Saturday, May 18, 2013

Ramon Llull And The Philosopher's Stone

I have never read "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" and nor have I seen the film. I know nothing about either, other than the fact that the philosopher's stone obviously played a key role. And key role was what many an old-time alchemist hoped it would play, if they had only been able to find it. Had they, they would have been capable of turning base metals into gold and silver and discovering the elixir of life. I suppose we should feel aggrieved that they didn't find it. Elixir of life is one thing, but limitless supplies of gold and silver would come in handy right now, though if there were limitless supplies, I guess that gold and silver would lose all their value and would no longer be precious. In hindsight, maybe it was as well that the philosopher's stone remained undiscovered.

Nevertheless, the Spanish Government would presumably not turn down the chance to get its hands on whole stashes of gold. Maybe there are scientists secretly beavering away with the aid of research grants from the government and searching for the elusive philosopher's stone. It would be as worthwhile an activity as almost all others that the government has attempted, if attempted is the right word, as it hasn't actually attempted anything to get Spain out of its hole. In the absence of any other initiative, alchemy has got to be worth a try.

Spain and alchemy have some history. It was the translation of Arabic texts into Latin from the twelfth century that introduced Spain to the potential for wealth creation through the transformation of dross into gold. Toledo in Spain was one of the main centres of this feverish translation process, as Spain led the way in being the first to stake a claim to having unearthed the philosopher's stone. It was all a bit like the space race, except that it was a race that could have no winner. Still, it's easy for us now to take the mick. The boffins back then didn't have the internet to consult to tell them that they were wasting their time.

One of these boffins who may or more likely may not have been searching for the philosopher's stone was a chap called Nicolas Flamel. He was French and apparently J.K. Rowling referred to him. Though Flamel gained a reputation for having been an alchemist and for possibly having had in his possession a mysterious text that unravelled the secrets of the philosopher's stone, it is a reputation that was almost certainly a complete invention, one that was dreamt up several centuries after he died.

It may be true, or there again it may not be true, that Flamel went to Spain - given that it was the centre of all this mediaeval alchemic gold rush - to get help with translations. Once in Spain, en route to Santiago de Compostela, Flamel apparently stumbled across a Jewish convert to Catholicism who pretty much spilled the alchemic beans. If any such Jewish convert had existed and if he had got wind of the secrets of alchemy, well, come on, we're still waiting, and it's been almost 800 years.

A Mallorcan of the era who dabbled in alchemy was our good friend Ramon Llull, the all-round egghead and general know-all of Mallorcan mediaeval times. Llull was big on Arabic, and his interest in the language may have been at least inspired by his wish to be the one who struck gold. Had he, Mallorca would now be able to lay claim to a very much more famous old philosopher-stroke-scientist-stroke-linguist-stroke-everything else that Llull was known for; or not known for, as most foreigners are still pretty ignorant of him.

The problem for serious alchemists of the day was that alchemy began to get a bad name. There were any number of charlatans, frauds and fakers frequenting the alchemy industry. They were the looky-looky men of their day, pretending they had real gold when in fact they'd been down the nearest DIY, got hold of a tin of gold paint and gone to work on a house brick. And in Mallorca, there was one such alchemist charlatans. Or so some alleged. He was Jaume Lustrach, who had got the gig as alchemist to the court of King Juan I of Aragon when the king moved into Bellver Castle in Palma.

Unfortunately for Jaume, he made two mistakes. One was not actually being able to make gold and the other was asking for more money of Juan's successor, his brother Martin I of Aragon. Martin was clearly made of more sceptical stuff than his brother and had Jaume locked up, only to bow to matrimonial pressure from the missus to have him released.

Jaume, Flamel, Llull, none of them of course were able to crack the code, but then they had spent their time consulting the wrong texts. All that Arabic stuff was of no use. What they had all overlooked was that the secret lay instead in a work about a boy wizard. 

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