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Book: Alchemy by Ej Holmyard

Classic study by noted scholar ranges over 2000 years of alchemical history: ancient Greek and Chinese alchemy, alchemical apparatus, Islamic and early Western alchemy; signs, symbols, and secret terms; Paracelsus, English and Scottish alchemists, and more. Erudite, learned coverage of philosophical, religious, mystical overtones; replacement of alchemy by scientific method, much more.

This is perhaps the best ever introduction to the history of alchemy. Holmyard was a professional researcher in chemistry and few writers in English have had anything approaching his familiarity and depth of knowledge about the subject of experimental alchemy. His knowledge of the contributions of Muslim civilization to alchemy are the best to be found in any history of alchemy. This is one one of the book's main pluses, in contrast to the other reviewer who does not seem to appreciate the overwhelming importance of the Muslim contribution. Indeed, as an "science, alchemy/chemistry proper was virtually invented by Muslim civilization. Today the scientific aspects of alchemy are frequently ignored/deemphasized in favor of speculative psychology and other trends, but it must not be forgotten that alchemy was/is fundamentally a scientific enterprise, although its notion of 'science' presumes a very holistic cosmology and phenomenology of macrocosm and microcosm; and of matter, soul, and spirit. In any case, even an understanding of inner/esoteric alchemy cannot be divorced from its outer/exoteric aspects. For those more interested in the inner/esoteric side of alchemy, this text is still quite essential, for although Holmyard focuses on the exoteric side, he also also provides the appropriate links to the esoteric side of alchemy as well. One simply cannot properly appreciate authentic esoteric alchemy without a grounding in its exoteric foundations. Titus Burckhardt's 'Alchemy' provides an good companion to Holmyard. Although Burckhardt is focused on inner alchemy, Holmyard provides much of the historical background needed to get the most out of Burckhardt's essay which is, unfortunately, quite vague and abstruse in too many places. Together, these two texts are indispensable for anyone serious about the meaning and history of alchemy.

As Holmyard explains, Western Alchemy is a complex of ideas about the true nature of the physical world, and the possibility of manipulating its substance, which emerged in late classical antiquity, were adopted and refined in early Islam, and transferred to medieval Europe, where they underwent a series of transformations before splitting into occult speculation and proto-chemistry in the course of the seventeenth-century. Paracelsus, often remembered as a "typical" alchemist, was in his time a revolutionary innovator in the field. (His claim to know how to make an artificial human, a "homunculus," inspired Goethe, and is another contributor to "Fullmetal Alchemist" but is outside Holmyard's consideration, although the man himself gets a whole chapter.)

In the process, translations and supposed translations of Arabic alchemical writings deposited dozens of Arabic words, and words transmitted through Arabic, into Western languages, including English. (Holmyard gives a breakdown of major examples; also noting where that sixteenth-century maverick Paracelsus either made up Arabic-looking words, or radically changed the meanings of real ones, such as "alcohol," to suit himself.)

It seems that everyone is familiar with the idea that alchemy was about transmuting "base" (corruptible) metals into imperishable gold, and most people assume that the motive was economic. As in China, which had its own form of alchemy, however, the motivation was also medical. The same "perfecting" of nature, by finding a perfect balance of the "elements" and "qualities," that worked on metals would cure all diseases, including old age, and even death, so the Elixir of Life was sought with equal, if not greater zeal. This fit in nicely with the medical views of the age, which, despite a preference for "animal and vegetable" rather than "mineral" remedies, sought for a drinkable gold, or "aurum potabile," as a way for the body to absorb the metal's "incorruptibility." As Chaucer ironically noted of a greedy Physician, in the "General Prologue" to the "Canterbury Tales, For gold in phisik [medicine] is a cordial [heart restorative] / Therefore he lovede gold in special" (lines 443-444).

The book is very uneven: only 8 pages on Greek alchemy (including barely 2 pages on Zosimos) but 65 pages on Islamic alchemy--a fact that reflects his decided slant toward the more modern, scientific alchemists. The most interesting and useful sections concern his biographies, especially a whole chapter on Paracelsus and a chapter each on Scottish and French alchemists. Especially interesting is his story about Alexander Seton (p.223-232) who, like a true Merlin or Taoist wizard, quietly toured Europe having unbelievers transform gold from lead with his secret powder, never touching the preparations himself. Still, our author concludes that the innumerable accounts by reliable eyewitnesses were all, somehow, fakes--a conclusion he reaches after "rejecting as we must the hypothesis that Seton effected genuine transmutations" [p. 232]. That should give you a taste of this opus. You will need to look elsewhere for psychological (Jung) or hermetic (Goddard, Evola) perspectives on alchemy. Nevertheless, this is a decent historical overview of the field and not a bad place to start.

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