Alchemy, from the Arabic al-khimia―which Plutarch tells us means ‘the Egyptian Art’―is the art of turning lead (♄) into gold (☉). But is this philosophical gold, the aurum non vulgi, or the gold of the vulgar? Given the purposeful inscrutability of the alchemists, it is often impossible to tell.
There are two attitudes towards alchemical practice. One claims it is a pseudoscience that has been discarded. The alchemists were trying to do the impossible and transmute metals; we enlightened moderns, on the other hand, have the periodic table. We know more; therefore, alchemy is useless to us.
The other view is that of the spiritual counterculture, where the complex symbols found in alchemical manuscripts, from peacock’s tails and the revolutions of Sol, represent spiritual realities, and alchemy is the key to inner, mystic transformation.
The truth is alchemy is simultaneously chemistry and mysticism, which is why it is so difficult to square.
When scholars look to Egypt to see if they can trace the origin of alchemy there, they are puzzled. Though Egypt had advanced metallurgy which, by Roman times, included extensive facility in glassmaking, it did not seem to fetishise metals as sacred energies in correspondence with celestial spheres, as was the case in Western alchemy―perhaps because said spheres hail from Babylonian, not Egyptian, astrology.
There is, however, an untold story of Egyptian sacred stones, and lapis lazuli especially. This stone was held sacred and, together with gold, was among Egypt’s most sought-after substances. It was not, however, native to Egypt, and so had to be traded from Afghanistan, often through middlemen, making it quite expensive. Therefore, Egyptian chemists sought to produce a blue paint―what we call ultramarine―without having to pay for the stone.
In so doing, they invented the distinctive glaze now known as “Egyptian faience,” the world’s first artificial ultramarine; a tincture often used to create a stone that is not stone―the artificial lazuli. At the same time they invented gold leaf, as well as a number of methods for dyeing metals called “projections.” Even the language used to describe these operations is the same as that of later alchemists.
In a sense, we can see the motivation for Egyptian metallurgy being much the same as that of future European “puffers”―those alchemists who sought to make a fortune from gold-making. It was an art of deception, meant to save costs by emulating metals.
The Ancient texts also hold little by way of the esoteric content one might relate to this early chemistry, so how could the Greeks have become convinced that alchemy was, indeed, the art of Egypt?
Perhaps the source for Egyptian alchemical imagery is hiding in plain sight, its origin so warped we can no longer recognize it. Compare, for instance, the Emerald Tablet of Hermes to what we call the Book of the Dead (though it is best translated as The Book of Going Towards the Light.) Are not these spells which make sure Ra (Sol) has a safe journey through the netherworld, the very revolutions of Sol of which Hermes speaks? These are the most important spells in Egyptian culture, originally reserved only for kings. So how did they end up as esoteric teachings hidden in the body of the metallurgical tradition?
This is ultimately a question about a specific place, Akhmim, or Panopolis, where Zosimus―the first well-known Greek alchemist―came from. It also relates to the changes that occurred in temple libraries during Egypt’s Late Period, which we know about from the Temple of Sobek in the Faiyum, which is where The Book of the Faiyum―which transforms the earlier texts of the Book of Going Towards the Light into an idiosyncratic doctrine about the revolutions of the Sun―was preserved. We know that these innovations were taking place at this point in Egyptian history, and also that Akhmim was a node for spiritual exploration well into the Islamic era, which gave rise to an entire Sufi lineage in Empedocles’ tradition.
Such was the transformation process which sublimated the older spells into a metallurgical practice that already had spiritual connotations borne from the lazuli stone. All this, to lay out the most important thing about the origins of Our Philosophy: that alchemy descends, originally, from a set of magic spells the purpose of which was to keep the Sun in its trajectory across the sky.
The Book of Gates. Ra as Amun in the Solar Barque.
You may wonder what this has to do with novels, or novel writing. We have a set of ritual actions which lay out the mythical journey of the Sun as he travels through the sky and the underworld, establishing the division of the hours and ensuring order.
There are a number of little mythical tidbits we can share here. When Copernicus, for instance, mentions in De Revolutionibus that the teaching that the Earth goes round the Sun is not new because it was known to the Egyptians, he is misinterpreting the Pythagoreans. A closer reading of Plato’s Phaedo will reveal that the “central fire” to which Pythagoras refers is none other than the Lake of Fire described in Egyptian scriptures of the netherworld.
Other mythical images involve the otherworldly struggle Ra must undergo with forces of chaos like the serpent Apep―reminiscent of Sol against the Green Lion in the Alchemical Work. Alchemy is a series of magic stories which present themselves as images. This structure forms a ring, or a cycle, and that certain archetypes manifest themselves in it is what allows the designation of a story as “alchemical.”
For thousands of years, these Egyptian spells were disguised as chemical operations to be performed in the laboratory, until events in Europe caused people to start viewing alchemy as an exclusively spiritual practice again. These events were precipitated by the death of Giordano Bruno, and manifested as the Rosicrucian movement.
For our purposes, this was also the moment when the first alchemical novel emerged. The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz is a mystery play of the aforesaid movement―a lubridium, as its author Johann Valentin Andreae would later call it―representing the alchemical work in spiritual form.
The most important moment in this novel is when Christian Rosenkreutz does something forbidden―he gazes upon the face of the sleeping Venus, who is hidden in the basement of the castle of the Great Work. As punishment, he must surrender his position in the Order of the Golden Stone and sit as a door-warden.
This episode is a metaphor for the Rosicrucian movement as a whole, where Venus represents Nature and Rosenkreutz is the philosopher who seeks to grasp her secrets through the intellect. As with the figure of Nature on the run in Michael Maier’s pamphlet Atalanta Fugiens, the philosopher tries to derive the Laws of Nature from Her visible signs.
Although it’s tempting to think of the Rosicrucians as magicians, it should be recalled that they were also scientists who helped set into motion our own modern world’s disenchantment. This is what led Thomas Lovejoy Peacock to opine in Nightmare Abbey that: “You talk like a Rosicrucian, who will love nothing but a sylph, who does not believe in the existence of a sylph, and who yet quarrels with the whole universe for not containing a sylph.”
Peacock was poking fun at his English Romantic friends who, following the horrors of the French Revolution, had correspondingly lost faith in progress and sunk into a more gothic mood. Only one generation later, a new mystic movement would arise, in the guise of Blavatsky’s Theosophy. At the same time this society was founded, an Englishwoman named Mary Anne Atwood and her Father reinvented alchemy as a spiritual discipline.
The life of Atwood, in turn, yielded what is possibly the most famous of 20th century alchemical novels, Lyndsay Clarke’s Chymical Wedding, which won the Whitbread Prize for Literature in 1989. Mysteriously, in that same year, another alchemical novel with the same premise, similar characters and even a similar storyline was published. Mercurius, by Patrick Harpur, sank instantly into obscurity, and then began selling secondhand for thousands of pounds. Despite having read English at Cambridge at the same time, Harpur and Clarke had never met.
Maier, Michael. “Following in the Footsteps of Nature.” Atalanta Fugiens. 1619.
I once asked Patrick how he and Lindsay felt when they discovered they had each had, and pursued, the same idea at once. I remember him saying: “not great―but now we’re best of friends.” From what I gather, at first there was some animosity between them.
Clarke’s book, The Chymical Wedding, is a metafictional narrative about alchemy, framed as an alchemical structure. It takes place in two time periods. One of them is set in the 19th century, and follows Mary Anne Atwood and her Father. The other one is set in the 20th century, and follows a middle-aged poet looking for inspiration, who stumbles into the world of an older man and his young wife who are themselves looking for inspiration in the occult explorations of the previous century. Both timelines begin to overlap as the characters allegorically accomplish the Great Work of alchemy within their narrative(s).
In contrast, Harpur’s book, Mercurius, is a metafictional narrative about alchemy, framed as an alchemical structure. It takes place in two time periods. One of them is set in the 1950s, following a country pastor known as Smith who attempts to create the philosopher’s stone. The other one is set in the 1980s, and follows a middle-aged woman undergoing a midlife crisis, who discovers Smith’s journal and seeks inspiration in the occult explorations of the previous century. Both timelines begin to overlap as the characters allegorically accomplish the Great Work of alchemy within their narrative(s).
The two books are structurally identical, except the characters have their genders inverted. Neither author knew the other beforehand, and each accused the other of plagiarism. Later, a mutual friend of theirs, John Moat, would publish another alchemical novel, The Fabrication of Gold. (It may be hard to find now, as these books tend to make themselves scarce.) Together with Jules Cashford, this crew formed the Alchemical Inklings.
At the same time these books were being published, another author in America was also issuing his alchemical magnum opus. This was John Crowley and his Aegypt Cycle, told in four volumes, which it may be better to term an astrological novel, since its plot structure is based not on alchemical stages, but on astrological houses. Nevertheless, I am including it here because it presents a similar metafictional structure for its characters operate in. It also takes place in two different time periods: the 16th century world of the novelist Fellowes Kraft, and Faraway Hills, a fictionalized take on the 1970s Berkshires.
Fiction collides with reality as Pierce Moffet, the protagonist, begins to take actions John Crowley took in his own life. The fourth volume climaxes with Moffet following in the footsteps of Kraft behind the Iron Curtain, in Prague, speculating as to whether the philosopher’s stone is a substance or not. Crowley includes a photocopy of his own visa at the end, as if to imply that the 3000 pages the reader had slogged through are, in some sense, true.
Nor were all 20th century alchemical novels were written by men. The genre has two great female exponents. The first is, of course, Marguerite Yourcenar, who wrote The Abyss about fictional Renaissance alchemist Zeno. It is a long meditation on one alchemical phase: nigredo. This is also the only one of our novels written in French.
The other female author was British surrealist painter Ithell Colquhoun. The Goose of Hermogenes explores the complex relationships that can arise between Fathers and Daughters, and the other members of a nuclear family. Colquhoun illustrates this dreamlike narrative with her haunting, provocative watercolours to produce an aesthetically strange reading experience, given the book’s tiny, delicate size.
What these books have in common is a narrative structure based explicitly on the phases of the Great Work―nigredo, albedo et rubedo, or calcination, sublimation and projection―while featuring characters concerned with accomplishing the Alchemical Opus, and with achieving the spiritual transformation represented by the philosopher’s stone. This small side-street of the novel, which explores metafictionality better than many postmodernists could, remains among the 20th centuries most inspired and discreet contributions to English literature.
More deliberately than with other forms of fiction, the alchemical novel is built to effect an inner transformation in the reader as the narrative coheres. In this sense, it’s ultimately closest to what Margaret Doody claimed the novel originally was: an initiation, akin to the mysteries at Eleusis, that subjects the reader to trials of the netherworld, and dreams.
Jack Kausch has an MA in Linguistics from the University of Edinburgh. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and can be followed on Twitter @kausch