The origins of alchemy in Graeco-Roman Egypt 9780584100051, 0584100051

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The origins of alchemy in Graeco-Roman Egypt
 9780584100051, 0584100051

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THE ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN ROMAN EGYPT In this, the first thorough enq'ruy into the origins of alchemy in Roman Egypt, Jack Lindsay covers the crafc techni^'::: and mystery lore of metallur-i^"l industries of the ancient world, allied industries such as dyeing and mining etc., myth and speculation surrounding creation and the nature of the universe, the gr uwrh


interest in magnetism, the development in systems of physics among the Stoics, whieh have reappeared in modern times, and the

growth of gnostic and hermetic cults of contact with the spirit-world. Lindsay describes how all these elements came together as a part of the general culture development of GraecoR.oman society and how the impasse it reached was linked with technological failure and the inability of Greek thought to develop beyond its geometrical basis with allied maths and atomic mechanism. The result is a welcome addition to Lindsay's Roman Egypt series which breaks new ground and presents a valuable survey of a fascinating subject.



{5.00 net

sBN 584 10005


Jack Lindsay


First ofulistted in Great Britain t97o b1 Ltd., Fleet Street,Inndan, E'C'+

Frederick rt[uthr

Copyight @ tsTo blt Jaek Lindsa1

To Marie Delcourt-Curvets Tbis solid


a circling smoke

in winds of belfuing Tine haunts creaices of Space and seens

All Rights Reserved' No part of this publication may b9 reptoduced'

storedln a tetrieval system, or tmnsmitted, in any form,or by any means' ele"trooic, mechanical, photocopying, tecording 9t gtherwr,se, without the prior permission of Frederick Mullet Limited'

anchored bere or there: Men ltaue thought the prospect rtrange denonic scarirg as thel woke fron a rauishing crystalline dream

of abstract Eternities to touch the edges of Cbange afiere all Numbers twist and break:

1et Pattern lnks in

the aanithing


of ragged particlet. Alcheruists

kcpt the double uision and reckoned as aspects of a single Stream

frst sTAFl




tlte Vortices of spinning nist and tlte Structure of the unseiqable

' \t



when Life leaps upwards tbrouglt tha range of ferl anstable Slnmetries, intricate dangerous Tine.



. t-

t*, $ryO 't

Tine is the noaing inage of Eternitl Plato renarked among t/te Stars.

Eternitl is tlte sudden pboleness



of Tine anid tbe Flowers. J.L.

Prirtad in Great Britain


Ebeneqer Ba/is anil Son,I-t!. The Trinitl Fress,-Vorcester, atd Lo-ndon Botrnd





LfBN o y84 rooo;



Contents Page

Authot's Note I Greek Scientific Thought befote Alchemy 2 Historical References , More Historical References 4 The Name Alchemy , Demokritos and Bolos of Mendes 6 More on Bolos 7 8



lr la t,



xii I 24

tr 68





Hermes Trismegistos Isis Ancient and Contemporary Cnfts

r94 2t2

Matia the Jewess Kleopatra

Womb Furnace and Vase Agathodaimon Zosimos

t6 More on Zosimos t7 The Later Greek Alchemists I8 Conclusions

rtg 240 213 278

tor 32)


3t8 ,82



Bibliography Index

43' 44r

Illustrations Page

r r

Mithraic mosaic of the Seven Gates at Ostia Mithras born from the rock. Mages on a relief at Daskylion,


;th century a.c. The still of Demokritos; reconstruction of the mercury still


! 1

t ,6 '7





Smiths from the regron of



Lakonian relieffrom Chrysapha, about 5to-ro B.c. merchants in China: three T'ang figurines show-

r9 Ttavelling

ing Semitic, Persian, and $Testern




Rclief of priest of Mithras Ancient Egyptian goldsmith at crucible Workshop of a moneyer at Rome


Chinese symbol of Yang-Yinr hermaphroditic, as the cock is male, the snake female Urt-hekau, the Cbbra-goddess of magical spells Cobra-goddesses of Lower and Upper Eglpt




,, 7t 86 S9

ror to4

Campaspe'riding Aristotle; Psyche ridden by




Gcm of Mithras slaying the Bull, with Eros and Psyche on thc teverse (broken) tt9 Pompeian painting of the torture of Psyche 12, l6 Thoth in Ibis-form with Shu and Tefnut as lions r6r Thc weighting of the heatt of Osiris Ani 164-t Sekhait, Thoth, and Atum register a king's name on the Heavenly Tree placing the king within it 17r ,ll Hetm in Dionysiac form with implements of worship 17t Pah-as Guardian of one of the Arits of Osiris @ap. of Ani); and as the Magician's Lord r76 llt Mithraic cameo r8o Mummiform figure on staff with snakesl two crossed snakes from the Book of the Underwodd r88 Combinations of signs to express modifications of gold r9, The Sungod, with ram-head, sailing on the river of the Underwodd 20t Bartering a necklet for perfume zr6 Egyptian unguent-make/s workshop zr8

ll ll ir



Egyptians using a torsion-press fncense-trees imported ftom Punt

222 224


ILLUSTRATIONS zz6 29 Heaps and cones of incense 229 Cones with and Servant Lady of incense; 3L Con-es 230 atrifer goldworker, Roman of tt Relief using powder-puff lady 46 tz Egyptian 239 3t Pompeian painting of loves as chemists 244 the Maria still of three-armed Jewess 34 The 247 3t Reconstruction of the three-armed still 2to still of the in the evolution 36 Stages MS 2t2 Greek in a as shown Apparatus, or Reflux Kerotakis )7 :Palette) :Metals; 2t, P (M of Kerotakis Reconstruction 38 z6o 299 fr88v MS Matk's St Ouroboros: t9 26, 40 Outoboros: Pads MS 427 ft96 266 fr88v 299 Mark's"MS 4t Ouroboros: St 266 42 Ouroboros: Paris MS zzzS f9z, stylised version 27r of Aion figutes Two 4t 27) form his circular in Sky-goddess ofthe Consort The 44 276 4t Relief of Aion z8o 46 The still aided by her, 47 Sky-goddess with consort; Shu suppotting


two ram-headed figures






Sky-goddess bent over to encircle, in double form, her backbending circular husband The Cat killing the Serpent at the Foot of the Heavenly Tree Serpent enfolds ithyphallic Osiris Osiris breaks out Chnoumis gems

,t The Sungod of Night


by the


29t 298

,oo 30t


Serpent of Many faces; on his head the Beede of Khepri, the

tising sun of the next day t4 Gem with Chnoumis above an altar and inscription, on reverse "I ever I am the Good Spirit." J' 56

t7 y8

t9 6o

6r 6z

Osids enthroned on the Mound with snakes Silver from Samara rvith encircling griffin Serpent-enclosed ithyphallic Osiris Serpent containing the Four Cardinal Points The cold still of Zosimos Cosmic serpent enclosing Hetmopolis Cosmic Serpent, two-headed Ouroboros on a magical gem (with inscription


69 Scvcn Forms of Osiris, serpent-enclosed 6q Egyptirn Berbcr and Customer 67 Bgyptirn Lrdy using LiPstick


ttt ,r4 Jt6 32t 324


tt4 3t9

t4r ,46 t48



Scorpion-goddess Serquet in her serpent-boat propelled by a ctocodile Later alchemic imagery: the Green Lion devouring the Sun

(ftom Tlte Rosary of Pltilonpbers) 68


The Alchemical Assumption (ftom Tbe Ronry) The alchemical death of the Hermaphrodite Rwary)



$t 368



The S7inged Hermaphrodite symbolising the Red Stone (ftomTlte Ronry)


Alchemical Resurrection (fuom Tbe Rovry)


Autltor's Note This is the'fouth book of a sedes on the life and culture of Roman Egypt. It is, however, complete in itself, though the more bne knows of the period the more one is awate of its ways of thought and action, what it comes out of and what it is moving towaids, and the richer becomes the background against rrhich one views any particular aspect. The 6rst book dealt with the more ordinary matters of daly life ; the second with "leisure and pleasure" and the Dionysiac cult in its later phases; the thitd rritti the life on the Nile and the role of that dver in Egyptian teligion and world-outlook. Here I deal with the theory and pra-tice of alchemy in its eadier centuties, its formative-period. Iigypt is centre of the picture, but to comprehend all the ideas and images flowing in to tliat centre we need to look also to the general trends in Greek scientific and philosophic thinking, and to the potent influences generated in the Innian wodd of the Mazdean and Magian fire-cults. Especlally in the earlier phases the pictute is involved and complex; but for this very reison the inquiry into what happened is,in many ways all the more interesting. For we find an extremely rich and subtle merging of ideas and practices from a wide field to beget a new science, a new deep-going set ofvalues and attitudes. With strange insight the Greeks intuited and sketched out systems of scientific thought which they were not able to explore with exact methods. Their atomist hypotheses are well-known; recently Sambutsky has shown how the Stoics grasped the concept of fields of force, of continuou$ forces, of a cohesive and tensional continuum. I ttust I have in turn shown how, amid much fantasy and confusion, the alchemists were not only the founders of expedmental science, but also urere struggling with ideas that belong to the future of science rather than its past. J. L.

Greek Scientific Thought before Alchemy book tries to show, the emergence of alchemy marked a dccp crisis in ancient thought and science, a crisis which could not bc resolved from within the given framewotk and its Preconccptions, then it is cleady necessary to begin with a discussion of what was achieved in the Classical and Hellenistic pedods, and urhat were the limitations of that achievement, what v/ere the boundaries that it was found so difficult to cross. But Greek philosophy and science of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., with lhck roots in the 6th and 7th centuries, arc very rich and complex ; ' ;nd attempts to set them out in brief succinct definitions are liable .,!o cnd by giving a very imperfect and devitalised effect of what rcnrally happened. Still, the problem cannot be evaded. I7e must try to genefalise on various asPects of the development, concentrrting on the main issues that were raised and their televance for i' thc alchemic tevolt.


as this

Wc begin then with the 7th century, with the growth of Ionian thought which sought in various ways to explain the uaivetse by finding its fundamental principles and substances (or lubstance), and by concentrating on natural phenomena; and the

of South ltaly, which had the same end in ylew, but sought the explanation of reality in Number, in an lbatractprinciple. As two imPortant exptessions of these opposing vicwpoints in the ;th centurywe may take the atomic theory of I*ukippos and Demokdtos, which saw all bodies as composed of ultimate and indivisible elements or atoms moving in an empty tpacc; and the hypothesis of the universe's construction by $e Pythagorean Philolaos, who argued for a central condensed fire rnd an outer fire surrounding the sphedcal universe, which itself vrg divided into three spheres, Ofunpos (that of the fixed stars) Cotnos (with the planets, sun, moon,) and Ouranos (the sublunar

Pphagorean school

tcgion in which is the earth and atheoreticalanti-eafih,Antichthon).



Philolaos also defined the elements in terms of geometrical figures: earth was made up by the cube, fire by the tetrahedron, afu by the octahedron, water by the icosahedron, while a fifth element, which comprehended the others and was the bond of them all, v/as represented by the dodekahedron. The Ionian thinkers had raised the question of what the universe was composedof, what single underlying substance-water ot ait or some indefinable primary element, the apeiroa (that without bounds or limits) of Anaximadros. Empedokles of Akragas in Sicily devised a theory of the elements working in a system of opposites, love and strife, attraction and repulsion; earth, water, frre, ait floated in these two enclosing media which acted as material forces. At first there had been an harmonious spherical whole enveloped in Love, with strife extending on the outside. Strife absorbed the four elements, drove out Love, and created Chaos; but Love reassetted its powet with a revolving motion; and in the central region, little affected by the universal rotation, the wodd was rebuilt. Air escaped first, but compressed by the limits of the universe it was changed into a hollow crystalline sphere; fire accumulated in one half of the sphere, making it luminous, while the other half remained dark-hence our earth, at the centre, sees the alternation of day and night. (Argument has gone on as to whether Empedokles saw the present wodd as belonging to the pedod of disorganisation by strife or to that of love-integration.l) Herakleitos had defined all things as moved by the unity and conflict of opposites; Empedokles sought to caffy this sort of outlook into a detailed application of the sttuggles between the two conflicting forces, with Necessity as the sum of their activity, together with the "contt^ct" that ties them together as they build and destroy-each of them limited by the eflects of the other. Thus, Love brings forth at first partial assemblages with what it finds available at every point, and these assemblages undergo natural selection by virtue of Strife, which thus cooperates from the other side in creation; Love shapes forms out of drives caused by Strife, but also reabsorbs all varieties in the end, while latet Stife sharpens, increases, articulates the variety brought forth by Love, yet to a destructive end. The forces remain constant in behaviour, but the featful intricacies of theit interaction give the effect of chance. The pattern of this interaction weaves together the obvious "intentionality", ot shall we say functionality, seen in the order of life wittrr th.e rnechanica.l causality



wlrich ensutes the over-all pulsation, Everywhere elements of matter

to speak, ate in the universal mellay of process. (G' de Santillana)z

pncl elements of function, of purpose and no-purpose, so

Ioched together

'l'he emphasis put by Herakleitos and Empedokles on opposites or contraries continues in Greek thought, and is the source of both its greatest sttengths and its greatest weaknesses. Aristotle, who

of his physics, declares tlrnt the theme was shared by Greek l.ational physics from the outset.s Indeed it could hardly have been otherwise; for in this m,rtter the Greeks were carrying on the deepest and most Pervasivc element in primitive tdbal thinking, where the dual organiettion of society is reflected in every aspect of the way in which thc universe and natural phenomena are regarded.a rrvrkes the principle an insistent feature

'l'lrc main bases of Greek thinking have thus been laid: (r) the irlczr of a unitarl PrlcesJ in nature, of some w/timate sabstance owt r rl' which all things are built op, (.) the idea of a conflict of opposins which are held together by the overriding unity, as the force tlriving the universe onwards, (3) the idea of a defnite strwcture in tlrc ultimate components of mattet, whether this structure is exlrressed by varying aggregates of atoms (atomon, indivisible rrnit) or by combinations of a set of basic geometrical forms at tlrc atomic level. The two first positions were derived from the lorms of thought created over very long periods by tribal socicty as it grew aware of its unity with, and its diffetence ftom, nirture. The third idea tras the product of a society in which intlividualism with all its small local conflicts, endlessly splitting ul) the general interest, had been born-above all, a society in which money-systems and mathematics had arrived as the expression of the new divisive forces inside the overriding unity, the st tt>ngly surviving tdbal elements. 'I'he whole of classical thinking was detetmined by the forms irr which the problems of man and nature $/ere thus presented' Action, movement, and change could be recognised and consitlcred only undet the categories devised out of general ideas of tlrc unity of process and the conflict of opposites within that tunity; but the thinkers wete quite unable to arrive at concepts of t:ntrsality in the sense of that term in the post-Galilean epoch. 'l'hcy could not fuse in any effective way the idea of the unity and r.orrflict of opposites with that of the atomic substratum of teality. 'l'lrcy saw the individual as a summation of a simple whole, as




embodying the unity of society, not that unity together with its inner conflicts which linked him with the othet individuals in a complex situation of agreement and dissent, likeness and unlikeness, union and opposition. They had carried too directly and uncritically a tribal concept or image into a society divided by all sorts of discords, conflicts, divisions of class, propety, and pov/er. The individual (person or object) was seen as a sort of largescale atom, complete in himself or itself. Men did not inquire how each individual acted on another and affected him, or how obiects impacted in motion; they thus avoided all problems of mechanical causation and the many connected matters. fnstead, they asked what the nature of substance or identity was, and what were the links between the forms taken by substance. Relations

thus became of extreme importance-but re/ations regarded under tbe aspect of tbe powers or capacities of action residing inside tbe subject.

"Relations were assumed to have the status of attributes securely anchored in the independently existing substance" (Cornford).5 Aristotle indeed has much to say of causes, but what he considers under this term is forn and matter-that is, the internal constituents into which a total thing can be analysed. He seed three kinds of change: locomotion, or the movement from one place to another; growth or diminution, a change in quantity; alteration, a change in quality. So all changes are defined and explained in terms of the likeness or unlikeness of the things undergoing changes. We get comparisons of this sort, but not any precise computation defining the mechanics or dynamics of one object acting on another. Demokritos evolved his idea of atomic aggregations on the basis of like to like: All animals alike herd togethet with theit own kind: doves with doves and cranes with ctanes. And so it is with inanimate things, as you may see in the case of gtains shaken in a sieve ot the pebbles on the shore. The whiding motions of the sieve artanges the gtains in distinct groups, lentils rxtith lentils, badey with badey, wheat with wheat; and the motion of the waves rolls all the longshaped pebbles into one place, all the tound ones into another, showing that the likeness of things tends to dravr them together.B And Leukippos remarked that the atoms, circling in the cosmic eddy, were "separated apart, like to like". Cleady the principle is clrawn from some deep emotional need or predisposition, not from obscrvation. If Demokritos had really watched the pebbles lrt'irrri rollt'tl :rlrout on the beach, he woul