The Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

The First Matter

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

The First Matter is an article written by S. Foster Damon published in The Occult Review in february 1922.

S. Foster Damon compare beliefs about ectoplasm from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Absolute Proof (november 1920) and the First Matter of the 17th century alchemist Thomas Vaughan (1621-1666).


The First Matter

The Occult Review (february 1922, p. 104)
The Occult Review (february 1922, p. 105)
The Occult Review (february 1922, p. 106)
The Occult Review (february 1922, p. 107)
The Occult Review (february 1922, p. 108)
The Occult Review (february 1922, p. 109)
The Occult Review (february 1922, p. 110)

Almost everybody has been impressed during the last few years by the frank revival of interest in what used to be called superstitions. Witchcraft is studied under the name of hysteria. The miracles of the magicians are commonly performed by hypnotists. Freud has rewritten the dream book. The recently recovered manuscript of Roger Bacon proves that he used microscope and telescope. Alchemy is now at least a theoretical possibility.

That the nineteenth century was too hasty in denying everything which it could not understand is quite obvious. Thinkers have long since been puzzled that able men, such as Dee and Paracelsus, should have been such charlatans or dupes as to spend their intellects on studies with absolutely no basis in fact. And gradually the progress of science has revealed possibilities which our grandfathers could not conceivably have admitted.

Of all the occult arts, Alchemy has proved the most baffling. Its line of students reaches back — how far? — to Greece? to Egypt? We cannot say definitely; but we know that at an extremely early age it was practised in China, Diocletian tried to suppress it in Rome, the Arabians introduced it to Europe, and a school of mysterious science began which did not lapse until the mid-eighteenth century, and may never have lapsed at all. Its masters published many books full of amazing discourses on the method of making gold, or the elixir of life, or the philosopher's stone — it hardly mattered what they called the object of their search. The mere fact of constant publication proves that there must have been some sort of audience, although many of the most famous alchemists died poor (which seemed a complete refutation of their life work). But again and again some scholar would develop an astonishing interest in those confused books, travel and labour, publish volumes of his own, with variations of the ancient recipes — and finally die in poverty, like his predecessors.

It was not until the last century that certain anonymous authors revealed part of the secret of the alchemists. [1] The formulae were but symbols of the spiritual life. The Elixir Vitae brought immortality not to the body but to the soul.

The Philosopher's Stone was concerned not with metal but with a Golden Rule. Its materials — salt, sulphur and mercury — were not the ordinary salt, sulphur and mercury (as indeed the alchemists themselves gave constant warning), but represented the Body, Soul and Spirit. In short, the alchemists were mystics, who were forced to hide their doctrines of the Path to God in this strange way, for fear of religious persecution. [2]

We may wonder now why this important point had not been revealed before, since we can hardly explain in any other way many such passages as Paracelsus's process of vitriol, [3] which begins: "It must be rectified with acetum," and ends : "Thereupon follows the greatest arcanum, that is to say, the Supercelestial Marriage of the Soul, consummately prepared and washed by the blood of the Lamb, with its own splendid, shining, and purified body. This is the true supercelestial marriage by which life is prolonged to the last and predestined day."

Thus Matter would seem to be excluded from alchemy. But the new interpretation stopped short at a certain point. The trouble is that a good half of these strange writings obviously do deal with physical science: indeed, modem chemistry itself sprang from alchemy. Geber discovered nitric acid and red oxide of mercury. Paracelsus compounded drugs, worked astonishing cures, and introduced morphine into Europe. Innumerable other cases might be mentioned. The puzzle is the more perplexing when we realize that the physical and the spiritual works were almost always associated. The Mystic and the Chemist were united, and their seemingly separate interests were inextricably and mysteriously blended.

At this point the controversy has rested, apparently beyond explanation. Did the alchemists deal with Spirit or with Matter? The answer inevitably is — both! We have reached the age-old question : "What is the link between Mind and Body?"

According to these old writers, it was the "First Matter," the first substance created by God, from which the world was made; which is to be found everywhere, though known but to few; invisible and intangible, yet actually seen and handled by some. They described it at great length, told of its colours, quarrelled over its chemical analysis — and always were careful not to record exactly what it was or where it could be found.

In fact, this was the great secret which they were so fond of flaunting before the uninitiated. Khunrath, for one, knew what it was, and wrote: [4]


"Neither was it ever plainely set down in writing, but from mouth to ye eare according to the Cabalistick use faithfully imparted, cordially received, and kept most secretly, as it ought. Let the scornfull and ignorant fool laugh, carpe and calumniate as long as hee wills yet doe I know, that this what I write here, are no fables. I say agayn considerately, that in the said One, in Alchimie, there sticketh a mighty great mysterie, which Sophisters neither know nor beleeve; bee aggrieved with it who will: and it is true in defiance of all the devills and their damms. Enough of it at this time. Now let us goe on."


This secret is the "Mysterium Magnum" of Paracelsus and the "First Matter" of Thomas Vaughan. Every writer who describes it gives it a dozen different names in various parts of the same book, in order that the precious secret might be the better guarded. And so successful were they, that ultimately their secret was probably forgotten. But the inflexible mathematics of Chance made its rediscovery inevitable.

In fact, this unique stuff, the link between Mind and Matter, has actually been rediscovered by modern scientists in their laboratories, though they were working on problems which they never dreamed of connecting with alchemy. They have renamed this substance "ectoplasm." It is a curious living semi-liquid which emanates from certain "mediums" while in a trance. It gradually becomes visible — takes on human form — solidifies — and eventually may even speak thoughts and perform acts which are supposed to be caused by the spirits of the dead. At the conclusion of the séance it evaporates, and returns again into the body of the medium, which in the meanwhile may have weighed as much as a third less than usual. What little ectoplasm has been retained by the experimenters has rapidly vanished, yet not too quickly to escape chemical analysis. The experimenters have tested it by the microscope and by fire. They have photographed it hundreds of times; they have even taken moving pictures of the complete process! [5]

That the First Matter of the alchemists must have been this same ectoplasm is perfectly obvious when we compare the many ancient descriptions of the one with the modem descriptions of the other. Let us therefore arrange in parallel columns selections from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's resumé of contemporary investigation [6] with the records of Thomas Vaughan ("Eugenius Philalethes") from the mid-seventeenth century. I have chosen Thomas Vaughan because he was particularly interested in the First Matter. The reader should be warned that, while he describes it clearly enough many times over, he conceals its source and method of production under ambiguous words, because he thought the secret a very dangerous one, as indeed it proved to be.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Thomas Vaughan

"Certain people... [have] the strange physical gift that they can put forth from their bodies a viscous, gelatinous matter."

"It is altogether cold and passive and it lyes in certain earthy, Subterraneous Caverns." [7]
(Lumen de Lumine.)
"All these Miracles grow out of a certain Earth, a soft red Clay which is to be found every where." [8]
(Fraternity of the Rosy Cross.)

"a viscous, gelatinous substance... at first semi-fluid, which possesses some of the properties of a living substance."

"It is a thick water and a subtil Earth. In plain termes, it is a slimie, spermatic, viscous Masse, impraegnated with all powers Coelestiall, and terrestriall."
(Magia Adamica.)

"Chloride of soda (common salt) and phosphate of calcium were among the constituents."
"This substance was actually touched."
"When touched, or when undue light came upon it, it writhed back into the body as swiftly and stealthily as the tentacles of a hidden octopus."

"It is nothing else but a composition of water and salt." (Euphrates.)
"Wee must see it, handle it." (Coelum Terres.)
"The least violence destroyes it and prevents all generation." (Coelum Terres.)

"There forms a complete figure; this figure is moulded to resemble some deceased person; ... a personality which either is or pretends to be that of the dead takes possession of it."

"This part which is the Astral Man hovers sometimes about the Dormitories of the Dead, and that because of the Magnetism or Sympathie which is between him and the Radical, vital moysture."
(Anthroposophia Theomagica.)

"[Eventually it is] reabsorbed. ... It writhed back into the body."

"This clarified Earth is the Stage of all Forms, for here they are manifested like Images in a Glass: and when the Time of their Manifestation is finished, they retreat into that Center, out of which at first they came."
(Fraternity of the Rosy Cross.)

"leaving absolutely no trace."

"This Water then wets not the Hand, which is notion enough to perswade us it can be no common water."
(Lumen de Lumine.)

"The reason for the Cabinet is that some condensation of material, which we can best describe perhaps as a heavy vapour, is necessary before you get the ectoplasm."

"The Vas Hermetis... This matrix is the life of the sperm, for it preserves and quickens it; but beyond the matrix it takes cold and dies, and nothing effectual can be generated thereof."
(Postscript to Aula Lucis.)

What are we to make of this? It certainly goes beyond coincidence, especially when we read further. Those who have already seen the photographs will recall that ectoplasm in its first appearance often has a strong resemblance to cloth; that it is sometimes luminous; and that it is always described as cold, wet, and very unpleasant to touch. Now consider this, from the Lumen de Lumine :


"Some of this liquor I took up, to see what strange wollen substance it was, that did thus steale down like Snow. When I had it in my hands, it was no Common water, but a certaine kind of Oile of a Waterie Complexion. A viscous, fat, mineral nature it was, bright like Pearls and transparent like Chrystall. When I had viewd and search'd it well, it appear'd somewhat spermatic and in very Truth it was obscene to the sight but much more to the Touch. ... It is invisible and therefore few are they that find it; but many believe it is not to be found."


The method of producing ectoplasm is, as we have said, very carefully concealed; but Thomas Vaughan drops his usual hints. "To make this Element visible," he says in the preface to Magia Adamica, "is the greatest secret in Magic." In the Lumen de Lumine he is more specific : "It is not made, or manifested by the ordinary course of Nature, but by the Art, and manual Operations of Man. ... You must make this water, before you can find it." Obviously he is referring to the method of throwing the medium into a trance. Then the ectoplasm appears, first being exuded from the orifices of the body. Even this is mentioned, in the Coelum Terrae : "First, shee shedds at her Nipples a thick heavy water, but white as any snow; the Philosophers call it Virgin-Milk."

Certainly this discovery is an unexpected and valuable confirmation of modern psychical research — especially valuable because these old records point the way to secrets yet unknown.

The history of Thomas Vaughan's discovery of ectoplasm is quite dramatic. In 1650 he published three pamphlets on the subject, having learned the secret somehow, but without any experience of his own. On September 28, 1651, he married a woman he adored; and later in the same year he succeeded in performing the experiment for himself. His wife seems to have been his medium. At once he rushed into print with his masterpiece, the Lumen de Lumine, and later published three other pamphlets on the subject. But he never repeated his experiment until his publishing days were over. Then in 1658 he wrote the following note in his diary, Aqua Vitee, Non Vitis :


"On the same day my dear wife sickened, being a Friday [April 16, 1658] and at the same time of the day, namely in the evening, my gracious God did put into my heart the secret of extracting the oil of Halcali, [9] which I had once accidently found at the Pinner of Wakefield in the days of my most dear wife. But it was again taken from me by a most wonderful judgment of God, for I could never remember how I did it, but made a hundred attempts in vain. And now my glorious God (whose name be praised forever) has brought it again into my mind, and so the same day my dear wife sickened; and on the Saturday following, which was the day she died on, I extracted it by the former practice : so that on the same day, which proved the most sorrowful to me, whatever can be, God was pleased to confer upon me the greatest joy I can ever have in thjg world after her death. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord. Amen! T.R.V." [10]


The sinister note is obvious; it looks as though Thomas Vaughan killed his wife in his experiment. Yet his profound love for her is beyond question. To a man of those strange days, it was easily "the greatest joy he could ever have in this world" to converse with the living spirit of his dead wife on the very day of her death. So real was the other world to him that he had no hesitation in pursuing his experiments; and finally he was killed in an experiment on "quicksilver" — "quicksilver" being perhaps the commonest of the symbols of ectoplasm! [11]

The student of alchemy and magic will soon discover that those ancient scientists knew much more about ectoplasm than we. They were able (as it appears to me) to produce it at will from anybody. This they did by cultivating in themselves "the Secret Fire of the Philosophers." This force has not yet been rediscovered. We must still rely on the medium in whom the occult powers are so strongly developed that they issue almost blindly. The "circle" probably makes up unconsciously that force which the magicians deliberately cultivated.

Thus it appears that the newest and most startling revelations of science are simply a rediscovery of part of a great but forgotten secret tradition of many centuries. Fortunately the writings of the alchemists are preserved. What a little delving should uncover may be incredible.




  1. [Mrs. Attwood] : A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Art (London, 1850). This book was later suppressed by the author, but has since been republished.
    [Ethan Allen Hitchcock] : Remarks on Alchemy and the Alchemists (Boston, 1857).
    Thomas South's Early Magnetism in its Higher Relations to Humanity (London, 1846) is also of interest.
  2. Jakob Böhme is a case in point. He wrote his Aurora in what he considered plain terms. Obscure as it is to-day, it was understood well enough then to expose him to the fury of his church. He never made the slightest pretence at working in metals; nevertheless he used many alchemical symbols in self-protection.
  3. Aurora of the Philosophers, Ch. XIII [ed. A. E. Waite, Vol. I, p. 61).
  4. Henrie Khunrath : Of the Magick Fire, or A declaration of and upon the mystical, external, visible glow or flame fire of the antient Magi, and modern true philosophers. (Harvard MS. 24226.28.12.)
  5. Sir William Crookes's experiments with Florence Cook in 1870-1880 thus become verified. Mme Juliette Alexandre-Bisson's Phénomènes dits de matérialisation (Paris, 1914) contains over a hundred photographs. Dr. A. Freiherrn von Schrenck-Notzing's Physikalische Phcsnomene des Mediumismus (Munich, 1920) contains an account of check-experiments performed on another medium in another city.
  6. The Absolute Proof of Life after Death.
  7. Vaughan conceals the source of the First Matter under a very famous symbol. The "cavern" has been recognized as meaning the Body ever since Plato wrote the Republic.
  8. "Red clay" also means the flesh, and is a translation of the name "Adam." William Blake used the same words "red clay," with precisely the same hidden meaning (i.e. flesh) in the Argument to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
  9. Another name for ectoplasm (see the preface to the Lumen de Lumine).
  10. The interlaced initials of Thomas Vaughan and his wife Rebecca. This entry is copied in between two others, both dated 1658. This modernized text has been transcribed from The Works of Thomas Vaughan, edited by A. E. Waite (London, 1919).
  11. Long since Vaughan had denounced "the torture of metals."

© arthur-conan-doyle.com