[Occult - Alchemy] [Mysticism - Hermeticism] [Emblem Books]


[Atalanta fugiens]
Secretioris naturae secretorum scrutinium chymicum

Frankfurt: Johann Philipp Andreae for Georg Heinrich Oehrling, 1687.

$5,500   INQUIRE


Maier's Atalanta fugiens is "A BOOK OF EMBLEMS IN WHICH SPIRITUAL ALCHEMY REACHED A HIGH POINT OF ARTISTIC EXPRESSION." (Frances Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, pp. 981)

Widely regarded as "the deepest of the Rosicrucians" (Yates), Michael Maier (1568 - 1622) was a celebrated German alchemist, physician and a counsellor to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II Habsburg at Prague, and had a strong influence on Sir Isaac Newton.

Maier "gives brilliant expression to the themes of spiritual alchemy." (Yates)

"The Atalanta Fugiens is generally regarded as Maier's rarest work and it is also the most sought after, for the splendid engravings which belong to the finest samples of Hermetical illustration." (Duveen)

This celebrated alchemical emblem book comprises 50 finely detailed half-page engravings by Merian, each accompanied with a Latin verse epigram and a prose discourse. In the 1st edition printed in 1617, each emblem was also accompanied with a musical fugue or canon, which have been omitted in this 2nd Edition.

The fifty splendid engraved illustrations are by Matthäus Merian (1593 - 1650), the notable Swiss artist and engraver, known for presenting the mysterious allegories of the alchemical process in an elegant and detailed manner. Merian was Johann Theodor de Bry's son-in-law, and, upon his death in 1623, succeeded him at the head of the De Bry firm.

In this fascinating book he "retells the legend of Atalanta in alchemical terms. Atalanta, the fleet-footed princess who will only marry the man who can out-run her, represents Mercury; her suitor, the cunning Hippomenes, is Sulphur. The golden apples of the Hesperides, which Hippomenes drops in Atalanta's path, delaying her sufficiently to enable him to win the race and her hand, symbolize Salt, the principle of love, or balance, which brings about synthesis." (C. Eijkelboom, Alchemical Music of Michael Maier, in Z. Von Martels (ed.), Alchemy Revisited, p.98)

"One of the most famous authors of [alchemical emblem books] was Michael Maier (1568 - 1622). His lavish Atalanta fugiens ("Atalanta Fleeing") contains fifty beautiful engravings by the famous Swiss engraver Matthaeus Merian the Elder (1593 - 1650), and is the source for many of the alchemical images most commonly reproduced today. In contrast to Basil Valentine's organized sequence of "keys" that expound a single text and encode a single process, Maier's Atalanta fugiens is a florilegium of images. It collects imagery and expressions from an array of earlier authors - Hermes, Morienus, Valentine, and others - and assembles them into one of the most intricate and rich layerings of meaning to be found in chymistry. Even though Maier probably did perform some laboratory work, his Atalanta fugiens lies much further from the world of laboratory practice than do the books of Valentine or George Starkey. (Some readers, including Sir Isaac Newton, nevertheless mined it for practical information about making the Philosophers' Stone.)

"Each of the book's fifty chapters consists of five parts: a motto, an emblematic image, a six-line epigram [...], two pages of prose narrative and [in the 1st Edition] a piece of music arranged for three voices. [...] Although the original sources of the imagery lie in earlier texts, Maier augments them with further connections, allusions, and meanings of his own. The epigrams are so intricate that it seems unlikely that any one reader would ever "get" all the references, allusions, connections and puns." (Lawrence Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy, p.174)

"The strange publications of Michael Maier [...] are throughout characterized by Hermetic mysticism expressed in terms of Hermetic or 'Egyptian' interpretation of fable and myth, as containing hidden alchemic and 'Egyptian' meanings, combined with an idiosyncratic use of alchemical symbolism. The Atalanta fugiens is the finest product of this outlook, and suggestive of a highly educated and sophisticated background in which alchemy is being used as a symbol of a religious and intellectual movement of uncommon importance and interest." (ibid., p. 70, 121)

Michael Maier was born in Rendsburg, Holstein, in 1568. He studied philosophy and medicine at Rostock, Frankfurt (M.A. 1592), and Padua. He attained in 1596 a doctorate in medicine at Basel, and returned to Rostock to practice the medical profession. Around 1601 he became interested in alchemy. In 1608 he went to Prague, and in 1609 became the physician and imperial counsellor of Rudolf II. The interest of the emperor in the occult was the reason of his high esteem for Maier. Maier also served other German princes, particularly the prince of Nassau, a great protector of alchemy. In 1611-6 he spent time in England at the court of James I.

Maier had a strong influence on Sir Isaac Newton. He was also involved in the Rosicrucian movement. "Count Michael Maier (...) was an outstanding figure in the Rosicrucian controversy. There is little doubt that he was an initiated member of the Rosicrucian Fraternity, empowered by the Order to promulgate its secrets among the philosophic elect of Europe. [...] He was profuse in his use of emblems and the greater part of his philosophical lore is concealed in the engravings which illustrate his books." (Manly P. Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, p.141)

Physical description:

Quarto, textblock measures 193 mm x 152 mm; bound in contemporary (late 17th-century) vellum, flat spine decorated in gilt with floral ornaments and gilt-stamped title.

Pagination: [8], 150 pp. Signatures: π4 A-T4 [-T4 blank].
COMPLETE, including the half-title π1 (bound without the final blank, as usual).

Fifty splendid half-page allegorical engravings by M. Merian; woodcut head- and end-pieces; one large woodcut initial. Prose text in roman letter; verse epigrams in italic. Includes Preface to the Reader (leaves π3r-4v).


Good antiquarian condition. Complete. Vellum binding rubbed, with some edge-wear, a few minor chips, neat repairs to front joint and top of spine; front cover with a small ink-stain at bottom, owner's signature and an alchemical drawing in ink. First 7 leaves with light fraying to edges (and a few harmless short marginal tears). Small marginal burn-hole at the very tip of bottom corner of six leaves (K4-M1) without any loss to text or engravings. A small hole to leaf T2 affecting the head of the serpent on the last engraving (emblem L) on verso and three letters (with no loss of sense) on recto. Light marginal stain near top edge to a few leaves at the end (text and engravings not affected). Early ink 'pointing hands' to outer margin of leaves B1r and P3r (the latter with a manuscript alchemical note); a few harmless underlinings in same early hand. A few minor marginal repairs (text and engravings not affected). Occasional light spotting. some marginal soiling. Generally clean, wide-margined example with fine impression of its striking engravings.


D. Siscara, an identified late 17th or early 18th-century Italian owner (name gilt-stamped on front cover).

Meredith Read: ink signature to top of front cover (and an alchemical drawing on front cover apparently in the same hand), top of half-title (in Latin); name-stamp 'Meredith Read 3rd/ Armiger/ 1897' to front free endpaper; oval armorial stamp "Collection of Meredith Read 3d" to bottom of half-title, blank verso of half-title and bottom margin of last page (p.150). This is, apparently, John Meredith Read (b.1869) of Albany, NY, son of General John Meredith. He was a freemason, and a member of the Historical Societies of New York and Pennsylvania. He is known to have lived in Rome ca. 1900 (there in 1900 he married Countess Alix de Foras) where he probably bought this book.

Bibliographical note in English in an early hand to top of the blank verso of half-title.

Bibliographic references:

Duveen, p.384; Ferguson II, 64; Landwehr, German 412; Praz 410; Cicognara 1914; Faber du Faur 676.

Please click on thumbnails below to see larger images.