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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)


Western Alchemy: Child of Greek Philosophy

Paul Kiritsis - Monday, June 04, 2012
An alchemist attempting to discover the true nature of matter and the Philosopher's Stone

For centuries the Hellenes had busied themselves with the technai, the crafts, and specifically the endeavour to mimic the handiworks of their gods, the twelve Olympians. In classical myth the god responsible for the crafts was Hephaestus, the lame son of Hera. He was, amongst other things, a goldsmith, an armorer, a builder, an architect, a worker in bronze, and an inventor of mechanical devices or automata.[1] Some of the most awe-inspiring and formidable implements used by the Olympian gods and goddesses were ensouled by Hephaestus’s abyssal and multi-coloured imagination. These include, but are not exclusive to, the grand Olympian palace, Helios’ gilded chariot, Hermes’ winged petasos and helmet, the girdle of Aphrodite, Eros’s bow and arrows, as well as the weaponry of famous Trajan heroes like Achilles and Heracles. More significant feats were the assembly of automatons as personal assistants, the fabrication of indestructible and immortal dogs to serve a divine master in Alcinous, King of the Phoenicians, and the fabrication of a Herculean man of bronze named Talos whom he placed on Crete to patrol the shore and safeguard Europa, a Phoenician princess loved by Zeus, from hostile foreign adversaries.[2]

The Greeks perceived their gods to be immortal versions of themselves, and so the traits of this god were transposed to the legendary figure of the craftsman Daedalus. Better known for his construction of a Cretan labyrinth to harbour the dreaded Minotaur and a wooden cow used as a contraption for Queen Pasiphae to mate with a white bull, Daedalus’ quirky and admonitory inventions included automata of every type and description. In his De anima Aristotle (384–322 bce), the preeminent polymath of classical thought, makes mention of a Daedalian creation–a mobile simulacrum of the goddess Aphrodite whose movement could be attributed to a quantity of quicksilver that lay inside. Some of Daedalus’ inventions were even employed as props by Aeschylus and Euripides in their satirical plays to illustrate points about the nature of reality.[3] What the Greeks sought to illuminate through these tales of clever imitation was that the human intellect partakes of the divine intellect because it can successfully and convincingly replicate anything it sees in the natural world.

Save for being a product of the marriage of the technical crafts with Greek philosophy in an Alexandrine milieu that was as deep and complex as it was variegated and broad, Western alchemy was the discipline that best captured the Hellenistic plight to perfect and compete with Nature herself. It appropriated many of the ideas that were around at the time–speculative nature science, Stoic philosophy, Gnostic soteriological notions of purification and illumination via contemplation, Egyptian symbolism of the Osirian rebirth cycle[4]–and in doing so offered a new point of reference pertaining to perspectives on the nature of matter through which the relationship between the ethereal and material, the divine and corporeal, and the natural and artificial could be scrutinized. Alchemy was different from the Hellenistic and Egyptian technai of metallurgy, glass-making, pottery, chemistry, dyeing, jewellery-making, and generating lifelike automata because it went beyond the cosmogony of superficial imitation to a perfective one in which a different atomic structure could be imposed onto the existing blueprint of a created object or substance, thus altering its inherent “form”.  Adopting the role of a secondary or inferior deity, the alchemist could fashion gemstones, metals, elixirs and other products by first reducing them to primal chaos or prima materia[5] in a manner reminiscent of God’s creation ex nihilo, an act of creating something out of nothing. This fanciful list of natural replication would later evolve to encompass artificial procreation in the homunculus[6], a rudimentary proto-cloning of human beings with biotechnological consequences and ethical concerns much more relevant now than what they were back then.

Even though the origins of Western alchemy are ambiguous, ill-defined and shrouded in mystery, we must attempt at least a superficial demarcation of its development in Hellenistic Egypt for the sake of pinpointing which Hellenistic ideas it entered into dialogue with and when this might have transpired. Nevertheless, what is clear beyond reasonable doubt is that prior to its confluence with Hellenistic philosophy, the proto-alchemy of the Egyptian Late Period was closely related to the chemical arts and the metallurgical crafts which sought to counterfeit precious stones and dyes.[7] Hence in its formative stage, a historian of science or Western esotericism would not be wrong in claiming that alchemy was purely a mimetic endeavour. According to Andre-Jean Festugiere (1898–1982), the French philosopher who descried a threefold division of surviving historical documents pertaining to alchemy, this initiatory period of the discipline’s evolution lasted until about 200bce and conceived of technical prescriptions purely in a mechanical and quantitative manner. Such is obviously the case with the Leyden X and Stockholm papyri which give a plethora of instructions for the counterfeiting of gold and the synthetic replication of silver, pearls, and textile dyes.[8] The trajectory of its outlook allegedly changed between 200bce and 100ce, when substances, metals, and natural processes were understood in light of qualitative animistic interactions; everything that exited in the cosmos was arranged or configured according to the polar forces of “love” and conflict”, which forged “sympathies” and “antipathies” between individual objects or substances. Festugiere argued that this phase was embodied par excellence by Bolus the Democritean’s (c. 200bce) alchemo-mystical treatise Physika kai Mystika, though it is now contested that the text in question dates to the first centuries ce and was probably reworked a number of times.[9] Finally, the fragmentary works of Gnostic alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis (c. 300ce) complete the implanting of Hellenistic philosophy into the chemical technologies of ancient Egypt.[10] The dream-like visions described at length in Visions transcribe purifications of the soul and Nature in Gnostic and Stoic terms[11], drawing attention to the notion that alchemy was a viable avenue through which Nature and the human soul, both of which had their origin in the prima materia, passed through a cosmic distillation apparatus in order to emerge regenerated from their fallen and accursed state.           

Scholars of Western Esotericism today believe that the feasibility of transmutational endeavours indigenous to the discipline of ancient alchemy is only discernible in the context of Aristotelian nature philosophy. While this may be true, concepts vital to an Aristotelian teleology hinged on the relationship between “matter” (“hyle”) and “form” (“eidos”) are no doubt cogitations of earlier Greek thought. The most important of these is the ubiquitous prima materia, a synonym for what the ancients understood as the undifferentiated first matter from which everything in the corporeal world was made and to which it would eventually return. The alchemists themselves believed that transmutation as a world-creating and self-actualization process was impossible without a return to the primordial state of Oneness. They were also convinced that the virginal, unformed essence of the soul and unactualized matter were both projections of the prima materia, and prima materia was often equated with the culmination of the opus, the ultima materia or Philosopher’s Stone.[12] Thus for a base substance or “soul” to be transmuted into silver and gold it had to be reduced to its primal state first. This marked a formative stage in the alchemical opus known as necrosis or nigredo in which the old form or matter putrefies, dies and is supplanted by a much purer and virginal one that ignites from its ashes. As both the matrix and fruition of the Stone, it seems natural that the prima materia would be imbued with epithets that are variegated yet qualitatively linked: moon, sea, mother, mercury, water, earth, virgin, menstrue, poison, chaos, water, dew, and hyle.[13]         

So where exactly did the idea of an underlying interconnectedness for the universe, the insinuation that all is One, actually come from? The Greeks have always been a curious and seafaring peoples, and there is ample evidence to suggest that they were travelling to Egypt as early as the eighth and seventh centuries bce.[14] Their adventures in the land of the Nile would have brought them face to face with the Egyptian priesthood, and a great many Greek travellers would have been entrusted with intimate details of the Heliopolitan creation myth. The state myth makes use of a dramatic metaphor to descry how the universe came into being. It speaks of a primeval ocean of undifferentiated mass called Nun which existed for time immemorial before its self-generated vortices pushed up a mound of fertile silt.  In turn, the silt differentiated into a conscious and self-engendered creator god who proceeded to masturbate and ejaculate a pair of substances, air and moisture, from whence all created matter emerged.[15] Being of an overtly curious and investigative disposition, the early Greeks would have brooded upon the homogenous substance of un-creation which the Egyptians defined as primeval chaos (χάος).They would have wanted to tear aside the metaphoric veil and know its true nature, an obsession which bamboozled the Ionian pre-Socratics for centuries on end.

Smyrna-born poet Homer (c. 850bce) stayed faithful to the Egyptian conception, describing the primordial substance as “River Ocean, a deep and mighty flood, encircling land and sea like a Serpent with its tail in its mouth.”[16] A pictogram of this image would appear much later in an eleventh century Hellenistic manuscript together with the slogan hen to pan, the notion that everything is one.[17]  Thales (c. 630-546bce), on the other hand, visualized a flat earth floating atop a base substance which resembled a vast and desolate ocean. He too aligned himself with the view put forth by the Egyptian creation myths and Homer.  A pupil of his, Anaximander of Miletos (c.610-546bce), called it the apeiron, a term which means “boundless” and recalls the mutability of water. Anaximenes (584-28bce), also of Miletos, was the first philosopher to initiate a departure from the established convention, visualizing the base substance of the cosmos as a kind of vapor or air but not of the physical type. Meditating on the problem at hand, he reasoned that condensation of the primal substance produced physical air, water and earth while its rarefaction formed fire. His emphasis on transformation of one substance into another formed the foundation of Empedocles of Acragas’ (ca. 490-430bce) doctrine of the elements which was henceforth absorbed into Aristotle’s nature philosophy. Of all pre-Socratic philosophers it was a contemporary of Anaximenes in Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475bce) that probably came closest to what many contemporary esotericists believe to be true. Seeing that the active mover behind the rotation of the elements is fire, it made sense to him that the underlying cause of all phenomena must be an ethereal fire of sorts.[18]       

In his instructional poem On Nature, a philosophical work written in hexameter, Empedocles made an important contribution to Aristotelian nature science regarding the doctrine of the elements. Unlike the pre-Socratics who believed that each element was a primary substance in its own respect, Empedocles posited that it was the prima materia that differentiated into the four elements under the influence of four auxiliary qualities. It should be evident that the four elements in question are not to be confused with the four corporeal manifestations of the same name; they are merely principles comprised of immutable corpuscles that enable the prima materia to take on innumerable guises whilst remaining fundamentally unchanged. Hence many centuries afterward, the compressed summa or compendium of alchemical knowledge presented in the enigmatic Tabula Smaragdina or Emerald Tablet under the aegis of the legendary Hermes Trismegistus could staunchly claim that the Stone’s father is the solar orb (also Fire or Philosophical Sulphur) and its mother the lunar orb (also Water or Philosophical Mercury). Conversely the wind or Air would be implicated as the womb which carried it and the volatile and moist humus that is Earth would be cast in the presiding role of wet nurse.[19]

 In the aforementioned cosmogony, Fire, an active, masculine principle with a propensity to rise, is dry and hot. Air, also an active, masculine principle but with a tendency to expand, is hot and wet. Alternatively, the feminine, passive principle of Water is wet and cold because of its inherent nature to expand and drop while Earth, also of the same cut as water but characterized by a condition of solidity that causes it to drop towards the naval of the earth, is cold and dry.[20] Each element shares a secondary quality with two others, aligning them into an eternal cycle known as elemental rotation where a succeeding condition is potentially latent in an existing one. As had been posited by Heraclitus the only active mover in this assembly is Fire, an element whose physical constituent spurs the protean transformation of chemical water from a liquid to a gas and whose absence enables its transition back into a liquid and a solid. By this virtue, it made perfect sense to the ancient alchemists that the underlying cause of phenomena, the manifestations of the noumenal world, as well as the inner workings of Mother Nature whose ways could be observed through chemical processes like calcination, coagulation, distillation, sublimation, and dissolution, could all be attributed to the subtle action of fire.               

This brings us to the genius of Plato. In following century-old premises brooded upon by Ionic pre-Socratics, Plato borrowed their vision of the world as a living creature along with Anaximenes’ vision of the First Cause as an ethereal fire and married them with Pythagorean mystical insights that defined the First Cause in strictly qualitative and geometric terms. If the uncreated was a spherical speck of light or fire which mysteriously took on a plethora of forms when it differentiated into other substances and qualities, and if everything that had been created was interconnected and infused with the same life force which emanated from the primeval time origin, then the obvious deduction would be to conceive reality as being two-fold; somewhere out there existed a world of Eternal Ideas, Forms, and Archetypes that stood apart from and underpinned the visible world of “becoming” or created Nature. Time and space, qualities of the latter, separated the two dimensions.

Further speculations were then made within the framework of an animistic ontology, placing the earth under the mediation of a Universal Soul (psyche) which united the human soul in its virginal state with the web of the cosmic animal that was Nature. The latter is a philosophical shard that blatantly recalls the famous Hermetic adage, “As Above, So Below”. Both the universal and the human psyche were superior and inferior reflections of a Universal Spirit (nous) that stood above them on the cosmological totem pole and espied the first cogitation, a primeval and benevolent act of self-love that was God. Directly beneath the Universal Soul was the earth and below that the formless hyle, the prima materia.[21] Western alchemy would use logic proceeding from the threefold hypostasis of the Platonic cosmos to forge connections between the sickly metals of the mineral realms and the chaotic human soul seeking unio mystica with the Godhead, both having to be purged of their “sickness” and restored to an original state of perfection if the true essence of Spirit in all its glory (i.e. gold) was going to shine through. In hindsight, it appears that alchemy’s theoretical deduction of the existence of God, the animistic context through which it operates, the idea of a transcendental realm, the relationship between macrocosm and microcosm, and much of its terminology derive explicitly from Platonic metaphysics.[22]        

At this point it should also be mentioned that Neo-Platonic philosophy exerted a profound influence on practical aspects of the alchemical process, though it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that manuscripts circumscribing this confluence come to light. Strictly speaking, the Neo-Platonic cosmos was merely a system of orthodox Platonism that congealed under Plotinus (205-70ce), a Greek-Egyptian from the Deltaic Lycopolis in Lower Egypt. His closest disciple and biographer, the Lycian-born Porphyry (232-305ce) consolidated and amplified a cosmological system whereby the Aether-filled spheres of the seven planets and the four Empedoclean elements of the earth separated Man from the Empyrean of God and the primum mobile, an etheric substance which permeated space and facilitated the heavenly rotation.[23] It’s likely that the sevenfold astrological schema through which incarnating souls picked up their rudimentary character traits was extended to the corresponding metals.

Hence when alchemists relayed details of practical work, they could speak of it in the context of a three or four coloured division that was underpinned by a sevenfold schema; the Saturnine, Jovial and Lunar forces lunarized the base matter by initiating chemical processes such as calcination, solution and putrefaction which brought about nigredo and albedo in the sealed vessel.[24] Successful completion of latter bestowed upon the alchemist the gift of the “white stone”; the power of healing and of transmuting base matter like lead or mercury into silver. Further operations were then carried out by Venusian, Martian and Solar forces which solarized the just formed “white stone” through chemical reduction, sublimation, coagulation and fermentation.[25] These subsequent reactions in the sealed vessel or glass brought about citrinitas and rubedo, culminating in the synthesis of a glittering red powder of significant weight known as the “red stone”; this was the ultima materia or Philosopher’s Stone, with the power to transmute base metals to gold and impart immortality. The creation of the “white stone” under the aegis of the first three planetary powers comprised what alchemists termed the Lesser Work and the creation of the “red stone” under the aegis of the last three the Greater Work. Mercury, a planet-metal that would have comprised the preliminary stage, was never ascribed a definitive position in its own right because it was considered to be the formative force behind the entire alchemical opus.

Perhaps the single most influential aspect of Hellenistic philosophy on alchemical theory was conferred by Plato’s student Aristotle (384–322 bce), who amplified the teleological concern of Platonic cosmogony. His hierarchical schema of higher purposes tended to define created matter, an individual object or substance, in terms of four primary quotients including the material, the formal, the efficient, and the final.[26] The first two relayed its material composition and unique anatomical configuration, the third attempted to delineate the moving force behind it, whilst the fourth and last had to make do with the ultimate purpose for its existence, a principle that had been programmed into the individual object or substance by the Platonic prototype that existed in the higher essential world of Forms and was itself a thought of God. According to Aristotle, everything that incarnated on the corporeal plane came equipped with a congenital nisus, an intrinsic desire to become the Platonic Form existing in the Empyrean of God upon which it had been modeled. In this eternal cycle of change to be understood as a see-saw interaction between fiery activity or “form” and passive potentiality or “hyle”, the baby desires to become a full-grown human, the egg a chicken, the seed a tree, the caterpillar a butterfly, and the element carbon a diamond. There were far-reaching implications for the mineral kingdom under the mediumship of such logic; base metals weren’t the monolithic, inert or dead reagents they appeared to be but ensouled embryos in variant stages of gestation deep in caves and pockets of the earth that comprised the subterranean womb of the Great Mother Goddess.[27] Measured against gold, a metal that was perceived to be the material reflection of the immaterial, spiritual prototype of God, the other six know metals were essentially embryonic gold that had yet to ripen. This was the natural process which the alchemist sought to accelerate under artificially simulated conditions.   

We see a confluence of many pre-Socratic, Platonic, and animistic ideas surrounding minerals and metals in Aristotle’s Meterologica. In this particular treatise the Stagirite argues that the material occupying the space taken up by the primum mobile and the planetary spheres wasn’t the four earthly elements but an indivisible, incorrupt and previously unidentified fifth substrate known as “Aether” or the “quintessence”. [28]This was one and the same with pneuma or transcendental Spirit. He also lays bare the proposition that the inhabitants of the subterranean kingdom all originated from exhalations of moist “watery vapor” and dry “earthy smoke” deep in the loins of the earth. Those that could be dissolved, a category including gold and the imperfect metals, were comprised of the wet substrate while those impermeable and resistant to change like fossils and rocks were creations of the dry one. When the Arab polymath Jabir ibn Hayyan (c. 721-815) described the growth of metals in the Liber misericordiae of the Corpus Jabirianum (8th- 10th century) some eleven centuries afterward, he connected the first of Aristotle’s exhalations to Sulphur, the active principle of flammability and combustibility, and the second to Mercury, the principle of fusibility and volatility. Jabir believed that the shape and physiognomy of metals corresponded to two qualities that were incongruent to the two prevailing qualities of their internal matter. Each metal congealed under the aegis of a particular planetary power acting upon a marriage or coniunctionis between Mercury, consisting of the passive elements of Water and Earth, and Sulphur, consisting of the active elements of Fire and Air. This was known as the Sulphur-Mercury theory, a model that would go on to dominate Western alchemy until the development of phlogiston theory in the latter stages of the seventeenth century.[29] Alternatively, in his renowned medieval alchemical treatise Summa perfectionis, the Latin Geber (ca. 1200) claims that exaltation of the Philosopher’s Stone was feasible because Mercury was composed of minute corpuscles that would induce transmutation by diffusing through the perforated exterior of a base metal, an idea that was influenced by the Aristotelian idea of “least parts” as described in Physics and Meterologica.[30] 

The Stagirite’s speculations encompassed far-reaching consequences for the aurific art by strategically positioning it on a pedestal of eternal feasibilities that would precariously balance between poles demarcating the good and the evil, the genuine and the fraudulent, and the natural and the artificial for centuries to come. In his Physics, Aristotle differentiates between the artificial and the natural by illuminating the former’s condition of inertness and the latter’s proclivity towards motion and change. He then explicates (at Physics II 8 199a15-17) the nature of mimesis by positing that artificial intervention on the part of the artist can either replicate the prototype or blueprint without changing its inner composition (mimetai), or more importantly, accelerate the entelechies of formed matter or substances in ways which violate the teleological cycle (epitelei). In his treatise Meterologica, Aristotle uses verbs associated with the artificial activity of cooking like “roasting” and “boiling” to implicate that both the technical operations seeking to mimic natural processes and that the natural processes themselves are reflections of one another, fundamentally the same.[31] Over and beyond the fact that these words constitute women’s work, an synthetic activity that  was used to describe the synthesis of the Philosopher’s Stone by Michael Maier (1568–1622) and some of the later alchemists,  the couching of a natural process in artificial terminology betrays Aristotle’s conviction that artificial methods could still generate a natural product.

The first union between Greek natural philosophy and the “proto-scientific” technical recipes occurred during the life and times of Bolus the Democritean, an active Pythagorean who lived in the Deltaic Egyptian city of Mendes during the second century bce.[32] Known for his mystical approach to the artisanal crafts, Bolus wrote a rather lengthy alchemical treatise entitled Physika kai Mystika of which only segments have survived. While revealing a deep preoccupation with both the physical and paraphysical, Bolus’s work delineates a process whereby a base substance or the prima materia, usually lead or mercury, is used to prepare gold, the Great Work or Philosopher’s Stone. In this, the earliest known prototype of metallic transmutation, transformation and exaltation of the “stone” is marked by four distinct phases of colouration that serve as exoteric markers of a deduction process instigated by the laws of cosmic sympathy and antipathy. Thus the “stone” or noble metal is conferred form only after undergoing putrefaction through melanosis (nigredo), bleaching through leucosis (albedo), yellowing through xanthosis (citrinitas) and finally reddening through iosis (rubedo). Purple sometimes takes the place of red in the last of these stages, hinting at the spiritual ennoblement bubbling directly beneath a chemical process which Bolus no doubt understood as changes to colour and properties that went beyond that of the superficial.

The full grafting of Hellenistic philosophy onto the technical and chemico-operative prescriptions of the proto-alchemical period in Egypt is clearly discernible in the work of the Gnostic Zosimos who tended to view alchemy as a soteriological method whereby Nature as a whole could be transformed.  In his fragmentary commentary titled On Virtue, Zosimos describes a series of dream-like visions and accompanying interpretations in which he implicitly alludes to the idea that the intangible principle of zestfulness, colour, character, distinctiveness, and ensoulment that is the pneuma (Spirit) can be separated from its corporeal prison through ordinary evaporation processes like sublimation and distillation.[33] His clever use of metaphor to draw parallels between base metals and human beings; between the distillation apparatus and temples and altars; and between the liberation of the spirit-soul from the human body and the transformation of the volatile substance in base metals is intentional and draws attention to corresponding processes of creation reflected in the Divine Intellect or the One.

Proceeding from these symbolic correspondences, a secondary dream transcribed in “Visions” involving the ritual torture, punishment (kolasis) and death of a horde of men inside an alchemical flask can be equated with the liberation of pneumata from their restrictive matrix through heat and the application of corrosives, their purification with rudimentary transformation into a nobler form, and the resurrection or reanimation of their mutilated bodies the crystallization of a new form. Zosimos first discusses this alchemical allegory in the context of individual reagents before augmenting his parameters to include created Nature as a whole. He postulates that success in transmutation is entirely contingent on the individual alchemist, who, in seeking success must permit for Nature (physis) to be “forced to the investigation” (ekthlibomene pros ten zetesin) by regressing to a primordial state of confusion and suffering (talaina) where her instinctual reaction will be to assume variant intermediary states of being until she wafts closer and closer to death.[34] Only through this arduous trajectory can she ever hope to multiply her conscious and become more pneumatic. According to Zosimos, the manipulation of the invigorating life principle or pneuma and its reintegration with the lifeless physical base through these practical techniques resulted in genuine transmutation.

Several sections in the thirteen opusules of Zosimos’s Authentic Memoirs deal with distillation equipment in a pneumatic capacity.[35] He describes several apparatuses intended for sublimation; numerous multi-piped alembics fashioned from glass and fitted with clay or terracotta stems that were used for either distillation or the fixation of mercury; and a sophisticated, cylinder-like vessel called a kerotakis. As an implement of sublimation the last of these was especially significant because it facilitated changes in colouration and properties that were no doubt construed as a genuine recombination of pneuma and body. The kerotakis tower was a closed vessel comprised of three cubicles: a lower compartment in which the material to be sublimed was placed, a perforated plate near the top of the vessel on which a lead of metal or ore was placed, and a hemispheric cap which collected the vapours. Sublimation was performed by fixing a substance, usually arsenic sulphide, mercury, or sulphur, on the lowermost compartment directly above a burning furnace and letting the vaporous fumes react with the metal or ore resting on the middle of the plate. Once the fumes reached the hemispherical lid on the top they would condense into liquid and sluice their way back to the compartment containing the liquefied substance. Eventually, the sublimate would infuse itself into the metallic base rendering modifications to external colours and patinas that were perceived by Zosimos to be fundamental changes in the structure of matter. 

In retrospect, the imitative arts have a very long and illustrious history in Western civilization. Irrespective of their innate gravitation towards a particular craft, all artists were primarily interested in the amalgamation of synthetically fabricated features that either rivalled that of their natural prototype or excelled over it. For Plato, Plotinus, and the Neo-Platonists, there was an immaterial world of Forms, a realm of being that stood apart from and underpinned the sphere of created Nature or “becoming”. The fundamental principles of time and space separated the two worlds; time set forth the wheel of change, and change was understood to mean an adherence to the cycles of birth, growth and death which enabled everything natural to strive for perfection, to seek its ultimate “form”. Assuming the role of a miniature Demiurge, an artist could replicate natural products through mimesis. Often the products themselves would be impressive and aesthetically pleasing yet they lacked the intrinsic principle of movement and the inner qualities that characterized their prototypes. An example par excellence of the counterfeiting of natural products like gold and silver as well as natural dyes and precious stones pervades the technical prescriptions of the Leyden X and Stockholm papyri, both of which represent a mechanistic or “exoteric” proto-alchemy.

Later, when the alchemical writings fused with the philosophical musings of the Greeks and above all the nature philosophy of Aristotle, the Hermetic Art reorientated itself in the Alexandrine world as a techne that could modify the underlying structure of matter and hence influence teleology. By the time Zosimos of Panopolis (c. 300ce) started writing his twenty-eight volume corpus which encompassed his own innovative insights and earlier texts, alchemy was no longer just a perfective and chemical operation seeking to create the ultima materia, the worldly panacea, or gold. It was a dual art imbued with a redemptive and mystical soteriological aspect in which the human soul, also prima materia, forged a new personality for the alchemist and in doing so mirrored the torture of matter in the alembic as it was purified, cleansed, and refined through repeated cycles of solve et coagula. One could argue that this, a techne that sought to perfect the embryo-forms in the womb of the earth by causing them to ripen prematurely, to spiritualize the human body and spur an embodiment of the Spirit most typical of illumination, constituted the last of a series of stages in the evolution of ancient alchemy that was inherited by the Arabs and the Christian West. Alongside medicine, alchemy claimed an illustrious and exalted place in the hierarchy of ancient technai by claiming to recapitulate the processes of creation in whole and down to the last bit of detail. The production of stones, metals, substances, powerful elixirs, and even human life itself, actions that had originally stemmed from divine cogitation itself, were now viable and seduced people from all areas of intellectual inquiry as well as those who styled themselves alchemists. Of course, none of it would have been possible had alchemy not borrowed its authoritative looking glass from Greek philosophy.   

[1] Edith Hamilton, Mythology (New York City, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 1969), pp. 36. 

[2] Katerina Servi, Greek Mythology (Athens, GR: Ekdotike Athenon, 1997), pp. 50.

[3] Sarah P. Morris, Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 217-223.

[4] Bernard, D. Haage, ‘Alchemy II: Antiquity-12th Century’, in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, ed. by Wouter, J. Hanegraaff, Antoine Faivre, Roelof van der Broek, and others, 2 vols (Leiden: Brill, 2005), I, pp. 22.

[5] The passive, receptive, unformed basis known as the hyle from which all matter, be it immaterial and of the soul or material and of the world, is formed. 

[6] Bernard, D. Haage, ‘Alchemy II: Antiquity-12th Century’, in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, ed. by Wouter, J. Hanegraaff et al., 2 vols (Leiden: Brill, 2005), I, pp. 28.

[7] Stanton J. Linden, The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 46-49.

[8] Ibid, pp. 46-49.

[9] Ibid, pp. 38.

[10] Joseph L. Henderson and Dyane N. Sherwood, Transformation of the Psyche: The Symbolic Alchemy of the Splendor Solis (East Sussex, UK: Routledge, 2003), pp. 9.

[11] Albert de Jong, ‘Zosimus of Panopolis’, in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, ed. by Wouter, J. Hanegraaff, Antoine Faivre, Roelof van der Broek, and others, 2 vols (Leiden: Brill, 2005), I, pp. 1185.

[12] Titus Burckhardt, Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul (Shaftesbury, UK: Element Books, 1986), pp. 97.

[13] Lindy Abraham, A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 156.

[14] Michael Rice, Egypt’s Legacy: The Archetypes of Western Civilization 3000-30bc (London, UK: Routledge, 1997), pp. 178-179.

[15] Lorna Oakes and Lucia Gahlin, Ancient Egypt (New York City, NY: Hermes House, 2002), pp. 301.

[16] Charles Mills Gayley, The Classic Myths in English Literature and Art (Boston, USA: Adamant Media Corporation, 2005), pp. 3.

[17] Bernard, D. Haage, ‘Alchemy II: Antiquity-12th Century’, in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, ed. by Wouter, J. Hanegraaff, Antoine Faivre, Roelof van der Broek, and others, 2 vols (Leiden: Brill, 2005), I, pp. 18.

[18] Emile Brehier, The History of Philosophy: The Hellenic Age (Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press, 1965), pp. 208.

[19] Stanton J. Linden, The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 28.

[20] Titus Burckhardt, Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul (Shaftesbury, UK: Element Books, 1986), pp. 94-95.

[21] Ibid, pp. 116.

[22] Ibid, pp. 115.

[23] The Heart of Plotinus: The Essential Enneads (Perennial Philosophy), ed. by Aldis Uzdavinys (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2009), pp. 248.

[24] Titus Burckhardt, Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul (Shaftesbury, UK: Element Books, 1986), pp. 185-189.

[25] Ibid, pp. 189-191.

[26] Andrea Falcon, ‘Aristotle on Causality’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <>  [Accessed 24th May].

[27] Joseph L. Henderson and Dyane N. Sherwood, Transformation of the Psyche: The Symbolic Alchemy of the Splendor Solis (East Sussex, UK: Routledge, 2003), pp. 5.

[28] Bernard, D. Haage, ‘Alchemy II: Antiquity-12th Century’, in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, ed. by Wouter, J. Hanegraaff, Antoine Faivre, Roelof van der Broek, and others, 2 vols (Leiden: Brill, 2005), I, pp. 19.

[29] Allison P. Coodert, ‘Alchemy IV: 16th-18th Century’, in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, ed. by Wouter, J. Hanegraaff, Antoine Faivre, Roelof van der Broek, and others, 2 vols (Leiden: Brill, 2005), I, pp. 42.

[30] Ibid, pp. 42.

[31] Aristotle, Meterologica, ed. and trans. H.D.P.Lee (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952), IV 381B3-9.

[32] Stanton, J. Linden, The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 38.  

[33] A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science, ed. by Noretta Koertge (New York City, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 221.

[34] Ibid, pp. 221.

[35] Les Alchimistes Grecs: Zosime de Panopolis, ed. and trans. by Michele Mertens (Paris, FR: Les Belles Letres, 1995), pp. 4:130-152.

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