12to [13 x 7 cm], (8) ff. including engraved frontispiece and one plate, 202 pp, (4) ff. index. Bound in contemporary calf, worn; interior excellent.
First edition (? see below) of Becher’s popular alchemical handbook, which “rapidly became a standard text on elements, principles, and chemical processes” (DSB II.550) containing an engraved representation of the Prague Medal as well as a title engraving of the chemist with allegorical figures.
“Becher’s views on chemistry have much in common with standard 17th-century Paracelsian and Helmontian treatments of the subject....[I]n the Oedipus Chimicus Becher suggested that sulfur was analogous to earth, and salt to water, while earth and water, in more subtle form, were mercurial in nature… As with all theoretical iatrochemists, the problem of the elements was a basic one for Becher. He had little respect for the four Aristotelian elements as they were commonly taught, and he felt that the efforts of Helmont and Boyle to show the elemental nature of water through the growth of vegetable substances were little better… [He] argued that observations show that the philosophical attributes of the Paracelsian triad have little in common with ordinary salt, sulfur, and mercury, so they could not really be principles. .. Nevertheless in the Oedipus Chimicus Becher suggested that sulfur was analogous to earth, and salt to water, while earth and water, in more subtle form, were mercurial in nature.” – DSB II.549
Although Johann Joachim Becher (1635-82) began his career as an iatrochemist and has been called ‘the father of the phlogiston theory’, he is primarily remembered for his works on alchemy. He also wrote on economic theory, extending his fixation with gold to the realm of national economics. He served as court advisor to Ferdinand Maria, elector of Bavaria, at which time he argued that governments should strictly control the flow of goods and money, and that colonies should make up deficits with raw materials—chiefly with gold. He was one of the first theorists of Mercantilism. He was run out of Munich for his radical ideas, but was later appointed imperial commercial counselor—and alchemical advisor—to Emperor Leopold I.
According to Duveen, bibliographers dispute whether the present Amsterdam edition or a Frankfurt edition of the same year deserve priority. Duveen takes the Frankfurt edition to be first issue but does not explain his reasoning. German translations appeared under the title Oedipus Chymicus oder Chymischer Rätseldeuter (Frankfurt, 1680, 1690). Separately reissued in Latin at least twice (1705, 1716), the work appeared in collected editions of Becher’s work and was included in J.J. Manget’s Bibliotheca chemica curiosa I (Geneva, 1702) and F. Roth-Scholtz’s Deutsches theatrum chemicum II (Nuremberg, 1728).
The engraved title shows the interior of an alchemist’s laboratory with a winged mercury standing next to the seated scientist. Seen through an open door is a grotesque rendition of Oedipus with the sphinx, with a second human-headed bird-like creature – perhaps Icarus – flying overhead. The title of the Frankfurt edition of the same year has a cruder version of this Oedipus and sphinx The second plate depicts the alchemical medal in commemoration of the divina metamorphosis which Emperor Ferdinand III witnessed in Prague on January 15, 1648.
* Duveen p. 55; Ferguson I.87; Krivatsy 982; Partington II.637-52; DSB I.548-5