Often alchemy is seen as an example of medieval gullibility and the alchemists as a collection of eccentrics and superstitious fools.
In this Pocket Essential Sean Martin shows that nothing could be further from the truth. It is important to see the search for the philosopher’s stone and the attempts to turn base metal into gold as metaphors for the relation of man to nature and man to God as much as seriously held beliefs.
Alchemy had a self-consistent outlook on the natural world and man’s place in it. Alchemists like Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus were amongst the greatest minds of their time and the history of alchemy is both the history of a spiritual search and the history of a slowly developing scientific method. Sir Isaac Newton devoted as much time to his alchemical studies as he did to his mathematical ones.
This book traces the history of alchemy from ancient times to the 20th century, highlighting the interest of modern thinkers like Jung in the subject, and in the process covers a major, if neglected area of Western thought.
I have always been interested in alchemy. As a child, I loved the idea of an alchemist in a flame and fume-filled lab, somewhere underground. The image was magical and exciting. As an adult, I’ve come to see alchemy as the art of transformation, the art of the possible. (Even if you don’t know what that is when you start your operations.)
Of course, alchemy is all things to all people. It has been seen as a proto-science, and ‘the history of an error’. But was it really? Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle were alchemists; Ernest Rutherford maintained a lifelong interest in the art. Once it gets its hooks into you, you are a student for life. Something happens. Some nameless process you are possibly not even aware of begins.
So this book is far from being the last word on the subject. It’s a short introduction that scratches the surface; the mysteries of alchemy are deep.
Two books I would recommend on the subject are both novels: Lindsay Clarke’s The Chymical Wedding and Patrick Harpur’s Mercurius. Interestingly, both novels feature the same basic premise: the protagonist in each book – a man and a woman respectively – leaves London after the end of a relationship, and attempts to rebuild their life in the country. They discover the work of an alchemist who had lived in the village in the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries respectively which then becomes intertwined with their own rebirths. But the two books couldn’t be more different: The Chymical Wedding is allusive and poetic, Mercurius explicit and exegetical. In reading both, you will be entering the mystery.