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.

Zosimos of Panopolis on soap and soap-making

Previously we looked at the claim that Galen knows of soap.  In the same article we find the claim:

Zosimos the alchemist [148] (c. A.D. 250) mentions both soap (σαπώνιον) and soap-making (σαπωναρικὲ τέκνη).

148.  Berthelot, Collection des anciens Alchemistes Grecs, 1888, vol. ii, 142.3, 143.7.  (This contains Zosimos; French translation here).

It is always good practice to check these claims.  Fortunately we can.  And if we look at the online copy of the Greek, we will see both these phrases for soap (sapo) where they are supposed to be.  But what is the context?

As might be supposed, this is an alchemical recipe, in a book full of these.  On p.143 of the French translation we find the text:

III. 8. On the same divine water

1.  Taking some eggs, whatever quantity you like, boil them, and after breaking them, remove all the white, but don’t use the shell.  Taking a male-and-female glass, which is called an alembic, put into it the yellows of the eggs, using the following amounts: 1 ounce of yellow, calcined egg-shell, two carats, neither more nor less, but exactly as written.  Then stir; then, taking some more eggs, break them and throw them into the alembic with the stirred yellows, so that the whole eggs are covered by the yellow.

A process of distillation then follows, and the “water” is what comes out of this.

So what of our soap-making?  A little further on it says:

2. … Then mix with the ashes other egg-yellows, as in the art of soap-making; stir together the wet and dry materials, and put them all into an alembic.  Do the same operation as before, but changing the recipient of the water, that is the rogion.

The notes make plain that in this case “the ashes” is a sulphur residue; but the point is that Zosimos knows that soap is made by mixing ashes – from wood, in the case of soap-making – with a fatty substance.

(At this point I must confess that I knew little about how soap is made, but a google search tells me that wood ash, or “potash”, contains Potassium Hydroxide (KOH), which is the alkali in soft soaps, which combines with the fat – usually oil – to make soap.  Hard soaps, in bar form, require Sodium Hydroxide.)

But there are two references to sapo in this text.  The other is close to the end:

Now after 41 days, remove the alembic from the hot place and let it cool completely for 5 days.  Once the 5 days have elapsed, place the alembic on the sawdust ashes and extract the divine water from it; not into your hand, but into a glass vessel.  Then, taking this water, put it into an alembic, as before, and heat it for 2-3 days.  After removing it, stir and expose to the sun on a shell.  When the product becomes as compact as soap, warm an ounce of silver and cover it with this solidified  water, i.e. 2 carats of dry powder, and you will have some for.

The total number of days of the operation is 110 days, according to what Zosimos the Christian and Stephanus say.  As for me, having foraged from everywhere like a bee and plaited a crown with many flowers, I do homage to you, my master.  Next I will explain what are the devices.  Take care in Jesus Christ, our God, now and forever and in all the ages of ages.  Amen.

The compact soap, from which moisture has evapourated, is all very well.  But the last paragraph betrays that we are not dealing with a text written directly by Zosimos, whatever his date; but with a compilation of fragments, assembled from Zosimos, and from Stephanus – perhaps a commentator – in a form that looks suspiciously like a pupil’s notes.

In the circumstances, can we be sure that these references to soap making are original to Zosimos?  Rather than a later addition?

It is slightly depressing to find the evidence for the early use of soap so fragile.  The author of these statements did indeed know how to make soap, that much is clear.  But was he Zosimos, or some much later writer?  Without knowing more about the transmission of these works – and technical works, by their very nature, tend to be revised, amended, “corrected”, and so on, when copied – it might be rash to be certain.

All the same, I suspect that it is simpler and involves fewer hypotheses if we assume that the statements are indeed original, than to posit an interpolator; in which case, we may reasonably assume that Galen, in the late 2nd century, is probably using the word “sapo” in the same way as Zosimos, and therefore the use of soap does indeed start to appear in the times of Marcus Aurelius or thereabouts.

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 Archive.org 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.