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This essay discusses a significant component of alchemical discourse in the early modern period, the relations between alchemy and myth. The literary genre of what has been called hermetic mythology, or, more recently, mythoalchemy, worked on the premise that the myths of Egyptian, Greek, and Latin antiquity were repositories of alchemical secrets, coded narratives of natural philosophy.1 Early signs of this genre could already be seen in late medieval alchemical works like the fourteenth-century Pretiosa margarita novella (New pearl of great price) of Petrus Bonus of Ferrara, but it was to develop further following the Renaissance upsurge in interest in classical antiquity, finding its flowering in the alchemical emblem literature of Michael Maier. Maier promotes the alchemical interpretation of mythology early in his publishing career, introducing a discussion of the alchemical significance of hieroglyphica Aegyptio-Graeca (Greco-Egyptian hieroglyphs) in his first major publication, Arcana arcanissima (Most secret secrets; 1614). His conviction in the alchemical exegesis of ancient myth was to find its most vibrant visual and verbal expression several years later in his elaborate multimedia Atalanta fugiens (Atalanta fleeing; 1618). Opening with an introduction to the early history of mythoalchemy, this essay then concentrates on Maier’s mythoalchemical works, arguing that it is not the visually flamboyant Atalanta fugiens but rather the richly intertextual Arcana arcanissima that lies at the heart of Maier’s mytho-chymical project.

A Brief History of Mythoalchemy

Learned alchemists had long been condemnatory of those who naively read alchemical literature in an overly literal way. Catholic practitioners at times explicitly advocated an interpretative approach that drew inspiration from the multiple levels of biblical exegesis of holy scripture. Blaise de Vigenère (1523–1596), for example, was drawn to the exegetical techniques of Jewish Kabbalah, in the conviction that even the most banal-seeming passages in scripture held unexpected treasures concealed in their depths.2 Even though Luther had called for a return to the literal reading of scripture, this did not discourage Protestant alchemists like Heinrich Khunrath (1560–1605) from theosophical speculations on multiple levels of alchemical, magical, and cabalistic reading of material.3 Others, while quick to reject the idolatrous paganism of classical mythology, argued that the tales of the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman gods held far more valuable secrets, hidden from the profane, not to be taken literally but plumbed to their depths for lessons: moral, ethical, philosophical, political, or in the case of some, alchemical.4

Although some ancient Greek alchemical texts are attributed to mythical figures (Hermes, Agathodaemon, and Isis), Greek alchemists, such as Zosimos of Panopolis, Olympiodoros, or Stephanos of Alexandria do not seem to have shown much interest in incorporating references to classical mythology in their symbolic language, let alone alchemical interpretations of Egyptian or Greek mythical material.5 The first sign we have of such a notion is from the seventh-century CE Byzantine chronicler John of Antioch, who “evoked an alchemical interpretation of the Golden Fleece,” arguing that it was “a book written on parchment teaching the reader how to make gold through alchemy; which was the real motivation for the quest of the Argonauts.”6

This idea was sustained by the tenth-century lexicographer Suda, who recorded that “the Golden fleece was not what the fable says of it, but a book written on a skin and which taught the manner of making gold by alchemy. That is why the ancients rightly called it ‘The Golden Fleece’ because of what it enabled one to achieve.”7 Sylvain Matton reports that something similar was repeated by the Greek scholar Archbishop Eustathius of Thessalonica (c. 1115–1195/96), who adds that “[Alexandrou] Kharax himself says that the Golden Fleece is a treatise of chrysography written on parchment, for which reason, in the measure that it was a thing of considerable importance, the ship the Argo was constructed [for Jason and the Argonauts].”8

Although the encyclopedist Vincent of Beauvais (1184/94–c.1264), compiler of the Speculum maius (Greater mirror), numbered Virgil amongst the masters of alchemy, the first medieval consideration of Greek mythology in a sensus chymicus (chymical sense) — with the idea that the transformations of men and animals in, for example, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Georgics and Aeneid could be seen as analogies for the transmutation of metals — is found in the fourteenth century. This work is Petrus Bonus of Ferrara’s Pretiosa margarita novella, a work predating the Genealogia deorum gentilium (Genealogy of the gods of the gentiles; 1360), the famous mythographical work of his compatriot Boccaccio (1313–1375).9 There Bonus writes of “a certain gold hidden in Ovid” (aurum in Ovidio occultatum), with reference to the tales of the shape-shifting sea-god Proteus, the petrifying Gorgon Medusa, and the goddess Minerva; to Theseus and the Minotaur in his labyrinth; to Aeneas and the golden bough; to Jason, Medea, and the Golden Fleece.10

With the upsurge of interest in Greek and Roman antiquity during the Renaissance, classical mythology and the “poetic theology” of the “ancient theologians” Orpheus, Hesiod, and Homer came to be valued as repositories of the secrets of natural philosophy. At a time when the Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) expounded on the mysteries to be discovered in the corpus hermeticum (hermetic corpus) and the works of Plato and the Neoplatonists, the French humanist Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (1455–1536) composed an alchemical exegesis of two labors of Hercules as part of his unpublished treatise De magia (On magic).11 In 1515, Ficino’s friend Giovanni Aurelio Augurelli (1441–1524) “gave an alchemical meaning to a number of classical myths, such as the love affairs of Mars and Venus, or the quest for the Golden Fleece, in his alchemical neo-Latin poem Chrysopoeia [The art of making gold].”12 Just over a decade later, in De auro (On gold; 1527), Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola (1469–1533) compared accounts of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece from the third-century BCE Greek epic poem the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes and the pseudepigraphic fourth- or sixth-century CE Argonautica orphica (Orphic Argonautica).13 His conclusion was that “Jason sailed to Colchis on the quest of the Argonauts to seize not the golden sheepskin of Phrygia, but a parchment of ram’s membrane on which the process of making gold was described.”14 Without a doubt, the tale of the Golden Fleece (Ovid, Metamorphoses 7.9–424) was one of the most popular mythoalchemical themes, with its vivid images of Jason ploughing the fire-breathing bulls and sowing the teeth of the dragon that guarded the fleece, each episode signifying “the practice of this Arte, daungers and perrills in this worke, the purging and preparing of the matters and substaunce of the medicine.”15

Around the mid-sixteenth century, alchemical works began to appear that dealt with mythological material in some depth, notable examples being two works by the Italian physician and alchemist Giovanni Bracesco (1482–1555): Il legno della vita (The wood of life; 1542) and La espositione di Geber (The explanation of Geber; 1544). In the latter he explicitly writes of how Jupiter’s transformation into a shower of gold represents the distillation of philosophical gold; the transformation of Argos’s eyes into a peacock’s tail intimates of the color changes of philosophical sulfur; the petrifying gaze of Medusa means the fixation of the elixir; the fable of the phoenix, repeatedly reborn, signifies the multiplication of the elixir; the tale of Daedalus and Icarus represents the processes of putrefaction and distillation; while the flight of Atalanta, chased by Hippomenes, is the coagulation of quicksilver with sulfur.16

In response, the Mythologiae, sive explicationis fabularum libri X (Ten books of mythology, or the explanation of fables; 1568), of the prominent mythographer Natale Conti (1520–1582), dismisses the interpretations of Bracesco as aberrant but notes that they are approved by numerous alchemists.17 By this time, however, there was a long tradition of alchemical allegorical tales, such as the Duenech allegory and the allegory of Merlin, and the disdain of mythographers and lexicographers did little to deflate the enthusiasm of alchemists.18 In fact, the first systematic and most extensive collection of mythoalchemy dates from the same period, in the Auriloquio (Golden discourse) manuscript by Vincenzo Percolla (d. 1572), which deals with 209 alchemical interpretations of mythological themes.19

Arcana arcanissima (1614)

And so we come to the work of Michael Maier (1568–1622), who studied philosophy and medicine at the university of Rostock from 1587 to 1591, obtained his master's in Frankfurt in 1592, and then spent 1595 and 1596 in Padua, where he was apparently crowned poet laureate.20 He finally completed his doctorate in medicine in Basel, with graduation theses on epilepsy in 1596.21 In 1608 he moved to the Bohemian capital of Prague, where the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II was the magnet for all alchemists, cabalists, and magicians. He formally entered Rudolf’s service the following year, 1609, when he was forty years old, as personal physician and imperial counsellor. Maier’s first publication, De medicina regia & verè heroica, Coelidonia (On Coelidonia, that regal and truly heroic medicine; 1609), dates from that period. In that work he draws from medieval European authors Geber, Arnold of Villanova, and Hortulanus Anglicus, author of the well-known commentary on the Tabula smaragdina (Emerald tablet) of Hermes Trismegistus.22

In April 1611 Maier left Rudolf’s Catholic court and went in search of a new patron, courting the favor of the Calvinist princes of Germany, eventually spending the next five years in England, in and around the court of James I (1566–1625). It is worth noting that Maier arrived shortly after the first performance of the English playwright Ben Jonson’s satire The Alchemist, complete with alchemical interpretations of the myth of the golden fleece, by the King’s Men in 1610.23 In The Alchemist we read, for instance, lines such as these: “I have a peece of Jasons fleece, too, / Which was no other, than a book of alchemie, / Writ in large sheepe-skin, a good fat ram-vellam.” We also read of the fiery bulls as the alchemical furnace, the dragon as quicksilver, its teeth as mercury sublimate, and Jason’s helm as the alembic.24 Perhaps Jonson’s play stimulated Maier’s imagination. Maier’s first major work, Arcana arcanissima, hoc est, hieroglyphica Aegyptio-Graeca (Most secret secrets, that is, Greco-Egyptian hieroglyphs; 1614), believed to have been first published in London by Thomas Creede (fl. 1593–1617), is certainly a venture into the relations between alchemy and mythology.25 As Maier makes his disapproval of the false claims of gold-making Alcumia and his favor of genuine iatrochemical chymia perfectly clear in this early publication, and was to repeat this distinction in later works, perhaps, strictly speaking, we should here be speaking of “mytho-chymia” rather than mythoalchemy.26

The figurative title page of Arcana arcanissima gives a clear sense of its subject matter (fig. 1). At the top we find the three central figures of the Egyptian myth of the dismemberment of Osiris by his brother Typhon, the pieces collected and reassembled by their sister Isis. At the bottom of the page we have three creatures associated with Egyptian mythology: the ibis and cynocephalus or baboon — both linked with the god Thoth, identified with Hermes in Greek mythology and Mercury in Latin — and the sacred bull Apis. Flanking the title we find two figures from Greek mythology: on the left Hercules and on the right Dionysus.

The title page of Arcana arcanissima framed by images of creatures, mythical personages, and a pair of obelisks.

The three central figures of the Egyptian myth of the dismemberment of Osiris by his brother Typhon, in which the pieces are collected and reassembled by their sister Isis



Three creatures associated with Egyptian mythology: the ibis, the sacred bull Apis, and the cynocephalus or baboon

Figure 1

The Arcana arcanissima is divided into six books, which give a clear sense of Maier’s beliefs about the underlying message of ancient myth: 1) On the hieroglyphical Egyptian gods (Osiris, Isis, Mercury, Vulcan, Typhon, etc.) and the mythic activities and characters of singular creatures; 2) On the allegories of the Greeks, primarily those involving golden objects such as Jason’s golden fleece and the golden apples of the Hesperides; 3) On the fictitious, philosophical or chymico-medical golden genealogy of gods and goddesses; 4) On festivals, holy occasions, and games, instituted in honor of this science; 5) On the labors of Hercules and their meanings in relation to the art of alchemy; and 6) On alchemical interpretations of the Iliad and the Odyssey.27

Maier is careful to criticize paganism and to emphasize Christ’s role as the true Savior Physician, but he nevertheless emphasizes the value of the chymical secrets lying behind the myths. He repeatedly reminds his readers that these tales should not be taken as histories but are instead hieroglyphs or allegories, that is, tales “concealing some deeper meaning, philosophical or moral, which must be withheld from those persons too ignorant or too impious to use it aright.”28 According to Maier, the Egyptian priests transmitted their knowledge of the chymical artifice in this way so as to only reveal it to the most worthy.29 As a devout Lutheran he avoids mentioning Catholic fourfold exegesis of scripture in support of this multilayered reading, but discusses instead the accustomed fourfold reading of the works of Homer, with hieroglyphical, political, poetical, and grammatical levels of consideration.30 The ancient Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro (116–27 BCE) is also mentioned as one who spoke of almost all the classical gods as “elements of the macrocosm” (thereby tacitly renouncing a plurality of gods), with Saturn, for example, representing the Heavens or Form, and Rhea the Earth or Matter.31 Suda's belief that the Golden Fleece was a “book or membrane containing Chrysopoeia” is introduced into the argument.32 But the “most secret secret” is that mythology is all about chymia, transmitted by means of hieroglyphical letters or pictures of animals from the Egyptians to the Greeks, and the truest interpretation is that it all concerns the “Philosophical Medicine,” the “golden Medicine, acting as golden medicament of the body and spirit.”33 Maier introduces his reader to the four principal “Hieroglyphical Gods of the Egyptians” — namely the brother and sister Osiris, or the Sun, and Isis, or the Moon; “Mercurius,” who joins with the Sun and Moon as common to both; and finally the “burning spirit” Typhon (i.e., Set), not classed as a god but as a malign demon, who chopped his twin brother Osiris into “most fine parts” (tenuissimas partes).34 In addition to these four, Maier lists a decidedly Latin-sounding group of Egyptian deities: Vulcan (external fire), Pallas (Wisdom of Operating), Saturn, Jupiter, Venus, Apollo, Pluto, and others. Elsewhere Maier introduces Horus as one of the most ancient gods, preceding a list of twelve Greco-Roman deities, six male and six female, with reference to the mythographer Natale Conti.35 Maier argues that the ancient poets wanted to show that “those Gods did not exist, except as fictitious [and] imaginary, but were symbols and emblems, some for the eye, others for the mind, hidden to the vulgar, but known to themselves.”36

Maier is most interested in the “Chymical Gods” (Dij Chymici), or indeed the “principal intellectual chymical gods” (praecipui dij intellectuales chymici): Osiris, Isis, Mercurius, and Vulcanus, who are not celestial but rather subterranean, born of the art. Egyptian Isis is identified as Greek Ceres and Osiris as Bacchus or Dionysus, “chief of the golden gods” (aureorum deorum primarius).37 Osiris is explained to symbolize the “matter of the art, from which the golden Medicine is composed”; his death represents the alchemical process of “solution”; the tomb in which his dismembered body is placed by the “fiery and furious spirit” (spiritus igneus & furiosus) Typhon is the alchemical vessel.38 After this solution, Isis collects the parts and unites them with combustible sulfur, such that the soul of Osiris becomes sufficiently ardent that he converts Isis, mother‑wife‑sister, into himself, resulting in the ultimate hermaphroditic or androgynous perfection.39

The Arcana arcanissima contains a multitude of alchemical interpretations of mythological motifs; here, a scant few will have to suffice. On the grounds of Egyptian myth, the “black bull” Apis is “a hieroglyphic and indubitable character of the true and unique Philosophical Matter,” the “Chaos philosophicum,” containing all things. This is backed up with reference to Greek motifs, from the bulls of Minos; the story of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur in the Cretan labyrinth; Hercules’s fight with the three-bodied (or three-headed) giant Geryon; and Jason’s yoking of the fire-breathing bulls.40 The god Pan, as well as the satyrs, including Silenus, companion of Dionysus, represent the “vileness, wildness, or rawness of philosophical matter.”41 The “story of the birth, struggle and victory of Dionysus graphically depicts the whole Philosophical artifice,” hence his appearance on the book's title page.42 Osiris’s deadly brother Typhon has an affinity with serpents and dragons, which is “proven” by Maier through the anagrammatical “transposition” of the letters of his name to “Python,” adversary of Apollo.43 Alchemically, Typhon represents “that foetid water that putrefies,” a “sulfurous and burning spirit,” while his wife Echidna denotes the “watery and cold flowing substance,” that is, quicksilver.44 From their union arise the various mineral species, represented by their large brood of monstrous offspring, including Cerberus, the Sphinx, Chimaera, Hydra, and the hundred-headed dragon Ladon, guardian of the golden apples of the Hesperides.45

Much is said concerning Mercury, inventor of letters, numbers, and musical instruments and intervals, as well as observer of the courses of the stars and psychopomp.46 While the lame god of the forge, Vulcan, is associated with fiery lions, Mercury is connected with dragons and serpents, such as the male and female snakes entwined around his caduceus.47 The wand represents his marvelous ability to reduce all dissident things to concord, whence the famous alchemical dictum Est in Mercurio quicquid quaerunt sapientes (There is in Mercury whatever the wisemen seek).48 In line with a multitude of other alchemists, Maier considers Mercurius to be the “subject of the chymical art,” indeed describing him with the extremely Christ-like epithet “Omnia in Omnibus” (All in All things).49 In an entertaining piece of cod-etymology, we discover that the Egyptians called Mercury in their tongue Theut, with whom the Germans are connected, calling themselves “Theutonos sive Theutschen” (Teutonic or Deutsch).50

Another major figure in Arcana arcanissima is the demigod Hercules, son of Zeus and Alcmene, famous for his twelve labors. While his father represents the internal agent of the art, its principal subject, Maier explains that Hercules is the external agent, the artifex himself.51 A whole book is devoted to the chymical interpretation of the labors of Hercules, many of which easily connect with traditional alchemical symbolism. His first task was to slay the Nemean lion, which was neither Asian nor African but celestial and ultimately alchemical, with Maier adducing the Green Lion of the Rosarium philosophorum (Rose garden of the philosophers; 1550), Senior’s parable of the hunting of the lion, and the explanation in the Consilium conjugii (Advice on the conjuction) that Leo is the Sol inferius (lower sun).52 Hercules’s combat with the watery serpent, the Lernaean Hydra, is likewise identified as alchemical, with Basil Valentine’s De occulta philosophia (On occult philosophy) cited for its reference to Mercury as a serpent from waters.53 In a similar fashion, Hercules’s task of obtaining the golden apples of the Hesperides, guarded by the hundred-headed dragon Ladon, is another labor amenable to alchemical interpretation.54

Maier in fact identifies three Greek heroes as representatives of the alchemical artifex: Hercules, Jason, and Odysseus.55 Jason’s quest with the Argonauts for the Golden Fleece, interpreted as “the Philosophical Stone, the highest medicine of human bodies,” is one of the best-known myths.56 Maier explains that Jason was assisted by the sorceress Medea, who made four potions (pharmaca): 1) an unguent that protected his body from the dragon’s lethal fire and venom, as well as the fiery breath of the bulls; 2) a soporific narcotic to put the dragon to sleep so that he could steal the fleece; 3) a limpid water that extinguished the bull’s fire; and 4) a special image of the Sun and Moon, which he wore around his neck, for success in the work.57 In keeping with his insistence that true chymia concerns the Golden Medicine, Maier etymologically presents Jason’s name as a fitting example of nominative determinism: “for the name expresses healer, from Iasthai or healing; for Iasis is the art of healing.”58 Jason, like Hercules, was educated in healing by the centaur Chiron, from whom he gained manual experience, just as he gained the necessary advice and theory for the perfect completion of the work from Medea.59 Jason represents the “Medicus Philosophus,” while Medea represents “most outstanding assistance,” or reason.60 The Golden Medicine, like that prepared by Medea, included the powers of rejuvenation.61 Maier’s reading of myth was thus not only a source for examples of interactions between alchemical substances but also concerned the relationship between theory and practice. Again, Maier could cite alchemical authorities, such as Pseudo-Lull’s Testamentum (Testament), in support of his allegorical interpretations, for example “the Dragon, i.e. Fire, in which is our golden Stone, lives in all things.”62 Only someone blinder than a mole, Maier argues, would not see that these are all chymical fables.63

In the beginning of 1616 Maier returned to the continent, and the next few years were to see a flurry of publications. In 1616 he published De circulo physico quadrato, hoc est, auro eiusque virtute medicinali (On the natural circle squared, i.e., Gold and its medicinal virtue), closely followed by Lusus serius, quo Hermes sive Mercurius rex mundanorum Omnium, &c. judicatus & constitutus (A serious jest [or game], by which Hermes or Mercurius is judged and appointed king of all worldly things, &c.). Neither of these works was as intent on mytho-chymia as the Arcana arcanissima, but both include mythological references.64

The following year, in 1617, there appeared the Examen fucorum pseudo-chymicorum (Swarm of pseudo-chymical drones).65 There we find one or two mythological references — for example, one to Saturn throwing up a stone that he had previously swallowed thinking it was his rival Jupiter, and another to the golden apples of the Hesperides — although the focus of the work is a criticism of fraudulent alchemical practice, for which he borrows heavily from Heinrich Khunrath’s pseudonymous Treuhertzige Warnungs-Vermahnung (Sincere warning-admonition), appended to Vom hylealischen Chaos (On primaterial chaos; 1597).66 Published around the same time, the Jocus severus (A serious joke; 1617) is an allegorical account of a tribunal of birds set up to judge the Night Owl (Noctua), associated with the goddess of wisdom and for Maier a symbol of Chemia.67 Again there are brief references to myth, one from the mouth of the Swallow (Philomela), doubtless emboldened by the criticisms of Natale Conti, claiming that chymia is full of fables and that those of the poets concern hidden chymical matters rather than moral lessons.68

Then followed the Symbola aureae mensae (Symbols of the golden table; 1617), introducing a cosmopolitan lineage of alchemists from twelve different nations, ranging from the Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus in antiquity to the modern “Anonymous Pole,” Michael Sendivogius (1566–1636).69 Contrary to his treatment of the ancient gods, who are explained as fictions, Maier emphasizes that Hermes Trismegistus was most definitely not a “fictitious person” (personam fictitiam) but a most ancient Egyptian philosopher.70 In his discussion of Hermes, Maier returns to material discussed in Arcana arcanissima, including the myths of Apis, Osiris, Isis, and so forth as representatives of the Egyptian chymical gods; he references in particular the myth of the Golden Fleece, with Jason as the “physician with subtle stratagems” and Medea as “Counsel of Theoretical Reason.”71

While happy to discover chymical truth in pagan mythology, and indeed to go along with those, like Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447–1500), who find a Christian message in analogical readings of Hermetic works, Maier criticizes those who “most impiously and sacrilegiously” attempt alchemical readings of the “Creation of the world, nativity, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.”72 Another of Maier’s publications from the same year may help explain this stance. In 1617 Maier published his first apologia for the Rosicrucians, Silentium post clamores (Silence after the clamors), following the appearance of the three Rosicrucian manifestos Fama fraternitatis (Rumor of the brotherhood; 1614), Confessio fraternitatis R. C. (Confession of the brotherhood; 1615), and Chymische Hochzeit (Chemical wedding; 1616).

The Fama explicitly condemns “books and figures [that] have been brought out under the name of chymia, which are in Contumeliam gloriae Dei [an insult to God’s glory].”73 Similar sentiments are expressed in the Confessio: “we must earnestly admonish you, that you cast away, if not all, yet most of the worthless books of pseudo-chymists, to whom it is a game to apply the Most Holy Trinity to vain things, or a joke to deceive men with monstrous figures and enigmas.”74 The same point is driven home in the Chymische Hochzeit, when the pseudo-chymists are separated from true practitioners: “[Y]ou have forged false and spurious books, fooled and swindled others, thereby lowering the royal dignity in everyone’s eyes. You also know what blasphemous and seductive pictures you have used, sparing not even the Holy Trinity, but using it for the cozening of one and all.”75 While Maier was comfortable with making references to the chymical significance of the Egyptian gods or of Hercules and Jason, his admiration for the Rosicrucian message must have convinced him to avoid drawing analogies between the philosophers' stone and Christ.76 Perhaps, like the Catholics Marin Mersenne (1588–1648) and Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), he was concerned that such practices risked distorting scripture, “pass[ing] off the mysteries of our faith as natural things,” or making “alchemy the sole religion, the alchemist the sole religious person, and the tyrocinium of alchemy the sole catechism of the faith.”77

Atalanta fugiens (1618)

Later that same year appeared Maier’s best-known work, the Atalanta fugiens, which has been described as “the strangest, the most beautiful and the most innovative work of esoteric alchemy in the seventeenth century,” the “finest of all those curious works which typify Hermetic mythology,” with its idiosyncratic combination of the “textual” and “representational” traditions of mythology, fifty emblems with accompanying discourses, together with fifty musical fugues.78

The elaborate title page presents elements of the myth — found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Hyginus’s Fables — of the fleet-footed huntress Atalanta who could run faster than the East Wind and was only prepared to marry a man who could beat her in a foot race, slow suitors only being fit for target practice (fig. 2).79

The frontispiece, or first illustrated page, of Atalanta fugiens that contains a short introductory text surrounded by multiple scenes from the myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes. These include the Garden of the Hesperides, which includes Aegle, Arethusa, a many-headed dragon, understood as Ladon, and Hespertusa; Hercules stealing apples; Venus giving apples to Hippomenes; the race between Hippomenes and Atalanta; the consummation of their love; and their transformation into lions.
Figure 2

Atalanta was eventually bested by Hippomenes, who outran her by dropping three golden apples, given to him by Venus, in order to distract her from the contest. At the foot of the page we see the bridal race with Hippomenes running for his life (and wife) and clutching two of the golden apples, while Atalanta stoops to pick up the first. The author’s preface at the start of the work succinctly explains the basic alchemical significance of the myth: Atalanta has the volatile nature of quicksilver while Hippomenes has the fiery nature of sulfur.80 In medieval chrysopoeia or gold-making alchemy, these were the two ingredients necessary for the creation of gold and the philosophers’ stone. At bottom right, we see the happy couple consummating their union in the Temple of Cybele — code for the alchemical athanor or furnace — for which profanation they were punished by being turned into the lions that pulled the goddess’s chariot.81

image description

At the top of the page we see the source of the golden apples, the Garden of the Hesperides, maintained by the three nymphs Aegle, Arethusa, and Hespertusa. The apples are guarded by the dragon Ladon, child of Typhon and Echidna, who occupies the same position as his father did on the Arcana arcanissima title page.82 On the left of the title we see Hercules, in the very same spot as on the Arcana arcanissima title page, wearing the skin of the Nemean lion, picking some of the golden apples. On the right is the goddess Venus, giving Hippomenes the apples, together with a few tips on how to win the race.

Readers of Ovid would know that it is Venus who tells the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes to her lover Adonis in book ten of the Metamorphoses; in fact, Maier includes in Emblem 41 of Atalanta fugiens the sad image of Adonis gored to death by a wild boar and Venus’s blood staining roses red as she rushes to him (fig. 3).83

The second page of emblem 41 from Atalanta fugiens shows a motto and epigram in Latin and an image. In the image, a man in armor, identified as Adonis, is lying on the ground dying with a pike in hand. A woman in classical clothing, identified as Venus, is running through bushes towards the man. Behind them a man in armor is looking at a fleeing boar and dog.
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Close reading of the text and viewing of the images will reveal that Maier’s title page anticipates themes in the book. There are three emblems, for example, concerned with Venus (23, 38, 41), four with apples (9, 22, 35, 44), two with lions (16, 37), and so forth. In the following 210 pages, Maier runs through a great deal of the material already introduced in the 285-page Arcana arcanissima, but this time with the addition of fifty high-quality engravings by Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593–1650) and the accompanying canons or fugues.

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Maier opens the work with an image of Boreas the North Wind, familiar to readers from Metamorphoses 6.675–721, carrying a fetus in his belly, alluding to the line from the Tabula smaragdina “The Wind bore it in its belly” (fig. 4).84 In this way Maier cleverly creates an amalgam of classical mythological material and medieval and early modern alchemical matter. His openness to multiple levels of interpretation is evident from his commentary on this first image:
Chymically, it is Sulphur, which is carried in Argent vive . . . physically, it is an infant [foetus] . . . I say allso Arithmetically, that it is the root of a Cube; Musically, that it is the Disdiapason; Geometrically, that it is a punctum, the beginning of a running line; Astronomically, the center of the planets, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars.85

The second page of emblem 1 from Atalanta fugiens shows a motto and epigram in Latin and an image. In the image, a bearded nude man, identified as Boreas, with wind gusts extending from his head and arms, has a fetus inside his stomach. He is standing amongst bushes with a river and cityscape in the background.
Figure 4 add add Add to Collection

Here Maier is probably challenging readers to flesh out his observations. Some at least would have known that Boreas is the father of two of the Argonauts, hence a connection with the mythoalchemical fable par excellence, Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. The distinctly unnatural womb for the fetus, sulfur, would have caused some readers to think of the story of Dionysus, whose mother, Semele, perished in a blaze of divine fire. His father, Zeus, rescued the unborn child and sewed him into his thigh, where he remained in incubation until ready to be born.86

Not all of Maier’s emblems are mytho-chymical — indeed, many contain little or no mythical material — but some stand out as particularly relevant. Emblem 12 is based on the tale of Saturn swallowing his offspring and includes a consideration of alchemical color changes related to the myth.87 Emblem 14, with the dragon devouring its tail, includes references to dragons, the Golden Fleece, and the Garden of the Hesperides, plus equivalent discussion of dragon symbolism in alchemy from Pseudo-Lull and the most famous alchemical image sequence before the Atalanta fugiens, the Rosarium philosophorum.88 Emblem 19 uses the mythical figures Geryon, Medusa, Typhon, and Echidna as a springboard into a discussion of the interrelated nature of the four elements.89 Emblem 23, on the monstrous birth of Minerva from Jupiter’s head, refers to Hercules’s labor in the Augean stables as well as Jason’s quest for the fleece as symbols of the opus.90 Emblem 25 again features a dragon, with reference to the Golden Fleece and Maier’s notion that Jason is the “true physician” (verus medicus) and Medea “mind’s counsel” (mentis consilio).91 Emblem 35 introduces Triptolemus and Achilles, both of whom were strengthened by being dipped in or exposed to fire.92 In Emblem 41, on the death of Adonis, Maier explains that the wild boar is the “sharpest acid” (acetum acerrimum) that kills or dissolves philosophical gold.93 Arguably the most mytho-chymical image in Atalanta fugiens is Emblem 44, concerning the dismemberment and reconstitution of Osiris. The accompanying discourse is replete with mythical Decknamen (cover names) for substances, including a direct reference to Atalanta and Hippomenes.94

Maier’s interest in mythical themes continues, unabated, in subsequent works. Although the Tripus Aureus (Golden tripod; 1618) is his edition of others' alchemical works, including his translation of the English alchemist Thomas Norton’s Ordinall of Alchemy, it features mythical references to Apollo and Diana, for instance, in the pages of Basil Valentine’s Practica cum duodecim clavibus (Twelve keys). The title page of Viatorium, hoc est, de montibus planetarum septem seu metallorum (A travel-guide, that is, On the mountains of the seven planets or metals; 1618) features planetary deities as symbolic representations of the alchemical metals, with the authorial epigram comparing alchemists to Theseus lost in Minos’s labyrinth and in need of Ariadne’s thread, with the explanation that the Minotaur at the center represents the “materia philosophica.”95 Maier returns to familiar mythemes, including the Golden Fleece and the apples of the Hesperides, tricorporeal Geryon, Typhon as Python, and Hercules’s fight with the Nemean lion.96 The same can be said for Maier’s second Rosicrucian apology, the Themis aurea (Golden Themis; 1618), where he refers to the “most industrious Artifex and most skilled Philosopher, Hercules,” to Osiris and Dionysus as “Chymical subjects,” and to Ulysses as the “wandering artifex.”97

In Verum inventum, hoc est, munera Germaniae (The true discovery, or, The gifts of Germany; 1619), Maier briefly returns to Natale Conti’s Mythologiae in a discussion of Typhon as a fire-breathing serpent (flammivomus serpens), Pluto, and “infernal Cerberus” (Cerberi infernalis). Elsewhere he mentions Pallas’s aegis bearing the head of Medusa; Pegasus, who sprang from the gorgon’s blood; the Chimera; and the nemeses of the two monsters, Perseus and Bellerophon; as well as Atalanta, Hippomenes, and the golden apples.98 Maier had already discussed the mythical phoenix in Arcana arcanissima and Lusus serius. He returns to the theme in Tractatus de volucri arborea (Treatise on the arboreal bird; 1619), together with references to Osiris and Typhon, the labors of Hercules, the wanderings of Ulysses, Jason’s perils, Theseus’s deeds, golden apples, the flight of Atalanta, and Dionysus as philosophical fetus.99 In Septimana philosophica (A philosophical week; 1620), he asks whether the herb moly, which Mercury gave Ulysses to protect himself against the potions of Circe, has any chymical properties, together with considerations of the Nemean lion, the trees of the Hesperides, and the chymical symbolism of the ibis, dragons, and serpents.100 Maier’s “poetic swan-song,” the Cantilenae intellectuales (Intellectual songs; 1622), proposes an interpretation of the three apples that Hippomenes threw in front of Atalanta.101 The posthumously published Ulysses (1624) continues in the same vein, with references to the nymphs in the garden of the Hesperides, tales of the gods, and the fable of the Golden Fleece, all as “arcana Chymica,” and to Minerva’s birth from Jupiter’s head as the “science of sciences,” chymia.102

Michael Maier and Mytho-Chymia

Michael Maier is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the story of mythoalchemy, both for the extensive and systematic approach to alchemical exegesis of Egyptian and Greek mythology in Arcana arcanissima and for the somewhat more episodic and erratic approach in Atalanta fugiens, where nuggets suddenly appear in the text to entertain and beguile the reader, like the fabled apples dropped to distract Atalanta. Although others before him had drawn inspiration from ancient myth in the course of their reflections on alchemical symbolism, it was Maier, physician, chemist, composer, and poet laureate, who had the mixed skillset and courtly background to initiate a multimedia work like the Atalanta fugiens. Mythology was enjoying a vibrant cultural life in the early Baroque courts. Claudio Monteverdi and Alessandro Striggio’s opera Orfeo, for instance, had its first performance before the court of Mantua in 1607.103 Drawing from experience of both the mythological aesthetic of Rudolf II’s impressive art collection in Prague — in particular the Mannerist works of Bartholomäus Spranger (1546–1611), Hans von Aachen (1552–1615), and Adriaen de Vries (1545–1626) — and then the alchemical masques at the court of James I in London, where he surely discovered many of the fugues that were to grace the Atalanta fugiens, Maier was ideally suited for a project designed to appeal on a multitude of levels to a cultured, educated courtly audience.104

Maier continued to display an interest in the relations between mythology and alchemy in almost all of his subsequent publications. Sometimes this interest manifests as an imaginative alchemical interpretation of pagan myth, sometimes as the importation of mythological discourse in order to make alchemical symbolism more accessible (and more palatable) to a humanist-trained readership. As a Rosicrucian apologist, Maier must have been aware of the low status of gold-making alchemy in the eyes of the authors of the manifestos and, as mentioned above, familiar with their condemnations of chymical works that transgress the boundaries of religion. Maier’s own criticism of authors who draw parallels between the passion of Christ and the preparation of the Stone doubtless reflects this sentiment, and perhaps his focus on pagan mythology serves as a deflection from alchemy being identified as blasphemy and an assertion of its cultural relevance. As Didier Kahn states, rooting alchemy in mythology is also a particularly useful strategy for extending knowledge of alchemy far back into the past, as something that predated classical authorities like Aristotle and Galen, thereby emphasizing its hoariness, its venerability.105

I would disagree with H. J. Sheppard’s claim that the time of Maier’s publications, when “alchemy produced its finest examples of pictorial symbolism,” necessarily coincided with “the negation of the material properties of alchemy” and “removed alchemy from the hands of the goldmaker.”106 As Hereward Tilton points out, gold-making may not have been the main goal of Maier’s practice, which was more concerned with the use of gold as aurum potabile (drinkable gold) in chemical medicine, but it was nevertheless part of his training and repertoire; indeed, many of the quotes in Atalanta fugiens have their sources in medieval chrysopoetic literature.107 Likewise, the rather simplistic tendency to relegate visual forms of alchemy to a form of “spiritual quest” should also be reconsidered.108 The multiple levels of exegesis (chymical, physical, arithmetical, musical, geometrical, and astronomical) suggested by Maier in his discussion of Emblem 1 avoid any suggestion that Atalanta fugiens or its mytho-chymical content should be construed as a “spiritual” work. What they do, instead, is insert chymical knowledge at the head of a list of predominantly liberal arts, an emphatic assertion of its intellectual worth. Given the variable and contesting interpretations of alchemical texts, terms, and images in general, it should not be expected that there was ever any agreement on alchemical interpretations of myth. Mythology was coopted to support alchemists’ individual theories, be they chrysopoetic, chymiatric, or phlogistic.109

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries certainly saw the publication of numerous works whose titles contain references to mythical figures; some, like Pierre-Jean Fabre’s Hercules Piochymicus (Devoutly chymical Hercules; 1634), claimed to reveal alchemical and Christian secrets in Hercules’s labors, while others, like Aureum vellus (Golden Fleece; 1733) by Ehrd von Naxagoras (Johann Erhard Neithold), discuss various renditions of the tale of the Golden Fleece.110 Many, however, display no interest in mythoalchemical reflection or speculation, as, for instance, David de Planis Campy’s L’Hydre morbifique exterminée par l’Hercule chimique (The morbific Hydra exterminated by the chymical Hercules; 1628), Johann Baptista Grosschedel’s Proteus Mercurialis geminus (Twofold mercurial Proteus; 1629), Christoph Reibehand’s Filum Ariadnes (Ariadne’s thread; 1639), Johannes Baptista Marengus’s Palladis chymicae arcana detecta (The secrets of chymical Pallas revealed; 1678), or Johann Joachim Becher’s Oedipus chymicus (Chymical Oedipus; 1680).111 The best-known author undeniably indebted to Maier must be Dom Antoine-Joseph Pernety (1716–1796), who plagiarized Arcana arcanissima in his Fables égyptiennes et grecques dévoilées (Egyptian and Greek fables unveiled; 1758).112

Although Maier complains about the expenses he incurred in his publications, Atalanta fugiens apparently enjoyed some success, for it was reprinted in 1618, and reappeared in modified form, without the fugues, later in the century as the Scrutinium chymicum (Chymical investigation) in 1687.113 His highly creative combination of alchemy, music, and myth continues to inspire artists, musicians, psychotherapists, and at least some historians to this day.


  • Figure 1
    Michael Maier, title page, Arcana arcanissima (1614).
  • Figure 2
    Frontispiece, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 3
    Emblem 41, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 4
    Emblem 1, Atalanta fugiens.

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Forshaw, Peter J. “Michael Maier and Mythoalchemy.” Furnace and Fugue: A Digital Edition of Michael Maier’s “Atalanta fugiens” (1618) with Scholarly Commentary. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020.

Author Biography

Peter J. Forshaw is Associate Professor of History of Western Esotericism in the Early Modern Period at the University of Amsterdam's Center for the History of Hermetic Philosophy, where he specializes in the intellectual and cultural history of occult philosophy (in particular alchemy, magic, and Christian cabala) and its relation to religion, science, and medicine. He is also Head of the Ritman Research Institute, Amsterdam, and editor-in-chief of Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism.

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