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.

A modern myth: that a soap factory was found at Pompeii, complete with scented bars!

This evening I came across an assertion that a soap factory was found among the ruins of Pompeii.  Naturally interested, I did a google search and came across endless assertions of this kind.  Some of them asserted that the find came complete with bars of soap; some sites, indeed, felt able to state that the bars of soap were scented.   But no proper references were forthcoming, which naturally made me suspicious.  A very few sites had some (undocumented) statements that this was wrong, referring to the “so-called soap factory”, “so named in the 18th century”, and that the “soap turned out to be fullers earth”, but again there was no reference.

There seems to be almost nothing online about Pompeii!  I don’t mean popularisations, novels, tourist visits, etc.  These, indeed, are endless.  But nothing scholarly; nothing reliable.  Not, at least, that a simple search pursued with some industry would reveal.

In the end I was lucky, and found a book in snippet view that had done some research.  It turned out to be none other than Partington’s A history of Greek fire (1960)!  Which was the source for my last two posts on soap, no less!

Here’s an extract from p.308 (overparagraphed by me):

 J. Sheridan Muspratt [167] said: “In the excavations at Pompeii a complete soap-boiling establishment was discovered, containing soap still perfect. . . . The Editor was greatly interested inspecting the factory.”

The pieces of supposed soap are in the Museo Nazionale in Naples. [168] A specimen of it was examined by de Luca,[169] who reported that it blackened when heated on platinum foil, and when it was warmed with dilute hydrochloric acid “a fatty substance of the consistency of butter was set free.”

K. B. Hofmann,[170] whilst saying that he did not question the result found by de Luca with his specimen, examined another specimen of reputed soap from Pompeii. It was insoluble in ether, alcohol and petroleum ether, had only a small part soluble in water, and effervesced with dilute hydrochloric acid, which dissolved only a small part. The residue was found by qualitative analysis to consist mainly of fuller’s earth of medium quality and it dispersed in water like this:

‘Die in der Fullonica gefundene, von mir geprüfte Masse ist also nichts als Walkerde. Was de Luca analysiert hat, weiss ich nicht—jedenfalls auch keine Seife; denn er gibt an, der unlösliche Antheil seien “thon- und kalkartige Stoffe” gewesen.’

Further, said Hofmann, soap was never found among toilet articles in Pompeii, and modern soap does not redden the hair. There was more interest taken in appearance than cleanliness; Tacitus says the Germans were dirty (sordidus) and, says Hofmann: “Wir haben uns also unsere Vorvater zwar ungewaschen, aber mit pomadierten Kopfen zu denken (We have, therefore, to think of our forefathers as unwashed but with pomaded heads),” A satisfactory history of soap has still to be written.

167.  Chemistry applied to Arts and Manufactures, Glasgow, n.d. (1857-60), Division vi, 868
168.  Feldhaus, Die Technik der Vorzeit, 1914, 1289.
169.  Rendiconti dell’Accademia delle Scienze Fisiche e Mathematiche, Naples, 1877, xvi, 74: Sopra una materia grassa, ricavata da talune terre rinvenute a Pompeji.
170.  “Ueber vermeindiche antike Seife,” in Wiener Studien. Z. f. classische Philologie, Vienna, 1882, iv, 263-70; [quote actually on p.269] Günther, in Iwan Müller, Handbuch der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, V, i, 63, gives this title as “Graz, 1885,” which may be another publication by Hofmann.

This is rather thorough, and I suspect we may take this at face value.

" Amy McCabe (Indiana University) investigates one of the tanks at the back of the so-called soap factory. The function of this industrial space in its final phase remains unclear." Via Interactive Archaeology
” Amy McCabe (Indiana University) investigates one of the tanks at the back of the so-called soap factory. The function of this industrial space in its final phase remains unclear.” Via Interactive Archaeology

An early instance of the story appears in Murray’s Handbook for travellers in Southern Italy, 1853, p.334:

Soap Factory (1786). – A small shop, which contained heaps of lime of excellent quality and other materials for soap-boiling, the vats, evaporating pans, and the moulds.

I wonder what the origin of the story is?  It is certainly wide-spread, and still enjoys currency today.

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.

Galen on the origins of soap

I stumbled across an interesting claim this afternoon, in the Wikipedia article on soap, which I traced to a 1960 textbook on the history of Greek fire (!) by a certain J.R. Partington.[1]

The origin of the name sapo has been much discussed. Some think it is from the German saipjo, others from the English sepe (still used in Scotland), passing by way of Batavia to Gaul. Blumner says true soap was unknown to the ancients, Pliny’s sapo being a pomade made from unsaponified fat and alkali. When true soap was first made by boiling fats or oils with causticised lye seems to be unknown, but the use of causticised lye in making soap (σάπων) is mentioned by Galen,[145] perhaps from Asklepiades junior (c. A.D. 100), who says it is made from the fat of oxen, goats, or wethers, and causticised lye (sapo conficitur ex sevo bulbulo, vel caprino, aut vervecino, et lixivio cum calce). Galen says that the best soap was the German, since it was purest and in some ways the most fatty, that of the Gauls being next best, and that it acted as a medicine and removed all impurity from the body and from clothing. This is the first certain mention of the use of soap as a detergent. Galen [146] says soap is a better detergent than soda (λίτρον). If the mention of Gallic soap in Oreibasios [147] is from Rufus of Ephesus (c. A.D. 100) this would precede Galen’s in a Greek writer. Zosimos the alchemist [148] (c. A.D. 250) mentions both soap (σαπώνιον) and soap-making (σαπωναρικὲ τέκνη).

Sadly I was unable to access the page of the preview with the footnotes (p.333), so I couldn’t get Partington’s references.  I do not know where we might find the statements by Zosimos, therefore.

But a search on the Latin text of Galen, or rather “Asclepiades Junior” – why Latin? – produced some interesting results.  A volume from 1817 quoted that text exactly, and rather more of it:[2]

Sapo conficitur ex sevo bubulo vel caprino, aut vervecino, et lixivio cum calce; quod optimum judicamus Germanicum; est enim mundissimum et veluti pinguissimum, deinde Gallicum. Verum omnis sapo acriter ralaxare potest, et omnem sordem de corpore abstergere, vel de pannis, et exsiccare similiter ut nitrum vel aphronitrum, mittitur et in caustica. (Soap is made from ox, goat or sheep’s tallow, and lye with lime; the best we think is the German [soap]; for it is the purest and almost the fattest, then the Gallic [soap].  Indeed soap can quickly loosen everything, and wipe away all muck from the body, or from clothes, and likewise dry up like nitre/soda or African nitre/sodium carbonate, and is also used as a caustic.) De simplicibus medicaminibus, p. 90. G.

In another book, ascribed to Galen, the greater part of which is taken from Aetius, and of which a Latin translation only remains, De dynamidiis, p. 28. G, according to Gesner’s edition stands: Recipe saponem spatarenticum, and p. 31. C, emplastrum de sapone spathulgno. These epithets, in my opinion, signified soap which was so soft that it could be spread.

But what is Galen’s De simplicibus medicaminibus?  It is unknown to the standard 20-volume edition of Galen’s works by Kuhn.[3]  Fortunately the answer is not far to seek – it is the title of an early printed edition of a pseudo-Galenic work, the Alphabet of Galen, recently edited and translated by Nicholas Everett.[4]  The editio princeps of this text was printed by Diomedes Bonardus under the title Liber Galieni de simplicibus medicinis ad Paternianum, and in the 16th century in the Opera Omnia of Galen[5] as Liber Galieni de simplicibus medicaminibus ad Paternianum.  Likewise I learn that De dynamidiis is also ps.Galenic, and also addressed to the same Paternianus, Paterninus or Paternus – Everett’s introduction is excellent on all these.

De simplicibus medicinis is listed in Fichtner’s modern Galen bibliography as #139: “Ad Paternum = De simplicibus medicinis ad Paternianum = Liber pigmentorum = De simplicibus medicaminibus ad Paternianum = Alfabetum Galieni” and “Nicht bei Kühn; Pseudo-Galen”.  Likewise De dynamidiis appears as #219, also spurious.[6]

But what of this editor “Gesner”?  He turns out to be the 16th century editor Conrad Gessner.  Curiously his edition includes a page listing Galenic spuria, and among them, De simplicibus medicinis![7]  His edition of the work is here, and we quickly see that the book is a list of simple things like aloe, etc.  Unsurprisingly we find a section De sapone here, and the entire entry is as above.

So this is indeed the source of the material given by Partington.  It is not by Galen, nor can he have used it.  It’s from a medieval handbook, at least in its current form, and attributed to Galen in general handbooks which are repeated uncritically throughout the 19th century.

Everett considers that the text incorporates a great deal of ancient medical knowledge.  No doubt it does, like many a medieval text;  but its value as evidence for the use of soap in Galen’s time, or indeed that of Asclepiades Junior, must be negligible.

The main mystery remaining is why Partington attributes the material to Asclepiades Pharmacion, known as Asclepiades Junior (ca. 100 AD).  This attribution is our only other possible reason to consider this material ancient.

It would be good to check the other references in Partington.

Update: A kind correspondent has now sent me the page of references, and I have decided that Partington is not quite as culpable as I first thought!  I have revised the post accordingly.

Now Partington does indeed give extra references, which are as follows:

145.  De compos. med. sec. loc., ii; Kuhn, xii, 586. (i.e. this is Galen)
146.  Method. medend., vii; Kuhn, x, 569. (and this)
147.  Synopseos, iii; in Stephanus, Medicae artis principes, 1567, 53.  (This is Oreibasios)
148.  Berthelot, Collection des anciens Alchemistes Grecs, 1888, vol. ii, 142.3, 143.7.  (This is Zosimos; French translation around here).

Interestingly there is no reference for the material from ps.Galen, although we have tracked it down above.

But let’s now look at those references in Galen and see what the man himself has to say.

Galen, De compositione medicamentorum secundum locos, book 2, in Kuhn xii, p.586, mentions a pound of “sapo” (“saponis libram unam”) as an ingredient, 3 lines from the bottom.  My limited knowledge of Latin words for lye does not allow me to find the reference to it in here, however.  Is there one?

Galen, De Methodo Medendi, book 8 (at least in my copy of Kuhn) of 14, p.569, does indeed contain a reference to “sapo”: “But it is also called soap [sapo/sapon] by those who want to clean most effectively.”  The discussion is about various types of “material for cleansing” the body before bathing, and references caustics like nitre and aphronitre.  The idea of soap is certainly here, if not the specifics, and it is contrasted with nitre / soda.

But is this evidence for soap in Galen’s time?

  1. [1]J.R. Partington, A history of Greek fire and gunpowder, JHU Press, 1960, p.307.
  2. [2]Johann Beckmann, A history of inventions and discoveries, tr. by W. Johnston. Vol. 1-3; 4, 2nd ed, vol. 3, London: Longman &c, 1817, p.225.
  3. [3]Everett, p.11.
  4. [4]Nicholas Everett, The Alphabet of Galen: Pharmacy from Antiquity to the Middle Ages : a Critical Edition of the Latin Text with English Translation and Commentary, University of Toronto, 2012. See p.13-14.
  5. [5]Published in Latin by Junta in 1522, 1528, 1565 and 1586; also in Charterius in 1679 – see Everett p.11.
  6. [6]Online here.
  7. [7]Galeno Ascripti Libri, in Omnia Quae Extant, Froben, 1562. Online at Google books here.