Monday, February 01, 2010

Red Gold of Alchemy

According to the Chinese historical text Shiji, the 2nd century BCE wizard Li Shaojun advised the Qin Emperor to make food vessels of cinnabar turned into gold to help prolong life.

Li Shaojun learned the formula for "cinnabar gold" from Master Anqi of Penglai. According to later texts, cinnabar gold was "red gold." The Shiji states that when emissary Xu Fu was sent as an emissary to find Master Anqi, he encountered a 'great spirit' at sea that led him toward the southeast toward Sandao "Three Islands" of which Penglai was the most noteworthy.

Some 1800 years later, we hear of Japanese merchants who traveled to Mishima 三島 由 (Chinese: Sandao 三島), where they sought highly-prized jars. Mishima or the "Three Islands" at that time consisted of Luzon, Taiwan and Macau. Of these, Luzon was the most important in terms of its highly prized Ruson-tsubo wares.

Golden bird ornaments at Ayala Museum

While many years had passed between these two periods, I believe there is a connection between the cinnabar gold food and drink vessels of Master Anqi of Penglai, and the Ruson-tsubo wares used for tea ceremonies by the Japanese shoguns and emperor.

Now in terms of the location of Sandao and Penglai, as noted Xu Fu was lead by sea to the southeast and I discuss Penglai's location and related geographic areas in the post Qingtong, Lord Lad of the East.

Penglai continues to figure in historical and semi-historical texts into the late ancient period in which it is directly related to the region of Fusang -- a connection that was indirectly hinted at in earlier sources. In the Tang Dynasty, the area was known as Foshi, and in the Sung Dynasty, Sanyu (三嶼) and Sanfotsi were probably equated with Sandao.

The placename Sandao appears again in historical records during the Yuan Dynasty, as a kingdom along the Eastern Ship Route.

Transmuting to gold

In my post on tumbaga and alchemy, I suggest that the "transmutation" of metals like copper into gold may have been an ancient reference to depletion gilding. In the last posting on goldworking, I discuss the practice in the Philippines of using red earth mixed with salt for depletion gilding at the last stage to remove any silver at the surface.

We cannot assume that the ancients understood the chemical processes at work, and it may be that they actually viewed depletion gilding as a transmutation of an alloy into pure gold. As noted, early Europeans like Juan de Salcedo and Hernando Riquel commented that even the most skilled silversmiths during the Renaissance period could not distinguish such alloys. The touchstone assay did not work, and de Salcedo says that only melting down the objects, i.e., the fire assay, could reveal the truth.

The red earth, then, could have been seen as the Philosopher's Stone, the magical material that transmutes base metals into gold.

In reality, it is believed that the red earth contained ferrous sulphate that when sufficiently heated releases its sulfur. The sulfur combines with silver to form silver sulfate. The metal is cooled and the silver sulfate is polished off leaving a pure gold surface.

During the medieval period, the Philosopher's Stone was generally thought of as a red substance. Many Chinese alchemists believed that cinnabar was the Philosopher's Stone, while the Muslims used the name al-Kibrit al-Ahmar الكبريت الأحمر "red sulfur."

The idea of the red color may come from the notion of cinnabar changed into gold during the Qin Empire. What this may refer to is the process of depletion gilding in Penglai that was taught by the Master Anqi. The technique may have used the same red earth that was mentioned some 2,000 years later in the same region.

Red earth gets its color normally either from the presence of iron or cinnabar in the soil or clay. In many cultures, red earth or red ochre is viewed in relation to blood, the fluid of life. In ancient China, it was cinnabar-rich earth rather than red ochre that was thought of in this manner.

So, the ancient Chinese alchemists may have viewed the red earth used for depletion gilding as cinnabar -- the Philosopher's Stone that transmutes base metals into gold.

The color red

Red ochre, red clay and the red color have a very important role in Philippine archaeology and ethnography. The archaeologist Jesus T. Peralta wrote a book" "The tinge of red: prehistory of art in the Philippines," the title of which highlights the importance of this color.

Red ochre was used in some of the earliest burials in the country such as those found at Tabon and Arku caves. The ochre was used to paint burial pottery, and skeletons were painted with red ochre before secondary burial. In some cases, skeletons were completely buried in red ochre. In Pila, Laguna, basins of red ochre (adobe) were used for cremation rites.

The color red was used for the clothing of warriors and their wives, and for the clothing of chiefs and nobles. To this day, indigenous peoples in the Philippines still use red as an important ritual color. The Kalinga see red as the color of health, strength and power. José Semblante Buenconsejo writes concerning the Manobo of Mindanao that the color red represents ritual blood, which in turn gives "fire, life, vitality to those persons and objects" involved in the ritual. The ancient Bisayans were said to have painted their bodies with red clay.

Blood of sacrifices was often smeared on sick people by the local healers due to its perceived health-giving property. And blood along with clay have an important role in the stories of creation in the Philippines and throughout the Southeast Asian region.

Damiana Eugenio gives 15 examples of Philippine myths in which humans, animals or other living things are formed out of clay. In one of these, the clay is mixed with blood. Among the Igorots of Sagada, red clay receives its color from mixture with human blood. In nearby Borneo, there are many myths in which blood is used as a temper for the clay used to form humans and other living things.

Volcanic clay and blood

Mt. Pinatubo's name can be interpreted as the "One that causes birth, sprouting, growth, conception, originating, beginning...," as opposed to Mt. Arayat to the east, also known as Mt. Sinukuan. The latter name comes from suku, which refers instead to death, surrender and ending.

The name of Pinatubo's deity (Apo Namalyari) can be interpreted as "One who enables" or "One who makes possible," and is in-keeping with the idea of Apo Namalyari as the creator god. In many regional myths, creation takes place after catastrophic events. For example, in a Bontoc Igorot myth, Lumawig creates the plants, animals and humans after a great battle between the Earth and Waters in which great stones are hurled through the air and the world is covered by a great flood. In a Bukidnon myth, the great Magbabaya gods allow themselves to be killed so their bodies and blood can be used for creation. A great rain of blood from one Magbabaya sinks into the ground and becomes animals, fish and plants.

Pinatubo's eruptions, I have suggested, were seen by ancient observers as a type of cosmic birth pangs and delivery -- originally of the entire creation and subsequently of the new golden age. The volcanic ash and lahar would then be the cosmic afterbirth.

Volcanic ash slowly weathers into clay at the rate of about 1 meter every 200 years, but the process begins immediately. Thus, witnesses to an ancient eruption could see thin layers of clay arising from weathered volcanic ash. Such clay was considered the building block of living things and this may not be too far from the scientific truth. A recent theory suggests that life, or at least the amino acids necessary for life, may have originated in volcanic clay. Such clay usually contains all the elements necessary to create life plus a volcanic gas, carbonyl sulfide (COS), that may have acted as a catalyst for the formation of amino acid chains.

Ancient observers would have been particularly interested in red clay, since they could have seen the red color as representing the cosmic uterine blood, the life fluid of red-blooded creatures like humans. In this red clay, one could reasonably expect to find the "secret ingredient" to health and longevity.

The red clay on its own was significant enough, so that if we add the added quality of its apparent ability to transmute other metals into gold -- the most stable of metals -- we can see how easily this red earth could be interpreted as the Philosopher's Stone. And how jars and other vessels made from this red clay would have certain "magical" qualities.

Thus, we find that the Philippine goldsmiths also used red earth to give gold a reddish tint, and maybe also with the idea that the red earth could help preserve golden heirlooms. The purer types of gold were handed down as heirlooms and relics. These heirlooms were considered sacred and were connected with the ancestors, and one's fate on the earth.

Even lowland Christianized Filipinos have kept such heirlooms until recent times. In Pampanga, heirloom jewelry is usually called tumbaga, interestingly enough, regardless of what it was made of. My paternal grandmother had a tumbaga heirloom that she had melted down and turned into rings for her children.

Red gold must have been ancient because one of the Proto-Austronesian reconstructions for "gold" *bulaw-an suggests a metal of a reddish color (bulaw "reddish, reddish gold"). Indeed, in the Philippines, the term pula in Ilocano and Tagalog refers primarily to tinting gold into a reddish color with red ochre (Tag. gintong pula "red gold"). Givin that there is another suggested Proto-Austronesian word for gold *emas, it may be that *bulaw-an referred originally to an ancient gold that was colored with red earth. The oldest archaeological gold in the Philippines is estimated to date to at least 450 BCE to 250 BCE, although the actual sites involved, like those at Duyong Cave were not dated. We will probably have to wait for further discoveries to get the oldest dates for gold in the country.

Possibly ancient Chinese alchemists confused the use of sacred red clay jars and symbolic red gold, for the idea that metals changed into gold with red earth, i.e. cinnabar, could be used to create live-giving vessels for food and drink. Or the original practice drifted in this direction. At a latter date, this idea morphed into a belief that the "elixir of life" was colloidal gold made with mercury extracted from cinnabar.

Sacred jars

Earthenware jars were among the ancient heirlooms kept in Pampanga and the surrounding region. Among the Kapampangans, these were known as balasini, and they were still being kept during late Spanish times. However, the people were beginning to lose the old ways, and the balasini were often sold at spectacular prices to merchants from Japan and elsewhere. As people became "modernized," they no longer shared the values that motivated their ancestors to keep these heirlooms. In the same way, many tumbaga jewelry heirlooms, which tended to last longer because of more practical value, were eventually sold or melted down.

The "Luzon Jars" were known for their unique ability to preserve tea leaves and tea stored in them. Jean Mallat, writing in the 1840s, tells of the red clay water jars in Cebu that "impart great freshness to the water they held."

Indeed even many people still alive today can attest to how the old clay water jars seem to keep water fresher and sweeter than other sources. In ancient times, when there were no water purification plants, refrigerators, etc. such a quality could not be underestimated.

Now, the red clay jars high is sulfur would be the best types in this regard since sulfur is a natural preservative agent and would inhibit the growth of microbes, fungi and mold. Thus the red clay used for depletion gilding, known in Pampanga as sapo, would be the very best because of its high sulfur content. Some volcanoes, like Mt. Pinatubo, release high sulfur volcanic ash that becomes high sulfur volcanic clay. However, red clay containing ferrous sulphate would have been valued for use as sangag, the mixture of red earth and salt, used for "transmutation" purposes since ferrous sulphate has a fairly low combustion point. At about 600°C or well below the melting point of gold, ferrous sulphate releases sulfur as sulfur trioxide gas, which reacts with silver allowing the resulting compound to be polished off from the surface.

With these qualities, the red clay jars would indeed match the spiritual and mundane significations of the color red and the primordial clay ingredient of life. Such jars would have been highly valued and never traded originally, but instead handed down as heirlooms.

Gold elixir

In China, alchemy took two directions. One was toward "aurifiction," the creation of an artificial "gold." Interestingly, the related gold alloy was actually known as "purple sheen gold" and had a purple or violet surface rather than a gold-colored one. The outward tinting was created by a patina consisting of a coating of various substance including cinnabar, mercury and realgar that is pickled in vinegar (acetic acid) and copper salts.

The other type of metallurgical alchemy involved the creation of colloidal suspensions of gold particles and other elixirs of colloidal minerals. These elixirs used mercury to dissolve gold and other metals, and the practice apparently developed in China from whence it spread throughout Asia into Europe and Africa.

Most of this diffusion happened during the "Tantric period" of the Middle Ages when there was a great exchange of culture between South Asia and East/Southeast Asia. With the Muslim conquests, many ideas were absorbed by the Muslim invaders and transmitted by them to Europe and Africa. The Muslim alchemist Geber apparently was primarily responsible for relaying the alchemy of gold elixirs into Europe.

Diane de Pointers, mistress of 16th century king Henry II of France died of poisoning from gold elixirs, scientists have discovered (Source: Telegraph,

The alchemist "Nagarjuna" who is said to have imported the goddess Tara and mercury from "Mahacina," into India may have come originally from Vietnam or somewhere else on mainland Southeast Asia.

In addition to the metallurgical alchemy, aspects of "inner alchemy" also arose during this period of Tantric exchange. Some ideas originated from Daoist meditation practices. Aspects of hatha or kundalini yoga might be termed "volcano yoga" in that they use volcanic imagery in describing the efforts to generate internal "heat" through meditation. In Tibet, this is known as tummo yoga and was imported by Naropa at around the same time that the Kalacakra doctrine arrives in that country.

The inner union of "mercury" and "sulfur" may be compared to the geologic co-mingling between Pinatubo and Arayat before an eruption. In the myths of the battles between these two mountains, the fighting always accompanies courtship between the gods of the two peaks. The eruption creates the clay of Sun (Arayat) and Moon (Pinatubo) providing the substance for the creation of life or the start of a new golden age. The red clay represented the substance that unites all living things with the Earth (and Sky).

In internal alchemy, the union of the two principles creates "heat" sometimes symbolized as a fiery pearl. In Kapampangan parlance, we can call this pearl Mutia (Mutya, Mukti), the fire or spirit that creates life or drives the New Age on the cosmic scale, and on the personal level helps the practitioner unite with the pantheistic whole.

Serlingpa, the king of the "Golden Island," included elements of internal alchemy in the Kalacakra Tantra, and also possibly in the Vimalaprabhu commentary, which according to John Newman he may also have authored. The Kalacakra promoted pluralism and universalism by focusing on the interconnection and interdependence of all things, particularly as revealed by the cycles of time.

Philosopher's Stone for sale

As the people of the Luzon adopted a new religion, the value of the ancient clay jars became limited to their practical usage as water or beverage containers. The importance of ancestral heirlooms faded as the culture changed. Certainly the jars in their mind were not worth the astounding sums offered for them.

However, the indigenous people along with groups from afar still seemed to recognize the ancient value assigned to these jars. In many cases, it is otherwise impossible to explain the fact that owners would not part with these jars for any price, or that buyers would offer to pay extravagant prices for wares that were old and fragile.

The most valued Luzon Jars in Japan were the old ones made of earthenware described as reddish-brown, brown, red or dark in color.

Interestingly, the sulfurous products have again become prominent in local commerce after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. Pinatubo Lake is rich in sulphates and tour guides advertise the healthy benefits of bathing in the sulfurous waters. At a nearby Korean-owned spa, facials or full body treatments in sulfur-rich ash and mud are offered to tourists, again for their claimed benefits to skin and health.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Buenconsejo, José S. Songs and Gifts at the Frontier: Person and Exchange in the Agusan Manobo Possession Ritual, Philippines (Current Research in Ethnomusicology, Outstanding
Dissertations, vol. 4), Routledge, 2001, 147-8.

Gerrard, John. Mountain Environments: An Examination of the Physical Geography of Mountains. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1990, 201.

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5, part 2. London: C.U.P., 1974.

Raedt, Jules de. Kalinga Sacrifice. Cordillera monograph, 04. Baguio City: Cordillera Studies Center, University of the Philippines College Baguio, 1989, 92.

White, David Gordon. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.


"the Dude" said...

A book on string figures (cats' cradle) mentions that many forms are very similar between Austronesian and central American cultures yet differ from Asian which are more similar to European figures. [Jayne, 1906]

Sewn plank vessel: Jewel of Muscat