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The Forge and The Crucible
Mircea Eliade
The Origins of Alchemy
Published by University of Chicago Press/IL in 1974

A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2015


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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. Eliade proffers the idea of metals gestating in the earth — on their way ontogenetically to becoming gold. The mining of baser metals is kin to the abortion of an unborn human child. Once the base metal has reached its golden goal, the digging of it requires a chaste soul. The miner is then the obstetrician at whose hand the gold is delivered. On extraction of the baser ores (such as iron), the smelter and the smith quickens the transmutation into 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 re-bury itself for eons. This process is neatly portrayed in the American western movie, 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 Eliade gives is an interesting one — described in general, it gives one the impression of a 20th Century psychotherapist. The hammer of the Blacksmith is a sacred tool which cannot be used by any wanton fool. The anvil is the feminine receptacle for his hammering blows. In the cool water of his tank, the red hot hammered blade is tempered by cooling off. Then back into the white-hot forge, the piece is heated, hammered and cooled again. Like the therapist who heats up his client in the group or consultation room, hammers his directions into the client's head, then sends him out in the cold cruel world to test temper and his cutting edge. Then the cycle starts again when the client comes back in: heat, hammer, and cool is the essence of the alchemical process road to recovery of the ancient gold that was seeded at our birth.

The Blacksmith's job is to move the iron to the perfection interrupted by mining, a process analogous to neurosis, in the sense of an interrupted perfection. The job involves 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.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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