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I always enjoy it when, while making my rounds looking for news briefs of interest for the Grail, I come across a mainstream news site covering esoteric subjects. This was certainly the case a couple of weeks ago when I came across an article on the BBC News site titled “‘Red mercury’: Why does this strange myth persist?“.

For centuries rumours have persisted about a powerful and mysterious substance. And these days, adverts and videos offering it for sale can be found online. Why has the story of “red mercury” endured?

Some people believe it’s a magical healing elixir found buried in the mouths of ancient Egyptian mummies. Or could it be a powerful nuclear material that might bring about the apocalypse?

Videos on YouTube extol its vampire-like properties. Others claim it can be found in vintage sewing machines or in the nests of bats.

There’s one small problem with these tales – the substance doesn’t actually exist. Red mercury is a red herring.

The article provides a fascinating history of the folklore and legends surrounding ‘red mercury’, which has ranged from being seen as a magical cure-all to a powerful nuclear explosive. But in the end, it doesn’t provide an answer to the question posed in its title: “why does this strange myth persist?”

Happily, a possible answer to the question about the legendary substance’s timelessness appeared in my email inbox the next day – after I had posted the BBC story in our news briefs – from author/researcher Patrick Harpur (Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld; The Philosophers’ Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination). “May I suggest,” Patrick wrote, “that the persistence of the Red Mercury legend as outlined in the BBC trending article is not as strange as it seems? Rather, it is, ahem, archetypal, recapitulating the legends of alchemy”.

Patrick has previously explained this aspect of the Red Mercury legend in an old article for Fortean Times (#220, in 2007), which can be found on his website.

At first sight, the leap from nuclear device accelerator to elixir of life seems absurd. But it exactly parallels the properties of the alchemists’ lapis philosophorum or Stone of the Philosophers (hence, as we Philosophers say, Philosophers’, and not Philosopher’s, Stone). No one entangled in the red mercury legend seems aware that it is a recapitulation of that alchemical myth which, willy-nilly, continues to go about its business in the collective unconscious.

The Philosophers’ Stone was also known as the Red Tincture or Powder; and ‘mercury’ was its chief ingredient. It turned base metal to gold, of course – an idea which was perfectly reasonable to the mediaeval mind which believed that natural objects have an innate disposition to perfect themselves. For example, all the lesser, corruptible metals such as copper, tin or lead are growing naturally – ‘evolving’ – towards the incorruptible perfection of gold.

Like red mercury, the Red Tincture was only a kind of catalyst, therefore, accelerating the natural growth of metals so that they turned to gold more quickly. By the same token, as the Elixir of Life or Universal Panacea, the Stone could accelerate our own innate growth towards perfection and endow us with immortality. Chinese alchemy was almost entirely devoted to the Elixir – to creating a ‘diamond body’ – rather than the gold-making Stone.

Modern science, Patrick notes, “has assumed that alchemy was a primitive chemistry, a superstitious exercise doomed to failure. But the alchemists themselves always insisted that their goal was not ‘common gold’ but ‘philosophical gold’.”

As such, the modern myth of red mercury as a physical chemical with a wide variety of material powers has perhaps manifested out of an historical archetype composed of a less tangible substance intended for a greater purpose:

C.G. Jung, the great Swiss psychologist, noticed that the Great Work of alchemy was as much a psychological operation as a chemical process, as much concerned with self-transformation as with metallic transmutation. In fact, he reckoned that the alchemical tradition was the historical counterpart of his own psychology of the unconscious. The Work was an archetypal model for his central concept, the process of ‘individuation’, whose goal was a union of consciousness with the unconscious – a union in fact of all the psychic opposites in the self. And it was this transcendent self which was symbolised by the Stone and which converted our lives to the true, ‘philosophical gold’.

Read the full essay at Patrick’s site. And if you haven’t read one of his fabulous books before, be sure you correct that!