3 May 2013


Lawrence M Principe. The Secrets Of Alchemy. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

This is a book that every general student of Alchemy, and particularly those interested in the Western (including the Arabic) history of Alchemy, should own for it is, by far, the best book on the history of Alchemy ever yet written. No other book compares to it. The author, a scholar and a chemist, has been a student of the subject for 35 years and he has distilled his learning into this work.
It is not large (only 200 or so pages) and it is written in a lucid and simple style, almost as accessible as a coffee-table book, but it moves effortlessly through some 1400 (and more) years of alchemical writing, theory and practice, leaving no Stone unturned.

Lawrence Principe has built himself a formidable reputation as a scholar over the last two decades with his writings on the subject. Some books have been co-authored with another luminary, William R Newman (Alchemy Tried in the Fire (2002) and George Starkey: Alchemical Laboratory Notebooks (2005)) but he has steadily built his own body of writings too. They are all well worth reading.

Up to now, his emphasis has been on the Golden Age of British Alchemy, the age of Newton, Boyle and George Starkey (Eirenaus Philalethes) in the late 17th century, but, in this book, he extends his vision long into the past, to trace the development of alchemical thought from the Greco-Roman period, through the Islamic period and into the European period from the late Middle Ages onwards. And it is this historical overview which is the prima materia of the book: no other writer has come near the sheer magisterial depth and sweep of his research. The Islamic period, often ignored by other historians because of problems of text translation, is dealt with fully. It is not clear how many languages Principe has but, for the first two chapters of his book alone, Principe notes that he read 200 books, only 10 of which were written in English!

He places the roots of Western Alchemy firmly in the marriage of two things: late Egyptian scientific artisanship (from metalworking and the making of artificial gems to dyeing) with the Greek philosophies about the origins and structure of matter and Nature itself. From this marriage, mysteriously, was born the notion that, instead of just tingeing metals (making silver look like gold, for example), metals might be actually transmuted into other metals.

From these beginnings in the 1st to 3rd centuries AD, Alchemy developed through the Egyptian alchemist Zosimos of the early 4th century with the beginning of the method of expressing chemical processes through secrecy and the hiding of names, through code-names and dream imagery where writers ‘call a single thing by many names while they call many things by a single name’. And, also, we are introduced to the idea that Gnosticism (specific Egyptian Christian mythology and spiritual ideas) might have become fused with, or influenced, the Greek metaphysical principles behind the developing notion of the possibility of transmutation.

From Zosimos, the next major characters are the Arabic alchemists Jabir of the early 8th century, Razes (10th c) and Avicenna (11th c) until the tradition crosses into European culture around the middle of the 12th c. Now, the point here is that Principe is not doing biographical lists but is tracing the development of alchemical ideas as expressed by its main protagonists. We see, for example, how the concepts of elements and humours and atoms become integrated into the Arabic metallic philosophy of Sulphur and Mercury (and eventually Salt) and how, from that conceptual mixture and its application in the laboratory, emerges a new philosophical science.

Once into Western alchemy, the book becomes more exciting because the author, a Professor of Chemistry, can replicate the experiments of people like John of Rupescissa and then, eventually, those of Boyle and Newton and Starkey and, through meticulous decipherment of those enigmatic engravings which usually accompanied European alchemical works, unlock the keys to the ingredients and processes and, even, discover (to his own surprise)the mysteries revealed by seemingly unscientific procedures like continued circulation and cohobations at extremely low temperatures.

For this reviewer, the gold of the book is the description of Principe’s own work on Stibnite (Antimony), his trials and errors, until he finally reproduces that stage of The Work, which so fascinated Newton, of watching ‘trees’ grow inside the Philosophical Egg, as though the mixture were truly alive. As Principe says “My first reaction to this sight was utter disbelief and then – after becoming relatively certain that I had not taken leave of my senses – a sense of awe and wonder. Imagine, then what any chrysopoeian of the seventeenth century must have thought when he witnessed such a sight.”

It was a joy and a privilege to be asked to review this work

There is a lot more in the book: too much to cover in a review. It must be read by anyone with even a passing interest in the subject. As well as the 200 pages of text, there are 36 pages of excellent notes and 20 pages of first-class bibliography. The author has said (elsewhere than in the book) that he wanted to write a work that would be readable by anyone but would contain the resource for anyone to research the history without overlaying obfuscation. That he has achieved.

Any reservations? Only one with regard to the book’s text. The author (being an academic) is very conscious of the light shone upon laboratory alchemy by modern scholastic and academic research, as though academics were the only ones involved in the field. He gives no credit (because he may not know them) to the hundreds or maybe thousands of alchemists working in the world, some of which will, undoubtedly, have taken the laboratory work far further than he has. And who knows how far?
And elsewhere, in filmed lectures (on Youtube), he seems to mock the idea that Alchemy, in any way, concerns psychic development or the ability to become personally as the gods. This flies in the face of the fact that the earliest Alchemy of all – that of the Chinese – began as Neidan (Inner Alchemy – a system of meditation and energy-mapping) and only later developed into Waidan (Outer Alchemy – involving the alchemical preparation of elixirs and other medications). It betrays in the author a modern, scientific-rationalistic dogmatism which runs counter to his often-made assertion that to understand the processes of the alchemists, you had to get into their mind-set.

Quibbles apart, buy this book, then buy a copy for your best friend too. It honestly is money well-spent. Those who live in London and who visit the British Museum may have viewed the ‘magickal’ display cabinet which houses John Dee’s magic mirror and his wax pentacles. In that same cabinet is a pen-knife with a blade half silver and half gold and the half-gold part is said to have been done by alchemical means. This book will tell you how to effect such a transmutation to the astonishment and delight of your friends!

It was a joy and a privilege to be asked to review this work. -- Caroline Robertson

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