The Forge and the Crucible:The Original and Structures of Alchemy / Edition 2

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Primitive man's discovery of the ability to change matter from one state to another brought about a profound change in spiritual behavior. In The Forge and the Crucible, Mircea Eliade follows the ritualistic adventures of these ancient societies, adventures rooted in the people's awareness of an awesome new power.

The new edition of The Forge and the Crucible contains an updated appendix, in which Eliade lists works on Chinese alchemy published in the past few years. He also discusses the importance of alchemy in Newton's scientific evolution.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226203904
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/1979
  • Edition description: 2
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 238
  • Sales rank: 413,505
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) was the Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School and professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His books published by the University of Chicago Press include Autobiography, Volume II; the novel The Old Man and the Bureaucrats; the three-volume History of Religious Ideas; Ordeal by Labyrinth; and several other works on the history of religions.

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The Forge and the Crucible

By Mircea Eliade, Stephen Corrin

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1978 Mircea Eliade
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-20390-4


Meteorites and Metallurgy

It was inevitable that meteorites should inspire awe. They came from some remote region high up in the heavens and possessed a sacred quality enjoyed only by things celestial. In certain cultures there was a time when men thought the sky was made of stone, and even today the Australian aborigines believe the vault of heaven to be made of rock crystal and the throne of the heavenly deity of quartz. Rock crystals, supposedly broken away from the heavenly throne, do in fact play a special role in the shamanic initiation ceremonies of the Australian aborigines, among the Negritos of Malacca, in North America, and elsewhere. These 'stones of light', as they are called by the maritime Dyaks of Sarawak, reflect everything that happens on earth. They disclose to the shaman what has taken place in the sick man's soul and the destination to which his soul takes flight. There is no need to remind the reader that the shaman is he who 'sees', because he is endowed with a supernatural vision. He sees just as far into space as into time. Likewise he can perceive what is invisible to the layman—spirits, gods, the soul. When he is being initiated the future shaman is fed with crystals of quartz. In other words, his capacity as a visionary, as well as his 'science', comes to him, at least in part, from a mystic solidarity with heaven.

We shall do well to bear in mind the early religious significance attaching to aeroliths. They fall to earth charged with celestial sanctity; in a way, they represent heaven. This would suggest why so many meteorites were worshipped or identified with a deity. The faithful saw in them the 'first form', the immediate manifestation of the godhead. The Palladium of Troy was supposed to have dropped from heaven, and ancient writers saw it as the statue of the goddess Athena. A celestial origin was also accorded to the statue of Artemis at Ephesus and to the cone of Heliogabalus at Emesus (Herodian, v, 3, 5). The meteorite at Pessinus in Phrygia was venerated as the image of Cybele and, following an injunction by the Delphic Oracle, it was transported to Rome shortly after the Second Punic War. A block of hard stone, the most ancient representation of Eros, stood side by side with Praxiteles' sculptured image of the god (Pausanias, ix, 27, i). Other examples could easily be found, the most famous being theKa'aba in Mecca. It is noteworthy that a certain number of meteorites are associated with goddesses, especially fertility goddesses such as Cybele. And here we come up against a transference of sanctity: the celestial origin is forgotten, to the advantage of the religious notion of the petra genitrix. We shall deal later with this motif of the fertility of stones.

But the heavenly, and hence masculine, essence of the meteorites is none the less beyond dispute, for certain silex and neolithic tools were subsequently given names like 'thunderstones', 'thunderbolt teeth' or 'God's axes'. The sites where they were found were thought to have been struck by a thunderbolt, which is the weapon of the God of Heaven. When this God was ousted by the God of Storms, the thunderbolt became the sign of the sacred union between the God of the Hurricane and the Goddess Earth. This may account for the large number of double-axes discovered in this period in the clefts and caves of Crete. These axes, like the thunderbolt and the meteorites, 'cleaved' the earth; they symbolized, in other words, the union between heaven and earth. Delphi, most famous of the clefts of ancient Greece, owed its name to this mythical image; 'delphi' signifies in fact the female generative organ. As will be seen later, many other symbols and appellations liken the earth to a woman. But this analogy served as a kind of archetypal model in which priority was given to the cosmos. Plato reminds us (Menex., 238A), that in the matter of conception it is the woman who imitates the earth and not the earth woman.

Primitive peoples worked with meteoric iron for a long time before learning how to use ferrous ores. It is known, moreover, that prehistoric peoples, before the discovery of smelting, treated certain ores as though they were stones, that is, they looked upon them as raw materials for the making of stone tools. A similar technique was applied until recently by certain peoples having no knowledge of metallurgy; they worked the meteorite with silex hammers and fashioned objects whose shape resembled, in all respects, their stone models. This was how the Greenland Eskimos made their knives out of meteoric iron. When Cortez enquired of the Aztec chiefs whence they obtained their knives they simply pointed to the sky. Like the Mayas of Yucatan and the Incas of Peru, the Aztecs used only meteoric iron, which they rated higher than gold. They knew nothing about the smelting of ores. Archaeologists have found no trace of iron in the prehistoric deposits of the New World. Metallurgy as such, in Central and South America, is probably Asiatic in origin. Most recent researches tend to relate it to the south Chinese culture of the Chou epoch (middle and late eighth to fourth centuries B.C.). That would make it more or less of Danubian origin, for it was Danubian metallurgy which, in the ninth to eighth centuries B.C., arrived via the Caucasus in China.

The peoples of the ancient Orient in all probability shared similar ideas. The Sumerian word AN.BAR, the oldest word designating iron, is made up of the pictograms 'sky' and 'fire'. It is usually translated 'celestial metal' or 'star-metal'. Campbell Thompson renders it as 'celestial lightening (of meteorite)'. The etymology of the other Mesopotamian name for iron, the Assyrian parzillu, is a matter of controversy. Some scholars derive it from the Sumerian BAR.GAL, 'great metal' (e.g. Persson, p. 113), but most of them suppose it to have an Asiatic origin because of the ending -ill. (Forbes, p. 465. Bork and Goertz have suggested a Caucasian origin, see Forbes, ibid.)

We shall not deal with the very complex problem of the metallurgy of ancient Egypt. For a long time meteoric iron was the only kind known to the Egyptians. Iron deposits do not appear to have been made use of till the eighteenth dynasty and the New Empire (Forbes, p. 429). It is true that articles made of telluric iron have been found between the blocks of the Great Pyramid (2900 B.C.) and in a sixth-century pyramid at Abydos, though the Egyptian origin of these articles has not been fully established. The term '', 'iron from heaven', or, more exactly, 'metal from heaven', clearly points to their meteorite origin. It is possible, however, that the term was first applied to copper (cf. Forbes, p. 428). We find the same situation with the Hittites: a fourteenth-century text declares that the Hittite kings used 'black iron from the sky' (Rickard, Man and Metals, I, p. 149). Meteoric iron was known in Crete from the Minoan era (2000 B.C.) and iron objects have been found in the tombs at Knossos. The 'celestial' origin of iron is perhaps attested by the Greek sideros, which has been related to sidus,-eris, meaning 'star', and the Lithuanian svidu, 'to shine', and svideti, 'shining'.

The use of meteorites was not, however, calculated to promote an Iron Age proper. While it lasted the metal remained rare (it was as precious as gold), and its use was more or less ritualistic. Before a new landmark in his evolution could be inaugurated with the Age of Metals, man had to await the discovery of smelting. This is especially true of iron. Unlike copper and bronze, the metallurgy of iron very soon became industrialized. Once the secret of smelting magnetite or hematite was learnt (or discovered) there was no difficulty in procuring large quantities of metal because deposits were rich and easy to exploit. But the handling of telluric ores differed from that of meteoric iron as it did also from the smelting of copper and bronze. It was not until after the discovery of furnaces, and particularly after the perfecting of the technique of the hardening of metal brought to white heat, that iron achieved its dominant position. The beginnings of this metallurgy on an industrial scale can be fixed at a period between 1200–1000 B.C. in the mountains of Armenia. From there the secret of smelting spread across the Near East, the Mediterranean and central Europe, although, as we have just noted, iron, whether of meteorite origin or from superficial deposits, was known in the third millennium in Mesopotamia (Tell Asmar, Tell Chagar Bazar, Mari), in Asia Minor (Alaca Huyuk) and probably also in Egypt (Forbes, pp. 417). Until fairly late, ironwork was faithfully modelled on Bronze Age styles (just as the Bronze Age at first continued the stylistic morphology of the Stone Age). Iron appears in the form of ornaments, amulets and statuettes. For long it retained a sacred value which still survives among many primitive peoples.

It is not our concern to deal with the various phases of ancient metallurgy nor to demonstrate its influence through the course of history. Our purpose is solely to reveal the symbolisms and magico-religious complexes which became a reality during the Metal Age, especially after the industrial triumph of iron. For the Iron Age, before it became a factor in the military and political history of humanity, gave rise to spiritual creations. As is often the case, the image, the symbol and the rite anticipate—sometimes even make possible—the practical applications of a discovery. Before providing a means of transport, the chariot was the vehicle of ritual processions; it was used to parade the symbol of the sun or the image of the solar god. Besides, the 'discovery' of the chariot only became feasible when the symbolism of the solar wheel was understood. Before changing the face of the world the Iron Age engendered a large number of rites, myths and symbols which have reverberated throughout the spiritual history of humanity. It is only after the industrial success of iron that it is proper to speak of the metallurgical age of man. The discovery and subsequent progress of iron smelting gave a new significance to traditional metallurgical techniques. It was the metallurgy of telluric iron which rendered this metal fit for everyday use.

This fact had important consequences. In addition to the inherent celestial sanctity of meteorites, we now have a terrestrial holiness shared by mines and ores. The metallurgy of iron naturally profited from the technical discoveries in the metallurgy of copper and bronze. It is known that from the time of the Neolithic Age (sixth–fifth millennia), man had made sporadic use of the copper which he could find near the earth's surface, but he handled it as though it were stone or bone, being as yet ignorant of the specific properties of the metal. Not until later did the application of heat to copper become a known technique, and copper-smelting proper dates only from about 4000 to 3500 B.C. (Al Ubeid and Uruk periods). Even so, one cannot speak of an Age of Copper, for only minute quantities of the metal were produced.

The belated appearance of iron, followed by its industrial triumph, had a tremendous influence on the rites and symbols of metallurgy. A whole series of taboos and magical uses of iron are due to this victory and to the fact that it superseded bronze and copper, which were representative of other 'ages' and other mythologies. The smith is first and foremost a worker in iron, and his nomadic condition—for he is constantly on the move in his quest for raw metal and for orders for work—puts him in touch with differing populations. The smith becomes the principal agent in this spread of myths, rites and metallurgical mysteries. This ensemble of facts introduces us to a vast new mental world, and it is this 'spiritual' universe which we propose to present to the readers in the pages that follow.

It would be difficult and perhaps ill-advised to begin by taking a comprehensive view of this historical process. It would be more satisfactory to approach this new metallurgical world by easy stages. We shall encounter a certain number of rites and mysteries bound up with magico-religious conceptions which are sometimes part and parcel of one another, sometimes run parallel but which at times are even antagonistic. We shall try to list them briefly so as to have a view of the main outline of our enquiry. We shall present a series of documents concerning the ritual function of the smithy, the ambivalent character of the smith and the links existing between the 'magical' mastery of fire, the smith and the secret societies. On the other hand, when we come to consider mining and metallurgy, we find ourselves confronted with specific concepts relating to the earth as mother, to the sexualization of the mineral world and its tools, and to the interrelationship of metallurgy, gynaecology and obstetrics. We shall start by explaining certain of these concepts in order the better to understand the world of the metallurgist and the smith. We shall discover, bound up with the myths on the origin of metals, mythico-ritual complexes embracing the notion of genesis by means of the sacrifice or self-sacrifice of a god; the connections between the agricultural mystique, metallurgy and alchemy; and, finally, the ideas of natural growth, forced growth and 'perfection'. Following upon this we shall be in a position to estimate the importance of these ideas in the establishment of alchemy.


Mythology of the Iron Age

We shall not dwell at length on the supposedly sacred quality of iron. Whether it had fallen from the heavenly vault or been extracted from the bowels of the earth, it was still considered to be charged with sacred power. Even among populations with a high level of culture we still find this attitude of awe and reverence towards the metal. It is not very long since the kings of Malaya kept a sacred block of iron which was part of their regalia and surrounded it with an extraordinary veneration mingled with a superstitious terror. By the primitives, ignorant of metal-work, iron tools were venerated even more. The Bhil, a primitive people of India, used to offer their first fruits to the points of arrows obtained from neighbouring tribes. It was not a question of fetishism or of the worship of an object in itself or for its own sake; it was not a matter of superstition but a sacred respect for a strange object outside their own familiar world, an object coming from elsewhere and hence a sign or token of the 'beyond', a near-image of the transcendental. This is evident in cultures which have long been familiar with telluric (i.e. non-celestial) iron, but the legendary memory of the 'heavenly metal' still persists as does the belief in its occult marvels. The Bedouins of Sinai are convinced that the man who is successful in making a sword of meteoric iron becomes invulnerable in battle and assured of overcoming all his opponents. The celestial metal is foreign to the earth, hence it is 'transcendent'; it comes from 'up above'. That is why to the contemporary Arab iron is in the nature of a marvel; it can perform miracles. This may well be the consequence of a memory heavily weighted with myth and deriving from an epoch when man used only meteoric iron. Here, too, we are in the presence of an image of the transcendental, for myths preserve the memory of that legendary era when there were men endowed with extraordinary powers, almost demi-gods. There is a hiatus between these mythical times (illud tempus) and historical times proper—and every hiatus of this sort indicates, in the sphere of traditional spirituality, a transcendence which disappeared with the 'fall'.

Iron still retains its extraordinary magico-religious prestige even among peoples which have a fairly advanced and complex history. Pliny wrote that iron is effective against noxia medicamenta and also adversus nocturnas limphationes (Nat. Hist., XXXIV, 44). Similar beliefs are to be found in Turkey, Persia, India, among the Dayaks and others. In 1907 J. Goldziher was already accumulating a mass of documents concerning the use of iron for warding off demons. Twenty years later Seligman had increased the number of references tenfold. The dossier on the subject is in fact practically limitless. It is the knife, more than anything else, that carries out the job of keeping away demons. In north-east Europe articles of iron protect crops not only against the vagaries of the weather but also against spells and the evil eye. The prestige of the youngest of metals—the last in the Metal Ages—survives in a wealth of myth covering customs, taboos and superstitions, largely unexplored. But, like the smiths, iron retains its ambivalent character, for it can also embody the spirit of the devil. The idea vaguely persists that iron has been doubly victorious: victorious through civilization (through agriculture) and victorious through war. The military triumph will sometimes be the counterpart of a demoniac triumph. To the Wa Chagga, iron contains in itself a magic force which is the enemy of life and of peace.


Excerpted from The Forge and the Crucible by Mircea Eliade, Stephen Corrin. Copyright © 1978 Mircea Eliade. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface to the Phoenix Edition
1. Meteorites and Metallurgy
2. Mythology of the Iron Age
3. The World Sexualized
4. Terra Mater. Petra Genitrix
5. Rites and Mysteries in Metallurgy
6. Human Sacrifices to the Furnace
7. Babylonian Symbolisms and Metallurgical Rituals
8. 'Masters of Fire'
9. Divine Smiths and Civilizing Heroes
10. Smiths, Warriors, Masters of Initiation
11. Chinese Alchemy
12. Indian Alchemy
13. Alchemy and Initiation
14. Arcana Artis
15. Alchemy and Temporality

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