Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward centres on an unusual form of necromancy. Formed from the Greek words for ‘birth’ and ‘again,’ the term Palingenesis has been used since classical times, describing everything from the continual re-creation of the universe to an oak producing an acorn giving rise to another oak. But to alchemists, palingenesis — a word not used in the story by Lovecraft — specifically meant the recreation of a living thing from its powdered ashes.
I looked into the history of palingenesis for my Mythos story Broken Meats. Philosophically, Palingensis stands in contrast to reincarnation; rather than being about the transmigration of souls it involves the remaking of physical bodies. The idea bears some resemblance to the modern notion of cloning. Even if a body is completely destroyed, the information in one fragment is enough to reconstruct the whole.
The technique was pioneered by Paracelsus, greatest of the renaissance alchemists, physician and ur-scientist. Paracelsus reported that through a “difficult and arduous” process it was possible to reduce wood to ash, then by fermentation restore it to a better condition than before. He claimed the same process could be performed on other living things…it is also interesting to note that Paracelsus introduced the idea that everything was composed of three elements – salts (the solid component), fiery sulphur and flowing mercury. We will hear more from Paracelsus later.
Augustin Calmet, Abbot of Senones, described palingenesis in his wonderfully-titled 1759 opus “Dissertations upon the Apparitions of Angels, Daemons, Ghosts and concerning the vampire of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia.” A plant is reduced to ashes, ground and mixed with other compounds:
“From this dust, when agitated by a gentle heat, there arises gradually a stalk, leaves, and then a flower; in short, there is seen the apparition of a plant rising out of the ashes. When the heat ceases, the whole show disappears, and the dust falls into its former chaos at the bottom of the vessel.”
Calmet claims the process can be carried out repeatedly, with the “vegetable phoenix” rising again and again whenever heat is applied. However, Calmet was not writing from firsthand experience, but reporting results claimed by others, in particular the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher and Englishman Kenelm Digby.
Kircher collected recipes for palingenesis and claimed to have tested them successfully, giving a demonstrations to Queen Christina of Sweden in 1657.
Some forms of palingenesis involved ice rather than fire. The French chemist Josephe Duchesne reported experiments in which a nettle was burned and the ground ashes mixed with water. When left outside on a cold night, the ice revealed the image of the complete nettle including the roots, stem and leaves. According to Michael Martin’s “Love’s Alchemist,” Kenelm Digby demonstrated this icy palingenesis in 1660 to an audience at Gresham College, one of the precursors of the Royal Society.
“I am assured that this Reproduction has been effected, not only upon plants but also upon animals. They speak of a little Sparrow, that was made to appear in that manner, in a vial where its Ashes were kept…”
The early scientists speculated whether palingenesis might explain the presence of ghosts in graveyards. They thought that under the right conditions the dust of the deceased might give rise to their phantom image; there are unsubstantiated stories that this effect was witnessed in the laboratory. But if ghosts are really the result of palingenesis, how is it that their clothes are also resurrected..?
Robert Boyle, one of the founders of modern chemistry, and after whom Boyle’s Law is named, went so far as to speculate that palingenesis might provide a scientific explanation for the resurrection of Christ.
It was rumoured that the Royal Society had looked into restoring a human being by palingenesis. Certainly some of the members, including Boyle, took a lively interest in the subject, but there do not seem to be any records of experiments. Perhaps such a potentially blasphemous project was kept under wraps. More likely, rumour outran reality.
In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward the description of the process comes indirectly, via ‘Borellus.’ He was better known as Pierre Borrel, a 17th century French physician, and his work on palingenesis was referred to by Cotton Mather in his 1702 Magnalia Christi Americani(“The Great Works of Christ in America”). Mather asserted that according to Borrel an alchemist might “raise the fine shape of an animal out of its ashes at his pleasure.”
However, it’s worth mentioning that Mather does not appear to take this prospect literally; he is more interested in palingenesis as a metaphor, adding “there is an anticipation of that blessed resurrection, carrying in it some resemblance of these curiosities, which is performed, when we do in a book, as in a glass, reserve the history of our departed friends.”
By Mathers’ time few seem to have repeated Digby’s claimed experimental success. Alchemy, with its mystic overtones, was superseded by chemistry. Palingensis, like transmutation, was increasingly relegated to the status of a metaphor. Longfellow’s 1864 poem ‘Palingenesis’ mourns lost love and the fantasy of “cunning alchemists” of recreating a rose from embers:
Ah me! what wonder-working, occult science
Can from the ashes in our hearts once more
The rose of youth restore?
What craft of alchemy can bid defiance
To Time and Change and for a single hour
Renew this phantom-flower?
The success of this poem may have kept the concept of palingensis alive in the popular imagination — certainly until Lovecraft’s day — long after it would otherwise have disappeared
Palingenesis did linger in the fringes though, and WB Yeats encouraged the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society to investigate it in 1890. His version had clearly become somewhat garbled over time:
“If you burnt a flower to ashes and put the ashes under, I think, the receiver of an air pump, and stood the receiver in the moonlight for so many nights, the ghost of the flower would appear hovering over its ashes.”
Yeats was enthusiastic that the experimenters would be able to replicate this effect, but ends up reporting that “I got together a committee which performed this experiment without results.” (Quoted in Neil Mann, “WB Yeats and the Vegetable Phoenix”).
This failure seems to have brought the science of palingenesis to a full stop.
The early positive results might be put down as illusory. The frond-like ice patterns produced naturally by Jack Frost can easily look like plants. In much the same way the alchemical “Tree of Diana,” studied by Newton and others, was once believed to be a semi-living thing created from inanimate matter. These days it is known to be simply a formation of silver crystals growing from nitrate. Similarly, plant-like crystal growths can appear in some mixtures heat is applied. This is especially true of the ‘storm glass,’ an alchemical invention which responds to temperature changes and supposedly predicts storms.
The more impressive result reported secondhand or from rumour may also be explained away. Michael Martin suggests that Digby’s crayfish came from eggs in the sand mixed with the crayfish ashes. Paracelsus’ original account is harder to explain: “This is really wood, and is called resuscitated, renewed, and restored wood…from that nothingness it is made something.”
Paracelsus proved to be centuries ahead of his time in the treatment of diseases, the care of wounds and the nature of mental illness. He invented chemotherapy and the first effective painkiller, laudanum. He favoured remedies that actually worked and scorned classical theory.
It is also worth noting that Paracelsus’ method did not rely on magic words or formulae, but the ‘difficult and arduous’ physical processes akin to lab work. This is not the sorcery of Charles Dexter Ward who can restore bodies simply by reciting a spell, but a non-mystical, physical process which can be performed (as Mather says) ‘without blasphemy’.
It is curious that Lovecraft, who was an enthusiast of science and a hater of all things superstitious, should have chosen to present palingenesis as magical rather than scientific in nature. His version, though, invokes the boundless power of alien Old Ones. In this, we might reformulate Arthur C Clarke’s saying and assert that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.
Magic is an easier way to bring back the personality and memories of a long-dead mage. More importantly, the story might not be nearly as much fun otherwise.
Palingenesis may in time come to be seen as a primitive attempt at cloning. Paracelsus was also interested in the creation of homunculi and other forms of asexual reproduction – or godlike creation of life. At all events, thanks to The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Palingenesis survived and become far better known that it would be otherwise, even if few readers are aware of its name or history.