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Article: An Interview with Adam McLean
by Russell House

Reprinted from Issue 30 of The Stone, January - February 1999.
Copyright 1999, Adam McLean and Russell House. All rights reserved.

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.

Adam, when 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 me.

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 to do?

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 publish content.

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 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 present?

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 the library.

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 this ore.

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 yours?

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 to themselves.

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 substances.

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 symbols.

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 allegory.

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 Microcosm'.

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 German.

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 now.

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 we headed?

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 "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."


The Alchemy Web Site and Virtual Library

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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).

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