This month ‘Alice in Wanderlust’ travels to Paris to discover alchemists and death in Parisenne High Society ….
* 48.8567° N, 2.3508° E *
Something that’s often forgotten about Paris amidst its mist filled with flowers and pheromones, as you wander the dawn grey streets, heavy with thick black chocolate straight off the ship, hazy with absinthe (cheap wine).
What is easy to forget is this; Paris doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone, it never has and it never will. It is a place to be free and it defends that freedom with total sincerity, or seeming insincerity, whichever measure is just. You can push Paris so far, and then you get a slap for being a “beetch”. ‘You’ can be a person, an idea, a religion, a sect, a government, if you push it too far, you don’t stand a chance against this city.
The freedom within its walls makes it a haven for magic and romance; it smuggles lovers, caters for courtships, its bridges ache with lovelocks and … its underground passages are paved with bones?
I didn’t know this the last time I went to Paris, otherwise I’d have obviously been straight down there. I, however, spent my time buying cheap green leather, stuffing my face in the Jewish restaurants off the Marais (you haveto go to Chez Marianne) and seeing how much information it is possible for the human brain to retain in one museum trip to the Louvre.
Very little after two beers it would seem.
But back to where I could have gone, the Catacombs of Paris. The Catacombs of Paris originate from the cemetery of ‘Saint Innocents’ which was an unfortunately situated mass graveyard plonked directly in the center of Paris.
Unsurprisingly this got too full after a while (mmmmm …) so all the hundreds of thousands bodies were exhumed and made into a charming bone passageway under Paris. If you wander in to the underground tunnels you find tessellated femurs slotted in to sockets, arched tibia and monolithic hillocks of skulls. A delightfully gothic subterranean passageway built to house the dead and please the eye, way before William Morris first said “Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” they decided this mass grave should be both.
I mean, por quoi non?
Just across the river in the 3rd arrendissement, in the historic heart of the city is the Rue de Montmorcey. On this road the oldest stone house in the city still stands in gothic glory, the house of Paris’ most famous alchemist, Nicholas Flamel, who happened to have a penchant for wandering the Catacombs at night, as did many of Paris’ elite.
But let’s begin at the beginning; here comes the science, or (pseudo)science, whatever floats your boat:
Alchemy is the transmutation of base metals in to gold; it is also, and more importantly, the achievement of ultimate knowledge, complete oneness and the discovery of the elixir of life (the philosophers stone). It is believed this is the true Holy Grail, not some cup.
Alchemy has been studied by the greatest minds of our time; Plato, Isaac newton, Pope John XXII, the count of St Germaine and psychedelic cult phenomena Terrence McKenna has also dabbled in it. Kings and queens even had their own personal alchemists such as Queen Elizabeth I’s right hand man John Dee (Blur’s Damon Albarn wrote an opera about him ‘Dr Dee’, I didn’t see it, sounded cool though …)
So, Nicholas Flamel is, to us, a famous alchemist in 15th century Paris, but he didn’t start off that way. Up until his forties, Flamel was a bookseller, married with children with a pleasant, uneventful life. This was until he started reading about alchemy and the hermetic arts, he found out that it was supposedly possible to obtain perfect wisdom and eternal life. Flamel became infatuated with this spiritual ideal and had a prophetic dream of being given a book by an angel. Two months later, he was given this book by an old Jewish man fleeing Paris for Spain – Angels come in many guises.
The book was by Abraham the Jew, a wandering Magi of a group of 7 philosophers who belonged to no country and travelled all over the world, with no other aim than for the search of wisdom and their own personal development. Where human life could have the span of 1,000 years with the secret of the philosophers stone (– take note Laboratoirs Garnier, imagine what that could for your FACE) Flamel would one day become one of these men.
For now however, Flamel could not decipher the text or symbols in the book, so he went in search of someone who might be able to help.
Many Jews had fled Paris for Spain due to persecution, so Flamel headed on a pilgrimage, the famous ‘Camino’ where he found the Jewish “Maestro Canches” who helped Flamel decipher enough pages before the Maetsro’s death for Flamel to continue the study on his own on his return to Paris. Which he did.
And then, all of a sudden, the little bookseller Flamel, became rich. But having a true understanding of the philosopher’s stone, he was not greedy; he built houses for the poor, founded hospitals and endowed churches. Though Flamel knew how to make gold he reportedly only made it three times in his life, only to hinder the evils he saw around him.
Flamel’s “death” passed without much real event, his tombstone had already been made, as had sculptures of him in the churches he endowed, on the new house he had built on the Rue de Montmorency, eleven saints were carved on the front, and then a bust of himself.
His penchant for making these personal additions to sacred buildings did not go unnoticed and it didn’t take long for the rumors of Flamel’s alchemy to start spreading. It was said that the symbolic figures he’d had sculpted on to various monuments gave, for those who could decipher it, the formula of the philosophers’ stone.
Over the centuries flamel’s tomb was ransacked, his house left bare of clues, carvings stolen from churches and the catacombs. Victor Hugo even describes this in The Hunchback of Notre Damn…
“It was the house which Nicolas Flamel had built, where he had died about 1417, and which, constantly deserted since that time, had already begun to fall in ruins, so greatly had the hermetics and the alchemists of all countries wasted away the walls, It was supposed that Flamel had buried the philosopher’s stone in the cellar; and the alchemists, for the space of two centuries, never ceased to worry the soil until the house, so cruelly ransacked and turned over, ended by falling into dust beneath their feet.”
Now all that is left is the legend that when his tomb was opened, it was empty, and Flamel is to this day, one of these wandering Magi. (I imagine boarder control might make this slightly more difficult these days, but it would be nice if he still was.)
If you’re in Paris, still existing on the Rue de Montmorcey is the ‘Auberge de Flamel’ now a restaurant but previously the inn where Flamel and his wife would look after the poor, providing “the poor” said their prayers – an inscription on the walls of the restaurant still shows this. Well worth a visit (if not for the food then for the history).
Flamel has been revived throughout the centuries and most recently* as a small alchemical renaissance took place in the Parisenne Dadaist scene.
In fact, 1920’s parisenne high society was the setting for the death of two beautiful socialites, focusing around a man named Fulcanelli, the last alchemist in Paris.
Fulcanelli’s name is not his own, it came from combining Vulcan with Helios, meaning ‘Sacred Fire’ (imagine the ego).
Fulcanelli had a female assistant, Margarette Louise Barbe, who was notorious among the elite occult sect in Paris made up of alchemists, artists, writers, bankers and the other woman starring in this story, Irene Hillel-Erlanger.
Irene was a poet, writer and film maker (her son went on to found Cannes film festival), she was friends with the composers Claude Debussy, Erik Satie and the poet John Coctaeu; she was also the writer of a little known but vitally important novel called ‘Voyages en Kaleidoscope’ which described the relationship of an assistant to a brilliant inventor who had come up with a device called the “thermometer of Vulcan and Helios” – this enabled the inventor to uncover the hidden nature of the universe and the underlying structure of solid matter – sounds suspiciously like Fulcanelli right?
It was soon widely known that it was him. His assistant, Margarette’s, identity also revealed. Margarette happened to be whom Irene dedicated the book to, so we can guess Irene wasn’t trying too hard to hide her friend’s identity.
Within a year of the books publication both Irene Hillel-Erlanger and Margeratte Louise Barbe were dead. Barbe died first, after allegedly drinking ‘potable gold’ in an alchemical “accident” and then Irene Hillel-Erlanger died after eaten poisoned oysters at a party being given in the honor of the books publication – it is believed both women had been poisoned for divulging an important alchemical secret.
And as for Fulcanelli?
Well, we don’t know what happened to him. He just disappeared, and as far as we know, he was the last alchemist that lived and practiced in Paris.
As you lie in the Jardins Tuileries in the summer, light a candle on an autumn morning in the Notre Damn or snuggle in Les Deux Magots in the winter, save a thought for the women who knew the last alchemist in Paris.
* Actually most recently Flamel is featured in the all time best book series ever, Harry Potter – in the book aptly named ‘The Philosophers Stone’. Nice one Rowling, you legend.