Stephen of Alexandria’s fourth lecture on alchemy before the emperor Heraclius

The philosopher Stephen (or Stephanos) of Alexandria delivered a series of lectures ca. 620 AD in Constantinople at the court of the emperor Heraclius.  These were concerned with alchemy, in the main.

The fourth lecture begins:

Of the same Stephanos on that which is in actuality the fourth lecture with the help of God

Every good gift and every perfect gift from above is came down from the Father of Lights.  Therefore calling upon Jesus the light of the father, which <light> is the true effulgence of light, shining upon every man that cometh into the world.  For he is the light and the truth and the light, the supreme Deity’s word of God, the wisdom and power the wisdom of God, ready for all and ineffable, the living word of the Father, being God and (?) every being directed towards God, he who by whom all things came into being, he who furnishes light to the faithful for them to know the gnosis of beings and to hymn the mighty works of the all ???ing God.  For he is the dispenser and saviour of the cosmos, he illuminates our intellect (nou=j) and hearts and makes to shine for us a light, shining down for us upon the unsearchable (/not to be searched out) depths of his gnosis and wisdom, to the true and apranh~ (not in L+S; pranh~j s??? for prunhj = prene?) gnosis [2] of knowing thee the only (dm?oousik?) and living and true God of us, the holy and consubstantial triad, the all life-giving Father and Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and to all ages of ages, Amen.

It is then needful for us to refute the e0mpiplegmena (? … ? fulfilments e0mpimplhmi) issuing from ancient and virtuous men allegorically and variously and to unveil their sparks in their writings, by our grace from above, both to seek (or ? are these passive) out and to discover and display the same hidden mystery.  We come to the question and problem of their systematisation according to intelligent men listening-as-pupils we learn what indeed the philosopher intends to have spoken before.  Speak, O philosopher, and tell us the better way, by which the whole life of men is hastened (pressed down, overpowered), concerning which the multitude blindly desiring it, labour in vain.  Speak to us of the experienced and fire-hot flame, begin the problem of the word.  Uncover thy gifts.  For we serve the living God.  But O holy flock and lovers of wisdom, who wish to discover this, in (? dative) the consideration directed toward God [3] they are won…

OK, that’s not very clear, is it?  That’s because I was transcribing it from a photocopy of a handwritten translation which I could barely read.  The translation itself was forgotten, and rediscovered by me physically sorting through the papers of F. Sherwood Taylor at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science.  Lectures 1-3 were translated by him and printed in Ambix before WW2.  He made a first draft of the fourth, but never revised or published it, and its existence was forgotten.

In 2012 is the 75th anniversay of Ambix.  Wouldn’t it be nice if a paper by Sherwood Taylor, one of the founders of the journal, appeared there for the first time?  I thought so anyway, so I wrote to the editor, Peter Morris, and told him about the translation.  He’s interested. 

Of course there are problems.  Firstly, we need a transcription.  I’ve passed the PDF over to some people interested in alchemy in the US, who may or may not transcribe it.  My contact is a little vague about what they’re doing with their alchemical transcriptions; I hope they’re not all trying to find the philosopher’s stone for real or something!

Secondly, the translation is not fit for publication as it stands.  Sherwood Taylor would revise his translations several times.  His first draft was handwritten; then he typed it up, and corrected that.  Then he typed up a new version, incorporating the corrections, and corrected that, and so on until he was happy.  At least four revisions of the other lectures 1-3 are among his papers.

So I have placed a post in CLASSICS-L asking for anyone competent in Greek and with knowledge of alchemy.  I’ve already had a potential reply.

If all these people can be linked together, we will get a result!

8 Responses to “Stephen of Alexandria’s fourth lecture on alchemy before the emperor Heraclius”


  1. Nick Nicholas

    OK, on the TLG, this is text 9021001, pp. 213ff. J.L. Ideler, Physici et medici Graeci minores, vol. 2. Berlin: Reimer, 1842 (repr. Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1963). Eight praxeis and a letter.

    Greek original:

    Πᾶσα δόσις ἀγαθὴ καὶ πᾶν δώρημα τέλειον ἄνωθέν ἐστι καταβαῖνον ἀπὸ τοῦ πατρὸς τῶν φώτων. οὐκοῦν Ἰησοῦν ἐπικαλεσάμενοι τὸ πατρικὸν φῶς, τὸ ὂν τὸ ἀληθινὸν φωτὸς ἀπαύγασμα, φωτίζον πάντα ἄνθρωπον ἐρχόμενον εἰς τὸν κόσμον. αὐτὸς γάρ ἐστι τὸ φῶς καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια, καὶ ἡ ζωή, ὁ θεαρχικὸς τοῦ θεοῦ λόγος, ἡ σοφία καὶ δύναμις, ἡ παντοποιὸς καὶ ἄρρητος τοῦ θεοῦ σοφία, ὁ ζῶν λόγος τοῦ πατρός, θεὸς ὢν καὶ πρὸς τὸν θεὸν ἀεὶ ὤν, ὁ δι’ οὗ τὰ πάντα ἐγένετο ὁ φῶς τοῖς πιστοῖς παρέχων πρὸς τὸ εἰδέναι τὴν τῶν ὄντων γνῶσιν καὶ ὑμνῆσαι τὰ μεγαλεῖα τοῦ παντοκράτορος θεοῦ. αὐτὸς γάρ ἐστιν δοτὴρ καὶ σωτὴρ τοῦ κόσμου, αὐτὸς φωτίσειεν ἡμῶν τὸν νοῦν καὶ τὰς καρδίας καὶ ἀναλάμψαι ἡμῖν λαμπάδα, καταλάμπουσαν ἡμῖν τὰ ἀνεξηρεύνητα βάθη τῆς αὐτοῦ γνώσεως καὶ σοφίας, πρὸς τὴν ἀληθῆ καὶ ἀπρανῆ γνῶσιν τοῦ γινώσκειν σε τὸν μόνον ζῶντα καὶ ἀληθινὸν θεὸν ἡμῶν, τὴν ἁγίαν καὶ ὁμοούσιον τριάδα καὶ πᾶν ζωοπάροχον πατέρα καὶ υἱὸν καὶ ἅγιον πνεῦμα, νῦν καὶ ἀεὶ καὶ εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων, ἀμήν. —

    δεὸν οὖν ἡμῖν ἐστι τὸ παρὰ τῶν ἀρχαίων καὶ ἐναρέτων ἀνδρῶν ἀλληγορικῶς καὶ ποικίλως ἐμπιπλεγμένα ἀνασκευάσαι, καὶ τοὺς αὐτῶν σπινθῆρας ἐν τοῖς τῶν αὐτῶν συγγράμμασιν ἀναγυμνῶσαι, διὰ τῆς ἄνωθεν ἡμῖν χάριτος. ζητῆσαί τε καὶ ἀνακαλύψαι καὶ ἀναφάναι τὸ τοιοῦτον ἀποκεκρυμμένον μυστήριον. ἔλθωμεν οὖν ἐπὶ τὸ προκείμενον καὶ τὴν πρότασιν τῆς αὐτῶν συντάξεως μετὰ νοερᾶς αἰσθήσεως ἀκροασάμενοι μάθωμεν, τί ἄρα βούλεται ὁ φιλόσοφος προφθέγξασθαι. εἰπὲ ὦ
    φιλόσοφε καὶ λάλει ἡμῖν τὰ κρείττονα, περὶ ὧν πᾶς ὁ τῶν ἀνθρώπων βίος ἐπείγεται, περὶ ὧν οἱ πολλοὶ ἀσκόπως ἐπιβαλλόμενοι, ἐματεοπόνησαν· λάλει ἡμῖν τὴν ἔμπειρον καὶ φλογώδη φλόγα, ἄρξαι τοῦ λόγου τὴν πρότασιν. ἀνακάλυπτε τὰ χαρίσματα· ζῶντι γὰρ θεῷ λατρεύομεν. ἀλλ’ ὦ ἱερὰ ποίμνη καὶ σοφίας ἐρασταὶ οἱ τοῦτο εὑρεῖν βουλόμενοι τῇ πρὸς τὸν θεὸν ἐννοήσει διὰ τῆς τῶν ἀρετῶν ἐπικοσμήσεως ἐν ἑαυτοῖς ἀγωνιζεύθωσαν, καὶ τῇ πολλῇ ῥοῇ τῶν δακρύων ἑαυτὸν ἀρδευσάτωσαν.

    The question marks in the translation:

    “being God and (?) every being directed towards God”: being God and being “with” God, with that odd use of “towards = with” of John 1:1, which this clearly paraphrases. Sheesh, not promising from our translator.

    “the all ???ing God”. I hope that’s illegibility and not the translator failing to recognise παντοκράτορος “Almighty”

    “apranh~”: πρανής is “prone”, so literally this is “un-prone”; the corresponding verb πρανίζω is “to destroy, to flatten”. I don’t know if πρανής was used figuratively, but will assume a meaning like “upright, proud, unyielding”.

    “(dm?oousik?)”: nothing extra in the Greek; looks like garbled ὁμοούσιον “consubstantial”, but that’s in the next clause already.

    e0mpiplegmena : I suspect a hypercorrection of ἐμπεπλεγμένα “entangled things”, making it look like a present reduplication rather than a perfect.

    “both to seek (or ? are these passive) out and to discover” : no, they’re active

    I am *not* volunteering to checking the whole thing, my (non-Modern) Greek is actually pretty shaky. But yeah, the translation does need to be patched up by someone.

  2. Roger Pearse

    Thank you very much, Nick, for this very useful post. The ??? is stuff that I couldn’t read. I am delighted to learn that the original is in the TLG, tho — that will make things much easier!

    I appreciate you taking the time to compare the two. It is very useful indeed to know that revision will indeed be necessary.

  3. Roger Pearse

    Ideler vol.1 is at Google books, here, vol. 2 is here.

  4. Roger Pearse

    Someone has written on the talk page at Wikipedia:

    It seems to me that the claim that all these manuscripts were written by the same person is more difficult to prove than the reverse. The manuscripts cited in the article actually show different names (Stephanus of Alexandria and “of Athens”) and the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire shows that there are about 60 known Stephani for AD 527-641, so different names could mean different persons. The best article on the subject that I have read is W. Wolska-Conus, “Stephanos d’Athènes et Stephanos d’Alexandrie. Essai d’identification et de biographie, » Revue d’Études Byzantines 47 (1989), p.5-89. She claims that the commentaries were written by the same man but that the alchemical and astrological work were done by other people. L.G. Westerink supported Ms. Wolska-Conus in his edition of the Anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy.–Barzabouzath (talk) 17:26, 12 October 2009

    Interesting to learn of this article. I wish I could get hold of it.

  5. Nick Nicholas

    Why on earth wasn’t it my first impulse to check Google Books? You’d have thought I’d have learnt that by now! Thanks, Roger.

  6. Roger Pearse

    I know, I get the same feeling. But in fact that Google Books search is not that reliable, and I was only able to find vol. 1 that way. But I wrote an article on Stephanos for Wikipedia a year or so back, and added a link to vol. 2 there — so was able to find it again.

    Google searches can be erratic. The usenet search behaves weirdly and is barely usable. I’m not convinced that Google books search is working properly, at least not for non-US readers.

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