Article: An Interview with Adam McLean
Reprinted from Issue 30 of The
Stone, January - February 1999.
by Russell House
Copyright 1999, Adam McLean and Russell House. All rights
Adam McLean mailed the first issue of a
quarterly journal in the Fall of 1978. Two
decades after its birth The Hermetic Journal
can be recognized as a landmark among modern alchemical
endeavors. It served as an important vehicle for alchemical
studies for 15 years. Soon after the launch of his journal, Adam
created The Magnum Opus series, which gave students and
collectors access to handcrafted, hand-colored alchemical books.
In 1995, Adam created the internet-based Alchemy Virtual Library.
Russell House interviewed Adam McLean by email, between November
10 and November 21, 1998.
did your first realize that alchemy was going to play a
significant role in your life?
My own interest in alchemy developed during my
teens when I was about thirteen or fourteen years old. A few
years later I began to seriously study the subject when I was
struggling to find some meaning in the courses I was taking at
University (Mathematics, Logic and Chemistry). Eventually I
flunked out (in about 1968) and I settled myself in Edinburgh
where for about five years I studied what books I could find on
alchemy and tried to educate myself in the things that interested
It has been twenty years since you mailed
the first issues of The Hermetic Journal.
What was your vision for that publication? What did you set out
During the late seventies there were a number
of esoteric magazines - Aquarian Arrow, Quadriga, Sothis, the
Kabbalist, the Cincinnati Journal of Ceremonial Magick - but none
of these focussed on alchemy.
So I decided, in a small way, to publish a
quarterly journal which would to a great extent focus on alchemy.
As I was only too aware that alchemy was an obscure subject, I
decided to call the magazine the 'Hermetic Journal' rather than
the 'Alchemical Journal' and to approach alchemy as a part of the
wider hermetic tradition. Thus, I could include articles on
magical and other esoteric ideas. The contents page of the first
issue reveals clearly what has come to characterize my approach
to alchemy - that of trying to get people to look at the rich
vein of source material. In the very first issue, I printed a
translation of part of the 'Golden Chain of Homer'. Over the 15
years of publishing the Journal, it became more and more
dedicated to alchemy, and the later issues contain very little
material from the more general esoteric tradition.
In setting up the Hermetic Journal I had help
and encouragement from well known people like Stephen Skinner,
Gareth Knight, Cottie Burland, who by offering to write articles,
brought their colleagues and supporters to take out subscriptions
which allowed the Journal to survive financially. In particular,
my friend Christopher McIntosh was kind enough to let me use a
mailing list he had developed, and a few months later, Hans
Nintzel let me use his mailing list to publicize the Journal.
This brought an immediate base of subscribers. Without the good
will of these and many other people, it would have been much more
difficult to establish the Journal.
You have done amazing things as a publisher.
First of all, to sustain a journal of any kind for 15 years is an
achievement. In the midst of that, you were also writing articles
that covered quite a spectrum of interest. I recall an article on
alchemy and quantum physics, another on nuclear energy, a variety
of research papers on historical personalities, and the
beginnings of a novel "Messenger of the Rose Cross".
There was an excellent series on practical alchemy in the earlier
issues. The series on alchemical meditations was begun as well,
which you have continued to develop. The Hermetic
Journal managed to be fresh despite a scholarly tone;
and to take risks while remaining tasteful. It seemed rather
magical to me as a reader. It must have been a fantastic journey
for you. What was it like?
I don't think the Hermetic Journal can be seen
as a scholarly journal. Being entirely independent I could take
risks and try to expand the boundaries for researching alchemical
and hermetic ideas. I attempted through the journal to help
people look at alchemical texts and symbolism in a fresh way,
open to their spiritual content but grounded in the real
documents of alchemy - its books and manuscripts- and not in some
intellectual mind fluff.
Over the fifteen years of the Journal I myself
journeyed through the material and was changed by my research and
exploration of alchemy. I underwent a process of loosening myself
from many of the preconceptions, overly romanticized and
exaggerated ideas and claims for alchemy, which I had absorbed
through my earlier reading of twentieth century writings. My over
reliance, for example, on some of the ideas of Rudolph Steiner
and the theosophists began to fade and I found a different,
though I feel more substantial and grounded view of alchemy,
through reading the source material without importing and
overlaying these texts with such later preconceptions. I hope I
was able to take some other people on a similar journey. It may
seem hard to give up some beautiful and attractive ideas, but one
can live easier when ones feet are on the ground.
It is this quest, to promote the idea that we
must ground our understanding of alchemy firmly in the source
texts, and not in some intellectual system imposed from outside
alchemy, that has characterized my work in the 1990's. It saddens
me when I read a recent book or article in which it is only too
obvious that the writer has not spent much time with real
alchemical texts, but relied entirely on twentieth century
writers as their authorities and, in weaving their book, imported
the preconceptions of earlier writers, which are often based on a
particular belief system.
When you were developing the Magnum Opus
Hermetic Sourceworks series, you were working with a powerful
archetype: the hand illustrated, hand-made, symbolic book. What
was your experience as you immersed yourself in this project?
It is perhaps easy to romanticize this
activity, but the reason for me adopting this method was entirely
practical. The main problem with publishing limited interest
books such as those of alchemy, is that sales are so poor that if
a publisher pays for the books to be professionally printed and
bound they never recover their capital costs. So such a publisher
never gets beyond the first volume. My methodology is to produce
books almost to order. I bind them up in small batches and never
have more than four or five copies of a title in stock at one
time. This means that I do not have large investments of capital
in bookstock. I have never had access to large sums of money in
order to capitalize book production so I have had to make the
best of what I could do. The method of making books in small
batches enabled me to produce 25 books in the Magnum Opus series
rather than only one. I cannot pretend that after twenty years of
binding up books in this way that it is anything but a chore - If
anyone has $100,000 dollars to spare I will happily have these
books professionally printed and bound and never do any
bookbinding again! But I have to be practical, and make the best
of what resources and skills I have and hope that arthritis
doesn't get in the way of my book production!
In the editorial in the second issue of The
Hermetic Journal, you indicated that Scotland is an
important country in the history of alchemy, that it has a
destiny to fulfil in the unfolding of alchemy.
Scotland is an important country in the history
of alchemy as it has within its borders by far the best
collection of alchemical books in the world. The Ferguson
collection in Glasgow University Library, which I visit at least
once a week to undertake research, the Young Collection also in
Glasgow, and the John Read Collection in St Andrews, provide
access to the texts of about 95% of all alchemical books. It is
in this sense that Scotland is important, and seems to have some
destiny in relation to alchemy.
I myself am trying to contribute to this by
collecting a library of modern books, the Alchemy research
library, which will eventually be given to Glasgow University, to
complement its holdings of the original books. I am also
developing an archive of articles on alchemy, also to be
permanently housed here in Scotland. For the future I hope to
encourage people to come, visit and research the great
collections of alchemical literature found here in Scotland, and
discover for themselves the great treasures that lie hidden in
these books and manuscripts.
You have created a very substantial library
on the Internet, the Alchemy Virtual Library. It is the center
for an international community of students at various levels.
What was your vision for this project, Adam?
The Alchemy web site began early in 1995. In
late 1994, the Internet finally began to expand outside of the
narrow constraints of the academic network, the first web
browsers appeared and the marriage of text and image began
through the development of HTML. I was incredibly excited by this
as it seemed to me that here was a new medium for publishing and
awakening people to the nature of alchemy. I got connected in
December 1994, and found myself entirely at home in this new
medium. I set up the alchemy web site to provide a resource so
that people, wherever they were in the world could discover
something of the richness of alchemy.
One of the problems for people understanding
alchemy is that the material is not readily available, so people
make up their minds about the subject from reading just a few
texts, or worse still, from reading sensationalist 20th century
speculative books. Through the Alchemy web site, I sought to
provide people with a depth of material, and many resources for
exploring the richness of the subject.
As a publisher, you have moved from serving
a relatively patient group of readers with a quarterly journal,
to limited edition, handmade books, into the internet. In this
medium, it seems that everyone is in some incredible race against
time, having trouble understanding that it might take a few days
to respond to a letter, that it takes time to proofread and
Running the web site requires a great deal of
investment of my time. Many days it takes me all morning just to
answer the incoming e-mail. The Internet seems to be creating a
group of people who want everything for free and immediately
available to them, demanding that one devotes time to their
queries. One of the annoying things that is happening more and
more is that people write to me and say that they want some
information on alchemy but they cannot be bothered or don't have
the time to wade through the alchemy web site. So they want me to
spend an hour or so replying to their questions. This is very
depressing, because these people are losing the excitement of the
journey of discovery.
The alchemy web site was not constructed as an
ornate, well thought out, top-down teaching aid, but rather is
the result of my idiosyncratic journey of many years through the
amazing world of alchemy, which has now become joined with the
investigations of other contributors. It is a tapestry of
interwoven, textured threads, as is alchemy itself. The joy of
discovery, of our curiosity, is the fire that makes knowledge
live and transform us inwardly. Cold facts handed out on a cold
plate, or sent by e-mail, give the reader no inner warmth,
provide them with no inner sustenance.
How do you see it unfolding in the future?
For the future, much more needs to be done. I
am trying to encourage others to explore and research alchemy in
all its facets. There is so much material as yet unexplored. So
the web site will have many years to develop and evolve. I must
here thank Dan Levy, who has been kind enough to host the alchemy
web site on his server levity.com. It does use up a great deal of
his expensive bandwidth, and without his gift of space and server
time I would be struggling to pay for commercial space, as the
internet returns no money to those who provide information.
It seems that online discussion groups have
been a challenge for almost everyone using them. How do you look
at this tool today; where can it take us in alchemical studies?
The online discussion groups on alchemy have
been an incredible challenge. Discussions so often flare up into
personal abuse, and degenerate into negativity. I have been
running discussion groups for over three years. I began in June
or July 1995. Initially it drew together a community of people
interested in alchemy with the generosity to share information.
This is the amazing strength of the Internet. If one asks a
genuine question, a number of people will go out of their way,
devote hours of their valuable time to provide you with an
answer. People asked for references in texts, sources for
alchemical ideas, hints for practical work, and the online
community was glad to assist and share information. This was the
true power of being tapped into a global alchemical community.
However quite quickly there arose many problems
with difficult individuals. Some were posturing puffers who
pretended to possess superior or secret knowledge, who took
offence when their idiotic ideas were shown for what they were.
Some were comedians, clowns, who set out to disrupt the group
discussions with inane comments and puerile jokes. Some were
clever manipulators who tried to control the group for their own
ends. Some just enjoyed arguing, attacking and annoying others.
All of these I had to struggle with, to try a
get some sense of order, so that proper and adult discussion
could continue. For whenever difficult individuals came into the
group and tried to use it as a forum merely for playing their
games, serious students and researchers abandoned the forum, as
they did not want to have to read a load of rubbish each morning
in their e-mail. Eventually I found a formula that seems to work
- a heavily moderated e-mail discussion group where the serious
scholarly discussion of alchemy can take place - and a parallel
free-for-all, where, as long as people don't insult each other,
they are able to speculate endlessly on whatever aspect of
alchemy they wish. So now, the discussions proceed in a good
atmosphere (with only the occasional hiccup). Just last week on
the scholarly groups we were investigating the source for a
colored version of the Mutus Liber; exploring aspects of
Tibetan/Indian alchemy; looking at aspects of the Homunculus, its
relationship to the golem and to blood; and seeing what
Paracelsus meant by some of the special terms in his writings. I
find this constant exploration fascinating, and I view the
continuation of these discussion forums as a vital part of my
work. I learn so much from other people on these groups that I
feel others must also be benefiting in the same way.
What other projects do you have going at
A project I have started in the past two months
is to build an archive of articles on alchemy. There are so many
(probably at least 800) articles in scholarly journals dealing
with aspects of alchemy. Some of these articles are so well
researched and full of interesting ideas, however, it often takes
a long time to locate such an article. One can waste a great deal
of time in a library tracing an article in an obscure journal. I
have begun to collect such articles and build an archive here in
Glasgow where people can browse through these. I currently have
collected nearly 500, and have set up a small group of volunteers
in various countries to assist in collecting these pieces. The
alchemy research library, the articles archive and my own
collection of symbolism will eventually be donated to Glasgow
University Library so that it can be preserved as a permanent
resource for scholars and alchemy enthusiasts. For the
foreseeable future, they will be held as a browseable resource at
my flat in Glasgow. Of course, I welcome people to visit the
collections here in Glasgow, and am happy to make myself
available to assist people undertaking research here.
We would be pleased to donate a complete set
of our courses to the Alchemy research library, if you would like
to have them.
It is important to document all twentieth
century alchemy so I would be very pleased to accept a complete
set of the PON courses. Due to the generosity of the PON I
already have a complete set of the 'Stone' and 'Ora et Labora' in
Recently you indicated that you are
transcribing the laboratory notebook of a 17th century alchemist.
I understand that this alchemist had made contact with
Weidenfeld, whom I consider one of the most interesting
experimentalists and writers of the period.
This personal notebook, of an as yet
unidentified writer, is a record of the advice he received from
various alchemists in the years around 1689. It gives quite
precise practical details of how to prepare menstruums and
different preparations of potable gold. It provides an insight
into the way in which alchemists were working in that period, as
this personal notebook, written only to keep a record of the
writer's visits and discussions and not intended for publication,
involves no posturing and pretending or purposeful concealing of
information. In his discussions with Weidenfeld, he tries to get
information about a certain ore of "marquesite" which,
though very cheap, nevertheless contains sufficient quantities of
gold to make it worth processing. After a number of visits, he is
able to charm Weidenfeld into telling him of the precise form of
Do you think that this notebook will help to
piece together some threads of the alchemical practice, or to
better sense the way that the natural philosophers viewed the
world at that time?
This notebook is important as it gives us a
glimpse into the ways in which alchemy was conducted during this
period in London. It does not necessarily provide us with a
solution to the puzzle of alchemy, but helps us see how real
alchemists worked, and gives us an alternative to the
romanticized pictures of alchemists presented to us through many
modern books, and to the portrayal of alchemists in television
and films. I would hope to publish it as a Magnum Opus book early
next year. There is another interesting notebook by the 16th
century English alchemist Thomas Charnock, which I also consider
well worth publishing.
Are there other similar writings that
haven't been explored? I am aware of the more modern works of
Bacstrom which are quite valuable, but what more exists?
There are many thousands of alchemical
manuscripts that have survived. I have, in the past years,
collected a database of over 4000 such manuscripts mostly in
public collections in National or University Libraries. Now, not
all of these are especially interesting, indeed many of these are
copies, summaries, or translations of printed works, but amongst
these (say 10-20% or so) are many hundreds of incredibly
important works. Only a few of these have been documented and
published, and I have tried to make some of these available
through my publications, despite my lack of resources. If I had
the money, I would have microfilms made of all these important
manuscripts and set up a resource so that people could research
these easily. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries Bacstrom
and Ebenezar Sibly were trying to undertake this task and they
translated and transcribed hundreds of alchemical texts, most of
which have survived and can be see in libraries. Hans Nintzel
made transcriptions of some of the Bacstrom manuscripts and
issued them in small batches.
One of the significant developments of the
recent past was the founding of an exceptional Hermetic library
in the Netherlands by Mr. Ritman. I know that you have
collaborated with Mr. Ritman on some research, and are well
acquainted with the collection. Could you introduce our readers
to his work, and your collaboration?
I first heard of this library in 1984, when
Joseph Ritman, a Dutch industrialist based in Amsterdam, turned
his private collection of books and manuscripts on hermetic
philosophy into a library open to the public. Mr. Ritman's vision
was to establish a library that would act as the focus for the
study of hermetic philosophy into the next millennium. He
employed a small staff to operate the library under the direction
of Frans Janssen, who during the 1980's and 1990's were able to
purchase a vast number of original books, manuscripts, as well as
20th century reference material.
This library does not just cover alchemy, but
has major collections of works on Hermetic philosophy, Western
mysticism, and especially on Rosicrucianism. Since 1990, Mr.
Ritman has been able to support my work. I have undertaken some
research on behalf the library, and transcribed some mystical
works from early books and manuscripts, and I am currently
employed by the library to manage its web site. At the moment I
am preparing online exhibitions of some of the important books
and manuscripts in the Ritman Library (also known as the
Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica). The library's work of
collecting and documenting the hermetic tradition continues and
there will no doubt be many interesting developments in the years
to come. The library sets high standard both for its research and
in it publications. In particular, Mr. Ritman set Dr Carlos Gilly
the task of researching and documenting Rosicrucian history, and
the results of his decade of research will eventually be
published, and will revolutionize our view of Rosicrucianism.
What do you see happening in other countries
related to advances in alchemy, for example efforts similar to
There are many individuals working with
alchemy, but often I find people restrict themselves to a
particular facet of the subject. For myself I try to be a
generalist and reflect as many of the different facets of alchemy
as I am capable of perceiving. So although I myself am not
studied in Chinese or Indian alchemy I recognize its importance
and collect material on these aspects. Although I am not involved
at the moment in practical work, as are the members of the PON, I
certainly recognize its importance. I believe it is vital that we
all remain open to the different facets of the subject and not
close ourselves off. The internet has made it easier for the
global alchemical community to come together, and we now have the
opportunity to rescue alchemy from oblivion and neglect. A number
of groups have formed in the past few years, for example in the
Spanish speaking world. To me it seems essential that this global
alchemical community does not fragment through bitter infighting
and that people keep a clear vision of the whole alchemical
tradition before them. In my work through the alchemy web site I
have tried to be inclusive of the different groups and
traditions, and I will always try to keep myself open to other
impulses in other countries. We are perhaps on the cusp of a
millennium in which countries will gradually fade away, and we
will all see ourselves as part of the world community. Alchemy
was never tied to a particular country or tradition - sure, in
various periods of history it found a ready and nourishing soil
in certain countries or communities, Alexandrian Egypt, the
Islamic phase, China, India, Northern Europe, but it doesn't
belong to any particular tradition. Alchemy (which stands outside
any particular religion) belongs truly to humanity. It is part of
our inner nature and will probably always be relevant to the
small group of people in society who come to recognize its value
There is a long tradition of secrecy in
alchemy. Have you encountered this very much in the past two
decades of your work in the field?
Because I see myself as an open person and I
try to work openly, I don't really have much time for people who
want to clothe their work in secrecy. So anyone wishing to work
in a secret way will avoid contacting me. I have little
experience of such secrecy. I am not a member of any group or
secret order and do not want to be. Because I am unattached and
have no commitment to any order or school, I find that people
come to trust me, as there is no hidden agenda, I have no inner
debt to any spiritual leader or chief of an esoteric order. I
need to be free, and cannot imagine living and working with
alchemy in any other way.
Have you sensed that there was a legitimate
need for the secrecy?
No. I do not see any reason for secrecy.
Secrecy cuts one off from other people, and from the possibility
of learning and sharing experiences with other people. It seems
to me that often people adopt a posture of secrecy to gain power.
If they truly kept their work secret then no one outside their
circle would know about it, but they drop little hints, tease
people, offer them admission to their secrets if they
metaphorically follow them and raise them to the status of adept.
Secrecy in this area seems to me just a matter of power games and
the manipulation of followers.
People sometimes say, "but if alchemical
knowledge is made public then it will be misused with devastating
results for humanity". These people should take a look in
bookstores or on the internet where one can in a few minutes, for
example, find the formulae for making powerful poisons like
ricin, or nerve agents, or dangerous mind altering drugs.
Alchemical formulae surely have little power compared with the
devastation that can be created by poisons like ricin which can
easily be made on a kitchen table from readily available
What approach would you recommend for those
who want to get 'inside' the classical alchemical texts? I have
seen lots of discussion on the unmoderated Alchemy Forum about
the Twelve Keys of Basil Valentine, as an example. The discussion
makes me think that it is easy to look at the symbols from the
outside and to project our own content and perspectives onto
them, but much more difficult to let the texts speak. My question
would apply to the text of the books as well as to the symbolism.
My way of working with the texts and symbols is
to try to approach them afresh, as if one were seeing them for
the first time. I try to exclude importing any preconceptions.
The worst thing one can do is to take each symbol on an image and
say - the "lion means this", the "eagle is such
and such" - this won't get you anywhere with alchemical
They need to be
approached much more sensitively. I usually put photocopies of
the image or series on a space on the wall of my workshop - at
the moment I have the thirteen images from the
'Hermaphroditisches Sonn- und Monds-Kind' (Hermaphrodite
child of the Sun and Moon). Sometimes, as I
pass these images, I just take a few seconds to look at them - to
gaze at them as things in themselves - not analyzing or trying to
intellectually dissect them. I try to hold close to the forefront
of my mind the sense that these symbols were fashioned by an
alchemical writer centuries ago and contain an essence of that
writer's alchemical philosophy, which I can only get a clear
picture of, if I resonate with what is in the images. By revering
these images in this way, I stop myself merely intellectualizing
and dissecting the symbols. As I work with these images they
become a part of myself and I no longer need the outer pictures
on the wall as I can inwardly recall all the details of each of
the images of the sequence.
Eventually, the images begin to show something
of their inner working to me. I will suddenly find myself
focussing on some aspect or arranging the images in a particular
pattern. Often this leads nowhere but sometimes there comes a
moment when one gets a clear insight, and the sequence suddenly
comes together as a united whole, and I can see each separate
image as occupying a phase or part of a process. Then I have to
find some way of writing this down in words, and here I often
find problems in articulating and communicating the overall
picture of the process that I have in this way perceived.
This method also works for me with alchemical
texts and allegories. Here I have to develop and build strong
inner pictures of the textual material, but the method, for me is
much the same as with series of engravings or woodcuts. For
example, I am presently beginning to work with the Monte Synder
'Metamorphosis of the Planets', a most elaborate and convoluted
Adam, I hope we can speak a bit more about
symbolism, since this is a rich and fertile ground. It has taken
me some years to find myself approaching some balance on this
matter, since I was looked at things rather superficially:
"Symbolism is important to understand, but I don't want to
overdo it since I might end up over here with the Jungian faction
and I really want to pursue laboratory practice, do work in
physical alchemy". While that is a bit of an exaggeration,
still there has been a need to center my viewpoint a bit more.
I find it amazing how quickly work with
symbols can transport us into a mystical realm, where access to
ideas and sensations about universal and archetypal matters take
on a substantial reality. Symbols seem something like 'vitamins
for the soul', that really can transform us as people. This is my
perspective as someone who is a novice, or a recent enthusiast. I
would like to hear what you can say about this as someone with a
much longer practice. The possibilities seem immense to me.
Alchemy has always had various different ways
of working woven into it. One of these is symbolism - either
through the pictorial emblematic imagery or the elaborate
allegories found in the texts. I have spent much of my time
working with this symbolism. As I said earlier, it is fruitless
to try and grasp the symbols in an analytical intellectual way,
to nail them down to precise meanings, or draw up a symbolic
lexicon. Very interesting exercises, perhaps, but probably
pointless. To gain access to what is in the symbols, one must
take them into ones being, breathe them in, as it were, or allow
oneself to resonate with the imagery.
Then they begin to speak within us. This is, I
believe, not merely a subjective exercise, but if one holds true
to a profound sequence of symbols such as the Splendor Solis, the
Mylius series, the Rosarium, the Aurora Consurgens, etc.
resisting projecting ones own prejudices and views on the
sequence, but letting it reveal itself in its own time, one comes
eventually to see how each symbol in an emblem echoes and
reflects its neighbors, and ultimately to grasp something of the
inner reasons why the sequence is structured in a particular way.
Some emblem sequences may take years of work before one has a
sense of what is hidden in them. Working with symbolism might be
dismissed as an easy option by the practical alchemist struggling
to get equipment to work and find the correct ingredients, but
the inner work with symbolism is equally difficult. Often one
seems to have a sense of the sequence only to realize a day or so
later that this was ephemeral and insubstantial.
This parallels the experiences of working in
practical alchemy. Whether or how symbolism transforms us as
people I cannot now articulate. When I was younger, I thought I
knew the answer to this question, but now it remains a mystery to
me. I still feel that people can gain very much in terms of their
inner development, though perhaps only those with a deeply
introspective nature and much patience can truly enter into the
inner symbolic landscape of alchemy.
One subject matter that we cannot separate
from Alchemy in the West is that of the Rosicrucian ideal. In The
Hermetic Journal and your subsequent publications, this ideal has
played a significant role, just as manuscripts on the subject are
a large part of the J.R. Ritman collection at Bibliotheca
Philosophica Hermetica. How do you view this phenomenon?
The Rosicrucian period in the early 17th
century was characterized by a revival of interest in alchemical
and hermetic ideas and with attempts to formalize and unite these
ideas into a coherent philosophical system, such as we see in
Robert Fludd's vast encyclopaedic 'History of the Macrocosm and
In recent decades, the book by Frances Yates,
'The Rosicrucian Enlightenment', had a profound influence on most
of my generation, as she presented fresh ideas concerning the
social and political impact of the Rosicrucian phenomenon during
the first half of the 17th century. I am now more cautious about
drawing sweeping conclusions about the macro-historical impact of
Rosicrucianism. Instead, I try and research the individual
writers and the writings that characterized this movement -
people such as Michael Maier, Robert Fludd, J.D. Mylius, Oswald
Croll, and many others. I now step back from such grand
theorizing and try to look at the individual contributions.
Christopher McIntosh published The
Rose Cross and the Age of Reason: Eighteenth-Century
Rosicrucianism in Central Europe and Its Relationship to the
Enlightenment,1 which had been his
doctoral thesis. The book offered very interesting insights into
the practices of the 18th Century Golden Rosicrucians, with much
of interest regarding their alchemical studies. "The Compass
of the Wise", "The Golden Chain of Homer" and
others documents from this particular current seem to hold
together fairly well, to represent some authentic practical
tradition complete with a theoretical foundation. It has seemed
to me that as sealed as these books can be, that they can be
particularly good for gaining insights into a rational view of
the practice, to understand the view of the macrocosm and
microcosm of these natural philosophers. Do you foresee any new
manuscripts or documents coming to light from this era? What
might we hope to gain from them?
People often think that alchemy and its
literature came to a close with the 17th century, however, there
are many key works that were written and published in the 18th
century, particularly in Germany through the influence of groups
like the Golden and Rosy Cross. I think here of the Von Welling
treatise on Salt, Sulphur and Mercury, the 'Opus
Mago-Cabalisticum', the 'Hermaphroditisches Sonn- und
Monds-Kind'. Many beautifully colored manuscripts date from this
period - most of the Flamel Hieroglyphic Figures colored
manuscripts were made in the 18th century. There are masses of
manuscript material as well as printed books that exist only in
The alchemical community really needs to have
such works translated into English; otherwise, we miss out on
great treasures. I cannot stress too highly that most people who
only read twentieth century commentaries on alchemical works have
only seen about 1% of all alchemical material. There is so much
marvelous and profoundly important books and manuscripts waiting
to be read and uncovered in specialist collections such as that
here in my home city of Glasgow, the Ritman Library, the Library
of the Wellcome Institute in London, as well as the British
Library. When I was in Prague last year, I was able to view a
number of manuscripts which I had never seen or heard of before.
It is so important that we try and recover and reveal these old
texts and symbol structures. It seems as if I have been doing
this all my adult life and yet there are so many more treasures
to see and appreciate.
It seems that despite the best efforts of
historians that the 'true R+C" remain truly invisible. The
archives of the societies that took on the name, the early 17th
century manuscripts and other evidence all seems to pale in
comparison to what we are searching for in the Hermetic journey.
There seems to be a model for our hopes and aspirations in the
archetypal images of the "Rosie-Cross".
The symbolic journey that the archetypal 'C.R.'
took in the 'Fama Fraternitatis' is one which all of us, as
alchemists, must take. We all have go on a search for the sources
of ancient wisdom. No longer need we travel to Fez, Damcar or
Damascus. To the 17th century mind such places were the
repositories of ancient secret knowledge, but no longer. Nowadays
we have to immerse ourselves in the alchemical tradition, through
studying the texts and steeping ourselves in the rich symbolic
imagery of books and manuscripts, or repeating the practical
experiments recorded in alchemical documents. Then like C.R. we
have to return to the outer world and try to find some way to
make this material relevant to us today, and make it speak again.
The myth of the Rosicrucians, presented in the
'Fama' is that ancient wisdom is again being made visible and
will transform people and society. In this sense, it is an
eternal myth, that will doubtless still resonate within the souls
of people centuries and millennia from now.
In Fulcanelli's Les Demeures
Philosophale, near the end of Book 1, he touches
nicely on this matter. While aware of the historical chronology
of the various societies adopting the name
"Rosicrucian", he writes of the society as an ideal,
which we might as easily view as an 'egregore' or 'archetype'.
Just as you have said, "The symbolic journey that the
archetypal 'C.R.' took in the 'Fama Fraternitatis' is one which
all of us, as alchemists, must take," Fulcanelli presents
the famous pilgrimage of Nicholas Flamel as an 'archetypal myth'.
In some way, once we recognize journeys as archetypes, we take on
some personal responsibility -- they are no longer events
affecting others in the past, but ourselves in the present.
Certain scholars investigating the history of
Flamel have concluded that this should be seen as a fabrication,
a contrivance of the early 17th century. For me it does not
matter whether or not Flamel was as real as Roger Bacon. It seems
to me that Fulcanelli is correct in asking us to consider the
Flamel story as an allegory. Indeed I might go further and
suggest we should see a connection between the Rosicrucian myth
of the journey of 'C.R.' and the Flamel story. A number of key
alchemical myths were being formulated during the closing decades
of the 16th Century - Salomon Trismosin, Basil Valentine, etc.,
and it might be valuable to us if we realized that these were all
part of a mindset, a spirit of the time. At that time there was a
belief in the recovery of ancient knowledge and in its importance
to their age. For me, this mindset or spirit of the age is still
alive, and I myself feel that we can still be involved, centuries
later, in this spirit, and sense we are recovering and making
relevant ancient knowledge. These are myths standing outside of
time that will still be relevant to the human soul millennia from
You indicate that the timeless myth of the
Rosicrucians will transform people and society. How do you
envision that these ancient traditions and alchemical
philosophies might bring about such a transformation? Where are
I don't mean that this will transform society
in some obvious outer way. If one wants to see major
transformative forces in society, look to technology. Computers
will drive and transform outer society much more than will
alchemy. Alchemy and hermetic philosophy is a subtle force for
change. In essence, I suppose, alchemy provides us with a
philosophy and inner perspective which keeps the material and the
spiritual united. Over the past centuries, the battle between
religion and science has created a split in the human soul, which
manifests both as an unease with technology and as a sense of the
fading of the spiritual from the world. This gives rise in many
people to an existential problem which can result in deep
unhappiness with their life and a lack of direction. For me
alchemy heals this wound in the soul. We must realize that
alchemists were always at the leading edge of the technology of
their time. An alchemist today, surely shares this joy in
technology. How can we not stand amazed at the pictures from the
Hubble space telescope, or the almost metaphysical speculations
of quantum gravity theory, with its string theory and knotted
manifolds in multi-dimensional space?
Alchemy provides us with an inner perspective
that enables us to simultaneously value the outer material
technological and the inner spiritual allegorical. In this way, I
believe, alchemy transforms people and ultimately this feeds in
to transforming society, not in a grand 'Restauration' but in the
nourishing of subtle changes in people's inner being.
1. The Rose
Cross and the Age of Reason: Eighteenth-Century Rosicrucianism in
Central Europe and Its Relationship to the Enlightenment
by Christopher McIntosh. Hardcover, Vol. 29 (August 1997) Brill
Academic Publishers; ISBN: 9004095020.
From a review on amazon.com: "The Rose
Cross deals with the interaction between two movements of thought
in eighteenth century Germany: the philosophy of the
Enlightenment, and the complex of ideas known as Rosicrucian.
Dating from the early seventeenth century and drawing on Pietism,
Freemasonry, Kabbalah and alchemy, the Rosicrucianism movement
enjoyed a revival in Germany during the eighteenth century.
Historians have often depicted this neo-Rosicrucianism as a
Counter-Enlightenment force. Dr. McIntosh argues rather that it
was part of a "third force", which allied itself
sometimes with the Enlightenment, sometimes with the
Counter-Enlightenment. This book is the first in-depth,
comprehensive study of the German Rosicrucian revival and in
particular of the order known as the Golden and Rosy Cross (Gold
und Rosenkreuz). Drawing on hitherto unpublished material, Dr.
McIntosh shows how the order exerted a significant influence on
the cultural, political and religious life of its age."
Alchemy Web Site and Virtual Library
"58 megabytes online of information on
alchemy in all its facets. Divided into over 1250 sections and
providing tens of thousands of pages of text, over 1700 images,
nearly 200 complete alchemical texts, extensive bibliographical
material on the printed books and manuscripts, numerous articles,
introductory and general reference material on alchemy".
Hardbound books including rare editions of
Magnum Opus books, paperback editions from The Hermetic Research
Series, and CD-ROMs (including a complete set of The Hermetic
Journal, and the Alchemy Virtual Library) are available from Adam
McLean. Online purchase is available through the web site, or by
mail: Adam McLean, 15 Keir Street, Glasgow, G41 2NP, U.K. or by
telephone 0141 429 5614 (+44 141 429 5614 internationally).
J.R. Ritman Library / Bibliotheca Philosophica
Bloemgracht 19, NL-1016 KB Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Telephone: [+31] 20 6258079 or [+31] 20 6259096 Fax: [+31] 20
This library was founded in 1957 by Mr.
Joseph R. Ritman with the purpose of collecting works in the
Hermetic-Christian tradition. Apart from collecting books and
manuscripts, the library carries out research and collects
documentation relevant to this tradition, organizes exhibitions
and scholarly conferences and issues publications in its field.
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