Tuesday, May 26, 2015

20 Books to get started in alchemical studies

Q: Is there like one book on alchemy I can read to get an overview of the subject?

A: Yes and no. There are a few great surveys and introductory books, but the field is too vast and the interpretations too varied to fit in just one.

Here are 20 important books that survey different aspects of the topic, from physical chemistry to armchair theory and practical esotericism.

I'm ranking these books roughly in order of how early in your course of study I'd recommend reading them.

1. Lawrence Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy. Magisterial survey from one of the leading scholars in the field. Check out his Teaching Company lectures on the History of Science, which include a few lectures focusing on alchemy in Islam, Medieval and Early Modern Europe.

2. William R. Newman, Promethean Ambitions. This is a great introduction to some of the key themes of alchemy as it relates to key concerns in science. Fans of the homonculus will especially dig it. See also Newman's many articles, or watch him in various videos like the History Channel alchemy program and "Newton's Dark Secrets".

3. Alexander Roob, The Hermetic Museum. Fine production by the great artbook publisher Taschen of alchemical emblems and their influences in mysticism and art.

4. Stanislaus Klossowski de Rola, The Golden Game. The author, who if I've heard right is a Count of some kind, goes by the nickname "Stash" and had a special relationship with The Rolling Stones. Here he demonstrates his esoteric erudition, collecting black and white prints of the Seventeenth century, when a decidedly mystical and mythological dimension was added to the already complex symbolism of alchemical textmakers.

5. Bruce Moran, Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution. Great introduction to the philosophical issues that plaed out in debates over alchemy, chemistry, and medicine during the early history of the scientific revolution.

6. Stanton J. Linden, The Alchemy Reader. Introductory anthology of texts in translation, perfect for students in presenting a survey of short texts introduced with historical and literary contexts.

7. Pamela Smith, The Business of Alchemy. Pioneering exploration of the place of alchemists in society through social and economic modes of history. See also her gargantuan "Body of the Artisan."

8. Tara Nummedal,  Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Exciting demonstration of the use of historical sources like trial records and contracts as well as the usual alchemical texts, opens a lot of doors in the "history from below" of artisans and merchants as they interacted with alchemists.

9. Lyndy Abraham, A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery. This was my first book on alchemy, lent to me by my Shakespeare professor Richard Levin. I'd like it better if there was more explicit citation of the traditions she's summarizing, but it's the best place to look for explanations of the basic themes, symbols, and ideas of alchemy.

10. Rafael Patai, The Jewish Alchemists. Deep survey of the roles that alchemy has played in Judaism, including the magical associations it had for a maverick kabbalist from the circle of Luria, and context on the enigmatic letter-number symbolism of the text Aesch Mezareph.

11. Peter Forshaw, Essays on Academia.edu. Forshaw's important essays are breaking a great deal of ground in the study of Khunrath, who is critical for the understanding of "Spiritual Alchemy" in that era. We look forward to his book, supposedly coming soon, but for now we have a book worth of essays illuminating various aspects and contexts of early modern alchemy.

12. C.G. Jung, Alchemy and Psychology. Classic study of the psychology of Christian esoteric or spiritual alchemy, although not so much as a guide to the history of science dimensions. He wrote some other books on Alchemy but I won't get into that rabbit hole here.

13. Stanislaus Klossowski de Rola, Alchemy: The Secret Art. Survey of alchemical imagery and spirituality imbued with the spirit of 60s occultism. Very suggestive and good introduction to the art.

14. Adam McLean, The Alchemical Mandala. Exploration of the emblems as meditation guides, this is an interesting interpretation of the visual art of alchemy, which has certainly been used by mystics to do visionary work for centuries, this is less reliable as a historical study but very suggestive especially if you're interested in the art side of alchemy. See also his Alchemy Website, a dynamite resource.

15. Arthurian Myths and Alchemy. Another angle on the history of alchemical imagery, an exploration of the role alchemy played in a royal court that looks at at royal propaganda and representation and the context of the alchemical interests of the king's advisors--including George Ripley!

16. Adam McLean, Splendor Solis. One of the most beautiful texts of alchemy, worth studying deeply and deserving of a more comprehensive study (but this is a nice start). See also his Commentary on the Mutus Liber.

17. William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton. Secrets of Nature: Alchemy and Astrology in Early Modern Europe. Vital essays on the links that Renaissance authors found between alchemy and astrology as legitimate modes of exploring natural philosophy, essential for understanding how early modern mentalities really worked--in order to clear up myths about the birth of science.

18. Barbara Obrist, Les debuts de l'imagerie alchimique: XIVe-XVe siecles. Pioneering work on alchemical imagery by a leading scholar. If you can't read French there is an essay in English by Obrist available online.

19. The Quest for the Phoenix: Spiritual Alchemy and Rosicrucianism in the Work of Michael Maier. Valuable historical researches into the biography and thinking of Michael Maier that is unfortunately marred by some historiographical polemic that misunderstand the positions of scholars like Newman and Principe, this book is still very useful for students of spiritual alchemy and its 17th century emblems.

20. Allen Debus, The Chemical Philosophy: Paraclesian Science and Medicine. Pioneering and magisterial study of the role that alchemy played in the history of medicine, by the late dean of alchemical studies. Debus is a towering figure who has opened up the field of Paracelsianism to English-language scholars. See also his Man and Nature in the Renaissance, a fantastic survey of Renaissance history of science topics for students.

1 comment:

  1. I'm afraid I wouldn't reccomend "Arthurian Myths and Alchemy" by Jonathan Hughes, nor his more recent book. There is too much conjecture and fantasising going on, and his more recent book on alchemy in fourteenth century England contains a massive number of errors and just making shit up instead of proper historical research.
    I dissect his recent book here:

    I have not gone back to the Arthurian myths one simply because I don't think it is worth it. If you want to know more about George Ripley, check out Jennifer Rampling's forthcoming book on him and his work.