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The Forge and The Crucible by Mircea Eliade
The Origins and Structures of Alchemy
Published by University of Chicago Press in 1962
Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002
The subtitle is "The Origins of Alchemy" which gives a hint of the meat of Eliade's subject. The expert on ancient religions and myths is at his best here as he points to and interprets the metallurgical origins of alchemy.
The ore in the ground represents the seed sown in the uterus. The baser metals copper, iron, tin, etc are thought to be in gestation in their underground womb and on their way to perfection as gold. Thus the base metals are in a constant metamorphosis which is only interrupted by mining them. The mining of iron, copper and their base metal friends is considered to be an abortion, since the metals are torn from the womb prior to their millennial perfection.
Gold on the other hand, while it is the metal in the state of perfection, requires that the prospector be in a state of perfection himself to find it -if not, the gold ore will hide itself, moving to new positions in the veins or causing a mine collapse to rebury itself for eons. This process is neatly portrayed in the American western, McKenna's Gold, starring Gregory Peck. Eliade in this book covers the literature that describes how the miners paid homage to the gods of the mine to procure their permission to remove the ore.
The Blacksmith (iron was originally called "black metal") profile he gives is an interesting one - described in general it gives one the impression of a 20th Century psychotherapist. The Blacksmith's job was to move the ore to the perfection interrupted by mining, a process analogous to neurosis, in the sense of an interrupted perfection. The Blacksmith's job involved heating it up (group work, consultations), hammering it into shape (interpretations, analysis, prescriptions), and cooling it off (sent out into the world between sessions). The process loops through this sequence until the refined metal exits at the stage of perfection (cure).
The most important material for me was the discovery that until several hundred hears ago, men of knowledge believed in the metamorphosis of base metals into gold underground. Not much different from the progression from iron to gold in the periodic tables of modern chemists. The impact on legend, myths, and dreams, and literature is left to the reader.
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