In Brief

Bloom has good reason for associating "chemists" like Sweny with the "Quest for the philosopher's stone. The alchemists." These medieval and early modern experimenters were the precursors of modern chemists, and the elusive "stone" they sought was conceived not only as a spiritual boon and a source of wealth but also as a medical panacea.

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Modern chemistry recombines atomic elements to make new molecules. Alchemy sought to change presumedly elemental substances—the earth, air, water, and fire of the ancients, and in later times things like sulphur, mercury, and salt—into new substances. The highest goal of alchemists was, by heating and distilling such substances according to precise steps, to isolate something called the "philosophers' stone."

Once concocted, the stone was thought to be capable of turning base metals into silver and gold. It was also sometimes viewed as a source of mystical enlightenment. Most relevant to Bloom's reverie, it was often said to be capable of curing illness, reversing the aging process, and bestowing immortality. Arab alchemists called the stone (or something closely associated with it) al-iksir, giving rise to centuries of western searching for "the elixir of life." Many such cure-alls, the ingredients of which were trade secrets, were still being sold in pharmacies in 1904. Bloom is no doubt skeptical. In Hades he thinks of one popular cure-all: "Tiptop position for a pub. Expect we’ll pull up here on the way back to drink his health. Pass round the consolation. Elixir of life."

JH 2022
 The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher's Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers, a 1771 oil painting by Joseph Wright of Derby held in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery. Source: Wikimedia Commons.