Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Alchemy and magic

The sixteenth century saw an intensification of the ancient practice of alchemy. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man (scroll down), the Platonist, Pico della Mirandola (right) was careful to distinguish between good and bad magic.

Such was the significance of the alchemist that Christopher Marlowe (Dr Faustus, 1604), Shakespeare (The Tempest, 1610) and Ben Jonson (The Alchemist, 1610) all wrote plays illustrating his art. These fictional characters had some basis in real alchemists such as John Dee (1527-1609), Edward Kelley (1555-97/8) and Simon Forman (1552-1611). But alchemy was not confined to England. It was Europe-wide and was practised by Christians, Jews and Muslims, all engaged on a common quest to discover the inner meaning of life and of the universe.

Alchemy was empirical as well as mystical. It was at the centre of the investigations into the natural world and the heavens, which had contributed to the navigation of the world. With the increase of mining, there was a far greater potential for the exploitation of the earth’s minerals and metals and the search for wealth, power and cures, both chemical and herbal.

The philosopher’s stone
Alchemy was also a quest for, among other things the philosopher’s stone that would transmit the base metals lead, tin, copper, iron, and mercury into the precious metals gold and silver. The stone was also sometimes known as the 'elixir vitae' or 'tincture', and was credited not only with the power of transmutation but also of uniting matter and spirit and transforming a sinful man into a perfect being.

In the 1550s the alchemist Thomas Charnock learned from the prior of Bath that it would be possible to find the secrets of the stone. He set up a form of altar on which the hoped-for transformation of base matter to spirit would echo the daily miracle of transubstantiation during the mass. In 1565 he wrote to Elizabeth offering her the wealth and health that only the stone could provide. See History Today (August 2005).

The magus
As understanding of the natural world, grew, especially in the field of medicine, alchemists increasingly claimed to be ‘magicians’ (magi). Two leading practitioners of the 16th century were the doctor Paracelsus (1493-1541) and the neoplatonic philosopher Cornelius Agrippa (left) (1486-1533). They both advocated the control of the unseen forces that control nature not by the improper manipulation of diabolical forces, but by manipulation of the world through talismans, Orphic singing, astrology and numerology. The Jewish mystical Kabbalah was thought to offer a key to the hidden purposes of God. From 1492 Jews expelled from Spain were dispersed throughout Europe bringing with them knowledge of the Cabbala, Islamic medicine and the secrets of alchemy.

Black magic, as practised by Marlowe’s Dr Faustus sought to obtain power through diabolical intervention and a compact with the devil and it was not easy for outsiders to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ magic. John Charnock was feared by his neighbours because he kept his fire burning continually and practised arts they did not understand.

John Dee
The career of John Dee shows that alchemists could be involved in government policy. It also shows how they could contribute to their bad reputations. Dee possessed a distorting mirror (in which Queen Elizabeth viewed herself in 1575) and a black obsidian mirror and a crystal ball (now in the British Museum). In June 1579 the courtier Sir Christopher Hatton sent two crystal-gazers to him. Hatton was one of a number of courtiers among the Protestant party (including Leicester and Walsingham) who were interested in divination through crystals, though this interest was pursued with discretion because it came dangerously close to usurping the powers of God.

Dee employed a series of mediums (skryers) to help him to view them. The first was Barnabus Saul but in March 1582 he was replaced by Edward Kelley, who may have been a confidence trickster, but may also have been sincerely deluded. Dee believed that through these sessions he would gain contact with a benevolent spirit world and learn how to transmit base metals into gold. The spirits were also questioned about the North West passage.

Dee’s activities aroused the interest of the Polish nobleman, Albrecht Laski, an unorthodox Catholic who had links to the world of alchemy and magic. In September 1583 Dee left Mortlake accompanied by his family, Laski and Kelley and arrived at Krakow, then the capital of Poland, in the following March. There they received angelic bidding to go to the court of the emperor Rudolph II at Prague though their eventual meeting with the emperor achieved little. In March 1587 Kelley received a spirit message that he, Dee and their wives should hold all things in common. In December 1589 Dee returned to England, but Kelley stayed behind and Dee made over to him his alchemical materials. Kelley was imprisoned in Bohemia and nothing is known of his eventual fate.

On reaching Mortlake, Dee found his home in ruins. Most of his scientific instruments had been taken as well as 500 volumes from his library. The culprits were not ignorant vandals but his pupils and associates, though their motives are unclear. By that time many of his patrons were dead and when James I came to the throne he lost all support from the monarch. He died in 1608/9.

Dee is probably satirized in Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Welsh would-be wizard Owen Glendower in Henry IV, part 1. Kelley is mentioned in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, Act IV

Mammon. O, I cry your pardon.
He's a divine instructor! can extract
The souls of all things by his art; call all
The virtues, and the miracles of the sun,
Into a temperate furnace; teach dull nature
What her own forces are. A man, the emperor
Has courted above Kelly; sent his medals
And chains, to invite him.

Dee is mentioned in Act II
Subtle. He shall have a bel, that's Abel;
And by it standing one whose name is Dee,
In a rug gown, there's D, and Rug, that's drug:
And right anenst him a dog snarling er;
There's Drugger, Abel Drugger. That's his sign.
And here's now mystery and hieroglyphic!

We see magic as being retrograde and reactionary, but the light which led on the alchemists and the magicians was the same which led to the development of empirical science.