Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Philosopher’s stone and its legend amongst the Ibans

Talking about philosopher’s stone one is reminded about Harry Potter.

In many cultures around the world, it is interesting to note that “philosopher’s stone” or “elixir of life” exists in legends or stories.

The philosopher's stone, in Latin lapis philosophorum, is a mythical substance that supposedly could turn inexpensive metals into gold and/or create an elixir that would make humans younger i.e. perpetual youth. It was a longtime "holy grail" of Western alchemy.

The word ‘elixir’ and ‘alchemy’ is Arabic in origin. The elixir (Arabic name for miracle substances, "al iksir) of life is sometimes equated with the philosopher’s stone is a legendary potion or drink, that grants the drinker eternal life or eternal youth. Many practitioners of alchemy pursued it.

In ancient China, various emperors sought for the fabled elixir with various results. The search for the elixir has given rise to Taoism whose teaching focuses on the idea of elixir. In the Qin Dynasty, Qin Shi Huang sent Taoist alchemist Xu Fu with 500 boys and 500 girls to the eastern seas to find the elixir, but he never came back (legend has it that he found Japan instead). The ancient Chinese believed that ingesting long-lasting precious substances such as jade, cinnabar or hematite would confer some of that longevity on the person who consumed them.
Many of these substances, far from contributing to longevity, were actively toxic. Jiajing emperor in the Ming Dynasty died from ingesting a lethal dosage of mercury in the supposed "Elixir of Life" conjured by alchemists. British historian Joseph Needham compiled a list of Chinese emperors whose death was likely due to elixir poisoning. Chinese interest in alchemy and the elixir of life declined in proportion to the rise of Buddhism, which claimed to have alternate routes to immortality.

In Borneo and Sarawak, amongst the Ibans, there is a legend that the philosopher’s stone can be found inside a ‘melaban’ tree. Scientifically, ‘melaban’ belongs to the genus Tristaniopsis in the Myrtaceae or jambu family and there are quite a number of species of Tristaniopsis in Borneo. Most members of such family are characterized by smooth, peely bark and these peely bark is most beautiful in the ‘melaban’. It is the peely bark that gave rise to the name ‘melaban’ which means ‘to fight’ in Iban and the legend associated with 'batu melaban'. As soon as the new bark emerges, the older bark will fall off. According to the legend, a stone called 'batu melaban' or philosopher's stone is found inside the tree and could bestow perpetual youth to the fortunate person who discovered it.

The family Mrytaceae is an element of the southern hemisphere in our tropical rain forests. Most members of the family are absent north of the equator but are abundant in South America, South Africa, India, Southeast Asia and Australia.

Note: Photos of melaban (Iban name) or selunsur (Malay name) can be found at

There are numerous melaban trees at Lambir Hills National Park in Miri, near the waterfall.

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