13 May 2012


Peter Maxwell-Stuart. The Chemical Choir: A History of Alchemy. Continuum, 2012 (Repr.)

Peter Maxwell-Stuart has been steadily writing good, readable, academic studies on the subject of magic and magicians since 2004 and his titles include Witch Hunters (2004), Wizards (2005) and Ghosts: A History (2007). The current book for review is a new edition of the title which was first published in 2008, but is worthy of review still.
This is an excellent book. Written by an academic but one who sees, or who might have a bit of a feel for, the magickal worldview. It covers alchemy from the Chinese tradition, through the Indian, Roman/Egyptian and early medieval Arabic traditions and into medieval and renaissance Europe, through the Age of Enlightenment and to the nineteenth century (which the author calls the ‘Age of Self-Absorption’) and finally finishing with a quick look at some twentieth century alchemical characters of the Western World.

Because it is a complete history of the subject in a relatively short book of some 80,000 words, lack of detail is to be expected. It deals mostly with the development of philosophical models rather than getting into the materials, equipment and laboratory processes. It mentions most of the main characters and includes references to many new ones (especially those of a more fraudulent bent) and includes many good anecdotes from history, which leaven the mixture. The book is, therefore, useful for academics and general readers but only of historical amusement to practising alchemists.

This is a book based on secondary sources and it is clear the writer is happiest in the later European periods. In the very opening section of the book, he argues that “there is little doubt that ‘alchemy’ is a mongrel term originating in Chinese ‘kim’ or chim’ meaning aurifaction.” But there is no proof for that and most people see the term’s derivation as being from ‘Khems’, the ancient Egyptian name for Egypt, with ‘khemea’ or ‘al-khemea’ meaning the Egyptian Art.

He also seems to confuse Emperors. He refers to Ching Ti (though the usual modern transliteration would be Jingdi of Han) and to his encounter with mystic and magician Luan Da: but it was to Jingdi’s successor, Wu of Han that Luan Da was presented and, while the reign of Emperor Wu may have initially relaxed some restrictions concerning the making of gold, it was not right to say that “the practice of alchemy picked up again” because, later in the Han Dynasty, mystics like Luan gradually lost their influence as the rulers passed many laws against them and, with the fall of the influence of Luan Da, mediums were not allowed to barter their crafts alongside roads, and some were even forbidden to make a living at such a craft at all. Those married to shamans were not even allowed to hold government office.

The author then talks of the two Chinese paths for creating an elixir of immortality: Wei Tan (the usual modern transliteration is Waidan) which is the taking of alchemically prepared substances and Nei Tan (Neidan) which he says ”uses bodily tissues and secretions such as saliva or semen or blood”, hinting at possible tantric-style practices; but Neidan is really a system of internal disciplines like meditation where the body is seen as a cauldron. Other small errors may include the ascribing of alchemical practices to the almost-miraculous preservation of the Lady of Tai (Lady Dai) (c100bc), though there has never been any indication that her preservation was due to anything other than natural mummification; and the identification of Ge Hong and Ko Hung as “the great alchemists of the third and fourth centuries AD” whereas these two gentlemen seem to be one and the same person.

Later, in the more European sections, we come to the best-known Western alchemists and most are included, though great names like Artephius of the twelfth century, the thirteenth century Roger Bacon, the fourteenth century Nicholas Flamel (left) and the fifteenth century Basil Valentine seem to miss their proper share of coverage. Then the author nestles comfortably in the alchemy of seventeenth century Britain and give good attention to what is perhaps the Golden Age of British alchemy, with George Starkey (Eirenaeus Philalethes) and his sometime students, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, leading the pack. This is also the century that begins in Magic (and the death of John Dee), sees the final rise and fall of the Witch-Hunts and ends in ‘Enlightenment’, the concept of atheism and the scientific, rather than the mystical, way.

Two things I would have liked more on from this period were firstly the differences, seen by Boyle and his late sixteenth century contemporaries, between themselves and simple ‘chymists’ (who were those laboratory workers in the new science of manufacturing medicines from minerals and herbs to combat common diseases) and also the move away from mystical to pure (even atheistic) scientific thought from the end of the seventeenth century.

Boyle and other alchemists saw themselves as Philosophers of Nature. Their laboratory work, and specifically their work on gold, was to prove or disprove their theories (from reading, discussion, meditation or dreams) concerning the essence of life itself within Nature, its seeds and its primes. Van Helmont says ‘Theologians should enquire about God and the natural philosopher about Nature’ but, for most alchemists, faith was always their starting and finishing point.

They were concerned with the chemical properties of substances only insofar as it allowed them to explore the basis of the whole of Nature herself through the studied destruction of her minerals and their recombining into a perfected whole. Gold was the goal as a metaphor for the divine but the important thing was doing the work and not seeking for the end result. Even a practising alchemist like Nettleton (‘The Alchemy Key’) would say after a detailed chemical exposition of the Artephius path, “Intuition tells us that alchemical transmutation is not chemistry but didactic philosophy.”
Within decades of Starkey (“the last alchemist”) and Boyle (“the first chemist”), a scientist like Benjamin Franklin was trying to work out the nature of electricity and lightning using the tools of reason and experiment alone. The world of the alchemist had suddenly been eclipsed by the new world of science.

But it is with the Age of Self-Absorption that the author strikes his sad note. In 1850, Mary Anne Attwood (right), a young English woman of a mystical turn of mind, who lived with her alchemist father, published A Suggestive Enquiry into Hermetic Mystery and sold 100 books. It covers Hermetic Philosophy, Transmutation, First Matter, Philosophical Matter and the making of the Philosopher’s Stone among other things and is written in a curious antique style with information, quotations, contemplations, references and philosophy cascading onto the page. It is a beautifully abstruse book and it is the thing of legend for, when the alchemist father read his daughter’s book, he immediately persuaded her to recall every single copy of the published work she could find and burn them. Only a handful of original copies were kept by the family. Who knows the reason but some say it was because she had revealed too much.

But our author sees in Mary Anne Attwood only a “specimen of the higher blather” and her reasoning as “a will o’ the wisp flitting hither and thither among thickets of abstract nouns and the tangled roots of pseudo-biblical cadences”. Equally, an alchemist or a magician could criticize the author for his picking away at concepts which should better be handled with a broader brush. Alchemists are not always precise like an academic: elements melt into each other because they exist in concepts which some French alchemists say are best expressed in ‘the language of the birds’, where revelations, meanings and associations often arise through dream links, homophone and metaphor.

The book finishes with a good section on the twentieth century, centring on Archibald Cockren, the alchemist of Holborn, who died during the Second World War. It finishes before the very modern age which may be a pity.

Because of people like Jean Dubuis (1979 founder of Les Philosophes Du Nature) and Frater Albertus (founder of the Paracelus Research Centre/Paracelsus College) and teachers like Manfred Junius, alchemy, as a laboratory practice, flourishes. Since the advent of the Internet, and specialist discussion forums, Alchemy has boomed, both in private laboratory practice and in the academic. Alongside books on his life, Robert Boyle’s alchemical experiments are being deciphered and performed successfully again. His mysterious ‘incalescent’ mercury has been reproduced and the mystical trees that entranced Isaac Newton are being grown again in flasks in American universities. On a private level, alchemists are meeting for seminars and workshops as never before. The search for the Philosopher’s Stone (chemical and philosophical) is alive and well in the twenty-first century and, so that you may keep abreast of all interesting underground currents, I recommend, if you’re interested in alchemy, you buy this book. -- Caroline Robertson, with the help of Katrin Kost.

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