30 November 2011


Jordan Stratford. A Dictionary of Western Alchemy. Quest Books, 2011.

This is a useful book up to a point. It brings together a range of chemical symbols and offers a summary of the most important processes of laboratory alchemy and throws in a brief biography of a couple of dozen alchemists of note.
But it is a curious book. It has been collected by a student of Gnosticism who is a great fan of the Jungian interpretation of Alchemy and yet it is, in most part, a collection of symbols and descriptions of chemical substances, such as would be useful to the purely laboratory alchemist.

Indeed, it doesn’t stop at alchemy, it contains symbolism and descriptions of chemical processes and substances (such as sugar and steel) which have little or nothing to do with pure mineral alchemy. One thing seems clear: that this is a work of general scholarship rather than a work written by a practising laboratory alchemist to be understood by his peers. It is possibly a work – given the ubiquity of the internet – which owes more to Wikipedia than to personal understanding.

Evidently, most of the symbolism is taken from a work on general chemistry, rather than from the fairly tight discipline of substances and processes that characterized alchemy until the late 17th century. These symbols for the elements, compounds and processes are important, both to interpret manuscript notes by alchemists like Boyle and Newton and to interpret the pictorial imagery which is so much a part of the alchemical message and which often gives the greater clues to the process than any associated words do. The ‘Mutus Liber’, for example, is a book relying solely on pictorial imagery and some of its images can only be deciphered if one knows the symbols for certain substances, since these are encoded into the pictures.

So this Dictionary is useful in this respect. But, it must be said, that the symbols are available in many other places on the Internet, most notably in Adam Maclean’s website and Jordan Stratford acknowledges the help given to him in his researches by Adam Maclean.

There are some obvious omissions in this Dictionary. Maybe the ‘dry’ work on Antimony has acquired some new terms during the current revival of interest in alchemy (especially in France) but on the alchemical web forums, there is much discussion about the Star Regulus, the ‘Eagles’ and the ‘Remora’ and these terms are not found in the Dictionary. Nor is the ‘Net’ (an alloy of copper and iron) of Eirenaus Philalethes, which was worked on by Isaac Newton. Nor is ‘Sal Mirabilis’ (Glauber’s Salt) or ‘Philosopher’s Wool’ (Zinc Oxide), the latter sometimes suggested as Archibald Cockren’s substitute for ‘Antimony’. Nor is ‘Adrop’ mentioned, nor ‘Sericon’, both possibly terms for Red Lead. And the ‘Green Lion’ is described as Sulphuric Acid which is not true in respect of Ripley’s ‘Green Lyon’.

Most significantly, in the book, is the lack of any reference to Spagyrics (plant alchemy), even though this field, named by Paracelsus, cannot be separated from the broader definition of Alchemy. So we have no indication of the Circulatum Minus of Urbigerus or of plant stones in general, though there is the odd reference to herbs like Valerian and Anise.

All this might seem like nit-picking but a good Dictionary is necessary. Alchemy, as a laboratory practice, is flourishing in the modern age. In the last 20 years, the Internet has thrown up at least a half dozen excellent forums, bringing together practising alchemists from around the world; and recent initiatives, such as those of Newman and Principe, to decipher Newton’s notebooks and replicate his alchemy have breathed life into this antique blend of art and science.

This Dictionary should step into that gap but, unfortunately, it does not have the legs to do so. It is too whimsical and patchy (something a good dictionary should not be) and spends a bit too much time concentrating on the etymology of the terms and too little explaining their place or relevance to the discipline as a whole. -- Caroline Robertson

1 comment:

  1. Caroline -

    "One thing seems clear: that this is a work of general scholarship rather than a work written by a practising laboratory alchemist"

    This is a fair review. I have a Jungian bias towards alchemy as a speculative discipline, and I reveal that bias in the introduction. It is not intended as a reference text for lab alchemists. It is for those working with the primary source material, trying to orient themselves to the philosophy and world-view of the authors.

    "Most significantly, in the book, is the lack of any reference to Spagyrics"

    The reference is on page 79.

    The emphasis on things like etymology is because alchemy, and alchemical symbolism, is a language. Rather than a prosaic language of absolute equivalencies, it is a poetic language of illustration and allusion.

    It does not claim to be comprehensive, but concise. At 500 definitions, there's certainly room for more - I don't think that the process of compilation will ever come to an end.

    "owes more to Wikipedia"

    Well, JSTOR, but I take your meaning.

    I've been working this material for decades now, but as I've said, and as you've rightly discerned, as alchemical researcher, not as a lab chemist.

    Thank you for taking the time to review it!