2-90. The Truth of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice


No. Not the forgotten Nicholas Cage movie. I’m talking about Der Zauberlehrling, a poem by Goethe written in 1797. You may know it better as the bit from the original Fantasia (both, actually) that featured Mickey Mouse. That version was based on Paul Dukas’ symphonic poem, and featured the wizard Yen Sid (think about it) who, after performing alchemical miracles, retires for the evening, leaving his lab in the hands of his young apprentice. This apprentice apparently suffers from the Dunning-Kruger effect. In no time, he conjures up way too many demonic assistants, who wreak havoc until the wizard returns and sets things straight. You should watch it if you haven’t seen it; it’s a triumph of mid-century animation.

What’s interesting is that there’s a lot of accuracy depicted in the piece. Ok, we’ll forgive the anthropomorphic rodent and broomsticks, but overall, what’s depicted there has roots in the history of alchemy.

Most of our “Al” words stem from Arabic, with “Al” simply meaning “The.” “Chemy” comes from the Arabic word for the “art of transmuting metals.” While we think of alchemy as the forerunner of chemistry, it’s perhaps better to think of it as the forerunner of metallurgy. Chemistry branched off some time later.

In the ancient world, blending metals was hugely important. There’s a very good reason we had a “bronze” age. Learning to combine copper and arsenic into a new metal changed the world by allowing societies with that technology to make better tools, weapons and art. Alchemists were the people who learned how to make these metals, and through experimentation, improve them. Arsenic gave way to tin, bronze gave way to iron, which gave way to steel and so on.

It was difficult to learn the specifics and intricacies of proper metal production. It was also extremely valuable, and only the chosen few were allowed into the guilds and given access to the formulas and techniques. These few were apprentices, just like Mickey.

Mickey would have been given the drudge work, such as grinding materials or stoking the fire and keeping it hot with bellows. His pay would be learning valuable skills, which he would protect from outsiders just as his master did. This gave the entire practice an air of “secrecy,” which in some societies was seen as unholy.

Common symbols used in alchemy and then, in other crafts.

Common symbols used in alchemy and then, in other crafts.

To the outsider, alchemy seemed like pure magic. Not only were common metals “changed” or “transmuted” into something more valuable, it was done while the practitioners combined precise and sometimes odd ingredients into crucibles, followed by specific chanting in strange clothing. Things glowed (molten metals) while producing strange smells and colorful smoke. Jars, vials and manuscripts marked with odd symbols filled the lab, and the whole scene may have seemed similar to religious rituals, which are often followed without explanation. This all contributes to the idea that somehow, alchemy and religion are related. Just think of turning water into wine and you can see the connection.The

In the animation, you see a man in a protective robe and cap standing over a cauldron. In reality, it probably would have been a crucible, and wearing protective clothing around molten metals is wise. As for the chanting, the mixing of metals requires precise timing. Reliable alarm clocks hadn’t been invented yet, so timing was done with hourglasses or, by the reciting of poems and songs. Each spoken bit of prose took a certain amount of time, so if you needed to wait one minute, you’d recite the poem that took one minute. It may have been in a classic language unfamiliar to the commoners of the time, so it sounded strange and mystical. The words weren’t doing anything other than telling the mixer when to add that little bit of lead or take the vial off the heat. The waving of hands could even be used for small timings—three waves over the pot takes a second, etc.

A "beer star" on the side of a 19th century brewery. It is based on alchemical symbols.

A “beer star” on the side of a 19th century brewery. It is based on alchemical symbols.

On his hat is a crescent moon, the alchemical symbol for silver. The star could represent many things, though the artists likely added it because it seems to go well with the moon. It may have meant quintessence, or life force, which makes sense given the context of the story. A six-pointed star would have been more likely, though in 1940, the Star of David had taken on a tragic connotation. In Alchemy, the unrelated-to-religion six pointed star was a combination of the symbols for the four elements, Earth, Air, Water and Fire. This causes some confusion on old buildings and in cemeteries, as the six sided star, often with intertwined lines, was the symbol for purity in brewing, the Beirstern, or “Brewer’s Star.” You can find it on old breweries and on the graves of brewers.

At the end of the Fantasia piece, Yen Sid does a Moses act and parts the waters brought in by Mickey’s minions. He subsequently gives Mickey a swat with a broom, and he scurries off, ending the film. In the original poem, the alchemist wasn’t upset with Mickey, but understanding that such misestimations of one’s knowledge are a part of learning. I think this is a more valuable lesson than “you shouldn’t mess with the master’s stuff,” but if you’ve taken nothing else from this piece, take a moment to look at the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s a simple and powerful explanation for the surety we see displayed by false experts, and it’s yet another fallacy that can be corrected through curiosity and humility.

Woodcut depicting Goethe's original work (with some modifications.)

Woodcut depicting Goethe’s original work (with some modifications.)


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