Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 14, Vol. 2. Vernal Equinox 2008

On Becoming an Alchemist: A Guide for the Modern Magician, Catherine MacCoun. Trumpeter Books; Boston, MA, 2008. 264 pages. $21.95 USD.

review by J. S. Kupperman

Catherine MacCoun is an author of both fictional titles and self-help books. is Ms. MacCoun’s first foray into occult writing, but fans of her writing should not worry, for she does not leave her roots in the past. While there are a handful of references to traditional alchemical texts and their authors; there is a little story about Nicholas Flamel in the beginning of the first chapter, references to Harry Potter are just as frequent and both are interpreted through the same hermeneutical lens.

The book defines alchemy as “spiritual knowledge applied to getting things done in the material world”, which many occultists would possibly recognize as something perhaps better defining magic rather than alchemy. However, as the subtitle of the book suggests, for MacCoun alchemy and magic are one and the same thing and she is equally likely to use one term than the other throughout the text. This is part of the difficulty of the book, one that the author readily admits to: the term “spiritual” has some very specific meanings in the English language, and what she means by the term does not always fit its common usage. It is easier to write than “non-physical” though. This book, then, is not really about spirituality in the common sense of the term. Instead it is more about psychology, or perhaps psycho-spirituality, and the changing of one’s perspective. To successfully do this is to accomplish the Great Work of the alchemists. Thus On Becoming an Alchemist is not about physical alchemy or even spiritual alchemy, it is a self-help book. This is the hermeneutical lens previously mentioned.

In and of itself this is not a bad thing, and it is certainly true that many would consider psychological health to play an important role in magical practices. By itself, however, it is not magic. MacCoun’s ideology of magic, though, is perhaps different from my own; she sees magic as not being something that necessarily causes outer change but something that causes us to look at a situation differently than we would have before. The turning of our own perspectives is the Great Work, the viewing of a new world is the magic wrought of the Work.

There are some difficult portions in this book, however. This is not to say that parts of it are difficult to understand. On Becoming an Alchemist is a relatively straight forward read, written in an easy to understand language. It should only take a few hours to read through if you are not going to try any of the exercises. Rather there are areas of misinformation or simply incorrect information, character assassination and plays for legitimacy. For instance, there seems to be a conflation of the classical Greek Hermes and the Greco-Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus. While the later is developed, in part, from the former, their characteristics are quite different. Similarly the etymologies of “hermit” and “Hermetic” confused to imply a relation where looking through an etymological dictionary tells us that “hermit” is ultimately derived from a Greek word meaning “uninhabited” whereas “Hermetic” is derived from the name of the god Hermes which is quite etymologically distinct and is connected to phallic symbolism.

Modern hermetic organizations fair just as poorly as the word used to describe them. According to MacCoun such organizations are bereft of the spirit of Hermes, who apparently loathes such things. However we are told of a non-physical organization of Hermeticists and alchemists that we can come into contact with and who will help us along our ways if we only learn to recognize their help when it comes. Similarly put out is Theosophy, especially some of its most influential members such as H. P. Blavatsky and Charles Leadbeater. On Becoming an Alchemist more than intimates that Blavatsky only helped to found the Theosophical Society as an elaborate hoax and Leadbeater was only involved in it so that he could have sex with under aged boys. The irony of this is that much of MacCoun’s psycho-spiritual work, based upon work on the subtle anatomy, is ultimately derived from the writings of Blavatsky and Leadbeater.

These character evaluations, however, do not appear to be entirely for the sake of bad publicity; for every fault she finds with someone else MacCoun tells us their mistake and what the truth of the matter really is. This becomes somewhat difficult. MacCoun is insistent that impressions from the non-physical world are vague and that any sort of view of that world, for instance through astral perceptions, are not just subject to ones imagination, but are completely controlled by the imagination and messages are always vague. Anyone who experiences the opposite, non-controllable images and specific content are perhaps a little crazy, but not really experiencing the astral. This is not, however, the difficulty. The problem lies in that this message is inconsistent. It appears that this is generally true for others, and even sometimes for MacCoun herself, but only when she is trying to demonstrate something that she disagrees with. At other times there is little or no hesitation to tell the reader how it is and in no uncertain or vague terms.

On Becoming an Alchemist is an interesting blend of fact, fiction and fantasy. While it is not particularly concerned with alchemy or magic in a classical way as a relatively occult friendly self-help it may be a useful introduction to getting oneself straightened out. However the amount of negativity in each chapter is disconcerting and even off-putting. Its mix of pseudo-hermetic and alchemical language, Theosophic subtle anatomy, Buddhist ideology and fictional references further confuse the issues at hand and the reader interested in such subjects is encouraged to look at texts dedicated to those subjects instead.