Dog-Friendly Speculum Alchemiae (Museum of Alchemy), Prague
I rarely write about a specific museum. Normally I enjoy combining several stops in one post. I prefer to tell you about an entire town and what to visit there, always favouring the walking tour approach. For larger cities, I’ll even end up doing several walking tours because options are good!
But there are exceptions, like the Magic Gardens in Philadelphia, and today’s post is one such exception. We just had so much fun in the Museum of Alchemy — a museum chock-a-block full of interesting stories and fun facts — that I felt if I followed my usual *modus operandi*, the awesomeness of this place would be buried.
So, today, then, I shall tell you about the magical find that was the Speculum Alchemiae in Prague.
We had been staying at the most adorable and perfect AirBnB just around the corner. Literally around the corner, Dear Reader — one block over to be precise!
For several days, we walked past this museum’s pretty blue façade, not certain what was behind the pretty blue but always a bit curious. The incredible florist next door certainly helped in catching our eye too. Finally, one day one of the bipeds (okay, Mom … it was Mom … it’s almost always Mom!) said, “Darn it, I’m going in. I want to know what the heck this place is!” And in we went!
First Dad asked if it was okay if I came in. A big “Of course, of course … no problem!” was given. I was even allowed to roam trailing my leash behind me. It was fun to look around. There were what looked like magic potions and amulets …
… and all sorts of herbs drying and weird looking bottles everywhere — boxes, maps, and books, too.
Finally, the young man behind the counter asked if we wanted to go on the tour. We were surprised!
“Tour of what?” asked Mom.
“The secret underground alchemy laboratory,” replied the young man.
“Wow. That actually sounds really cool,” said Dad.
“Can we bring him?” Mom asked, holding me in her arms and pointing at me.
“He stays in arm, yes?”
“Yes. 100 percent,” said Dad, who then took me from Mom and showed how securely I would be on Dad’s forearm.
Well, wouldn’t you know it! I was now on a tour and things were about to get weird and wonderful!
The first written reference to the stone house dates back to 900 A.D., making it the second oldest building in Prague. That’s already a pretty darn cool call to fame. The stone house became very noted in the 15th century, when it began appearing as a royally recognized apothecary and, later, a pharmacy. More interesting is that the building is associated with King Rudolf II — the controversial, notorious, scandalous, King of Croatia (and a few other places), who dabbled in the occult sciences. He never resided in the house though. No one did. Certainly an apothecary and later pharmacist worked there but . . . who owned it? On paper, it’s unclear or unmarked. Secret. *dum dum dum*
Although folks knew about the house proper, the old laboratories weren’t discovered (and recorded with the city of Prague) until the reconstruction of the historical area and all of its buildings after a horrific flood in 2002! 2002, Dear Reader!
Before the 2002 discoveries, the house already had a reputation for being “special.” It had, by successive miracle upon miracle, already survived so many rebellions and years and years of wars, including the two World Wars. The most noteworthy survival is from the demolition of the Jewish quarter at the end of 19th century. This is of particular note because no one has ever reliably explained why this building was removed from the reconstruction plan. Ever. And just so you know, This house? It’s right smack dab in the MIDDLE of the Jewish quarter! I kid you not.
With the discovery of the laboratories below ground and their tunnels . . . well, this building is now listed and protected by UNESCO.
Because of how the streets have been rebuilt, in all of their Art Deco, Baroque, and Imperial Bohemian grandeur . . .
. . . you can’t tell today, but the house used to be right on the most important European trade route, called *Grand Via*. This route was thousands of kilometres long, running from the north of Spain, across the whole of Europe, and into to the Far East. Merchants probably came to this house and brought with them, and traded, exotic goods and information. Handy for an alchemist!
Our tour started with the main office above ground. Here, less secret but still covert meetings were held. All signs point to Rudolf II being the lead alchemist, but more likely it was the famous philosopher Rabbi Loew.
They would gather in this office, safe and away from those who would find what they did “ungodly.” They likely debated, had friendly (or heated!) disagreements on specifics, and freely exchanged ideas without rank or religion getting in the way.
So this office is a bit of a thinker’s salon. All the signs of alchemy are there, from the horned faces in the chandelier (often mistaken for Satan but actually representing Moses – the horns, it seems, were a “lost in translation” thing) . . .
. . . to the four elements painted on the walls, pointing to their corresponding cardinal points.
It’s all there, even the alchemy symbol on the fireplace, hiding in plain sight.
Just so you know, alchemists were interested primarily in three things:
· Creating the one elixir of youth/healing
· The philosopher’s stone
· Turning non-precious metal into gold
You can see documents and books on this topic all over the office space.
But, hidden behind a bookcase, complete with turning statue to open the door (so very Harry Potter, I swear!) . . .
. . . behind a secret door no less, lies the alchemy laboratory from the 16th century — underground, well-hidden from the unwanted glances of passers-by.
It was fascinating to take in the atmosphere as we listened to our very good guide explain to us in detail all the medieval activities of alchemists, some of the crazy thoughts they had, and how some of them are the foundation of modern day scientific fields.
But it’s not just the workshops. In a wall, they also found a chest with original recipes. One such recipe is on sale in the shop upstairs. It’s actually totally harmless but the flecks of gold floating in it sure make it special! They also found amulets and more. Reproductions of those are also for sale. It’s all very neat. But that’s not all.
There are underground tunnels too! Oh yeah, and they connected to the three most important places in the city – Prague Castle, the Old Town Hall, and the Barracks. Prague Castle, by the way, is ALL the way across the river and up a hill. That tunnel ran below the riverbed. That’s no small achievement right there! Sadly those tunnels have been mostly filled in and thus are no longer open to tourists for safety reasons, or so they say. But it does confirm the suspicion that the King used this place.
Goats and Golem
A lot of legends are tied to this house. The most famous one tells of a flaming chariot that used to emerge in front of this house pulled by … *goats*. I don’t know why goats, Dear Reader. Don’t ask me. The theory is that the chemistry experiments going on below ground would occasionally create a lot of smoke and maybe even combustible and toxic elements that would need to be released. The tunnels and their vents provided that escape route and so the chemicals would be released and people would have odd, mass hallucinations.
The other legend is of a man made of mud. You may know the legend as the golem. Yes, you know the name, I am certain. Gollum of Tolkien is based on this character, but with much added flare and a much longer life (and a great riddle!), although Gollum was still as tragic as the source of the legend.
The Prague legend goes something like this:
Rabbi Loew’s magical powers enabled him to combine the four elements (fire and water, represented by his assistants), air (the Rabbi himself), and earth (made from earthenware) to vitalize a lifeless sculpture made out of mud — the golem.
It’s speculated that the Rabbi did it to create a protector. Even though this was the time of the enlightened (even if controversial) Emperor Rudolf II (yes, the same Rudolf), the Jews were still subject to antisemitic attacks. The golem, named Joseph, had the necessary powers to protect the Jews, which could be enhanced even more with a special necklace. The necklace, made from deer skin and decorated with mystic signs, made the golem invisible when he wore it. In addition to being a protector, the golem helped out in the Rabbi’s household and in the synagogue — protector and aide!
Some versions of the legend describe the golem as huge, shapeless, and only vaguely reminiscent of any human being. This myth was created by the characterization of the golem in a famous Czech film about Rudolf II. But according to legend, Joseph the golem was at first sight undistinguishable from ordinary human beings. The only thing he lacked was the ability to speak. Well, there was also another thing: the golem “lived” only when a clay tablet with secret words of power was inserted into his mouth (according to the movie-makers, into his forehead). The tablet had to be taken out on Saturdays to comply with the Jewish sabbeth.
How did it all end?
Did the Golem succeed in carrying out the given task? Yes, he did, but there is also a dark side to this legend. The being grew stronger and stronger. Instead of heroic and helpful deeds, Joseph the golem became increasingly uncontrollable and even destructive. One day, people found him uprooting trees and destroying the rabbi’s home while he was in the synagogue singing Psalm 92. The rabbi rushed to remove the tablet and that was the end of the golem; he was never re-vitalized. Afterward, the rabbi returned to the synagogue and continued with the psalm. Because of that interruption, Prague’s Old-New Synagogue is the only place in the whole world where Psalm 92 is sung twice.
The mystery continues . . .
You are probably asking yourself, where did the golem — at this stage, reduced to just a statue — end up. Well, people believed the rabbi hid the golem in the attic of his synagogue. Entrance into the area was forbidden for hundreds of years, and to make sure the ban would not be broken, the stairs to the attic were removed. When the Old-New Synagogue was finally explored, no golem was found and, thus, the legend remains shrouded in mystery to the present day.
As we made our way back up from the tunnels, our heads reeling with all the new information, lore, and wonderful craziness of it all, we decided this may well have been one of the best accidental finds we’d made yet. The fact that it was pet-friendly? Super bonus!
In review: With your small dog at your side, immerse yourself in medieval times — a time when science and mysticism were closely linked, and researchers were looking for a higher purpose and a harmony of the spheres, which could help them discover the secrets of nature. And no worries, I don’t think the golem will harm anyone anymore.