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The First Alchemists – Tobias Churton (2023)

Churton earlier wrote well investigated, easy to read and up-to-date books about early Freemasonry, the Rosicrucians, Elias Ashmole, and “Occult Paris“. I was curious what he would bring to the story of Alchemy.

The First Alchemists is (to me) the least interesting book of Churton.

I hope this book contributes to correcting a vast historical error; namely, that alchemy may be defined as the practice of transmuting base metals into gold.

No, Churton does not stress the ‘spiritual’ side of Alchemy contrary to the ‘practical’ side. Churton mostly goes back to Zosimus who lived around 300 CE in Panopolis in Roman occupied nowadays Egypt. Zosimus wrote extensively to Theosebeia, often portrayed as his female student, but whom Churton shows had a school of her own. She did not follow Zosimus to the letter, so he often feld he had to correct her and her sources.

The most important part of this story: Zosimus and Theosebeia were not after the making of gold, but after the making of dyes. They experimented with the creation of colours to -for example- decorate statues, and gold was but one of the colours they were after. Zosimus does seem to have seen an ‘inner side’ to his art.

So rather than presenting Alchemy as a practice of creating gold, proto-chemistry or a spiritual path with rich imaginary, here you find the lives and efforts of people producing paint.

Mostly set in Roman Egypt, Churton also looks as some Jewish investigators, the Hermetic side of the story, the connection to Gnosticism and all the way towards the end also a bit about Arabic, Medieval and Renaissance Alchemy. During all this Churton frequently gives the contemporary chemist explanation of details.

Churton’s story is perhaps a realistic and fair one, but (especially compared to his other books) a bit of a dull story. What I did find amusing is that two names that I know of my visits to the Bibliotheca Philosophical Hermetica of many years ago. Frank van Lamoen wrote the introduction and Roelof van den Broek’s theory of Hermetic “lodges” which he presents in the translation of the Corpus Hermeticum that he made together with Gilles Quispel is tested.

2023 Inner Traditions, isbn 1644116839

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