The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Alchemical Parable

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“It is to be found everywhere; but if you do not find it in your own house, you will find it nowhere. It is a living substance that can be discovered only in places inhabited by man. It is the only substance from which the Philosopher’s Stone can be prepared, and without that substance no genuine silver or gold can be made. In thirty pounds of ordinary mercury, there is usually not more than one pound of the true substance; and a hundred pounds of ordinary sulphur usually contain not more than one pound of that which is useful. It can only be found above the earth, but not below it.

 It is before everybody’s eyes; no one can live without it; everybody uses it; the poor usually possess more of it than the rich; the ignorant esteem it highly, but the learned ones often throw it away. The children play with it in the street, and yet it is invisible. It can be perceived by the sense of feeling, but it cannot be seen with the material eye.” — From, In the Pronaos of the Temple of Wisdom, by Franz Hartmann, on recognizing the Prima Materia.

In a town rather closer to where you live than you might feel comfortable with, there wandered an old Wizard. He’d lived long and he’d had many names, but in this particular era, he went by “John Smith.” He had seen magic flourish and he’d seen it dwindle. He knew its mysteries and its intricacies. 

He sought out the company of fellow magicians where he could find them. Often, they became very irritated with him when, after a time of enjoying their company, he declined to initiate into whatever organization or tradition they practiced. Secrecy irked the old man, as did being made to swear vows. Initiation frequently entailed both, and a good deal of otherworldly trouble besides. This, he knew from experience.  

So, very ironically, this old, immensely skilled magician mostly spent his time in the guise of a young man, or occasionally a young woman, and peaceably enjoyed the wide-eyed hopes, dreams and aspirations of those who wanted to some day be initiates. 

“Oh, if only magic could be as it was in the old days!” a young woman, Sophia, exclaimed. Her brown eyes were all full of stars. 

“It could be.” Said John Smith. “You could have real, actual magic right now.” 

Sophia eyed him skeptically. “How?”

“You won’t like it.” John replied. By now, there were many eyes on him. 

“Try me,” said Sophia. 

“The first thing you must do? You must earnestly pretend to be a dragon.” said John. 

Already, most of the people assembled were heaving heavy sighs and rolling their eyes. “Another fluffy bunny,” said Tim, “And what tradition did you learn *that* from?”

John, who had heard the same thing, in different words, in the year 800, and 1200, and 1400, and 1600 and again in 1800 was unperturbed. Real magic wasn’t for everyone, after all. He ignored the question, as he had learned that answering it yielded nothing of value. 

“Are you willing to try, Sophia?” asked John.

“Sure. Sounds like fun!” Said Sophia. “What have I got to lose?”

The two of them went outside. Ignoring the sneers of onlookers, they growled and pretended to fly. When they had finished, collapsing onto the grass, exhausted and giggling, Sophia asked John,

“That was fun, but what does it have to do with magic?”

“Nothing!” said Tim, angrily. “The two of you are idiots. I’m going to go to the library and learn from some ancient texts.”

“You’ll see,” said John. “Imagination is a good start. A very good start indeed, but imagining by yourself is no good at all. The second secret of magic is cooperation. We’re on a college campus. Let’s see if you can get twenty people to hold onto this rope.” And with that John produced, seemingly from nowhere, a long coil of rope. 

Sophia tried to get people to hold onto the rope. 

“I’m busy,” said one person.

“Why?” asked another.

“It’s a magic rope!” Sophia tried to explain, but people only made unkind remarks and gave her dirty looks. 

“I don’t like hemp,” said another, excusing herself, “It encourages the production and trade of marijuana.”

After asking ten people, Sophia had already nearly given up.

“Keep trying.” Said John. “There’s a way you can ask that few will refuse.”

What magic might that be? Sophia wondered. She tried offering money, but people thought she was trying to scam them. She tried telling them that she needed their help, but they just walked on. She tried explaining that it was for a religious ceremony, and then, for a long while, everyone avoided her. 

Finally, Sophia was about to give up, when she saw the football team on their way to practice. Sophia had an idea. She went up to a group of people sitting out on the steps of the library, and invited them to play a game of tug of war. 

What every serious approach had failed at, play succeeded. Ten people took hold of one side of the rope, ten people took hold of the other. One team won, the other lost, and Sophia had learned a valuable lesson. 

“So, too, with the spirits.” Said John, “Every religion is its own game. A game has rules. It imposes adversities. But truly and fundamentally, the spirits join the game for the same reason those humans did.”

“Now can I cast spells?” asked Sophia. 

Tim, who was exiting the library, took the opportunity to give both of them a condescending stare. “Tug of war isn’t magic, Sophia. You’re wasting your time.”

“You are doing well,” said John. “But you are still a long way from casting spells. Persuasion, good will and imagination are your substance, but just like metal, you’ve got to work the stuff in fire. Create your new game, that is the crucible. Add your imagination to that of the spirits — your sulphur and your mercury. Then go before your friends and try to get them to play. The scorn that they will heap on you is the fire, and everything you do not need will burn away in it.”

When the Pagan Student Union gathered on Saturday, Sophia tried to explain what she had learned about the spirits — their playful nature, the fact that they played whatever game humans were trying to play with them, the fact that they could walk only where they were invited.

“You heard that from that weird John Smith guy,” said her friend Tracy, scornfully. “Sophia, that guy has taken no initiations, he follows no tradition, and no one I know has heard of him. Why are you listening to him?”

Sophia considered, then explained. “Everyone else keeps digging up old books and telling me that the spirits are violent and cruel. But if that’s the only door you open for them, of course it’s the one they’ll take. John showed me that I can shape my own door, however I need to. That the spirits will play the game that we are playing with them.”

John walked in at this moment, and serenely sat down. 

“Do you even know anything about magic?” Tracy demanded.

“Quite a bit, I reckon,” said John pleasantly. 

Tim was infuriated. “You know absolutely nothing! All you do is play imagination games and tug of war! That’s not magic! You’re deceiving people!”

“That’s ok,” said John. “Magic isn’t for everyone.”

Truly stirred to a rage, Tim stood up and started screaming obscenities. John listened, with a slightly perplexed look on his face, but seemed otherwise unmoved. He said nothing. Finally, pushed beyond the breaking point by John’s lack of a response, Tim punched John, knocking him out of his chair. 

John’s glamour fell away, and first he towered as an old man with a white beard, then as a dragon, and now again as a fire giant. Terrified, the assembled humans began hitting the monster with chairs and spraying him with fire extinguishers, and when finally they had calmed themselves, there was nothing where John once stood except for silky scraps of red fabric. 

In tears, Sophia gathered them. Everyone around her, like people gone mad, went back to their business as though nothing had happened. 

Taking up the red cloth, Sophia felt the whisper of the world. She walked out of the building, turned into a white dragon, and took to the sky. 

In a town rather closer to where you live than you might feel comfortable with, there wanders a Wizard. She’s not lived long, and once she was known as Sophia. She has seen magic flourish and she’s seen it dwindle. She knows its mysteries and its intricacies….


  1. Very nice! Thank you for sharing this just now…

    Of course, the “more familiar” story of this name has specific connections to Antinous…but I’ll stop there for now. 😉

      1. It’s a much older story than the Disney one…even older than the Goethe poem upon which the song that is the basis for the original Mickey Mouse/Fantasia Disney version is based.

        I wrote about it more than five years ago (though it doesn’t seem like it could have been that long!), and all the essential details are there, if you’re interested. 😉

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