I need to understand these people . . . .

Before I get to this question, I should clarify one thing: unless I specify otherwise, when I post here for research help, I’m not asking people just to provide me with relevant-looking titles. That would be lazy of me in the extreme, since I’m usually capable of finding relevant-looking titles on my own, and I don’t want to be lazy. What I can’t do on my own is tell which ones are worth my time. So — not to thumb my nose at recommendations in general, because I do appreciate them, but what I’m really looking for are books you’ve read, or know someone who’s read, or otherwise have heard good things about. Some way to cull the list of all possible sources down to a smaller list of pre-vetted works. (And — the flip side — please do tell me if you know of any utter crap I should stay far, far away from.)

With that in mind: alchemy.

I really want to be able to use alchemy in fiction. I do not yet understand it well enough to do so. I need, not just old-school sources deliberately written to be as obscure as possible so that they won’t share your secrets with the uninitiated, but more modern secondary works that can help me unlock those old-school things, since otherwise I tend to skip off the top of them. But there’s a lot of vaporous New Age crap about alchemy out there, so if you know of any worthwhile books in a more scholarly/historical vein, please pass along titles. I’m already planning on giving Eliade a shot, and I’ve gamed Amazon into making a lot of recommendations, but it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

0 Responses to “I need to understand these people . . . .”

  1. eclectician

    Does Yates have something on this? I remember reading her and it wasn’t actually on Alchemy, but it contained descriptions of a philosophy that could very obviously have served as the underpinnings of such a system.

    • Marie Brennan

      Hermeticism? I’ll probably re-read Yates once I have a better grasp on the thing itself, and will therefore understand what she’s saying a lot better than I did before. But right now, I think I need something closer to entry-level. 🙂

      • moonandserpent

        Yates dips briefly into alchemy in “Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition” and discusses the evolution of Alchemy into the Natural Sciences in “The Rosicrucian Enlightenment”.

        For what it’s worth, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment wouldn’t be a bad entry-level book. More focused on historical aspects than the system(s) itself.

        • Marie Brennan

          I’ve got that one on my shelf, actually, but I think I’ve only ever skimmed it — I didn’t realize she focused on the alchemy -> science evolution in there. Thanks!

  2. amysun

    I’m pretty sure that Erin has some books on the topic, so you might want to ask her. I think maybe Daniel got some recs from her since he’s studying it for his current novel, but he might also have additional sources.

  3. moonandserpent

    Ye old school Alchemy is actually one of my blind spots. I know a smidge, but eh. Most of my Alchemical knowledge comes from the Holy Books of Thelema, which require you to be fluent in Crowley and Thelemic magic as well so I wouldn’t recommend them.

    Sacred-Texts.com has a lot of good original source stuff (http://www.sacred-texts.com/alc/index.htm) including Paracelsus’ Alchemical Catechism and one of Waite’s books on Alchemy.

    Modern books? Eh, I can’t think of any modern books on alchemy off the top of my head that aren’t mired in Jung’s Alchemy as Psychological Metaphor. Now, there is a time and a place for that (says the man who desperately wants Solve et Coagula tattooed on his arms a la Levi’s Baphomet) but that’s not what you’re looking for, is it?

    (If it IS what you’re looking for, even in part, start here: http://www.amazon.com/Jung-Alchemy-C-G/dp/0691010978/ref=pd_bbs_sr_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1234555112&sr=8-3)

    And do you still want that thing I’m ridiculously late in getting you?

    • kythiaranos

      I’ve been reading Rosemary Guiley’s Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy off and on when the mood strikes. She’s rather New-Agey at times, but there’s a lot of information about historical alchemists and their practices. Nothing terribly in-depth, but it might be a good place to start narrowing down where you want to go next.

      • Marie Brennan

        “Nothing terribly in-depth” is not a bad thing, for a topic as deliberately opaque as this one. 🙂 Foundations are a useful thing to have. Thanks!

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m not . . . uninterested in the Jungian thing, since after all my ultimate goal is to translate this into narrative, and so that’s potentially useful. But I’m writing fantasy, which means I do want actual alchemists-in-laboratories to go along with the personal transformations. 🙂

      Thanks for the link; that looks more usefully focused than the other psych books Amazon had been throwing my way. (Von Franz, etc.)

      And yes, I do still want it; I’m ridiculously late in finishing the thing I wanted it for, so you’re actually still on schedule.

  4. zosimos

    Well, I don’t claim to be an expert but as per my username I do have some background and interest in alchemy.

    The first thing you want to do is decide what type of alchemy you’re interested in. There’s a few major threads of alchemical ideas.

    Traditional Western Alchemy, which was mainly concerned with producing chemical changes on material objects (ala the famous philosopher’s stone). This was most commonly found in Europe and the Middle East. It runs the very very long range from early greek alchemists to Enlightenment era scientists.

    Traditional Eastern Alchemy, based off the Chinese tradition, which while it did look at chemical changes also had a strong focus on immortality attempts and other biological changes. Derived from a mixture of religious Daoism and popular Chinese religious beliefs.

    Revived Alchemy, which started in the past few hundred years looked at alchemy as a spiritual pursuit where alchemical truths were seen to be either entirely spiritual or a combinational of spiritual and material. In this thread of alchemy the philosopher’s stone may be able to change lead to gold but is also representative of a higher philosophic truth or heavenly nature. Ideas like this, where the philosopher’s stone could confer things like heavenly salvation, could cause issues with religious philosophers at the time. Elements of it move back further in history in relation to small religious movements or cults that used alchemical symbolism or ideas as well as mixing with general alchemic though, but it was not the major trend in alchemical thought for a long time. In recent times the spiritual side of alchemy has pretty well eclipsed the material side as you’ve mentioned (re: New Age stuff).

    Depending on what you’re more interested in, and if you want things like overviews of trends of thought or actual alchemical recipes, I can try to recommend some relevant and useful titles.

    • Marie Brennan

      Eastern would be lovely someday, but for the time being my focus is on Western alchemy; one thing at a time, y’know?

      (Which is to say, if you want to recommend Eastern-oriented titles, feel free; I’ll write them down and save them for a later day.)

      For the purposes of fantasy, I think what would serve me best is to know both the traditional/practical end and the more recent/spiritual end — not up to the New Age, necessarily, but Renaissance and Enlightenment-era concepts. I imagine there’s lots of productive space for playing with a combination of those two approaches.

      I’m especially interested in what alchemists did — not just the concepts they thought about, but what they did when they got into the laboratory.

      • zosimos

        The body of the artisan: art and experience in the scientific revolution has some good material in chapters 2-4, looking at some of the ideas of alchemy through the art and artistic work it made or inspired. There’s some nice stuff on Paracelsus there.

        Alchemy and Alchemists by Sean Martin is a short (90ish pages) work that is a basic overview of the history of alchemy (western and eastern) and traces some of the ideas through it. It’s not the best source in the world, being extremely short and a bit prone to over believing the rumors of alchemists, but it is a very easy way to get a quick and dirty overview of the history to make other works easier to get through though.

        William Newman’s work is top notch in the history of alchemy, although he tends to focus on how alchemy is a precursor to modern chemistry as well as textual analysis. Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature is a nice look at the ideas about alchemy (controlled material world) and nature (uncontrolled material world) affect the modern era and how they influenced alchemists at the time.

        Ambix is the journal of the scholarly study of alchemy. It’s a good place to get some material once you have a stronger focus on a specific period or alchemical idea.
        A specific recent article that may be helpful for using alchemy in fantasy:
        Toleration of Alchemists as a Political Question: Transmutation, Disputation, and Early Modern Scholarship on Alchemy by Ku-Ming Chang (Ambix, November 2007 Vol. 54 Iss. 3) has a interesting look at one public debate during the late era of alchemy about the legality and morality of alchemists in society.

        For some of those bothersome first person sources, the Chymistry of Isaac Newton (http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/newton/) collects Newton’s journals and makes them available online. Since they include lab notebooks you can get some idea of how one of the later alchemists worked.

        The alchemy reader: from Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton by Stanton J. Linden (ed) is a nice collection of various primary sources through the history of western alchemy. You can get through a lot of the well known alchemists and their main ideas here.

        That’s a quick set of off-hand references, I can try to give a more detailed or specific list with more time or if I can find my old collection of sources on alchemy.

        • Marie Brennan

          Fabulous — several of those are books or writers that popped up when I started gaming Amazon’s recommendation system. Now I know which ones to pay attention to. Thanks!

    • mindstalk

      Philosopher’s stone wasn’t about immortality in the West? Have fantasy and RPGs steered me wrong?

      Bryn: I read The Devil’s Doctor by Philip Ball, on Paracelsus. Seemed good — probably useless for interpreting notes, more of a biography, “what he thought”, and connections to the roots of modern science.

      • zosimos

        The philosopher’s stone could be about physical immorality or more frequently about spiritual immortality (either as a sort of ascension to a spiritual plane or in terms of salvation and heaven) but a lot of the actual work by alchemists was in the actual transmutation of metals.

        The Philosopher’s stone was primarily an agent of purification, purifying base metals into the perfect state of gold. It was when the idea of purification was applied to people it could be seen as a way to purify oneself into immortality or salvation, but that wasn’t a universal belief or goal for alchemists. Sometimes it was also looked at as a sort of ultimate medicine, curing ills.

      • malsperanza

        Changing base metal into gold was practical alchemy; the spiritual equivalent was purifying the soul, which led to immortality. The alchemist’s quest for the Philosopher’s Stone was not a quest for material wealth but for spiritual enlightenment. As the metal is refined, impurities are distilled out, leaving only the pure metal, which is transmuted through stages of chemical process combined with spiritual practice into even purer metal, and then even purer, and so on, until gold. The western alchemists working to create gold out of lead were working both literally and metaphorically. The philosopher’s stone is both a thing and an idea. Lots of neoplatonism in there, all mixed up with mining, metallurgy, chemistry, astrology, and heresy.

  5. malsperanza

    I’m a huge geeky amateur fan of alchemy & have edited a couple of books on the stuff. When I have a few minutes I could post some detailed info, if you like.

    For your purposes, to start with I recommend a very small, compact book called “Alchemy: The Great Secret.” It’s OP but available used:


    It runs through the basics pretty well, and has good pictures and a little section at the back of selections from primary sources. A nice little book.

    I also recommend this website: http://www.levity.com/alchemy/ Most of the alchemy websites are run by slightly flaky people with an agenda, but this one is run by a serious scholar in Edinburgh, and it’s reliable. The archives of images and primary sources are fantastic.

    Eliade is good on the religious side of alchemy, as Yates is a standard work on the history of esotericism. Alchemy, though based on ancient arts and practices, is essentially an invention of the European Renaissance, precursor of the sciences of the Enlightenment. It occurs at that remarkable moment when science and art split from one another, leaving religion standing in the middle of the road, unsure which parent to stick with. So to speak.

    • Marie Brennan

      Detailed info is always appreciated!

      It occurs at that remarkable moment when science and art split from one another, leaving religion standing in the middle of the road, unsure which parent to stick with.

      And I think it’s that liminality that interests me. Alchemy is half-magic, half-science, and so it’s a good antidote to the general tendency in fantasy to assume those two things must be antithetical.

  6. difrancis

    This is one that (admittedly while skimming) I found useful as a primer, if only because it does look at this more historically:


  7. erzebet

    Cambridge University’s Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery is an excellent resource. I own it, have read it several times and find it invaluable.

    • Marie Brennan

      Another one on my Amazon wish list!

      (This is pleasing to me because it means my cunning system is working: I get Amazon to recommend me things, and then sort that list by getting more detailed referrals from people who actually know the books.)

  8. therinth

    This book is the best for thinking about things:


    It relates the process of “The Great Work” in alchemy to the Jungian theories about the subconscious mind trying to better itself. It’s very technical in its own stilted way.

    And this book is THE BEST EVER for pictures.


    I can’t express how gorgeous the this book is. Make sure you get the 700 pg version with all the lovely pictures — and then buy it, buy it now. It’s page after page of full color pictures along with sidebars relating the figures they show to the text. You’ll never regret getting it, even if you never write a book about alchemy ever again.

    I’ve got my copy of the last, i can bring it for you to see at group. And Daniel’s already borrowed my copy of the former.

Comments are closed.