was rumored to come from alchemy: Flamel was said to have successfully converted lead into gold. In this he was aided by decoding an ancient alchemy book from the original mystic Hebrew text, with the help of a Spanish scholar.
The Dream of Nicolas Flamel
The interest of Nicolas Flamel in alchemy started with a dream. One day, Flamel reportedly saw an angel in his dreams who handed a book to him. The book had a very distinctive cover, and a hidden secret. The angel also told him that one day, Flamel would be able to comprehend what is in the book.
Flamel was quite troubled by the dream he saw. Some years passed by, and he began to forget about the dream. However, one fine day, an old traveler came to Flamel and offered him to sell a very old book containing 7 chapters in 21 pages. When Nicolas looked at the book cover, he realized that it was the same book he saw in his dream.
The book contained the recipe for converting lead into gold and using it as an elixir of life. It was written by a Jew named Abraham. However, as the book was written in Greek and other unfamiliar languages, Flamel had a lot of difficulty in reading and understanding it. Some believe that Flamel spent 21 years making an effort to decipher the book.
When he could not find any help in Paris, he went to Spain to look for a Jewish scholar. There he met Maestro Canches, an educated Jewish man in Leon. Canches recognized that the book contained Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition.
He translated some of the pages of the book for Flamel and agreed to travel to France and translate the remaining part. However, he fell ill during the journey and died even before reaching Paris. Luckily, Canches had taught Flamel so much that he was able to translate the whole book within the next three years.
By translating the book, Flamel learned about hermeticism, and eventually claimed to have perfected the formula to produce the Elixir and the Stone. While these may seem like unlikely claims, what is certain is that Flamel became incredibly wealthy. He was a generous man, so he contributed a significant portion of his fortune to the patronized churches, hospitals, and poor people in the city.
Some however look elsewhere for the source of Flamel’s riches, and an investigation was even conducted due to his incredible wealth. The investigation found no evidence of his involvement in alchemy. Some evidence shows that he became wealthy not due to the creation of the Philosopher’s stone but because of marrying Pernelle, who belonged to an affluent family.
Traces of Nicolas Flamel in Paris
Nicolas Flamel is reported to have died in 1418, an odd development for someone who had unlocked the secret of immortality. His reputation was fueled long after his death, with several books attributed to him. Today, in Paris, there are two streets named after Nicolas Flamel and his wife, Pernelle: the Rue Pernelle and Rue Nicolas Flamel, located in the neighborhood in which they lived. Flamel’s house stands nearby, one of the oldest stone houses in Paris.
So, did he find the secret of immortality? Did he turn lead into gold? These assertions were not made until centuries later, and he became famous, appearing in treatises and fiction alike even down to the current day. In reputation at least, he seems to have achieved immortality.
Top Image: Did Flamel unlock the secrets of Alchemy? Source: Hans Splinter / CC BY-ND 2.0.
By Bipin Dimri
The real Nicolas Flamel and the Philosopher’s Stone. Available at: https://www.wizardingworld.com/features/the-real-nicolas-flamel-and-the-philosophers-stone
What was the Philosopher’s stone? Available at: https://www.history.com/news/what-was-the-philosophers-stone
Who was Nicolas Flamel? The Story of the Famous French Alchemist. Available at: https://www.discoverwalks.com/blog/paris/who-was-nicolas-flamel-the-story-of-the-famous-french-alchemist/