A Gallery of Fantastical Alchemical Drawings

I once had to tell a ten-year-old that the Har­ry Pot­ter book series was not a his­tor­i­cal lit­er­ary clas­sic but a recent pub­lish­ing phe­nom­e­non that occurred in my life­time. She was amazed, but she was­n’t sil­ly for think­ing that the books might date from a far­away past. They do, after all, make fre­quent ref­er­ence to fig­ures from cen­turies when alche­my flour­ished in Europe, and magi­cians like Paracel­sus and Nicholas Flamel (both of whom appear in Pot­ter books and spin-offs) plied their soli­tary craft, such as it was. Should we call it mag­ic, ear­ly sci­ence, occult reli­gion, out­sider art, or some admix­ture of the above?

We can call it “black mag­ic,” but the term was not, as the Chris­tians thought, a ref­er­ence to the dev­il, but to the soil of the Nile. “Derived from the Ara­bic root ‘kimia,’” writes the Pub­lic Domain Review, “from the Cop­tic ‘khem’ (refer­ring to the fer­tile black soil of the Nile delta), the word ‘alche­my’ alludes to the dark mys­tery of the pri­mor­dial or First Mat­ter (the Khem).”

Find­ing this first sub­stance con­sti­tutes “the alchemist’s cen­tral goal – along with the dis­cov­ery of the Stone of Knowl­edge (The Philosopher’s Stone) and the key to Eter­nal Youth.”

In the descrip­tion above, we can see the roots of Rowling’s fic­tions and the ori­gins of many a world-shap­ing mod­ern myth. Alchemists study and change mat­ter to pro­duce cer­tain effects – just as ear­ly sci­en­tists did – and it may sur­prise us to learn just how fer­vent­ly some well-known ear­ly sci­en­tists, most espe­cial­ly Isaac New­ton, pur­sued the alchem­i­cal course. But the essence of alche­my was imag­i­na­tion, and the artists who depict­ed alchem­i­cal rit­u­als, mag­i­cal crea­tures, mys­ti­cal sym­bols, etc. had no short­age of it, as we see in the images here, drawn from Well­come Images and the Man­ley Palmer Hall col­lec­tion at the Inter­net Archive.

The images are strange, sur­re­al, cryp­tic, and seem to ref­er­ence no known real­i­ty. They are the inspi­ra­tion for cen­turies of occult art and eso­teric lit­er­a­ture. But each one also had prac­ti­cal intent — to illus­trate mys­te­ri­ous, often secre­tive process­es for dis­cov­er­ing the foun­da­tions of the uni­verse, and prof­it­ing from them. If these tech­niques look noth­ing like our mod­ern meth­ods for doing the same, that’s for good rea­son, but it does­n’t mean that alche­my has noth­ing to do with sci­ence. It is, rather, sci­ence’s weird dis­tant ances­tor. See more alchem­i­cal images at the Pub­lic Domain Review.

via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Bril­liant Col­ors of Medieval Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts Were Made with Alche­my

Videos Recre­ate Isaac Newton’s Neat Alche­my Exper­i­ments: Watch Sil­ver Get Turned Into Gold

Isaac Newton’s Recipe for the Myth­i­cal ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ Is Being Dig­i­tized & Put Online (Along with His Oth­er Alche­my Man­u­scripts)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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