When we think of alchemical practice, we often think of a pseudoscience related to magic and mysticism, steeped in inaccurate scientific endeavours. One cannot help but think of the infamous philosopher stone- the famed substance claimed to turn base metals into precious metals such as gold. The stone was often thought to provide the maker with immortality. However, whilst alchemists have been associated with quackery, one cannot help but observe their role in the origins of chemistry. With observation into the themes of alchemical research it is clear embalming practices may have a larger role than once previously observed. It is, after all, modern chemists who have perfected the process so why wouldn’t the first chemists of the past be linked to such a scientific practice? In this blog post I discuss the surprising links alchemical practice had with the art of embalming, and how we can begin to think of alchemists in a different light.
As I mentioned in my last blog post Jesus Christ was thought to have been embalmed. Links were made between his bodily preservation and his subsequent resurrection. The 13th century alchemical writer Arnald of Villanova uses the steps in the resurrection of Christ to allegorically describe the process of the alchemical treatment of mercury. This description attempted to elevate alchemy by linking it to Christianity, and in the 19th century alchemical text the Rosarium philosophorum we see Christs Resurrection depicted to show a step in the alchemical process. The fact mercury is linked to resurrection and the philosophers stone is interesting, as mercury became a fluid used in the embalming method. Mercury was one of the more important substances to alchemists, as it was suggested to be the ‘seed of all metals.’ Mercury in turn became an important substance for anatomists who wished to study the vessels within the human body. Mercurial embalming injections were first mentioned by Italian anatomist Marcello Malpighi (1628-94) in 1661 in his study of the finest branches of the lungs. It has been suggested the use of mercury had visual as well as alchemical elements in its manifestation. Malphgi may have been referencing alchemy when he mentions the structures looking like ‘branches of a tree’- the tree being a huge symbol in alchemy with creations like the Arbor Philosophorum (Diana’s Tree) and Arbor Saturnus (Saturn’s Tree) prevalent in experimentation. The density of mercury was thought of as having the same density as blood, hence the use of the material in embalming injections. Malphgi, and other enlightened minds of the era, used metals to understand the flow of blood. When heated, both mercury and blood separated into ‘a red solid part and a fluid, white, watery part’, cementing alchemists/ anatomist’s theories that the two were strongly linked. The serous matter in the blood at the time suggested to many researchers to be lymphatic fluid, with Anthony Nuck (1650-1692) of Leiden University exploring the lymphatic system further by developing a mercurial mix that would harden through the addition of lead and tin. Nuck often looked to alchemy for reference, referring to mercury as ‘Noster Mercurius’ which refers to the alchemical union of sulphur and argent vive to create philosophical mercury. Anatomical mercury was also used by the famous Alexander Monro Secunsus and by Eduard Sandifort, Professor of Anatomy at Leiden, in the second half of the 18th Century. The fluidity of academic fields in this era can be observed in the links between embalming and alchemy, with scientific historians agreeing distinctions were made in later years.
As well as mercury, arsenic has links in both fields. Ancient Egyptians, sometimes referred to as the first alchemists, used arsenic to harden copper and as an addition to embalming fluid. It was, in fact, an Arab alchemist from the 8th century that first transformed the tasteless, oxide powder we know today before it became more prevalent as an embalming fluid ingredient. Chronic arsenic poisoning became an issue for embalmers and arsenic quickly became known as one of the chemical world’s most deadly poisons. Aqua vitae is mentioned by the 16th Century physician Peter Forestus as an ingredient in washing embalming fluid. It is notable that this terminology is used as the phrasing is alchemical latin- the distilling of wine called ‘burning water’ by John of Rupescissa in the 14th century. Again, we see links between scientific ingredients in two practices that had a ‘recipe literature’. Forestus (also known as Pieter Van Foreest) disliked ‘quackery’ within the medical profession and was trusted enough to conduct the autopsy and embalming of William of Orange after his assassination. This again would suggest the significance of such alchemical phrasing used by a formidable physician known as ‘the Dutch Hippocrates’.
We can look even further back in time to see the original connections made between alchemy and embalming. As per my brief mention, the Egyptians have been referred to as ‘the first alchemists’. In my other blogposts, I have also talked about this civilisation as one of the first embalmers in the ancient world (as well as being the most famous). Anubis was the God of embalmers, and many priests carried out methods of bodily preservation ritual with magical as well as scientific methods wearing the Anubis headdress. The jackal head image also appears on ‘magician’ boxes from the period. Mortuary symbolism is linked to alchemy and the embalming process alike. The intention of embalming of pharaohs was transformation of the body to an incorruptible vessel, capable of surviving forever in the underworld. The transformation ideology is one of the strongest in alchemical imagery, as well as resurrection as I have already discussed. The method of embalming using salts for dehydration also became commonplace in the alchemical labs of the era, such as the alchemical operation of calcinatio for reducing humidity prima materia.
Alchemical embalming connections are imbedded in ancient as well as more modern anatomical culture. From the Egyptians to the enlightened, one cannot help but notice the links between both practices in a time when there were less distinctions between fields of study. This aspect of alchemical history, as well as embalming history, is a subject matter that needs further investigation and attention, suggesting more than ever the need for multi-disciplinary research.
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