Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD CLASSICAL DICTIONARY (classics.oxfordre.com). (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

Subscriber: null; date: 12 December 2017

alchemy

Sources

Of ancient texts on Greek alchemy there survive two papyri, three vast corpora of differing date and content, and a few isolated treatises. (a) Papyrus X from Leiden and the Stockholm papyrus can be dated by handwriting to the early 4th cent. ce. They are two parts of the same collection of recipes for gold, silver, precious stones, and purple, compiled from older works and, in particular, citing Democritus. (b) Corpus M, the MS Marcianus graecus 299, now in Venice, was copied in the 11th cent., probably in Constantinople. Damaged, although a full table of contents survives, it is a compilation of texts probably formed at the court of the emperor Heraclius (7th cent.) on the initiative of one Theodorus, a court dignitary and associate of Stephen of Alexandria. (c) Corpus B, the MS Parisinus graecus 2325, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, from the 13th cent., of unknown provenance: a collection of texts perhaps formed in the time of Psellus (11th cent.). These texts mostly recur in M; at least a part of B was copied from M after mutilation of M. The collection relates chiefly to operational techniques; its purpose was evidently practical. (d) Corpus AL, the MS Parisinus graecus 2327 of the Bibliothèque Nationale, was copied in Heraklion (Crete) in 1478 by Theodore Pelecanus. In two parts, the first corresponds faithfully to (c) above; the second is a collection of texts, some certainly ancient, albeit of unknown origin. Ordered differently, the same content recurs—and must either be a copy or a twin—in the Florentine MS Laurentianus graecus pluteus 86, 16 ( = L), copied in 1492 by Antony Dranganas in an unknown location. (e) The isolated treatises are mainly late collections of recipes inspired by Latin works on alchemy. The best known is the Anonymous of Zuretti (MS Vaticanus graecus 1134), copied in 1376 at Oppido Mamertina (in Calabria), which makes use of the classics of Latin alchemy.

Numerous Greek MSS on alchemy preserved in European and American libraries derive from the three corpora M, B, and AL. Of no interest editorially, they reveal the infatuation with Greek texts on alchemy in the hermetist circles of the 16th and 17th cents. The Greek alchemists were also translated very early on into Syriac and Arabic. Although numerous, MSS of these translations are not yet explored. They will certainly enable gaps in the Greek tradition to be filled.

Authors and works

In the three corpora, texts of very diverse date follow each other seamlessly. But by internal and external criteria a relative chronology can none the less be established.

  1. (a) The ancient authors. The alchemists were unanimous in recognizing as the oldest text Physika kai mystika or ‘Natural and Initiatory Matters’, ascribed to Democritus. Now fragmentary, the treatise must once have comprised four books on gold, silver, precious stones, and purple. The date is difficult to establish. L. Annaeus Seneca (2) and Pliny (1) knew of the alchemical recipes of Democritus, perhaps indicating a date in the early 1st cent. ce. The link with the pseudo-Democritean forgeries produced by Bolus (c.150–100? bce) is uncertain. A fifth book, dedicated to Leucippus (3), is a separate, but perhaps contemporary, work.

    Several ‘ancient authors’, allegedly contemporary with Democritus, have left fragments or brief treatises: the Persian magus Ostanes, teacher of Democritus; Pammenes; Pibechius (the name is Egyptian); Mary the Jewess, author of an important work on apparatus; Comarius (from the Syriac komar, ‘high priest’); and others who are pseudonyms, like the queen Cleopatra, the divinities Agathos Daimon or Hermes Trismegistus, or even Isis, whose Letter to Horus was inspired by the Physika. The Chemistry of Moses, of the same period, is a recipe-collection related to the Physika.

  2. (b) Zosimus of Panopolis (mod. Ahmim), in Upper Egypt, fl. c. ce 300, the author of a large work entitled Imouth (Imhotep) in 28 books, each designated by a letter of the alphabet. In the corpora there survive some fairly lengthy sections (the so-called ‘authentic memoirs’) and some short chapters (kephalaia) reorganized on a didactic principle by a Byzantine compiler (some dedicated to Theodore, others to Eusebius). The titles of some sections are known: ‘On Excellence’ (preferable to ‘On Virtue’); ‘According to Energy’; ‘On the Letter Omega’; ‘On Apparatus and Furnaces’; ‘On Divine Water’; the ‘Book to Sophe’ (i.e. the pharoah Cheops); and ‘Final Account’. The place of these sections in the original work is problematic. Zosimus achieved the synthesis of all his predecessors with Greek philosophy, religious hermetics, and above all Gnosticism; there are very many parallels with the Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi.

  3. (c) The commentators. From the 4th to the 7th cents., the writers after Zosimus were above all exegetical. Synesius (perhaps the later bishop of Cyrene; at any rate fl. 4th cent.), wrote a commentary for Dioscorus, priest of the temple of Sarapis in Alexandria (1), on the beginning of the book of Democritus; Olympiodorus, perhaps the 6th-cent. Neoplatonist, commented on the ‘Book of Energy’ of Zosimus, which he juxtaposes with a doxographical account of the Presocratics. The Christian Philosopher and the Anonymous Philosopher belong to the 6th or 7th cent.; subject by subject they address the views of their predecessors and so are valuable above all as a source of earlier fragments. At the court of Heraclius, the nine Lectures (set speeches) of Stephen of Alexandria are essentially rhetorical commentaries on Zosimus, as are the four poems ascribed to Heliodorus, Theophrastus, Hierotheus, and Archelaus.

Doctrines and practices

The origin and evolution of Greek alchemy were determined by the interaction between theory and practice.

  1. (a) Origins. There are five main strands of Greek alchemy: (1) the technical achievements of artisans in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt in producing convincing imitations of gold, silver, precious stones, and purple; (2) the doctrine of mimēsis, according to which the point of technē (craftsmanship) was to reproduce nature, with the ultimate aim of matching, if not excelling, it; (3) the decline of Greek rationalism and the complementary rise in the power of revelation: renouncing hope of learning the truth by reason alone, men turn to revelation; (4) the theory of ‘universal sympathy’ renewed by Stoicism: everything in the cosmos is linked by occult ties of ‘sympathy’ and ‘antipathy’—a world-view integrating astrology and magic; (5) the intuition of the unity of matter.

  2. (b) The Democritean tradition. The Physika kai mystika combine these elements. In a temple in Memphis, Democritus and his friends put the recipes to work without achieving transmutation. They summon from the shadows the ghost of their teacher Ostanes who reveals that the books are in the temple. There a column opens up, revealing the formula of ‘universal sympathy’: nature plays with nature (sympathy), nature vanquishes nature (antipathy), and nature dominates nature (neutralization).

    The procedures are in fact a variation of artisanal recipes according to the sympathies revealed by connections of colour. Their aim is to realize a baphē (tincture), that is, a change in physical properties, which should be complete (katabaphē) and resistant to the test of fire (apheukton): gilding and silver-plating of base metals, low-grade alloys superficially enriched, coloured alloys, veneering, vegetal tincture, steeping, impregnation with a mordant, etc.

  3. (c) The tradition of Mary. In parallel, the tradition attributes to Mary the first step in the study of sublimation and distillation, and of the fixed and the volatile: certain bodies (those based on mercury, sulphur, and arsenic) are transformed into vapours (aithalai) which can congeal (sublimation), condense (distillation), or fix themselves to metals and tint them. These new processes correspond to new apparatus. For distillation, the classic alembic with its cucurbit (lōpas), head (bikos), and discharge-pipe (sōlen). For sublimation, the aludel (phanos), a pot topped with a conical lid. For colouration, the kērotakis, derived from the headed palette of encaustic painters (see painting (techniques)): a closed vase where metal sheets are exposed to the tinting action of circulating vapours. The chief ingredient is ‘Divine Water’ or sulphur-water (theion hudōr), which can be either a sulphurous solution, mercury, or a theoretical entity.

  4. (d) Zosimus. His originality is hard to grasp in view of the fragmentary character of the older texts, above all Mary, and the lack of evidence for the contemporaries with whom he disputed. According to Zosimus, alchemy—an art both sacred and divine—was revealed to woman by rebellious angels.

Matter is one in its cycle of transformations (one is all, from one all is derived, and towards one all advances). ‘Divine Water’ (perhaps mercury) is the basis of this unity, the constituent of beings (the all in everything). Therefore according to Zosimus the process of transformation consists in a return to the undifferentiated state, eager for transmutation, and in the reincorporation of a transmuting principle. This agent is the pneuma, an ambiguous notion since it means both the spirit and the volatile part of the substances given off in sublimation and distillation. It has to be freed from the body (sōma) of the metals, or these bodies have to be transformed into spirits, and then these spirits have to be embodied or incorporated (bodily matter has to be spiritualized and spiritual matter embodied). The pneuma in this way is assimilated to the tincture (baphē). These operations, which take place in the kērotakis, are described in the form of ‘visions’, where the metals are tortured, killed, and revived. It seems that Zosimus was the first to establish a homology between the transformation of metals and that of the human operator. Carnal man, prey to the daimons of destiny, works the timely tinctures, linked to astrological conditions (kairoi). By his infallible method, calqued on the progress of nature, man of the spirit liberates himself from material determinism and can be reunited with the divine. Olympiodorus (above) amplifed the philosophical aspects of Zosimus and stressed the agreement between ‘Divine Water’ and the ‘one beginning’ (archē mia) of the Presocratics.

Bibliography

Manuscripts

Catalogue des manuscrits alchimiques grecs, under the direction of J. Bidez, F. Cumont, J. L. Heiberg, and O. Lagercrantz, 8 vols. (1924–32).Find this resource:

    Editions

    R. Halleux, Alchimistes grecs 1: Papyrus de Leyde, Papyrus de Stockholm, Fragments de Recettes (1981).Find this resource:

      M. Mertens, Zosime de Panopolis, mémoires authentiques (Diss. Liège, 1992).Find this resource:

        A. Colinet, L'Anonyme de Zuretti (Diss. Louvain, 1992).Find this resource:

          Studies

          A. J. Festugière, La Révélation d'Hermès Trismégiste 1: L'Astrologie et les sciences occultes, 2nd edn. (1950).Find this resource:

            J. Lindsay, The Origins of Alchemy in Greco-Roman Egypt (1970).Find this resource:

              G. Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (1986).Find this resource:

                Do you have feedback?