LIBA 497/LBST 590  Alchemy, Magic and Mysticism  FALL 2005   Thursday 6-8.45 

                                                                                                              Pat Aakhus

                                                                        LA 3101    


DESCRIPTION:  The history of alchemy traces human efforts to achieve immortality through the transformation of matter and spirit.  While alchemists attempted to prepare the “philosophers’ stone,” with the power to transmute base metals into gold, the transmutation of metals became symbolic of the transformation of flawed man into a perfect being.  The alchemists or magician’s Great Work (Magnum Opus) serves as a metaphor for all human creative work, whether it be art, writing, medicine, psychology or science, where life and work are a process that mirrors a journey to the underworld and rebirth.   


Traditional magic and the alchemical process of perfection of metals and human nature was based upon an integrated cosmology derived primarily from Greek and Egyptian mysticism.  The influence of alchemy and magic is evident in the works of Durer, Botticelli, Shakespeare, Marlowe and Mozart.  While the Enlightenment severed science from mysticism, alchemical and magical symbols continued to penetrate the work of Gustav Moreau, Yeats, Jung and Cocteau, among others.   


The study of magic and alchemy provides unique insight into the history of science, psychology, anthropology, art and literature.  Today, modern theoretical physics rejoins metaphysics to mathematics in “superstring theory,” in describing a unified cosmos whose nature cannot be measured or verified but only postulated through imagination.   In this course we will examine elements of Babylonian, Greek and Egyptian mysticism from which alchemy and traditional magic have been derived, and then look at the influence of alchemical and magical motives in Western literature, art, music and science.



Timaeus, Plato

Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds, Ogden

The Alchemy Reader, Linden

The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy and Mysticism, Roob

Magic in the Middle Ages, Kieckhefer

Doctor Faustus, Marlowe

The Tempest, Shakespeare

Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, Vyse

The Elegant Universe, Brain Greene




Bring The Hermetic Museum to every class, as well as the assigned reading.  A passing grade in the course requires that you be prepared to discuss assigned reading material on the day it is due.

(30%) Quizzes on reading.  Graded on curve. 

(15%) Midterm

(15%) Discussion, attendance, participation (more than one absence drops final grade by one full grade per absence)

(40%) A presentation based on a research project on some aspect of alchemy/magic; topic must be approved by instructor. 




9/1     Introduction to the Course.  Creation and Cosmologies.

9/8      Immortality of the Soul, The Underworld, Hymn to Demeter,

Cupid and Psyche, Orpheus, Inanna, Egypt, Greek mystery cults.  Readings:


9/15   Plato: the Immortality of the Soul, Creation

           *quiz  Timaeus  pg. 29-124  Plato Handouts: “Myth of Afterlife,” “Myth of Er”


9/22   Dick Davis reading--Persian poetry/mysticism.


9/29   *quiz  Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in Greek and Roman Worlds  

Divination and Demonology


10/6.   Alexandrian and Medieval Alchemy   *quiz  Alchemy Reader 1-140


10/13   Ficino, Natural Magic, The Four Humors and Melancholy *quiz on planetary

Correspondences  Magic in the Middle Ages


10/20   The Renaissance Magus   *quiz  Doctor Faustus,  The Tempest 


10/27   Alchemy Reader: Paracelsus, Fludd, Ashmole, Boyle, Newton; Alchemy

            and Mysticism *chapter reviews--midterm. 


11/3     Symbolists, Surrealists, Jung, Tarrochi


11/10   *quiz  Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition- surveys


11/17   Unified Field Theory  *quiz  The Elegant Universe
12/1     Presentations (LIBA 1-7)

12/8     Presentations (LIBA 8-15)

12/15  Final Exam  


Societas Magica: Syllabus Project

Societas Magica home page
Syllabus Project page

Posted 19 July 2005