Key to Reading Alchemical texts?

There is no secret key to reading alchemical texts. Each must be read in its own language. The histori cal context must be taken into account. It is amazing how many books on “alchemy” claim to offer some deep or comprehensive insight into how to decrypt alchemical codes, but go off into outer space spinning new age mumbo jumbo about spiritual alchemy and psychologized, self-help personal transformation. They rarely have much to say about the texts themselves. Instead of showing us what and how they mean, they are telling us what they’d like to think they mean. Why is it that in the case of alchemy there is so much of a tendency to get so far out, both in terms of the bizarre head trips of contemporary alchemical exponents, as well as the more simple matter of being “far from the text”. I can understand why careful language study (one must do the Latin in order to understand medieval and Renaissance alchemical writings, at least, and preferably get some Arabic) and dry scholarship does not appeal to those who want to wax Romantic about alchemy, or design magical/mythopoetic projects using unhistorical spiritual and psychological readings. But I myself only find academic writings on alchemy useful, for the most part, in my own personal and spiritual investigation of the possibilities of alchemical symbolism–both medieval and contemporary. I think we have much to learn from alchemy, not only as an abstract academic exercise, but also because the symbolism has become such a powerful cultural form. It moved from occultism into art. Perhaps this is a “secret key” to alchemical texts–the ideas are constantly being adapted with each reading and rewriting, according to the interests and capacities of the alchemical enthusiast. I happen to be enthusiastic enough about what we can establish with certainty about Alchemy not to feel the need to go very far out into speculation. I want to understand the texts themselves a great deal better before I can advance my understanding of the spiritual meaning or value of alchemy. So rather than develop some speculative interpretive project my aim is to understand the facts of the texts as best I can. When trying to understand the meaning of an image or symbol I want to know as much as possible about where it is attested in texts, how it is being used. I don’t want to construct interpretations that appeal to anachronistic post-19th century concepts of alchemy.


About teachingalchemy

I'm an MA student in Religious Studies working on Alchemy and Renaissance Magic. This blog is an effort to reflect on my experience teaching two academic courses on "Images of the Alchemical Art" and "Magical Traditions" at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, in 2005-2006.
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One Response to Key to Reading Alchemical texts?

  1. David says:

    Excellent points. In some recent discussions I’ve noticed how key a clear understanding of the text really helps clarify positions, even to the point with occultism where clear etymologies are essential for discovering the meaning being used (or misused, as the case may be.)

    I also agree with you regarding how close historical criticism helps develop a deeper sense of the texts that goes beyond “new age” interpretations and can actual aid in their worth as spiritual tools.

    In this post: I come from a slightly different perspective, although I hope that my thoughts on historicism don’t appear to dismiss it’s value.

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