Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Quotation from Alchemy by E. J. Holmyard

After the wonderful chat this evening (thank you, Alan and Mia!), I wanted to share a quote from Alchemy by E. J. Holmyard, which is an excellent book for people interested in the history of alchemy (I read the Kindle, which was $9.99, and there are even cheaper used copies for sale). Holmyard is mostly interested in alchemy as a precursor of modern science, but he is very sympathetic to its spiritual and cultural dimensions also. Anyway, I thought this passage was very useful re: alchemy's distance from magic, and I really enjoyed reading the whole book:
The worker should in short look upon the mere transmutation of base metals into gold as a secondary object, subsidiary to the transmutation of the soul. This emphasis is repeated by countless alchemical authors, and it is perhaps significant that, as Sherwood Taylor was the first to point out, alchemy was remarkably free from the taint of black magic, invocations of demons, necromancy, and other evil practices contemporaneous with it for practically the whole period during which it flourished. Exceptions to the rule can be found, but the moral tone of mystical alchemy is very high, in Greek, Muslim, and Christian writings alike. The alchemists could find examples of transmutation in the Bible, such as the conversion of water into wine, and biblical imagery is frequently to be met with in symbolic alchemical works; but that and similar practices are used in both directions. That is to say, on the one hand the fact that apparently miraculous changes have scriptural or other authoritative support is taken to confirm the possibility of material transmutation, while on the other hand the operations of practical alchemy are interpreted as having a theological or mystical application. Classical and other mythology served alchemical purposes, often suffering considerable sea-changes, and the whole language of symbolic alchemy presents as colourful an imagery as would be difficult to match elsewhere.


  1. Hard to read the white on black, but the quote was worth it, esp. about how colorful the imagery is, which I assume refers to salt, sulfur, mercury, water, air, earth, fire? Or perhaps to the illuminations themselves? True either way!

    1. Oh, the stuff is totally wild, way beyond just the elements: they use the planets, gods and goddesses, all kinds of dragons and animals etc. to refer to the substances they are working with. There's a great example here that has a link to an article where a real chemist explains how the weird story of a fox and a dragon really does describe a chemical process: volatalization of gold chloride. And yeah, this is my first time to do a light-on-dark blog. It's my alchemical experiment! :-)