For those who wish to see the lesser known parts of Prague’s history, tap into the alchemical trail.
Prague is famous for its cobblestone streets teeming with intrigue and history. Walking through Prague, one can almost feel the medieval spirits leading the way. But there’s something else lurking in the shadows and it’s not always visible to the untrained eye. From major historic sites and tourist attractions to smaller, hidden symbols, Prague is full of magic—wizardry, Harry Potter-style magic—in the form of alchemy. Alchemy, a mixture of plant medicine and chemistry, dominated Prague under Emperor Rudolf II’s rule. It was the medicine of medieval times, fueled by tales of the Philosopher’s Stone—the substance rumored to turn base metals into gold. This fascinating magical history is hiding in plain sight.
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The Faust House
The legend of the poor student who made the Faust Home his dwelling is a classic Czech tale. It goes like this: the student stumbled upon an abandoned mansion after roaming the streets of Prague. With no other options for housing, he stayed. Inside, he found strange books full of symbols along with some coins. He took the coins, ran out to buy food, returned, and fell asleep with a full belly. The next morning, more coins were found in the same location. This continued for quite a while until the Devil appeared to him to make a deal. The boy agreed to accept the coins in exchange for doing the Devil’s work. At some point, he went full occultist and he’s said to have gone missing through a hole in the ceiling shortly thereafter.
The one person who sealed the Faust House’s fate was Karl Jaenig, who had an obsession with death and the macabre. Rumor has it that alchemical symbols are etched on the walls, and the bones of humans and cats were found in the floors. He also slept in a coffin. In the 20th century, several fires started in the Faust House with unknown causes. No longer open to the public, it serves as part of the Faculty of Medicine for Charles University.
House at Donkey in the Cradle
This is the site of Edward Kelley’s famous alchemical explorations that would lead to rumors of the Philosopher’s Egg—the first step the process of obtaining the Philosopher’s Stone. Edward Kelley had been lucky enough to find a manuscript detailing the process of obtaining the Philosopher’s Stone, but he required secrecy in order to practice his skills. He stayed at this inn, delving deep into alchemical arts. Whether or not Kelley produced a Philosopher’s Stone is still a mystery. The name of the house is derived from the only remaining images, a donkey and a cradle, of an al fresco manger scene on the outside of the home. Onlookers can only view the home from the outside, but they can gaze up at the window and wonder what it must have been like for Kelley to be at the forefront of chemistry.
A UNESCO Heritage site, Speculum Alchemiae was discovered only recently in 2002 when a flooding throughout old town broke down the cobblestone streets, revealing an alchemical laboratory full of dried herbs, mortar and pestle, bottles, flasks that had been hidden for centuries. Tunnels that link to the Prague Castle have been discovered, which prove its connection to Emperor Rudolf II and his obsession with natural sciences, alchemy, and all things occult. This is a gem of a place for those who wish to follow in the footsteps of alchemists long ago. The museum offers their own homemade elixirs in the entranceway while the laboratory lies just beyond a secret doorway leading to an eclectic office, then down into the basement. One does not have to do much to imagine how eerie the tunnels must have been as they’re permeated with the ghosts of alchemy’s past—complete with the smells and sounds of yesteryear.
Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague
At the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague, even more secrets and stories are revealed about Prague’s alchemical connections and how they saturate the entire city. Inside, stories and recreations of alchemists and their work abound. Visitors learn about how alchemy is tied to modern-day medicine and how important the practice was during medieval times. Wax figures dressed in period pieces offer viewers an idea of what ceremonies and practices must have looked like. Attached to the museum is an alchemical lab pub, Kellyxír, which offers a variety of beverages sure to conjure spirits of magical proportions. Not far from there is another stop that should not be overlooked by those following an alchemical path, The Prague Ghosts and Legends Museum.
Prague Castle, Mihulka Tower
Known alternatively as the powder tower for its gunpowder storage capacity, Mihulka Towers was also a dungeon at one point. Emperor Rudolf II used this tower for alchemists who had come to convince him that lead could be turned into gold. The likes of Edward Kelley and John Dee, two famous alchemists who chased the Philosopher’s Stone, were said to have spent a substantial amount of time in the tower refining their alchemical skills.
Despite its name, Golden Lane was not built with alchemy in mind. The Golden Lane is a narrow street near Prague Castle, full of tiny houses that are decorated to give the illusion of stepping back into time. However, it might have been built with the intention to protect Emperor Rudolf II, the ruler of Bohemia with a penchant for the strange and occult. Collecting things wasn’t enough for him, so he also collected rare and interesting people. Rudolf placed his best marksmen and other guards here to fortify the castle walls. The only alchemical practices were those of Uhle, an old man who purchased books on magic. It’s said that he died with a gold stone in his hand after a large explosion was heard by neighbors.
INSIDER TIPFranz Kafka, author of ‘Metamorphosis’, lived at #22 Golden Lane.
With tours with names like “The Black Angels of the Prague Castle” and “Dark Shadows of the Old Town,” Mysterium helps visitors discover the enigmas of Prague by offering nighttime tours that follow the shadows of alchemists past. Tour guides wear historic, Gothic costumes and use lanterns to light the way. The entire experience evokes the sensation of traveling back in time to the era when Prague’s mysteries and magic got their start in the reign of Emperor Rudolf II.
The Charles Bridge, Old Town Bridge Tower
Inspired by the palindromic number 135797531 (and built on July 9, 1357 at 5:31 a.m.), the bridge was constructed as part of the Old Town bridge tower. This number serves to keep the end pillars in line with planetary powers. It also aligns with the rising and setting of the sun—the alchemical power that is equated with vitality and transformation. King Charles IV consulted royal astrologists and numerologists to find the best time for the bridge’s construction. In addition, the sunset on summer solstice falls exactly on St. Vitus Cathedral, further revealing the potency flowing throughout the alchemical capital of the world. There are underground tours that delve into another side of the Charles Bridge for those interested in viewing the bridge from the inside.
Rabbi Judah Loew’s Headstone
The Golem is the legend of a clay creature given life by alchemical forces—a blend of natural elements and magic that were manipulated by Rabbi Judah Loew. A scholar and a mystic, Rabbi Loew is said to have built the Golem from mud from the Vltava River. The Golem protected the Jews during a time when violence and death lurked around every corner. The Golem was animated when “emet” (truth) was written on his forehead, but when the Golem went into a rage and could no longer be controlled, Rabbi Loew erased the “e” and the Golem was left with “met” (death). The act of taking clay and imbuing life with a word is directly linked to the Kabbalah and an alchemical past. See The Maharal of Prague’s tombstone at the Jewish Museum in Prague.
From the highest point in the city, the layout of Petrin Hill takes on its own sacred geometry. Shaped like a cross, the construction, placement, and dimensions of buildings, streets, and churches were all part of city’s larger plan to hone energies and solidify Prague as the alchemical capital of the world.
The Astronomical Clock
The Astronomical Clock abounds with intrigue and superstition—the city keeps the clock in tiptop shape and fully functioning because rumor has it, if something befalls the clock, something will befall the city and its inhabitants. It features extraordinary details, such as two pairs of animated figures that flank the clock, each representing a link to fortune or misfortune. Perhaps to ensure its uniqueness, the clock’s creator and engineer, Master Hanuš, was blinded to prevent him from constructing a replica.
The surrounding streets like Celetna, part of the Royal Route that took visitors to the castle, also have ties to the city’s alchemical history. Alchemical symbols—suns, moons, serpents, plants, and the five elements (earth, air, water, fire, and ether), can be spotted on several houses and thresholds.
Johannes Kepler’s Home
While not technically an alchemist, Johannes Kepler’s work in astronomy set up science and astrology to work together. Alchemy and astrology’s tandem powers were undeniable during Rudolf’s reign, and Rudolf made sure he had the best of the best working for his court. Kepler worked closely with Tycho Brahe, another famous astronomer who died under mysterious circumstances in Prague shortly after his arrival. Kepler was also one of the two main astrologers to the famed General Wallenstein, the famous Bohemian war hero whose strength and tact was known across Europe, who never made any decision without consulting the stars first. Scholars say Wallenstein held fast to his astrological beliefs and this could be the reason for his great military success.
The Alchemical Route
The Royal Route to the Prague Castle was taken by all who wished to visit the court. Alchemists stayed at the House at the Stone Lamb (aka the House of the Unicorn) while waiting to hear word from Emperor Rudolf II. The houses at the corner of Karlova and Liliová streets are famed for their hauntings and links to alchemy. Magic Bohemia offers tours for those who wish to try their hands at alchemy or play with a deck of tarot cards, both for those willing to learn about legends and the legacies they left behind.