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Alchemy: History of the Great Secret Part I

Updated on January 29, 2015
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Elizabeth has been an EMT for a year, a writer for 10 years, and an artist all her life. She pulls inspiration from her favorite authors.

Introduction

In the history of science, alchemy…refers to both an early form of the investigation of nature and an early philosophical and spiritual discipline, both combining elements of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, medicine, astrology, semiotics, mysticism, spiritualism, and art all as parts of one greater force. Alchemy has been practiced in Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Persia, India, Japan, Korea and China, in Classical Greece and Rome, in the Muslim civilization, and then in Europe up to the 19th century—in a complex network of schools and philosophical systems spanning at least 2500 years.

The definition seen above is from the current version of Webster’s dictionary. However, once again the generally accepted dictionary definition appears to be insufficient. Other, more widely varied definitions for “alchemy” can be found throughout literature and popular culture. How on earth the human race came up with one word for such a complicated concept I will never know. What is clear is that no matter where or when alchemy was truly founded, it has touched the various religions of paganism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and the New Age and Occult studies of the modern world, in addition to many other possible affected religions.

The word “alchemy” has elements that have led scholars to debate the origin of the word. It could have stemmed from the Arabic alkimiya (كيمياء), or from the Greek khemeioa (αλχημεία). But then, it could also have come from an older name for Egypt – Plutarch refers to Egypt as “Khemia,” – which means “land of black earth” – in his biography entitled Life of Alexander.

In our technically advanced, factoid-based modern world, the most we might ever hear of what was once known as alchemy is limited to fictional works like the Harry Potter series, A Discovery of Witches, and the Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series. Little do the avid readers and fans know, alchemy was once the obsession of scholars from ancient Egypt to Elizabethan England and is widely accepted among the scientific community as the origin of modern chemistry. Could this “outdated” philosophical study have also fathered in many of the religious practices still seen throughout the monotheistic religions today?

The fact is, the history of alchemy spans too many centuries, touches too many nations, and seeps into too many popular subjects to be explained briefly. The scholarly journey that many have wondered about –from the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the emperors of China, from the astrologers of the renaissance to the freemasons of today – is about to begin.

The Emerald Tablet
The Emerald Tablet

Chapter One

The oldest alchemical text in recorded history is known as the Emerald Tablet. Although we know of the original tablets existence from the translations of the text and the descriptions that accompany them, the first known source for the contents of the tablet comes from the Kitab Sirr al-Asrar, an Arabic advice text for rulers that dates back to the 10th century. Its title translates to The Book of the Secret of Secrets. The text claims to be a letter from Aristotle to Alexander the Great, but since the two lived in the 4th century BCE, this does not seem particularly plausible unless the Katib is simply a copy of the original letter or has been misdated.

In 1140 the text was translated into Latin as the Secretum Secretorum by a man known as John of Seville and again in 1243 by Philip of Tripoli. A Latin translation was recently published by Nineveh Shadrach, from the original Arabic text of the Book on the Secret of Creation, believed to have been written by Apollonius of Tyana. Here it is important to note that this means the text of the Emerald Tablet was written down by a man who lived in the time of the historical figure Jesus Christ, between 15 and 100 CE, in a book that in its very title claims to hold the secret, or secrets, of creation. This means that unless the Katib is misdated and is in fact from the 4th century BCE, history now presents a text containing the words from the Tablet from the 1st century CE. Alchemy, as we will see in further chapters, was often explored by philosophers who were seeking neither the fabled elixir of life, nor the ability to turn base material into gold, but the secret of how the universe came to be and how we as humans might recreate the process.

Sir Isaac Newton’s translation of the text was found among his alchemical papers (more on Newton and his connections to alchemy in a later chapter). Another translation into English was made by Giorgio Beato.

Although translating and re-translating often results in errors when compared to the original, each translation has definite similarities and seem to mean the same thing, with the only differences being minute and mostly grammatical. Most of the aforementioned translations can be found below.

Translation by Nineveh Shadrach

It contains an accurate commentary that can't be doubted. It states: What is the above is from the below and the below is from the above. The work of wonders is from One. And all things sprang from this essence through a single projection. How marvelous is its work! It is the principle [sic] part of the world and its custodian. Its father is the sun and its mother is the moon. Thus the wind bore it within it and the earth nourished it. Father of talismans and keeper of wonders. Perfect in power that reveals the lights.

It is a fire that became our earth. Separate the earth from the fire and you shall adhere more to that which is subtle than that which is coarse, through care and wisdom. It ascends from the earth to the heaven. It extracts the lights from the heights and descends to the earth containing the power of the above and the below for it is with the light of the lights. Therefore the darkness flees from it. The greatest power overcomes everything that is subtle and it penetrates all that is coarse. The formation of the microcosm is in accordance with the formation of the macrocosm.

The scholars made this their path. This is why Thrice Hermes was exalted with wisdom. This is his last book that he hid in the catacomb.

Translation by Sir Isaac Newton as reported by B.J. Dobbs

Tis true without lying, certain most true.

That which is below is like that which is above that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing. And as all things have been arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation. The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth its nurse. The father of all perfection in the whole world is here. Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth. Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry. It ascends from the earth to the heaven again it descends to the earth and receives the force of things superior and inferior. By this means ye shall have the glory of the whole world thereby all obscurity shall fly from you. Its force is above all force. for it vanquishes every subtle thing and penetrates every solid thing. So was the world created. From this are and do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (Or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world. That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished and ended.


Translation by Giorgio Beato

This is true and remote from all cover of falsehood.

Whatever is below is similar to that which is above. Through this the marvels of the work of one thing are procured and perfected. Also, as all things are made from one, by the consideration of one, so all things were made from this one, by conjunction. The father of it is the sun, the mother the moon. The wind bore it in the womb. Its nurse is the earth, the mother of all perfection. Its power is perfected. If it is turned into earth, Separate the earth from the fire, the subtle and thin from the crude and coarse, prudently, with modesty and wisdom. This ascends from the earth into the sky and again descends from the sky to the earth, and receives the power and efficacy of things above and of things below. By this means you will acquire the glory of the whole world, and so you will drive away all shadows and blindness. For this by its fortitude snatches the palm from all other fortitude and power. For it is able to penetrate and subdue everything subtle and everything crude and hard. By this means the world was founded and hence the marvelous cojunctions of it and admirable effects, since this is the way by which these marvels may be brought about. And because of this they have called me Hermes Tristmegistus since I have the three parts of the wisdom and Philosophy of the whole universe. My speech is finished which I have spoken concerning the solar work.

No matter the translation, the history of the Emerald Tablet is certainly shrouded in a certain degree of mystery. The original is said to have been written by Hermes Trimegistus, a mysterious figure of ancient Egypt. According to some of the earliest fables, this Hermes was the son of Adam, and the Tablet contained the secret to redeeming mankind to return to the Garden of Eden after the Fall. Jewish mystics, however, thought that Hermes was Seth, the second son of Adam, and that the Tablet was taken by Noah onto the Ark at the time of the Great Flood. Mahanirvanatantra – the Hindu holy book – states that Hermes and Buddha are the same person, who are then both then referred to as the Son of the Moon in other Hindu texts[1].


Thoth, widely suggested to be the original author of the Emerald Tablet
Thoth, widely suggested to be the original author of the Emerald Tablet

The “trimegistus” attached to Hermes’ name, means “Thrice Greatest.” This translation has led scholars to believe that the author of the Emerald Tablet may have in fact been three different people in history. The original author of the Tablet is widely suggested to be Thoth himself. According to Egyptian lore, Thoth arrived on the earth before the Great Flood (dated by Archbishop James Ussher to have been in 2348 BCE) – 2470 BCE according to Masonic tradition and 12,000 years ago (9988 BCE) according to those who think that Thoth was some sort of extraterrestrial who visited earth and brought higher spiritual knowledge and technology with him. Although Thoth is credited in Egyptian mythology with the creation of writing (among many other things), it seems far more likely that the god the ancient Egyptians worshipped as Thoth was really just the first man to invent their writing system, a great king or scribe would then have been deified as many other great kings of Egypt were. Unfortunately, the original inventor of hieroglyphics is unknown, and many scholars think it’s more likely that hieroglyphics emerged as influenced by the Sumerian language. It is interesting, however, that the first known hieroglyphic inscriptions were three hundred entirely proto-hieroglyphic clay tablets which have been dated to the 3200’s BCE, and were found in the tomb of a pre-dynastic ruler of Egypt. The date and the simplicity of the hieroglyphs would suggest that if Thoth was originally a ruler, this might have been that man.

The second identity of Hermes is considered to be Akhenaten, born Amenhotep IV, who lived in Egypt in the 14th century BCE and ruled from 1364-1347. Although traditional history makes no mention of his ever finding or possessing the Emerald Tablet, much information about this king was erased from the historical record by his son, Tutankhamen. Akhenaten is attributed with introducing monotheistic sun worship to Egypt, and although he was largely unsuccessful, there exists evidence to suggest that he passed his monotheistic beliefs to the Hebrew people through the man we know as Moses. In biblical tradition, Moses fled Egypt to the land of the Kenites, which happens to be what the followers of Akhenaten were called. Sigmund Freud suggested in 1939 (Moses and Monotheism) that Moses, who would have had the opportunity to confer with the pharaoh in open court, took the idea of one supreme god and brought that new religion to the Jews. This theory certainly ties Moses to the Tablet, supporting in part the legend about the Ten Commandments and the mountain.

In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. When he became pharaoh, he gained access to all the records and treasures in Egypt, including but not limited to the whereabouts of Hermes’ tomb. Historical record says that he recovered the Emerald Tablet there, having traveled across the Libyan Desert to the temple at Siwa and then to the tomb itself. The Tablet was later put on display in the city of Alexandria, where the Hermetic scrolls were taken to be housed and studied. No matter what happened to the Tablet when Alexander left Egypt, copies of its content were made and translated into other languages, and soon made their way into Arabia before the destruction of the library at Alexandria. From there, they became integrated into Muslim lore and culture, and were carried into Spain by the Muslims, and from there made their way around Europe.

Although no one knows where Alexander was buried after his death, all accounts of the Emerald Tablet point to its being found in a cave in Tyana, in what is modern-day Turkey, by a young man born with the name Balinas. He later became known as Apollonius, the very same aforementioned Apollonius who wrote The Book of the Secret of Creation, also known as The Book of Causes.

As all of those identities come together, we see how alchemy could have begun, and then how it could have been passed down to the Arabs and to Apollonius to make its way into the texts from which we now have translations. Although the three-identity theory makes a fair amount of sense, it only allows for one true, original author of the Emerald Tablet. So it is here that we must decide for ourselves what we believe about Thoth. So much of history is lost to us that it is also entirely possible that Hermes Trimegistus was a pseudonym, and that the origin of the Emerald Tablet has absolutely nothing to do with the god of wisdom, thought, and writing.

After its beginning with the Emerald Tablet, alchemy flourished in Egypt. They experimented and began the theory of alchemy that we are more familiar with – that base metals can be transformed into gold. The Egyptians embalmed metals dug out of the black earth and “revived them” in attempt to make gold. This embalming process was also applied to their dead; the ancient Egyptians had taken notice of how materials acted on life and the spirit.

A scene depicting metal working in ancient Egypt. Some scholars believe this to be a scene showing the washing and weighing of gold, but it could also be the post mining process for all the metals used in ancient Egypt
A scene depicting metal working in ancient Egypt. Some scholars believe this to be a scene showing the washing and weighing of gold, but it could also be the post mining process for all the metals used in ancient Egypt

Moving on from the transmutation of base metals, Egyptian alchemy became what scientists generally accept as the beginnings of chemistry. Hieroglyphic scenes found in Egypt depict men working with metals and herbs. They depict pouring, changing, healing, and more – many things that would produce effects that were at the time unexplainable.

Metallurgy was a prime occupation of the high offices of the court, which were put in charge of overseeing mines. Iron and copper both were known metals to the Egyptians, who melted them down and changed them to be forged into armor, weapons, money, and domestic items. In addition to iron and copper, the country amassed large amounts of gold, and not only through trade and tribute. Archaeologists have noted that there appear to have been gold mines in the desert valleys east of the Nile.

Another text, dated to about the end of the 3rd century A.D., is the Leyden Papyrus X – a source written in Greek that contains alchemical texts. This papyrus shows 111 recipes for extracting or counterfeiting precious metals, like gold, or precious stones and dyes. In addition, it shows the details of textile manufacturing and gold and silver links. The papyrus is 10 leaves making up 20 pages, and was discovered at Thebes, the ancient capital city of Egypt, assumed to have been written by the same scribe who wrote the Stockholm Papyrus – another alchemical text that shows the making of various dyes and textiles. The Leyden Papyrus X, however, is interesting to our history for another reason – it mentions a man named Moses as an alchemist[2].

The papyrus seems to have been an aid for philosophers, scientists, and alchemists who were already familiar with the processes mentioned within it; the recipes are not detailed and the last eleven are only extracts from a medical text by Pedanius Dioscorides.


Notice that although the papyrus is written in Greek, it here clearly depicts a man with the head of an animal and holding two wands or staffs. This holds true with traditional depictions of Egyptian gods - wands and staffs were symbols of power.
Notice that although the papyrus is written in Greek, it here clearly depicts a man with the head of an animal and holding two wands or staffs. This holds true with traditional depictions of Egyptian gods - wands and staffs were symbols of power.

Excerpts from a translation of the Leyden Papyrus X[3]:

15. The Coloration of Gold.

To color gold to render it fit for use. Misy, salt, and vinegar accruing from the purification of gold; mix it all and throw in the vessel (which contains) the gold described in the preceding preparation; let it remain some time, (and then) having drawn (the gold) from the vessel, heat it upon the coals; then again throw it in the vessel which contains the above-mentioned preparation; do this several times until it becomes fit for use.

16. Augmentation of Gold.

To augment gold, take cadmia of Thracia, make the mixture with cadmia in crusts, or that from Galacia.

17. Falsification of Gold.

Misy and Sinopian red, equal parts to one part of gold. After the gold has been thrown in the furnace and has become of good color throw upon it these two ingredients, and removing (the gold) let it cool, and the gold is doubled.

28. Manufacture of Copper Similar to Gold.

Crush some cumin; pour on it some water, dilute, and let it remain in contact during three days. On the fourth day shake, and if you wish to use it as a coating mix chrysocolla with it; and the gold will appear.

33. Manufacture of Solder for Working Gold.

How one goes about making the solder for works of gold: Gold, 2 parts; Copper, 1 part; melt (and) divide up. When you desire a brilliant color melt with a little silver.

34. A Procedure for Writing in Letters of Gold.

To write in letters of gold, take some mercury, pour it in a suitable vessel, and add to it some gold in leaves; when the gold appears dissolved in the mercury, agitate sharply; add a little gum, 1 grain for example, and, (after) letting stand, write in the letters of gold.

38. For Giving Objects of Copper the Appearance of Gold.

And neither touch nor rubbing against the touchstone will detect them, but they can serve especially for (the manufacture of) a ring of fine appearance. Here is the preparation for this. Gold and lead are ground to a fine powder like flour, 2 parts of lead for 1 of gold, then having mixed, they are incorporated with gum, and one coats the ring with this mixture; then it is heated. One repeats this several times until the object has taken the color. It is difficult to detect (the fraud), because rubbing gives the mark of a gold object, and the heat consumes the lead but not the gold.

39. Writing in Letters of Gold.

Letters of gold: saffron (and) bile of a river tortoise.

43. Testing of Gold.

If you wish to test the purity of gold, remelt it and heat it: if it is pure it will keep its color after heating and remain like a piece of money. If it becomes white, it contains silver; if it becomes rougher and harder some copper and tin; if it blackens and softens, lead.

54. Preparation of Liquid Gold.

Place some leaves of gold in a mortar, grind them with some mercury and it is done.

56. Preparation of Gold.

Asem, 1 stater, or Copper of Cyprus, 3; 4 staters of gold; melt together

87. Doubling of Gold.

For augmenting the weight of gold. Melt (it) with a fourth part of cadmia, and it will become heavier and harder.

88. Another (Proceeding).

Gold can be altered and increased by means of misy and earth of Sinopus. One first casts it in the furnace with equal parts (of them). When it has become clear in the crucible, one adds each as it is desired, and the gold is doubled.

89. Another (Preparation).

The invention of sulfur water. A handful of lime and another of sulfur in fine powder; place them in a vessel containing strong vinegar or the urine of a small child. Heat it from below, until the supernatant liquid appears like blood. Decant this latter properly in order to separate it from the deposit, and use.


Extracts from the Materia Medica of Dioscorides

102. Arsenic.

103. Sandarach.

104. Misy.

105. Cadmia

106. Chrysocolla.

107. Rubric of Sinopia.

108. Alum.

109. Natron.

110. Cinnabar.

111. Mercury.

Egyptian alchemy was easily put into the hands of other cultures through the Arabs they traded with, the Haibru people they enslaved and who later made their way out of Egypt according to biblical lore, and through the Macedonians and Greeks who ruled in Egypt at different times and took customs with them when they left. However, Chinese alchemy may have begun around the same time period and is, interestingly enough, seemingly unrelated to Egyptian alchemy.

Footnotes

  1. The origin of the Tablet is not the only thing open to interpretation about it – despite the similarities between translations, the generally accepted meaning is that it refers to the transmutation of metals. Notice, however, that parts of it sound like they refer to the scientific water cycle. If this meaning had been accepted instead of the transmutation meaning, alchemy might have become the beginnings of modern earth science as opposed to chemistry.
  2. Moses’ lifetime would have been over well before this document was written, but one must remember that he is also mentioned as having taken the new religion to the Jews from Akhenaten, who was identified as one of the possible identities of Hermes Trimegistus of the Emerald Tablet.
  3. This translation is originally from The Leyden Papyrus X: An English Translation with Brief Notes, by one E.R. Caley, from the Journal of Chemical Education,series III, volume 10, pages 1149-1166.

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© 2015 Elizabeth Skinner

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    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      This is interesting. You made me want to dig deeper into alchemy.

    • Shades-of-truth profile image

      Emily Tack 3 years ago from USA

      Alchemy has always fascinated me, and the subject is one that has been controversial for ages! Great article, that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

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