Ep. 6: mercury and magicians
It's a surprisingly fine line between magic and science. Along that line lies alchemy. In this episode, I dive into historical attempts to create the philosopher's stone, and the philosophical arguments for its existence. Also, I question whether maybe text messages are magic.
Okay so there’s so much about alchemy I didn’t even touch on. And trying to explain Hermeticism succinctly is a nearly impossible task. But, here’s some further reading if you’re still trying to wrap your head around everything.
One of the things I didn’t get into is the very long non-European history of alchemy. The Wikipedia article actually does a good job of talking about the world-wide history of alchemy. There are enough links to waste days browsing through different alchemists and methods. I’ll see you on the other side. Enjoy.
Some texts I found essential for writing this episode were:
- Alexander Roob, Alchemy & Mysticism (Taschen: 2014).
- This book has incredible illustrations. Alchemy uses symbolism a lot and this book is full of gorgeous prints illustrating the alchemical world.
- Lauren Kassell, “Reading for the Philosophers’ stone”, Books and the Sciences in History, edited by Marina Frasca-Spada and Nick Jardine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000): 132–150.
- One thing I didn’t really get into the episode is the whole relationship between the scholar and the artisan in alchemy. Obviously, it’s impossible to cover a whole field in twenty minutes, but this is a really cool discussion and if you’re interested you should look into it. There's actually a ton out there on this topic-- what I've recommended here is just one chapter.
- Here’s also a fascinating introduction to a book written by a guy who claimed to be a modern alchemist and a Rosicrucian (Masonry on steroids).
For more information about Anna Maria Zieglerin, you’ll want to look for articles by Tara Nummedal. You can access both of these articles without needing to pay for subscriptions to journals. Free access to academic articles is literally my favorite thing.
- Tara E. Nummedal, “Alchemical Reproduction and the Career of Anna Maria Zeiglerin,” Ambix, 48;2, 56-68, DOI:10.1179/amb.2001.48.2.56
- Tara E. Nummedal, “Words and Works in the History of Alchemy,” Isis, Vol. 102, No. 2 (June 2011), pp. 330-337.
We don't have a ton of information about female alchemists. We know women did participate in laboratory work, but they didn't publish the same way men did. So much of our information is lost.
An alchemist at work is disrupted by his upstairs neighbor emptying her chamber pot. Alchemists-- they're just like us!
These are photocopied from alchemical texts. For more information on the kinds of symbols that were used to represent different elements, check out this compilation.
I love Hermeticism. It’s so weird and cool and I really don’t get it, but I want to. I’m still waiting for Hermes to appear in a vision and explain the mysteries of the universe to me. In the meantime, here’s some good jumping off points if you’re looking to learn more about one of the coolest philosophical niches. One thing to be aware of is that there’s a difference between scholarship about Hermeticism and modern people who pull on these texts to explain their own beliefs.
The lab of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier was recreated at the Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris. Lavoisier is known as the 'father of modern chemistry', but his lab employs the same sorts of intruments used in alchemy.
If you’re looking to learn more about Isaac Newton’s alchemical work, check out the work of William Newman and Lawrence Principe, or any of the popular journalism discussing their work. Newman recreates the experiments of Starkey, Boyle, and Newton, and delves deep into why these men of science believed what they were seeing.
- Newman, William Royall, and Lawrence M. Principe. Alchemy Tried in the Fire Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2005. Print.
- Check out this article from National Geographic about Newton’s work. There’s a beautiful picture of Newton’s notes as well.
- Or this New York Times article.
- Here's a fascinating piece in the Economist about the 'rehabilitation' of the term alchemy.
- Or you can take a look at transcriptions of Newton’s notebooks here. They’re awesome, but they’re also mostly in French and Latin. So…
This is a rendering of the Emerald Tablet. The text of the tablet gives the author as Hermes Tresmagistos, but it was probably originally an Arabic text from the 6th-8th centuries AD. This particularly depiction was made by Heinrich Khunrath in 1606.