Why do Greek alchemical works get more and more obscure in terminology over time?

Greek technical literature is largely neglected.  Few can work with it, unless they have both excellent language skills, plus knowledge of the specialised jargon, plus some knowledge of the subject area – medicine, chemistry, or whatever.

But even someone who has all this may find themselves baffled.  The following section from a paper in Ambix: the Journal of the Society for the Study of Alchemy and Early Chemistry – a bunch of people who are somewhat standoffish, to cap it all – came to hand this evening, and I thought that I would share it with you.  The author is C.A. Browne.[1]

2. Obscurities of Expression in Alchemistic Literature.

All the treatises of alchemy, beginning with the earliest writings and continuing down to the latest compositions of the eighteenth century, are characterized by the greatest obscurity of expression.

The Graeco-Egyptian shop-recipes for gold-making of the early Christian era are simple directions for counterfeiting the precious metais by making various alloys of lead, copper, tin, mercury and silver to which, in a state of fusion, were added varying amounts of cinnabar, red oxide of copper, pyrites, litharge, smelter-dust and other yellow-coloured or reddish metallic substances that were expected to give the alloy a colour resembling that of gold. These recipes vary in the nature of their combinations, and because of the lack of a definite nomenclature a difference of opinion early arose as to the nature of such expressions as Spanish tutty, Persian talc, Chian earth, Attic ochre, Italian stibium and the like.

In the course of time, because of unsuccessful efforts to duplicate the results of the early recipes, the opinion became prevalent that the old practitioners had intentionally made use of obscure expressions. In his treatise upon ‘The Four Substantial Bodies’, Zosimos, an alchemical Greek writer of the fourth century, remarked, ‘If these things were useful they accepted them in their treatments but referred to them by means of enigmas and for this reason they are a mystery’. By the time of Zosimos deliberate obscurity of expression was the fashion in alchemy; minerals, metals, and apparatus were frequently mentioned not by their actual names, but by a multitude of cryptic terms to which only a few of the initiated had the key.  Zosimos, for example, describes mercury as ‘the silvery water; the masculine-feminine; the ever-fugitive; that which hastens unto its own; and the divine water’.

Again, in a Greek alchemical lexicon, mercury is variously mentioned as ‘seed of the dragon’, ‘bile of the dragon’, ‘dew’, ‘milk of a black cow’, ‘sandarach’, ‘Scythian water ‘, ‘water of silver’, ‘water of the moon’, ‘river water’, and ‘divine water’. Mercury, from its fluidity, was again called the ‘sea’ and ‘sea water’ (θαλάσσιον ὕδωρ), this being the origin of the Latin aqua maris, a later mediaeval designation for mercury.

According to Stephanos, who quotes the opinion of early writers, the old practitioners of the art employed enigmatic and obscure expressions because they wished to sharpen the wits of their pupils and to conceal the secrets of their art from the uninitiated. He repeatedly declares, ‘I shall make the enigmatic doctrines of my predecessors the subjects of clear inquiry’, and then proceeds in characteristic manner to make his subject still more unintelligible.

As a result of Christian ecclesiastical influences the ambiguities of alchemy were still further intensified.  Chemical operations such as washing, dissolving, melting, digesting and distilling, which were clearly enough indicated in the old technical works, were referred to under such terms as baptism, mortification, death, burial and resurrection. As man was held to be a microcosm of the great universe, so each metal was held to be a microcosm of man. ‘Thus copper, the same as man, has both a soul and a spirit’, to quote again from Stephanos, ‘for these fusible and metallic bodies are so constituted that whenever they are calcined in contact with fire they are again spiritualized by the fire granting them a spirit’ (Ideler. 210, 11-14). The transmutation of copper into gold was to be accomplished by endowing the body of copper with a new soul and a new spirit.

With the spread of astrological conceptions, the influence of the heavenly bodies upon the transmutation of metals became an established principle in Greek alchemy and the literature upon the subject was overspread with another layer of obscurities. Gold was referred to as Helios, silver as Selene, mercury as Hermes, copper as Aphrodite, iron as Ares, tin as Zeus and lead as Kronos, and the astrological signs of these heavenly bodies were employed to designate the respective metals. But these and other signs were differently employed, the symbol [omitted] for Mercury being applied by some writers to tin and by others to quicksilver. To the latter substance as the counterpart of Silver the sign [omitted] of the old moon was employed by some writers, the opposite crescent [omitted] of the new moon being reserved for silver. Confusion of these and other similar signs caused differences of interpretation and many of the texts became in this way corrupt.

Thus it happened that by a gradual process of syncretism old shop recipes of the metal workers, Egyptian magic, Greek philosophy, Jewish gnosticism, Chaldean astrology, Christian theology and Pagan mythology were combined into a confused allegorical system of chemical philosophy to which was given the name of the ‘Sacred Art ‘. In order to give their vague mystical doctrines a semblance of authority the alchemical writers published various pseudographs under the names of Hermes Trismegistos, Moses, Demokritos and other celebrities of Egyptian, Jewish, Persian and Greek origin, and it is probably because of this practice that the name of the eminent philosopher Theophrastos was selected by the author of the alchemistic poems as one of his several noms de plume.

The final phase of the delight of the Greek alchemists in figurative expression was the complete subordination of the physical act of transmutation to its allegorical symbol,– the conversion of lead and copper into gold being held up as a picture of the regeneration and transformation of man’s own base nature into something nobler and higher. Hence came the moralities and religious exhortations which make up so large a part of the treatises of Stephanos and of his later imitators.

I seem to recall that one of the texts referencing the origins of soap referred to “divine water” a little while back.  It was an alchemical text, of which I made very little.  Now I know why!

  1. [1]C.A. Browne, “Rhetorical and religious aspects of Greek alchemy: part II”, Ambix, 1946, p.17-18.

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