Book of Secrets: Alchemy and the European Imagination, 1500-2000

From the exhibition and exhibition brochure for “Book of Secrets” an exhibit on alchemy in European popular culture, 1500 – 2000, currently on view at Yale’s Beinecke Library.   A collection guide to some images from the exhibition and the Library’s alchemical collections has been posted on the Beinecke’s Digital Images and Collections.

I have no Knowledge of it at all,” wrote Ezra Stiles of alchemy. “I never saw Transmutation, the aurific Powder, nor the Philosophers Stone,” the early President of Yale College continued, “nor did I ever converse with an Adept knowing him to be such. … I never had, or made an Experiment with, a Furnace or Alembic in all my Life. I am not versed in the Books of the Adepts; I have seen but few of those Authors, & read less—perhaps all the little I have read collectively would not equal an Octavo Volume.”

Germany, 1562

In his ability to discuss at length how little he knew about alchemy, Stiles was a characteristic reader of early modern European alchemical literature. By 1777, when Stiles was writing, alchemy was a commonplace of British and European popular culture. From the sixteenth century, books of alchemical secrets were published in almost every European language, and were bought, read, annotated, mocked, discussed, and collected by an audience of skeptics and believers alike. Terms such as the philosopher’s stone entered into the popular understanding, as did the names of alchemical authorities such as Raymond Lull.

Book of Secrets explores the curious centrality of alchemy in the European imagination from the late middle ages through the present. The Yale Library collections of alchemical literature reflect the continuing presence of alchemical works in any well-furnished library, from the first donations of the alchemically inclined Bishop George Berkeley to a fledgling Connecticut college, to the gift to Yale in 1965 of Mary Conover Mellon’s collection, inspired by her treatment by Jung, of alchemical books and manuscripts.

This cursed craft whoso wole exercise,
He shl no good han that hym may suffise;
For al the good he spendeth theraboute
He lese shal; therof have I no doute.
[This wicked craft, whoso will exercise,
He shall gain never wealth that may suffice;
For all the coin he spends therein goes out
And is but lost, of which I have no doubt.]

Chaucer, “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale,” The Canterbury Tales (1387 – 1400)

By the late fourteenth century, when Chaucer’s yeoman spoke of “this cursed craft,” alchemy had entered into European popular culture by way of translations from Greek and Arabic texts into Latin and European vernaculars. Alchemy entered into European popular culture in the late middle ages, with the translation of Greek and Arabic texts into Latin and the European vernaculars. Based on the tenets of the Corpus Hermeticum, a body of texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and meant to date to the age of Abraham, alchemy, or al-kimya in Arabic, can be summarized as the attempt to decipher a divine presence in the material world. Hermetic philosophy taught its practitioners to look to the natural world to discover the meaning of the macrocosm. The alchemist sought to remove the impurities from matter, in order to reveal its original state and purpose. One of the central processes was the attempt to transform a material from its base to its pure state, such as the transformation of lead into gold, a process known as chrysopoeia. Alchemists also sought to discover the elixir of life, a substance which would cure all diseases and provide longevity or immortality. The philosopher’s stone, the alchemist’s tool in these two endeavours, supposedly granted its discoverer a perfect understanding of the mysteries in which alchemy was shrouded.

Alchemy was also chemistry. Early modern alchemists were intensely concerned with understanding and manipulating matter. Following the example of the influential sixteenth-century Swiss physician Paracelsus, they engaged with the practical complexities of purification and the separation of chemical substances. Alchemical literature deals with the chemical changes brought about through processes of heat, distillation, and evaporation, while instructing its readers in the substances they would require: salt, sulphur, mercury, lead, and others. It describes the chemical effects its practitioners could create or expect: residues, shifts in color, transformations in character or substance. It was a laboratory science, requiring its adepts to build, buy, and manage furnaces and the related equipment, such as crucibles and alembics, necessary to heat materials to great temperatures.

These are not fables. You will touch with your hands, you will see with your own eyes, the Azoth, the Mercury of Philosophers, which alone will suffice to obtain for you our Stone.

Heinrich Khunrath, Amphitheatrvm sapientiae aeternae solis verae (1609)

Alchemy was also mystical, a body of occult knowledge which could be viewed as challenging the teachings of the Church. It is no coincidence that the original Faust, source of the later dramas by Goethe and others, was said to have been an alchemist. Alchemy was frequently prohibited, even while monarchs might hire alchemists to study and practice at their courts. Above all, secrecy was the quintessence of European alchemy. Like Chaucer’s alchemist, the yeoman’s Canon, alchemists were meant to be fiercely protective of their secrets, requiring initiates in the alchemical arts never to practice their science for ill-gotten gain and never to reveal their secrets to the public.

No figure captures the fascination and ambiguity of alchemical literature like that of the alchemical adept. In satires such as Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1612), the alchemist is portrayed as a charlatan. In other works, he reigns as the magus, the adept. Illustrations show the alchemist at work alone in the library; in others, he prays for divine guidance; in still others, he can be seen active and vigorous, at work in a laboratory in the company of assistants and peers. In his pursuit of alchemical knowledge, it is the alchemist who moves from the private sphere of secrets to the potentially shared or public space of the laboratory, the library, or the printed word. This tension between the private and the public, secret and shared knowledge, characterizes alchemical literature.

Because the alchemist’s goal was both spiritual and material, alchemical literature offers an uncanny combination of the practical with the highly symbolic. Core materials, such as mercury and sulphur, were endowed with highly figurative personae and narratives, even while authors described the specific appearances of their chemical metamorphoses in the laboratory. Chemical processes were described with elaborate pageantries of metaphor. One central allegory was that of the chemical wedding, in which male and female elements of sulphur and mercury were joined in a figurative marriage and its consummation. Sulphur was represented by the gold King; mercury, by the silver Moon. This conjunction, or unification, of the two substances through chemical procedures, was the subject of much alchemical illustration and commentary.

I have a daughter Light Saturn that is my darling
The which is mother of all working
And in which four things been hid
A golden seed, a silver seed, a mercury seed & a sulphur seed.

Copied by Isaac Newton in his reading notes on alchemy, Mellon MS 79

Secrecy is often publicly performed in alchemical literature. Emblems—the sun, the moon, the King, the Queen, the green dragon—symbolically enact chemical processes, in the elaborate engravings by which alchemical literature was so often illustrated. Authors also consistently admonish the reader never to speak of alchemy in mixed company, where the knowledge might be misunderstood or misused. The books themselves were shared by readers, as can be seen in the annotations, the exclamations in the margins, the passages underlined in successive inks by successive hands. Whether read or written, practiced or displayed, alchemical literature took secrecy as one of its central and very public tenets.

Alchemy could inspire a quite pragmatic interest in the possibility of personal enrichment. Gold, and the transmutation of metals, was a topic of keen interest on the part of many European rulers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is no coincidence that alchemical texts were so closely allied with works on mining and metallurgy, on commerce, on the production of gold, and that the authors so often abjured their readers not to speak of the great wealth which their practices—and their books—could generate. Concern with the commercial and practical implications of alchemy, such as the study of how metals could be produced and changed, did not preclude the study of alchemy as a divine, a spiritual quest. One example of this can be found in the work of the English scientist, Sir Isaac Newton. Alchemy was a central focus of Newton’s career, the intensely spiritual concentration on the purification of matter. Newton’s alchemical notebook, shown here, was only one of many similar private works in which Newton recorded his study of alchemy.

Philosophia hermetica, ca. 1790


Ease him corrupted.

Ben Jonson, The Alchemist (1612)

European readers were familiar with alchemical motifs and literature, even when they did not believe in alchemy or were actively critical of its practitioners. Ben Jonson, so knowledgeably mocking of alchemical practitioners and processes in The Alchemist, was only one of many satirical commentators on alchemy. In Areopagitica, his famous polemic against censorship, the poet John Milton uses alchemical allusions scathingly, arguing that “I am of those who beleeve, it will be a harder alchymy then Lullius ever knew, to sublimat any good use out of such an invention [i.e., book licensing].” This was no passing flirtation with alchemical imagery, but the mining of a metaphor which Milton knew would be familiar to his readers in its many complexities: the science of alchemy, its authorities such as Raymond Lull, and the tenuous state of alchemy’s premise that its practitioners could transform base metal into sublime material. Alchemy, as Milton knew, occupied a place in the cultural economy, circulated by poets and authors in the coinage of verse, satire, literary defense, and attack.

Par toi, je change l’or en fer
Et le paradis en enfer;

Charles Baudelaire, “L’Alchimie de la douleur,” Les Fleurs du Mal (1861)

Detail from Ripley Scroll, ca. 1570

By the end of the eighteenth century, alchemy as a science had been overtaken by the emerging discipline of chemistry. Alchemy retained its prominence in European popular culture, but as an occult art, a body of secret knowledge to which authors and artists of the Romantic movements of the nineteenth century turned as an alternative to industrialization and an increasingly scientized view of nature. The literatures of Hermes Trismegistus and Paracelsus were adopted by Romantic authors as powerful symbols of spiritual and psychic transformation. As the example of Baudelaire’s “L’Alchimie de la douleur” reveals, alchemy remained an important corpus for the discussion of ideas of transformation, baseness, and purity.

In the late nineteenth century occult revival, which saw the founding of organizations such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, alchemy was increasingly defined as a magical art, like astrology or tarot, in which mysticism was placed in opposition to scientific rationality. Viewed less as the study of a secret nature than as the search for a lost pre-scientific understanding of the world, alchemy was increasingly valued for the obscurity of its texts and the power of its symbolic imagery.

I had discovered, early in my researches, that their doctrine was no mere chemical fantasy, but a philosophy they applied to the world, to the elements, and to man himself.

W.B. Yeats, “Rosa alchemica,” The Secret Rose (1897)

Ironically, it was as a symbolic knowledge that alchemy was to be associated with twentieth-century science. In the 1920s, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung turned to alchemical literature as an important corpus of symbolic imagery. In Jung’s reading, the early modern alchemists reveal the consistency and perpetuation of certain symbolic processes and images across time. In reading nature symbolically, the alchemists were depicting the human thought process at work. The alchemist’s secret understanding and representation of the world becomes, for Jung, the very public rendition of categories of the human psyche.

It is in this disjointed guise—as mystical art, lost knowledge, symbolic abstraction of the psyche—that alchemical literature has continued to the present. Umberto Eco, in Foucault’s Pendulum, emphasizes the power inherent in the idea of secrecy, the mysteries and conspiracies which can be written and re-written around the adepts, texts, and sub-texts of alchemical literature. In the contemporary Japanese manga and film, Full-Metal Alchemist, two brothers are enmeshed in political and natural conspiracies as they attempt to use alchemy to resurrect their mother. Corruption, secrecy, and loss remain the powerful themes of alchemy, in Full-Metal Alchemist as in The Canterbury Tales.1002678

Above all, European alchemical literature is a canon, a cultural history in which key authorities are resurrected and key texts are read and interpreted by successive generations of readers. Nowhere is the connection of alchemy to its early modern European roots more visible than in the second life of Nicholas Flamel, early modern alchemist and owner of the philosopher’s stone, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997). At last, and unlike most of his precursors in European alchemical literature, Rowlings’s alchemist has been successful in his quest to discover the philosopher’s stone.

See more images of alchemical texts at the Beinecke Library.

1 Response to “Book of Secrets: Alchemy and the European Imagination, 1500-2000”



  1. 1 Punchy And Zippy And Bangy And Crashy at Hooting Yard Trackback on February 27, 2009 at 8:02 am

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