Musing on Cryptometals

Hello All,

My apologies for not posting sooner, but i’ve been speculating about what to blog about next of late. I have also been wrapping up the eighteenth volume of Limina, the graduate journal of Historical and Cultural Studies based here at the University of Western Australia.

Take a look to see the wide range of Historical and Cultural essays (seven in all) contained within. There are also two very good interviews and a series of book reviews. I had the great pleasure of reviewing The Sea and Englishness in the Middle Ages: Maritime Narratives, Culture and Identity (D.S. Brewer 2011) edited by Sebastian Sobecki, and containing a series of great essays, including an essay on Margery Kempe’s multilingual oceangoing engagements by Jonathan Hsy, who facebook tells me will soon be publishing a book on Merchants, Multilingualism and Medieval Literature!

Today I would like to take a slight detour from my usual fluid imaginings to talk about metal.

So why metal, you may ask? I have long been fascinated by metals, the idea of smelting them, the strange myths that surround them. When you have  a boring and common surname like Smith, you have to think of interesting stories about it. Was one of my ancestors a real smith? Is there metal in my blood somewhere long ago? I remember reading Wilbur Smith books as a school child and being fascinated by the mysterious sword of meteoric iron that sheared through the bronze swords of ancient Egypt and ultimately became the royal weapon of the fictitious Pharaoh Nefer Memnon. And of course, who can forget the sword of Conan the Cimmerian from Conan the Barbarian, stolen by the villain of the film Thulsa Doom and recaptured by Conan as the culmination of his quest for revenge? So mysterious metals permeated my childhood. And of course who can forget Lord of the Rings? The first film of the trilogy came out when I was in my final year of school, and I have strong memories on watching it on my friends’ very expensive and prototypical DVD player. Mythril, swords, rings, molten metal. The metal obsessed teenager’s dream.

Becoming a PhD student and a medievalist did not help my inchoate addiction. Medieval literature filled my head with mysterious and diverse mirabilia, expanding and complicating my obsession. Recent years have brought me a wide range of new metallic delights. Books such as Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter and Gaston Bachelard’s Earth and Reveries of Will both have a great deal to say about the human and material dimensions of metals, their creation and their putative properties. Bennett breaks down the black box of Prometheus’ chains, revealing that beneath their seemingly unitary strength lies a network of smaller, interlocked entities. The unbreakable idea of metal, and the unbreakable solidity of the chains, is merely a human conceit. Metal is more changeable, more complex, than first meets the eye. Bachelard focuses on the waking and imminent phenomenal dreaming of matter, called a reverie, of will and of control through the ‘world of resistance’ posed by earth, and the actions of the Smith as an expression of our dreams of shaping, of making.

Recent materialist projects have slowly expanded my imagining of metal and its elemental and material fellows. Jeffrey Cohen’s Stories of Stone project and the essays ‘Exemplary Rocks’ by Kellie Robertson and ‘Mineral Virtue’ by Valerie Allen in the recently published Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects book by Oliphaunt Books and Punctum Press have particularly captured my attention. The present, it seems, is  a good time to be thinking about minerals.

I am particularly interested in the kind of metal that once existed but is lost to us, is rumoured to have existed, exists but is no longer made or can no longer be made, or is made in a fashion that is or was shrouded in mystery. I am also interested in metals that come to exist through human efforts, and yet withdraw from us by defying our attempts to normalise them. Human literary expressions of culture, emotion and philsosophy demonstrate a veritable quiver of excitement, it seems, at the cold touch of metal.

I am calling them Cryptometals, from the Greek kryptos (κρυπτός) meaning hidden or secret, and metallon (μέταλλον) which is etymologically self-explanatory. Not to be confused with the Metal group of the same name, these metals exist beyond the more commonplace of our familiar and yet endlessly fascinating friends such the elements iron or gold, silver or lead, and the alloys of bronze or steel, aluminium or titanium that I guarantee are allowing you to do whatever it is you are doing right now. They are the enigmas of the metallic world, encoded sets of wondrous properties that often lack a material reality; ideas of form that suggest a colour, weight, patina, sound, feel to the touch and set of properties, but elude any demonstration of these properties beyond imagining them. They can be invented, rediscovered, forgotten, recuperated by science, lost entirely and emerge as functions of popular culture and tropes of narrative. They are, in short, fascinating.

An example of such a metal might be Aurichalcum (litterally ‘gold-copper’), the red-hued metal though by Plato in the Critias to have been mined by the ancient Atlanteans:

The entire circuit of [Atlantis'] wall, which went round the outermost zone, they covered with a coating of brass, and the circuit of the next wall they coated with tin, and the third, which encompassed the citadel, flashed with the red light of orichalcum.
The palaces in the interior of the citadel were constructed on this wise:-in the centre was a holy temple dedicated to Cleito and Poseidon, which remained inaccessible, and was surrounded by an enclosure of gold; this was the spot where the family of the ten princes first saw the light, and thither the people annually brought the fruits of the earth in their season from all the ten portions, to be an offering to each of the ten. Here was Poseidon’s own temple which was a stadium in length, and half a stadium in width, and of a proportionate height, having a strange barbaric appearance. All the outside of the temple, with the exception of the pinnacles, they covered with silver, and the pinnacles with gold. In the interior of the temple the roof was of ivory, curiously wrought everywhere with gold and silver and orichalcum; and all the other parts, the walls and pillars and floor, they coated with orichalcum.

(From the Internet Archive Classics Archive – http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/critias.html)

Another might be Corinthian Bronze, a now nonexistent alloy of copper and gold or silver mentioned by Pliny the Elder. There were supposedly four types of this mysterious metal, with Hepatizon, or black bronze, being the rarest. There are also metals with secret or sacred processes of creation, such as the blue-purple Japanese alloy Shakudo or Panchaloha, a sacred Hindu alloy thought to be forged from five metals, the manufacture of which was a religious secret for many centuries. These are occult metals, shrouded in mystery. Science and metallurgy have speculated as to the real metals behind the legends, but the aura of mystery remains despite often sensible explanations. In this sense, I am reminded of the demystification of the practices and secrets of Alchemy in modern science, and the complete lack of effect this has had on the romance and mystery or Alchemy as a story.

These mysterious metals, in appearance and properties were and are so unlike other metals that they fascinate us even in their absence. Some are like the dragons and unicorns of metals, legends that many wish existed. Others are more like the Glass Winged Butterfly or the mysterious denizens of the ocean trenches, known to exist but so strange that they fascinate us.

This has just been a short piece to talk about some ideas i’ve been toying with, but i’ll post more when I have it. Eventually, with time and research, I’d like to turn Cryptometal into a topic for an article. Until then, I encourage your feedback.

Take Care,

James

p.s. When I was in doubt as to what to write about, my friend suggested apropos of nothing that the next post should be about squirrels. I therefore dedicate this post to the Squirrels, wherever they may be ;)

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2 thoughts on “Musing on Cryptometals

  1. Hi James, not sure what else to say about this post besides how much I enjoyed it. It resonates profoundly with my own stone project — especially because many of the gems I deal with would be (on your model) cryptolithic: recorded but not seen. I try to avoid metal in this book I’m writing but of course can’t do so completely, since it is an anchor for value, a hard measure of humanity (from gold to brass to iron). And of course any talk of metals also quickly leads to alchemy …

    Anyway, I hope you’ll pursue this project as it is a fascinating topic and even falls under your “fluid imaginings” rubric quite well!

    Jeffrey

    • Thanks Jeffrey! I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter in the future, and love the term ‘cryptolithic’. It has a nice ring to it. I’m going to present a work in progress paper to our English and Cultural Studies postgraduate in November, so I’ll likely work out my ideas and post some of the results on Fluid Imaginings.

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