The Swedish polymath Johannes Bureus (1568–1652), Royal Librarian and close friend of King Gustavus Adolphus, is primarily known as an exponent of early modern “Gothicism,” this is, the idea that the ancient Goths of Scandinavia were the first rulers of Europe and Sweden the true origin of Western culture. But Johannes Bureus was also an avid reader of alchemical literature, as well as a practising alchemist.
Influenced by the Neoplatonic revival of the Renaissance, he viewed alchemy as part of a prisca theologia stemming from the ancient Goths, arguing that the Scandinavian runes constituted a “Gothic Kabbalah,” in which the secrets of all sciences — including alchemy — had been hidden for posterity.
Drawing on Johannes Bureus’ notes, glosses and excerpts from textual sources, this article considers the role attributed to alchemy in his quest for this lost wisdom of the Goths.
Johannes Bureus’ interest in alchemy is evident throughout his remaining papers. As early as 1604 he made references to “alchimica” in his diaries, and in his notebooks he carefully noted key ideas and concepts from the alchemical texts he studied, stretching from medieval classics like the Aurora consurgens and Turba philosophorum to the fashionable works of Theophrastus von Hohenheim, Gerhard Dorn, and Andreas Libavius.
Quite often he also tried to recreate the experiments described in this literature, though not always with success — “Great lie,” he once exclaimed in the margin of Pseudo-Lull’s ‘Novissimum Testamentum,’ in reference to a complicated process involving pulverized sulphur and mercury.
Other experiments succeeded, and it seems he even demonstrated some of them at the court. Next to a passage in Theophrastus von Hohenheim’s ‘De renovatione et restauratione,’ which describes how to make the incorporeal image of a herb appear inside a glass vessel by extracting the primum ens or quintessence of the herb from the earth, Johannes Bureus excitedly noted, “Mirum vidit Rex Gustav Adolf” — “King Gustavus Adolphus saw the miracle.”
In 1612, he claimed to have produced a noble “tincture of metals” using Adreas Libavius’ ‘Alchemia’ (1597) as his guide, and as late as 1633, he carefully noted his expenses for various glassware and chemical vessels.
And yet, for all his down-to-earth experimentalism, Johannes Bureus viewed alchemy as something much more than a simple craft. In fact, very few of Johannes Bureus’ notes deal with the common chrysopoetic form of alchemy, aimed at transmuting base metals into gold.
Instead, the vast majority suggest that he viewed alchemy as a science capable of revealing the mysteries of God’s Creation, and even of transforming the alchemist himself into an almost godlike being.
He accordingly took extensive notes from the Flemish physician Gerhard Dorn (ca. 1530–1584), who described the Philosophers’ Stone as a gift of God, possessing the power to exalt the soul of man to a holy state.
Many notes also suggest that he viewed the alchemical transmutation of matter and the human soul’s ascent toward God as two parallel and intimately linked processes. So, for instance, he repeatedly juxtaposed the different stages in the alchemical process, stretching from calcinatio to tinctura, with a “runic progression” of his own invention, symbolizing the soul’s ascent into a divine state of comprehension.
As Johannes Bureus put it, the runic alphabet constituted a “Gothic Kabbalah” having the power to raise the mind to a comprehension of the divinity. Quoting verbatim from Johannes Reuchlin’s ‘De Arte Cabalistica’ (1517), he described this “Cabala Gotho-rum” as a “symbolic theology,” in which the runic letters were signs of divine secrets, leading the one who could fathom their full meaning to a union with the ultimate Godhead, the principium absolutis entis.
The overall impression when leafing through Johannes Bureus’ notes is that he viewed the knowledge of alchemy as essential to the attainment of this cabalistic ascent of the soul, an impression reinforced by his remark to a passage describing how the exalted soul of Moses had risen through forty-nine of the fifty “gates of understanding.”
According to Johannes Reuchlin, Moses had not been let through the very last, fiftieth gate, thereby preventing him from beholding God “face to face,” because this last gate was either identical to the “making of life” or to the “essence of God” — to which Johannes Bureus bluntly added, “Alchimia, too.”
Johannes Bureus’ notes raise a number of questions about the relationship between the “practical” and “spiritual” dimensions of early modern alchemy, a relationship that has been under considerable debate in recent years. In an important essay, Lawrence M. Principe and William Newman have persuasively contested the prevailing idea of alchemy as an essentially “spiritual” or “mystical” discipline.
The allegorical and religious language of many alchemical texts has led numerous historians to conclude that “the operations recorded in alchemical texts corresponded only tangentially or not at all to physical processes.”
Instead, alchemical texts are often interpreted as veiled expressions of the moral and religious transformation of the human soul, fostering the idea that alchemy was “an art of internal meditation or illumination rather than an external manipulation of apparatus and chemicals.”
Lawrence M. Principe and William Newman are undoubtedly correct when claiming that this idea — one of the “myopic stereotypes that have come to dominate the historical study of the occult sciences,” as they put it in a different context — has resulted in a lopsided picture of early modern alchemy.
Equally misleading, however, would be to treat the practical and spiritual dimensions as two mutually exclusive ways of “doing alchemy.”
Given Johannes Bureus’ engagement in practical alchemy, he clearly did not regard alchemy as an exclusively “spiritual” discipline.
For him, alchemy was as much a practical art as a contemplative means of deifying the soul: a philosophical and devotional craft, capable of raising man to a comprehension of the divine mysteries of creation. In the following articles, I shall outline the intellectual framework of Johannes Bureus’ work, showing how he used a variety of sources to bolster this idea of “practical” and “spiritual” alchemy — and, by extension, of natural philosophy and theology — as intimately related and interdependent realms of knowledge.
Johannes Bureus was thus one of the first Swedish scholars to show a serious interest in Neoplatonic and Paracelsian ideas, and in the following, I shall focus on his notions of alchemy.
It should be borne in mind, however, that none of Johannes Bureus’ texts was devoted strictly to alchemy, and that the significance he attributed to the discipline has to be deduced from his unpublished notebooks and excerpts. Hence, all interpretations are necessarily tentative.