Thanks to our societal love of pop culture, it’s likely that when I bring up either Nicholas Flamel or the Philosopher’s Stone, your mind goes immediately to Harry Potter. While it is true that both of these subjects were brought into the modern eye because of the cultural phenomenon that is Harry Potter, the reality is that Nicholas Flamel was very much a real person, though it is debatable whether or not he actually had a fascination with creating the Philosopher’s Stone. Today, we’re going to talk about who Nicholas Flamel was and whether or not he actually created the Philosopher’s Stone.
What’s interesting about Nicholas Flamel was that he was, absolutely, a real person; however, despite the fact that he may very well have dabbled in alchemy in his life, he became this larger-than-life, immortal figure in the seventeenth century, almost two hundred years after his death.
What we do know about him, right off the bat, from historical documentation is that he lived in Paris in the 14th and 15th centuries. As a scribe, he ran two shops, and his wife Perenelle, was the reason he was historically known for being wealthy, as she had been married twice before and had inherited both of her late husband’s wealth. Flamel and his wife were patrons to churches and the arts, noted for not only having money but being philanthropic with it, as well. We know that Flamel lived into his 70s, designed his own tombstone (which can be viewed at the Musee de Cluny in Paris today), and that there is no official documentation stating that he was ever involved in alchemy, pharmacy, or medicine. So, how did he blow up as an infamous alchemical figure well after his death?
His association to both alchemy the Philosopher’s Stone was all thanks to an alchemical book entitled Livre des Figures Heiroglyphiques published in Paris in 1612 and later in London in 1624 under the translated title Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures. It was specifically thanks to this book that Flamel became an infamous alchemical figure. The book contained a collection of designs supposedly commissioned by Flamel that the book claimed had been long lost after his death until publication. Within the pages, the publisher describes Flamel’s search for the Philosopher’s stone in the introduction and claims that he did successfully create it in 1382. This is why people credit Flamel for making the Philosopher’s stone, for being able to turn metals into silver or gold with it, and for achieving immortality. People took this text to heart for well over a hundred years until its validity was questioned in 1761 by Etienne Villain. Regardless of the truth of the claim, Flamel had become so legendary by the mid-17th century that he was even referenced in Isaac Newton’s journals.
Now, to discuss this further, it’s important to understand the basis of alchemy. Alchemy is one of the more well-known studies that has regularly been referred to as an occult topic. It’s an ancient philosophy that was practiced in China, India, and Europe, most commonly associated with Hellenistic Egypt. Prior to modern science, many revolutionary men with big ideas sought to change matter from one element to another. Generally, a lot of the basis of alchemy was people attempting to turn things into gold through different forms or experimentation. The Philosopher’s Stone was a legendary item that claimed to be able to do just that. While there are no official documents of Flamel even having dabbled in alchemy, in the seventeenth century and beyond, many manuscripts popped up having ‘excerpts” of Flamel’s writing, which would make sense since he was documented to be a scribe living in Paris centuries prior to the claims. While we can’t know for sure, the question becomes, do you believe the manuscripts that popped up to be valid? Many claim the most infamous piece, Livre des Figure Heiroglyphiques was a trick by the publisher to create a phenomenon that would sell many copies. If that’s the case, it worked! And also caused other manuscripts to pop up and credit Flamel for his alchemical work Le Tresor des Tresors is another example as well as Isaac Newton’s journals.
Part of what makes his relation to alchemy so unclear is that even if these manuscripts could be traced back officially to Flamel, alchemists generally wrote in codes and symbols that were quite hard to decipher, making it so ‘the ignorant’ could not understand their works. So, deciphering these old texts is already questionable, as there’s no official key to do so.
I guess we may never know what occurred in those two hundred years when Flamel ‘supposedly’ died and was suddenly brought back to metaphorical life through alchemical claims of his work. What’s so fascinating is that he seemed to live a pretty average, albeit wealthy, life until his death in 1418. Then, all was silent until 1612 when he reemerged as an alchemical icon thanks to the book Livre des Figures Heiroglyphiques and his legend has carried on, getting claims for alchemical quotes and work ever since.
Now, he’s become a piece of pop culture and the face, more or less, of alchemy. Isaac Newton, in his quest to create a formula for the Philospher’s Stone, even quoted Flamel in his work. Just like the real Merlin, somehow, we create these fantastical figures from real people in our societies, and people become remembered as a legendary phenomenon, much more than the average person they could have very well been. And Nicholas Flamel is another great example of that. While we know who he has been immortalized as, it’s possible we never really find out his true connection to alchemy (if any) and if he truly did write all those excerpts or not.