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Want to live forever?
Nicolas Flamel did.
Yes, Nicolas Flamel of Harry Potter fame was a real person. Some believe he is a real person.
Flamel was born in 1330 in Paris or its immediate environs. He achieved success as a scrivener and book seller in Paris. He and his wife, Pernelle, spent their later years in a house at 51, rue de Montmorency. Built in 1407, the house is the oldest in Paris still standing. You can literally get a flavor for Nicolas Flamel’s home by dining in the restaurant that occupies the building’s ground floor, the Auberge Nicolas Flamel on rue Montmorency in the Paris 3rd (Métro: Rambuteau).
You can also learn more about Flamel by taking the Mysteries of Paris Ghost Tour. This English-language tour begins not far from Flamel’s home at O’Sullivan’s Rebel Bar near the Chatelet Metro station at 10, rue des Lombards.
Like the majority of his fellow countrymen, Flamel was Catholic. One night, he had a dream in which an angel presented him with a book.
“At first you will understand nothing in it,” the angel told him. “But one day you will see in it that which no other man will be able to see.”
Not long after, a young man in need of money appeared in his bookshop offering him a manuscript called The Book of Abraham the Jew. Flamel recognized it immediately as the book from the dream and did not quibble over the asking price of two Florins.
The book contained many strange characters and diagrams and the word “maranatha” repeated over and over on every page. It was written by a man who allegedly was a Levite priest, as well as a prince, astrologer, and philosopher. It promised curses to anyone who read it who was not a priest or a scribe.
Flamel traveled to the part of Spain under Moorish control in search of Jews who could help him decipher the portions of the text written in ancient Hebrew. He found a man in Leon who could translate the few pages of the Book of Abraham Flamel had brought with him. The man agreed to return to Paris with Flamel to help decipher the rest of the book, but became ill in Orleans and died.
Flamel returned to Paris and with the knowledge he had gained from his journey was able to eventually comprehend the meaning of the rest of the Book of Abraham. Using techniques described in the manuscript, he supposedly turned mercury into silver and gold and became wealthy. He and his wife used their wealth for philanthropic purposes, according to historian Louis Figuier.
“Husband and wife lavished succor on the poor, founded hospitals, built or repaired cemeteries, restored the front of St. Genevieve des Ardents and endowed the institution of the Quinze-Vingts, the blind inmates of which, in memory of this fact, came every year to the church of St. Jacques la Boucherie to pray for their benefactor.”
Figuier said this practice continued until 1789. The church was demolished in 1797, save for its bell tower, which is part of the Paris Ghost Tour.
One treasure Flamel was not willing to share with others, however, was the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone, which made possible the transmutation of metals and, according to some, also contained the secret of immortality. In 1410, Flamel designed his own tombstone, which is still on display at the Musee de Cluny. It includes images of the sun and a man—depicted along with two other men as saints with a key and a book. The tombstone originally covered Flamel’s grave in the Cemetery of Innocents, where he was laid to rest in 1418, but as Flamel’s notoriety grew over the years, his gravesite became the frequent target of robbers and the tombstone was moved. Legend has it that the first grave robber was shocked to discover no body underneath the tombstone, lending credence to the Flamel immortality stories.
Over the centuries, many people have claimed to have seen Flamel. If you take the Paris Ghost Tour, perhaps you will see him at St. Jacques Tower. The tour also includes stops at Chatelet Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Palais de Justice, Pont Neuf, and the Conciergerie, said to be haunted by the ghost of its most famous inmate, Marie Antoinette.
Dennis D. Jacobs is an award-winning journalist and avid traveler. His byline has appeared in scores of publications, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Des Moines Register, and the Northwest Herald of suburban Chicago.
Article and photos © Dennis D. Jacobs.