Notes on the works of the alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis

Quite by chance, I came across a PhD thesis online from 2006,1 which contained a rather interesting discussion of the sources for the ancient alchemical writer, Zosimus of Panopolis.  A few notes from this may be of general interest.

Alchemy is usually defined as the attempt to transmute base metals into gold, and the methods adopted led into the creation of modern Chemistry.  It seems to have originated in Graeco-Egyptian circles around the time of Christ, among metallurgists and dyers and jewellers and artisans whose crafts involved colouring things like metal and gemstones.  The texts are in Greek.  Leyden papyrus X and the Stockolm papyrus, from the Theban hoard of Greek magical texts found by Jean d’Anastasi before the 1820’s, are 3rd century and among the earliest examples.  The techniques go back much further; but what is distinctive is the pagan religious element, including Jewish and gnostic material.

The religious language and imagery is very much a part of alchemy as a discipline.  The modern science of chemistry became definitely a separate entity during the 18th century, and consequently whatever survives of alchemy today forms part of occult literature.  With this we are not, of course, concerned.

Zosimus wrote ca. 270 AD, and was perhaps the most important of the Greek alchemists.  Collections of Greek alchemical works are preserved in Greek, Syriac, Arabic and Latin.  The Greek manuscripts, dated to the 10-15th century, contain some 109 pages of Zosimus, and form the largest portion of his work.  The manuscripts are:

  • Venice, Marcianus graecus 299 (tenth or eleventh century),
  • Parisinus graecus 2325 (thirteenth century)
  • Parisinus graecus 2327 (fifteenth century)
  • Florence, Laurentianus graecus 86, 16 (fifteenth century). 

This material was translated by Berthelot and Ruelle in 1888 as the Collection des Alchimistes Grecs, which I found at here (vol. 1) and here (vols.2 and 3). 

In the late 1980’s Michèle Mertens undertook the project of sorting out Zosimus’s writings in these Greek manuscripts. These she catalogued in four groups, from Greek, Syriac, Arabic and Latin manuscripts:2

  • Authentic Memoirs
  • Chapters to Eusebia
  • Chapters to Theodorus
  • Book of Sophe and Final Account

Some 64 pages of Zosimus are extant in three Syriac manuscripts of the 15-16th century:

  • Cambridge University Library Mm 6.29 (fifteenth century)
  • British Library, Egerton 709 (fifteenth century)
  • British Library, Oriental 1593 (fifteenth or sixteenth century).

These were collected by Berthelot, translated into French by R. Duval, and published in 1893 in a three volume series entitled La Chimie au Moyen Age.  The Syriac material is different from that in Greek, and contains material now extant in Greek only in abbreviated form.

The Arabic and Latin manuscripts only contain a few pages of his work.  But the Arabic mss., which date from the 13-15th century, do contain a list of all his works, most of which are now lost.  The Latin mss. contain extracts from the Chapters to Eusebia which are also found in Greek.

Sadly I  fear that all this literature is quite dull!

1. Shannon L. Grimes, Zosimus of Panopolis: Alchemy, Nature and Religion in Late Antiquity, Diss. Syracuse University 2006.
Michèle Mertens, Zosime de Panopolis: Mémoires authentiques, Les Alchimistes Grecs, Tome IV, 1re partie (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1995), xii-cxii.



2 thoughts on “Notes on the works of the alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis

  1. Hey, it isn’t that dull! Zosimos is quite interesting to read, being the mature alchemy with clear roots in a variety of traditions, all brought together in Egypt.

    The recipes are interesting as well, many of them working just fine in a modern laboratory.
    It is also worth noting that modern scholars think Berthelot was rather free with his translations. I havn’t compared Mertens with Berthelot properly yet, I should since I have her translation of “The authentic memoirs”.

  2. I was thinking of the general reader, I admit; to the scholar of historical alchemy, it would be quite a different matter. I’m delighted to learn that he is indeed interesting if you have the right background.

    Your comment about actually doing the recipes is very interesting. Have you tried this out, then? Working from Duval?

    Do tell me more! I don’t know anyone who knows about the alchemical writers!

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