10 Absolutely Bizarre Books And Their Histories

8.  The Ripley Scroll

The Ripley Scroll is an English alchemical text that’s extremely occultist and obscurantist, hidden in its meaning and riddled with mysteries. The work is attributed to an Englishman named George Ripley, who lived from roughly 1415 to 1490. Its content is painfully elusive to grasp, and its age and obscurity only help to make it more difficult to understand. Most medieval works read like tales from another world, and this alchemical, occultist work is even more remote than the usual stuff of the day. Its delivery is almost something out of the Bible’s Book of Revelation, with confusing and cryptic lines. The book often references occultist symbolism in delivering concise yet indecipherable statements such as:

You must make Water of the Earth, and Earth of the Air, and Air of the Fire, and Fire of the Earth. The Black Sea. The Black Luna. The Black Sol.

. . . and

On the ground there is a hill
Also a serpent within a well
His tail is long with wings wide
All ready to flee by every side
Repair the well fast about
That thy serpent pass not out
For if that he be there a gone
Thou lose the virtue of the stone
Where is the ground you must know here
And the well that is so clear
And what is the dragon with the tail
Or else the work shall little avail

The goal, on the surface, seems to be to explain the inner workings of alchemy, the quest to transmute base metals into gold, or so most laypersons have thought. But alchemy is still largely hidden in obscurity. Take, for example, the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, an unknown substance thought to be able to transform base metals into precious metals but also thought to be the “elixir of life,” which was believed to have all sorts of healing properties. Beyond this, the deeper, more Hermetic meaning of alchemy was the process of attempting to discover this substance, which was meant to purify the soul of the alchemist.

This is why the Ripley Scroll and many other alchemical works are so very dismally dense, almost surrealist works of literature, with intentions hidden in metaphor, abstraction, poeticism, and symobolism. Further adding to the confusion in understanding this work is the fact that it’s written in 15th-century Middle English poetics, much like the Chaucerian English of The Canterbury Tales, complete with rhyme, and thus emphasis was placed more strongly on imagery and poetics than clarity. This work is a delightful medieval mystery, and various formats, from the original to modern renditions, are available to be read online.

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