Although alchemy is infamous as the art of converting lead into gold, it was an audacious precursor to what we now recognise as science. In the eighth circle of Dante’s Inferno (AD 1320), the fourth sanctum of Hell was designed as a punishment specifically for seers, fortune tellers and alchemists. Having committed the sin to “usurp God’s prerogative by prying into the future”; their heads are twisted around so they must walk backwards for eternity, “blinded by their own tears”. In Canto 29 we meet Griffolino D’Arezzo, who had confessed to a certain prince his supernatural power to fly.

A lesser-known Tamil siddha (as alchemists are known in the south Indian tradition, or tantrics in the north) named Iramatevar wrote of his remarkable journey to Mecca, where he underwent castration and converted to Islam (and renamed himself Yakoppu or Yakub/Jacob). More notably, his choice of transport to Arabia was aerial flight — achieved by placing a pill of mercury under his tongue. Aaron Cheak writes in his book, “Several alchemical texts describe the supernatural power of flight ( khechari siddhi)... and a number of alchemists of history and legend are depicted as flying in this way. An unnamed yogi flies into the Mughal emperor Akbar’s harem with the aid of such a pill.”

In The Ascent Of Man (a monumental history of science), Jacob Bronowski informs us that “...sulphur and mercury are the two elements of which the alchemist before AD 1500 thought the universe was composed.” Mercury was the central object of study in alchemy, and in the Hindu tantric tradition, considered the very semen of Lord Shiva. The transmutation of metals into one another (what we call today a chemical reaction) also symbolised a transformation of the tantric’s own soul by the gradual acquisition of metamorphic powers seen in natural substances. Bronowski further observes: “...the alchemists believed that all metals grow inside the earth from mercury and sulphur, the way the bones grow inside an embryo from the egg.”

Cheak points us towards a stranger thread of the tale: “...because sulphur and mercury originated from the sexual fluids of the gods, their manipulation in the laboratory also entailed sexual interactions between the male alchemist and his female laboratory assistant.” In the words of David Gordon White, “Sexual intercourse is essential to the activation of the mercury the alchemist has ingested.” In fact, Iramatevar informs us enthusiastically of different kinds of laboratory assistants, hinting that the vagina and the phallus were seen as chemical apparatus (mortar and pestle).

This “tantric period” (AD 1100-1300) of Hindu chemistry was analysed, albeit ruefully, in Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray’s history of the subject (1902), where he quotes the Rasarnava (literally, ‘the sea of mercury’), a tantric text of the Saiva cults: “You have, O God, explained the killing of metals. Now tell me that process of dehavedha by means of which aerial locomotion is effected.” The answer offered is an analogy to balloons: “Mercury and air when confined, enable a man, O goddess, to fly about.”

According to Mircea Eliade (in The Forge and the Crucible ), the period before tantrism was defined by a shift from pure vegetable substances towards artificial mineral preparations. And only the “iatro-chemical” period after tantrism can be called properly scientific or empirical, when objectives such as reanimation of the dead, immortality and human flight began to be seen as wild fantasy.

Even though alchemists began to fade in the twilight of science, alchemy has persisted to the modern world in some form or another. The discovery of radioactivity was nuclear alchemy, of elements turning into their isotope just by lying about for millions of years. (There has been talk since the 1950s of producing “metallic hydrogen”, which may, among other things, revolutionise the energy market and explain the radio signals emanating from Jupiter’s enormous belly.) And because the stars are essentially nuclear furnaces that fuse lighter elements like hydrogen and helium together to produce the entire periodic table, the Sun is both an alchemist and his crucible.

Before Newton discovered that the same gravity that drew things towards the ground hurled the planets in their perpetual, falling orbits, he knew of the much disputed, and famed Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus , arguably the most important alchemical text of the West, which declares, “That which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of the one only thing.” The idea being venerated above is that of symmetry, which now lies at the very heart of fundamental physics and cosmology.

Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah; @fadesingh

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