The new (as above: spring/so below: autumn) issue of Alchemy Journal is hot off the presses!
• The Modern Mystery School by Gudni Gudnason
• The Influence of Women in Alchemy by Abigail McBride
• The Mother-Space, the Ultimate Alchemical Feminine by Dr. Bruce Fisher
• Anima Mundi, Soul-Filled World by Iona Miller
• The Seed in Spring by Steve Kalec
• The alchemical feminine in new works by Michael Pearce
• The Salts of Life by Karen Bartlett
• Shekhinah, the Feminine Presence of God by Dr. Theresa Ibis
• Beyond Passions by Tamara Nikolic and Jay Hochberg
• Mater Alchemæ by Rubaphilos Salfluere
• To Pursue Their Full Measure of Happiness: Sex, Gender, Politics and Alchemy by Andrew Minkin
• Twenty-First Century Turba Philosophorum: the 2008 International Alchemy Conference by Dennis William Hauck
• Hymn to Kali by Ramdulal Nandi
• A profile of Modern Magister Jeannie Radcliffe
• Russell Burton House, plus Nicki Scully and Linda Star Wolf reviewed by Rubaphilos Salfluere; Dr. Ross Mack reviewed by Iona Miller; Paul Foster Case reviewed by Darcy Kuntz; Russell Burton House reviewed by Mike Ridpath; Ruth Rusca and Dr. Christine R. Page reviewed by Alexander Price; and Alexander Roob reviewed by Jay Hochberg.
Through the kind offices of Paul Hardacre, editor, my review of Alchemy & Mysticism appears here:
The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy & Mysticism
By Alexander Roob
Taschen, 2006, 575 pp., US$14.99
In celebration of Taschen’s 25th anniversary, the world-renowned publisher of artistic and sumptuously illustrated books proceeded to create a line of titles covering all manner of iconic and symbolic messages, from movies and photography, to art and architecture, to tattoos and even chairs. Inevitably the publishing spree would touch on esoteric arts. The result is The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy & Mysticism by Alexander Roob. Formerly a professor of fine arts at the University of Hamburg, before joining the faculty at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart in 2002, Roob is not identified anywhere in the text as an Alchemist, Rosicrucian or Freemason, and yet he obviously is well attuned to those sciences’ hidden wisdom and the innumerable symbols communicating occult knowledge.
“A rich world of images has etched itself into the memory of modern man,” Roob’s Introduction begins, “despite the fact that it is not available in public collections, but lies hidden in old manuscripts and prints.” Medieval art depicting Christian mysticism leads to the Romantic work of William Blake, and along the way the symbols of Kabbalah, Alchemy and Freemasonry are seen as very closely related, and themselves often shown to be parallel to teachings in medicine, chemistry and color theory.
It is not easy to write a review of this book. If a picture really is worth a thousand words, then this book has a million things to say. There isn’t a single page past the Introduction that does not feature at least one esoteric illustration, and it is that 26-page Introduction that contains most of the paragraphs of text to read. The majority of text throughout the book consists of the detailed captions to the many illustrations and other descriptions for context. This book really is a museum, as in “a place of the Muses,” in that it gathers the studies of the Arts and Sciences, and more.
Roob does not play favorites. Both spiritual Alchemy and the work in the laboratory are explored. Their histories, mechanics and relevance are presented in detail, and it is shown that knowledge of both is necessary to succeed in the Great Work. And so, Roob’s goal is to define the many symbols one would need to undertake those labors. Perhaps an Alchemist with many years of experience could find deficiencies of this book, but this reviewer cannot believe a detail has been omitted.
The first chapter, titled ‘Macrocosm,’ begins with this admonition taken from an Enlightenment era French text: “I assure you that anyone who attempts a literal understanding of the writings of the hermetic philosophers will lose himself in the twists and turns of a labyrinth from which he will never find the way out.” That’s a daunting signpost to find at the outset, but if nothing else, this author shows that to be true. And that must explain the exhausting compendium of facts, speculations, myths and artistic samplings that are submitted to the reader via the hundreds of color and black-and-white illustrations, sometimes with incongruent results.
It is the fall of Adam and the banishment of Lucifer to the dark abyss – “two cosmic catastrophes” – that produced the “primaterial chaos of the elements” needed for the Work. Indeed the fall of Adam (the Hebrew name means “red earth,” as in the red of the lapis) marks the end of “inner unity” for man, casting him into the “external world of opposites.” The earliest understanding of a first man is shown as androgynous. “The feminine that was essential in Adam, before it was separated from him in sleep, was his heavenly spouse Sophia (wisdom).” The narrative explanation continues, decoding many plates from Hieroglyphica Sacra drawn by the theosophist Dionysos A. Freher:
“Adam, created in a state of purity and perfection, is at the point of intersection between the divine world of angels and the dark world of fire. Three creatures make claims on him. 1) Sophia, the companion of his youth. 2) Satan, below him. 3) The spirit of this world…. In order to force him to a decision, there follows the temptation of the Tree of Knowledge. The two S’s, Sophia and Satan, are the two contrary snakes of the staff of Mercury (Caduceus) and must be united.”
Many concepts, including Chaos, Saturnine Night, Torment of the Metals, and Resurrection lead up to Aurora, the sun, or “the final maturity of matter after it has passed through all seven spheres.” Gold.
One important service this book renders that cannot be ignored is its demystifying of Masonic symbols, especially those of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite. The double-headed eagle, which to my knowledge never really was satisfactorily explained in AASR rituals as an esoteric symbol, is shown here connected to Apollo, the sun. The pelican of Rose Croix Masonry is symbolic of the lapis, an agent of regeneration. Other Masonic symbols explained in the Alchemical context are the Pillars in the Porch of the Temple, as Sun and Moon and fire and water; the Winding Stairway, as the “slow and organic course of the process of spiritual maturity;” and the Sun – where the Master of the lodge presides – of course as the “imperishable spirit, immaterial gold.”
Author Roob devotes considerable space to explaining the role of the feminine in Alchemy. It is shown that the word “matter” comes from the Latin root “mater,” as in “maternal.” But perhaps to allow for different points of view, seemingly varied interpretations of the feminine role are given. In one instance, Eve represents the element mercury, complementing Adam’s sulphur. Under the heading ‘Conjunctio,’ we learn “Woman dissolves man, and he makes her solid. That is, the spirit dissolves the body and makes it soft, and the body fixes the spirit.” An early 16th century painting is narrated thus: “I am hot and dry Sol, and you Luna are cold and moist. When we couple and come together… I will with flattery take your soul from you.”
A German engraving from 1628 depicting “coitus,” shows King Gabricius and his sister Beya who want to embrace “to conceive a son whose like is unknown to this world.” This union causes Gabricius’ death, after which he is “enclosed in her womb, so that nothing can be seen of him. So great is her love that she has absorbed him entire into her nature and divided him into indivisible parts.” A 17th century color painting shows a royal couple seeking to give birth to a son with a red head, black eyes and white feet, those colors serving as crucial symbols.
The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy & Mysticism is an encyclopedic work that unites centuries of religious, mythological, artistic and literary traditions to explain many complicated nuances surrounding Alchemy. For its overwhelming beauty it is highly recommended, but its step-by-step decoding of so many arcane or misunderstood symbols will prove to be its enduring value to students of the esoteric arts. This book could be improved only by making it larger – not thicker, but larger – in a coffeetable size. Perhaps for the publisher’s golden anniversary.
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Alchemy Journal is published by Salamander and Sons for the International Alchemy Guild