Robert Olsen and I did an AMA together on reddit’s /r/AskHistorians. The AMA was its own episode (Episode 20). It was great to pick the guy’s brain and just chat alchemy after two years. And yes, this one is 2:40 mins long. We had a ton of fun, but don’t forget there’s a pause button. The AMA itself is here.
I got the inside scoop on the Faust house in Wittenberg, but let’s back up and go over the legend and also the oldest alchemical vessels found in Europe.
Our podcast on him:
Maslama al-Majriti is a chemist (and much more) in Moorish Spain from the 10th century. More info to come…
Our podcast on him:
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We take a look at a mysterious 20th century French alchemist: Fulcanelli and his student, Caseliet.
Our episode on him:
Johann Conrad Dippel is the man behind Frankenstein, Prussian Blue, and an energy drink.
Johann Conrad Dippel (August 10, 1673 – April 25, 1734) was a German pietist theologian, alchemist and physician.
This guy is basically the real-life Dr. Frankenstein, so hold onto your seats.
but was he really? was Dr. Frankenstein a real person? Let’s take a look at Dippel and see.
Dippel was born at Castle Frankenstein which is near Mühltal and Darmstadt,
For those that aren’t aware: Castle Frankenstein is a real place about 5km south of Darmstadt. It was built around 1250.
Being born there was enough for him to get the addnendum at school: Franckensteinensis
and at his university: Franckensteina-Strataemontanus.
..so “Frankenstein was (sorta) part of him name.
Okay, so the name is one thing.. what about the “trying to bring people back from the dead” thing? and townsfolk with torches and pitchforks chasing him out of town? Does Dippel meet the critearia?
In fact he was banned from a few countries, for instance Sweden and Russian. But more because of his theology.
Dippel studied theology, philosophy and alchemy at the University of Giessen, obtaining a master’s degree in theology in 1693. He published many theological works under the name Christianus Democritus, and most of them are still preserved.
Circa 1700 he turned to Hermetic studies and alchemy as a key to nature.
His views often didn’t jive with more mainstream theologians. And this is what actually got him banned from whole countries, not anything to do with creating monsters in a lab.. but still. Some thinkers did compare him to the devil, or say he was in league with the devil.
In fact he started to get quite a reputation. And him being pretty secretive, he either encouraged it, or didn’t exactly fight against it.
He was eventually imprisoned for heresy, serving a 7 year sentence.
…okay so he had some weird ideas.
Let’s take a look at his connection to alchemy, because that’s what we do.
Dippel created something called “Dippel’s Oil”, which he claimed was basically the Elixir of Life.
He tried to buy Castle Frankenstein for the formula.
..the offer was turned down.
Dippel’s Oil is basically just a snake oil. Some concoction he threw together from animal parts.
…we’ll get back to “animal parts” in a second.
He did help discover Prussian Blue, a famous pigment, with his oil and potassium carbonate. So it wasn’t totally useless.
And some even claimed that his oil gave an energy boost.. so that’s something.
Okay. Animal Parts.
In addition to alchemy, he was also into anatomy. And here’s where we may get the strongest Frankenstein connection.
Although some myths about him are pretty modern, like blowing up one of the towers of Frankenstein Castle (didn’t happen) and attempting to transfer the soul of one cadaver into another.. which was actually a pretty common experiment at the time.
..So that one is at least possible.
Again, he didn’t dispel any of these rumors and was a recluse. But he wasn’t driven out of town by the townfolk.
But he did disect animals. Avidly.
He made claims of potions for exorcisms.
And that it was possible to transfer the soul from one body to another with a funel.
..so there’s something to the madness.
Later in life he became more and more withdrawn as he became more engrossed and secretive in his experiments, and switched most of his attention to alchemy. Money always being a problem for him.
Which just fed the rumors.
Which he may have wanted because:
rumors that he had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for secret knowledge, ..since relying on his reputation as a dark sorcerer better enabled him to find audiences with those willing to pay for his knowledge of the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life.
He died at Wittgenstein Castle near Bad Laasphe, probably from a stroke, though some contemporaries suspected poisoning.Ironically, a year before his death, he wrote a pamphlet in which he claimed to have discovered an elixir that would keep him alive until the age 135.
Okay, so how could this have entered Mary Shelley’s mind as she wrote Frankenstein?
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin visited the castle during her travels on the Rhine with Percy Shelley, where they might have heard local stories about Dippel, which by then would have grown legendary and notorious.
Shelley references a brief interaction while touring the countryside around Castle Frankenstein with students of the University of Strasbourg, of which Dippel was once a student; these students could have told them stories about the infamous alumnus.
In addition, the Shelleys knew several members of the so-called “”Kreis der Empfindsamen,” a literary circle that met in Darmstadt from 1769 to 1773; Castle Frankenstein was frequently used as a location for their public readings, thus making it possible that Dippel’s legends could have come up during conversations between those in the circle and the Shelleys.
Miranda Seymour finds it curious that Mary speaks of “gods [making entirely] new men” in her journal so soon after her travels through the regions surrounding Castle Frankenstein; if rumors indeed existed throughout the area that Dippel experimented on cadavers in an attempt to create life, Seymour argues, Mary’s phrasing could be more than merely coincidental. For now, however, the connection remains a subject of an ongoing debate.
There are other arguments for and against Dippel being the source for Frankenstein. I think there’s too much of a correlation to totally ignore it, but I think Shelley also used a mix of stories for her Dr. Frankenstein.
..so there you have it. Dr. Frankenstein was an alchemist… which kinda makes Frankensteins Monster a humonculus. And makes me happy. And that’s it.
Our podcast on her:
Marie Curie isn’t really an alchemist, but she did show that “transmutation” does happen in nature. Normally this is out of the scope of The History of Alchemy Podcast, but we took the opportunity to compare modern atomic theory to the one of alchemists.
To make up for us going out of scope we tell how to make gold at the end of the episode. No tricks, really turning mercury into gold using modern science!
Listen to our podcast episode here:
Paul of Taranto may have been one of the the “Pseudo-Gebers” and had an interesting theory of the composition of metals (basically mercury and sulphur) that would become canon to alchemical theory. It’s interesting for us to see a monk in the 13th century sitting in a lab going for reproducibility.
Sulphur-Mercury theory of metals.
Our podcast episode on Urbigerus:
We take a look at one of the alchemical ciphers to understanding Baru Urbigerus’ works.
Baro or Baru Urbigerus was a seventeenth-century writer on alchemy.
He is known for his Aphorismi Urbigerani (1690) This collection of 100aphorisms claims to set out completely the theory of the alchemical work, the preparation of the Philosopher’s Stone.
A shorter collection of 31 aphorisms, contained in it, is known as the Circulatum Minus Urbigeranum
I couldn’t find much of anything of his life, but noted some interesting things in his writings.
For one he was toward the end – or after – the golden age of alchemy, so if anyone would have a chance to summarize all alchemical knowledge – as he claims to do – he’d be in the right time period.
Another thing is that he’s dropped the “al” in alchemy and says chymistry (with a ‘y’.) Not the first, I just wanted to point out that “chymistry” in this case specifically talking about making the philosopher’s stone.
He still talks in the language of alchemy: “Universal Elixir,” “Diana’s Tears,” “The Three Elements”
I wanted to point out that alchemists were alive and well in the so-called “scientific revolution” he stills refer to his process as “hermetic philosophy”
On the other hand his recipe seems to have a fewer metaphors and with some understanding of the vocabulary the directions seem to be more precise and he gives clearer signs along the way that you’ve failed in your experiment. That’s just an impression of mine, but I would make that argument.
Inside the cover of his 100 Aphorisms, there’s a picture.. basically of a few people standing around a tree.
He says that his book can’t be understood by the uninitiated. And since Urbigerus is in a good position at the tail end of the alchemic golden age to wrap up all alchemical knowledge to date, we’ll read you his description of his figure. Urbigerus says that by making the figure of the tree clear, it should be easy to understand his aphorisms.
I’ll read it to you, since we haven’t really gone over many alchemical writings in themselves before, and I’ll let you be the judge of how understandable it is to the unanitiated:
The Tree is a Supporter of the Motto, ‘Virtus unita fortior’: which, being to be read from the side of the Serpent, representing by the Half-Moon on its Head the Planet, under whose Influence it is born, is to be referred to it according to its particular Motto, which signifies, that, if you take it alone, it can do little or Nothing in our Art, as wanting the Assistance of others. By the Green Dragon is to be understood our first undetermined Matter, comprehending all our Principles, (as is demonstrated by the Half-Moon on its Head, the Sun in its Body, and the Cross on its Tail,) and denoting by its Motto, that it can perform the whole work without being joined with any other created or artificially prepared thing: which is our first way. But this our Dragon, when copulating with our Serpent, is forced to comply with her, degrading it self from its undetermined Being for the production of our second way. Apollo with the Sun on his head, and Diana with the Half-Moon, embracing each other, shew our third way, and the Continuation of our first and second. The River, into which they descend, signifies the State, they must be reduced into, before they can be in a Capacity of being born again, and before in any of our three ways they can be brought to a perfect Spiritualization and Union. Apollo and Diana, coming out of the River in one wonderful Body, Diana having obtained all, represent our Herculean works, ready finished and the beginning of their Conjunction, and by their going to set their foot on firm ground, where she is to sow the noble Fruits for the Procreation, is to be understood the Continuation of their Conjunction, till they are fully united and perfected. In this Scheme also, as well as in our Aphorisms, are mystically exhibited all the principal Points of Faith and Religion, comprised in the Volumes of the Old and New Testament: whence it manifestly appears, that the Contemplation of Nature truly leads to the Comprehension of those heavenly Verities, by which alone we can expect to arrive at the Enjoyment of that blessed Immortality, to which, as to the true and ultimate End of our Creation, all our Endeavours are to be directed.
As you see, many allegories and allusions to religious and mythical figures, but they all stand for ingredients or steps in creating the elixir of life, or the philosopher’s stone. It’s a great example of an alchemical text with all kinds of hidden meaning. We’ll go over some of those symbols in another episode.