Magic in the Age of Enlightenment


E. KelleyInventors of the Renaissance were a curious lot. Some painted, others robbed graves, numerous built bridges and domes, many tended to the sick, almost all were employed by governments and numerous wound up in prison, fearing for their lives.

Among these inventor/artists were a number of alchemists. Members of this brotherhood tended to be self-made entrepreneurs who began life in fields as diverse as medicine and mining. One of my favorites was Cornelis Drebble (1572 – 1633) a Dutch mathematician who worked for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II and James I of England. He spent many of his most productive years in Czech prison as the emperor feared he would take his brilliance to a rival court.

The most surprising of Drebble’s inventions was the submarine. He designed these hollow, oar powered vessels for military purpose after he was liberated from Rudolph . Three prototypes launched in the Thames and all three worked. Here is a picture.

A painting of the period depicts the Drebbel submarine on the River ThamesAnother inventor/alchemist was Elizabeth I’s court magician, John Dee 1527 – 1608. This fellow had a passion for the occult, especially in reading the future on the surface of a scrying glass (see objects from his magician’s collection below, now at the British Museum).

Disc; wax; engraved with magical figures and names; used by Doctor Dee when consulting "shew stones" or magic mirror; one of originally four piece set.Dee’s most unusual work was his transcription of Enochian, the language of angels, as he called it. Dee claimed to see and hear creatures from heaven during consultations with his mirror. He recorded these discussion in lines that, on paper, resembled cross word puzzles. Certain parts of words read forward, others read backwards. And the language of heaven is utterly unique. Dee described Enochian as somewhat like Hebrew and associated with the language of “tongues.” Not much appeared coherent in the translation from angels: description of heaven’s whereabouts (outside 45 degrees latitude north and south); duration of certain dynasties; direction to Dee that he share wives with fellow practitioner Edward Kelly.

Though there were no military vehicles created in Dee’s lab, he, like Cornelius after him, was imprisoned by Emperor Rudolph II —  a ruler who by all accounts guarded scholars jealously. One can see a model of the alchemist’s cell online at this link: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-museum-of-alchemists-and-magicians-of-old-prague/?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=atlas-page

Though there aren’t many, women do play a part in the golden age of alchemy. One was even a queen — Christina of Sweden, 1626 – 1689. This lady, who abdicated her throne as an act of counter-Reformation, preferred Rome’s scholarship, art, and philosophy to court life in Protestant Scandinavia. She collected several thousand works of science, art and philosophical writing, worked vigorously in her lifetime to create the red powder considered “philosopher’s stone” (a material able to transmute metal from one type into another),

Image result for christina of sweden alchemistRelated image

and she is known to have dressed and comported herself as a man.  Christina maintained throughout her life that through science, study and experiment, she would perfect herself as a true alchemist transforms the world in the laboratory and through meditation. Christina was buried in fanfare at the Vatican, one of only four women to receive the honor, and realizing, as it were, the fulfillment of an angel. The lady was probably the one alchemist whose story became a screenplay in an adaptation starring no less than Greta Garbo.

The study of alchemy continues, today. Not just as a curious review of quack science, but as a serious look at the beginnings of serious chemistry and botany. Leeds Beckett University students produced a musical/dance

Students bring Alchemy to life at Leeds Light Nightperformance based on their study of Renaissance alchemy http://www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/news/0916-students-bring-alchemy-to-life-at-leeds-light-night/

It included costumes, backdrops and an original score by David Aldred, a Leeds Beckett Masters student in Sound Design.


The more I study alchemy as a backdrop for my current novel,  the closer I seem to lean to this brand of humanism. Though wrapped in strange packaging — angels’ voices, the transmutation of woman into man — the platonic values it assigns to mankind seems always hopeful — something sorely missing, I find, in much of today’s social/political discussion.

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