To most of us, chemistry is a class in high school we got a B in and being able to measure just the right amount of sugar into our Kool-Aid without fumbling around for the measuring cup.

“Seriously, man, it’s a fucking art.”

But it’s an invaluable science, and without centuries of hard-working, proud chemists, we’d almost certainly have missed out on many, many huge innovations. (We also, sadly, would not have Breaking Bad. Fuck, that’s a great show.) And if we’re going to thank all those chemists for the things we enjoy today, we have to thank their forerunners, the alchemists. Alchemists, arguably, were just chemists who hadn’t yet discovered the scientific method, but their tireless effort advanced humankind in incalculable ways.

My own alchemical experiments have involved transmuting $2 at McDonald’s into death.

Alchemists, if you didn’t know, are commonly regarded as having been after two goals, referred to as the Magnum Opus: Turning lead into gold, and eternal life. Just think about that. You could go to the dollar store, buy a pack of pencils, turn them into gold, sell the gold to those scam artists on TV, buy more pencils, and keep going until you’re sick of it, because your ass is going to live forever. Fuck, who wouldn’t want that? An alchemist who accomplished either of those things would have it made.

Unfortunately, science kinda came up and popped alchemy in the mouth like Sean Connery to a woman giving him lip. No alchemist ever discovered eternal life or transmuting gold. That is, of course, unless you believe the legends told of Fulcanelli, The Master Alchemist. (Yes, seriously, he’s referred to as the master alchemist.)

If nothing else, it would be an amazing DJ name.

Who was Fulcanelli? Well, Frank Zappa, I’ll let you in on a little secret: No one has a fucking clue. Fulcanelli was a pseudonym, much like the one used by my Jedi stripper friend, Obi-Wan Disrobi. Fulcanelli was believed to be a Frenchman, exceptionally educated, and very, very secretive. He was presumably born sometime in the 1800s, but even this fact is debated. What is known is that he was the author of two alchemy manuals, both published after 1926, and both in extremely limited quantities. What little is known about the man himself comes from his apprentice’s apprentice, a man named Patrick Riviere and the two books Fulcanelli published, both made up primarily of riddles, obscure symbols, jumbled code that has still not been solved, and odd Greek and Latin puns and jokes. (What did the Roman mother tell her son? “Semper ubi sub ubi!” Seriously, it’s hilarious if you know Latin.)

The information we have today, a mere 100 years later, is but fragments of tales. He was, according to his apprentices, able to truly convert lead (and other base elements) into gold and could create life in dead objects, including reanimating a toad, a dog, and possibly even a human being.

Like this, but presumably without that weird decapitated head cunnilingus scene.

His skills in alchemy were so great that the Nazi’s military intelligence branch spent several years and the modern equivalent of millions of dollars seeking him out. One legend says that he was captured and questioned by none other than Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Reportedly, a document describing the incident was in the hands of the KGB in Moscow until the collapse of the USSR, when it disappeared. According to this document, Goebbels entered the cell and pulled up a chair across from Fulcanelli. He then asked if Fulcanelli would answer a few questions, to which Fulcanelli briskly replied, “No, I will not.” He then rose and exited the room by walking directly through the west wall. As in, through 16 feet of thick concrete.

“I’ll show myself out, thanks.”

Even before that time, it’s known that Fulcanelli visited several luminary scientists and great military leaders throughout the 30s, allegedly warning them about the dangers of nuclear weaponry before it had even been invented. The U.S. Army, too, spent time looking for Fulcanelli after World War II, but had no luck finding him. He disappeared after that, and much of his notes, work, and a third, unpublished manuscript were lost in a fire at the residence of Eugene Canseliet, his apprentice, several years later. Legends assert that some of the burned pages were examined and it was found that Fulcanelli apparently had a knowledge of nuclear physics that exceeded that of some of the greatest scientists in the field.

Canseliet, too, claimed to have encountered Fulcanelli twice after his disappearance. Once, in the early 50s, he claimed that Fulcanelli came to his home. Oh, and Fulcanelli had also managed to transmute his dick, because he was now a woman. Fulcanelli called it “an experiment”, and assured Canseliet that it would be reversed after he was finished testing. (In other words, probably feeling up his new boobies.)


Later, in 1956, Canseliet claimed to see Fulcanelli for the last time. He was once again a man, but when Canseliet had last seem him with a penis, he had been in his 80s, but Fulcanelli now appeared to be in his 50s. Canseliet offered no further details, and claimed the meeting was short.

But perhaps the most compelling tale of Fulcanelli comes from a journalist named Jacques Bergier. According to Bergier, who had been writing a book on occult influences in European history, Fulcanelli summoned him to a home in Paris, where Fulcanelli revealed the truth of the Magnum Opus to him. Fulcanelli claimed that the Magnum Opus was actually a secret method for observing the universe, and if performed correctly, one literally could see the inner workings of all things from a strange, godlike viewpoint. He also intimated that the Philosopher’s Stone, an object believed by alchemists to be required for transmutations and pursued endlessly, was not meant to change elements, but the alchemist himself, and this change was what allowed the Magnum Opus to be known.

Artist’s rendition of the Philosopher’s Stone.

Could all this possibly true? It is a bit much to take in. It kind of sounds like Harry Potter mixed with The Stig. Most of the information is secondhand at best, except for Fulcanelli’s books. Some scholars believe that Fulcanelli could have just been Canseliet himself, and that he had made up stories of the great Fulcanelli to tell his apprentice, Patrick Riviere, from whom the majority of Fulcanelli’s life is known. The rest is legend and hearsay, although the U.S. Army and Nazi intelligence apparently did believe him to be a real person. There is fleeting evidence that a man known as Fulcanelli may have existed, and several French scientists and journalists do acknowledge that they met with a man who introduced himself as Fulcanelli at various points.

But the fact that, even in recent history, legend and truth can be so closely intertwined to the point of being nearly inseparable is part of the appeal of Fulcanelli. This deeply mysterious figure, who apparently has intricate knowledge of things unseeable by most and, possibly being immortal and therefore still alive, is an attractive idea. As for the reality of it, well, perhaps one day Fulcanelli will reappear and let us all know.

Wikipedia has an article, but it’s awful.
Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic and the Occult