The Forge and the Crucible

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structure of Alchemy by Mircea Eliade, from University of Chicago Press.

Mircea Eliade The Forge and the Crucible from University of Chicago Press

Readers should heed the word origins in the subtitle of Eliade’s monograph on alchemy. In fact, the first two-thirds of the book is given over to discussions of the religious and mythic dimensions of metallurgy in ancient and “primitive” cultures. The next few chapters perform a cross-cultural survey of alchemical traditions, moving west from China, through India and the Near East, to Europe. Eliade makes a reasonably persuasive case for the existence of similar conceptual mechanisms in the alchemy of various different societies, and he uses a presentation of Indian alchemy as a basis for explaining European alchemy.

Eranos-participant Eliade references Jung as the authority on the psychological interpretation of alchemy, and he attributes validity to Jung’s approach, but he doesn’t claim to share it–being interested in the history of religions rather than individual psychology. He also cites Julius Evola as an expositor of alchemy as a “traditional science.”

This book suffers as much as any of Eliade’s work (with the stand-out exception of The Myth of the Eternal Return, which must be hands-down the worst) from a nostalgic conception of the primitive. He insists, “Modern man is incapable of experiencing the sacred in his dealings with matter; at most he can achieve an aesthetic experience.” (143) At every turn, he identifies the objects of his greatest scholarly care and concern with an earlier, more sacralized period of human awareness. And yet he attempts to disavow it: “These considerations are no more a criticism of the modern world than they are a eulogy of other, primitive or exotic societies.” (177)

Aside from its comparativism, The Forge and the Crucible has the most to offer those who are interested in ideas of great dispensations of human consciousness, whether they are construed as magical aeons or Foulcauldian discursive epistemes. Eliade proposes that alchemical culture was a precondition for modern science and industrialization, which is poised to transform human society as dramatically as did the first introduction of agriculture. [via]