Post 24: History of Alchemy Podcast

This podcast at historyofalchemy.com comes from Travis J Dow and Pete Collman, two Americans living in Prague who also work on the Bohemican podcast, documenting life and culture in the Czech Republic. It’s through this history of Prague (and particularly the Emperor Rudolf II, who we shall come back to later) that they developed an interest in Alchemy. This isn’t exactly a narrative podcast, each episode focuses on a single character and works as a stand alone feature, but some of the concepts explained in particular episodes will be recalled in later shows. The topic, the stand alone nature of the episodes and the presentation style help this to stand out from the crowd of podcasts as something that is a little bit different.

I mentioned the presentation style – why does this stand out? With the two presenters conversing naturally on a particular historical character, this is a lot less of a lecture than many of the other history podcasts out there but it’s a still not quite a discussion/chat podcast. However, this informal style does not mean that the presenters are unprepared – there is a huge amount of detail and research and it’s actually quite dense in places. With some of the figures and topics covered, there is still a danger of straying into mysticism and esotericism, but here that is treated with a more skeptical, rational view. Finally, shining through it all is a passion for the topic.

As I said in Post 23, my background is as a physicist so I think I have a more than decent knowledge of science and its history. Alchemy is occasionally a weird spin off to this. There are some overlaps, some like Tycho Brahe or Johannes Kepler contributed towards our knowledge of the world around us, others like Miriam the Jewess are alleged to have created important bits of scientific equipment. Other parts of alchemy however are dead ends or mis-steps in the search for knowledge, others still are nothing more than charlatanism and spiritualism. But these are no less interesting for that, through putting those mis-steps, successes or bluffs together we can build a picture of how these men thought and why they succeeded or failed. Although, it should definitely be noted that there are considerably more mis-steps and charlatans than scientific heroes and the show leans much more in that direction.

There are plenty of great anecdotes in the show, and fundamentally it works as an enjoyable, informal discussion of some bizarre historical characters. Personally, I do find that the discussion of nonsensical alchemy and conspiracies a bit tiring after a while – it’s like Umberto Eco or Fox News, I enjoy it but I just need to take a break after a while. As well as this head-melting confusion of the alchemical work itself, I also disappointingly find the website of the podcast to be a bit of a mess. Maybe it’s just me, because parts of it look quite professional. but I struggle to access some of the shows and a lot of the text is badly laid out.

With so many difference individual episodes, I thought I’d pick out a few figures to give a little example of what they cover. These are by no means the the only ones worth bothering with, but I hope they maybe encourage any readers to check out one or two shows themselves.

  • John Dee – mathematician, adviser to Queen Elizabeth and alchemist. He had an actually useful talent for navigation and astronomy, but spent much of his life trying to communicate with angels and understand the world through numerology. He has more recently been the subject of an opera by Damon Albarn.
  • Rudolf II – the Holy Roman Emperor (and king of much of eastern europe) from 1576 to 1612, he was a huge supporter and patron of alchemists and mystics like Tycho Brahe, John Dee, Edward Kelley and Nostradamus, and even had a lab of his own. He also brought artists and musicians and reigned over a golden age for Prague. It’s also worth pointing out that, on the whole, he was a pretty terrible ruler and certainly helped to cause the Thirty Years War.
  • Nicholas Flamel – a French bookseller in the 14th century, his legend grew after his death and some say he discovered the Philosopher’s Stone and is still alive today. In reality he actually seems to have had very little to do with alchemy at all (and so it’s a relatively short episode) and the suggestions just seem to be ways to explain how he left such a generous will (it seems much more likely that he just invested well, rather than creating huge amounts of gold – he wasn’t quite that generous). More recently, probably more famous for appearing in Harry Potter.
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