I started hillwalking again in 2014 after a gap of 6 years, and at the end of October climbed my first Munro and first new to me Munro since early 2008. A few days later I was recalling how good it felt to get outside and uphill, when I remembered that mountains feature in some alchemical works and ideas.
So the question is where, and what do they mean?
The first obvious point is that mountains are high, lofty palces, closer to God in his heaven, and part way between the earth and the sky. So they are set apart from the earth itself, and of course you can see a long way from the top of them.
The Book of Crates, in the English translation sold by Adam Maclean of the Arabic which in turn was probably translated in the 9th century from the Greek, it says:
“Definition of the stone that is not a stone, nor of the nature of the stone. It is a stone that is generated every year. Its mine is on the summits of the mountains.”
Hmm, well that might be a veiled allusion to distillation and what collects in the alembic.
The third step of the Scala Philosophorum has a section that says, about the body of the work or perhaps the stone:
“When they are drawn and gathered up into the heavens, and maintain their position above the peaks of our mountains for a specific period, then they yield an air, a generative principle convering everything to its own proper nature. Then the light parts succumb to the heavy parts, over which they had previously been dominant, and as heavenly dew, they fall to earth to multiply indefinitely.
So the philosopher Caesarius says:
Out of a duct form the fountain, our First falls as few upon the mountain peak
And returns from the mountain peak by way of a duct to the fountain.”
The Book of Lambspring, which is a 16/17th century work as far as I know, has the guide saying to the son, “Come hither! I will conduct thee everywhere, to the summit of the loftiest mountain, that thou mayest understand all wisdom.”
Obviously this refers to the view available from a mountain, but I would imagine to a Christian would recall the temptation of Christ, being offered all the nations by the devil.
The English translation of the 1550 version of the Rosarium Philosophorum has this within it:
St. Thomas of Aquinas: The matter of the Stone is a thick water, but the heat or cold, is the agent congealing that water. And assure yourself that the stones which proceed from Animals, are much more precious than other stones.
Light of Lights: No kind of stones can be prepared without Duenech, the Green and liquid, because it is of a force and engendered in our minerals.
Rasis: My Son, behold the most highest worldly things which are from the right hand and the left hand, and ascend thither where our Stone is found, and in that mountain which bringeth forth all kind of Sulphurs and shapes and likewise minerals.
Malchamech: The Stone which is necessary in this work is of a thing having life. You shall find this Stone everywhere, in plains, mountains and in waters, and both the poor and the rich have it. It is most cheap and most dear, it increaseth of flask and blood, and most precious to the man who hath it and knoweth it.
Likewise it is called a Stone found in every place, because of the true composition, when Sol, Luna and Mercury are conjoined together, the virtue of the Stone is wholly through the world, in mountains and plains, that is in bodies and Mercury, and in the Sea, that is in dissolved water, and flying things take help and nourishment of it.
Or, in a perhaps more straightforwards meaning:
But if the Sublimation of it should be made, I believe the tincture of the Stone would be much enlarged. Out of these things therefore choose your purpose. The reason of Galen whereupon Ixir or Elixir is made and he says that diverse teachers put diverse medicines. Some say that Ixir is of the minerals of mountains, some say of herbs, some of beasts and urine. But it is made of one of those things, which is put in an Alembic, and first the water comes forth in fume that is the spirit, secondly Oil in liquor, that is the Soul, but the third which remains in the vessel is earthly and it is called the body, for of those three, spirit, soul and body, Ixir is made being so decocted that it may be mingled and melted. Some say that Sulphur and Argent vive will become Ixir if a man make them fusible.
(quotes from: http://www.alchemywebsite.com/rosary0.html)
Or in I think pseudo-Bacon’s Mirror of Alchemy:
Of the quality of the Vessel and Furnace.
The means and manner of working, we have already determined: now we are to speak of the Vessel and Furnace, in what sort, and of what things they must be made. Whereas nature by a natural fire decocts the metals in the Mines, she denies the like decoction to be made without a vessel fit for it. And if we propose to imitate nature in concocting, wherefore do we reject her vessel! Let us first of all therefore, see in what place the generation of metals is made. It does evidently appear in the places of Minerals, that in the bottom of the mountain there is heat continually alike, the nature whereof is always to ascend, and in the ascension it always dries up, and coagulates the thicker or grosser water hidden in the belly, or veins of the earth, or mountain, into Argent-vive. And if the mineral fatness of the same place arising out of the earth, be gathered warm together in the veins of the earth, it runs through the mountain, and becomes Sulphur. And as a man may see in the foresaid veins of that place, that Sulphur engendered of the fatness of the earth (as is before touched) meets with the Argent-vive (as it is also written) in the veins of the earth, and begets the thickness of the mineral water. There, through the continual equal heat in the mountain, in long process of time diverse metals are engendered, according to the diversity of the place. And in these Mineral places, you shall find a continual heat. For this cause we are of right to note, that the external mineral mountain is everywhere shut up within itself, and stony: for if the heat might issue out, there should never be engendered any metal.
Which interestingly sees the mountain as a kind of vessel within which the minerals are created, which makes sense, and also draws parallels between the mountain and the alchemical vessels and practises.
From the Donum Dei:
“The king therefore whose head is red, the eyes black and the feet white is the Magistery. The Mother hath not conceived, behold I come to thee, and am most ready to conceive a form, to whom is none like in the world. And he is borne between two mountains, you know the truth. “
This quote reminds me that some authors suggest that between two mountains means the best starting material for the stone is copper, because its properties are between gold and silver, i.e. reddish like gold yet more like silver in extensibility and density.
A later quote suggests that:
The Matter of the Stone is a gross water agent, or that is a cold, congealing the water. And believe those stones to be more precious, which proceedeth from the animals than the other, Thou canst not prepare any kind of stone without Duenech, the green and liquid which is born in our mines. Some behold the last Mountains which be on the right hand and the left, and ascend thither where our stone is found, and in the mountain which beareth all manner of kinds of Spirits and Aromatic or secret things, likewise in the mine of the stone which is necessary in this work, is of an augmate or a levinge thing.
Which is reminiscent of the use made of mineral rich waters which ran from mines, and could be collected and the metal gathered by placing lumps of iron in copper rich water, which would displace the copper from solution and give some very pure copper powder.
Indeed, the point is made again that the stone is based on everal substances, one which comes from mountains:
The wind hath born him in his belly, it is plain that the wind is Air, and Air is life, and the life is the Soul, that is oil, and water. I that am exalted above all the circles of the world have four faces having one father, whereof one is in the mountains, an other in the Air, another in the Stones, and another in the caverns or hollow places.
The epistle to George Ripley goes,
With easie fire after moving when you sweate,
Warme your bodie and make it drie againe,
By rivers and fountaines walke after meate,
At morning time visit the high mountaine,
That Phisick so biddeth I read certaine,
So high the mountaines yet doe you not ascend,
But that you may downwardes your way have plaine,
And with your mantle from colde ye you defend.
A 1678 english version of the triumphal chariot of Antimony by Basil Valentine has:
O you wretched and to be pitied Medicasters, who painted with a Fucus, breath out I know not what Thrasonick Brags, and pass over Mountains wanting Foundation, walking through Clouds in your own Thoughts, and know not where at length you shall rest your Foot: you, I say, I admonish to consider what you will answer, in the Extreme Judgement of the Son of GOD. Seek, and when you have found, convert what you find to use, and so performing your Office commit the Rest to GOD, who will give success, and never leave you destitute of help.
Sometimes I rather like the invective in alchemical works. In this case I don’t really understand it, but I think that passing over mountains would mean travelling yet not necessarily knowing what you are travelling over or through, and of course mountains without foundations will fall, dangerously so.
On the other hand later on it takes the fairly common approach of mountains being high places related to distillation or sublimation.
Another way, a Wormwood like Bitterness proceeds therefrom; otherwise, a certain Acrimony, like some Salt-Oil: thus always one Nature follows another. Against, but Sublimation it is driven to the Olympic Mountains, like a flying Eagle, red, yellow and white. Also forced down by Descent, it yields diverse Colours and Preparations: also by Reverberation, of it is made a Metal, like common Lead. Likewise a transparent Glass, red, yellow, white, black, and endewed with other Colours: all which notwithstanding, are not safe to be used in Medicine, unless they be first proved by another Examen.
But touching the Sublimations of Antimony, which are afterwar called Flowers; let the Reader further observe, viz. that they are like Waters, which break out in high Mountains. Now, of the difference of waters, which arise in the highest Mountains, yea in higher than they, if such can be foun; for even unto them woul the waters ascend; since it is known, that in the tops of the highest Mountains, Springs do very often issue it; an of other waters which are foun by digging deep in the Earth, and by following their Springs must be searched ou
There will undoubtedly be many more mentions of mountains in alchemical texts, but this should suffice to give a flavour of the uses of them and their meaning.
To end with here’s a mountain in January 2008, near Glencoe. I think the distant hidden summit could be indicative of the difficulty of the alchemical work: