The Antics of Mercury

An Alchemical Dialogue by Michael Sendivogius (1566-1636)

‘Philosophers are men whom too much learning and thought have made mad.’

An alchemist and would-be philosopher, who grapples with the elusive Mercury

Mercury was playing tricks ahead of time – there was a glitch and hold-up between publishing my last post (‘The Ship of Night’) and the automatic notifications being sent out by email. Automatic, did I say? Mercury can surely play games there too! ) Anyway, here is a tale of the merry prankster – and if he’s showcased somewhat later than first intended, it’s his own fault.

In 1997, I was asked to lecture at a conference in Prague, to be held on the theme of ‘Alchemy and the Hermetic Tradition’. There was a fascinating mix of delegates from the USA , the UK, and from Prague itself. The city had only been open to the West for a few years since the fall of the Soviet Union, so it was a wonderful new chance to meet those with similar interests. Prague itself has deep connections with the alchemical tradition, and so in between sessions we wandered the streets, marvelling at the alchemical symbols and signs adorning many of the old buildings in the streets. A medieval tower, moreover, had been turned into a temporary exhibition of alchemy, with each storey of the tower representing a stage in the alchemical process. And a replica of an alchemist’s laboratory had been set up in the museum at the castle, where alchemical experiment was once practised. The trip is curiously linked too in my mind with twists of fate, and the making of history. One morning, as a bunch of us was entering the gates of Prague Castle, a fellow delegate rushed over to tell us all about Princess Diana’s death in a car crash. She and her partner watched the news late at night, and suddenly the reports started coming through. (And, as I prepare this blog for posting, we have just had news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II…the sense of both shock and finality are strangely the same in both cases. Even though now separated by 25 years.)

To view some of Prague’s alchemical sites, take a tour here . And for an old alchemical laboratory, discovered in Prague in 2002 after my stay there, see Speculum Alchimiae, also reviewed here.

The tower where the Opus Magnum alchemical exhibition was held

As well as a lecture, I also gave seminar on the theme of ‘Hermes and the Caduceus’. It was in full swing when a young man, bearing a large white flip chart and pens, suddenly strode in through the door. ‘You asked for these’ he said. It seemed that a representation of Mercury/Hermes himself had entered the room in his role as scribe. We fell about laughing.

To add a little more live alchemy to the experience of the conference, I decided to stage informally an adaptation of a dialogue by Michael Sendivogius, an early 17th century alchemist who had lived in Prague towards the end of his life. The city at that time was a hotbed of alchemists and magicians, searching, experimenting, writing, and conferring under the benign patronage of Rudolf II. As we performed it, I realised that this was probably the first time the dialogue had ever been spoken aloud since Sendivogius wrote it in 1607.

So here’s to the revival of the dialogue, which is adapted from the original text, to be found in this extract from the writings of Sendivogius. You are welcome to perform it too, if you choose! In it, Mercury gets to have the last laugh – his apparent folly is his wisdom, and the would-be alchemist and spiritual sage is a victim of his own vanity! You can read more about Hermes aka Mercury in my previous post.

Oh – and in the process of adapting it, I couldn’t resist adding in a few responses of my own – hence the Commentator.

Below: old houses in Prague, adorned with mythical and alchemical symbols

A Dialogue between Mercury, the Alchemist and Nature

Michael Sendivogius, 1607

On a certain bright morning a number of Alchemists met together in a meadow, and consulted as to the best way of preparing the Philosopher’s Stone. It was arranged that they should speak in order, and each after the manner that seemed best to him. Most of them agreed that Mercury was the first substance. Others said, no, it was sulphur, or something else. These Alchemists had read the books of the Sages, and hence there was a decided majority in favour of Mercury, not only as the true first matter, but in particular as the first matter of metals, since all the philosophers seemed to cry with one voice: “O our Mercury, our Mercury,” &c., whatever that word might mean.

But a consensus, a fraternity of alchemists was not to be:
Just as the dispute began to run high, there arose a violent wind which dispersed the Alchemists into all the different countries of the world — and as they had arrived at no conclusion, each one went on seeking the Philosopher’s Stone in his own old way, this one expecting to find it in one substance, and that in another, so that the search has continued without intermission even unto this day.’

One of them, however, determined to grapple with this tricksy spirit. He is sure of his superior abilities, but somehow success eludes him…Let us enter the scene at this point:

NARRATOR: We first meet with our alchemist as he is struggling to get to grips with mercury in his glass vessel. He’s read all the books, but somehow he can’t seem to get the right results. He tried heating the mercury over the fire, but it evaporated and disappeared. Like many an angry man, he blames his wife.

ALCHEMIST: No one but you has entered my laboratory; you must have taken my mercury out of the vessel.
WIFE [sobbing]: No, no, not I!
NARRATOR: Well, the Alchemist tries again, mixing the mercury into various disgusting concoctions with all sorts of substances such as blood, hair and urine. He tries metals and minerals, salts and sulphur, but nothing very alchemical happens. Then he suddenly remembers that dung is a good thing to work with, so he gets his hands deep into the shit! It’s no good. He falls asleep, exhausted. But lo! In his dream an old man comes to him, and advises him to charm the mercury in the way that you would charm a serpent. The Alchemist wakes up shouting joyfully:
ALCHEMIST: Serpents are charmed! Now what is it that I have to say – yes, “Ux, ux, Ostas!’
NARRATOR: And with that, Mercury appears, laughing his head off.

The ‘Second Key’ from Basil Valentine’s alchemical engravings, published 1618. Mercury as he might apear to the alchemists.

MERCURY: Why dost thou trouble me my Lord alchemist?
ALCHEMIST: Oh ho, do you call me your Lord? I have found a bit to bridle you with; wait a little, and you shall soon sing the tune that I bid you. (angrily and imperiously) – I conjure you by the living God – are you not that Mercury of the Sages?
MERCURY: (pretending to be frightened) – Master, I am Mercury.
ALCHEMIST: Why would you not obey me then? Why could I not fix you?
MERCURY: Oh, most high and mighty Master, I implore you to spare your miserable slave! I did not know that you were such a potent philosopher. I see now, to my own great cost, that your Worship is a high and mighty and most potent philosopher.
ALCHEMIST: (with a smile of satisfaction) – Now at last I have found what I sought. (in tones of thunder) Now mind that you obey me, else it will be the worse for you.
MERCURY: Gladly, Master, if I can: for I am very weak.
ALCHEMIST: What is the matter with you?
MERCURY: An Alchemist is the matter with me.

An alchemist’s laboratory

ALCHEMIST: Are you laughing at me, you false rogue?
MERCURY: Oh no, no, Master – as God shall spare me, I spoke of an Alchemist – you are a philosopher.
ALCHEMIST: Of course, of course, that is quite true. But what did the Alchemist do?
MERCURY: Oh Master, he has done me a thousand wrongs; he belaboured and mixed me up with all manner of disagreeable and contradictory things, which have stripped me of all my powers, and so I am sick, even to death.
ALCHEMIST: You deserved such treatment, because you would not obey.
MERCURY: I never yet disobeyed a philosopher, but I cannot help laughing at fools.
ALCHEMIST: And what is your opinion of me?
MERCURY: Oh Master, your Worship is a great man, and mighty philosopher, greater by far than Hermes, both in doctrine and in wisdom.
ALCHEMIST: Well, I won’t praise myself, but I certainly am a learned man. My wife says so too. She always calls me a profoundly learned philosopher.
MERCURY: I quite believe you. For philosophers are men whom too much learning and thought have made mad. (sniggers quietly)
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, what am I to do with you? How am I to make you into the Philosopher’s Stone?
MERCURY: Oh, my master philosopher, that I cannot tell. You are a philosopher, I am the philosopher’s humble slave. Whatever he wishes to make me, I become, as far as my nature will allow.
ALCHEMIST: This is all very fine, but I repeat that you must tell me how to treat you, and whether you can become the Philosopher’s Stone.
MERCURY: Mr Philosopher, if you know, you can make it, and if you don’t you can’t.

COMMENTATOR: I cannot help interrupting here, as the voice behind the Narrator – this is a splendid saying, isn’t it? I’m going to store it up for future use. ‘If you know, you can, and if you don’t you can’t.’

Alchemist at work – 17c, Teniers

ALCHEMIST: You talk to me as a simple person. Perhaps you do not know that I have lived at the courts of great princes, and have always been regarded as a very profound philosopher.
MERCURY: I readily believe you, my Master, for the filth of your brilliant experiments still cleaves to me.
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, then, are you the Mercury of the Sages?
MERCURY: I am Mercury, but you should know best, whether I am the Mercury of you philosophers.
ALCHEMIST: Tell me only whether you are the true Mercury, or whether there is another?
MERCURY: I am Mercury, but there is also another.

NARRATOR: With these words, the Mercury vanishes. The Alchemist shouts and calls aloud, but there is no answer. He carries on with his experiments – he fails – he curses Mercury and Nature too. Nature herself wants to know what’s going on.

NATURE: Mercury, what have you done to the Alchemist, and why will you not obey him?
MERCURY: It’s not me – he’s the problem!
NATURE: Well, you should obey the Sons of Knowledge who seek to know me!
MERCURY: All right, Mother Nature, I will – but who can satisfy fools?

NARRATOR: Nature smiles, and departs. The Alchemist, meanwhile, has prepared some ‘excrements of swine’ – that’s pig shit to you – and is smearing Mercury with it.

MERCURY: What do you want of me, you fool?
ALCHEMIST: Are you he whom I desire so much to see?
MERCURY: I am, but blind people cannot behold me.
ALCHEMIST: I am not blind.
MERCURY: You are as blind as a new-born puppy. You cannot see yourself: how then should you be able to see me?

COMMENTATOR: Ha! That’s another good one.

ALCHEMIST: Perhaps you do not know that I have lived at the courts of princes, and have always been called a philosopher. My wife says so too.
MERCURY: The gates of princes stand wide for fools. I quite believe that you have been at court.
ALCHEMIST: You are, undoubtedly, the Devil, and not a good Mercury, if you speak like that to philosophers.
MERCURY: Well, my philosopher, what do you seek, and what would you have?
ALCHEMIST: The Philosopher’s Stone.
MERCURY: Of what substance would you make it?
ALCHEMIST: Of our Mercury.
MERCURY: Oh, my philosopher, then I had better go: for I am not yours!
ALCHEMIST: You are none but the Devil, and wish to lead me astray.
MERCURY: Well, I think I may return the compliment; you have played the very devil with me. You sow me in dung; and you reap dung. Verily, you are a good husbandman!
ALCHEMIST: Yet the Sages say that their substance is found on the dunghill.
MERCURY: What they say is true, but you understand only the letter, and not the spirit of their injunctions.
ALCHEMIST: Now I see that you are perhaps Mercury. But as you will not obey me, I must once more repeat the words of conjuration: ‘Ux, ux, ostas!’
MERCURY: And what more do you want of me? Am I not obedient? Do I not mingle with all things that you ask me to amalgamate with? Do I not suffer myself to be sublimated, precipitated, amalgamated, calcined? What more can I do? I have submitted to be scourged and spat upon till my miserable plight might move a heart of stone. I have done all that any metal or mineral can do. I do whatsoever you make me do. If you make me a body, I am a body. If you make me powder, I am powder. How can I be more obedient than I am?
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, then, what you are in your centre, and I will not torment you any more.
MERCURY: I see there is no escape. If you will, you may now understand me. It has nothing to do with my form that you now see. My centre is the fixed heart of all things, immortal and all-pervading. I am an immortal body. I die when I am slain, but rise to stand before the judgment seat of a discriminating judge.
ALCHEMIST: How in all the world am I to understand you, if you answer my questions in dark parables?
MERCURY: Whatever is with me, I love; and to that which is born with me, I impart nourishment. That which is naked I cover with my wings.

Alchemical exhibition, Prague

ALCHEMIST: I see plainly that it is impossible to talk to you. If you do not answer my questions better, I will torment you again.
MERCURY: Have pity on me, Master, I will gladly tell you all I know.
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, are you afraid of the fire?
MERCURY: I myself am fire.
ALCHEMIST: Why then do you seek to escape from the fire?
MERCURY: Because my spirit loves the spirit of fire, and accompanies it wherever it goes.
ALCHEMIST: Where do you go when you ascend with the fire?
MERCURY: Every pilgrim looks anxiously towards his country and his home. When he has returned unto these, he reposes, and he always comes back wiser than he left.

COMMENTATOR: And that, I have to admit, is a beautiful sentiment. I shall ponder it.
ALCHEMIST: Do you return, then?
MERCURY: Yes, but in another form. I am fire within; fire is my food and my life; but the life of fire is air, for without air fire is extinguished…Add air to air, so that both become one in even balance; combine them with fire, and leave the whole to time.

The two Mercuries, portrayed in Atlanta Fugiens, by Michael Maier (1617)

ALCHEMIST: What will happen then?
MERCURY: Everything superfluous will be removed. The residue you burn in fire, place in water, ‘cook’, and when it is cooked, you give as a medicine, and have no fear.

NARRATOR: Nature re-appears, to scold the Alchemist once more for his mistreatment of Mercury.
NATURE: You do nothing but cross me, and deal with my children against my will…my obedient son Mercury you torment in the most fearful manner.
ALCHEMIST: Then I will in future deal with him gently, and subject him only to gradual coction.

NATURE: That is well, if you possess understanding; otherwise, you will ruin only yourself and your possessions. If you act in opposition to my commands, you hurt yourself more than him.…

ALCHEMIST: But who is that Mercury?
NATURE: Know that I have only one such son, he is one of seven, and the first among them; and though he is now all things, he was at first only one. In him are the four elements, yet he is not an element. He is a spirit, yet he has a body; a man, yet he performs a woman’s part: a boy, yet he bears a man’s weapons; a beast, and yet he has the wings of a bird. He is poison, yet he cures leprosy; life, yet he kills all things, a King, but another occupies his throne; he flees from the fire, yet fire is taken from him; he is water, but does not wet the hands; he is earth, and yet he is sown; he is air, and lives by water.

NARRATOR: But alas, it seems that the Alchemist just isn’t ready to give up his pride and greed.

ALCHEMIST: Now I see that I know nothing; only I must not say so. For I should lose the good opinion of my neighbours, and they would no longer entrust me with money for my experiments. I must therefore go on saying that I know everything; for there are many that expect me to do great things for them.

NATURE: But if you go on in that way, your neighbours will at last find you out, and demand their money back.

ALCHEMIST: I must amuse them with promises, as long as I can.

NATURE: And what then?

ALCHEMIST: I will try different experiments; and if they fail, I will go to some other country, and live the same life there. There are many countries, and many greedy persons who will suffer themselves to be gulled by my promises of mountains of gold.

NATURE: Such philosophers are only fit for the gallows. Be off, and take with you my most grievous curse. The best thing that you can do, is to give yourself up to the King’s officers, who will quickly put an end to you and your philosophy!

Alchemy may be a path to madness for some, but if you’d like to read more about its history, and see how it can relate to everyday life in the modern world, you might enjoy these books.