Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 17, Vol. 2. Autumnal Equinox 2009

Alchemical Essays, Dr. Ross Mack.
Salamander and Sons: Muang, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2008. 285 pages. $24.95 USD.

review by J.S. Kupperman

            Having a 30 years experience with practical alchemy and a PhD in analytical chemistry, Dr. Ross Mack is uniquely qualified to write the collection of themed essays in his Alchemical Essays. This book keeps in the tradition established with Salamander and Sons’ first book on alchemy, focusing on practical or laboratory alchemy while portraying a certain amount of disdain for the modern trends towards psychological interpretations of alchemy.

            The topics of Mack’s essays are wide ranging. From purely practical to discerning between alchemical and chemical understandings of the work to sometimes not so subtle attacks on other metaphysical systems they are geared largely towards the experienced alchemist. The various articles are, importantly, not random but flow from one to another and cover the whole process of the alchemical Great Work.

            The essays in Alchemical Essays, some seventy in total, are arranged in eleven sections and are preceded by a preface from the editor and publisher Paul Hardacre and the author’s introduction. These sections cover perhaps every conceivable aspect of alchemy, and probably some the beginner would not have thought of. These include Asian alchemy, the affects of light and heat on the work, the nature of the philosopher’s stone and the influences of sound and music. The essays are particularly interesting in that they apply Mack’s experience with both alchemy and chemistry. Mack makes it clear that a chemical understanding of alchemical processes is insufficient to understand alchemy. Further, though knowledge of the basic modus operandi of chemistry may be useful the author repeatedly stresses that attempting to make connections between chemistry and alchemy will only confuse the Artist, as he frequently refers to alchemical practitioners.

            Though Mack’s knowledge of alchemy and chemistry are superb, practitioners of other esoteric disciplines may feel consternation at his portrayal of what he considers “subjective” results found therein. For Mack it is only through alchemy that object proof of progress along the spiritual path is possible. Though he repeatedly makes the statement that any system will work, so long as it is, in fact, a system and one sticks to it through the end the overall feeling of the essays towards non-alchemical practices is one of disdain. That his own essays, not to mention cultural anthropology, suggest that all experiences are, in fact, subjective seems to be lost on him. At the same time many of his anecdotes are about alchemists, who having misinterpreted their results, went down the wrong path. As his knowledge of ceremonial magic, a topic he brings up a handful of times, seems limited to Aleister Crowley, and by extension the Order of the Golden Dawn, and all who have come after, it does not seem that he is fully qualified to comment on the subject.

            Overall, however, Alchemical Essays is an optimistic book. Though Mack expresses deep concern for the increasing role chemical and pharmaceutical companies are playing in the development of medicine, and the way toxic wastes are created by similar operations, all is not lost. Alchemy, he says, has a promising future, especially as physics begins to catch up with concepts alchemists have known for centuries. Alchemical processes, and their products, when properly used are, on the other hand, non-toxic and proactive, promoting health rather than simply dealing with disease after it has appeared.

            Anyone with an interest in practical alchemy will benefit from reading Alchemical Essays. The authors is repeatedly insightful, occasionally witty and always knowledgeable about alchemical and chemical subjects. Though not geared towards beginners there are numerous subjects that will help the would-be Artist in the beginning of their art. The experienced alchemist will benefit from Dr. Mack’s 30 years of practical experience as well. The utility of such a book, which frequently fills in the gaps left by traditional alchemical texts, makes it a must have for any alchemist’s bookshelf.