Most of the figures we’ve discussed in our survey of America’s magical history came from very humble backgrounds, and there’s a reason for that. While social mobility has been an American ideal for a very long time, it’s always been subject to sharp though unmentionable limits, mostly rooted in the desire of those already prosperous to see that they and their children get first dibs on the finite supply of wealth, power, and privilege available in this or any other society. That’s why in today’s America, as in most other places and times, the single most accurate predictor of your annual income is how much money your parents made.
There are, however, ways of slipping past the overt and covert filters that keep the poor from being able to compete on a level playing field with the prosperous. Magic is one of those ways. Take the careers of Andrew Jackson Davis, Phineas P. Quimby, and Paschal B. Randolph as examples. As we’ve seen, Davis was the son of Poughkeepsie’s town drunk, Quimby was the son of a dirt-poor New Hampshire farmer, and Randolph was almost certainly born out of wedlock and grew up in one of the most fetid and violent slum districts of New York City: not exactly backgrounds that you would expect to lead to fame and fortune. Each of these men, and many other men and women as well, turned a career in occultism into an end run around the social barriers of their time and ended life considerably more prosperous and respected than they began it. It’s a route we’ll be tracing many other times as our story continues.
Yet it remains true that even among the prosperous, there are those unsatisfied souls who find in occultism something more appealing than the approved entertainments of their class and time can offer them. John Winthrop Jr., who combined a lifelong interest in alchemy with a career that included serving as colonial Connecticut’s first governor, is one example we’ve already discussed, and the subject of this week’s essay is another. His name was Ethan Allen Hitchcock; he was an officer in the US Army, retiring with the rank of Major General; and like John Winthrop Jr., he was one of America’s premier students of alchemy, a passionate and well-informed occultist strongly influenced by some of the traditions and teachings we’ve already explored in these essays.
Hitchcock was born in 1798 in Vergennes, Vermont. His father was the US district judge for the state of Vermont, and his mother was the daughter of Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, for whom he was named. It probably surprised no one when he chose a military career, and he duly graduated from West Point in 1817 and received his commission as a third lieutenant in the Artillery Corps. Thereafter his career followed the normal course for a capable young officer. After several years posted to frontier forts, he received his captain’s bars in 1824, served for three years as assistant instructor of infantry tactics at West Point and then put in four more years as commandant of cadets. (During these years his students included Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and William T. Sherman, among other future Civil War leaders, as well as the future poet and writer Edgar Allen Poe.)
In 1838 he was promoted to major and spent another stint on the frontiers. In 1842, during the Seminole War, he became a lieutenant colonel and took command of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, headquartered at Fort Stansbury, south of Tallahassee, Florida. In the Mexican-American War he served as inspector-general in the headquarters of the American expeditionary force under Gen. Winfield Scott. At war’s end he was promoted to colonel and became the commandant of the Pacific Division, the head of the US army presence in the Pacific states and territories of the Union. All in all, it was a typical career trajectory for his time.
In 1855, however, he resigned from the Army for health reasons, and settled in St. Louis for what he expected to be a long and comfortable retirement. His philosophical interests had already surfaced in early adulthood; dissatisfied with the conventional religious beliefs of his time, he had found satisfaction in a mystical pantheism—“the Whole is one, and all the parts agree with all the parts”—that seems to have been derived at least partly from our old acquaintance Emanuel Swedenborg, whose teachings were as we have seen very much in vogue in the United States when Hitchcock was a young officer. Once he was out of the Army, his spiritual and philosophical interests took center stage, and he began work on a book that, he believed, would reveal the innermost secrets of alchemy once and for all. Remarks upon Alchemy and the Alchemists was duly published in 1857, the first of several books from his pen.
A century and a half later, Hitchcock’s book on alchemy doesn’t seem like anything special, but that’s because his groundbreaking central insight was scooped up and put to work overtime by generations of later writers on occultism. The short version is that Hitchcock believed that the symbolic language of alchemy was a code used by unorthodox religious mystics in the Middle Ages to communicate their teachings without falling afoul of the Inquisition. In his view, the “gold” the alchemists talked about was spiritual enlightenment, the laboratories in which they labored were emblems of the human soul, and everything else in alchemical literature needed to be interpreted in spiritual rather than material terms.
If you know your way around Swedenborg’s writings, it’s instantly clear what led Hitchcock to that conclusion. Swedenborg interpreted the Bible in a symbolic manner, extracting spiritual and metaphysical lessons from the grittiest details of the Bible narrative. Hitchcock took the same set of interpretive tools and applied them to the literature of alchemy, and got results that he found convincing. In a wry homage to the source of his inspiration, he proceeded to turn around and show that Emanuel Swedenborg’s own writings were alchemical in nature in an 1858 book, Swedenborg a Hermetic Philosopher, and applied the same toolkit to a selection of fairy tales in The Story of the Red Book of Appin, which was published in 1863.
By then he was back in the Army. As soon as the Civil War broke out he offered his services to the Union Army; given his age and poor health, it took him a while to have that offer accepted, but his former commander Winfield Scott interceded on his behalf and got him a desk job in Washington running the commission that handled Confederate prisoners of war, which he did with his usual competence. When he finally left the Army again in 1867, he married a woman more than thirty years his junior, relocated to the South for the sake of his health, and died in 1870. He is buried in the military cemetery at West Point.
His book on alchemy turned out to be his most influential work, and there’s an interesting story behind that. Just before Hitchcock took up his pen to write about alchemy, another writer on the far side of the Atlantic went to work on a very similar project. Two writers as different from each other as Ethan Allen Hitchcock and Mary Ann Atwood can hardly be imagined: in contrast to the tough, frontier-hardened Hitchcock, Atwood was a sheltered, bookish, omnivorously learned woman, the daughter of one minister in Church of England and the wife of another, who started assisting her father Rev. Thomas South in his studies of Mesmerism and alchemy in girlhood, and eventually became better informed on the subject than he was. In 1846, she penned her first book, Early Magnetism in its Higher Relations to Humanity, which was published under a pseudonym and hinted very cautiously that certain ancient traditions of initiation had gotten to Mesmer’s animal magnetism millennia in advance.
Once this saw print, she and her father set their sights higher. She would write a book explaining the secrets of alchemy, and he would write an epic poem communicating those same secrets. Her book, A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery, went to the press in 1850. Only after it was already at the print shop did Rev. South take the time to read his daughter’s work. He was aghast. Convinced that she had revealed secrets for which the world was not prepared, he bought up as much of the edition as he could and burnt nearly all the copies, along with the manuscript of his unfinished epic poem. His daughter never wrote another book, but kept one of the copies and left it to a friend when she died in 1910. It finally saw print again in 1918, and has remained in print ever since.
Thus it’s as certain as anything can be that Ethan Allen Hitchcock never got to see a copy of A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery, and since his book on alchemy saw print seven years after hers, it’s just as certain that his book couldn’t have inspired her take on alchemy. Despite this, the two books make the same essential argument—that alchemy was a spiritual process rather than a material one, that the gold sought by the alchemists was enlightenment rather than any more physical substance.
Of course their books and their underlying theories of alchemy were not identical by any means. Hitchcock drew on Swedenborg to explain the secrets of alchemy and Atwood drew on Mesmer, so the two of them disagreed on exactly what the alchemists were doing. To Hitchcock, they were religious mystics who sought union with the Divine through prayer, contemplation, and the practice of virtue—that is to say, the medieval equivalents of Johannes Kelpius and his fellow mystics in colonial Pennsylvania. To Atwood, they were proto-Mesmerists who used the power of animal magnetism to send their pupils into mesmeric trances where they could come into contact with high spiritual forces—that is to say, the medieval equivalents of Andrew Jackson Davis and his many peers in early nineteenth-century America.
Neither of these views was entirely unheard of before our two authors published their books. The mystical interpretation of alchemy had been fashionable for a time in the seventeenth century—it appears in the original Rosicrucian manifestoes, and also in the writings of the great English alchemist Elias Ashmole and the chemical pioneer Robert Boyle. The Mesmeric interpretation of alchemy had to wait for the arrival of Franz Anton Mesmer, of course, but once he came on the scene it didn’t take long for writers to begin hinting about secret connections between Mesmerism and alchemy.
Perhaps the most influential result came from the busy pen of Edward Bulwer-Lytton—yes, he of the famous opening line “It was a dark and stormy night.” His occult novel Zanoni, first published in 1842, took it for granted that the secret of the Rosicrucians and alchemists was an initiatory trance very similar to the one that Mary Ann Atwood discussed in her book. Was her interpretation of alchemy inspired by Zanoni? It seems at least plausible—and it would be far from the first time that a significant theme in occult tradition drew a good deal of its inspiration from a work of fiction.
It wasn’t the conflict over details of theory—Swedenborgian mystical allegory vs. Mesmeric trance—that mattered most in the second half of the nineteenth century, though. What mattered was the idea that the deliberately obscure writings of the alchemists might contain instructions for something that had nothing to do with retorts, furnaces, and precious metals. Hitchcock’s book was very widely read in the half century that followed its publication, and not just by occultists. The Austrian psychologist Herbert Silberer, whose influential book Problems of Mysticism and its Symbolism was published in 1914, credited Hitchcock’s work as a major source of the inspiration that led him to recognize the presence of psychological content in alchemical writings. Silberer’s book, in turn, was one of the primary influences that directed the attention of Carl Jung to alchemy.
Jung was a significant phenomenon in the history of occultism all by himself. To his training as a physician he added a lifelong interest in all things occult—his doctoral dissertation was on the psychology of occult phenomena—and the system of psychology he created was enthusiastically and promptly adopted by occultists all over the Western world, especially in the United States. Jung’s central idea was that in addition to the conscious mind we all know about, and the unconscious mind that his teacher Sigmund Freud discussed—the personal unconscious, in Jung’s terminology—there was another, deeper layer, the collective unconscious, which contained psychological contents that are shared by all human beings.
To Jung, just as to Hitchcock and Atwood, the gold that the old alchemists were pursuing had nothing to do with the physical metal. To Jung, the magnum opus of the alchemists was individuation, his name for the long and difficult process by which a human being changes from a discordant bundle of half-conscious desires and fears to a conscious and uniquely individual person. Mind you, he was less charitable to the alchemists than either of his two predecessors; where Hitchcock and Atwood both imagined alchemists using the language of chemistry and metallurgy deliberately, as part of an intentional act of protective deception, Jung seems to have imagined them hallucinating as they stared into their bubbling flasks, accidentally projecting their inner psychological contents onto an assortment of chemical reactions out of sheer psychological naïveté.
Still, the least useful thing to do with Jung is to take him at face value. Like a great many famous occultists, he was as much a salesman as a sage, and the books he wrote for the general public were carefully crafted either as direct sales pitches for Jungian therapy—Modern Man in Search of a Soul can hardly be described in any other terms—or as subtle and sophisticated efforts to shape Jung’s own public persona—his “autobiography” Memories, Dreams, Reflections, very little of which was written by him, is a great example here. Recent biographers, many of them hostile, have had a field day with his evasions and omissions, but those that I’ve read do a great job of missing the point: as an occultist, Jung was trying to accomplish something specific with his writings, and by and large he succeeded.
His attitude toward alchemy, in particular, became widely accepted in the United States during the twentieth century and was practically a dogma in popular occult circles during those years. The story of how that changed, and how laboratory alchemy experienced a renaissance in the latter years of that century, will occupy a later post in this sequence. For now, I’d like to take a moment or two to focus on a somewhat different question: were Hitchcock, Atwood, Jung, and their many equivalents on to something?
The answer is yes, but it’s not an answer that can be given without reservations. As we discussed in an earlier post, most of the perplexities that surround the modern understanding of alchemy go away in a hurry once it’s remembered that alchemy is not a single field of study like chemistry or physics, but a universal method that can be applied to many different realms of human experience. We really should be talking not of alchemy but of alchemies, each of them applied to some different subdivision of nature in exactly the same way that different sciences apply themselves to particular clusters of phenomena.
From that perspective, the psychological alchemy of Carl Jung and his followers is an important and useful addition to the broader realm of alchemy. Jung’s psychological alchemy works, and not only for those who can afford to shell out a dollar a minute for monthly sessions with a Jungian therapist; plenty of people have learned to use his tools of dream analysis and active imagination themselves to clear away unhelpful psychological issues and come closer to the goal of individuation. The one risk, and it’s one that can be avoided with a little general knowledge, is that some such people make the mistake of thinking that Jung’s alchemy is the only kind of alchemy there is.
In the same way, Atwood’s Mesmeric alchemy works. One of the secrets of initiation in magical lodges is precisely that the person going through the initiation is helped to enter a mild state of dissociation through certain skillfully applied psychological cues, and some forms of initiation use methods considerably more like Mesmer’s own techniques—the role of the laying on of hands in traditional rites of priestly ordination, for that matter, can be compared to the discussions of Mesmeric alchemy in Atwood’s book with advantage.
Finally, of course, Ethan Allen Hitchcock’s alchemy works. The equation between alchemical transmutation and mystical experience goes back a long way; though most alchemists before the nineteenth century who pursued that equation from both ends, it also works to pursue the mystical work on its own. Beyond that, of course, Hitchcock’s book also made it easier for occultists in the United States and elsewhere to begin thinking about the traditions they’d received from the past in new ways.
That was a timely gift, because the first dim thunders of a revolution that would forever transform American occultism could be heard by the time Hitchcock died. The era of Theosophy was about to begin. We’ll talk about that in the next post in this series.
If an alchemist succeeds in making the Philosopher’s Stone, what do they do with it? How is it actually used?
Yorkshire, according to the writings of medieval and modern alchemists, the “stone” is actually a deep red powder. You heat up a base metal such as lead until it melts, and then drop a very small quantity of the powder — as little as a single grain — into the molten metal, which then very quickly becomes pure gold. There are many accounts from the medieval and early modern periods from people who claim to have witnessed this, but to my knowledge it has not been demonstrated in modern times.
How does that then lead to immortality? Is that a separate process?
Greetings JMG. Re: Jung …”Recent biographers, many of them hostile, have had a field day with his evasions and omissions, but those that I’ve read do a great job of missing the point: as an occultist, Jung was trying to accomplish something specific with his writings, and by and large he succeeded.” I’ve got me a copy of his Red Book on my shelf, but I am daunted by it. As for his many detractors and welll-intentioned reinterpreters, I found it really enlightening to read Peter Kingsley’s book Catafalque, about Jung and Corbin. Even Jung’s devoted followers needed to stuff him into a constrictive box! But he was Way Out There, in a strange country that so many of us, craving the approval of the Materialistic gate-keepers and rubber-stampers, will dare not travel to.
Thanks for the blog entry!
Yorkshire, it doesn’t. Taken in small doses it’s supposed to be a very effective tonic for health, but it won’t make you live forever. There are other alchemies, mostly Asian in origin, that are said to produce extreme longevity — another reminder that we need to talk about alchemies in the plural.
Casey, the Red Book is best taken a little at a time! I haven’t read *Catafalque* yet, but it clearly needs to go on the get-to list — Corbin is another utterly fascinating figure.
“Yorkshire, according to the writings of medieval and modern alchemists, the “stone” is actually a deep red powder. You heat up a base metal such as lead until it melts, and then drop a very small quantity of the powder — as little as a single grain — into the molten metal, which then very quickly becomes pure gold. ”
Wow… Yes, the metaphorical power of this is obvious. Take a human, put him/her through a major life challenge of some sort to ‘melt them down’, then insert the grain of spiritual guidance that is attempting to be conveyed, and voila!… Epiphany ensues.
As a sort of materialist myself, I never gave much heed to occult philosophy. However, after these years of reading JMG and giving his writings on occult matters some opportunity to speak in the forum of my own mind, it’s proven to offer valuable insights.
Thank You JMG for the wonderful work you’ve provided, completely free of charge and without a scrap of philosophical invective to try and make a skeptic, like myself, ‘the Other’ or the ‘Guy who just doesn’t get it’. It seems many in our public space these days could learn a great deal from this, as you’ve oft noted over the years.
I’ll continue to be entertained, provoked, and most importantly, expanded by continuing to follow your own journey which you so generously share with all of us.
What other areas has the alchemical method been applied to? Which were developed furthest? Subjective question, but were any particularly unusual or suprising?
Thanks JMG, I especially liked the discussion of C. G. Jung. I have been familiar with some of Jung’s work for many years and find that he has some useful insights into the human condition.
Another excellent essay in this fascinating series…thank you. I was taken with your statement “alchemy is not a single field of study like chemistry or physics, but a universal method that can be applied to many different realms of human experience. We really should be talking not of alchemy but of alchemies, each of them applied to some different subdivision of nature in exactly the same way that different sciences apply themselves to particular clusters of phenomena” and realized there’s a pretty sharp correspondence with astrology. Very much looking forward to your Ingress analysis next month!
I have been considering reading the works of Henri Corbin for some time now. In the great gamut of occultism, how would you rate his work? Is it some form of mysticism or philosophy or magic?
Fascinating – thank you for this series. It seems that many of the themes you write about are tied into larger movements of that era (a book from the same era, discussing slavery and abolitionists, had occult teachings and concepts bubbling below the surface). And the Vachel Lindsay poem, “In Praise of Johnny Appleseed”, which you quoted in full on your dreamwidth blog, comes to mind. Hmm…
One minor nit: $60.00/hour or $1.00/minute would be a real ‘bargain’ these days for a session with a psychiatrist; the average going rate these days is quoted as $109.00/hour or $1.82/minute. (www.salary.com/research/salary/benchmark/psychiatrist-hourly-wages)
May I interpose a quick question about egregors? I’d have asked Monday but I didn’t have the revelation that led to the question till today. I have this game called BitLife, it’s a modern version of choose-your-own-adventure books. One situation requires you to decide what product endorsement you’ll post to anti-social media that will attract subscribers, rather than annoying them enough that they drop you. Today, I noticed the way to win at this was to endorse products that appeal to AWFLs.
My question is, how long does it take an egregor to develop? AWFLs aren’t new, but thinking of them as a united group is. Will the game and the egregor, if the egregor exists, feed off of and reinforce each other?
I was amused that, at least in this game, advertising anti-fungal cream will send AWFLs fleeing by the hundreds. I guess they never get athlete’s foot from walking barefoot around those yoga studios. 😄
We now return you to your regularly scheduled quest for the Philosopher’s Stone.
How big a role do catalysts play in alchemy, in both a literal and metaphorical sense?
Priest, you’re most welcome.
Yorkshire, answering that would require a post of its own. At a rough estimate there’s something approaching a hundred different alchemies.
Raymond, you’re welcome and thank you. Jung’s definitely worth attention.
Jim, there is indeed! Thank you.
Karim, I haven’t read more than a few of his works; what I’ve read was certainly philosophy.
PatriciaT, the history of American magic is an integral part of the history of America — I’d argue, in fact, that you can’t really understand the history of this country without taking into account the huge role that magic and occultism have played in shaping our national history and character — and it’s equally true that the history of American magic needs to be seen in the context of those broader trends. We’ll be seeing more of that as the saga unfolds. As for the going price for shrink services, thanks for this — the buck-a-minute thing was the going rate when I last looked into it, which was quite a while ago.
Your Kittenship, it really varies, depending on the number of people who are contributing energy and the intensity of their emotional input. It can be very quick, though.
Yorkshire, that’s a chemical concept, not an alchemical one. Alchemy requires a completely different way of thinking about substances; if you try to interpret its processes in chemical terms, you’re going to miss everything that matters.
Thanks for another fascinating history lesson.
A few weeks back I came across a piece of history in a TV show that is relevant here. In 1404, King Henry IV signed a law, Act Against Multipliers. It essentially made any practice of material “synthesis” a felony. People in power were concerned that certain forces could enrich themselves with gold or silver using alchemy. This was fascinating to me because I didn’t expect such a craft to be banned by an entire country. Do you happen to know if there were specific events that lead to this? Or was this a reactionary law out of fear of the unknown?
I’d argue, in fact, that you can’t really understand the history of this country without taking into account the huge role that magic and occultism have played in shaping our national history and character — and it’s equally true that the history of American magic needs to be seen in the context of those broader trends. We’ll be seeing more of that as the saga unfolds.
I’m guessing the contemporary part will be covered by your The King in Orange: an essay on magical politics book. Is there a tentative release date? Who is going to publish it?
This is already an interesting series with the occult mini-biographies, showing a macro view of the quilt work of American magic. What takes it up another notch is how it also acts as a lesson in the “history of ideas”. Thank you Professor Greer for letting us all audit this class.
@Darkest Yorkshire: re:other Alchemies. Musical Alchemy / Speculative Music is one of the fields I’m interested in. After my current project wraps up though, I’ll have to set it aside for a time to work on some other things that are brewing in the laboratory.
I’m a big fan of Textual Alchemy as well. Hmmm, other alchemies? Mental Alchemy otherwise known as the Alchemy of Intelligence Agents. Some of those agents are active, reactive, and some are reagents of course.
@JMG: I’d like to see a post all on its own about the “Varieties of Alchemical Experience”. But it will also be something I meditate on further so I can see what I can come up with.
Am I understanding correctly that alchemy is more akin to the process of the scientific method than it is to chemistry? And if so, how would you describe the alchemical method in broad terms, as it can be applied to the many different alchemies?
This new interactive digital edition of Michael Maier’s “Atalanta Fugiens” (1618) may be of interest in connection with today’s post, especially to commentators with musical interests. ITs title is “Furnace and Fuge,” and its release date is six days from now:
I am currently working on an ‘alchemy’ (I use that word in the broadest possible sense), of turning peoples gardens into vibrant lively places (fulfilling a childhood dream).
I work as a gardener. I notice a lot of garden designs while looking superficially nice, feel rather empty on closer examination. I get the feeling there is no real conscious process of alchemy taking place, but rather a lot of abstract thinking about an un-grounded ideal that has little to do with the actual land itself.
I am recalling Oswald Spengler talking about how gardening is a religious art in some cultures (like the Chinese), but in Faustian culture particularly since the 16th century we are determined to simply impose our ideals on the land, with little or no concept that the land has a living consciousness of its own.
I’m just wondering if you have any recommendations about books on nature spirits (as well as your own books on druid magic of course!)?
anyway, just a few reflections from me.
Also, just wondering what you know about ‘greek fire’ used by the Byzantine civilization, and whether its successful use was wholly or partially a process of alchemy?
Thank you for sharing this. Like most Americans these days, I grew up knowing very little about the role of magic and occultism in my country’s history, so when you write something about America’s occult history, what you’ve just written will, ipso facto, make up most of what I know about the person or tradition involved (exception: Joseph Smith).
A few years ago I had the mainstream view of alchemy as primitive chemistry. Now that I’ve replaced my old ideas about linear progress with the Spenglerian notion of one intellectual tradition borrowing from another while operating on a different philosophy and pursing different goals, I can’t subscribe to such a simplistic notion. Still, when I think about the achievements of medieval and renaissance alchemists in working with matter and energy, and the dependence of modern chemistry on reactions and techniques that were originally discovered by alchemists, I can’t take seriously any theory of alchemy that minimizes the work that alchemists do on the physical plane and tries to find the “true meaning” of alchemy somewhere else.
Perhaps it would be fairer to say that modern chemistry draws from from one part of the body of alchemical lore, and Jungian psychoanalysis draws from a different part (and ditto with Atwood’s mesmerism, etc.). Do you think that this is an accurate conclusion for me to draw from what you have said about alchemy so far?
JGM and Yorkshire:
the medieval/renaissance theory of immortality was as follow (I am working from Michael Sendivogius – who was one of those alchemists who was recorded as having turn lead into gold with red powder – translations and later scholarship about him) the same track as alchemist’s process of purification and sublimation: human body is created from four elements (and some parts of deeply obscured materia prima, I am not clear on that); those elements as all parts of sub-lunar world, impure and partially corrupt and subject to all the processes of sub-lunar world.
Replacing/transforming them with perfected, “celestial” elements mean that alchemist body stop aging, because the usual sublunar imperfection that make matter – as we would say today – entropic, stop afflicting the new alchemical body. As the Emerald Tablet says:
Separate thou the earth from the fire,
the subtle from the gross
sweetly with great industry.
It ascends from the earth to the heaven
and again it descends to the earth
and receives the force of things superior and inferior.
By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
and thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
Relating back to the recent discussion of the Wendigo;
Has anyone read Rick Yancey’s Curse Of The Wendigo? Jack Fiddler is a character. Yancey wove real historical figures into all 4 of his “Monstrumologist” books, and was very good at it.
Christopher, you’re most welcome.
Nomad, there were such laws in many European countries — though in England, and in some others, you could get a license from the Crown to practice alchemy. Remember that money in those days was precious metal, and its value depended on its scarcity; medieval politicians were quite aware that a sudden flood of manufactured gold into the economy would cause runaway inflation, and in a society where most economic exchanges were at traditional rates (rather than being set by the market), that was a much greater threat than it is today. So it was quite a sensible law, all things considered.
Packshaud, The King in Orange will be published by Inner Traditions; I don’t have a release date yet but it’ll be in the spring or summer of 2021. I’ve already approved the cover art and the catalogue copy, and will be starting work with the editor in a month or two. I think it’s going to be really quite good.
Justin, you’re most welcome — to me biography and the history of ideas are a natural match, since ideas always exist in and through individuals. I’ll consider such a post about alchemies.
Kyle, good. Yes, there’s an alchemical method; the shorthand version is solve et coagula, “dissolve and resolidify.” That is to say, what you do in any alchemical process is take your first matter, whatever it happens to be, and divide it into its natural components; you transform and purify each of these individually; then you reunite them into a new and more perfect whole.
Robert, delighted to hear it! I have Joscelyn Godwin’s very solid edition of the fugues, emblems, and epigrams;I’ll look forward to seeing the new version.
BB, have you read any of the literature from Findhorn? R. Ogilvie Crombie’s Encounters with Nature Spirits and Eileen Caddy’s The Spirit of Findhorn might be especially useful, but there was a lot of fascinating work done at the Findhorn Village during the 1960s and 1970s, and plenty of books came out of it. As for Greek fire, why, yes — it was invented by an alchemist, Kallinikos of Heliopolis.
Wesley, of course. Mineral alchemy, the sort that lent a few of its achievements to modern chemistry, is one subset of the whole realm of alchemy, the way that chemistry is one subset of the whole realm of science.
Changeling, yes, that’s the theory; whether it stops aging altogether, or whether it simply allows you to live the 120 years in good health that is the theoretical human lifespan is a matter of disagreement among alchemical writers.
Your Kittenship, and then there’s Ogden Nash’s poem about the Wendigo:
“The Wendigo, the Wendigo!
Its eyes are ice and indigo!
Its blood is rank and yellowish!
Its voice is hoarse and bellowish!
Its tentacles are slithery,
Its lips are hungry blubbery,
“The Wendigo, the Wendigo!
I saw it just a friend ago!
Last night it lurked in Canada;
Tonight, on your veranada!
As you are lolling hammockwise
It contemplates you stomachwise.
The rest is merely gulps and gollops.”
JMG and Yorkshire, part two:
some time ago I wrote in one of the comments on dream-reach that your excellent essay on “Alchemical initiation” in Magical Education was super-insightful.
It was that as Bardon system theory (Initiation into Hermenticism) goes, there is reference twice in theory to the Stone of Alchemists: one in the Mage image (as the Ruby in Lotus symbolizing the goals of the Adept) and second time when discussing human body and subtle anatomy and how human body is Athanor for full alchemical process.
After some meditation I had an insight that the astral part of the course, from White and Black mirror separating positive (note: as a quality of element, not strictly “good”) from negative elements in astral constitution and all the practices after it that part are simply refinement of astral body until the step Ten, active magical union with Divine.
So, Yorkshire, if you are looking for application of alchemist methods to various forms of practice, you might look into Bardon and read the first book as an manual of astral alchemy.
The fact that the rest of the system is development of focused awareness, active imagination and subtle senses (mental steps) and vital energy in its multifarious forms just ties even more into this week post;-)
😄. Even as a kid I loved Ogden Nash!
We have heard via the Abrahamic tradition, of a similar powder, the white gold of the Ark of the Covenant. Apparently, gold can be made disaggregated and “monatomic” and have mental and medical (or even electrical) properties. Very interesting. It strikes me that the red powder may have something to do with cinnabar, which would be very rare in the West and is a form of mercury. No reason, just occurred. They do indeed use mercury to distill gold. (And arsenic as well, more common)
This brings to mind the “beaten gold” of song and legend. Why “beaten”? Yes, goldsmiths do form things that way, but there is a similar Biblical theory that they literally took the salt from the Dead Sea, pound it with hammers, and the thing that happens is the gold aggregates until it is visible and extractable. So it is essentially a limitless resource, on the spot, and may account for a poor, tiny nation to have gained 29 tons of gold each year for 39 years (at least $46T) under Solomon and then suddenly couldn’t find any wealth at all for 1,000 years when the process was lost to time.
Just because they ARE psychological and spiritual changes does mean that, as a fractal, under the universal rules of this place, they are not also physical changes and laws as well.
Seems that psychologists need a better job: auto mechanics charge $100/ hour with less education. But a mechanic gets far more done. I’ve never seen a psychologist accomplish anything in my life. How many clinical psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? A: Only one but the light bulb has to change itself.
Our magic depends on our freedom, and much as they constantly, universally pretend that America is a land of oppression and always has been, in fact, generally people are so far away from others and authority that sizeable explorations, (re)inventions, and local variations pop up darn near everywhere. Rattlesnake Pentecostals being scarcely one example, and occults being every *where* in America in every *time* you look, the ‘80s, the ‘60s, the 1880s, the 1860s, the 1780s (Franklin) the 1760’s, the 1680s and 1660s.
So when was this great oppression that we, in our great majesty and enlightenment, and only just escaped with our modern and superior intelligence, supposed to have existed? For that matter, given it’s easy to read about people’s sexual behavior, when was this sudden sexual revolution and tolerance supposed to have existed? A top and famous General in the Revolutionary was an openly gay man. Same no matter how far back you go. What does that tell you except that history as taught is a fairy tale, and Columbus did not discover America? So warned in comparing this unspoken, occult history – or any other – with what you were taught at school, since what they taught you was so wrong as to be false, fabricated, and essentially entirely baseless fiction? It’s like comparing this new information with “Game of Thrones”: it’s false. Non-sequitur.
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” –1984 And how much better when those teaching and “controlling” the past have no idea they were already controlled, lied to, since infancy, and were already long-since victims of the game. But if so, that will include you too. And if so, it will demand and (mis)direct your perception of what is happening in the news, with your neighbors, today.
Note that those Four Humors of our entirely eradicated Western tradition, so laughed and belittled today, are essentially identical to Traditional Chinese Medicine that is so real, cool, and awesome. That they are looking at a different layer than the atomic/molecular (say, the way the aura constructs the material body) doesn’t make it make it untrue. It makes you close-minded not to give them the benefit of their “lived experience” and to politely ask. If it’s all garbage, why did at least two disconnected cultures discover it independently and live it for milennia?
The Kings weren’t wrong about gold. The influx of New World gold into Spain – what seeming to be the world’s only one-sided benefit – bankrupted them for 100 years and may have crippled their culture for centuries. We see the same with owning and printing the reserve currency from Britain, the U.S., back through time to the Greeks. The same happened in the U.S. with the gold rush: it nearly collapsed banking and the country. Same has happened in placed (like Africa) with oil. It’s an ill wind indeed that blows nobody good, yes, but also vice-versa in spades. We see how being endlessly wealthy and having no limits is extremely bad for the soul – or at least more challenging than most can overcome. Certainly no *nation* has failed to succumb, and we’re no different.
The lack of immortal alchemists running around seems to point out the immortality they pursued was spiritual rather than of the body. Then again, they might be just that good at hiding.
Book alert: The King of Confidence by Miles Harvey…
It seems like this guy, James Strang, also fits into the folds of our American occult story, which JMG has hinted at also intertwines with hucksters, tricksters, and the confidence man… the following is the publisher’s blurb:
“In the summer of 1843, James Strang, a charismatic young lawyer and avowed atheist, vanished from a rural town in New York. Months later he reappeared on the Midwestern frontier and converted to a burgeoning religious movement known as Mormonism. In the wake of the murder of the sect’s leader, Joseph Smith, Strang unveiled a letter purportedly from the prophet naming him successor, and persuaded hundreds of fellow converts to follow him to an island in Lake Michigan, where he declared himself a divine king.
From this stronghold he controlled a fourth of the state of Michigan, establishing a pirate colony where he practiced plural marriage and perpetrated thefts, corruption, and frauds of all kinds. Eventually, having run afoul of powerful enemies, including the American president, Strang was assassinated, an event that was frontpage news across the country.
The King of Confidence tells this fascinating but largely forgotten story. Centering his narrative on this charlatan’s turbulent twelve years in power, Miles Harvey gets to the root of a timeless American original: the Confidence Man. Full of adventure, bad behavior, and insight into a crucial period of antebellum history, The King of Confidence brings us a compulsively readable account of one of the country’s boldest con men and the boisterous era that allowed him to thrive.”
Personally I’m interested in piracy aspect of this guys life. This has the whiff of a “Pirate Utopia” ala Hakim Bey.
This series has been fascinating. Thank you! I wanted to share an anecdote with you: my 16 year old daughter is very interested in druidism (not sure that’s the correct term) and I encouraged her to start reading your blog. She asked me to get a copy of your book Merlin, and she’s been devouring it. I overheard her recently talking to her grandparents and giving them the full breakdown of who Merlin was, etc. It made me smile. We were also just in Portland Maine and discovered an occult bookstore and she was totally chuffed to see several of your titles on the shelves. We’ve had many interesting conversations based on your writings, so thank you! She’s started seeking out books on pre-christian Ireland and Scotland now, having been inspired by what’s she read of your work. She’s headed to RISD next summer so if you do any speaking engagements in Providence, I hope you’ll mention it here so we can take advantage.
Yorkshire, that’s a chemical concept, not an alchemical one. Alchemy requires a completely different way of thinking about substances; if you try to interpret its processes in chemical terms, you’re going to miss everything that matters.
But if you add a grain of that red powder to some molten lead and it goes to work on it and transforms it into gold, why is the word catalyst not appropriate?
While I’m a firm believer in physical alchemy and the philosopher’s stone, I also think that our reincarnation process is a flask in which our souls descend and then ascend, becoming purified in the process.`
This one literally hits home for me. As you’re probably aware, Mr. Hitchcock’s library and papers from his time here were acquired by the St. Louis Mercantile Library. (Un)fortunately the collection was moved from its previous home at 510 Locust St. in downtown St. Louis to the campus library of the University of Missouri at St. Louis. The once august Mercantile Library Building still stands– though, it is apparently abandoned and still sports its hideous facade installed in the 1950’s.
My grandfather was an enthusiastic genealogist and architectural historian in his retirement, and I have fond memories of accompanying him to the Mercantile Library which had extensive land and census records in its holdings. The library also contained an extensive collection of native folk art from all over Missouri and the frontier territories. As far as I know, only the Central Province of the Jesuits has more extensive early to mid 19th century records and collections from this area.
I also note in passing that Mr. Hitchcock’s son, Henry, was one of the founding members of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis– a group that I myself am a member of. I’ll see if I can snap a picture of his portrait from the meeting office and send it along.
Tangentially related to Nomad’s comment about the early 15th-century law against synthesizing, and the value of money based on precious metals, is the current issue with lab-created diamonds.
Diamonds’ value has historically depended on scarcity. My understanding is that scarcity is due only in part to the difficulty of mining diamonds, and also in part to the diamond industry colluding to manage available inventory and help keep prices high. Lab-created diamonds pose a threat to the “scarcity”, both real and managed – and, therefore, to the monetary value – of diamonds. It’s not clear how the diamond industry will manage this threat long-term.
Unfortunately, I can’t easily find a link to the stuff I remember reading, but still….kind of an interesting example of what I guess we might call modern-day mineral alchemy? Modern science has in fact found a way to transmute less-valuable material into more-valuable material through the application of various processes (heat, pressure, chemical), and the result has disrupted the market for the “natural” version.
I also remember reading somewhere that it is in fact possible to manufacture gold from other substances through modern scientific processes, but that manufacturing gold is too costly to be worth doing (the process costs more than the resulting gold). Creating gold from baser matter is do-able, but it’s just an expensive lab experiment.
Yes I know we’re talking about more alchemies here than just this literal stuff – but still, interesting to consider, I think! Making diamonds and making gold out of baser materials are both possible through modern science, and yet both are problematic for different reasons; the former disrupts the market, and the latter costs more in inputs than you receive in outputs. Be careful what sort of alchemy you wish for – science may deliver, but not quite the way you expected!
Thanks for this! If I may ask, what is the difference between Jung’s active imagination and scrying? Are they the same thing?
JMG, in your reply to Kyle you mentioned: “… solve et coagula, ‘dissolve and resolidify.'” Picturing this brought freshly familiar imagery to mind. A similarity to parts of my visualizations from the recent section of The Cosmic Doctrine you explored and meditating on your discussion of Fortune’s description of the cyclical approach to magical workings. The importance of alternating “… between periods of intensive one-pointed focus and periods of relaxation and broadened consciousness …”). I am thankful for your guidance on these fruitful journeys.
I’d like to post some links relevant to the topic:
1. The History of Alchemy in America by Mark Stavish (a modern day occultist),
from 16th century to Frater Albertus, to the Philosophers of Nature:
2. On the same website, there is a library with links to books and articles on alchemy and magic, published on other sites mostly, some links are broken: http://www.hermetics.org/library.html
5. The Alchemy Website has a wealth of information on alchemy, though the site’s design is stuck in 1996 and some links are broken: https://www.alchemywebsite.com/index.html
Changeling, excellent! Yes, Bardon’s system comes out of central European occult traditions that have been profoundly influenced by alchemy, and so it’s no surprise that he uses an alchemical model for the Great Work of initiation.
Your Kittenship, so did I — we had a five-volume set, and I learned bunches of his poems by heart when my age was in single digits. I can still chant large parts of “Invocation”:
“Senator Smoot (Republican, Ut.)
Is planning a ban on smut.
Oh rooti-ti-toot for Smoot of Ut.
And his reverent occiput…”
Jasper, good. You’ve grasped one of the core reasons why I’ve ostensibly veered away from politics to talk about so seemingly irrelevant a theme as the magical history of the United States. Re-envision the past and you transform the present and make a new future — and of course that last is exactly what we need most in this country right now.
Ecosophian, if they exist, you’d better believe that they’re good at hiding. Alchemists in late medieval Europe were sometimes tortured to death in an attempt to extract the secret of making gold. Can you imagine what governments and the rich would do to alchemists if they thought they could get from them the secret of immortality?
Justin, yep. This country has a far more interesting history than most people remember!
Dana, delighted to hear it! I’ll certainly let my readership know if I get speaking gigs locally.
Onething, because catalysis is a specific physio-chemical process whose mechanism is well understood, alchemy doesn’t appear to use that mechanism. I suppose you could use the term “catalyst” metaphorically, but alchemy has its own metaphors. As for reincarnation, plenty of alchemists would agree with you.
Millennial, delighted to hear it. Once the current statue-smashing fad has run its course, it would be nice to see a statue of Gen. Hitchcock in St. Louis!
El, I’ve read about that as well. Making diamonds from carbon is a lot easier than transmuting metals — all you have to do is apply lots of heat and pressure — and in the long run, yeah, the diamond cartel is going to lose. I’ve always thought that scientific “alchemy” is like stage magic — it creates the illusion of alchemy, without the substance.
Jbucks, purely the brand name. They’re exactly the same process, and it’s quite possible that Jung lifted the method from occult writings.
Robert, excellent! Yes, that’s what she’s talking about.
Ecosophian, thanks for this. I recommend Mark’s book and articles on alchemy — he’s done the work, and he has the useful habit of teaching people inexpensive ways to practice spagyrics (herbal alchemy).
JMG and Ecosophian –
I one really considers the ramifications of the premise that alchemy (either “spiritual” or metallurgical, it matters not) is real, then we might consider the proverbial can of worms it might open were alchemists to allow themselves to be known publicly.
Take for instance the ramifications it would have for the financial industry (or the entire global economy for that matter) were one to ACTUALLY transmute lead into gold. In the first place, gold would essentially lose all value. Think of the kind of power that could give someone. If such a person could actually do this, then perhaps their magical abilities might be put to better use by manifesting a successful business or a profitable investment thereby causing their wealth to appear to come through “natural” channels, and thereby averting any harm that could come to them (i.e. lawsuits, kidnap and ransom, murder, etc.). A quick Google search of stories of people who have won the lottery will show the only the tip of the iceberg of what could possibly go wrong in such a situation. Not only that, think of the usefulness to greedy corrupt politicians such a person could be.
Also, when one considers the amount of pure chicanery that goes on in New Age, self-help, wellness circles, it’s easy to see how someone who was the real deal and actually knew the secret of spiritual alchemy would want to keep to themselves and not allow themselves to be caught up in Hollywood spirituality.
Thank you, Anonymous Millenial, for that!
I had always wondered what ever happened to Gen. Hitchcock’s library. A few years before his death he tried to sell it as a unit, and he even had a catalogue of it printed, which you can see here:
It’s good to know that it wasn’t sold, but remained intact in St. Louis. I see that the University of Missouri, St. Louis, has made a catalogue of the Hitchcock library, which is avaiable here:
Another Wendigo article, with good, clear, re-mastered pictures of Swift Runner and Jack Fiddler:
On the subject of Alchemy, has anyone else come across the theory that the famously cheezy fanfiction my immortal is actually an alchemical allegory? I recently finished reading it and I must say it seems plausible to me, but I wonder how much that could be said of any work of fiction.
Link for the curious: https://myimmortalrehost.webs.com/
@JMG: There was an experiment a few decades back where scientists actually did manage to transmute metals via nuclear processes. They succeeded at transforming a very small amount of bismuth into a very small amount of gold (and by very small, I mean literally just a few molecules that could only be detected via spectrometer), and the process required a truly enormous amount of energy and a lot of high-tech equipment. According to Nobel-prize winning chemist Glenn Seaborg, producing a full ounce of gold through that process would cost over one quadrillion dollars. Not sure if there’ll ever be any real practical use for this process (probably not), but it’s still fascinating to me.
Better late than never! I just found out this is a sacred Druid holiday—International Bacon 🥓 Day! It’s also high in importance on the Christian calendar. You are all invited to join the ecumenical celebration of the food of the gods!
Ethan, good heavens, yes. Hmm — I’m now imagining a fantasy story about alchemists in today’s world, in which money laundering is one of their primary concerns, so no one catches on…
Cleric, I hadn’t heard about the fanfic before, much less any claim that it had anything to do with alchemy. If its Wikipedia page is anything to go by, it gives The Eye of Argon a run for its money in the bad-fiction sweepstakes.
Ashara, I’d heard about the couple of molecules of gold! Thanks for this — a useful link.
Your Kittenship, duly noted. (Munch.)
Will there be any futures discussions on hustlers and mavericks like Jack Parsons and L Ron Hubbard as part of your historical series on America’s magical history?
“I’m now imagining a fantasy story about alchemists in today’s world, in which money laundering is one of their primary concerns, so no one catches on…”
I’d be surprised if Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” do not already feature something of the sort…^^ 😉
Hi John Michael,
Do your words: “It seems at least plausible—and it would be far from the first time that a significant theme in occult tradition drew a good deal of its inspiration from a work of fiction.” riff off what we were discussing last week in relation to narrative? Very curious.
This essay makes sense too and puts the alchemists gold comment (ours is not the common gold) into finer perspective. Interesting, and this was an aspect of alchemy that I’d never considered. And I guess as they worked at their work, they also worked upon themselves. Interesting.
I’m always amazed at the different methodologies with which to achieve similar outcomes. I may have mentioned to you a banishing ritual I use which instead of using mental visualisation (which I’m hopeless at – I see very little internally) it uses song. Now music and words I can recall easily. Dunno why, but there is no one size fits all, just different paths along similar journeys.
First off, thank you again for this fascinating survey of untold US history. It has opened some new avenues of study for me.
Second, it seems that so much that is written becomes (or was intended as, or is reinterpreted as) a metaphor for something else. We unwrap one layer of symbolism only to be confronted with another. To use a mathematical metaphor (!), does this series converge? I’d hope that as we wind through these layers of metaphors that we’re approaching–at least asymptotically–something (or Something). Perhaps in addition to the Carrot of Truth that I was given, I ought to also be meditating on the Infinite Onion of Truth…
Continuing to love this series!
As this comes shortly after the CosDoc post, I’m wondering if Jung’s concept of individuation contributed to Fortune’s of the individuality: Wiki, at least, says she took an interest in his work. Although Jung in his turn studied theosophy, so…maybe some kind of chain reaction here?
Also to celebrate Bacon Day, I’ll note that one of the Pandemic Skills I’ve acquired is making spaghetti carbonara. It works well with gluten-free pasta, too (my sister has to avoid gluten, or she gets migraines), and I’m pondering whether goat cheese could be a workable alternative to the usual.
In regard to successful alchemists hiding from kings, I’ve had more mundane thoughts. I live here for 20 years in a very nontransient area. What would happen if I suddenly appeared much younger and/or stopped aging? At some point people would notice. Every age has different issues but I would need to stage a death at some point to stop my social security payments. Can’t have them paying out to a 150-year-old. You’d have to keep moving.
Assuming metallurgic alchemy claims at face value…
I cannot think why the Financial Elites would want to control gold-making alchemists. This process would be profoundly and inherently inimical to Capitalism so, if anything, they would seek to destroy it with extreme prejudice (just as medical association go after alt-healers with gusto).
First, there’s not that much money to be made out of alchemical gold making. Any competent alchemist can only make so much gold every year, so any investor would be better of if they instead put the same resources into materialistic gold mining operations. I suspect alchemical ROI would be low as well.
Second, and most importantly, Capitalism is a system designed to divert value away from the people that provide Labor into the hands of people that provide the so called “means of production”, a.k.a. material assets. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Capitalism has seek every opportunity to replace skilled Labor with unskilled Labor + technology, even if the resulting product would be of lower quality. Even computer technology, which is way less personal than alchemy, is so disruptive precisely because the Elites can barely grasp how to harness it. The monstrous towers of Babel in today’s data centers (which drove me to burnout and eventually to leave the industry) are the direct result of Capital breeding an army of white elephants believed to be marginally easier to use by semi-skilled Labor. (see https://xkcd.com/2347/) And even that would not be possible without widespread Global Wage Arbitrage.
What metallurgic alchemy might be good at, – if there’s a positive ROI to be had which I am not sure there will be, – is to put some serious cash into the hands of the non-conformist, allowing him/her to escape the rat race. That alone would be reason for someone from Hi Above to patent the “technology”, in order to deny access to it to everybody else but the odd children of the rich that are interested in the occult and can pay a license.
As part of my magical education, I took an introductory course in alchemy. Our texts were books by Dennis Hauk. I struggled with the course and realized that it was not because I was stupid but because alchemy requires its own way of thinking. I believe that like people getting mathematics or not getting math, alchemy and other magic disciplines are similar. Some are for people who think in symbols, others in language, and others in pictures. I believe that alchemy is centered deeply in language to convey thought. I think in symbols which is why I am fluent in Japanese and Mathematics. I struggled with understanding languages like French.
It is a way of thinking that either a person gets or not. I lean to divination which is more symbolic.
Until sometime in the last century each of the available tests for distinguishing between true gold and fake gold could be defeated by an alloy made with sufficient skill. With the right alloy of less and more dense metals, the density of true gold could be very closely approximated. With other alloys the color of true gold could be closely approximated. With a thin plating of true gold over the lump of some alloyl, the nitric acid test could be defeated.
Other tests include biting the piece of metal and ringing it against the teeth. These tests can be mastered only by long practice, which suggests to me that they would be harder to defeat than the tests of density, color and imperviousness to nitric acid. But someone who had mastered them might be able to devise an alloy what would closely approximate the bite and the ring of true gold.
What would be harder to defeat would be a combination of all these tests applied together. But there, too, I would not rule out the possibility in theory.
So it would have been quite possible for some pre-modern alchemist to have made an alloy in his laboratory that would pass all the tests available in his day that were used to tell whether a lump of metal is true gold or not. That alchemist might have been a conterfeiter, but also he might have been a sincere seeker after the secrets of nature. At least some of the purported transmutations might have yielded alloys that could not be distinguished from gold by any test available at the time.
@ onething, JMG
“What would happen if I suddenly appeared much younger and/or stopped aging? ”
Robert Heinlein wrote a SF story in the late 50’s about a group of families that through a careful, well, breeding program managed to develop longer and longer useful lifespans. At some point they ran into the problem you pose here. They developed a whole support infrastructure to help (virtual) immortals escape detection by the society at large, including advanced makeup techniques, safe houses, moving people around, creating plausible backstories and new identities, etc., etc.
RAH isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but search on “Methuselah’s Children” – wikipedia has a good entry on it.
You know I just finished rereading that series in honor of the next book coming out. No alchemical money laundering yet. That being said there is some stuff in the later books that make me think Mr. Butcher has cracked an occult book or two. For example there is a correct description of a banishing pentacle at one point.
Alchemists are the natural prey of kings. Hence the story of John Freidrich Boettger who was overheard boasting that he could transform lead to gold in a tavern. This led him into ‘protective custody’ with the request from Augustus 2 of Poland that he create some gold. In the years that followed he stumbled on a way to more or less recreate Chinese Porcelain with local (to Meissen) ingredients. Arguably more valuable, he was subsequently kept locked up in the factory grounds to keep that secret instead.
Money laundering – In some places an individual can do it on a small scale by pretending they’re working a played-out mine or a stream from one (Using the Golden Fleece method in one Australian story.) Isn’t that what the old revenant was dong in your Charles Dexter Ward novel? Large scale? Hmmm… an alchemist with gang ties?
@Onething – the usual way to hide the fact that you’re not aging in the sort of stuff I read, is to leave town when you reach the age people might notice, send in a notice of “my mother’s” or “father’s” passing, and of course have access to forged documents. A 1939 birth certificate could easily be turned into a 1989 one that way. You’d need either an old print document or something entirely digital, the latter being easily hacked if you believe certain thrillers.
In the olden days,”the courthouse burned down” worked, too. Though these days, we have elders everybody has known forever were born here, but can’t vote or get a Real ID because they were delivered at home by a midwife and nobody was issuing birth certificates in the reservation or, down here, to black folks in the countryside.
George, Parsons and Hubbard will be starring in an upcoming post. We’ve already seen one hustler — Andrew Jackson Davis is hard to describe in any other way — and plenty of mavericks, and there are more en route.
Sven, I do have to get around to reading that one of these days…
Chris, got it in one. The most important of the secrets of alchemy is that the transmutation of the material is set in motion by the transmutation of the alchemist.
David, it does converge, but we can’t perceive more than a small subset of the series.
Isabel, Fortune read Jung closely — she was trained and worked as a Freudian therapist, and kept track of where psychology went after she left that gig and went into teaching occultism instead. As for goat cheese, indeed you can — and if you can find a source for real Italian Pecorino Romano cheese, that’s made of sheep’s milk (which is chemically indistinguishable from goat’s milk) and is really good for Italian pasta dishes.
Onething, oh, you’d have to move regularly, change your identity, repeatedly fake your own death, and so on. You’d also have to live someplace where it’s easy to be anonymous. (All this is giving me story ideas…)
CR, that makes a great deal of sense. More fodder for a future story!
Neptunesdolphins, that’s very true, but Hauck’s books wouldn’t be my first choice for learning about alchemy — not by a long shot. You might want to see if you get anything more from one of the classic, highly symbolic alchemical texts — the Book of Lambspring might be a good one to start with, as it’s brief but very comprehensive.
Robert, if I recall correctly, that was Joseph Needham’s theory — in his terms, “aurifiction” (the manufacture of fake gold) morphed into “aurifaction” (the creation of an alloy that could not be distinguished from gold). That would certainly explain what alchemists like Salomon Trismosin described as “particular processes” — ways of making gold that didn’t involve the confection of the Philosopher’s Stone. The Stone, though, remains a puzzle in those terms — if the witnesses who described transmutation were telling the truth about what they saw, how could putting a tiny amount of some unusual substance into plain molten lead produce such an alloy?
Sgage, I recall it well. I went through a Heinlein phase in my late teens and read every story of his that was then in print.
Andy, there were many stories like that back in the day!
Patricia, he was indeed — and that’s another intriguing story idea: alchemists maintaining good relations with the local mobsters, in order to launder their income from making gold…
@JMG This story was in “The Arcarnum” by Janet Gleeson; worth a read. I regret getting rid of my copy but there’s limits to the amount of shelf space available.
An Hypothesis About the Wendigo Myth
It seems to me that the Wendigo myth may have contributions from several different sourses including:
The actual behavior of wolverines
A warning about the antisocial effects of excessive greed and craving
Memories of winters when there was starvation and likely cannibalism.
But I wish to suggest one other possible contribution to the origin of the myth, and interestingly this suggests a parallel to what may also be one of the contributions to the origins of the Eastern European Vampire myth.
I am referring to what may be the most dreaded disease in the world —- rabies.
Before Pasteur invented the rabies vaccine, and the discovery of hyperimmune globulin, there was no cure for this horrible disease.
The tie in between bats and rabies is well known, and may explain the association of European vampires and bat symbolism. But it is likely that most rabies cases in New England. the Great Lakes region, andEastern Canada i.e. the Algonquin cultural area, were transmitted by the bites of other animals —- dogs, raccoons,
The behavior of a person who brain is being ravaged by the rabies virus is characterized by extreme unprovoked aggression, and inability to swallow without incurring painful spasms. Thus the rabid person is always hungry and thirsty, does crazy things, is a danger to others (a rabid person can bite in a fit of rage, spreading the disease to another victim), and those with rabies have lucid intervals (early in the course of the fatal infection) during which they may rationally plead for euthanasia.
Also the Windego is said to be disheveled or have skin lesions. A rabid person or animal will appear very unkempt.
So perhaps both vampires and windegos have something in common?
My ex-husband was born at home—in a Kentucky holler in 1951. He did have a birth certificate, but whether it’s acceptable now I couldn’t say. I suspect not. I was born in a hospital—an Imperial hospital, even! On a U.S. Army base, and my original birth certificate was typed. 60 years later you can still feel the impressions in the back. It was signed by a Major Scribble Scrawl, M.D., in honest-to-God ink, and it was found wanting several years ago. I had to send off to the state of my birth for a “certified “ copy if I ever wanted another driver’s license. So I shelled out the $20 and duly received in the mail—a photostat of my birth certificate with the magic word etched on it. And even that wasn’t good enough when I noticed a typo on my DL and foolishly tried to get it corrected. My birth certificate has on it my—duh!—birth name. I would need my marriage and divorce certificates to make the correction. I chose instead to let the Empire think I’m a year older than I actually am. Social Security and other relevant bodies have the correct info. In this state, at least, it’s only driver’s licenses that require massive amounts of documentation.
I think the Empire does this stuff to keep its citizens too busy to organize and demand reform.
OT: but irresistible: Thomas Morton of Merrymount and his tell-all book.
If I recall correctly, there’s a tale about Chinese Alchemy that supports that view. The young Daoist initiate receives the secret to make silver (not gold, apparently Chinese Alchemist considered silver superior, for some reason) and, being the precocious guy he was, he asks his master the uncomfortable question… How long does the silver created by this method lasts?
– Twenty years. – Responds the master.
The young initiate commends the master for his great skill, but decides to forego of the method himself, so not to risk that the silver coins end up in the hand of some undeserving poor guy by the time the 20 year span runs out.
My interpretation, after hearing the story, is that alchemists do engage in some intensive, lifelong, projects that require both time and material resources. The average “journeyman” toolkit would therefore include counterfeiting techniques that allow the new member of the guild get started in life, and release his person from the need of earning 3 meals a day. Deeper pursuits, both spiritual and material, may be tackled on while the lesser arts pay the bills.
” I went through a Heinlein phase in my late teens and read every story of his that was then in print. ”
When I was in high school, I got to skip senior English class by doing an independent study project on RAH. I’d already read most of his stories – I just read the rest, and wrote up a big paper exploring various themes and elements. That was a lot of fun! (Wish I had a copy of it, but that was back in 72-73, and we couldn’t just print out extra copies willy-nilly.)
All this talk of immortal alchemists reminded me of a story told by Paul Foster Case, a golden dawn magician and founder of the School of Ageless Wisdom, which later became the Builders Of The Adytum.
In the summer of 1921, Case claimed to have received a phone call from “The Master Rococzy” or “Master R” who was an ancient immortal alchemist (possibly the “Count of St. Germain”) who was contacting him telepathically previously: “One day the phone rang, and much to his surprise the same voice which had been inwardly instructing him in his researches for many years spoke to him on the phone. It was the Master R. who had come personally to New York for the purpose of preparing Paul Case to begin the next incarnation of the Qabalistic Way of Return. Case later allegedly met Master R. in person at the old Waldorf-Astoria in NYC.
This already reads like a fine novel. But it gets better, because Master R is also, apparently, Francis Bacon.
According to the Ascended Master Teachings (Theosophy), Francis Bacon made it appear that he died on Easter Sunday, 9 April 1626, and even attended his own “funeral” in disguise. It is believed by the adherents of the Ascended Master Teachings that he then traveled secretly to Transylvania (then part of Hungary, now part of Romania) to the Rakoczy Mansion of the royal family of Hungary. Finally on 1 May 1684 he is believed to have attained (by his knowledge of alchemy) his physical Ascension (attaining immortality and eternal youth – the sixth level of Initiation), at which time Francis Bacon adopted the name “Saint Germain”.
Now this just turns outright into a fantasy fiction setting! But who knows, maybe its all true. After all JMG wrote “Magic can transform anything in the universe of human experience, but it takes practice and a fair amount of skill…” (Druid Magic Handbook, p. 104).
Jmg – I have loved Ogden Nash since I was a teen, long ago. “The Wendingo” was not in my little pocket book of Nash rhymes, so thanks for that. This morn, I was inspired to pen a little ditty to the unwelcome guests in our house.
Ogden Nash meets the Brown Recluse Spider
The Woodpile Spider
brown and tan
has moved into the home of man
forsaking it’s ancestral mulch
and the china hulch.
Aurifiction is certainly possible. You’re right, too, there are also some cases on fairly good record of what appears to be genuine aurifaction, e.g. Jean Baptiste van Helmont’s terstimony that he once transformed 8 ounces of mercury into not quite 8 ounces of pure gold by means of one-fourth of a grain of a saffron-colored, heavy, shining powder that purported to be [one kind of] the alchemists’ stone. Though I don’t understand how it might be possible, nonetheless van Helmont seems to be a credible witness in general.
JMG – I can think of another reason to have laws against the transmutation of lead into gold. Perhaps it was a troublingly common mode of fraud (the current arrangement of triple-inverse index funds not having been invented at the time). We have laws against Ponzi schemes and chain letters, you know. So, an “alchemist” who turned one ounce of gold into two, by paying off his first patron with the contribution of his second patron would be deserving of punishment. It would be in some sense reasonable for the pseudo-alchemist to claim that a small seed of gold might be needed to help organize the process, just as a small seed crystal of quartz is needed to get a large crystal started.
All this talk about gold reminds me of “the golden rule”. The cynical version, of course, is that “he who has the gold makes the rules”, but I think it goes deeper than asserting that the rich play by different rules. “Only he who has the power to make the rules, has the strength to hold his own gold.” (See Executive Order 6102 of 1933.) That is, gold is for kings, silver for bankers, copper for merchants, and debt for slaves.
Hi John Michael,
Interesting! And all due to your continuing education. 🙂 I’m beginning to get the feeling that there are times to occlude knowledge, and then there are different times and periods when knowledge should be disseminated and by many different methodologies. It is hard to know where you stand, but at least history provides a good guide.
It snowed down here today. 🙂 Snow is such a rare treat that it is whole bunch of fun.
There is an odd occurrence with the media which you may have already noticed. For some reason, many articles and advertisements (it is candidly difficult to distinguish between the two) include the words: “Here’s what you need to know” or “Here’s what changed” or even “Here’s what you need to do” among other examples. As a use of the English language the words come across as very casual, but they’re far from that and the words indicate the use of an instructional mode of speaking. Not a good sign in my books especially when the use is rampant, but what do I know, I’m just some dude living a quiet life up in the hills.
Andy, thanks for this.
Walter, that’s quite plausible.
Patricia, pity the article doesn’t mention that he invoked the Great Old Ones. 😉
Sgage, that sounds like a lot of fun. Alas, my high school wasn’t so flexible.
Ecosophian, and we’ll be talking about that, too, a little later on. (Case wasn’t the only occultist of his time who was into that theory; Manly P. Hall put a chapter on it in The Secret Teachings of All Ages.
Danaone, the rhyme between “mulch” and, er, “hulch” is very Nashean. I’m reminded of some of the fine rhymes in “How Now, Sirrah? Oh, Anyhow”:
“Oh, sometimes I sit around and think, what would you do if you were up a dark alley and there was Cesare Borgia,
And he was coming torgia,
And brandished a poisoned poniard,
And looked at you like an angry fox looking at the plumpest rooster in a boniard?”
The whole poem is worth savoring!
Robert, I don’t understand how it might be possible either, but I find that rather pleasant to contemplate!
Lathechuck, there were a lot of fraudulent alchemists out there, too — Chaucer’s The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale and Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist are among the best literary accounts of that.
Chris, fascinating. That kind of instructional tone strikes me as clumsy — clearly they’re losing their grip.
Disclaimer: I only have public high-school level education. And thanks to Wikipedia for the finer details.
What would happen inside the melting pot, in the physical plane, if the red power worked?
What makes lead lead, and gold gold, is the proton count in the atom nucleus: 82 in lead, 79 in gold. It is impossible to know if the procedure would cool down or heat up the material, so let’s ignore that part. Gold has only one stable isotope, 197Au; in other words, 197-79=118 neutrons (the number before Au is the sum of protons and neutrons; isotopes are different from one another by their neutrons count). The number 197 is the simplified “atomic mass” (actual atomic mass is different, because protons and neutrons don’t have the same mass; this is here only for nitpickers).
An element can become another one by two processes: nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. To turn lead into gold, fission would occur: Atomic mass of stable lead isotopes is between 204 and 208; several protons and neutrons would need to go Away.
But there is no Away. Maybe the byproduct would become harmless gases, and not a huge amount of lethal radioactivity; let’s assume, again, that this is the case. Let’s also assume the process would not generate a lot of extra heat–we need the city block, or the city, of the alchemist surviving to have reports (maybe there was a good reason for the procedure to be illegal–who knows? It’s like ocean magic, we have no books about it because no mages survive). This one is a bit harder to swallow–the planes are discrete, and the heat would have to be dealt with one way or another. Maybe the process gets rid of it, somehow. Anyway, we are ignoring this part.
So now, the lead has turned into gold. Two things would happen, one surely, the other one, depends.
The first is that molten gold is denser than lead (more weight per volume). The content of the melting pot would noticeable shrink, by almost half. This is a remarkable effect, absent from all accounts.
The second one depends on how hot is the molten metal, either by how much it is heated, or the heat generated by the alchemical process. Lead has a melting point (327 °C, 621 °F) much lower than gold (1064 °C, 1947 °F). So, one of two things would happen: if extra heat was not generated, the gold would instantly become solid, while still being at the same temperature, very hot; otherwise, to keep being molten, it would need to be at least at the melting point–hence, considerably and very noticeably hotter. Any of these would also be remarkable, combined with the shrinkage, and both would likely appear in real accounts.
I’m going with “the alchemists gold is not the common one”.
JMG and Robert,
the whole physical transmutation remind me strongly of one of the latter eccentric occultists, namely Charles Fort and his theory of trans-mediumism:
“The real, as it is called, or the objective, the external, the material, cannot be absolutely set apart from the subjective, or the imaginary: but there are quasi attributes of the imaginary. There have been occurrences that I think were transmediumizations, because I think that they were marked by indications of having carried over, from an imaginative origin, into physical being, or into what is called “real life,” the quasi-attributes of their origin”
and if the alchemist did, like all the instruction in Michael Sendivogius work: a daily regiment of prayer, meditation and imagination (imaginary work), we could see how rather strange and baffling things could occur from time to time. And I can see how alchemist that witnessed or produced instances of transmediumisation were so scanting toward “smoke blowers”, people who dropped the “mental” parts of the Great Work and tried to work with “dead” metals.
JMG – I think that Ogden Nash’s rhymes work visually, the delightfully jumbled letters work the see-ing part of the brain.
Many thanks for the link and the book suggestion.
As for alchemists, gold, and the mob….. there is a sub-genre in crime noir of magic crime noir. Mickey Spillane meets Oberon and mixes it up. One series I am reading – “The Arcane Casebook” is set in the 1930s with a Rune detective (rune = sigils) who mixes it up with alchemists and other magic types while solving crimes. So there is a demand for this fiction.
“many articles and advertisements (it is candidly difficult to distinguish between the two) include the words: “Here’s what you need to know” or “Here’s what changed” or even “Here’s what you need to do” among other examples. As a use of the English language the words come across as very casual, but they’re far from that…”
I think it’s hypnotic suggestion, linguistic programming disguised as instruction, as I believe most, if not all, advertising is. Telling someone what they need to know or do is a control mechanism designed to shape perception and behavior.
And I agree with you that what passes for news, information, entertainment and advertising today are pretty much indistinguishable to most of the entranced audience.
There’s something about DMVs that set them apart from every other state office, and not always in a good way. (That’s the Department of Motor Vehicles for non-US readers).
When we moved to Vermont years ago, we went to the friendly DMV in Springfield to get new tags for the car and licenses for us. Had our pictures taken, the information from our out-of-state licenses was duly recorded, we were handed our new IDs and we were on our way. Only once we got home, about a 30 minute drive, did I scrutinize my shiny new license and noticed that I had undergone a sex change: I was now male. Twenty or so years ago I would have laughed it off as the clerical error it was, but nowadays this whole gender thing has exploded, so who knows? Someone looking at my license might genuinely think I identify as male, despite my clearly non-male outward appearance.
So, off to the DMV again, roads slick with ice and snow, to turn in that license and get an amended one. The people at the DMV office had a good chuckle and the clerk who made the mistake had a bit of egg on his face. The good news is that I’m female again. Even better would be if the clerks proof-read the stuff they enter into their computers.
Chris at Fernglade:
I’ve noticed that too, the implication being that we’re all too busy/too obtuse/too unsophisticated to weigh information for ourselves, so the kindly elites will winnow all of it down to the things they think we should consider and in the process, make it clear exactly in what way we are permitted to consider it. I find it all a bit patronizing, and the whole corona virus thing has only empowered the People Who Know Better Than You even more.
An immortal (or very long-lived) alchemist doesn’t make money by transmuting metals. He makes money by compound interest. “You want to see coagula? I’ll show you coagula!”
Approaches to the problem of maintaining an identity without revealing ones longevity has been well-explored in vampire fiction. For instance the younger ones in the Twilight series had to keep re-enrolling in high school each time the “family” relocated, thus proving that vampires truly are doomed souls trapped in eternal damnation.
Regarding metallurgical alchemy, if an alchemist who can transmute lead into gold were to offer to show me her laboratory, I wouldn’t walk in there without a lead suit and a respirator. Those three extra protons in the lead nucleus (lead has 82, gold 79) have to go somewhere, and if I don’t know where or how, I’m not going to take chances. If you’re not removing three protons somehow, you’re not changing actual lead into actual gold. And the side effects of that would likely amount to yet another trap for the meddlesome or unwary.
Stars are the ultimate material alchemists. (And they only get really good at it, beyond making iron that is, when they’re blowing up.) Do any alchemical sources, ancient or modern, mention the aspiration to imitate a star? An astrophysics text has quite a bit to say about several notable, albeit material, cosmic examples of solve et coagula. That just might be a useful model applicable to other kinds of alchemy too.
@Your Kittenship, feel free to substitute cheeses in your spaghetti a la carbonara, to your heart’s (or better, your palate’s) content. But be mindful of how much overall saltiness you want. Adjust amounts or preparations accordingly. For example, if using feta cheese, consider rinsing it.
Manly P. Hall gave a talk on Atwood’s book. (The talk is available on YouTube, and A Suggestive Inquiry Into the Hermetic Mystery is available in full at archive.org)
Hall says that if the audience finds the idea that Alchemy is an elaborate set of allegories and allusions to be a bit of a comedown, it’s because we don’t appreciate the profundity of common terms like faith, etc.
In his lecture #33 on Esoteric Alchemy, he says that there have always been two branches to alchemy, and the divine secret science types have always wished the transmutation of metals stuff hadn’t become a thing. I believe he called it “a desparate prostitution.”
Winthrop, certainly, was interested in making money, and the colonies in general were regarded by the English as a commercial endeavor. I’ve heard him called the father of the American mining industry, and he was principally involved with lead and gold mines in MA and CT. I’ve been in some of them, and there’s nothing metaphorical about hard rock mining with a hammer and chisel. Colonists of that era wanted very badly to get their hands on some ore!
The fantasy story idea it gives me is of a post industrial cult centered around the interpretation of a car owner’s manual or maybe a set of stereo instructions as an elaborate allegory for a mystical discipline of self development. (On the other hand, that might risk looking too much like the monthly Masonic newsletter.)
Packshaud, if in fact metallic alchemy works, much of what we think we know about physics will have to go the way of phlogiston theory. Thus it may not be safe to assume that transmutation, if it works, will have the effects that current theory assumes it would have to have.
Changeling, Fort was as usual paying attention. It’s precisely the intervention of consciousness in the process that is the essential secret of alchemy.
Danaone, quite possibly!
Neptunesdolphins, hmm! Thanks for the heads up. I’ve been reading some classic noir recently — Hammett and Chandler — and that might be a pleasant variation.
Walt, well, “Every man and woman is a star” was one of Aleister Crowley’s favorite lines!
WRW, I’m pretty sure that Hall was strongly influenced by Hitchcock’s book on alchemy. (Given the similarities in their writing style and ideas, it’s not wholly impossible that Hall was Hitchcock’s next incarnation.) As for the story, I want to read that!
I always thought of the lead-to-gold shtick as something like a Renaissance version of what Free Energy is to our culture: too good to not be true. What I mean is that it is (and was) an idea certain people were (and are) almost compelled to believe in, by the values of their culture. So there’s a whole passel of humans– true believers and charlatans both– making a show of chasing cold fusion or zero point energy or what have you, instead of chasing the Philosopher’s Stone and aurification, as they would have 500 years ago.
Either way, they can attract patronage (we’d now call that “government funding” and “venture capital”) or oppression (prosecuted for fraud), depending on how slick their material is.
There’ve been accounts just as believable published by free-energy cranks as you see by those who claim to have seen lead turn to gold, after all. You are, of course, free to believe one set of documents, or both, or neither, as your conscience dictates.
I don’t claim to know what the old alchemists were up to, by any means, though.
“Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
“But Iron — Cold Iron — is master of them all.”
Thank you for this wonderful series, it is really distilling and putting a lot of concepts into place that had always been difficult to grasp. Far too many people approach these topics as though, you the reader, are already a well read historian.
Sort of a side thought here – So Jesus turned the water into wine… just a little dinner time alchemy at work. 😉 Some modern christian churches do a trick were they do something that appears to turn water into wine and then back into water again. It used to teach how people can change with the addition of bible teachings, just don’t drink it because it is a highly toxic substance. (The water that is.)
@BB in regards to the garden. I personally let mine mostly run wild, for the most part let nature take its course with only a little bit of a nudge in various directions in the form of making sure I can still walk through it. All the grass that was originally here has died and now the cloves and moss are taking over, it is wonderful! That said having a large oak tree over shadow the yard has kept everything moving slowly, that is not a bad thing. I just means I focus more on growing herbs rather than big vegetables.
Yes, “cold iron” is always a threat to gold (or those who hold it). The king (or government) that holds gold also commands forces armed with iron (and lead) to maintain his hold.
Another way to look at it: owning a horse means not just that you can purchase it, but that you can afford to feed and house it, AND that you have the leisure time to enjoy it. Owning a boat means that you have leisure time to take it out on the water (or at least you think that you will). And owning gold means not just that you can buy it, but that you can protect it, (or that you live in a civil society that protects the property of all).
Hmm. The Crowley quote isn’t quite what I had in mind. But to be fair, we’re all pretty good at radiating energy. (Surprisingly, on a kilogram for kilogram basis, we compete handily with stars in thermal energy alone.) The rest of the quote might be worth a few microsiddhas of meditation.
“Packshaud, if in fact metallic alchemy works, much of what we think we know about physics will have to go the way of phlogiston theory. Thus it may not be safe to assume that transmutation, if it works, will have the effects that current theory assumes it would have to have.”
I’d be absolutely astonished if we got even close to getting everything right, given how wrong past science has been. That and a lot of the rhetoric thrown at astrologers has convinced me that the arguments that something must have certain effects and if it doesn’t, then it’s impossible, is not reasonable.
So, I’ll firmly place metallic alchemy in the “unproven” category, since it’s popped up enough that it seems plausible there could be something there, while noting that if true it’s a very, very big deal for physics. Since I lack the time, resources, skills, and interest to look into it at the moment and don’t expect that to change, I don’t expect to get an answer in this lifetime one way or the other.
I am going to have to look far closer into alchemy though, since it looks like it’ll help with following along with this series of posts. I love them, but I expect to be fairly quiet since I know I don’t know nearly enough to discuss the matter competently, and most of my questions end up answered in the comments anyway!
Hi John Michael,
Clumsy is a great way to describe the technique, but at the same time there is a part of me which is a bit awed that so transparent a method would be used. Dunno about you, but it possibly hints that the media or groups employing the technique may have forgotten that they are not the only players in this here act, and also it is very unwise to underestimate the capacities of an audience. Hmm.
Like the handle. Exactly, NLP techniques are used for those purposes. It is an option, I guess. 🙂 The techniques and knowledge have been kicking around for a while now, and they get tested…
I read a statistic many years ago which suggested that something like 90% of articles were paid for. And of late it looks to me like a vast echo-chamber.
Hope the bees are doing well. Mine appear to have overwintered fine and are now foraging around. But yeah, that is the thing isn’t it? And it hardly surprises me that critical thinking skills are not formally taught. Imagine that! Doesn’t mean you can’t learn them though, and it is an error of judgement to believe that people don’t.
On the last alchemy post, I brought up the idea of Aristotelian term logic, and premodern term logic generally, as a form of alchemy. Some further thoughts:
In Roman times, it was comonly believed that Aristotle had secret teachings. However, some historians say that Aristotle’s teaching lineage was destroyed during the Roman conquest of Athens and later rebooted based on his books; the original secrets may have ben lost. Certainly, if any Roman authors knew what they were, they never directly admitte it. For those who enjoy speculating, Leo Strauss’s book Persecution and the Art of Writing is worth a thoughtful read, as is our host’s essay on occult writing from a while back.
Modern logic makes a sharp distincton between words (a “formal language”) and the things they refer to (a “model”), and effecively banishes the logician’s own thinking patterns from the system entirely. According to the commentator Ammonius, Aristotelian logic combines these three concerns, its smallest units being real things as understood through one’s own concepts nd expressed in words; Tibetan logic is the same way. The difference leads many modern readers to wildly misunderstand old logic books, notably the concepts of “essence” and “accident”.
If you like math, you can test yourself: there’s an ofen mistranslated passage in Topics Book 2 about triangles and equilateral figures which will sound like unadulterated gibberish until you’ve grasped the basics of reasoning about word-concept-things, and perfectly self-explanatory afterwards:
“For example, it is in itself that a triangle has internal angles equal to two right angles, but by an accident that an equilateral figure does; for, if the equilateral figure happens to be a triangle, it is through this that we know it has internal angls equal to two right angles.”
I’m not at all convinced that the transformation of the alchemist is a necessary ingredient. If it were, why all the admonitions to secrecy to keep it from the hands of the unworthy and the fact that most alchemical instruction books are filled with labyrinthine disinformation? It is reported to actually be a much simpler process than expected, with seekers multiplying its complexities and expense unnecessarily. (Woman’s work and child’s play.)
And, CR Patino, you assumed that only a tiny amount can be made. Not sure why. With the stone, which is a powder, you can transmute fairly large quantities.
A curious fact known to mdern specialists, but often glossed over in summaries for laypeople: Aristotle seems to commit a lot of logical errors, sometimes even directly contradicting himself. Since the man single-handedly inveted formal logic, it’s pretty weird. The most common explanation is that his surviving works may be poorly-edited rough drafts, or even notes taken by confused studens and not by him at all, and/or they may have been badly corrupted by later copyists. (Robert Mathiesen mentioned this last time; so does, for instance, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and the third claim is brought up in Strabo’s Geography.)
There are oter explanations, though. For one thing, the inventor of a tool may not be the best at using it. Aristotle himself points this out, and encourages readers to improve on his work.
For another thing, surprisingly few Roman commentators even agree that Aristotle is using bad reasoning. (The main exception I know of is John Philoponus, an anti-pagan polemicist.) It’s worth considering that this could just be an example of the above problem. How many supposed “contradictons” are just a matter of modern people applying the wrong kind of logic?
A final tip: the differences between English word-concept-things and Ancient Greek word-concept-things can matter a great deal, so I would strongly recommend reading Aritotle in the original Greek if you can. In particular, the Sophistical Refutations makes it clear that much of his ontology was designed to help refute silly arguments built on linguistic ambiguities, many of which don’t translate; some passages describe written arguments where even the exact spelling matters.
@JMG re: Magic Monday – I sent a link to an article on hoodoo, indigo, and the color blue, which included hoodoo going on today. Apparently it didn’t go through. Here it is.
@Onething – It was an not-quite-educated guess.
If I understand correctly, the Alchemical process is not natural magic, e.g. it does not rely solely on the subtle properties of the ingredients themselves. If the philosopher’s stone takes *something* out of the alchemist in the process of its creation, you could argue that it is scarce because there are few alchemists, and each alchemist has an upper bound of how much of the stuff can be safely made. At the very least, it takes alchemist’s time (therefore, the alchemist cannot use his knowledge to create a machine that produces red powder while he’s drinking margaritas at the beach). Depending on what other inner resources are required, there may be other bounds: if it takes etheric energy, excessive production would wreck his health; if it takes astral energy, excess will erode his sanity, etc.
On the other hand, “tiny amounts” is a relative term. If I could make one ounce of gold every week, both me and my wife would probably afford to quit our jobs, even if I had to spend half of the proceeds in supplies. Not a good idea, though, since people would start wondering where the money was coming… but I digress. The point being that for someone like Carlos Slim, that kind of money does not even count as pocket change. I’d be uninteresting to him because it is not possible for him to clone me a thousand times, milk the clones until they turn into emaciated raving lunatics, and then begin afresh next month.
Hey JMG, Have you heard of “Lovecraft Country” on HBO? It’s a huge hit and it introduces people to this horror genre with a story of racial segregation and a black hero as the star. I have read that Lovecraft himself was a racist but the series is genius. It reminds me of the new version of Watchmen in its subversive vision of black people in America.
Bees are indeed foraging, although this season’s honey crop was a little disappointing. I suppose it’s because we’re in what the weather experts call a ‘moderate drought’. In a normal summer precipitation is plentiful and temperatures are comfortable; we’ll get a half-dozen or so days over 90ºF, and generally not back-to-back. This year has been incredibly awful: mid-to upper 90’s in June, July, August, day after day, and no rain at all from late May until late July. The pollen and nectar plants really took a beating. The chickens don’t like this at all, seeing as they wear little down jackets all year long; the older girls look downright miserable. The hatchery sends along a ‘surprise’ chick with each order, which can be male or female, any breed. So along with our box of Rhode Island Red chicks this year came a tiny little extra chick, so small I didn’t think it would survive, but survive it did. The neighbor named it Miss Marple as in ‘mystery’ chicken; we thought it appropriate since we had no idea what breed it was. By July, however, I noticed the sickle feathers and Miss Marple started crowing, so his name is now Ambrose, after Ambrose Bierce, also a figure of some mystery. Still don’t know what breed.
@ Y. Chireau I’m not sure if JMG will point this out, but he used to be a part of a public society/group that used to have public displays where the public would pay to have a chance to smash TV screens. Say $1 per swing of the bat. Somewhat of a mental cathartic release to the vice like grip it has on peoples minds.
Can’t say I disagree with him, about 99.9% of the stuff that goes on TV is not worth the cost of the disc/tape it is stored on.
According to the late Jacques Bergier on of the things that the alchemists could produce was copper, that is superconductive, That seems to me to be far more interesting (and dangerous) that gold.
I totally agree with our host about giving up TV. I haven’t watched any for about 35 years now, and my wife hasn’t for about 30 years now. (I was about 10 years old before TV became a thing most homes had, so it simply felt to me like a return to a better age when I quit watching it. I had no deep need to take a bat to it; I just stopped watching it …)
Yes, television is awful and the little people on the screen can give one a headache.
So, no one has heard of the new Lovecraft drama that places black people at the center? I guess not!
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