This year marks the 400th anniversary of one of the most influential mythemes in the history of Western esotericism: that of the Order of the Rosicrucians. More precisely, it is now 400 years since a mysterious pamphlet entitled Fama Fraternitatis was published in Kassel. Purporting to be a communication from an unknown society founded by a medieval German monk, Christian Rosenkreutz (after travels in the Orient, of course), the Fama sparked a great furor across Europe about a powerful brotherhood working in secret to push a universal reformation of religion, science and philosophy that would usher in a new age. While the text made clear that no true Rosicrucian would ever admit to being one, the publisher immediately started receiving letters asking about where to sign up. True to their word, however, the real Rosicrucians failed to step up. But by the end of the century, people started forming their own Rosicrucian Orders, and the story of the secret society was stepping out of the realm of fiction and into the realm of fact. By now such societies are counted by the dozens. (At least – I haven’t actually counted them, but be my guest!)
Rosicrucian Quadricentennial: 400 years of secret brotherhoods, universal reformation, and conspiracy theories
There’s a new blog out in the esotericisim/hist-sci neighbourhood. Praeludia Microcosmica brings microcosmic preludes from the PhD research of Mike Zuber (University of Amsterdam). In particular, we should look forward to “occasional notes on chymistry, theosophy and religious dissent in the early modern period”. The blog is named after a curious book, the Microcosmische Vorspiele Des Neuen Himmels und der Neuen Erde – the contested authorship of which you can read a bit about in the blog’s opening post.
It starts good, with a follow up post on Johann Conrad Dippel (1673-1734) – who has not only been falsely held as the author of the Microcosmische Vorspiele, but also possesses a questionable reputation as an alchemical counterfeit gravedigger snake-oil & horoscope salesman with a connection to the castle Frankenstein near Darmstad, which have made him a candidate for the “real” Victor Frankenstein, the model of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s hubristic doctor.
But Dippel’s “Real Frankenstein Potential” is not so obvious when exposed to historical methods. For starters, the most questionable thing about reputations like that of Dippel is, usually, their provenance. Mike (who is trained as a historian of science and now doing the PhD at the History of Hermetic Philosophy centre in Amsterdam) shows that most of the rumours surrounding Dippel – and especially those involving grave-digging – are highly dubious. What’s left is a radical pietist convert doing work in chymistry and medicine, who may been born near to the Frankenstein castle.
Personally I look much forward to the promising second installment on Dippel:
“I hope to explore more of it in the near future—including Dippel’s shifting fortunes as an alchemist, a reading list he partially shared with Victor Frankenstein, his reputedly all-curing animal oil, his attempt to gain possession of Castle Frankenstein in exchange for an alchemical arcanum late in life, and his mistaken prophecy that he would live until 1806. So stay tuned and watch this space!”
As readers of Heterodoxology will know, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam hosts a webinar series on aspects of Western esotericism in collaboration with lecturers at the UvA. The latest lecture was published last week: This time Peter Forshaw talks about our old favourite John Dee, focusing on his Monas Hieroglyphica. Check it out below!
Last autumn I completed my PhD dissertation, and now it’s time to defend it. The defence is public, and will take place on February 5, 2013, at 12:00 in the Agnietenkapel of the University of Amsterdam. The event is open to anyone (with a max. capacity of 90 people), and I will give a short public lecture on the topic of my research prior to defending it in front of the committee.
While I have given hints about my research in a number of posts here at Heterodoxology, I am now happy to present an official abstract of the final product – the dissertation itself:
Ever wondered what those enigmatic emblems in Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens (1617) are all about? Well, you could do much worse than watching Peter Forshaw speak about it in the latest BPH webinar. Peter places Maier in the context of 16th and 17th century alchemy, emblematics, the Rosicrucian furore, early printing culture, and the broader political contexts of both continental Europe and England at the time. He also takes the time to go through a few of the 50 emblems in the book.
For the book itself, there is a transcription of an English translation of the original Latin available at the Levity website.
In the spirit of its new policy of openness (“Hermetically open”), the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica has posted a video on its YouTube channel that contains a 53-minute tour of the library’s collection, given by the founder Joost Ritman himself. This gives an excellent opportunity for non-Amsterdammers to have a peak at what the BPH looks like, and what the collection contains. But more than that, it gives an interesting insight into the mind of Ritman himself. As he guides online viewers through parts of his collection, we get to know quite a bit about how Ritman conceives of his collection, what it means to him, and what he has been trying to achieve with the library from the beginning. Worth checking out if you are curious about this legendary library and its founder.
The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam has, as previously mentioned, gone through a transformation lately, now focusing increasingly on web-based solutions. As a part of this renewal, BPH launched a webinar series entitle “Infinite Fire”, in which scholars of esotericism will give online lectures on chosen topics, making use of unique material that is available in the library itself.
The first of these lectures is now available. It is given by my colleague Peter Forshaw, an expert of esotericism in early modern intellectual history, and particularly of alchemy. In the lecture, Peter speaks about one of his favourite authors: Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605). The BPH website blurb has more:
“In the webinar a focus is put on Khunrath’s Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae – The Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom (originally published in 1595), which has traditionally been considered to be a strange mix of Christianity and magic. Peter elaborates on the alchemical symbolism of 4 circular and 5 rectangular engravings integrated in the Amphitheatrum. A famous plate is the Tabula Smaragdina or The Emerald Tablet, to be considered one of the main inspirational works for alchemists, Hermetic philosophers and Rosicrucians. Aldous Huxley even mentions the Tablet contains an in-depth summary of what he calls the ‘Perennial Philosophy’, a timeless science of soul that keeps on surviving through the ages.”
Do check it out. Then wait until November, when Peter will be back with his second webinar lecture on Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens.
When I press the “publish” button for this post I shall immediately duck and take cover from allegations of whiggishness. The title of the lecture I post below, “Why did Newton believe in alchemy?” is precisely the sort of question-asking that has recently been criticised in the history of science blogging community in a recent upsurge of discussions about whig history and misapplication of categories in narrating or explaining science history. As Rebekah Higgitt wrote on teleskopos back in 2010, the “Newton as alchemist” trope seems to be a perennial surprise, and she suggested (I think convincingly) that the very fact that journalists but also scholars continue to introduce this topic precisely as a surprise – no doubt to attract the attention of their audience – is actually just perpetuating the mystery rather than leaving it behind and moving on. The problem is not only that we should start by acknowledging the state-of-the art established knowledge in the field (which in the case of Newton means at least departing from such works as Robert Westfall’s Never at Rest, and Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs’ The Janus Face of Genius) rather than by perpetuating the research questions of more than half a century ago. The problem is also that by playing the surprise card, we encourage people to ask questions that are poorly formulated and misleading in the first place. Questions such as, “was Newton a scientist or a sorcerer?” As Thony Christie will tell you, that’s a completely silly question, which cannot avoid distorting the material it’s supposed to clarify. To put it in histsci jargon, the question is too far removed from “actor’s categories” to make any sense.
The Ritman library has risen from the ashes of the calamity of 2010. The new developments look very promising and should interest many international readers – particularly because of the initiative “Hermetically Opened”. With it, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica is being proactive about joining the digital and connected age. It’s the next best thing to having the unique library of hermetic, alchemical, and rosicrucian literature in your own living room. Digitization projects are underway, there are plans for a Hermetic wiki, and not least, great plans for a webinar series where scholars of esotericism and Hermeticism will speak about particular topics. All of this is available to a global public online, and you can read all about it at the library’s new website.
The webinar series, named “Infinite Fire”, was officially launched last week, with a short talk by my colleague Dr. Peter Forshaw, a specialist in the history of alchemy. Future talks are being planned, to begin with by other experts present in Amsterdam (Wouter Hanegraaff and Marco Pasi). The idea is, however, to expand with time. So if you are a scholar working in an area related to the library’s collection, and you’re planning a trip to Amsterdam, I am sure that the BPH staff would love to hear from you. Perhaps you will do a brief interview or otherwise contribute to this collaborative, evolving “global hermetic circle”?
Peter talks about / devours some of his favourite books from the BPH collection below:
Very promising developments indeed. Do check it out.
In 1901 physicist Ernest Rutherford and chemist Frederick Soddy, tucked away in a laboratory at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, were struck with amazement as they watched the element thorium transform into an inert gas. Soddy, exclaiming that they had witnessed nothing less than transmutation, was warned by his more temperate colleague: “For Mike’s sake, Soddy, don’t call it transmutation. They’ll have our heads off as alchemists”.
Alchemy would, however, be invoked frequently during the decades to come; not with reference to obscure occultists in the secret vaults of hermetic societies, but in connection to new discoveries concerning radioactive decay. Indeed, in its the early decades, what would become nuclear physics was commonly labelled “modern alchemy”. The crucible and athanor had been replaced by cloud chambers, spectroscopes, and ionization chambers, but there was a nagging feeling that the ancient and modern alchemists ultimately shared the same goal: the transmutation of elements.