Flamel, Nicholas (1330–1416) French scribe, bookseller, and adept who, according to legend, became one of the most successful alchemists ever. With the help of an Angel and a mystical book, Nicholas Flamel and his wife Pernelle reputedly found the Philosopher's Stone and converted base metals into SILVER and GOLD. Unlike the COMTE DE SAINT-GERMAIN or other adepts with uncertain heritages, Flamel and his wife were real people, registered citizens of Paris.
Nicholas Flamel was born in Pontoise, 18 miles north of Paris, in 1330 to a poor but respectable family. After completing his schooling, which included the study of classical language, he set up a tiny bookstall against the walls of the Cathedral of St. Jacques de la Boucherie in Paris, where he copied and illustrated books for sale. He met and married Madame Pernelle (also called Perenelle or Petronella) Lethas, an older woman, twice widowed, who had inherited some property, and they settled into a comfortable but unremarkable life.
But Flamel’s real interest became alchemy. The search for the Philosopher’s Stone—the way to turn base metal into gold—obsessed many of the scientists and intellectuals of Flamel’s day. More than mere riches, the mastery of alchemical transmutation revealed the essential secrets of Nature and the Divine. Flamel had some knowledge of the hermetic arts, and he no doubt copied some alchemical manuscripts. He was convinced that the answers lay in a book but had no idea where to fi nd it. One night Flamel dreamed that an angelstood before him and held out an old, strange, and beautiful book. The angelsaid, “Look well at this book, Nicholas. At first you will understand nothing in it—neither you nor any other man. But one day you will see in it that which no other man will be able to see.” When Flamel stretched out his hand to take the book, the angel disappeared in a golden cloud.
Intrigued, Flamel often thought about the book but could not guess its whereabouts. Then in 1357 a man desperate for money accosted him in his bookstall and offered to sell a rare book for two florins. Flamel recognized the book from his dream and paid the man his price without quibbling. The book did not have parchment pages but instead had leaves made of tree bark inscribed with a steel point. The binding was quite old and made of copper that was covered in strange symbol s. There were only 21 pages, divided into three sets of seven. The seventh page of each set contained no writing, only pictures that Flamel could not understand. The first drawing showed a caduceus with intertwined serpents, the second a serpent crucifi ed on a cross, and the third a desert covered with snakes and a beautiful mountain in the middle. The first page of the book identified the author as abraham el eazar (the Jew): “prince, priest, Levite, astrologer and philosopher,” and described the curses that would befall anyone who tried to read the book who was not a priest or scribe. The word maranatha appeared throughout the manuscript, adding to its mystery. Other drawings illustrated winged hermes with Saturn holding an hourglass and a scythe and a rose with a blue stem and red and white fl owers blowing in the winds on a mountain. Flamel decided that as a scribe he was immune from the curses and began to try to read the strange tome. He and Pernelle studied the book for 21 years, comparing it to the texts of Almasatus and other learned alchemists, but to no avail. Since the author was Jewish and some of the manuscript was in ancient Hebrew,
Flamel decided that he needed the help of a rabbi—preferably a kabbalist—to help him decipher his treasure. Unfortunately, the Jews had been driven out of France, so Flamel undertook a trip to Spain where many of the Jews had migrated to the lands occupied by the Moors. He told his friends that he was making a pilgrimage to San Diego de Compostela. Flamel copied some of the precious pages and set out, only to be rebuffed by Jews suspicious of a French Christian with such a story.
But Flamel persisted and after about two years met an old Jewish physician named Maitre Canches (or Cauches) in Leon who joyously recognized the renderings as part of a legendary kabbalist manuscript called the Asch Mezareph, written by a Rabbi Abraham and long believed lost. Canches wanted to see the book so badly that he offered to return to Paris with Flamel—even convert to Christianity so he could enter France—and help him translate the secret text. The two set out, but the old rabbi fell ill at Orleans and died. Flamel returned to Paris alone, but his conversations with Canches had given him enough clues to decipher the book on his own. Even so, he and Pernelle labored to create a Philosopher’s Stone for another three years.
In January 1382, Flamel wrote that he had successfully used the Philosopher’s Stone to transmute lead (or perhaps mercury) into silver and then gold. His own description of it was follows:
. . . I made projection of the Red Stone upon half a pound of mercury, . . . the five-and-twentieth day of April following, the same year  about five o’clock in the evening; which I transmuted truly into about the same quantity of pure gold, most certainly better than ordinary gold, being more soft and more pliable. . . . I had indeed enough when I had once done it, but I found exceeding great pleasure and delight in seeing and contemplating the admirable works of Nature.
Flamel reportedly made three projections, or batches, of gold—enough to make donations to 14 hospitals, build three chapels, enable repairs to various churches, and richly endow the Cathedral of St. Jacques de la Boucherie, whose wall had supported his bookstall. The Flamels also donated to religious institutions in Bologne, Pernelle’s birthplace.
At age 80, Flamel remained in excellent health. He made no changes to his lifestyle, preferring that his wealth be distributed for the glory of God rather than his enrichment. Stories of his success reached the ears of neighbors, alchemists, and even King Charles VI, but Flamel never revealed his knowledge of the Philosopher’s Stone—nor did he make any more gold. He and Pernelle were satisfied with their accomplishments. He did provide seekers with one tantalizing clue, painting some of the drawings from his mystical book as frescoes in an archway at the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris. These renderings allegedly depicted the Great Secret and were the subject of intense scrutiny for years.
Pernelle died in 1397, although some accounts place her death in 1414. Flamel died on November 22, 1416 (or maybe 1417 or 1418), at 116 years and was buried with great pomp and ceremony in the Cathedral St. Jacques de la Boucherie. His tombstone had already been carved and featured a sun above a key and a closed book. Treasure hunters ransacked the Flamels’s home many times but never found anything, including one who tore the house apart on the pretext that he was repairing it. At least two accounts reported that vials of reddish powder were found in the house; they were dismissed as worthless, but they might have been the Philosopher’s Stone.
The alchemist supposedly gave some of his precious powder to Pernelle’s nephew, Perrier, who gave it to a Dr. Perrier. Upon the doctor’s death his grandson Dubois found the magic agent—and possibly the book—in his grandfather’s effects. He arrogantly claimed to King Louis XIII that he could transmute base metal and actually managed to change a few balls of lead into gold. The king’s adviser, Cardinal Richelieu, demanded Dubois repeat his feat and when he could not had the hapless pretender imprisoned. Discovering that Dubois had committed other offenses in the past, Richelieu condemned him to hang and confiscated his property—including, it was rumored, the book of Abraham Eleazar.
Legend persisted that Flamel and his wife did not really die. In the 17th century, King Louis XIV sent an archaeologist named Paul Lucas on a mission to the Middle East to bring back scientific and historical artifacts to France. Lucas was an early Indiana Jones: a soldier, an adventurer, a scholar, a lover. In the port of Broussa, Turkey, Lucas met a philosopher who admitted that he was one of seven sages who traveled the world seeking wisdom and then gathered every 20 years to tell their stories. He remarked that anyone possessing the elixir of life could live a thousand years and that Flamel was such a person. He also told Lucas about the secret book and how Flamel had obtained it.
According to the philosopher, Abraham Eleazar was a member of this select group of adepts. He had traveled to France to see friends, and while there made the acquaintance of a rabbi anxious to find the Philosopher’s Stone. Abraham explained the alchemy to the rabbi but was repaid by treachery and murder. The rabbi was convicted of the crime and burned alive; not long afterward France expelled the Jews. Abraham’s book was sold to Flamel by someone who did not know its worth. Even more astonishing, wrote Lucas in his memoir Voyage dans la Turquie, was the philosopher’s assertion that the Flamels were both still living and in India.
The truth behind Flamel’s alchemy may never be known. He was a scribe; he and his wife did leave a fortune to charity; and he did pay for the alchemical symbols to be inscribed at the Church of the Holy Innocents.
Texts purporting to be written by Flamel appeared in later centuries and are forgeries. One, the Testament of Flamel outlines the alchemist’s procedures and processes. Attributed to the first-person authorship of Flamel and addressed to his nephew, it more likely was written by an anonymous author in the late 18th century, when interest in Flamel’s work was in revival. In the Testament, “Flamel” describes the preparation of mercury using animal and astrological symbols and language commonly understood to practitioners of the day. For instance, the author rarely identifi es the metals used in transmutation, instead calling them Saturnia, the Sun and the Moon, or the Voracious Wolf; the wolf refers to antimony. Other parts of the process, either in the crucible or under heat, are often disguised as appearances by the toad or the raven (blackening), the coming of the white swan (whitening during burning), the peacock’s tail (iridescence), a pelican feeding its young with its own bl ood (reddening), and the Phoenix arising from the ashes (the final result).
Another forgery is his Exposition of the Hieroglyphicall Figures which he caused to bee painted upon an Arch in St. Innocents Church-yard, in Paris, published in London in 1624. It supposedly is a first-person autobiographical account of Flamel’s life, the discovery of the book and its alchemical secrets, and an explication of alchemical figures painted upon the church arch.
Flamel enjoyed renewed fame in best-selling fiction: The Da Vinci Code, in which author Dan Brown portrays Flamel as one of the past Grand Masters of the Priory of Sion, and in the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (the British version is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione learn that Flamel did possess the magic powder and Elixir of Life. Albus Dumbledore, the fictional headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, says that his considerable abilities as a wizard are due to his association with Flamel. Harry’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort, attempts to steal the Stone, hidden somewhere at Hogwarts, but is thwarted by Harry’s magic. Whether dead or alive, if Nicholas Flamel can still weave his magic more than 600 years later, his reputation as an adept is assured.
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- “Testament of Flamel.” Available online. URL: www.levity. com/alchemy/testment.html. Downloaded July 5, 2004.