Every now and then certain types of weather lend themselves to contemplation of far-fetched ideas of the mystical realm. Or at least that’s the excuse I’m giving for why I was in front of Notre Dame Cathedral that morning, shielding my notes from misting rain as I scanned the Portal of the Last Judgement for a secret stone bird.
A stone raven actually, one that according to legend reveals the location of a long-lost and powerful secret of the alchemists.
Going all the way back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, alchemy is a hybrid of chemistry and magic that at times lurked in the shadows of respectable science and at others ran parallel to it. One expert described it as “the art of liberating parts of the Cosmos from temporal existence and achieving perfection which, for metals is gold, and for man, longevity, then immortality…”
Layman’s terms: melt and mix the right elements at precise temperatures and you’ll get a substance that 1) turns any metal into gold and 2) offers the bonus of you never dying. Ever. This magic concoction is known as the Philosopher’s Stone.
Enthusiasts of Harry Potter may recognize this idea: J.K. Rowling included the Philosopher’s Stone in the first installment and even used it in the title, though in the U.S. it was changed to the “Sorcerer’s Stone” in order to dumb things down and increase American sales.
For centuries mad scientists and respectable men alike have sought to decipher alchemical messages encoded in plain sight, supposedly hidden in medieval structures and visible to only the most enlightened of observers. Which brings us (and brought me) in front of Notre Dame to scrutinize its ocean of intricate details. Because I figure I deserve immortality as much as the next dumb American.
Here are a few of the mysteries that were up for contemplation that morning under the mist:
Could these biblical effigies be in reality alchemical shepherds in disguise, collaborating to lead us toward vast riches and everlasting life? Are the conspiracy theorists right? Is the cathedral an 850 year-old message board, the beginning of an obscure path of esoteric enlightenment through the medieval streets of Paris?
I came up a bit short of those answers. And I can’t promise that standing under the rain searching for them isn’t a huge waste of time. Having said that, I’m pretty sure if Newton were around he’d be looking into it. So maybe I’ll go back one of these days to take another crack at the alchemist’s riddle.
Before I go, there’s one last wrinkle to this story that spices things up a bit: I’ve since learned of another symbol that throughout time has represented the ability to transform metal into gold (one of the Philosopher’s Stone’s key properties). And not only is there one of them attached to the central portal, but it seems to be pointing curiously in the same direction as the fingers of the apostle and the angel. What’s the symbol?
Well first you have to prove yourself worthy of the quest, of course! Go back up to the beginning of this post: the answer is spelled out by the first letter of each of the first five paragraphs. The alchemists aren’t the only ones who can encode a message after all. :-)
Cue movie soundtrack crescendo…