Stephanos of Alexandria steps out of the shadows

In the early 600’s Stephanos of Alexandria was a philosopher interested in alchemy.  His extant works consist of nine orations on alchemy, the last delivered in the presence of the emperor Heraclius.

Three of these were translated into English and published before WW2 in Ambix, the alchemy journal, by Sherwood Taylor.  As I have mentioned before, I discovered a draft of the fourth oration among Taylor’s papers in Oxford a couple of years ago. 

Last year I suggested to the modern editors of Ambix that it might form a nice part of their 75th anniversary issue to publish the material.  They agreed but not a lot happened.

Over the weekend I had an email from Dr Jenny Rampling, who has taken responsibility for this.  She’s in Athens, “cataloguing Hellenistic alchemical manuscripts” — which I suspect means medieval mss. of Hellenistic texts, but is still exciting stuff!  Apparently she’s working with a Greek researcher. 

She tells me that investigation reveals the draft would need revision before it could be published, but the idea is for her co-worker to do that, and that it will indeed appear in Ambix.  She asked my opinion, so I’ve written a letter of suggestions, although how welcome they will be I don’t know — never ask for opinions unless you want to get them!

I’ve also suggested she talk to the CSNTM people.  After all, people in Athens cataloguing mss ought to have some common interests.

So … some progress.  Ancient texts by alchemists are still ancient texts, and ought to be accessible.  Currently they are not.

UPDATE (July 3rd).  No reply or acknowledgement from Jenny Rampling.  Hum.

The Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry

I mentioned some time back that I came across the works of the philosopher Stephanos of Alexandria.  In particular I discovered that he delivered nine discourses on alchemy, the last before the emperor Heraclius in the early 7th century.

Three of these discourses were translated into English before WW2 by a chap called Sherwood Taylor, who published them in Ambix, the journal of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry.  I suspected that more might exist in manuscript, so I located Taylor’s papers, and found a fourth discourse in draft among them.  This I sent to Peter Morris, editor of Ambix, with the suggestion that it might make a nice anniversary item.  He agreed but deputised it to someone called Jenny Rampling.  This was October 2009, since when I heard nothing.  I thought I’d prompt him, so emailed again this evening.

But this all prompted me to go and look at their website.  And … it’s like a glance into the 1980’s.  Every activity seems to be offline.  They look so much like a small band of people, with a very restricted interest, as fan groups  tend to be.  So every such group had to be, before 1995.  It’s not clear that they have moved on that much, tho.  The website is good, but everything points people offline.  They’ve digitised all the back-issues of Ambix — good, although probably not that hard to do — but made sure no-one can see them unless they pay.

I hope they start to reach out.  While I am not very interested in the history of chemistry, it is a pity that the ancient texts embedded in Ambix are not accessible more widely.

Updates on Origen, and Stephanos of Alexandria

I’ve received a revised version of Origen’s 12th homily on Ezekiel, and paid for it, and apparently homily 13 is in an advanced state.  So very good news here. I need to review it and comment, which I will do in a day or so.

Meanwhile my alchemical friends have transcribed the unpublished English translation of the 4th lecture by the 7th century philosopher Stephanos of Alexandria.  They did a nice job.  I’ve sent a copy of it to the editor of Ambix; and also invited someone who tells me he knows Greek and is interested in alchemy to revise it.  Let’s see if he can!

I did a couple more pages of James of Edessa’s Chronicle today as well!

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!