In memoriam: Joachim Telle (1939-2013)

Martin Mulsow and Joachim Telle (right) convened the research workshop on alchemy at the Forschungsbibliothek Gotha. Barely visible on the far left, there is a laptop screen behind which I was furiously typing away to transcribe relevant passages out of Kriegsmann's works. (Thüringischer Landesanzeiger, 14 September 2012.)

Martin Mulsow and Joachim Telle (right) convened the research workshop on alchemy at the Forschungsbibliothek Gotha. Barely visible on the far left, there is a laptop screen behind which I was furiously typing away to transcribe relevant passages out of Kriegsmann’s works. (© Thüringischer Landesanzeiger, 14 September 2012.)

On 12 December 2013, the world lost the scholar most knowledgeable about all things pertaining to German alchemy from the late middle ages to the twentieth century: Joachim Telle. While this sad event already took place half a year ago, I learnt about it at a staff meeting a few months ago and have only now been able to read a complete eulogy in the new issue of Ambix, released online this morning. I had the pleasure of meeting Telle in September 2012, at a research workshop on alchemy at the Forschungsbibliothek Gotha, and remember him as a passionate teacher and true character with rough edges, as very helpful, sociable and lively. As Telle exclusively wrote in German and blazed many trails for my own research, I’d like to introduce my readers to some of his pioneering work and dedicate this post to his memory.

Joachim Telle’s research was dedicated to alchemy from the 1970s until his death. In an age that all too often assesses a scholar’s merit based on the number of monographs they authored, Telle mostly published essays, meticulously researched miniatures displaying his vast knowledge of both printed and manuscript sources. I first consciously studied one of these, on ‘Mythology and Alchemy’ (1980), in February 2011, while engaging with alchemy for the very first time and doing research for what would become my first conference paper on mythological, emblematic representations of alchemical substances. In the same year as the essay (1980), Telle also published a study of the illustrated, alchemical poem ‘Sol and Luna’: this beautiful book was among the very first to take alchemical imagery seriously. Almost 35 years later, as more and more scholarship is devoted to this topic, it becomes increasingly difficult to appreciate that someone had to brave it without the luxury of having recourse to earlier studies.

As I tackled Wilhelm Christoph Kriegsmann (1633-79) during the first half year of my PhD studies, Telle’s recent lexicon entry in the Killy Literaturlexikon provided the compass in virtually uncharted territory. While in Gotha, I asked him about one of Kriegsmann’s books, Athanasia (1674?), that has eluded me until now; after the workshop Telle soon wrote to me, confessing that his inclusion of that title was not based on autopsy, which I would classify as a rare exception throughout his scholarship. While Kriegsmann’s Athanasia remains something of a mystery, my best guess is that it was published (a contemporary letter indicates that the author’s name had been given as Wilhelm Christian instead of Christoph) even though no copies are extant today. Quite a few other works by that armchair alchemist survive in a handful of copies only, and the copy of Bibliosophia (1676) now held in Marburg appears to be unique.

Even for the second subject of my PhD research, Johann Philipp Maul (1662-1727), Telle was one of the precious few scholars who actually mentioned him in his essay on ‘Jacob Boehme among the German Alchemists’ (2012). But that is not all: this piece actually sketches some of the territory my PhD thesis sets out to treat more comprehensively under the header of theosophical chymistry. And now, as I am immersed in the famous but mostly unread Opus mago-cabbalisticum (1719/35) by Georg von Welling (1652-1727), the most important previous scholarship is by Telle (1983) and Petra Jungmayr (1990), who extensively drew on his advice.

In 1995, Telle dedicated his edition of Abraham von Franckenberg’s (1593-162) correspondence to W. K., presumably Wilhelm Kühlmann, as ‘companion along the way in the pathless’ (dem Weggefährten im Weglosen). As has become very obvious throughout this post, Telle’s own tireless forays have mapped the pathless territories of German alchemical literature to the great benefit of future generations of scholars, myself included.


Franckenberg, Abraham von. Briefwechsel. Edited by Joachim Telle. Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: frommann-holzboog, 1995.

Jungmayr, Petra. Georg von Welling (1655-1727): Studien zu Leben und Werk. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1990.

Telle, Joachim. “Mythologie und Alchemie: Zum Fortleben der antiken Götter in der frühneuzeitlichen Alchemieliteratur.” In Humanismus und Naturwissenschaften, edited by Rudolf Schmitz and Fritz Krafft. Boppard: Harald Boldt, 1980. 135-154.

_____. Sol und Luna: Literar- und alchemiegeschichtliche Studien zu einem altdeutschen Bildgedicht. Hürtgenwald: Pressler, 1980.

_____. “Zum Opus mago-cabbalisticum et theosophicum von Georg von Welling.” Euphorion 77 (1983): 359-379.

_____. “Kriegsmann, Wilhelm Christoph.” In Killy Literaturlexikon: Autoren und Werke des deutschsprachigen Kulturraumes, edited by Wilhelm Kühlmann. 13 vols. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 2008-12. Vol. 7, 47-48.

_____. “Jakob Böhme unter den deutschen Alchemikern der frühen Neuzeit.” In Offenbarung und Episteme: Zur europäischen Wirkung Jakob Böhmes im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert, edited by Wilhelm Kühlmann and Friedrich Vollhardt. Berlin, Boston: de Gruyter, 2012. 165-182.


4 responses to “In memoriam: Joachim Telle (1939-2013)

  • Mats David Ranaxe

    You got me very interested i this man Telle. I took a cource in Western esotericism 2008 at a Swedish university and his name never came up.
    BTW, have you heard of the Swedish book about mysticism, freemasonry and alchemy in the late 1700s in Sweden. Many famous names in the nobility were deeply dedicated to this field of “science” and wrote extensively. Highly recommendable.

  • Mats David Ranaxe

    The book is “Gustaviansk Mystik by Kjell Lekeby (ed) (2010) Vertigo Förlag

    • Mike A. Zuber

      Thanks for the pointer! I wish I could read Swedish, though probably I’d try to read Susanna Åkerman’s Fenixelden: Drottning Kristina som alkemist (2013) first. To me, Queen Christina seems to be one of the most fascinating figures in the 17th century, and considering everyone else that was around, that’s saying a lot! Anyway, if ever a postdoc or something takes me to Sweden, I’d be happy to learn the language.
      Unfortunately, Telle’s work is known only to scholars working on German alchemy or Paracelsianism. If only some publishing firm decided to translate some of his work into English, that could make a huge difference.

      • Mats David Ranaxe

        Interestingly I recently tried to convince the publisher Thames & Hudson to accept a project of mine about Queen Cristina of Sweden and her deep interest and practice in alchemy. It is still much to discover here I believe. I have started to use Google translate mor and more. One have to accept obvious errors and misinterpretations though, but it is understandable today. I have translated Italian, Spanish, French and German to Swedish with fairly understandable results.

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