Seth Lindberg is guest blogging here today, and I have to say this is probably the most interesting guest post I’ve ever read! I love hearing what inspires the other authors, I really do, as for me ‘the story behind the pen’ is at least as interesting as the story itself. Seth, you are very welcome to take over my blog today!
FICTION & ART INSPIRED BY THE MAPPAE CLAVICULA
Guest post by S.E. Lindberg
Who are you?
I’m Seth (S.E.) Lindberg, residing near Cincinnati, Ohio working as a microscopist by day. Two decades of practicing chemistry, combined with a passion for the Sword & Sorcery genre, spurs me to write adventure fictionalizing the alchemical humors. Thanks to my host Jennifer Loiske who extended an invitation to discuss my muses and recent contribution to Perseid Press’s Heroika: Dragon Eaters.
1) What are your muses?
As a practicing chemist and hobbyist illustrator, I’m driven to explore the weird experience of artists & scientists attempting to capture the divine. I identify with early scientists before chemistry splintered from alchemy, when Art & Science disciplines had common purpose. Take, for example, early anatomy (Medieval and Renaissance period): surgeons searched for the elements of the soul as they dissected bodies; data was largely visual, and had to be recorded by an illustrator. The technology behind paint and dyeing was developing alongside advances in medicine. Back then, the same instrumentation in apothecaries produced medicines as well as paints/inks, so the distinction between artist & scientist was obscure. Despite all the advances over centuries, much of the alchemical focus remains at large. If only we had a key to open the door to great understanding? Such a map with the keys-to-understanding were collected in a set of manuscripts called the Mappae Clavicula.
2) What is the Mappae Clavicula?
It was once an expectation that artists were also scientists, sourcing their own materials and working them from the earth, such that their material gathering affected their style. One of the first “technology” books that evolved from compilations of secretive recipes and pseudo-legitimate alchemy was the Mappae Clavicula; A little key to the world of medieval techniques. It is a compilation of compilations which maintains a sense of poetry and naive embellishment and includes scripts sourced from 600 CE Alexandria through the Renaissance. It was translated and reprinted by the American Philosophical Society in 1974 in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society; original illuminations available as a virtual book on the Corning Museum website (link).
3) How did medieval artists source their materials?
Early painters could not go to Walmart or Amazon to purchase modern paints or sketch pads. The industrial production of paints did not emerge until the late 18th century. So in addition to learning how to produce art, early artists also had to learn where to find the base materials (minerals for pigments, extracts for dyes, skin for canvases, etc.) and how to cook them into paint. They had to procure their own minerals to grind, plants to extract dyes from, etc.; they often mingled with their compatriot shoppers of Apothecaries, the physicians and herbalists. It was only a century ago that industrial demands for color took over the responsibility for making paints away from the painter.
“We forget that throughout the history of medieval art there were no prepared packaged paints, inks, or parchments leaves. The locating of particular pigments required a familiarity with nature which was so intimate as to be incomprehensible to us today. It required a knowledge of not only the unchanging elements of nature, but of those that vary with climate, with geography, with the time of year. The eggs of a specific insect, at a specific time in its life, would yield a particular pigment. At other times, the eggs would be useless.” (p22 of 1974 Mappae Clavicula: A little key to the world of medieval technique)
4) What is magical about making paint and art?
The recipes for making paint read like a witch’s brew for casting spells. Smith and Hawthorne put into perspective how the technology of paint making was obscured with early chemistry (alchemy). Artisans were largely ignorant of their science, and/or they were not rewarded for determining/revealing the truth:
“When there were no purified chemicals in labeled bottles and no general theory to guide him, the artisan would not lightly change his practice. Moreover, the more spectacular recipes are the least likely to be omitted by a compiler: feeding a virgin goat with ivy and using his mixed blood and urine to carve crystal will impress the layman more than the suggestion simply to dip in turpentine.” (p18, 1974 Mappae Clavicula: A little key to the world of medieval technique)
Note, Smith and Hawthorne, translators of the Mappae Clavicula, also translated Theophilis’12th century On Divers Arts (link) , a treatise on arts written by practicing artist. Pigments, glass blowing, stained glass, gold and silver work. They highlight that many of the ingredients of these medieval recipes are identified by their geographic origin (location) since natural “chemicals” were not purified then and compositional heterogeneity across regions affected color. The process of preparing one’s own materials was, and still can be, a meaningful part of the creative process.
5) What is the allure of alchemical writings?
The allure of the recipes in the Mappae Clavicula is that they are cryptic, but potentially can reveal secrets of the divine, of art, and of science. The reader never knows how much is real or fabricated. The style of the Mappae Clavicula reflects that of all Hermeticism, which comprises writings attributed to the god-like father of alchemy, Hermes Trismegistus. The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus is a short piece but is arguable the most popular work of Hermeticism since its reveals the secret of transmuting materials (of course, this could mean divine materials into gold!). Many refer to the Tablet as being the philosopher’s stone, or the knowledge embodying it. Sir Isaac Newton’s translation of the Emerald Tablet remains one of the most popular:
Tis true without error, certain and most true:
That which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world and thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
So was the world created.
From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world.
That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended.
6) How did alchemy inspire your Heroika: The Dragon Eaters contribution?
Legacy of the Great Dragon, my short story for Heroika, features the Father of Alchemy entombing his singular source of magic, the Great Dragon. According to Greek and Egyptian myth, the god Thoth (a.k.a. Hermes) was able to see into the world of the dead and pass his learnings to the living. One of the earliest known hermetic scripts is the Divine Pymander of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus. Within that, a tale is told of Hermes being confronted with a vision of the otherworldly entity Pymander, who takes the shape of a “Great Dragon” to reveal divine secrets. Legacy of the Great Dragon fictionalizes this Hermetic Tradition, presenting the Great Dragon as the sun-eating Apep of Egyptian antiquity. Appropriately, the opening quote for the short story follows:
‘…understand the Light, and make friends with it…’advised the Great Dragon Poimandres to the Egyptian god Thoth, venerable destroyer of serpents and intellectual healer (whom the Greeks called Hermes Trismegistus) — The Corpus Hermeticum, Section I
7) Do you write other books inspired by alchemy?
Prior submitting to Perseid Press’s Heroika: Dragon Eaters, I had relied on Sword & Sorcery as a medium to contemplate life-death-art with my Dyscrasia Fiction series. Dyscrasia literally means “a bad mixture of liquids” (it is not a fictional land). Historically, dyscrasia referred to any imbalance of the four medicinal humors professed by the ancient Greeks to sustain life (phlegm, blood, black and yellow bile). Artisans, anatomists, and chemists of the Renaissance expressed shared interest in the humors; accordingly, the scope of humorism evolved to include aspects of the four alchemical elements (water, air, earth and fire) and psychological temperaments (phlegmatic, sanguine, melancholic and choleric). In short, the humors are mystical media of color, energy, and emotion; Dyscrasia Fiction presents them as spiritual muses for artisans, sources of magical power, and contagions of a deadly disease. The books explore the choices humans and their gods make as this disease corrupts their souls, shared blood and creative energies.
I plan to continue Dyscrasia Fiction in parallel with submitting stories to Perseid Press, forever shaping the muses of alchemy into heroic fiction.
Perseid Press’s Heroika: Dragon Eaters