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Practical Alchemy: A Guide to the Great Work, by Brian Cotnoir

Practical Alchemy: A Guide to the Great Work, by Brian Cotnoir
Weiser Books, 1578637473, 160 pages, July 2021

Alchemy has been beckoning to me for quite some time, yet it was hard to know where to get started exploring such a vast art with centuries of history. Where should I start? What essential things should I know about this work? How can I implement this into my daily life? These questions and more were all answered in Practical Alchemy: A Guide to the Great Work by Brian Cotnoir. In this extremely useful guidebook, Cotnoir does a wonderful job of contextualizing alchemy and providing a foundation one can start their journey from.

To begin, Cotnoir offers the motto of the Mutus Liber of 1677: “Ora, lege, lege, lege, release, labora et invenies. “Pray, read, read, read, reread, work, and you shall discover.””1 He reminds the reader that “alchemy is a living process and is always working with living substances.”2 It very much feels like this sentiment has been imbued into the book itself, which seems to have a potent energy to it, similar to that of a well-used grimoire.

This could be because the book is a compilation of so many different alchemist’s work along with pictures, tables, and illustrations of different cycles adding to the substance of the text. Practical Alchemy is definitely a good starting point for one’s own research for this reason. Cotnoir does a good job of showing how alchemy has evolved by looking at the different approaches to it over the centuries, and therefore, this range of various references does not feel generalized or superficial. If anything, it demonstrates an excellent weaving together of a huge body of knowledge to show it’s evolution through time.

What I most appreciate about Cotnoir’s writing is that it’s not cryptic, nor intended to conceal. As he describes, alchemy is filled with “ways[s] of concealing from fools the precious knowledge of transmutation.”3 While I certainly appreciate the lengths alchemists took to conceal this esoteric knowledge, it nevertheless makes it a daunting task to start putting together the different pieces of the puzzle. Cotnoir is such a kind mentor, describing how the information was obscured, such as in different texts or by switching the names of materials, and provides guidance on how to overcome these barriers when undertaking your own alchemical work.

Practical Alchemy is divided into two parts: “Theory” and “Practice”. The first section, “Theory,” covers topics such as the elements (and how their rotation is integral to alchemy), the Three Principles (Mercury, Sulphur, Salt), prima mater, alchemical cosmology (planetary spheres, fixed stars), alchemical timing (lunar months, planetary hours, ways to divide the year), interrelation of micro- and macrocosmic, and the inner work to achieve gnosis. The section concludes with the tabula smaragdina, or “The Emerald Tablet”, translated in both Latin and English.

I was happy to realize that being an astrologer already has prepared me for certain aspects of alchemy, such as planetary days and hours and lunar months, which I had never realized were components of an alchemical practice. I appreciated the historical information about how these aspects of alchemy blend together to be part of the greater cosmology. To be honest, it’s only recently I had the realization that I can break free from current cosmology, as in I can explore beyond the Big Bang theory.

With all the advances since medieval times, I sometimes think that former cosmologies are written off as primitive or no longer relevant, but I feel like shifting the paradigm to embrace an alchemical mindset about the world is an important part of getting started on this path. Cotnoir gently guides readers into expanding their perception by detailing how other alchemists came to understand the world in this way through time and provides a wonderful overview of alchemy’s foundation as a living body of knowledge.

The second part of the book, “Practice”, is where I started to feel simultaneously in over my head and astounded that there’s so much for me to learn. 

“Here we enter into the body of alchemy–the physical process. Nature must lead both in material and in method. Nature is your true book. Study it well.”4

In this section, Cotnoir delves into many ways to manipulate matter through rotating the elements, from calcination to dissolution and fermentation to sublimation. Up until now, I primarily have related to the spiritual dimensions of these techniques, but this section brought them to life in the material world for me. I began to notice the relationship between alchemy and chemistry and think about how I might go about doing some physical alchemical experimenting. Let’s just say, if you saw my holiday wish-list, you’d think I was setting up a small lab, which in many ways it seems like I will be in order to pursue alchemy on this level.

Cotnoir suggests starting with the basics: water, wine and vinegar, and Salt of Tartar. For each one, he provides detailed instructions about the process, including temperature needed and amount of time required for steps. From there, he describes how to distill water, wine (to make Spirit of Wine, followed by instructions on how to rectify this), and vinegar. For further work, Cotnoir describes the process of creating Archaeus of Water, Angel Water, and Spirit Wine of the Sages. He also includes directions to purify salts using calcification, crystallization, and sublimation.

One of my favorite chapters came next, “The Herbal Work”, in which Cotnoir details how the Three Principles can be obtained by plants through fermentation, distillation, and calcification. “The herbal work consists of separating the Principles, purifying them, and then recombing them.”5 The process of doing this is called spagyry. Cotnoir once again provides thorough instructions. This time he describes how to create spagyric tinctures, herbal Magistries, and spagyric Plant Stone. Furthermore, he provides background information on how to use these plant-based alchemical preparations as medicines and initiatory substances on one’s alchemical journey.

The rest of the book includes information on working alchemically with minerals, aurum potabile, the Opus Magnum, and a highly informative appendices. The appendices cover laboratory safety and equipment, more techniques (including information for making essential oils), and a long lists of plant correspondences for all seven planets. Cotnoir makes it very easy to find what one is looking for in the book, and the resources are so incredibly useful as reference. 

For those who do feel the tug to learn more about alchemy, I highly recommend following the calling to read this book. It’s a must-have for beginner alchemists, and I’m sure it would be enjoyed by someone who’s been alchemically experimenting for some too. The recipes alone make it worth adding to one’s book collection! I am eager to begin my journey into the physical side of alchemy, more assured than ever before from the information in this guidebook.

I believe Practical Alchemy will naturally draw readers ready for its information at the right time. And honestly, there’s no rush for the Great Work. It would be highly discouraged to start upon this work if one did not truly feel ready for what it may yield. Preparation is an important part of the alchemical process. Reading Practical Alchemy was a fantastic way to gain the preliminary information needed, as well as the confidence, to move forward on this path. Cotnoir has done a truly exemplary job of writing a useful, relevant guidebook packed with practical information.

Hermetic Herbalism, by Jean Maveric

Hermetic Herbalism: The Art of Extracting Spagyric Essences, by Jean Mavéric, edited and translated by R. Bailey
Inner Traditions, 1620559857, 234 pages, May 2020

I was first drawn to Hermetic Herbalism: The Art of Extracting Spagyric Essences by Jean Mavéric (in a new translation by R. Bailey) because of my fascination with the very subject described by the title: the influence of hermetic thought on the history of the use of plants for maintaining health. I thought it would be a practical guide to a little-known form of herbalism that has recently gained in popularity, and that I would learn how to make spagyric essences. I had no idea that, in addition to a hermetic guide to plant preparations, I would be getting a fascinating compendium of herbal lore, with lists of properties, correspondences, and suggested remedies, from the theory of the humors to the plants and the planets.

Clearly a product of the 19th century’s renewed interest in all things magical, and the desire of scholars of that time to be as complete and scientific as possible, the book, originally published in French in 1911, feels at first like an arcane encyclopedia. A concise foreword by the translator paves the way for understanding just where the author, in all his own mystery, was coming from. As we start to read, we can picture the mysterious Jean Mavéric in his garret, surrounded by old books. Yet the author explains that the book is not a “mere compilation,” but there for the reader to extract its “quintessence.”1

Reading it is its own alchemical process, and the author guides the reader well from the beginning of this voyage. Hermetic Herbalism thus does more than supply a summary of its subject matter; it offers a glimpse of the magical revival of the 19th century and how writers of the time sought to preserve and share esoteric knowledge, transmitted in premodern times by Paracelsus and his followers.

A basic knowledge of hermeticism and astrology comes in handy for a reader starting to travel with Mavéric, yet like any good French scholar, he begins with a discussion of the terms he will be using, so newer scholars of the hermetic arts are not left too far behind. As he separates the subject matter into short, digestible chapters, the reader can also perceive how the elements, the planets, the humors and the plants interconnect, leading up to an understanding of astrological herbalism and how to read a natal chart.

Mavéric details how to map the planets onto the body according to hermetic correspondences, offering some questions for the student of astrology to ponder. I really appreciated the detail to be found here, including the relationships between the planets, the elements, the humors and the body’s functions. I better understand, for example, why my capacity to act can sometimes feel blocked since Mars lives in the sixth house in my natal chart, one of the houses that Mavéric says most influences our vitality. I feel that I know the planets better and can thus better assess how I am feeling their influence at any given time.

 His discussion of the houses also clarified the relationships of each one to the others and also the whole. Not all of his explanations on how to analyze a natal chart were clear to me, and I found myself thinking that I would want to follow up with a teacher on how, for example, to locate the astrological sign that represents the head in someone’s natal chart. Beware, it isn’t always Aries! Finding someone’s “astral temperament”2 also requires a more complex set of calculations than I could figure out, but I know I can return to these finer points after further study.

Part two deals with the more practical matters of premodern herbalism: the fires, vessels, and processes required to extract the “juices” and salts of plants according to class. Reading it, I wondered if I would ever be able to try any of these preparations. My conclusion was that I would definitely need a mentor — too bad I can’t visit Mavéric in his laboratory. Plus, all of the preparations take time — thirty or forty days, the “philosophical month.”3

I wish I had gotten the book a little earlier, during lockdown, when I really would have had the time to digest it, and that I knew where to order an alembic. But whether you are reading the book for practical application or theoretical investigation, Marvéric supplies you with the raw material to engage in the beginnings of your own mental fermentation on the topic. In the meantime, I’m dreaming of distilling rainwater and dissolving salts, wondering how this all may be a metaphor for my own evolution. 

In conclusion, I think Hermetic Herbalism will be a useful companion during my study of both herbs and astrology, allowing me to deepen how I understand the interaction between the two. The astrological calculations described are quite complex, but give me something to look forward to as I continue my reading of the stars and the planets in relation to the Earth. All I need is some more “practice, patience and perspicacity”!4 I look forward to further translations of esoteric French works from this period by R. Bailey, who combines careful and clear translations with in-depth notes and references on the author’s sources that the original work lacks. The indexes (of common plant names, scientific plant names, authors, and subjects) and bibliography will make this book an important volume in my herbal library.