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According to The Book of Stones, the diligent student of alchemical wisdom could learn to manufacture living things: scorpions, snakes, even a human being. The Book of Stones was many things: a scientific treatise, a discourse on mysticism, an enigmatic allegory that has yet to be fully deciphered. The putative author, Jabir ibn Hayyan (c. 721 – c. 815), is almost a legend. We can’t be sure which of the thousands of manuscripts attributed to this name were really his, and many of them date to a century or more after his death. The name Jabir ibn Hayyan was less a mark of authorship than a kind of trademark, a mantle worn by a number of alchemists whose true identities are now lost.

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The trademark of Jabir ibn Hayyan held for centuries and carried across cultures. He is remembered in Tibetan Buddhism under the name of Dza-bir or Dza-ha-bir, and believed to have advanced the technique of living on nothing but pure essences of the elements—rocks and flowers. In Europe, on the other hand, he was known as Geber, and his attributed works include the infamous Flos Naturarum, a gruesome book of spells. Flos Naturarum includes a stomach-churning recipe for a love potion that calls for, among other unappealing things, “shavings from the soles of your feet.”

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Despite this vast diversity, most of the books attributed to Jabir are united by a shared theory of alchemy. According to this theory, all matter is made of the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. These correspond to the four qualities: hot, cold, moist, and dry. Much like a person has both a body and a soul, materials have both an outward (manifest, or zahir) nature and a hidden (occult, or batin) nature. The terms batin and zahir have their roots in Isma’ilism, a branch of Shia Islam, where they refer to the exoteric and esoteric meanings of the Qu’ran.

When applied to alchemy, however, zahir and batin take a more practical, worldly turn. Gold’s manifest nature is hot and wet, but its occult nature is cold and dry. On the other hand, lead’s manifest nature is cold and dry, while its occult nature is hot and wet. Externally, lead and gold appear to be opposites. But really, they are inversions of each other. Transforming one into the other is a matter of unveiling what is hidden and concealing what is overt.

The agent of this transformation is elixir, which is derived from a philosopher’s stone. If you’ve read Harry Potter, you probably think you know what the philosopher’s stone is. You’re wrong. The best philosopher’s stones are not stones at all, nor are they particularly rare or precious. You can use a clump of hair, or an egg, or a vial of blood. Lion or adder blood will do, but human blood is preferable. In fact, alchemy and biology overlap in a number of surprising ways. Transmuting a common metal into gold was a healing process, a cure for disease. In the language of alchemy, the base metals—copper, lead, tin, iron—were called “the bodies.” The alchemist was a kind of doctor to these metal bodies, and elixir was their medicine.

Elixir was also considered a powerful panacea for human bodies. One book recounts how Jabir ibn Hayyan used elixir to cure a sick woman:

I saw her almost dead, her strength very much depleted. But I had a little of the elixir with me and of this I made her drink the amount of 2 grains in 3 oz. of pure oxymel. By God and by my Master, I had to cover my face before the maiden, for in less than half an hour her perfection was restored even to a higher degree than she had formerly possessed.

Healed, the woman becomes radiant—like the luster of gold emerging from the dullness of lead. Perhaps this can begin to explain why an alchemist would attempt to create artificial life. The line between metal “bodies” and human bodies is not as stark as it would appear. An infusion of human blood treats metals; a dose of elixir heals humans.

This is what makes Jabirian alchemy so marvelous: it is a system built on paradoxes. Lead and gold are external opposites, but that is what makes it possible to transmute one into the other. Alchemy is both practical and metaphysical. It has a manifest meaning and an occult meaning, a zahir and a batin. Its apparent goal is the creation of riches, but its deeper goal is much more audacious. The alchemist seeks to strip bare the world’s secrets, to break it down to its building blocks and rearrange them.

Jabirian alchemy has its roots in religious tradition, and alchemy itself was considered to be a gift from God to humanity, revealed to Adam by divine grace. And yet, how can the idea of creating artificial human life, as The Book of Stones describes, be anything but heretical? But of course, the goal of Jabirian alchemy was the imitation of God. In the eyes of the alchemists, this was not usurpation. It was the highest form of worship, a way of drawing closer to the divine.


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Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 20, No. 4 (DECEMBER 1992), pp. 425-438
Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 72 (2009), pp. 41-80
The Warburg Institute
Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 29, No. 2 (MARCH-APRIL, 1955), pp. 134-153
The Johns Hopkins University Press
Studia Islamica, No. 15 (1961), pp. 53-61