Alchemy and Alchemists
Pocket Essentials 2006
Books on alchemy usually fall into two categories: dense, esoteric studies, full of strange symbols, and lightweight self-help books with pink candles on the cover, promising inner transformation. Sean Martins neat little handbook is an excellent medium between the two. He has obviously read and digested some of those difficult volumes, with their medieval imagery and arcane language, then summarised their content for a modern audience. He does this without diluting or dumbing-down the central precepts of this fascinating and mysterious subject.
But is it a science, a religion, or a philosophy? All of the above, Id say. Martin describes it as the art of possibilities, as its practitioners were not living in a world limited by materialism nothing, including ourselves, is immutable, and change is a natural process. With openness, imagination and perseverance, everything could be changed into something of greater worth. Alchemists have often been portrayed as deluded quacks, labouring over stinking retorts, trying to turn lead into gold. Closer investigation teaches that this is only a minor aspect of a greater process; spiritual enlightenment is more important than home-made wealth.
Martins book takes us from alchemys origins in ancient Egypt and Asia, through its flowering in the Middle Ages, and up to 20th century adepts like Fulcanelli. He examines its connections to other fields, like Gnosticism and psychology, and ends with a list of practitioners through the centuries. This latter makes interesting reading; one guy accidentally discovered porcelain, another made phosphorous when he combined gold and urine. The 17th century scholar Athanasius Kircher had himself lowered into an erupting volcano in a basket. Nicholas Flamel, mentioned in the first Harry Potter book, was a real person, and supposedly one of the few alchemists to have succeeded in achieving the Philosophers Stone. All of this is covered in clear, succinct language. Anyone wanting something meatier than New Age waffle, but feeling daunted by the Big Books, would find this a fine introduction.
Martin doesnt pretend to have all the answers to alchemys mysteries, and if he did, he wouldnt be telling us. Real adepts follow Fulcanellis injunction to keep silent. Once one accepts the possibility of transmutation, be it lead into gold, or an unhappy human being into a happy one, then we have the world in our hands.
Books reviewed are available from Book Warehouse, Keen St, Lismore, and Lismore Square.
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