Anya Subich

Urine and philosopher's stone

How the search for gold led alchemists to discover something else

For centuries alchemists and magicians were racking their brains over the riddle of philosopher’s stone - a mysterious substance that is able to turn basic metals into gold. One of the legends ran that this substance can be found within the human body... According to another belief, it should be a liquid, since water is the prime cause of life. Once you add a pronounced golden colour - everything was pointing on urine as an answer...


Cabala Mineralis, attributed to Rabbi Simeon ben Cantara - An illustration from medieval alchemical manuscript "Cabala Mineralis", depicting young boy, urinating in the pool. Inscription says: "Our ammoniac is not that of the vulgar". Image by Labyrinth Designers Rabbi Simeon ben Cantara

The “golden age of alchemy”, which fell on 13th-17th centuries, resulted in numerous alchemical treatises, created by medieval scholars, venturing clergymen and mysterious kabbalists. One of them - "Cabala Mineralis" - suggested using urine as a possible ingredient for the elixir of immortality. A manuscript, located at London British Museum, dates back to the middle of the XV century and is ascribed to Rabbi Simeon Ben Cantara.

Colourful illustrations of this book explain how urine of a young boy can be used as a source of ammonium: "Our ammoniac is not that of the vulgar". Ammonium then shall be used together with mercury as essential components of philosopher's stone.


Cabala Mineralis - The sprout of Mercury. The water of life Nine volatile parts fix one part of mercury. Homogenitas the sharp living water. Image by Rabbi Simeon ben Cantara

Urine's importance in alchemic work can be explained by the fact that it contains volatile components, which can help to volatilise metallic salts that are not willing to sublimate.

Around 1669 someone called Henning Brand - an enthusiast chemist from Hamburg, found an alchemy book, entitled “400 Auserlensene Chemische Process" by F. T. Kessler of Strasbourg” . A recipe from this book stated that a mix of alum, potassium nitrate, and concentrated human urine would turn basic metals into gold. In an attempt to solve the mystery Brand, he then rerouted and began to experiment with boiling huge amounts of human urine. At first he was satisfied with the amount of liquid he produced himself, then he put an eye on his wife's and friends' chamber pots. After a short while, an experiment gained such a wide audience that Brand made up his mind to acquire wholesale product from the Prussian army…It is thought that in the course of his experiments he collected overall 5500l of urine.

Brand boiled the large amount of liquid until it turned into a thick substance with red oil on the top. He then extracted this red oil and cooled down the rest of the substance until it turned black.


Cabala mineralis - "The sophic putrefaction. Of the calcination of our sun, having been watered with new mercury, two parts in weight, the common sun is made one body, black and not porous". Image by Rabbi Simeon ben Cantara

Having mixed the red and the black parts, Brand heated them again, distilled and...hocus pocus! The glass chamber got filled with glowing fumes that turned into a shining, white liquid, which, upon contact with oxygen, produced bright flames.


Cabala mineralis - "The white sulphur. Our sun having been changed into a green colour, passes into white sulphur, which is the body animated by the incorruptible soul". Image by Rabbi Simeon ben Cantara

Needless to say, Brand was perfectly sure he had found philosopher's stone. He gave his discovery the name phosphorus - after the Greek name for Venus...

He continued experimenting with the new substance for six years, having discovered its many qualities, but not being able to obtain the so cherished, elixir of immortality. Only at the autumn of his life, Brand acknowledged that he probably had not discovered philosopher's stone, but something else. Later generations of chemists were to find out what exactly phosphorus was and obtained the credits for the discovery.


Cabala mineralis - "The stone of the wise. The medicine of the third order. A month having been completed, the omnipotent king or our stone arises, the perfect medicine of the third order in its projection able to transmute all metals. Let the eternal God be praised and may his grace be unceasing". Image by Rabbi Simeon ben Cantara

Thanks to his extensive correspondence, Brand was eventually recognized as a father of phosphorus (long after his death), - "13th element", the first chemical element that was discovered by the humanity since the ancient times.