Mystical Metal of Gold: Essays on Alchemy And Renaissance Culture edited by Stanton J. Linden (AMS Studies in the Renaissance: AMS Press) Continuing strong interest in alchemy and hermeticism in many academic fields is reflected in the growing number of scholarly books and articles, specialized journals, colloquia and conferences, and university-level courses and seminars devoted to these and related subjects. Furthermore, as a visit to virtually any bookshop reveals, there' exists a large - perhaps steadily increasing - popular and semi-popular market for these works. Two related characteristics mark the academic, research-oriented side of this burgeoning enterprise: its interdisciplinary nature and its tendency to reassess and reinterpret, often radically, the authors, works, and ideas that are its focus, frequently with the result of discovering a high level of alchemical and hermetic interest where previously it had not been suspected or at least readily admitted.
This collection of new essays reflects this groundswell of activity, touching
on fields as diverse as history of science and medicine, literature, history,
art history and iconography, philosophy, religion, and numismatics. Contributors
include both internationally known scholars and several new and original voices.
The period of focus is 1500 to 1700 and essays on both English and Continental
culture are included. The book's title, "Mystical Metal of Gold," alluding to
alchemy's spiritual and physical - esoteric and exoteric - dimensions, itself
suggests the rich diversity of this vital field of research.
In 2004, the anniversary of an event of some importance passed quietly and with little recognition on the part of the larger scholarly community. Forty years earlier, in 1964, Frances Yates's Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition was published in England (by Routledge), in Canada (by the University of Toronto Press), and in the United States (by the University of Chicago Press). Thereupon, many young graduate students, aspirants to Renaissance positions in university departments of history, English literature, and philosophy, were awakened by a sudden and urgent need to familiarize themselves with a host of unfamiliar authors, works, and philosophical traditions that Yates's book served to exhume: Ficino, Campanella, the Pimander, the Prisca theologia, magia and cabbala. Conscientious students leaped to the opportunity to buy Giordano Bruno in hardcover (and later, The Art of Memory, Rosicrucian Enlightenment, and all the rest) and proceeded to read Yates avidly—if not too critically. Many, at the time, were caught up in the Yates "furore," bridling only when reflecting on some of her more audacious claims: Could it really be that John Dee was a "very clear example of how the will to operate, stimulated by Renaissance magic, could pass into, and stimulate, the will to operate in genuine applied science"?'
I invoke the example of Dame Frances and her famous book, not to indulge in nostalgia, but because its publication in 1964 turns out to have been an important "moment" (as we now say) somewhere near the beginning of modern interest in the figures, works, and topics central to the study of hermeticism. It provides a useful point of departure for both a highly selective discussion of the present state of hermetic studies and as a way of introducing the sixteen essays in this new collection, "Mystical Metal of Gold": Essays on Alchemy and Renaissance Culture.
In 1982, two (at least) academic conferences were held that were consciously designed to explore further the reception of Yatesian ideas. The first, held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in March, was a tremendously exciting event: although Dame Frances's death in September, 1981, prevented her planned attendance, nonetheless, D. P. Walker, her colleague at the Warburg, was present. More important was the fact that the major issue for discussion was the validity of the charges "advanced (particularly by traditional historians of science) that Yates's conclusions had been accepted uncritically by too many scholars and that the role of Hermeticism had been vastly overstated."' The conference program was also designed to explore evidences of hermetic thought in many additional ancient, medieval, and Renaissance literary and philosophical works and art forms. The final effect of this conference was to investigate the major topic in rather great detail, and also to expand its margins of significance; its success was demonstrated through the large and varied collection of conference papers edited by Ingrid Merkel and Allen Debus, and published in 1988 by the Folger Shakespeare Library.
The second international conference of 1982 that deserves mention—for its vigorous debates and the interdisciplinarity of its participants—was organized by Brian Vickers and held at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochshule in Zurich in June, three months after the Folger meeting. Here the process of criticizing and evaluating the Yatesian interpretation of Renaissance hermetic influence deepened significantly. Vickers's introduction to the volume of thirteen conference essays, published by Cambridge in 1984, includes the following charges against Yates's methods in making her case:
As for the presentation . . . it is significant to what extent Miss Yates relied on affirmations of personal belief, assertion not argument, generalization without instance, lack of reference to any counterthesis, and such rhetorical tricks as repetition, . . . denial of other opinions, . . . and a whole series of rhetorical questions that insinuate ideas without ever adequately exploring them.
And Vickers concludes by stating that the Yates thesis is "almost totally unfounded". Needless to say, twenty years after its launching the seas had roughened considerably.
While the editor may appear to be spending an inordinate amount of time discussing the role of historians, especially those of science, in formulating the topics and issues central to controversies in Renaissance hermetic studies over the past forty years, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that they have controlled the agenda—a fact he did not fully appreciate until e began assembling materials for this summary. Linden at least begins to redress this imbalance shortly; however, first by turning briefly to a recent collection of essays that places hermetic studies in a broader perspective than did Frances Yates and her many detractors and defenders—"broader" in that certain of its essays consciously set out to show how faulty our perceptions and interpretations of critical components of hermeticism are because of highly dubious accretions that have come to be attached to the subject over time. The collection's title is Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe, edited by William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton, and published by the MIT Press in 2001. The main essay in question is the final one on the historiography of alchemy, a joint effort of Lawrence Principe and Newman, who—like Francis Bacon in the Advancement of Learning, attempt to sweep away the "errors and distempers," the "idols and vanities" that have impeded learning's progress. For the authors, these are chiefly "spiritual" interpretations of alchemy, Jungian perspectives, "Panpsychic" approaches such as those associated with Mircea Eliade; and what they term "Positivist" and "Presentist" treatments. Their announced purpose:
“We will argue . . . that none of these established interpretive schools is satisfactory, for none represents alchemy in a way that is consistent with the historical record, and all severely distort the content and context of the discipline . . . . this distortion is often the inevitable consequence of the adoption, frequently unwitting, of principles derived from nineteenth-century occultism, which have become widespread tenets in the historiography of alchemy.”
The alchemy side of the collection (about four essays) contains much of interest, including Nicholas Clulee's lucid explanation of John Dee's Monas hieroglyphica and his Astronomia inferior, and the French scholar, Didier Kahn's unusually thorough and well-documented account of what is termed the "Rosicrucian Hoax" in Paris in the summer of 1623. Also interestingly revisionary is Lauren Kassell's exploration of Simon Forman's transcriptions and annotation of certain alchemical manuscripts and early printed texts that incorporate the Creation and the story of Adam and Eve, and the placing of these materials in the context of Renaissance issues regarding disease and health.
Revisionary interpretations of works of persons who previously were not readily admitted to have had alchemical interests are some of the proudest achievements of scholarship of the last few decades, as Professor Betty Jo Dobbs's research on Newton's alchemy, and Michael Hunter's and Lawrence Principe's work on Boyle easily demonstrates. The essays in Hunter's 1994 edited book, Robert Boyle Reconsidered, for example, contain a wealth of material useful in placing Boyle in a new context, in which his alchemical interests are dealt with sympathetically and at length. Principe's The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and his Alchemical Quest (Princeton, 1998) presents convincing evidence of Boyle's enormous physical, spiritual, and psychic investment in alchemy, including his apparent view that the philosopher's stone might be a key to communication with the angels.
Slower advances have also been made in the preparation of new, reliable versions of major and minor alchemical texts, a problem that has been recognized since the beginning of our period of focus. Noteworthy here are two volumes in the Brill series, Collection de Travaux de l'Academie Internationale d'Histoire des Sciences; these are William Newman's edition of The Summa Perfections of Pseudo-Geber: A Critical Edition, Translation and Study (1991) and Barbara Obrist's edition of Constantine of Pisa's Book of the Secrets of Alchemy (1990). These volumes offer new reliable texts along with English translations and authoritative commentary on matters of authorship, dating, and provenance. They are lavishly produced, with generous margins, high quality paper, large type, and generous illustrations. Equally deserving of inclusion in this very short list is Brian Copenhaver's translation of the Hermetica (Cambridge, 1992) and Robert Schuler's edition of Alchemical Poetry 1575-1700: From Previously Unpublished Manuscripts, published in 1995 by Garland in the English Renaissance Hermeticism series. Schuler has provided a treasure trove of new material awaiting investigation. Generally, however, the production of new reliable texts will probably never keep up with the need.
Nor have scholars whose specializations lie outside of history and the
history of science been idle: in fact, it appears that the more generalized
controversy regarding Renaissance science and magic has somewhat receded from
the scholarly spotlight, in favor of sharply focused essays and monographs
written by scholars in a range of academic disciplines. John Dee continues to
receive an extraordinary amount of attention, as plans for a new, complete
critical edition are under way. Clearly the surge of interest that followed
Julian Roberts's and Andrew Watson's edition of John Dee's Library Catalogue
(1990) and Nicholas Clulee's slightly earlier book' were not the last word, as
recent years have seen studies of Dee's reading practices (William Sherman),
Dee's occultism in the light of European cultural history and the concept of
exaltatio. (Gyorgy Szönyi), and a new edition of the Diaries, edited by Edward
Fenton.' Art historians, among them Urszula Szulakowska, are opening up new
approaches to early modern alchemical illustration: among literary scholars,
Lyndy Abraham has done all students of hermeticism a great favor with her lively
and authoritative Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery (1998). New specialized
journals also abound—Aries and Hermes are just two that appear on-line. Greatly
encouraging, especially for younger scholars, is the fact that now one need
not—arguably should not—seek out only highly specialized "hermetic" journals as
places to publish articles: today, the best journals appear to welcome
alchemical and hermetic submissions for publication consideration, as long as
they fit the journal's criteria and are of high quality. This was not always the
For all of their variety in subject and method, the sixteen essays included in "Mystical Metal of Gold:" Essays on Alchemy and Renaissance Culture are unified by their common focus on relationships between alchemy—broadly considered to include both physical and spiritual/philosophical aspects, exoteric and esoteric dimensions—and its cultural context in the English and European Renaissance. The chronological limits of the latter are also loosely established: while the majority of essays are grounded in the period from about 1400 to 1700, there are occasional glances at eras both earlier (e.g., the Patristic period or the fourteenth century) and later (the postmodern period). Most, if not all, of the papers are necessarily historical and interdisciplinary in focus and method, with emphasis on new knowledge and new understandings derived from archival research in major manuscript and early printed book collections. The cultural spectrum that the essays represent includes literature, art, philosophy, history, religion, and the history of science, medicine, and metallurgy.
The authors of the essays are similarly diverse, representing interests and perspectives derived from academic training and careers in universities scattered throughout the world: Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Great Britain, Hungary, Israel, and the United States. Although most of the essays are the work of established scholars with extensive publication records, several of the essays are by younger scholars—some fresh from graduate training—who represent the next generation of scholarship in alchemy and hermeticism.
The sixteen essays that comprise Mystical Metals are arranged in five sections, the first, Lives and Works of the Alchemists, presents new information on and, at times, revisionary approaches to the lives and works of three important but less well-known alchemists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Jonathan Hughes begins with a study of the "unlettered Scholar" Thomas Charnock, (1524?-1581), an Elizabethan Alchemist drawing heavily on his writings both published and in manuscript, as well as the fifteenth-century English alchemists Ripley and Norton, who exerted a powerful influence on Charnock's mind and imagination. The result of Hughes's historicizing method is a picture, not only of Charnock's practice of alchemy and medicine, but a rare—and thoroughly humanistic—glimpse into his relations with the people who were important to him and of the struggles, disappointments, and successes of an English alchemist amid the rapidly changing social, religious, and political institutions of the sixteenth century.
Edward Kelly (1555-1597/8) stands in dramatic contrast to Charnock's obscurity and the absence from his life of powerful political figures and patrons. Michael Wilding, "A Biography of Edward Kelly, the English Alchemist, and Associate of Dr. John Dee," much revised and expanded from an earlier version that appeared in Cauda Pavonis: Studies in Hermeticism, is the fullest account of Kelly's life to date. Further, through exhaustive examination of archival records, it seeks to expose and correct the numerous "errors, distortions, fabrications, and defamations" that have crept into many previous accounts. Choosing to downplay, though not overlook, several of the more sensational elements in conventional treatments—such as the cropping of Kelly's ears, his role as John Dee's scryer in the angelic conversations, the "wife-swapping" episode—Wilding presents Kelly as a complexly interesting figure whose personality, adventures, and royal associations could not have failed to be of interest both in England and on the Continent.
Lyndy Abraham’s "A Biography of the English Alchemist Arthur Dee, Author of Fasciculus Chemicus, and Son of Dr. John Dee," concludes the first section with a revised version of her biography of Arthur Dee (1579-1651), the eldest son of John Dee, also previously published in Cauda Pavonis. While not occupying so visible a place in Renaissance alchemical circles as his celebrated father and Edward Kelly, the study of Arthur Dee's life and writings is valuable for many reasons: his comments serve to illuminate his family's adventures in Bohemia and Poland; his long residency in Russia as chief physician to Tsar Michael Romanov is of considerable interest because of the opening of trade and diplomacy between Russia and the West occurring in the later sixteenth century; and, finally, his Fasciculus Chemicus and other alchemical writings attest to his knowledge of and deep interest in the subject.
The four essays included in the second section, Alchemical Artifacts: Texts, Collections, and Classifications,
are concerned with aspects of the material culture of Renaissance alchemy, with alchemical texts or artifacts or concrete and classifiable products (or by-products) that provide evidence of the varied nature of the alchemical enterprise in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Focusing mainly on the Habsburg courts of Central Europe, Vladimir Karpenko, "Witnesses of a Dream: Alchemical Coins and Medals," explores a little-known aspect of this activity: the production of medals and coins to commemorate allegedly successful metallic transmutations, or to honor aristocratic patrons of alchemists. Since skepticism about the possibility of transmutation was also growing at this time, these occasional medals were intended to serve as proof that genuine gold or silver could be produced artificially. However, numerous tales also evolved concerning other medals of alleged alchemical provenance, as a result of which many coins and medals were incorrectly designated as being "truly alchemical." Professor Karpenko attempts to distinguish between medals that are genuine from those that are not, developing a new classification scheme that categorizes all such medals and coins into several groups based on the authenticity of their supposed alchemical origins.
R. Ian McCallum's, "Alchemical Scrolls Associated with George Ripley" Alan Rudrum, "Alchemy, Arminianism, and Calvinism" is an essay on alchemical scrolls associated with George Ripley also devises a new scheme for the classification of these beautiful and enigmatic alchemical artifacts. McCallum points out that the twenty-one known "Ripley Scrolls" are not a uniform group but should be divided according to three imagistic types that differ markedly from each other. Even within these sub-groups, significant differences exist. Although fragments of Ripley's verse appear on many of them, the actual link between Ripley and the origin and content of the scrolls is obscure. For these reasons, and because of their fragile condition and wide geographical distribution in the United Kingdom and the United States today, comparative study is difficult; thus, there is little agreement as to their meaning.
Taking his cue from Elias Ashmole's stated purpose in collecting the materials included in the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum—to preserve and "make publique" the works of "our own English Hermetique Philosophers" —George R. Keiser, "Preserving the Heritage: Middle English Verse Treatises in Early Modern Manuscripts," considers the extensive practice of copying medieval English verse manuscripts during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For Keiser, study of the history of alchemical manuscript production necessarily involves questions of early owners, scribes, manuscript transmission and circulation, and reading practices, as well as the contents of the manuscripts themselves. Analysis of these and other topics is grounded in Keiser's discussion of several specific manuscript verse collections, such as Sloane MS 3580A and B, with its intriguing annotations and commentary by the known scribe Thomas Potter, and dated 1579. Following publication of Ashmole's great collection, further copying of early alchemical poems became unnecessary.
Thomas Willard, "Going Public: Alchemy in the Theater, Museum, and Library, 1602-1702," introduces another approach to Renaissance collections of earlier alchemical poetry and prose. Focusing attention on the three most popular alchemical anthologies published between 1602 and 1702—the Theatrum Chemicum, Musaeum Hermeticum, and Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa—he interrogates the implications of the ideas of "Theater," "Museum," and "Library" in their titles. Historicizing their shifting denotations and connotations in the late Renaissance and also discussing the bibliographical history of the anthologies themselves, Willard suggests that all terms imply increasingly "public" spaces. Thus, metaphorically, the compilers and printers of these collections were implying that age-old alchemical secrets were now being revealed to a much larger audience. Assisted by the shift from manuscript culture to print culture, readers were at liberty to pick and choose their favorite tracts and study them at their leisure—alchemy was "going public."
As is suggested in Sir Thomas Browne's phrase "Mystical Metal of Gold," which provides the main title of this book, the spiritual implications of alchemy and their relation to its physical, transmutational side have long been subject to debate. Various aspects of this controversy are explored in three essays that constitute the third section, Spirit and Flesh. Michael Walton, "Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Six Days of Creation," discusses the alchemical dimensions of the Hexaemeron, the exposition of the six days of creation, noting that it was a popular literary genre from the patristic period to early modern times. Theologians who interpreted Genesis used the doctrines of natural philosophy to support theological arguments, science being subservient to theology. However, for later practitioners and teachers of alchemy and early modern chemistry, science became the primary framework for correctly understanding God's actions in the first chapter of Genesis. This privileging of science over the theological tradition reached its height in alchemy with a hexaemeron in the Janitor Pansophus and in chemistry when Gerhard Dorn produced a fully developed chemical hexaemeron at the end of the sixteenth century. Chemists came to use Genesis to establish their discipline as orthodox rather than heretical.
Peter J. Forshaw's Peter J. Forshaw, "Subliming Spiritual-Physical-Chemistry and Theo-Alchemy in the Works of Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605)" is concerned with reassessing prevailing views of Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605) as the prototypical "spiritual" alchemist: "a hierophant of the psychic side of the magnum opus" (A. E. Waite) or a "Hermetic mystic of the deepest dye" (John Read). Similarly, his best-known work, the Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (see the Ora et Labora frontispiece), is widely regarded as a synopsis of Khunrath's alchemy, cabala, and magic—a kind of occultist sourcebook. Forshaw, however, takes a more balanced view, arguing that Khunrath occupies a very significant place in the alchemical spectrum as someone who endeavored to discover the properties of matter, transmute substances, and create chemical medicines, as well as one who used alchemical metaphor to describe his own self-refinement and religious transformation. Ultimately, Khunrath's alchemy is the result of arduous labor as well as prayer.
Khunrath's near contemporary Robert Fludd (1574-1637) is the subject of Urszula Szulakowska's, "The Alchemical Medicine and Christology of Robert Fludd and Abraham von Franckenberg," which bridges the domains of his heterodox theology, alchemy, and medicine. Especially influential on Fludd's theology, remote as it was from mainstream, institutionalized Lutheranism and Calvinism, were diverse groups of dissident German "Spirituals"—ranging from persecuted Anabaptists and anti-trinitarians, to "discretely resistant" Lutheran ministers, such as Valentin Weigel, to the Silesian noblemen, Caspar Schwenckfeld and Abraham von Franckenberg, Boehme's main disciple. Theologically, all reflected the influence of Paracelsus's theosophically tinged alchemy; most critically, all stressed the powerful interiority of the religious experience, the Holy Spirit's operation within the human soul. Paracelsus, along with cabalistic elements, likewise exerted a great influence on Fludd's medicine and alchemy, with their central ideas of Christ as universal healer and the identification of the Eucharist with the alchemical elixir. Although Fludd's medical practice included only a small number of medicines, their efficacy resulted from the play of forces in the "miraculous spiritual universe."
English literature of the seventeenth century has proven to be an especially fertile area for alchemical study, and the three papers that comprise part four, Alchemy and Seventeenth-Century English Authors, focus on writers of both poetry and prose. In the first, Yaakov Mascetti, "This is the famous stone': George Herbert's Poetic Alchemy in The Elixir," further explores George Herbert's best known "alchemical" poem, "The Elixir," from a developmental viewpoint. He traces its evolution through three drafts, carefully examining manuscript revisions (the Williams and Tanner MSS) in light of authorial changes in form, image and metaphor, content and theme, leading up to the final printed version in The Temple (1633). More important, however, is Mascetti's idea that Herbert's progressive "refinement" of the poem through subsequent drafts is emblematic of internal refinements in the speaker's subjective consciousness of God. His egotism must be transformed in order that God's presence may be manifest in human action, or, as the author notes, "once touched by the Christly tincture, human will and actions become powerful instruments of alchemical change."
Alan Rudrum's essay continues his life-long investigation of the poetry of Henry Vaughan (1621-1695) as seen within its political, religious, and philosophical context. Beginning with discussion of the nature of hermeticism in the seventeenth century, he notes that the term could convey two quite different, but related, meanings: it could refer to an eclectic world-view, traceable back to the hermetic books of the third century CE, which became popular during the Renaissance; or it could refer to alchemy, which has links with this abstract, philosophical hermeticism. Rudrum explores a variety of Vaughan's work—primarily from Olor Iscanus and Silex Scintillans—with both meanings in mind. In particular, he examines the significance hermeticism and alchemy held for Vaughan in relation to the religious politics of the Civil War and interregnum.
With brief glances at Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle for purposes of comparison, Stanton Linden investigates the nature and extent of Sir Thomas Browne's (1605-1682) alchemical interests, as well as the role this knowledge plays in his thought and writing. Although Browne cannot be considered a central figure in seventeenth-century alchemical circles, he was a close friend of those who were (Arthur Dee, Elias Ashmole), and his correspondence reveals keen interest in alchemical authors (Helvetius, Sendivogius and, above all, Paracelsus) who were of critical importance in the contemporary "occult" milieu and the practice of medicine. Thus, Browne's celebrated skepticism apparently did not extend to alchemy; on the contrary, his major works (Religio Medici, Pseudodoxia Epidemica) reveal many points of contact with the worldview of Renaissance magic and the occult. Clearly, his imagination responded warmly to the "smatterings of the philosopher's stone" that he acquired in the library and laboratory.
The final section, New Directions of Mystical Metal includes three papers, each presenting a new direction in the study of Renaissance alchemy as a cultural phenomenon, with approaches drawn from gender studies, art history in combination with medicine and psychiatry, and literature. Penny Bayer, "From Kitchen Hearth to Learned Paracelsianism: Women and Alchemy in the Renaissance," begins her essay with a survey of current and recent scholarship on the topic of Renaissance women and alchemy. She then examines varied types of alchemical activities in which these women engaged, drawing her evidence primarily from the period 1560-1616, and from examples derived from Italy, France, the Swiss cantons, and England. These activities include patronage, craft aspects, the keeping and writing of receipts, receiving instruction in philosophical alchemy by letter, and involvement in study of Paracelsian works at an advanced level. Certain women, such as Lady Margaret Clifford, countess of Cumberland (1560-1616), were perceived to be experts in the study and practice of alchemy, as well as collectors of related manuscripts and books. Through such evidence, alchemy emerges as an activity in which Renaissance women from different cultural levels participated.
Laurinda S. Dixon, "The Cure of Folly by Hieronymous Bosch: Alchemy, Medicine, and Morality"investigates several questions and problems that have beset interpreters of Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Cure of Folly, also known as the Stone Operation. For Dixon, interpreting Bosch (ca. 1450-1516) requires recognition that arcane meanings and truths will often be hidden within (or behind) commonplace scenes. Whereas other scholars have found interpretive frameworks in astrology or pre-Reformation anti-Catholic sentiment, Dixon locates her key in the iconography of Renaissance alchemy and in illustrated medical books. Thus, the bizarre surgical removal of the "folly stone"—really a golden flower—from the skull of the "patient," symbolizes the castigation of alchemical charlatanism, in the tradition of alchemical satire from Chaucer onwards. Other striking details—the surgeon's inverted "funnel hat," the identity and meaning of the golden flower, the witnessing monk and nun—are, in Dixon's view, also resolvable through alchemy.
Finally, György E. Szönyi's, "Representations of Renaissanace Hermetism in
Twentieth-Century Postmodern Fiction," poses the question of why, in our
technologically advanced, postmodern culture, does Renaissance esotericism and
occultism continue to evoke so strong an interest and appeal for masses of
people? Since answers to this question in a short paper must necessarily be
brief and highly speculative, Szonyi gives primary attention to confirming the
truth of his assertion from the field of modern and contemporary fiction. His
examples of these postmodern historiographical metafictions are carefully
selected so as to provide a wide cross-section; they include writers and works
both early (Huysmans's Là-bas) and recent (Ackroyd's House of Dr. Dee); British
(Maugham's The Magus) and Continental (Gustav Meyrink's Angel of the West
Window); and well known (Eco's Foucault's Pendulum) and less well known (Antal
Szerb's The Pendragon Legend). Clearly, this topic deserves book-length
We may begin this brief survey by noting several general characteristics or' conditions of production that help distinguish modern critical work—produced roughly in the last thirty or forty years, until about 2000–from earlier efforts. For it seems that many of the marks of current scholarship, in terms of both subjects and method, are attributable to the fact that it is: (1) highly interdisciplinary in nature; (2) that it has proceeded on a broadly international front (although I will refer primarily to the Anglo-American and western European scene); (3) that it is largely a result of the efforts of highly trained academic specialists in a wide range of fields; (4) and for these reasons it is often collaborative in nature, if not formally, at least in the sense of a kind of scholarly linkage in which earlier works serve as foundations or building blocks for later ones; and (5), it is often sharply revisionary in nature, resulting in major reassessments and reevaluations of the authors, works, and topics that are its subjects. I am not arguing, of course, that all noteworthy achievements in alchemical scholarship of recent decades result from the presence of one or more of these influences or conditions, but I will contend that such factors occur frequently enough to impart special qualities and features in the resulting works—enough to set them apart from earlier studies in range, scope, and most certainly in sheer quantity. Not only is important new knowledge generated and greater understanding of complex relationships gained, new forms and modes for examining and distributing this knowledge have also come about.
As we all know, the professionalization or "academicizing" of alchemical and hermetic studies is a comparatively recent phenomenon, extending backward in time less than a century; nonetheless, it has been strategically positioned to take advantage of major developments occurring in several related fields, (e.g., the history and philosophy of science, history of medicine, and emblem studies) . How very different were the perspectives, motivations, kinds of training, investigatory methods, and published results of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century "occult revivalists" we now speak of dismissively when we speak of them at all. To cite only two examples, there is the case of Mary Anne Atwood (1817-1910), who, though without formal education, was taught by her father with whom she gained proficiency in both Latin and Greek, eventually joining a theosophical group where her interests in mesmerism and alchemy developed and eventually bore fruit in A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery. This work was published in 1850 but was withdrawn almost immediately. The reason for that, in the words of her Oxford DNB biographer, was the father and daughter's "joint conviction that they had made a serious error of judgement in revealing to the world a great secret that should rightly remain veiled within allegorical texts."' Or there is the example of the more famously (or notoriously) prolific A. E. Waite (1857-1942), whose deeply held beliefs in spiritualism and theosophy led to explorations in magic, mysticism, alchemy, Eliphas Levy, freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Cabbala, and the Golden Dawn, and directly to publication of his numerous books, translations, and editions of works on alchemy and assorted esoterica. Other than their basic subjects of study, these two "true-believers" obviously have little or nothing in common with the academic researchers who are the focus of this introduction; yet, an abundance of publications representing both traditions continue to appear, as they have for quite some time. It is interesting to note, for example, that the extraordinary achievement of Lynn Thorndike, the 8–volume History of Magic and Experimental Science, was published over a period of thirty-five years, from 1923 to 1958, and that several of the pioneering essays published in Ambix, appeared in the late 1930s. (Parenthetically, we should all be grateful that the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry and Allen G. Debus have seen fit to reprint a generous selection of Ambix essays, including several of the now classic early pieces by the likes of Ruska, Taylor, Partington, and Pagel, along with works by the current generation of historians of science.)3 While Thorndike's magnum opus and Ambix are certainly responsible for giving form and substance to early scholarly emphasis in the study of hermeticism and alchemy, it should be noted that their appearance was concurrent—or only slightly later than—the achievements of the final phase of A.E. Waite's long career. Thus, as visits to virtually any specialized bookshop or large book emporium will demonstrate, the rise of scholarly publication from the steadily growing academic side of hermetic research has by no means been accompanied by a commensurate decline in the output of the "true believers" or the myriad popularizers and New Age sympathizers of "occultist" traditions.
But what of more recent developments in scholarly research—such as the essays included in this collection—and their relation to certain of the "defining characteristics" mentioned at the outset? One of the most interesting and productive tendencies that involve broad-based interdisciplinary, often collaborative, efforts focused on major topics, theories, and hypotheses has typically been launched at the growing number of academic conferences, symposia, and workshops that are a familiar part of the current scholarly scene—familiar, to be sure, but nonetheless a relatively new phenomenon. For example, in our time perhaps no single issue has attracted as much attention as Frances Yates's "thesis," as it is often called, concerning the presence of hermetic or magical ideas in the European Renaissance and their possible impact on the rise of science. While the issue has not been resolved to everyone's satisfaction, the matter of first importance is that Yates's notions have been held up for inspection and thoroughly debated; alternate theories have been proposed, accepted, or rejected, and in the course of this process we have learned much about the relationship between science and magic and their larger implications in Renaissance thought. This pattern of intensive testing and retesting—thesis, antithesis, synthesis—can be simply illustrated by recalling a few (but only a few) notable stages in the evaluation of Yates's ideas following their first articulation and frequent iteration beginning in the mid-1960s. A few years later, in 1977, a smallish paper-bound volume entitled Hermeticism and the Scientific Revolution, Papers read at a William Andrews Clark Library Seminar, by Robert S. Westman and J. E. McGuire was published—to my knowledge, the first really thorough and extensive treatment of Yates's views. This little volume of Yates's criticism was, in turn, reviewed by Charles Schmitt in a feature published in the journal, History of Science, in 1978.4 But the processes of distillation and refinement were only beginning.
Alchemy and Kabbalah by Gershom Scholem, translated by Klaus Ottmann (Spring
Publications) A groundbreaking text on alchemy by the leading scholar of Jewish
mysticism is presented here for the first time in English translation. Scholem
looks critically at the connections between alchemy, the Jewish Kabbalah; its
christianized varieties, such as the gold- and rosicrucian mysticisms, and the
myth-based psychology of C.G. Jung, and uncovers forgotten alchemical roots
embedded in the Kabbalah.
Ever since the end of the Middle Ages, when the European world became acquainted with Jewish mysticism and theosophy, the Kabbalah has been thought of as a complex intertwining of a multitude of concepts. The name of this arcane discipline became a popular catchword in Renaissance and Baroque theosophical and occult circles, having been declared and revered as the guardian of the oldest and highest mystical wisdom of mankind by its first Christian mediators, among them, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Johannes Reuchlin. Since there was nothing to be feared from the very few who were knowledgeable about the real Kabbalah, it became a kind of banner under which the public could be offered just about anything — from the authentically Jewish or weakly Judaic meditations of deeply Christian mystics to the carnival attractions of geomancy and tarot-card fortune telling. The word Kabbalah stirred up reverential shudders and enveloped all. Even the most alien elements of occidental folklore became "Kabbalah"; even the natural sciences of the time, such as astrology, alchemy, and natural magic, were in some sense leaning toward occultism. Kabbalah continues to bear this heavy burden, one that at times obscures its true content — in the communis opinio, with lay and theosophical adepts, and in the language of many European writers and even scholars. In this century, with charlatans such as Aleister Crowley and his followers in England, and especially in the 19th century, with Eliphas Levi, Papus (Gerard Encausse), and other French theosophists of the Martinist school, everything humanly possible has been done to confound all occult disciplines with the "sacred" Kabbalah. Many books that flaunt the word Kabbalah on their title pages have nothing or practically nothing to do with it. Scholem maintains a purist approach that emphasizes the autochthonic origins of Kabbalah within Judaism .
It is important to separate those elements that historically belong or relate to the Kabbalah from those that have become confused with it by developments that run their course outside Judaism. To this latter group belongs the relation between alchemy and Kabbalah. For more than four hundred years, the terms alchemy and Kabbalah have been synonymous among the Christian theosophists and alchemists of Europe, so much so that one might suspect that there are strong internal connections. Scholem's purpose here is to explore this subject critically.
In the scientific discussion of the systematic relation between mysticism and alchemy (seemingly aimed at the purely scientific goal of the transmutation of metals into gold), there are two very different perspectives at work. One view, as expressed in the great works of E. von Lippmann and Lynn Thorndike, regards these relations from purely external, historical points of view. Another view, asserted with growing insistence and influence, describes vast provinces of alchemy as de facto internal human processes. Since 1850 there have been comprehensive undertakings in this direction, based on an almost consistently symbolic interpretation of alchemical processes and the actions of its adepts toward an understanding of the internal "spiritual" life of mankind. Hence the object of alchemy is not the transformation of metals but that of mankind itself. The "philosophical gold" that is to be produced is the perfection of the soul — mankind in the mystical stage of rebirth or redemption. First developed with extraordinary erudition in Ireland and America in the works of M.A. Atwood and E.A. Hitchcock, respectively, this view was adopted by H. Silberer, a pupil of Freud's, who gave it a psychoanalytic foundation. Inspired by Silberer, C.G. Jung interpreted this concept of alchemy in terms of his archetype-based analytical psychology, advancing it in books that would become widely known and influential.
To this day, it is a matter of debate as to when this psychological aspect of alchemy first arose, and Scholem does not render an opinion about it. It is undeniable, however, that some prophetic biblical passages, such as Jesaia 1:25, which compares the catharsis of Israel with the refining of metals, could suggest such trains of thought. The comparison of God with pure gold in Hiob 22:24-25 also played a major role among the later alchemists. In his book The Secret Tradition of Alchemy, published several years prior to C.G. Jung's writings, A.E. Waite deals in detail with the question of dating the mystical reinterpretation of alchemy. He dates the first such reinterpretation to the end of the Middle Ages. In any case, Scholem would concede that, in all probability, a not insignificant share of famous alchemical texts, especially after Paracelsus's time, do not pursue chemical goals but rather are meant as instructions for the mystical work of mankind. With some authors one may also presume that they consciously had in mind a coincidence of chemical and mystical processes, which Scholem takes to be the case, above all, for the alchemists associated with the Rosicrucians. Here we are without a doubt dealing essentially with a mystical movement whose scientific tendencies are byproducts of their symbolism and symbolic practices. It is precisely in these circles that the identification of Kabbalah with alchemy has asserted itself most emphatically.
Before we can follow the crossovers that lead from the Kabbalah in Christian disguise to alchemy, we must answer the following questions: What is the Kabbalah's relation to alchemy in its original sources, as a more or less uniform system of mystical symbolism in its classical evolution from no later than the 12th century to about 1600? Was alchemy widespread enough among the Jews prior to or concurrent with the development of Kabbalah to influence the formation of kabbalist symbolism? How little was known with certainty is evident from a remark by as eminent an authority as M. Steinschneider, who as late as 1878 wrote: "To my knowledge, the Kabbalah teaches nothing about alchemy, even though it joined other superstitious disciplines."' Even as late as 1894, the same author wrote of a "lack of alchemical texts among Jews, which should be regarded as a virtue."
At the same time, Steinschneider observed that "the Hebrew literature offers curiously little about the magna ars."
In the older alchemical literature written in Greek — in the writings of Olympidor and Zosimos, for instance — Maria the Jewess (Maria Hebraea, Moses's sister) and other Jews are indeed mentioned; however, these are pseudepigraphic, like most of the sources cited in this literature. The speculation advanced by some scholars that Zosimos, probably the most famous Greek alchemist of the 4th century, was a Jew is, as far as I can judge, not likely to be true. However, in the 11th century the Spanish Jew Moises (Mosé) Sefardi, who became known as Petrus Alfonsi after his baptism, wrote a book whose content was revealed to Seth, the son of Adam, by the Angel Raziel, which describes, among other things, the transmutation of elements and metals. Indeed, the classical Jewish philosophers mention alchemy only in passing and often deprecatorily. Judah Halevi dismissed the theories of "alchemists and pneumatists," who, in fact, often appear side by side in Arabic literature. Their experiments had misled them when they "believed to be able to measure off the elemental fire on their weighing scales to bring about arbitrary creations and mutate matter." Similarly, Joseph Albo did not think much of false silver (melekheth ha-alkimia) produced by alchemy, which, when smelted, is revealed as fake. The famous nth-century moralist Bahya ben Joseph ibn Paquda expresses a more favorable opinion in the fourth chapter of his Hovot ha-Levavot, where he compares the tranquility of the soul with the efforts of the alchemists:
“Another advantage for him who relies on God is that he can free his mind from the affairs of the world and purify his soul for works of worship, so that in the peace of his mind and the tranquility of his soul, in his little concern with the affairs of this world, he is very like the master of alchemy who is well-versed in both its theory and its practice. If his reliance on God is indeed strong, he is even better off than he . . .
“The master of alchemy needs certain conditions, in whose absence he can accomplish nothing, conditions not to be found in every time and place, but the man who relies on God is assured of his livelihood in any circumstance in this world, as it is said (Deut. 8:3): "Man doth not live by bread only, but by everything that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live:
“The master of alchemy never divulges his secret to another, fearing for himself, while the man who trusts in God does not fear anybody. Rather he boasts of his reliance, as said the sage (Ps. 56:12): "In God do I trust, I will not be afraid; what can man do unto me?"
Paquda goes on to compare the alchemists' hardships and sorrows with the balanced peace of mind of those who trust in God. The author knows nothing about any damnability of the alchemical enterprise.
THE DWELLINGS OF THE PHILOSOPHERS by Fulcanelli, edited by Jeffrey Miller, translated by Lionel Perrin ($49.99, hardcover, 549 pages, Archive Press & Communications, P. O. Box 11218, Boulder, CO 80301 phone 303-530-4179; ISBN: 0963521160)
THE DWELLINGS OF THE PHILOSOPHERS is perhaps the most important alchemical work of the past two centuries. This first translation into English brings us a wealth of alchemical philosophy that has hitherto been unavailable. Fulcanelli's sentinel masterpiece takes the attentive reader through the alchemical labyrinth, decoding the monuments and architectural decoration built by those who have actively engaged in the Great Work. Fulcanelli instructs us by showing that history must be interpreted by the monuments that have been left and not by the historians who construct a world view exclusively through documents, which method gives us an often jaded and unrepresentative view of what transpired.
Not only does Fulcanelli decode and interpret the various alchemical symbols of the houses of the alchemist and philosophers, he goes to great lengths to lay bare and explicate the alchemical world view of past centuries. Fulcanelli presents us with the deep mysteries of the Great Work.
A spate of books have appeared in France speculating on the identity of the master alchemist who published Les Demeures Philosophales (1930) under the pseudonym of Fulcanelli. They have not revealed Fulcanelli's identity; whomever Fulcanelli may have been, or be, he has succeeded in the alchemist's oath, to keep silent and to disappear after accomplishing the Great Work. There are tales, possibly apocryphal, of the OSS unsuccessfully searching for him in Paris after the war. Fulcanelli is also alleged to have met with one of France's atomic physicists in the late 30s and warned him about the dangers of unlocking atomic energy, suggesting it had been done before. Fulcanelli disappeared, leaving no traces, almost as if he had never existed. His pseudonym, Fulcanelli, is derived from Vulcan, classical god of fire, smithing, the working of metals, and artifice. Legend intimates that Fulcanelli is still alive, but what is not legend is his work, magisterial exposition of the alchemical secrets encoded in medieval architecture and literature.
Le Mystere des cathedrales: esoteric interpretation of the hermetic symbols of the Great Work by Fulcanelli, (London. Neville Spearman, 1971, translated from the French by Mary Sworder. 190 pages, 9 b/w plates, index, ISBN: 085435350X) is about alchemical process as imprinted in stones of Gothic Cathedrals. This important treatise is one of the key alchemical works of the 20th century. It hermetic application of Gothic symbolism may have inspired R.A. Schwaller de Lubiczs innovative hermetic readings of Egyptian symbolism. This work is now out of print. But is likely to come back into print soon.
ALCHEMY OF THE WORD Cabala of the Renaissance by Philip Beitchman ($21.95, paperback, 364 pages, SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions, State University of New York Press; ISBN: 0791437388) HARDCOVER
ALCHEMY OF THE WORD is a study of the literary, philosophical, and cultural ramifications of Cabala during the Renaissance. Important intellectual figures from 1490 to 1690 are considered, including Agrippa, Dee, Spenser, Shakespeare, Browne, and Milton; Cabala's more recent impact is also discussed. Cabala, a hermeneutic style of Biblical commentary of Jewish origin, is based on the notion that along with an inscribed Decalogue, Moses received a secret, oral supplement that provides a symbolic, allegorical, and moral qualification of the literal law of religion.
Building on the work of Gershom Scholem, Joseph Blau, Harold Bloom, Francois Secret, Michel de Certeau, and Arthur Waite, Beitchman takes a fresh look at the "mystical" text through the lens of postmodernist theory. In a model developed from Deleuze-Guattarl's "nomadology" to explore issues related to the Zohar, he shows that Cabala was a deconstruction of Renaissance authority. Like deconstruction, Cabala presents familiar material from novel and sometimes provocative perspectives. It allows space for modifiability, tolerance and humanity, by widening the margins between the letter of the law and the demands of an existence whose rules were so rapidly changing.
An exercise in the literary analysis of "sacred texts" and an examination of the mystical element in literary works, ALCHEMY OF THE WORD is also an experiment in new historicism. It shows how the reincarnation theories of F. M. Van Helmont, which impacted heavily on the seventeenth century English cabalistic circle of Henry More and Ann Conway, demonstrate at once the originality and boldness of Cabala, but also its desperation, constituting a theoretical parallel to the continental "acting out" of the Sabbatian heresy. Because of the debacle of the Sabbatian apostasy (conversion to Islam), Cabala subsequently declined in importance as a religious devotion, becoming either a matter of cults and heterodoxies or being sublimated into literary theory and practice.
This is a work revealing great erudition, and takes us into many hidden byways. It is, as the author suggests, a 'rhizome' of a book. Full of unexpected connections and information, Alchemy of the Word is a solid contribution to the still all-too-neglected field. - Arthur Versluis, Michigan State University.
Philip Beitchman, author of I Am a Process With No Subject, has also translated books by Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio from French to English.
ALCHEMY by Titus Burckhardt ($14.95, paperback, Fons Vitae, ISBN: 1887752110) This introductory volume is a sensitive account of the fundamentals of classical alchemy. Burckhardt was exceptional astute student of Sufi esotericism and this work reflects a keen esoteric sensibility.
ANATOMY OF THE PSYCHE: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy by Edward F. Edinger ($18.95, paperback, 278 pages, Open Court Publishing Company; ISBN: 0812690095) The late Edinger was one of the brilliant integrators of Jungian practice and a masterful commentator of symbolic process. The work is a reasonable summary of Jungian approach to alchemical symbolism. It is a most useful for its psychotherapeutic theory, less so as an accurate account of alchemy as practiced by puffers.
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