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Alchemy: History of the Great Secret Part III
In the Middle East, alchemy began in India. It is unknown whether India’s alchemical traditions and texts came to them from China, or vice versa. The Vedas, the Hindu holy texts originally written in Sanskrit, mention the elixir of life and the sacred fire allegorically, both of which are also mentioned in alchemical texts in China. Hinduism, however, is the oldest known organized religion, and is neck and neck with the Hermetic tradition for beginning dates.
The Rigveda is a text of hymns, many containing accounts of the origin of the world’s creation. It is considered to be the oldest of the four Vedas, although its date of origin is widely debated. Friedrich Maximillian Müller, a German orientalist and philologist, originally dated the Rigveda to 1200 BCE. He arbitrarily assigned that year based on the fact that mankind cannot have had its beginnings before 4000 BCE and based on the hypothetical Aryan Invasion, which he decided must have occurred after the great flood that occurs in the lore of many cultures. Towards the end of his life, he reassigned the Rigveda’s date of origin to 1500 BCE.
A British archaeologist by the name of Mortimer Wheeler, in the early 20th century, proposed his Aryan Invasion theory, which speculated that the Vedas were not written in India at all, but were instead written by northwestern tribes who invaded India and replaced the Harappan civilization that dates to between 7000 and 5500 BCE at the earliest. Based on when history begins to see various writing systems, this theory places the date for the Rigveda at around 3000 BCE. However, it is worth noting that modern archaeologists believe that although there is evidence of the Harappan civilization that can be studied, there is no archaeological evidence of “the Aryan Invasion.”
According to the historian Romila Thapar, the Sanskrit used to write the Rigveda is closer in comparison to Avesta, the language of East Iran in which the Zoroastrian text named for the language is written. This suggests that the Rigveda is much younger than the archaic Hittite-Mittani treaty, a treaty between the Suppiluliuma and Shattiwaza people between 1425-1275 BCE. Unfortunately, historians David Frawley and Georg Fuerstein pointed out that the Rigveda mentions the Saraswati – a river that dried before 1900 BCE. Satellite studies have shown that the Saraswati river actually dried up completely by 1750 BCE, but at that time there was already a desert in that region of Afghanistan. The Rigveda does not mention a desert – in fact one is not mentioned until the Brahmana books 500-1000 years later – so the date for the Rigveda must be before 1750 BCE. Despite the various arguments, the generally accepted date is 1900 BCE.
Vedic alchemy, as poeticized in the Rigveda, is very similar to Chinese internal alchemy in that instead of literal physical changes, it involves mental and internal changes as well as prayer and meditation. As mentioned, the Rigveda is a collection of hymns, some of which are still sung as prayers in the Hindu practices of today.
Want the whole translation?
Hymn XVIII from Griffith’s translation of the Rigveda (ca. 1896):
- O BRAHMANAPSATI, make him who presses Soma glorious, even Kaksivan Ausija.
- The rich, the healer of disease, who giveth wealth, increaseth store, The prompt, - may he be with us still.
- Let not the foeman’s curse, let not a mortal’s onslaught fall on us; Preserve us, Brahmanaspati.
- Ne’er is the mortal hero harmed whom Indra, Brahmanaspati, and Soma graciously inspire.
- Do, thou, O Brahmanaspati, and Indra, Soma, Daksina; Preserve that mortal from distress.
- To the Assembly’s wondrous Lord, to Indra’s lovely Friend who gives wisdom, have I drawn near in prayer.
- He without whom no sacrifice, e’en of the wise man, prospers; he stirs up the series of thoughts.
- He makes the oblation prosper, he promotes the course of sacrifice; Our voice of praise goes to the Gods.
- I have seen Narasamsa, him most resolute, most widely famed, as ‘twere the Household Priest of heaven.
In his article, Agni and Soma and Ayurvedic Alchemy, Pavan Kanwar informs us that Agni is the Hindu representation of the sacred fire, and is literally the first word written in the Vedas (here it is important to note that it may depend on which translation you are using. In Griffith’s translation it is the third word). Kanwar describes Agni as “the guide leading us to immortality (Amrita).” Soma, he says, is the nectar of the gods, which in Hindu tradition must be sacrificed to the gods in order to achieve Amrita. Towards the end of his article, he states that “looking at these two forces from a conventional Ayurvedic perspective, we have Agni on the physical plane representing the quality of heat when in excess…Soma is nourishing in quality which is associated with water.”
Throughout the article, Kanwar talks about the different planes, of which there are five, and the interaction between Agni and Soma, fire and water. Much like the laboratory processes of Chinese alchemy, the heat of the sacred fire waxes and wanes through the different planes. Agni also appears to be a minor deity, lesser than the three well-known major Hindu Gods – Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva. Soma must be sacrificed, water mixed with the sacred fire, in order to achieve immortality. Healing diseases and gaining riches are also mentioned in that particular hymn.
Chanting of the Rigveda
Surpris, mon esprit revient à notre objet d’étude; il examine si c’est par suite de l’émission de la vapeur de l’eau divine que notre composition peut être cuite et teinte. Or je cherchais si quelqu’un des anciens fait mention de cet instrument, et (rien) ne se présentait à mon esprit. Découragé, je compulsai les livres et je trouvai dans ceux des Juifs, à côté de l’instrument traditionnel nommé tribicos, la description de ton propre instrument. Voici comment la chose est présentée.— Zosimos of Panopolis, On the Evaporation of the Divine Water that fixes Mercury
Alchemy in the Egyptian sense was brought to the Middle East by the Romans before the fall of the Western Roman Empire around 476 CE. The Egyptian texts, by the time they came to the eastern part of the empire, had already been translated into Greek and Latin. However, history knows much more of Islamic alchemy than it does of Egyptian; so much more of it was recorded and preserved. Unfortunately, Diocletian, the Roman Emperor from 284-305 CE, ordered all of the Egyptian alchemical texts burned in 296. They survived in their Arabic forms for historians to translate at much later dates, but much of the alchemical progress that had been made was lost to recorded history.
A century later, Zosimos of Panopolis wrote and published his treatise On the Evaporation of the Divine Water that fixes Mercury in Byzantium. Just from the title – the mention of Divine Water and mercury – it can be assumed that this is a work about alchemy. In a French translation of this work, he writes in III.VII:
“Surprised, my mind goes back to our subject of study, examines whether this is due to the emission of water vapor that our divine composition can be cooked and dyed. But I was looking if someone mentions the ancient instrument, and (nothing) no one came to my mind. Discouraged, I compulsai books and I found in those of the Jews, next to the traditional instrument called tribicos , the description of your own instrument. This is how it is presented.
Taking of arsenic (sulfide), bleached it as follows. Make a dough fat, the width of a small mirror very thin, the small bore-holes, in order to screen, and up above, adjusting well, a small container containing a portion of sulfur foods in the sieve of arsenic, the amount you want.After covering with another container, and having luted the junction points, after two days and two nights, you will find the white lead. Take a quarter of a mine blast and for a whole day, there adding a little bitumen, etc.. This is the construction of the apparatus.
2. As for me I will return to our subject, showing, according to the writing itself, there is no money, since they advise to continue cooking for 2 days and 2 nights, while an hour is sufficient to evaporate a large amount of sulfur. But by then, it provides a pattern to your thoughts. Indeed Agathodaimon recalled that arsenic is the entire composition, which is one on which I strongly discoursed in the 6 thchapter on cooking, in my book on the Action; many others have recalled the former explicitly and intentionally. But the beginning of the writing, he teaches on this topic? He says, ‘Money arsenic extends to arsenic unbleached’. It is in the same direction as Democritus said, ‘If the flame is too high, the yellow product, but (that) you will not do now because you want to whiten body (metal)’”
Eggs are only used as an analogy... the philosophers … wrote many books on such things as eggs, hair, the biles, milk, semen, claws, salt, sulphur, iron, copper, silver, mercury, gold and all the various animals and plants … But then people would copy and circulate these books according to the apparent meaning of these things, and waste their possessions and ruin their souls— Ibn Umail The Pure Pearl chapter 1
In this passage, Zosimos mentions alchemical processes and one of the most mentioned alchemical ingredients, next to mercury: lead. But he also, towards the end, mentions Agathodaimon. In Egyptian mythology, Agathodaimon is another name for the great Thoth, the father of Hermes; the same Hermes who is irrevocably connected to the origins of alchemy.
A century after Zosimos published his work, Morienus the hermit left Rome in search of an adept who was famous in Egypt and whose reputation had reached Roman ears. This sage was Adfar of Alexandria, who, according to legend, found the Emerald Tablet and dedicated himself to the path of alchemy. Morenius learned from Adfar and eventually taught alchemy to Prince Khalid of the Umayyad dynasty.
Khalid is referred to as the first Muslim alchemist by biographer Abu'l-Faraj Muhammad bin Is'hāq al-Nadim, and is said to have studied under the Christians in Alexandria. The historical validity of this is debated, as other accounts (see above) claim he learned the art of alchemy elsewhere. According to the aforementioned biographer, Khalid is the author of several alchemical works, including but not limited to Kitāb Waṣiyyatihi ilā bnihi fī-l-ṣanʿa (The Book of his Testament to his Son about Alchemy), Kitāb al-kharazāt (The Book of Pearls), and Firdaws al-ḥikma (The Paradise of Wisdom).
One of the biggest names in Islamic alchemy is that of Geber, whose given name is Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān. Geber was born in Persia, and his lifetime marks a turning point for alchemy: the change from a mystical practice to a real, chemical study. He is said to have been the first practical alchemist, and to have written five hundred or more treatises. Unfortunately, only three of those remain today. They are his Testament, The Investigation of Perfection, and The Sum of the Perfect Magistery. In these works, history finds the first mentions of mercury oxide and silver nitrate. Geber, in true alchemical tradition, veiled his research and theories in allegory and nonsense, and it is from his name that the word “gibberish” is derived.
After Geber, Islamic alchemists of note include Al-Farabi, who lived 872-950 CE and is hailed by philosophers as the Second Teacher – that is, the successor to Aristotle, the First Teacher. Al-Farabi was a Persian alchemist, as well as a cosmologist and musician. He lived most of his life in Baghdad, but traveled a little and visited Egypt and Syria in 948-949. His major contribution to alchemy is his work The Necessity of the Art of the Elixir. Around the same time as Al-Farabi lived Muhammed ibn Umail al-Tamimi. His place of birth is unknown, although his writings tell us that he lived and worked in Egypt. Deviating from the practical alchemy of Al-Farabi, Ibn Umail (as he is called in short), he was an allegorical alchemist, rejecting those who took the idea of immortality and transmutation of metals into gold so literally.
“Eggs are only used as an analogy... the philosophers … wrote many books on such things as eggs, hair, the biles, milk, semen, claws, salt, sulphur, iron, copper, silver, mercury, gold and all the various animals and plants … But then people would copy and circulate these books according to the apparent meaning of these things, and waste their possessions and ruin their souls” – Ibn Umail The Pure Pearl chapter 1.
The last ancient Islamic alchemist of note is Al-Tughrai, whose given full name is Mu'ayyad al-Din Abu Isma‘il al-Husayn ibn Ali al-Tughra'i. He lived 1061-1121 CE, and was a civil servant of the Selijuki Empire (which, incidentally, was the target of the First Crusade). As a writer of astrology and alchemy, many of his poems are still preserved, as well as his larger text, the Mafatih al-rahmah wa-masabih al-hikmah – a collection of excerpts from alchemical texts in Greek and earlier Arabic texts. Some of the excerpts are from the work of Zosimos of Panopolis. Al-Tughrai’s Kitab Haqa'iq al-istishhad disputes the presence of the occult in the study of alchemy, as postulated by Ibn Sina.
- This English translation is thanks to google translate, and is directly of the French translation of Zosimos’ work.
- The Umayyad Caliphate was the second of the caliphates established after Muhammad died. At its greatest reach, the caliphate ruled Northern Africa covering Egypt eastward, southern Portugal and Spain, all of the Arabian Peninsula and into India. The Umayyad Caliphate ruled this area from 661-750 CE.
- Full name, Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā. In his lifetime, he wrote almost 450 treatises, and of the ones surviving today, 150 of them are about philosophy and 40 are about medicine. He is considered one of the most influential figures of the Islamic Golden Age (750-1257 CE)
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© 2015 Elizabeth Skinner