P.T. Mistlberger. The Inner Light: Self-Realization via the Western Esoteric Tradition, Axis Mundi Books, 2014.

My immediate reaction on being handed The Inner Light to review was that this was a book that could go in one of two very different directions. The title and subtitle, together with the packaging and the cover blurb’s description of the author as a ‘transpersonal therapist’ and ‘transformation workshop facilitator,’ awakened all my prejudices against the New Age, that woolly-minded and smugly narcissistic ransacker of spiritual and esoteric traditions which it dilutes beyond homeopathic levels, removing any genuine wisdom and insight in order to blend it into a bland, homogeneous belief system. On the other hand, the proclamation that this path to self-realisation is based on the traditions of the West, which are so often given mere lip service by the New Age, held out some promise. But which way would it go?

Thankfully, it is the latter. Canadian P.T. Mistlberger sets out to reclaim the Western esoteric tradition as a valid and productive basis for self development. This results from a personal epiphany. Like most in his line, Mistlberger was, in his words, ‘heavily oriented’ towards Eastern philosophies and metaphysics. But in 2006, during a period of depression following personal losses, he found them unable to help. He found the way out of his ‘mental funk’ through practices derived instead from Western traditions. This led him to a new appreciation of those traditions and the realisation that, because of their emphasis on practicality and creativity, they chime better with the Western psyche than spiritual paths imported from the East.

Coupled with this is the recognition that there is a fundamental difference between the Western and Eastern psyche, at the root of which are the differing cultural conceptions of time: whereas the Eastern mind sees history as cyclical, the Western perceives it as evolutionary. (‘We are participating in a grand unfolding of the universe, redeeming the world as we redeem ourselves.’)

Another crucial difference is the emphasis that the West places on the intellect. Throughout the book, there is the implicit message that we Westerners shouldn’t be ashamed of our elevation of intellectualism and rationalism – provided it is tempered with an awareness that it is only one way of approaching reality.
Consequently, Mistlberger emphasises the need to understand the history and development of the various components of the Western esoteric tradition, stressing, in statements that had me mentally punching the air, that ‘scholarly accuracy is not antithetical to practical inner work’ and that ‘conceptual clarity… provides the important foundation for deeper avenues of wisdom.’ He defines his book as ‘an attempt to synthesize historical research with esoteric theory and practical inner work – a combination not typically seen.’ You can say that again!

Mistlberger’s definition of ‘inner transformation’ - sharper and more meaningful than your average New Age workshop facilitator – is that is finding ways to live up to one’s full potential. And – another air-punching moment – he stresses that this process requires intellectual effort, writing that ‘it is common in fluffier (“feel-good”) New Age or personal growth communities to develop anti-intellectualism, by confusing pre-rational states with trans-rational, and thereby assuming that any non-rational state must be spiritual – even though many non-rational states are actually highly egocentric or narcissistic.’

Again in contrast to the usual New Age approach, Mistlberger stresses that, because it involves the human psyche, which has its dark side, there are dangers on the path to enlightenment. He points out that, although he has chosen the title The Inner Light, this ‘does not mean that matters of darkness are not addressed.’ Indeed, he warns sagely, ‘Arguably this element is as strong, or stronger, in so-called spiritual seekers, because the very striving for “the light” carries the risk of bringing about an imbalance resulting from the denial of impulse and darkness.’

The book is divided into three parts. The first is theory, taking a historical approach to the various strands that make up the Western esoteric tradition. It has chapters on the expected subjects such as alchemy (specifically spiritual alchemy, i.e. as a psycho-spiritual discipline as opposed to proto-chemistry), the Kabbalah, and Western sex magick traditions (‘as rich and potent as their Eastern parallels’).

But Mistlberger includes more modern fields of study within the Western esoteric tradition. There is psychotherapy, in particular Depth Psychology, on the grounds that it shares much with the esoteric philosophies, both essentially seeking to bring unconscious material into consciousness, and with the psychotherapist occupying the role in today’s society that the shaman, priest and magician did in earlier times. In the chapter ‘Angels, Demons and the Abyss’, devoted to the ‘shadow psychology’ found within the Western esoteric tradition, he explores the common ground between demonology and psychotherapy (which, as he shows, developed from the former).

Mistlberger also brings Western philosophy into the picture, because of the major influence that philosophical ideas – particularly those of Kant and the German idealists – had on 19th century esotericism. He considers the major Western philosophers the equal of Eastern mystics, even though they derived their ideas from the intellect.

He emphasises the role of the Romantic movement (‘Most occultists of the nineteenth century were essentially Romantics with an esoteric focus’) that, drawing on Hermetic philosophy, had a great influence on nineteenth-century Transcendentalism which was, via the ‘New Thought’ movement (which brought in Eastern spiritual ideas), the direct ancestor of the New Age. I found the chapter tracing this development a particularly fascinating one.

The book’s second part, delightfully entitled ‘The Technology of Transformation’, applies the theory, with practical discussions of such areas as meditation, the use of magic to alter reality, and ‘inner planes work’ (lucid dreaming and astral travel), with exercises to develop these faculties and abilities.

The third and final part, entitled ‘Lore’ and described by Mistlberger as dealing with ‘the more “fringe” areas of the esoteric and occult,’ is a bit of a miscellany. There’s a chapter on the ‘Body of Light’, which is really a discussion, using Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an allegory, of the apparent duality between spirit and matter (or consciousness and perception) and the problems and dangers that arise from it, both in everyday life and when on the initiatory path. In ‘A Brief History of Witchcraft’, Mistlberger challenges the perception that the medieval witch persecutions were nothing but the product of Christian dogmatism and misogyny – and that witchcraft in the accepted sense even existed. Part Three ends with a chapter on ‘Lycanthropy, Shapeshifting, and the Assumption of God-forms.’

Finally there are appendices dealing with aspects of the Tradition in more detail, such as ‘The Fall of Man according to Eight Traditions’ and ‘The Chief Grimoires of Magic’. The book ends with useful suggestions for further reading – most of which, thankfully, are about the history of the various traditions – and 35 pages of notes and references.

Of course, even given the book’s length – nearly 600 pages – such a sweeping survey of this multi-faceted subject will leave some thinking that not all aspects have been given their due weight.

Mistlberger himself acknowledges that astrology is ‘the most glaring omission’ from his book, even though it is the ‘oldest of all “occult arts”’. He pleads limitations of space, which strikes me as a bit of a cop-out. (There are a couple of pages on ‘experiential astrology’ in one of the appendices.)

Although Neoplatonic philosophy is one of the binding elements of the Western esoteric tradition, it is defined and described in the ‘practical’ part of the book (as part of the chapter ‘Magic and Manifestation’), whereas it might have been better in the ‘theory’ part. Similarly, a related core part of the tradition, Hermeticism, together with its important offshoot Rosicrucianism, is relegated to an appendix.

These criticisms aside, The Inner Light successfully achieves what it sets out to. Above all, it demonstrates that there is a solid intellectual and historical basis for the Western traditions, and that they provide insights into human life that give them real merit in terms of self-development. Mistlberger often leaves it for the individual reader to decide whether the concepts involved are objectively real or simply useful metaphors and symbols (as in the discussion of demons), arguing that the outcome is the same either way.

His writing is lucid, concise and lively. Throughout he explains complex ideas – such as German idealist philosophy and theological concepts of good and evil – clearly.
Mistlberger states that The Inner Light is aimed at ‘those spiritual seekers who desire some historical rigor and background theory’, as well as ‘academics or intellectually oriented students of the esoteric paths who desire to undertake some practical “inner work”’ and ‘the curious general reader or serious student of inner work.’ It’s a very broad target audience, but all of these groups should find the book of value, although some might be put off by its New Age look.
But Mistlberger’s overriding aim is clearly to knock some sense into the New Age. Let’s hope he succeeds. – Clive Prince.



M. K. Jessup. The Case for the UFO: Unidentified Flying Objects. Arco, 1955.

M. K. Jessup. The Expanding Case for the UFO. Arco, 1957.

Morris Ketchum Jessup was perhaps the first person to use the term ‘UFO’ in a commercial publication, which is something of an irony as very little of these books was devoted to stories of unidentified flying objects, rather they were devoted to a great variety of Fortean topics, such as Fortean falls, unusual archaeological ruins, mystery meteors, disappearing ships and crews and the like. Much of the second volume was devoted to strange things seen on the moon, and to peculiar speculation about pygmies. All of these oddities were ascribed to the UFOs: they had taken the crew off the Mary Celeste for example, and beams from them were responsible for the Devil’s hoof prints in Devon in 1855. They were also responsible, he hinted, for poltergeists.
At 13 this stuff seemed reasonable; it provided a nice “scientific” explanation for a variety of strange, alleged experiences. These, of course, included the fictional tales told by Ambrose Bierce of disappearing people. Jessup had his own take on the UFOs; they came from the earth, or rather from near earth orbit. In fact they came from the giant space ships built by the descendants of the pygmies.

At this point you begin to suspect that Jessup was, er well, rather strange. In fact his sad life and death should be a warning to parents not to name your kid after a famous relative. Morris had been named after a relative, Morris Ketchum Jesup (with just the one p), who was a philanthropist and businessman, and the younger Morris seems to have lived in his shadow. He trained to be an astronomer, but dropped out of university and seems to have wandered around in a sort of semi-permanent gap year, (geographical exploration is how he put it), and ended up a divorced used-car salesman in Miami. Depression took hold and like James McDonald he shot himself.
Of course conspiracy theorists have had a field day with the notorious annotated edition of Case for the UFO - the co-called ‘Varo' edition which led to the ‘Allende File' and the story of the ‘Philadelphia Experiment'. The annotations are the ravings of the sort of person who writes in green ink in library books, and that Jessup took this seriously for even a fraction of a second suggests that he was already having mental health issues. Indeed I suspect that these were probably the reason for his dropping out of his studies back in the 1930s. His even odder book UFO and the Bible suggests someone trying to square the circle between his fundamentalist Christian upbringing and the science he had learnt at college. -- Peter Rogerson



Owen Gingerich. God's Planet. Harvard University Press, 2014

This book, consisting of three lectures delivered to the American Scientific Affiliation, "a fellowship of Christians in the sciences founded in 1941", is devoted to discussing the tensions between science and religion. Gingerich writes in the Prologue: "The relationship between the arena of science and the religious domain has been tense going back to the time of Galileo and beyond, but it has been particularly fraught in twentieth-century America, with issues relating to the age of the cosmos and the rise of life on earth".

The interactions between scientific observations and theories and religious beliefs are explored by considering the work of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Charles Darwin (1809-1882), and Fred Hoyle (1915-2001).

Introducing the chapter on Copernicus, Gingerich notes that five centuries ago theology was considered the queen of the sciences. It is obvious, though, that today it is no longer regarded as a science, and is treated with contempt by many scientists. Stephen Jay Gould tried to alleviate this controversy, exacerbated by American Creationists, by writing a book entitled Rocks of Ages, in which he declared that there was no need for this dispute, as science and religion each belonged to its own domain or "magisterium". This is a very controversial idea, which is denounced by atheists such as Richard Dawkins (not mentioned in this book).

Gingerich begins his discussion of the development of the relationships between science and theology by asking why, if Copernicus's cosmology was right, it took a century and a half before most educated people accepted the idea "that the Earth moved and the Sun stood still". There were a number of reasons for this, apart from possible religious objections. One reason was that the Ptolemaic system, with Earth as the centre of the universe, could be made to work on calculating the positions of the planets by applying certain corrections. Also, Copernicus realised that if Earth orbited the Sun, there should be a parallax effect on the observed positions of the stars. This effect, though, was not convincingly measured until 1838. The demonstration of Earth's axial rotation had to wait for the first public swinging of Foucault's pendulum in 1851. Thus it was not until the 19th century that the present model of the solar system came to be generally accepted.

Darwin's On the Origin of Species was first published in 1859 but many people, particularly in America, still refuse to believe in evolution. Gingerich notes that a recent Gallup poll (11 February 2009) shows that only four out of ten Americans believe in evolution and, for frequent churchgoers, the number is one out of four.

Since Darwin's time, there has been great progress in revealing the development of life on Earth, but the main concern in this chapter is the tension between the scientific findings and theories, and religious belief. Gingerich tells us that the vast majority of naturalists at the time of Darwin's voyage in HMS Beagle built their work firmly on the assumption that each organic form was created by the Deity. He notes that when Pope John Paul II spoke to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 he took the evolutionary picture seriously, but recognised the deeply significant transition to a spiritual being. Gingerich certainly does not agree that science and religion are incompatible. He reports being astonished by a biologist from the University of Chicago declaring: "Evolution demands atheism."

The chapter on Fred Hoyle is concerned with the universe and the theological implications of different cosmologies. There was the Big Bang theory which was ridiculed by Hoyle, who invented the steady state theory in which the universe has always existed and its expansion is caused by the spontaneous creation of hydrogen atoms. He eventually had to give up this when it was realised that there were too many problems with it.

An interesting question about Hoyle is whether or not he was an atheist. He advanced the hypothesis that the laws of science had been designed to promote the origin of life. Gingerich believes this hypothesis to be true. "The mere fact that the universe is comprehensible to our minds is also powerful evidence for a superintelligent designer." -- John Harney



Grace Banks and Sheena Blackhall. Scottish Urban Myths and Ancient Legends. Hoistory Press, 2014.

This book follows on from titles covering contemporary legends and rumours in Kent by Neil Arnold, and London by Scott Wood. However, the addition to the title of the words 'and Ancient legends' radically changes the nature and scope of the book, making it quite different from its predecessors. Many, indeed probably most of the tales related here fall into the 'ancient legend' category and sit uneasily with the contemporary legends and rumours, even though some of them seem to have been rather self-consciously updated. The story 'The Rocking Chair' is billed as an old Scottish legend retold in a contemporary Glasgow tower-block setting with lines like "I'll nae get a penny aff the social for ye noo", and the protagonist putting off the devil's demands to dance with her by demanding "I need a foot massage and a chiropodists and wee fishies tae nibble aff the hard skin". Apparently "I'm washing my hair" just doesn't hack it these days!

There are some urban myths here: an all-too-brief account of the Glasgow Vampire, a playground panic predating the Liverpool Leprechauns by a decade; gangland corpses entombed in the Kingston Bridge over the Clyde (plausible enough, although I am unpersuaded by the authors' claim that 'X-rays' revealed their presence); a version of the escaped lunatic and the severed head story from Stirlingshire; and a curious chess-playing phantom hitchhiker.

The book is arranged in chapters divided regionally, which while fine for the 'ancient legends', rather hides the significance of the urban myths, which really need to be treated thematically, as Scott Wood has done in his excellent London book. However, for someone interested generally in Scottish myth, legend and off-beat history this is an interesting and often amusing collection of stories. I just think it would have been better if it had just been called something like 'Scottish Tales and Legends', leaving the urban myths, of which I am sure Scotland is replete, for another day -- John Rimmer



Greg Taylor (Editor). Dark Lore VIII. Daily Grail Publishing, 2014.

This is the latest in the annual series of compilations of essays on a wide range of paranormal, fortean and anomalistic topic.

Mike Jay's article, 'Dreaming While Awake' discusses a topic that is at the heart of many Fortean and 'Magonian' phenomena - hallucination. Although simply meaning perceptions that have no external stimuli, the word has become so overladen with negative meanings that researchers are reluctant to use it as an explanation for the kinds of phenomena under discussion. Jay discusses how the word was first used as an attempt to secularise visionary phenomena, particularly in connection with Charles Bonnet syndrome, but it increasingly became a way of pathologising such visions, aquiring an almost totally negative connotation. By the twentieth century hallucinations were seen almost entirely in the context of mental disorder to some degree, but Jay argues that the visionary experience is a normal part of the working of the human brain, producing a 'virtual reality'.

Martin Shough's article on ball-lighting will be familiar to Magonia readers, as it is based on his article, A Social History of Ball Lightning, published in Magonia 81, May 2003. He describes the way in which a controversial phenomenon with many analogies to the UFO phenomenon has received scientific respectability, despite displaying most of the characteristics that have meant that UFOs have lurked permanently on the edges of science.

We have recently reviewed the revival of interest in the complex character Richard Shaver, with the recent anthology and biographical study by Richard Toronto, and a study of Ray Palmer's involvement in the 'Shaver Mystery' by Fred Nadis. Blair Mackenzie Blake here gives a sympathetic review of Shaver's life and works and his ambiguous relationship with Palmer. He asks if Shaver's nightmare descriptions of the subterranean world of the dero and their mind-scrambling technology might be a unconscious analogue of his experiences in the Ionia Asylum for the Criminally Insane, where he may have undergone electro-convulsive therapy. With the republication of two books of Shaver's 'rock pictures' we seem to be in the middle of a major re-evaluation of Shaver's contributions to science fiction, conspiracy theory and Fortean thought. I think we will hear much more of him.

The porous boundary between fiction and belief is also touched on in 'Believing in Fiction', by Ian 'Cat' Wilson Vincent [see comment, below]. He looks at how religious and philosophical belief systems have entered into the real world from popular cultural sources. He cautiously avoids L. Ron Hubbard, Dianetics, Jack Parsons and the OTO, noting that they did not derive their systems from one particular work. Instead he dates the start of 'hyper-real beliefs' from the Church of All Worlds, derived from Robert Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land. He follows the theme through Kenneth Grant's occult Tryphonian Trilogy, which influenced many occult practitioners, particularly through 'chaos magic'. Perhaps the most widely know 'hyper-real' religion is Jedi, from the Star Wars universe, which seems to be on the verge of becoming boringly mainstream. Later films like Matrix and Avatar also seem to be developing cultist followers; and finally to Slenderman, which is perhaps transforming from a internet meme to a dark sacrificial cult.

Joanne Conman's demolition of the accepted story of Egyptioan astrology and Robert Schoch's cosmological analysis of the cult of Mithras and the Gobleki Tepe remains are beyond my competence to judge, and I will leave it to others. Other archaeological topics covered include discussion of a remarkable structure in Indonesia, which may be a natural feature, an artificial structure or some sort of combination of the two. Martin Clemens description of the 'Mountain of Light' draws links to Churchward's Mu, and almost inevitably, Gobleki Tepe. It also provides an interesting example of the politicisation of archaeology.

Closer to home, in 'Walking in the Shadow of Death' Lucy Ryder looks at the 'corpse roads' which cross the English countryside (indeed one passes the front door of Magonia Towers!) Also on the theme of pathways to the grave, Dark Lore editor Greg Taylor presents an enlightening review of strange light phenomena witnessed at the moment of an individual's death, and considers if they may have an objective source.

Life beyond death is looked at in 'Life, Death and Raymond' by Robert Schoch, examining the death of Raymond Lodge, son of physicist and SPR grandee Sir Oliver Lodge, and the evidence it was said to present in favour of survival. Other chapters look at the Tibetan Book of the Dead; and in 'Portals of Strangeness' Raymond Grasse asks what Fortean phenomena, whatever their origins, actually mean in the modern world.

Like all the other titles in this series, it is unlikely that any one reader will find every article is of equal interest, but they will certainly find enough of interest to them to make this a very worthwhile addition to their Fortean library. -- John Rimmer



Joshua P Warren and Andrea Saarkoppel. It Was a Dark and Creepy Night: Real Life Encounters With the Strange, Mysterious and Downright Terrifying. New Page, 2014

This collection of about 150 brief “told as true” stories, shows how folklore in the US (and I assume elsewhere) is increasingly mingling traditional themes such as crisis apparitions, haunted houses, premonitions etc., with themes derived from popular media, examples of the latter including shadow beings, reptoids and I think I detect a hint of Slenderman in some stories.

The lack of any attempt at verification means these stories will have little value for the psychical researcher. There are also issues for the folklorist, in that the role of the authors (note not editors) clearly goes far beyond a simple tidying of language, grammar and spelling, to “slight embellishment could be provided to flesh out descriptive details”, so that we don’t know if the drama in some of the more dramatic stories comes from the original narrator or from the authors/editors.

That being said, this collection really is for entertainment only and lies in the honourable tradition of the folk storyteller and there is no doubt that many of these tales are appropriately creepy! - Peter Rogerson



David A. Weintraub. Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It? Springer, 2014

Although the title suggests that this book is solely concerned with religious attitudes to the possibility of extraterrestrial life, it also gives a detailed survey of the methods used by astronomers to attempt to discover extrasolar planets and to identify any that might be capable of supporting life.

Weintraub begins by giving an account of the history of thinking about the possibilty of other worlds, which began, in the west, "with the birth of rational science in the form of metaphysics and philosophy", in the sixth century BCE, when Aristotle summed up the results of several centuries of Greek philosophy and concluded that we are alone in the universe. This conclusion was based on the belief that Earth was composed of four elements -- earth, water, air and fire. Beyond Earth's atmosphere the universe was made entirely of a fifth element, aether. According to Aristotle aether is perfect, eternal, unchangeable and immutable, thus making it impossible for life to develop.
Not everyone agreed with him of course, but his belief that Earth was the centre of the universe and the only abode of life remained highly influential until the work of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) supporting, with astronomical observations and mathematical calculations, the idea that the Earth orbits the Sun. His calculations enabled astronomers to predict future celestial events, and enabled Jesuit astronomers to reform the Julian calendar, this being adopted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, thus becoming known as the Gregorian calendar, which is still in use today.

As scientific observations, theory and speculation gradually started to replace theological arguments in thinking about extraterrestrial life, it was eventually realised that it was extremely unlikely that intelligent beings could exist elsewhere in the solar sytem. The next stage in the search for alien life was thus based on the search for extrasolar planets, which gradually became more practicable with the development of the necessary technology.

We are given an interesting account of the discovery of these planets, beginning with the first, inevitably unsuccessful, attempts. In 1963 astronomer Peter van de Kamp claimed to have discovered a planet 1.5 times the mass of Jupiter orbiting one of the nearest stars, known as Barnard's Star. Other astronomers failed to cofirm this. However, in 1995, astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, of the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland, announced that they had found a Jupiter-mass planet orbiting the star 51 Pegasi. This time their discovery was confirmed by other astronomers, and about 50 exoplanets had been discovered by 2000. In December 2013 the number had reached 1,056 exoplanets in 802 planetary systems.

These results and other work, such as studies of the composition of meteorites, suggest that there must be many planets where life as we know it here on Earth would be possible.

Part II of this book is devoted to discussion of religious beliefs about extraterrestrial life, by which is usually meant intelligent life. It will probably become obvious to most readers that this subject, in most religions, is of concern mainly to a minority of theologians, and that most of them obviously cannot think of anything interesting to say about it.

Weintraub starts with Judaism. There is very little in Jewish scripture that might be interpreted to refer to the possibility of extraterrestrial life. He notes, however, that Rabbi Hasdai Crescas (1340-1410), in his philosophical work Light of the Lord, writes that space is infinite, and thus contains a potentially infinite number of worlds, and there is nothing in physics, nor in scriptural or Talmudic writings that can deny the existence of extraterrestrial life. The general consensus of Jewish thinkers is that the God of Judaism is universal, but Judaism is only for humans on Earth.

The discusion on Christianity is mainly concerned with Roman Catholicism, before going on to describe the thinking of other Christian sects. Most of the arguments about the possibility of intelligent life on other worlds are concerned with the question of whether Jesus died only to redeem Earth people from the guilt of original sin. This posed the problems of trying to imagine alternative means by which intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe could attain salvation. Of course, an easy way out would be to assume that no such beings exist. Weintraub remarks: "A few modern thinkers have tried to address this issue, though most of them have devoted very little thought to solving the theological problems".

Protestant Christians generally accept the possibility of extraterrestrials, but think it unlikely that they would have a similar religion. The more fundamentalist varieties of Christianity base their ideas of interpreting the Bible on it being literally true and unfailingly accurate. They thus believe that there is no extraterrestrial life.

Islamic scholars have noted that the Qu'ran states that the Earth is not the only world that God has created. For example, verse 42:29 states: "And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the living creatures that He has scattered among them: and He has power to gather them together when He wills". So Islam generally accepts the idea of extraterrestrial life but, like most other religions, cannot agree on what forms religions might take on other worlds.

Hinduism and Buddhism deal with ideas and beliefs very different from those of most westerners. For example, in Hinduism the amount of good or bad karma generated during one's life can determine how one will be reborn. Thus one need not necessarily be reborn on Earth.

Probably most people who read this book will believe that the question of extraterrestrial life is a scientific one rather than a subject for theological speculation. However, Weintraub concludes that most religions would not be adversely affected by contact with alien intelligent beings, and suggests that we can learn a lesson by thinking how we would interact with them and "learn to live more more peaceably with 'terrestrial intelligences' with which we are well acquainted and whose religious beliefs and practices differ from our own". -- John Harney



Cathy Cobb, Monty L Fetterolf and Harold Goldwhite. The Chemistry of Alchemy: From Dragon’s Blood to Donkey Dung, How Chemistry Was Forged. Prometheus Books, 2014.

Most students of alchemy, even those that read the mineral texts, will ultimately pursue the path of spiritual or ‘soul’ alchemy through meditation and breathing and suchlike. Some brave alchemists will seek to help the spiritual process by taking alchemical draughts and will buy distillation equipment and venture into spagyrics or plant alchemy (for example HERE) to prepare tinctures and plant ‘stones’ from herbs with a planetary or medicinal reputation. Only the very few (maybe only a couple of thousand worldwide) will make the step into mineral alchemy.

And that is what this book is about: not philosophy, nor metaphysics, nor even plant extracts. It asks us to look, in a very practical way, at the physical chemistry of the alchemists through the ages.

The authors of this book candidly tell us they are not experts on alchemy nor historians and they have relied heavily on already published material, and that their choice of (some Arabic but mostly European) alchemists to fit within their fairly random chronology was influenced a lot by the exoticness of their lives and stories. 

But the authors also announce that they are, instead, all chemists and - while telling the story of alchemy through its main characters - that the main purpose of the book lies in the twenty Demonstrations or experiments, interspersed throughout the book, based on work actually done by these alchemists. For this book, they say, may be aimed at people who have learned a bit of chemistry at school and might be feeling the urge to dust off the Erlenmeyer flasks and retorts and repeat some of the easier experiments in the alchemical repertoire.

And, on that well-meaning note, the authors launch into their first chapter: a hearty chapter about safety in the laboratory. Their intention is clear, as is their style. There is a chipper, sleeves-rolled-up breeziness about the writing that reminds one of the annual televised Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, full of whizz-bang experimentation and good-natured audience involvement.

But it would be wrong to be put off easily by the sometimes flip and lightweight style because this book has real value. Not so much for the chronological biographies nor for the development of laboratory practices and discoveries over the centuries (William Newman and Lawrence Principe have done it better) but for the intention to make the reader take this history of Alchemy into actual practice and see some of the wonders that simple chemistry, using everyday chemicals and minerals, can bring about. And mostly in the kitchen.

You would need to buy some Pyrex glassware, a few metals and a handful of chemistry-set chemicals and then, with this book, you can tinge silver into gold or make a new golden metal that might fool a careless assayer or you can make artificial emeralds and pearls! Just as miraculously, you can watch a ‘Tree of Diana’ flourish before your very eyes or you can grow a Philosophical Garden inside a flask in a demonstration that was discovered by Glauber in the 1650s. Unfortunately it is not the Philosophical Tree, made out of mercury and gold, that grew in Isaac Newton’s flask as he followed the mercury/antimony path but it is every bit as beautiful.

And this, indeed is the value of the book: to show that exploring the mineral world is not dangerous provided you take care.

The authors choose not to include mercury or antimony in any of their experiments, probably because of the volatile and toxic natures of these elements, but they do explore the three major mineral acids (sulphuric, nitric and hydrochloric). The caution might be well-founded because magickal historians will remember that, some decades ago, the occultist Jack Parsons, who was killed in an explosion at this home, is said to have accidentally blown himself up with Mercury Fulminate, a chemical made simply by mixing nitric acid and mercury.

The twenty Demonstrations, together with other pieces of alchemical labwork scattered in the book, eventually become 44 separate chemical experiments. They range from the trivial (making of invisible ink from lemon or onion juice) to the potentially industrial (making of metal alloys) and, on the way, they cross over all the traditional alchemical territory of gold-plating, silver-plating and the making of precious stones.

All the classical metals are there, bar lead and mercury (presumably because of their toxicity) and copper will be tinged silver by zinc and silver will be tinged gold by iron, tin will be made to look like gold and zinc and tin will form beautiful alloys. 

But also there are the basic chemicals that have always featured in the recipes from the Alchemical Cookbook: Alum (aluminium sulphate), Saltpetre (potassium/sodium nitrate), Vitriol (Copper/Iron Sulphate), Sal Ammoniac (Ammonium Chloride), Common Salt (Sodium Chloride), Baking Soda (Sodium Bicarbonate), Lime (Calcium Hydroxide) and Vinegar (Acetic Acid). Of that list of chemicals, only Vitriol does not have a traditional kitchen or a culinary function as well as its role in the laboratory.

This reviewer is one of those whose practical use of alchemy has extended only into plant alchemy or spagyrics (though they may, over the years, have acquired small stocks of thing like antimony and mercury). However, now they have a couple of simple experiments in process from this book. The world of mineral experimentation is beginning to open!

And this is surely the destiny of this book even as it announces it itself in its Introduction: it wants to bring people into practical mineral chemistry as a way of exploring the miracles of the world around us and the life we are living but also as a pathway to guide us back to the practices and the mindsets of our esoteric ancestors and forebears. That is praiseworthy.

There is one other particular thing to praise about the book and a couple of things to quibble about - but not to the extent that they should undermine the value of the book in its purpose. The praise goes to the coverage of women alchemists, including Mary the Jewess (who invented the bain-marie), Anna Zieglerin (who died horribly for making fraudulent claims) and Anne of Denmark (who made medicines on an almost industrial scale).

The quibbles come from the easy-going style of the narrative. Paracelsus is a larger-than-life character and idea of a homunculus (a miniature humanlike creature, made in a laboratory) is a sure crowd-pleaser. But it has been questioned for many years if the recipe for a homunculus was, as our authors insist, the product of Paracelsus’ own quill:
"That the sperm of a man be putrefied by itself in a sealed cucurbit for forty days with the highest degree of putrefaction in a horse’s womb, or at least so long that it comes to life and moves itself, and stirs, which is easily observed. After this time, it will look somewhat like a man, but transparent, without a body. If, after this, it be fed wisely with the Arcanum of human blood, and be nourished for up to forty weeks, and be kept in the even heat of the horse’s womb, a living human child grows therefrom, with all its members like another child, which is born of a woman, but much smaller.” (De Natura Rerum)
The other quibble might be more fundamental.

There is the airy confidence in this book that the sought-after mystical element that figures so largely in alchemical theory: the substance that descends in the air, the ‘aerial saltpetre’, the ‘materia prima’ or, maybe, ‘the water that does not wet the hands’ was simply the element oxygen: the gas that Lavoisier/Priestly/Scheele discovered in the early 1770s. To this end, the authors tell of alchemist after alchemist who came so close to discovering the new element (oxygen) and yet who missed the possibility, blinded perhaps by the theory of phlogiston, first posited in the 1660s. 

But, if that were the case, why – 250 years on - are the world’s alchemists still carefully laying out their trays of minerals in the springtime and in the autumn to collect the dew? Because the aerial saltpetre is altogether more nebulous and aethereal than even an invisible gas. The ‘Universal Fire’ which is alchemy’s prima materia is not an element but a primal quintessence (http://www.sacred-texts.com/alc/catena1.htm).

The book is a slightly bumpy read (written, as it is, by three authors) and is educational rather than ground-breaking but it is unique in its mission: no other alchemical book in the marketplace actively encourages one to begin the practice. And that is the point of alchemy that differentiates it from other esoteric paths: yes, there is a magickal metaphysic surrounding it but at the core is the call to do the work, the Great Work – whatever it means to you – and only by doing the work will you find the Philosopher’s Stone.

This book tells you how to do the work of alchemy. -- Caroline Robertson.