Alchemy and the Argonauts

In order to attain the Golden Fleece, Jason was tasked with three … um … tasks. He had to yoke up a couple of fire-breathing oxen and have them plow a field. Then he had to plant the field with dragon’s teeth, which quickly grew into an army that attacked him. Finally, he had to get past the dragon that guarded the fleece. Jason couldn’t do any of this on his own. His lady-companion-friend Medea had to help him along the way. She gave him an oil that kept the oxen’s fire from harming him. Medea showed him how to use a rock to defeat the crop of soldiers. Finally, she helped him with a potion that sedated the savage dragon.

“Jason and the Argonauts” movie poster. Source

I can imagine an overzealous chemist describing their latest molecular conquest in such a manner. The viscious battle is waged to secure a final product (the golden fleece). At each step, new reagents (dragon teeth, oil, and sleeping potion) are combined in more exotic flasks (field, oxen fire, dragon’s lair). And, of course, there’s the importance thing. We chemists are prone to believe that the projects we are working on are the most important ever in the history of the world.

Jason bringing Pelias the Golden Fleece; a winged victory prepares to crown him with a wreath. Side A from an Apulian red-figure calyx crater, 340 BC–330 BC. Source

So, one could forgive the alchemists for claiming that this story told some secret for how to produce the philosopher’s stone (the golden fleece). The tools and the land where Jason battled all signified different materials and alchemical techniques. Maurice Crosland, in his book “Historical Studies in the Language of Chemistry“, describes how many alchemists adopted Jason’s mythology as a grand allegory for some alchemical preparation. Taken from Packe’s translation of Glauber’s “Work”:

Jason in this ingenious Fable, Hieroglyphically represents the Philosophers; Medea, accurate Meditations; the laborious and perilous Navigation, signified manifold Chymical Labours; the watching Dragon vomiting Fire, denotes Salt, Nitre and Sulphur; and the Golden Fleece is the Tincture or Soul of Sulphur, by the help of which, Jason restored Health to his Aged Father and acquired to himself immense Riches. By the Pills of Medea is understood the Preparation of Sulphur and Sal Mirabile. By the total submersion of the Dragon in the Stygian Lake is intimated the Fixation of Sulphur by Stygian Water, that is Aqua Fortis.

Whence it is sufficiently clear how obscurely the Ancient Philosophers did describe their Fixation of Sulphur by Nitre, and how secretly they hid it from the Eyes of the unworthy.

Many alchemists in the 1500′s believed that alchemy, and the synthesis of the philosopher’s stone, had been carried out in every advanced civilization in history. And, because they themselves practiced allegory to simultaneously describe and conceal their own work, they thought the ancients must have done the same thing. I mean, a literal translation of most mythological stories is ridiculous. Fire-breathing dragons. Centaurs. Snake-haired women whose gaze turns you into stone. Who would believe such things? So the alchemists found ways to co-opt the messages and place meaning in these stories. Many practitioners believed that all sacred texts were, in actuality, allegories for alchemy. (Paging Dan Brown!)

The wolf devouring the dead king In one allegory of alchemy, the wolf (antimony) devours an old king (gold), who is reborn from the ashes of the wolf in the fire. Source

Of course, no one has ever gotten alchemy to work. No one has ever produced a substance that could turn imperfect metals into gold. And as time progressed, the alchemists kept obscuring their work through deeper and deeper layers of allegory.

Looking back at a science whose history is written in obfuscation, its amazing that chemists ever learned how to tell people what they do.

We are good at that now … aren’t we???


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8 Responses to Alchemy and the Argonauts

  1. azmanam says:

    Cool story :) I’m always intrigued by the tales of the two alchemists: the ones who were really serious about advancing science, and the ones who were in it to swindle people out of their money.

  2. Matt says:

    @azmanam Thanks! You’d actually really enjoy this book. They go through the development of the chemical language from alchemy to organic. I’m on the symbolism chapter right now. Fascinating. But this alchemy stuff is really engrossing. There were about fifty (non-allegorical) names for sulfate. Its amazing that chemistry ever found its way out of that muck.

  3. Matt says:

    Chemjobber pointed out this fantastic review article by Nicolaou and Baran from 2002. Some choice phrases from just the abstract include:
    “Imagine an artist carving a sculpture from a marble slab and finding gold nuggets in the process.”
    “To fully appreciate the often Herculean nature of the task and the rewards that accompany it, one must sense the details of the enterprise behind the scenes.”
    “The total synthesis of the CP molecules is compared to Theseus’ most celebrated athlos (Greek for exploit, accomplishment): the conquest of the dreaded Minotaur, which he accomplished through brilliance, skill, and bravery having traversed the famous labyrinth with the help of Ariadne. This story from Greek mythology comes alive in modern synthetic expeditions toward natural products as exemplified by the total synthesis of the CP molecules which serve as a paradigm for modern total synthesis endeavors, where the objectives are discovery and invention in the broader sense of organic synthesis.”

    This is from 2002 — not 1585! Granted, I DO love and am entertained by the language. But its interesting to see how little we, as a profession, have really expanded our themes since the 16th century!

  4. sciencegeist says:

    If you want to learn more about how alchemists used imagery in their communication, check out Alchemical Diagrams.


  5. azmanam says:

    link takes us to a caltech proxy server. doi for the nicolau/baran paper?

  6. Matt says:

    bah! I tried to get rid of that. grumble grumble. I’ll fix it.

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