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70 ✸ Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa 4 e Stone of the Ancients In 1657, Oswald Crollie referred to alchemy as follows:“This visible and invisible fellowship of Nature is that golden chaine so much commended, this is the marriage of heaven and riches, these are Plato’s rings, this is that dark and close Phylosophy so hard to be known in the most inward and secret parts of Nature, for the gaining whereof Democritus, Pythagoras, Apollonius, &c. have travelled to the Brachmans and Gymnosophists in the Indies, and to Hermes his Pillars in Æegypt.”1 By contrast, chemists later viewed alchemy in the same way that astronomers viewed astrology—as an irrational, ancestral fraud. Galileo and Kepler used astrology to gain money from wealthy patrons, though they both had secret reservations against it. It had more validity than Galileo imagined, as Kepler rightly reasoned that some things in the heavens do affect life on Earth: the moon does cause the tides.Alchemists believed that metals,too,were linked to the heavenly bodies.Some believed that dull metals were diseased but could be cured, perfected. They thought that metals live and grow in the depths of Earth, and they sought the elusive occult “seed,” the so-called Philosophers’ Stone, that would allegedly transmute “diseased” dull metals into perfect gold.2 Alchemists sought this mysterious red powder in order to concoct a drinkable gold that would give health, extend life, and allow the alchemist a closer communion with God.They worked in basements and caves,with animal skeletons hanging overhead, stirring molten metals over fires and cooking smelly substances that would supposedly sweat and salivate and grow. They veiled their findings in secrecy, cloaked in mythical imagery. Some alchemists honestly worked to unravel the secrets of nature, but they too wrote in cryptic, allegorical terms. For example, consider 70 the following lines:“The wind is the bath of the Sun and the Moon, and Mercurius, and the Dragon, and the Fire that succeeds in the third place as the governor of the work: and the earth is the nurse, Latona, washed and cleansed, whom the Egyptians assuredly had for the nurse of Diana and Apollo, that is, the white and red tinctures. This is the source of all the perfection of the whole world.”3 Such fancies seem to lie quite some distance away from science. The main works of alchemy were said to be ancient,written by a mysterious author known as Hermes Trismegistus (“three times great”), a legendary mixture of the Greek god Hermes (Mercury) and the Egyptian god of wisdom. And alchemists were secretive, like the cult of Pythagoras . Hence, throughout the centuries, some seekers of alchemical knowledge increasingly suspected that Pythagoras, who allegedly visited Egypt,had been privy to such secrets.Since historians already have often written about alchemy by focusing on the figure of Hermes, I will now analyze the history of transmutation partly in regard instead to the legendary Pythagoras. For a long time, the transmutation of the elements seemed to be a secret or a myth. In the poem Metamorphoses (ca. 8 CE), Ovid told the story of Midas, King of Lydia, who received a drunken old satyr captured by peasants. Midas treated the satyr hospitably and entertained him for ten days and nights. On the eleventh day, King Midas returned the satyr to the young god Bacchus, the satyr’s foster son, who in turn offered to grant Midas one wish,“which was pleasing, but futile, since he was doomed to make poor use of his reward.‘Make it so that whatever I touch with my body, turns to yellow gold,’ he said. Bacchus accepted his choice, and gave him the harmful gift, sad that he had not asked for anything better.”4 King Midas was overjoyed by the gift, at first, turning twigs and stones to gold. But then he was horrified to find that his food also turned to gold, wine and water too. He fled in misery, hating his gift, thirsting and starving in despair. And“justly, he is tortured by the hateful gold. Lifting his shining hands and arms to heaven, he cries out:‘Father, Bacchus, forgive me! I have sinned. But have pity on me, I beg you, and save me from this costly evil!’The will of the gods is kindly. Bacchus, when he confessed his fault restored him,” by sending him to a foaming river to wash away his e Stone of the Ancients ✸ 71 sin...


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