Mythologie und Alchemie in der Lehrepik des frühen 17. Jahrhunderts

By Thomas Reiser. 2011. Berlin: De Gruyter. 480 pages. ISBN: 978-3-11-023316-2 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Fredericka A. Schmadel, Indiana University

[Review length: 770 words • Review posted on October 4, 2011]

Thomas Reiser translated into modern German the Chryseidos Libri III of Johannes Nicolaus Furichius, which the Strasbourg poet and medical doctor composed in erudite verse, in Latin. Furichius (1602-1633) was an alchemist in days when what we now know as chemistry did not exist. He died young, a plague victim. During his brief lifetime all of Central Europe was a recurring battlefield of the Thirty Years’ War, a war of empires, of nations, and, to some extent, of Protestants and Catholics. Furichius was a Huguenot, a French protestant whose parents had found refuge in Strasbourg.

The edition-translation into German of Furichius’s Latin language masterwork, a didactic verse epic, is the central focus of Reiser’s book, but the content lists and contextual information Reiser provides are a priceless bonus. Taking away some of the scholar’s treasure-hunting momentum, Reiser reveals right away that Furichius, like many alchemists, drew back from delving in writing into the real secrets of how to go about the transmutation of lesser metals into gold, or how to create medications using alchemical means.

Why would Furichius write an alchemical handbook that didn’t reveal alchemy’s central secrets? The Chryseidos Libri III is a compendium of the science and cosmology of its day; it functions more like an encyclopedia than like a continuous story, even though the most hotly pursued core bits of knowledge and procedure are missing, or only obliquely hinted at. In times when religious orthodoxy was a life and death matter the text includes many injunctions to its readers, urging piety and religious conformity upon them. Some scholars in the last hundred years have found in early modern alchemical writing an overly simplistic, one-for-one use of myth and symbolism, a sort of cookie-cutter approach, but Furichius wields symbols like the artist he is, with depth and layering in his images.

Strasbourg in the early seventeenth century was one of history’s focal points of intellectual ferment and achievement, like the Medicis’ Florence of two hundred years prior, or Stein’s and Hemingway’s Paris three hundred years afterwards. Reiser presents a detailed portrait of that time and place. His introductory section alone, covering pages 1 to 62, makes the book useful and worthwhile. In it he traces the history of alchemy, the progenitor of today’s physical sciences, and its many intersections with other disciplines, such as the Neo-Platonism of Marsilio Ficino in Renaissance Florence, a Medici protégé. Medieval alchemists derived their art from Arab translations of much older sources, going back to the Greek alchemist Zosimos of Panapolis around 300 AD, for example. Other intersections, such as those with Byzantine philosophy, pagan mystery cults, and Christian mysticism, kept alchemy at the forefront of speculative thought, territory occupied today, as the author reminds us, by physics, genetics, and science fiction.

The genre of the Chryseidos Libri III is didactic verse epic, a narrative genre that does not exist in the modern world any longer. Vision narratives, like those of that early medieval “church father,” Hildegard of Bingen, have influenced its structure as well as its content. A contemporary ally of Furichius was the German mystic Jakob Boehme. In Furichius’ day intellectual inquiry was anything but compartmentalized.

The edition-plus-context format lends itself to indexed or targeted translation into English. Reiser’s pages 47–51, for example, contain a detailed list of topics covered in the four-volume original work. Page and line numbers correspond to those of the original Latin manuscript that Reiser’s Latin edition and German translation are based on. Page 5 of the work, presented on Reiser’s pages 78–81 in Latin and German, contains an allegory showing how all the lesser metals strive to achieve the perfection of gold, followed by a description of how human alchemists’ striving to achieve that gold’s “seed” carries the same process forward. Page 8 of the manuscript, on Reiser’s pages 84–86, contains an interpretation or exposition in verse of certain geometric forms—a circle within a circle, a triangle, and a rectangle—as they combine in an extended agricultural metaphor.

Layers of meaning notwithstanding, what this verse epic set out to teach remains diffuse and elusive to modern readers. All the central secrets remain secret. The work, comprehensive and, to some extent derivative, can yield specific conceptual nuggets—like the intersection with Ficino’s work, Benvenuto Cellini’s, or that of Paracelsus. To twenty-first-century readers, though, even with Reiser’s extremely helpful contextual comments, the epic narrative remains in some ways a riddle within a conundrum, lips pursed disapprovingly, like a nineteenth-century lady novelist trying to convey some form of sexual intimacy between the hero and heroine. Sometimes, in some places, Furichius, a man of his own tumultuous era, just can’t go there.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.