Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 14, Vol. 2. Vernal Equinox 2008
The Great Alchemical Work of Eirenaeus Philalethes, Nicholas Flamel and Basil Valentine, Rubellus Petrinus. Salamander and Sons; Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2007. 121 pages. $22.95 USD.
review by J. S. Kupperman
Petrinus’ Great Alchemical Work, while a single book, is
hardly a single thing. It is, instead, perhaps as deep and variant as
the subject it discusses and the person who wrote it. Rubellus Petrinus,
the author’s working name, is a Portuguese alchemist with over 30
years of experience in several different alchemical paths. The main subject
of The Great Alchemical Work, published for the first time in English,
is what is known as the “Dry Way” or “Flamel Work”,
named for the famous alchemist Nicholas Flamel who has, alas, only been
made recently known to a popular audience via Harry Potter. Prefaces are
also provided by two of the books editors, both alchemists in their own
rights, Frater Parush and Rubaphilos
The Great Alchemical Work is divided into three sections, each being successively slightly less opaque and bewildering, at least to the novice or non-alchemist, than the previous one. The first section is something of an introduction of the alchemical works of Philalethes and Flamel. These two are discussed together as their works are complimentary, with one of their texts often filling in blanks left by the other.
This first section is perhaps the most difficult as Rubellus, in the tradition of alchemical texts, leaves a great deal of what he is talking about in the fabulous coded language of alchemy. Here he discusses dragons and wolves and the children of Saturn, as well as other wonderful and confusing images. Unlike older texts on the subject though, including those of Philalethes and Flamel, Rubellus gives the reader the keys necessary to decipher the language he is using. What are those keys? Work and research. Rubellus recommends the study of chemistry, especially the chemistry of the fifteenth century. Through such a study what is now hidden to us becomes much clearer. It is for this reason that the first section is written the way that it is; alchemy is hard work and one must be prepared for that. If the would-be student of alchemy is not willing to do this little amount of research what hope do they have in accomplishing the Great Work itself?
To continue, then, section one is divided into three further sections representing three stages of alchemical work on the Dry Way. In each stage the reader is brought, step-by-step, through the processes described by Philalethes and Flamel. Throughout this part of the book Rubellus not only explains the symbolic language of alchemy, but also discusses its practical application, for this is not simply a book explaining alchemical symbols but a book of practical alchemy, which for Rubellus is the only kind of alchemy there is. Thus section one is both theoretical and practical, and Rubellus tells the reader how to carry out the experiments he is discussing. Further, he adds information missing from his sources about certain steps that are missing and how to carry them out in explicit, no-nonsense, language. This does not mean any of this is easy reading; in order to understand what Rubellus is saying some background in chemistry is necessary and, as with many things of this type, reading and doing are two very different things.
The second and third sections of The Great Alchemical Work focus upon the writings of Basil Valentine, a 15th century alchemist and Canon of a Benedictine Priory. Section two focuses on interpreting the first three images or Keys from Valentine’s Twelve Keys, while making many references to Valentine’s other works. Here Rubellus looks at the practical meanings of the images within the Keys and not their esoteric meanings, something none have attempted before. Where in the previous section Rubellus was content to leave much of the symbolic language of alchemy for the student to decipher, though with a great deal of prodding and hinting to help along the way, in this second section Rubellus becomes much more explicit in his discussion of this language, stripping away a great deal of the obfuscation that was present even in the previous part of the book.
As with the rest of the book, this section is not just a theoretical explanation of alchemical language. Not only does Rubellus discuss the practical meanings of the Keys, he engages in experimentation with them. Thus, as with section one, section two is quite practical in nature. Instructions for the creation of “salt of tartaria”, as are the preparations of Royal Water and other alchemical substances are given. In order to make sense of the instructions and how Rubellus arrived at them further reading and research is, of course, necessary, and the reader is directed to other texts by Valentine, especially his Last Will and Testament. Fortunately a bibliography is included and the reader will find that many of the texts discussed are available online via Adam McLean’s Alchemy Website.
Section two leads directly into section three, which continues with the works of Valentine. This final part of the book is perhaps the least obfuscated of the three. Here directions for eight different experiments, based on Valentine’s works, are provided. These include the preparation of the Spirit of Wine and tinctures of Mars. Here, at last, all of the symbolic language of alchemy is removed and explicit instructions using the language of modern chemistry are used.
Rubellus Patrinus’ The Great Alchemical Work is a modern gem of classical alchemy by a Brother of the Art. Here there has been a successful fusing the need for tradition with the need for lifting the veil obscuring the art and science of alchemy from those who might otherwise never engage in the Royal Art. Rubellus has presented, in some instances for the first time, classical alchemical texts in a relatively clear and concise manner, sometimes dangling the keys to their translation enticingly before the reader, sometimes simply handing those keys over. While The Great Alchemical Work is in no way a stand-alone text on the subject, it is not meant to be. Instead, it is an entrance to a wider world and should rightly sit alongside the works of other great alchemists both past and present.