Palingenesy
A term employed by the philosophers of the seventeenth
century to denote the ‘‘resurrection of plants,’’ and the method
of achieving their astral appearance after destruction.
The Roman poetphilosopher Lucretius (ca. 98–55 B.C.E.) attacked
the popular notion of ghosts by claiming they were not
spirits returned from the mansions of the dead, but nothing
more than thin films, pellicles, or membranes, cast off from the
surface of all bodies like the exuviae (sloughs of reptiles).
An opinion by no means dissimilar to that of the Epicureans
was revived in Europe about the middle of the seventeenth century
and the process was performed by the likes of Sir Kenelm
Digby, Athanasius Kircher, Abbé de Vallemont, and others.
The complicated and exacting procedure began with a selected
plant, a rose, for example. The operator then bruised it, burnt
it, collected its ashes, and, in the process of calcination, extracted
from it a salt. This salt was then put into a glass vial and
mixed with some peculiar undisclosed substance.
When the compound was formed, it was pulverulent (crumbly)
and blue. The powder was next submitted to a gentle heat.
With its particles instantly set into motion, it then gradually
arose (it was claimed) from the midst of the ashes—a stem,
leaves, and flowers. It appeared as an apparition of the plant,
which had been submitted to combustion. But as soon as the
heat was removed, the form of the plant that had been sublimed
was precipitated to the bottom of the vessel. Heat was
then reapplied and the plant form was resuscitated; when it was
withdrawn the form once more became latent among the ashes.
This notable experiment was said to have been performed
before the Royal Society of England, and to have satisfactorily
proved that the presence of heat gave a sort of life to the plant
apparition, and that the absence of nourishment caused its
death. The poet Abraham Cowley was quite delighted with the
story of the experiment of the rose and its ashes, since he believed
that he, too, had detected the same phenomenon in letters
written with the juice of lemons, which were revived with
the application of heat. He celebrated the mystic power of caloric
in a poem
‘‘Strange power of heat, thou yet dost show,
Like winter earth, naked, or cloth’d with snow.
But as the quick’ning sun approaching near,
The plants arise up by degrees, new line
A sudden paint adorns the trees,
And all kind nature’s characters appear.
So nothing yet in thee is seen,
But when a genial heat warms thee within,
A new-born wood of various lines there grows;
Here buds an A, and there a B,
Here sprouts a V, and there a T,
And all the flourishing letters stand in rows.’’
Pagenstecher, Gustav Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
1168
The rationale of this famous experiment made on the rose
ashes was attempted by Kircher. He supposed the seminal virtue
of every known substance and even its substantial form resided
in its salt. This salt was concealed in the ashes of the rose,
and adding heat put it in motion. The particles of the salt were
quickly sublimed and by being moved about in the vial like a
vortex, the particles arranged themselves in the same general
form they had possessed from nature. Other particles were subject
to a similar law, and accordingly, by a disposing affinity,
they resumed their proper position, either in the stalk, the
leaves, or the flowers.
The next object of these philosophers was to apply their
doctrine to explain the popular belief in ghosts. As the experimenters
claimed the substantial form of each body resided in
a sort of volatile salt, it was believed that superstitious notions
must have arisen about ghosts haunting churchyards. When a
dead body had been committed to the earth, the salts were exhaled
during the heating process of fermentation. Each saline
particle then resumed the same relative situation it had held in
the living body, and thus a complete human form was induced.
Palingenesy was similar to the early claims of Lucretius involving
a chemical explanation of the discovery of filmy substances,
which he had observed to arise from all bodies. Yet, in
order to prove that apparitions might really be explained on
this principle, a crucial experiment was necessary.
Three alchemists obtained a quantity of earth-mould from
St. Innocent’s Church in Paris, believing that this matter might
contain the true philosophers’ stone. They subjected it to a distillatory
process. They saw (it was claimed) the forms of men
produced in their vials, which immediately caused them to end
the project. This was brought to the attention of the Institute
of Paris (under the protection of Louis XIV), which, in turn,
took up the business with much seriousness. The result of its
own investigations appeared in the Miscellania Curiosa. James
F. Ferrier, in a volume of the Manchester Philosophical Transactions,
made an abstract of one of these French documents
‘‘A malefactor was executed, of whose body a grave physician
got possession for the purpose of dissection. After disposing
of the other parts of the body, he ordered his assistant to
pulverize part of the cranium, which was a remedy at that time
admitted in dispensatories. The powder was left in a paper on
the table of the museum, where the assistant slept. About midnight
he was awakened by a noise in the room, which obliged
him to rise immediately. The noise continued about the table,
without any visible agent; and at length he traced it to the powder,
in the midst of which he now beheld, to his unspeakable
dismay, a small head with open eyes staring at him; presently
two branches appeared, which formed into arms and hands;
then the ribs became visible, which were soon clothed with muscles
and integuments; next the lower extremities sprouted out,
and when they appeared perfect, the puppet (for his size was
small) reared himself on his feet; instantly his clothes came
upon him, and he appeared in the very cloak he wore at his execution.
The affrighted spectator, who stood hitherto mumbling
his prayers with great application, now thought of nothing
but making his escape from the revived ruffian; but this was
impossible, for the apparition planted himself in the way, and,
after divers fierce looks and threatening gestures, opened the
door and went out. No doubt the powder was missing next
day.’’
But older analogous results are on record, suggesting that
the blood was the chief part of the human frame in which those
saline particles resided. These arrangements gave rise to the
popular notion of ghosts. John Webster’s book The Displaying
of Supposed Witchcraft (1677) related an experiment, given on
the authority of Robert Fludd, in which this conclusion was
drawn.
‘‘A certain chymical operator, by name La Pierre, near that
place in Paris called Le Temple, received blood from the hands
of a certain bishop to operate upon. Which he setting to work
upon the Saturday, did continue it for a week with divers degrees
of fire. But about midnight, the Friday following, this artificer,
lying in a chamber next to his laboratory, betwixt sleeping
and waking, heard a horrible noise, like unto the lowing of
kine, or the roaring of a lion; and continuing quiet, after the
ceasing of the sound in the laboratory, the moon being at the
full, and, by shining enlightening the chamber suddenly, betwixt
himself and the window he saw a thick little cloud, condensed
into an oval form, which, after, by little and little, did
seem completely to put on the shape of a man, and making another
and a sharp clamour, did suddenly vanish. And not only
some noble persons in the next chambers, but also the host with
his wife, lying in a lower room of the house, and also the neighbours
dwelling in the opposite side of the street, did distinctly
hear as well the bellowing as the voice; and some of them were
awaked with the vehemency thereof.
‘‘But the artificer said, that in this he found solace, because
the bishop, of whom he had it, did admonish him, that if any
of them from whom the blood was extracted should die, in the
time of its putrefaction, his spirit was wont often to appear to
the sight of the artificer, with perturbation. Also forthwith,
upon Saturday following, he took the retort from the furnace,
and broke it with the light stroke of a little key, and there, in
the remaining blood, found the perfect representation of an
human head, agreeable in face, eyes, nostrils, mouth, and hairs,
that were somewhat thin, and of a golden colour.’’
Regarding this narrative Webster added
‘‘There were many ocular witnesses, as the noble person,
Lord of Bourdalone, the chief secretary to the Duke of Guise;
and he [Fludd] had this relation from the Lord of Menanton,
living in that house at the same time from a certain doctor of
physic, from the owner of the house, and many others.’’
Apart from such credulous statements, the claimed results
of early experiments in palingenesy have long since been abandoned
by science, but curious echoes of the subject have appeared
in twentieth-century borderland researches. For example,
Charles W. Littlefield, a physician of Seattle, Washington,
published a book titled ‘‘M. M. M.’’—Man, Minerals and Masters
(1937) in which he described his experiments as showing by
demonstration and illustration that thoughts are things, and
that their power may be expressed through certain mineral
compounds occurring in organic nature. Littlefield claimed the
crystallization of solutions of organic salts could be modified by
mental energy, and stated that he had produced microscopic
animal or human-like forms in this way.
The work of another experimenter was reminiscent of the
seventeenth-century Royal Society claim of the restoration of
the form of a destroyed plant. In the 1920s a British biological
chemist named Morley-Martin claimed the forms of fishes,
plants, and animals continued to exist in miniature in ancient
azoic rocks. Morley-Martin experimented by taking fragments
of such rock and submitting them to a temperature of
2,000–3,000 degrees Fahrenheit in an electric oven. He isolated
what he named ‘‘primordial protoplasm’’ from the ashes,
which he transformed into crystalloids with Canada balsam. In
the course of time the crystalloids condensed and produced numerous
organisms that were creature-like, even having life and
movement.
These little-known and bizarre experiments are described
by Maurice Maeterlinck in his book La Grande Porte (Paris,
1939), and the work of both Littlefield and Morley-Martin is
described in the booklet The Morley-Martin Experiments issued
by the Borderland Sciences Research Associates. In these experiments
palingenesy merged with the old theory of spontaneous
generation, which was considered to have been solved by
Louis Pasteur’s experiments on micro-organisms, although P.
J. A. Béchamp in France and H. Charlton Bastian in Britain
claimed Pasteur’s work did not cover all the facts.
Of possible relevance to the palingenesy experiments were
the ‘‘osmotic growths’’ produced by Dr. Stéhane Leduc of
Nantes. These were formed from crystal solutions and not only
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Palingenesy
1169
presented the cellular structure of living matter, but also reproduced
such functions as food absorption, metabolism, and the
excretion of waste products. These beautiful growths are described
in Leduc’s book The Mechanism of Life (1914).
Sources
Littlefield, Charles W. ‘‘M. M. M.’’—Man, Minerals and Masters.
Los Angeles DeVorss, 1937.
The Morley-Martin Experiments. BSRA booklet No. 1. San
Diego Borderland Sciences Research Associates, 1948

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