Solve et Coagula: Part 1 – Rowling’s Alchemical Tattoo
by Dr. Beatrice Groves
Since 2018, J.K. Rowling has rarely posted on Twitter and almost never used the platform to engage with fans. But on March 25, 2020 – the day on which she started showing symptoms of the coronavirus herself – she generously decided that the lockdown meant that a bit of remote cheering up was called for. She told fans what she was up to – I was particularly pleased to find out she has been playing Risk while quoting Shakespeare (a mash-up of two of my favorite activities) – and began responding to questions and requests. For example, she was asked whether there were any fun facts about herself that she wouldn’t mind sharing, and she revealed that she got a tattoo last year.
Ummm…. my favourite colour is pink. I always play as Yoshi on MarioKart. I've just started re-reading Catch-22, which I first read aged 22. I got a tattoo last year (but not a Harry Potter tattoo. That would be ridiculous.) https://t.co/pJwk9KL76O
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) March 27, 2020
Rowling does not say what the tattoo was of, but those who have been watching carefully already know. It says “Solve et Coagula,” an alchemical Latin tag that translates as “dissolve and coagulate” or “break down and reform.”
Nick Jeffery kindly drew my attention to this tattoo – and deciphered it – on December 13, 2019.
— Nick Jeffery (@gbjeffen) December 13, 2019
Nick Jeffery also narrowed down the date when Rowling got the tattoo (via publicity photos in which the inside of her right wrist is visible) precisely to the winter of 2019 (between October 24 and December 11). Hogwarts Professor wrote up this find immediately with a fascinating post on Rowling’s alchemical artistry. Rowling’s Twitter comment means that, in addition, we can now be confident this is a real, permanent tattoo (and the tone of Rowling’s reveal – “I got a tattoo last year” – suggests that this is not something she makes a habit of). In winter 2019, therefore, Rowling decided to do something a bit out of character – she got a tattoo, and she placed it on the wrist of her writing hand (like Harry, she is right-handed). It is a tattoo written in her own handwriting, placed where she will see it as her hand is angled to write – it seems intended to have an intimate connection with everything she composes. The tattoo she chose was the words “solve et coagula” – “break down and reform” – a phrase that encapsulates the basic rhythm of alchemical creation.
Alchemy was originally intended to make up a major part of the Hogwarts curriculum. As Rowling noted on Pottermore, in Hogwarts, as we now know it, “very specialised subjects such as Alchemy are sometimes offered in the final two years, if there is sufficient demand.” Originally, however, she had planned for alchemy to be compulsory from the first year. But even if Harry, Ron, and Hermione did not end up studying alchemy, Rowling certainly took the course herself.
I’ve never wanted to be a witch, but an alchemist, now that’s a different matter. To invent this wizard world, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy. Perhaps much of it I’ll never use in the books, but I have to know in detail what magic can and cannot do in order to set the parameters and establish the stories’ internal logic.
Perhaps, Rowling drew back from making alchemy a core subject precisely because it was becoming so crucial for the plot of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (as the title of the UK edition informs us). Alchemy is not a specific subject on the curriculum but something that suffuses the whole story as John Granger has long told us – see in particular his Unlocking Harry Potter.
Lyndy Abraham’s indispensable Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery (1998) defines “solve et coagula” as “one of the oldest axioms in alchemy” and explains how it is central to the search for the philosopher’s stone. According to one early modern French alchemist, the phrase “solve et coagula” lies at the very heart of the search for the philosopher’s stone. Jean d’Espagnet writes that “the whole process of the philosophical work” – that means the search for the philosopher’s stone – “is nothing but that of dissolving and making hard again: namely, dissolving the body and making hard the spirit.” One idea behind the stone is that it is an object that unites contraries (as Rowling has noted in her writing on alchemy, the reconciling of opposites is central to its operation). To make the philosopher’s stone, solid substances must be dissolved (“solve”) while the resultant “spirit” must be fixed again into a solid (“coagula”). The alchemist makes his raw material undergo this process over and over until they – and he – are fully purified.
Charles Nicholl’s Chemical Theatre (1980) explains the process clearly and perceptively – and his book is old enough that Rowling might easily have studied it when she chose to learn “a ridiculous amount about alchemy” in order to create her wizarding world. Nicholl writes:
Loss and restoration of form: this is the basic rhythm of alchemical transformation. It is expressed in the formula, ‘solve et coagula’: an injunction to dissolve and congeal. Chemically this is typified in the process of sublimation, reducing a solid to vapour (solve) and them condensing the vapour to purified solidity (coagula)… This interplay of fixed and volatile, solid and vaporous, is central to alchemy, for the alchemist saw it as an interplay between the bodily and spiritual aspects within matter… The process is a transforming circle, the substance returning once more to solidity, but now divested of ‘grosnesse and corpority’. ‘Corporeall things in this regimane are made incorporeall, & contrariwise things incorporeal corporeall, and in the shutting up of the work, the whole body is made a spirituall fixt thing.’ This ‘spirituall fixt thing’ is one definition of the stone: matter suffused with spirit.
As Nicholl suggests, alchemy is a far more spiritual exercise than its popular – rather money-grubbing – image would suggest. In alchemy, the literal (or “exoteric”) search for a real philosopher’s stone that will bring eternal life and endless gold has long had a mystical (or “esoteric”) counterpart in which the stone and elixir are merely metaphors for spiritual riches. Rowling is drawn, in particular, to the spiritual side of alchemy – pointing her readers toward an esoteric understanding of alchemy by noting on Pottermore that “the central quest of alchemy may be more complex, and less materialistic, than it first appears. One interpretation of the ‘instructions’ left by the alchemists is that they are symbolic of a spiritual journey, leading the alchemist from ignorance (base metal) to enlightenment (gold).”
The idea that the alchemist must purify his own soul if he were to find the stone was popularized in English alchemy through the work of George Ripley (1415–90), whose work was crucial to the revival of alchemical learning in England. Ripley was influenced by a particular strand of alchemical literature that presented alchemy as able to liberate the world from the effects of the Fall and to rediscover Edenic purity. Ripley’s most important work – a guide to creating the philosopher’s stone – is The Compound of Alchemy (first printed in 1591, 120 years after its composition). The Compound explains that those who desire “knowledge of our great priuitie” must “liue cleane in soule” and “nourish vertues, and from vices flee.” Ripley writes that because King Edward IV is endowed with such “grace and vertue,” he will divulge his alchemical secrets in this work dedicated to him: “Sith I see by tokens right euident,/ That God you guideth, and how that you be vertuous.”
The search for the philosopher’s stone in Harry Potter is, likewise, explicitly a virtue quest. Harry is worthy to face the final hurdle alone because of the virtues that make him, as Hermione says, a “great wizard”: his “friendship and bravery” (SS, ch. 16). Dumbledore, recalling this crucial moment of Harry seeing (and finding) the philosopher’s stone in the Mirror of Erised, describes how it proves he is “pure of heart” (HBP, ch. 23).
Rowling uses the device of the Mirror of Erised to underline the fact that the philosopher’s stone drops into Harry’s pocket because he is virtuous. And Dumbledore reminds the reader of this near the very end of the series in order to underline the alchemical movement of Harry’s quest. The series begins with “exoteric” (literal) alchemy. Philosopher’s Stone opens the series with a real alchemist and a real stone. But the series ends with “esoteric” (spiritual) alchemy, for Harry himself becomes the “base metal” broken down through suffering and rebuilt as gold. At the beginning of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the “essence” of Harry in the Polyjuice Potion is “a clear, bright gold” (DH, ch. 4).
Rowling’s choice to inscribe the alchemical motto “solve et coagula” on her writing wrist suggests her alchemical understanding of everything she writes. And in two more posts about this phrase, over the next two days, I shall look further into the origins of the phrase and the way in which it encapsulates Rowling’s own metaphors for her “process.”
Dr. Beatrice Groves teaches Renaissance English at Trinity College, Oxford and is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet – such as “Rowling’s Goblin Problem?” – all of which can be found at Bathilda’s Notebook. She is also a regular contributor to the MuggleNet podcast Reading, Writing, Rowling.