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Alchemy (Dover Books on Engineering) Paperback – April 1, 1990

4.1 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Series: Dover Books on Engineering
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Dover Publications; Revised ed. edition (April 1, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0486262987
  • ISBN-13: 978-0486262987
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,062,088 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
This is perhaps the best ever introduction to the history of alchemy. Holmyard was a professional researcher in chemistry and few writers in English have had anything approaching his familiarity and depth of knowledge about the subject of experimental alchemy. His knowledge of the contributions of Muslim civilization to alchemy are the best to be found in any history of alchemy. This is one one of the book's main pluses, in contrast to the other reviewer who does not seem to appreciate the overwhelming importance of the Muslim contribution. Indeed, as an _experimental_ science, alchemy/chemistry proper was virtually invented by Muslim civilization.

Today the scientific aspects of alchemy are frequently ignored/deemphasized in favor of speculative psychology and other trends, but it must not be forgotten that alchemy was/is fundamentally a scientific enterprise, although its notion of ``science'' presumes a very holistic cosmology and phenomenology of macrocosm and microcosm; and of matter, soul, and spirit. In any case, even an understanding of inner/esoteric alchemy cannot be divorced from its outer/exoteric aspects. For those more interested in the inner/esoteric side of alchemy, this text is still quite essential, for although Holmyard focuses on the exoteric side, he also also provides the appropriate links to the esoteric side of alchemy as well. One simply cannot properly appreciate authentic esoteric alchemy without a grounding in its exoteric foundations.

Titus Burckhardt's ``Alchemy'' provides an good companion to Holmyard. Although Burckhardt is focused on inner alchemy, Holmyard provides much of the historical background needed to get the most out of Burckhardt's essay which is, unfortunately, quite vague and abstruse in too many places. Together, these two texts are indispensable for anyone serious about the meaning and history of alchemy.
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Format: Paperback
For just about half a century, E.J. Holmyard's concisely-titled "Alchemy" has served as a literate, well-informed, and charming introduction to the history and literature of Western alchemy. I first read it while in High School, and can say that, while it may take a little dedication to get through, it should be worth the trouble.

I would commend it to any serious beginner in the subject, including those teenagers and adults who first encountered the Philosopher's Stone and the French alchemist Nicholas Flamel by way of Harry Potter (see especially Holmyard's Chapter Eleven), or who have wondered about the quest for the Stone, and discussions of its precursors, like "The Red Water," as portrayed in the manga or anime versions of Hiromu Arakawa's "Full-Metal Alchemist" ("Hagane No Renkinjutsushi").

(For the Stone, the Lapis Philosophorum, see throughout; but Fullmetal fans should take an especially close look at Holmyard's Plate 24, showing Flamel's "diagram" -- which is also found on-line -- for the source of Edward Elric's serpentine insignia; although the Flamel legend says this is copied from a Jewish manuscript, the iconography is based on a Christian interpretation of Numbers 21:8-9; and see also 2 Kings 18:4.)

Unfortunately, such appearances in popular culture tend to reinforce the idea that alchemy was a form of magic, and neither series of stories, although entertaining, has much to do with real-world alchemy.

Yes, some ceremonial magicians were interested in alchemy, and vice-versa; so were many other literate people. Supposed spell-books available to the public (originally on the sly, more openly in historically dubious products of nineteenth-century printers) often offered the gullible "short-cuts" to successful transmutation.
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Format: Paperback
This pleasant little primer on alchemy was first published in 1957, by a respected British historian of chemistry. His view on alchemy is summarized by his quotation of Socrates on the Pre-Socratics (even then known only through fragments): he agreed with what he could understand and, as for what he couldn't, he could only guess that perhaps they were right. So our author is not overly judgemental about the early alchemists, mistaken as they must be the philosopher's stone and ignorant of the fundamentals of modern scientific chemistry. The book is very uneven: only 8 pages on Greek alchemy (including barely 2 pages on Zosimos) but 65 pages on Islamic alchemy--a fact that reflects his decided slant toward the more modern, scientific alchemists. The most interesting and useful sections concern his biographies, especially a whole chapter on Paracelsus and a chapter each on Scottish and French alchemists. Especially interesting is his story about Alexander Seton (p.223-232) who, like a true Merlin or Taoist wizard, quietly toured Europe having unbelievers transform gold from lead with his secret powder, never touching the preparations himself. Still, our author concludes that the innumerable accounts by reliable eyewitnesses were all, somehow, fakes--a conclusion he reaches after "rejecting as we must the hypothesis that Seton effected genuine transmutations" [p. 232]. That should give you a taste of this opus. You will need to look elsewhere for psychological (Jung) or hermetic (Goddard, Evola) perspectives on alchemy. Nevertheless, this is a decent historical overview of the field and not a bad place to start.
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