This website was last updated on: 23 August 2011
LAMENT of Hermes the Egyptian
“Do you not know, Asclepius, that Egypt is an image of heaven or, to be more precise, that everything governed and moved in heaven came down to Egypt and was transferred there? If truth were told, our land is the temple of the whole world.”
“And yet, since it befits the wise to know all things in advance, of this you must not remain ignorant: a time will come when it will appear that the Egyptians paid respect to divinity with faithful mind and painstaking reverence — to no purpose. All their holy worship will be disappointed and perish without effect, for divinity will return from earth to heaven, and Egypt will be abandoned. The land that was the seat of reverence will be widowed by the powers and left destitute of their presence. When foreigners occupy the land and territory, not only will reverence fall into neglect but, even harder, a prohibition under penalty prescribed by law (so-called) will be enacted against reverence, fidelity and divine worship. Then this most holy land, seat of shrines and temples, will be filled completely with tombs and corpses.”
“0 Egypt, Egypt, of your reverent deeds only stories will survive, and they will be incredible to your children! Only words cut in stone will survive to tell your faithful works, and the Scythian or Indian or some such neighbor barbarian will dwell in Egypt. For divinity goes back to heaven, and all the people will die, deserted, as Egypt will be widowed and deserted by god and human. I call to you, most holy river, and I tell your future: a torrent of blood will fill you to the banks, and you will burst over them; not only will blood pollute your divine waters, it will also make them break out everywhere, and the number of the entombed will be much larger than the living. Whoever survives will be recognized as Egyptian only by his language; in his actions he will seem a foreigner.”
Excerpt from the Hermetic treatise called Asclepius (translation from the Latin by Professor Brian P. Copenhaver of the University of California, first published 1992)
Purpose of this Website
Most people who know anything about "alchemy" probably think that this belief system passed away sometime during the 17th Century, being replaced by the modern science of chemistry. Surprisingly, there were several notable alchemists alive and well during the 20th Century. Even at the present time (2005), the ideas of these modern alchemists still have many followers - particularly among those who consider themselves part of the New Age Movement. The purpose of this web site is twofold:
1) provide a brief history of alchemical science from Bronze Age Egypt to Renaissance Europe;
2) identify the basic belief systems of five relatively well-known 20th Century occult masters and show how their beliefs parallel those of the Renaissance alchemists.
Twentieth Century Alchemists
Even though alchemy ceased to be a main stream European belief system by the early 18th century, there were at least five reasonably well-known alchemists teaching and writing during the 20th century. The ideas of these modern alchemists still have many followers - particularly among Fourth Way, Neo-Pagan and Depth Psychology groups. These five 20th century alchemists are:
Brief History of Alchemy
by Phil Norfleet
Egyptian and Greek Origins of Alchemy
Alchemy seems to have originated in Bronze Age Egypt. The Egyptian belief in a life after death and the need to mummify their dead probably produced an elementary knowledge of chemistry which became associated with the goal of human immortality. From the 6th Century B.C. onward, many Greek philosophers became interested in Egyptian science and philosophy. Most notably, alchemical beliefs are found in the philosophies of Pythagoras (569-475 B.C.) and Heraclitus (535-475 B.C.) and, subsequently, in the writings of Plato (427-347 B.C.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.).
Greek views of the nature of the physical world became fully merged with Egyptian sacred science and geometry during the Hellenistic and Roman Eras (ca. 300 B.C.-500 A.D.). During the Roman Empire, Neo-Platonism and Hermeticism became the dominant schools for the transmission of this merged Egyptian-Greek belief system. Many alchemical beliefs were incorporated into Neoplatonic philosophy during the latter stages of the Roman Empire and were most notably reflected in the writings of Plotinus (204-270 A. D.) and Proclus (411-485 A.D.).
The earliest known books on alchemy that have survived down to modern times were written by Zosimos of Panopolis. He was an Egyptian-Greek alchemist who was born in central Egypt at the end of the 3rd century A.D. He wrote in the Coptic Greek language, but none of his original manuscripts have survived. However, some of his works are known to us from later Byzantine Greek and Arabic translations. Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung (1875-1961), made an extensive study of some of his surviving texts, the results of which have been published in Volume 13 of Jung's Collected Works.
Unfortunately, in the 4th and 5th Centuries A.D., the Christian Church and Christian Emperors began to systematically persecute all the adherents of non-Christian belief systems. Finally, in 529 A.D., the Emperor Justinian closed all the remaining pagan schools, including Plato's Academy at Athens. Most Academy members fled to Persia where they obtained protection from the Sassanid king Chosroes I at his capital, Ctesiphon. The refugees took with them many important scrolls of philosophy and science. Unfortunately these last few Platonists found that their life remained difficult in Persia due to the hostility of the local Zoroastrian clergy.
In 532, After execution of a peace treaty between the Persian and the Byzantine empires which contained specific clauses guaranteeing their personal security, most of these philosophers returned to the Roman Empire and found sanctuary in the pagan city of Harran (Carrhae) in the Western part of northern Mesopotamia (now southeast Turkey). One of the leading figures of this group was Simplicius (ca. 490-560 A.D.), a former pupil of Damascius. These Neoplatonists founded an Academy-in-exile, that survived at least into the 10th century A.D. After the Arabs conquered this city in the 7th century A.D., the school played an important role in facilitating the Islamic preservation of Greek science and medicine. Harran also became an important center of alchemical research in the Islamic world. Neo-Platonism became a major influence among certain Muslim philosophers and mystics, some of whom later came to be called Sufis.
The Egyptian word "Khem" had always been used in reference to the black land formed by the fertile flood plains bordering the Nile River. As a result, the Greek word for Egypt became "Khemia." Many centuries later, in the 7th Century A.D., Egypt was conquered by the Arabs The Arabs added their prefix "al-" to the existing Greek word Khemia resulting in the word "Alkhemia" meaning "the Black Land." This word is probably the etymology of the word "alchemy" which to Europeans came to mean the scientific and mystical knowledge of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks.
Arabic Origins of Alchemy
Stimulated by the new religion of Islam, the Arabs rapidly conquered vast areas of western Asia and northern Africa. Egypt and Syria were occupied by 641 A.D. and the conquest of Persia was completed by 651 A. D. The Arabs quickly became fascinated by those traditions of Greek science which still remained in Persia, Syria and Egypt. In A.D. 670, following an attempt to besiege Constantinople which was thwarted by "Greek Fire" of the Byzantines, the Arabs turned their attentions to the Greek "Khemia."
The best Arabic alchemy was performed during the first half of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258) A.D.). Jabir ibn-Hayyan (ca. 715-815 A.D.), later known to the Europeans as "Geber" described ammonium chloride, acetic acid from vinegar and even prepared a weak form of nitric acid. His greatest influence however, lay in transmutation of metals. He believed that it was possible to take mercury and sulfur to produce different types of metals by mixing them in different proportions. It was held from then on that any transmuting substance was a dry powder and that it had great powers. The Arabic word for "dry" is "al-iksir" which was converted to the word "elixir" by the Europeans and is often referred to as "philosophers stone."
Al-Razi (ca. 850-925 A.D.) described the preparation of "plaster of Paris" and showed how it could be used to hold broken bones in place. His successor, Ibn Sina (979-1037 A.D.), better known in Europe as Avicenna, was the most important physician between the Roman and modern scientific periods. Ibn Sina learned enough to doubt that transmutation of one metal to another was even possible even though other alchemists still believed it was possible, probably as a result of a desire to obtain large amounts of gold.
By the 12th Century, Arabic science had become stagnant. After centuries of Arab dominance in the physical sciences, leadership passed to the Christian Europeans, who had learned about Islamic alchemy during the Crusades (1096-1291).
European Alchemy in the Late Middle Ages
During the First Crusade, the Europeans conquered Jerusalem in 1099. For the next two centuries, the Crusaders successfully occupied parts of the Levant. During this time, knowledge of Arabic science, including alchemy, filtered back to Europe. In the 12th and 13th Centuries, victories over the Moors in Spain, also provided opportunities for Christians to access the knowledge base of Islamic civilization. The English scholar Robert of Chester (fl. 1140-1150) was one of the first to translate the Arabic works of alchemy into Latin. Subsequently, the Italian scholar Gherard of Cremona (ca. 1114-1187) translated many Arabic works.
By about 1200, European scholars had not only learned about Arabic alchemy but also made advances in the science. Albert of Bollstadt (ca. 1200-1280), known as Albertus Magnus ("Albert the Great") studied many earlier alchemical works and received credit for his description of arsenic. Albert's contemporary, the English Monk Roger Bacon (1214 - 1292), is best known for applying mathematical techniques to science and asserted that the advancement of science lay in this direction. Bacon is also believed to have produced the first European gunpowder, and provided a description of it. Later developments of the Spanish scholars Arnold of Villanova (ca. 1235-1311) and Raymond Lully (1235-1315) lay in more mystical areas including the renewal of attempts to obtain the transmutation of metals.
European Alchemy in the Renaissance
European alchemy reached its zenith during the Renaissance.
The most important alchemist of the 15th century was a man who wrote under the name of Basilius Valentinus (in English -- Basil Valentine). He reputedly was the Canon of the Benedictine Priory of Saint Peter in Erfurt, Germany. He purportedly was born in the city of Mainz in 1394, but the date of his death is unknown. His most important alchemical writing was entitled Duodecim Claves (The Twelve Keys). This is a short work but packed with significant information; anyone interested in alchemy should study this work well. Among other things, he showed that ammonia could be obtained by the action of alkalies on sal-ammoniac, and that hydrochloric acid could be produced from acidizing brine.
Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and his followers, associated with the Platonic Academy in Florence, generated a heightened interest in the mystical texts of late antiquity. Ficino himself translated the Hermetic corpus in 1463; this text was of great influence in the revival of natural magic, astrology, and alchemy. Strangely enough, interest in these mystical subjects closely intertwined with the rise of modern science. Indeed, during the sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries, European scholars displayed an increasing concern with alchemy. This new interest reached a peak in the middle years of the 17th Century before declining.
Paracelsus (1493-1541) was one of the most important natural philosophers of this time. He emphasized the importance of medicine and alchemy as bases for a new understanding of the universe. He interpreted the natural world in terms of alchemy or chemistry and was firmly opposed to the dominant Aristotelian traditions taught at the major European universities. He strongly opposed Scholasticism and sought to replace it with a philosophy influenced by the recently translated Neo-Platonic and Hermetic texts. Paracelsus constantly called for a new observational approach to nature; chemistry or alchemy seemed to be the best example of what this new science should be.
In 1597, the German alchemist Andreas Libau (1550-1616) published a book entitled Alchemia which summarized the medieval achievements of alchemy and is considered the first worthwhile chemical text book. Libau was also the first to describe hydrochloric acid and the preparation of aqua regia by mixing nitric and hydrochloric acids. The name "aqua regia" means "royal water" because of its ability to dissolve water.
In Elizabethan England, John Dee (1527-1608) flourished as a renowned alchemist, mathematician, astronomer and astrologer. He was well versed in Neo-Platonism, Cabbalism and Hermetic philosophy. It is even said that his writings influenced William Shakespeare.
At the beginning of the 17th Century, another Englishman, Robert Fludd (1574-1637), defended the chemically oriented views of the alchemical philosophers and described his own mystical alchemical interpretation of nature in a series of folio volumes on the macrocosm and the microcosm. He also emphasized an alchemical interpretation of the Biblical creation story.
A Belgian physician, Jean Baptiste van Helmont (1579-1644), was also an alchemical philosopher. He described in detail the transmutation of mercury to gold by means of a small sample of the philosopher's stone. Van Helmont sought a chemical understanding of man through medicine, but, in contrast to Fludd and most Paracelsians, he rejected the macrocosm-microcosm analogy. Van Helmont concentrated more on practical and theoretical medical questions. The influence of both authors was considerable in an age when great uncertainty existed about the future course of alchemy versus the new observational science. As late as 1650, Englishman John French, in his book entitled The Art of Distillation, could still suggest that only chemistry should properly be considered the basis for a reform of the universities. Similarly, in 1654, the English playwright John Webster, in Appius and Virginia, stated that the new learning must be grounded principally upon the works of both the alchemist Robert Fludd and the early 17th Century's most outspoken opponent of alchemy, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626).
During the late 17th Century, perhaps the greatest mind the human race has yet produced, Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), almost single handedly established what is now modern physics and mathematical calculus. Even so, more of Newton's writings were devoted to alchemy than to physics and mathematics. However, by the end of the 17th century European alchemy was declining in importance and would be replaced in the 18th century by an experimental science which we now call "chemistry."
The Corpus Hermeticum, along with the Asclepius, are the foundation documents of the Hermetic tradition. Written by unknown authors in Egypt, probably during the 2nd and 3rd Centuries A.D., they were part of a very large literature attributed to the mythic figure of Hermes Trismegistus, a fusion of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth that took place during Ptolemaic times. This literature belongs to the same philosophical tradition that also produced Neo-Platonism and Gnostic Christianity. This tradition was the result of the impact of Platonic thought on the older traditions of the Near East, particularly Egypt.
The set of 17 Tractates which we now call the Corpus Hermeticum were collected into a single codex in Byzantine times. A slightly reduced, 14 Tractate version of this volume reached Florence in the mid-15th Century and came into the hands of Lorenzo de Medici's agents. At Lorenzo's request, Marsilio Ficino, the head of the Florentine Academy, was given the priority of translating the Corpus first, before finishing his task of translating the dialogues of Plato. Ficino's translation of these first 14 Tractates was initially published in 1463, and was reprinted many times during the Renaissance Era.
The original Greek version of the Corpus consisted of 17 tractates. Due to a numeration error by one of the early publishers (Flussas), they were numbered from 1 through 14 and 16 through 18. Due to this publisher error, the contents of the original Tractate 15 were listed in three parts as tractates 16-18. Unfortunately, this error was carried forward in the later editions of the work. Accordingly, there is no Tractate 15.
There have been several translations of the Corpus into English. The best modern version is the one by Professor Brian P. Copenhaver of the University of California, published in 1992. An earlier 20th Century translation with commentary was done by Walter Scott (1855-1925) in 4 volumes, published over the years 1924-1936. I am aware of only two English language translations, of at least some of the tractates contained in the Corpus Hermeticum, that are now in the public domain These are:
1) John Everard Translation (1650): This translation was done by the English theologian John Everard (ca. 1575-1650). He was a devoted Neo-Platonist and a follower of the German mystic Johannes Tauler (ca 1300-1366). According to the preface of his book, Everard did not live to see the publication of his work. The ordering of Everard's tractates differs from the numbering used in the published editions of Ficino's translation. Everard made his translation from the Greek-Latin edition of Francesco Patrizi (1591) and maintained his revised order of the separate discourses. Also, Everard's work includes only fourteen of the tractates provided in the Greek Codex (Tractates 1 through 14), omitting Tractates numbered 16 through 18. However, Everard adds three other Hermetic fragments taken from the Johannes Stobaeus edition (1575) of the Corpus, thus arriving at a total number of seventeen books without Ficino's Tractates 16-18.
2) G. R. S. Meade Translation (1906): This translation was made by the theosophist G. R. S. Mead and first published in 1906. The work includes 13 Tractates of the Corpus Hermeticum and provides an extensive commentary on the texts. For a time, Mead acted as the secretary to Madame H. P. Blavatsky and in that capacity collaborated with her on her important book entitled The Secret Doctrine (published 1888). In 1909 Meade founded the Quest Society. In his commentary, Mead strongly emphasized the Egyptian backgrounds of the hermetic texts and devoted a great deal of attention to corresponding Gnostic ideas.
English translations of most tractates of the Corpus Hermeticum are available on the Internet as per the table shown below. As a reference point, the original Greek Tractate numbers plus the English titles per the new Copenhaver translation (1992) are also shown.
Another important document, known variously as The Perfect Word, The Perfect Sermon or Asclepius, is also usually included as a part of the Corpus even though it was not part of the original Byzantine codex. Asclepius was translated into Latin in ancient times, reputedly by the same Apuleius of Madaura who wrote the serio-comic masterpiece The Golden Ass. The Latin Church Father, Augustine of Hippo, quotes from the Latin translation of Asclepius in his book The City of God. Copies of Asclepius remained in circulation in medieval Europe down to the time of the Renaissance. The original Greek version was lost, but quotations survive in several ancient Greek sources.
The Asclepius document is substantially longer than any other surviving work of ancient Hermetic philosophy. It not only covers topics which also occur in the Corpus Hermeticum, but addresses other issues as well, including magical processes for the manufacture of gods, a long and gloomy prophecy of the decline of Hermetic wisdom, and the end of the world.
Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus
Basic Concepts of Renaissance Alchemy
During the European Renaissance, most alchemical belief systems reflected seven basic concepts:
1) Organicism - the entire universe is considered to be a single living organic being.
2) Emanations - a seven stage cosmic ladder exists which connects the celestial world with the physical world on Earth. The souls of men were believed to be able to move up and down this ladder; movement from one stage of the ladder to another was referred to as an emanation. Each stage of the ladder was associated with one of the seven planets and with a musical note on the seven-note Pythagorean scale.
3) Correspondence - there is a correspondence or connection between celestial and terrestrial objects which is expressed by the alchemical axiom "as above, so below."
4) Introspection - internal inspection of the consciousness self (such as through meditation) and the unconscious self (such as through dreams and visions) are valid sources of knowledge.
5) Transmutation - transformation of humans to achieve higher states of consciousness and/or spirituality, metaphorically analogous to the transmutation of base metals to metals of a finer substance, is not only possible but should be the basic goal of all mankind. These transmutations occur in accordance with the concept of emanations described in 2) above.
6) Secret Oral Tradition - instruction necessary to achieve true metaphysical knowledge and higher states of consciousness should only be provided on an oral basis; no really important metaphysical knowledge should ever be put into writing. Only extremely worthy individuals may receive this oral instruction, which is obtainable from a very few secret societies still existing on Earth.
7) Ancient High Civilization - all of the existing civilizations of the Earth ultimately derive from a single ancient civilization which existed during a metaphorically "Golden Age."
The essays appended to this site only provide my interpretations of some of the ideas of the individuals cited. In no way should these interpretations be considered to represent a complete summary of all of the ideas of these people. The interpretations are entirely my own and I am solely responsible for any errors, whether objective or subjective, that may be found.
I currently maintain twenty-wo websites. Thirteen sites are related to philosophy and art; nine sites are related to genealogy and local history. Hyperlinks to these sites are shown below.
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