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 The Sources of Alchemy Among Muslims

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PostSubject: The Sources of Alchemy Among Muslims   Tue Sep 25, 2007 10:12 am

Pythagoras (Fithaghurus)

Pythagoras is often mentioned in Arabic philosophy and in gnomic literature. Jaldaki calls him al-mu'allim al-awwal because he acquired the science from hermetic texts. Jabir refers to him as an alchemic author and speaks of Ta'ifat Fthaghurus, the school of Pythagoras, and of his book Kitab almu'sahhahat (Book of Adjustments). Other quotations refer to Pythagoras's theory of numbers. Tughra'i mentions him several times and refers to his treatise about 'natural numbers'. The fragments of texts which are attributed to him could have come either from Turba philosophorum, where he is among the participants, or from other texts.


Archelaos is mentioned in the Fihrist (p. 352, 25) and by al-Kindi in his Fada'il Misr (p. 191, 11). He is considered as the disciple of Anaxagoras and the teacher of Socrates. He should not be confused with his Byzantine namesake, author of an alchemic poem of 336 verses. The Arabs consider him as the author of Turba philosophorum (Mu.shafal aljama'a) and attribute to him the Risalat madd al-ba hr dhat al-ru'ya, a text which had been revealed in a vision about the tide and which was translated into Latin with the title Visio Arislei. This text is introduced as the continuation of Turba philosophorum.


Socrates is considered not only as a wise man but also as an alchemist. Jabir calls him 'the father and mother of all philosophers' and considers him as the prototype of the real chemist. From Socrates to Jabir, there is a continuous tradition which attributes entire treatises to him. Jabir affirms that Socrates was opposed to the writing down of alchemic knowledge to avoid its exposition to the ignorance of the masses. Most references to Socrates refer to his arithmetical speculations (theory of the balance) and also to artificial generation.

Plato (Aflatun)

Olympiodorus already (at the end of the sixth century) considered Plato as an alchemist and Ibn al-Nadlm mentions him in the list of alchemists. Butrus al-Ilmlml mentions an alchemic device called ,hammam Aflatun (Plato's bath).
Among the books attributed to him by the Arabs we can mention the Summa Platonis of which we only have the Latin version. There is a commentary to this book - the Kitab al-Rawabi' - whose Arabic text was edited by Badawi and whose Latin translation is known by the name Liber quartorum. The contents of this work are mainly alchemic but it contains also information on geometry, physiology and astrology. The ancient authors cited are Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Hipparchus, Proclus, the Sophists, Ostanes, Hermes, Asclepius and Hippocrates.
We note also that Plato takes up the story in the forty-fifth discourse in Turba philosophorum; this speech ends with the phrase al-tabi'a tulzimu-ltabi'ata wa-l-tabi'atu taqharu-i-tabSata wa-i-tabi'ata tafra hu li-l-tabl'ati (nature necessarily accompanies nature, nature overcomes nature, nature rejoices in nature), an aphorism often mentioned in Arabic alchemic literature under the name of Plato or anonymously. It comes from the Physika kai Mystika of Democritus.

Aristotle (Aristu)

Aristotle is considered as an alchemist author not so much because of his fourth book Meteorologica but because of his reputation as an all-round scholar. He wrote a book on alchemy for his disciple Alexander. In 618, by order of Heraclius, the book was translated into Syriac by the monk Jean, and the Bishop of Nisibis, Eliyya bar Shinaya, made sure of its orthodoxy. Finally Abdishu' bar Brika, Bishop of Sinjar, and later of Nisibis, made a commentary on it in Syriac of which there still exists an Arabic translation. The text contains an introduction in which Abdlshu reports the legendary history of the text followed by a Ietter from Alexander to Aristotle where the former poses questions to which the latter responds. This dialogue is called sahifat kanz Allah al-akbar (Epistle of the Great Treasure of God). it includes three chapters: (1) About the great principles of alchemy; (2) Alchemic operations; (3) The elixir. Pythagoras, Democritus, Asclepiades, Hermes, Plato, Ostanes and Balmas are mentioned in the text.
We also have a dialogue between Aristotle and the Indian Yuhin sent by the Indian king as messenger to Alexander. Ibn al-Nadim reports this dialogue to Ostanes. Finally in the Jabirian corpus there is a Kitab Musahhaha Aristutalis.

Porphyry (d. c. 303)

Porphyry is often mentioned, especially by Jabir who attributes artificial generation to him. The later alchemists such as Tughra'i and Jaldakl also mention him.

Galen (Jahnus) (d. c. 199 AD)

According to a note in Kitab al-hajar 'ala ra'y Balinas, Galen was interested in alchemy before dedicating himself to philosophy. In fact, he is sometimes mentioned as an authority on alchemy' and fragments of alchemy texts attributed to Galen can be found in the National Library of Cairo.

Bolos the Democritean of Mendes

Bolos the Democritean lived in the second century before Christ. The work of this scholar is varied: alchemy, astrology, medicine. He is probably at the origin of the alchemic tradition transmitted by the work of pseudo-Democritus: Physika kai Mystika. He expounds there the four traditional branches of alchemy: gold, silver, precious stones, dyes. One can find the famous formula which aims to synthesize the quintessence of the alchemic art: 'one nature is charmed by another nature, one nature overcomes another nature, one nature dominates another nature'.
How can this axiom be explained in practical terms? Zosimus, commentator of the fourth century, explains: 'we can proceed with the transmutation of common metal into noble metal by working alloys or by purifying the metals, basing ourselves on the affinity between metals, knowing their "sympathies and antipathies". Raw material, sympathy, transmutation by qualitative change (of the colours), we have thus the principles that constitute alchemy.' Thus the school of Bolos brings to the Egyptian technique a philosophical reasoning which will open the way to the science of the Great Work. 'Once again', says Festugiere, 'we see the union of the Greek spirit and the Oriental art.' The art exists, from ancient times; the goldsmiths of Egypt work metals, stones and purple. But although they have innumerable recipes transmitted from father to son and kept in temple archives, they lack a reasoning method. No-one has yet joined these practices with the principles which explain and justify them. There is practice but not theory. This is what the Greek spirit provides. The merit of Bolos of Mendes was to join theory and experiment and thus found a pseudoscience which would cross the ages up to modern chemistry.
About the same time alchemy was practiced in most Egyptian towns. This first alchemy is a mixture of hermetic or Gnostic elements and old Greek philosophy: Heraclitus, Empedocles and their speculations about the four elements, Parmenides with his theory on the unity of the whole, the Platonic cosmogony of Timaeus.


The most famous character of this time is Zosimus of Panopolis (Akhmim, in Upper Egypt). He probably lived at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century; he wrote an encyclopedia with twenty-eight books on alchemy which he dedicated to his sister Theosebeia. Some sections are original but most of it reproduces old texts lost to the present time. His name in Arabic, because of the ambiguity of the writing, is often transcribed under different forms: Risimus, Rusim, Rusam. Al-Qifli affirms that he lived before Islam.

Some of his aphorisms and anecdotes are reported by Arab authors such as Jahiz, Ibn Durayd, al-Tawhidi,. Ibn Arfa' Ra's calls him 'the universal wise man and the brilliant flame' (al-hakim aljami' wa-i-shihab al-lami'). Ibn al-Nadlm mentions four books from Zosimus: Kitab al-mafatih f-l-santa; Kitab al-sab'tuna risala; Kitab al-'anasir; Kitab ila jamb alhukama' fi-lsan'a.

The epistle from Zosimus to Theosebeia has the title Mushaf al-suwar (The Book of Images). The name of Theosebeia is often rendered as Atusabiya, Amtuthasiya, Uthasiya, etc. Zosimus can be placed at the end of an evolution in alchemy. With Bolos, it became philosophical; with Zosimus it becomes a mystical religion where the idea of salvation is predominant. In fact, the period which separates Bolos the Democritean from Zosimus saw intense alchemic activity. Vastly different elements - Egyptian magic, Greek philosophy, neo-Platonism, Babylonian astrology, Christian theology, pagan mythology - can be found in Zosimus' texts. He is full of gnostic and hermetic books, he knows the Jewish speculations about the Old Testament. He gives to alchemy a religious character which will remain forever, at least in its traditional course, since with the Arab alchemists it will retain its concrete technical character before meeting the Ismaeli gnostic speculations.
Zosimus and his contemporaries who collected their predecessors' traditions insist on their connection with the Egypt of the Pharaohs or with the Persia of Zoroastra and Ostanes. We can find texts under the name of Agathodaimon compared with Hermes. Some written pieces even say that alchemic texts were engraved in hieroglyphs on steles but it was absolutely forbidden to divulge them.
This Greek-Egyptian alchemy survived in Alexandria for several centuries. From here it will go to Constantinople, where several recensions of the 'collection of Greek alchemists' were compiled, and to the Arabs when they conquered Egypt in the seventh century.

Hermes and Hermetic literature

According to Ibn al-Nadlm (351, 19) Arab alchemists considered the Babylonian Hermes as the first one to have mentioned the art of alchemy. Exiled by his countrymen, he came to Egypt where he became king. He wrote a certain number of books on alchemy and was equally interested in the study of the hidden forces of nature.
The Fihrist gives a list of thirteen books of Hermes about alchemy but in fact some of them are about magic. Other texts have been traced: Alfalakiyya al-kubra (The Great Epistle of the Celestial Spheres) by Hermes of Denderah; Risalat al-sirr; Kitab Hirmis ila Tat f-l-santa; Risalat harb al-kawakEb al-barbawiyya; Tadblr Hirmis al-Haramisa; sahlfat Hirmis al'ugma, commentated by Jaldaki; Risalat Qabas al-qabis fi tadbir Hirmis al-Haramisa.

Sirr al-Khaliqa of Ballnas

The Kitab Sirr al-khaliqa wa santat al-tabia also has the title Kitab al-'ilal (The Book of Causes); it was sometimes called simply li-lashya'. In the introduction a certain Sajiyus is introduced, a priest from Nablus who commented on the story of Bal.


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