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On the Origin of Alchemy Author(s): R. J. Forbes Reviewed work(s): Source: Chymia, Vol. 4 (1953), pp.

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MOST textbooks will agree that alchemy was born in Egypt, and this is in agreement with Greek tradition, which to every ascribed a hoary age and superhuman wisdom on the oldest documents thing Egyptian. Certainly alchemy show us an Egyptian school of alchemists flourishing in the shadows of the great Academy of Alexandria in Hellenistic times from the 1st century a.d. onwards. They seem to have derived the impulse for their researches from Bolos of Mendes, the Neo-Pythagorean who flourished in the 2nd century b.c. in Alexandria. Even the very word "alchemy" has been derived from the ancient Egyptian km, that is,

Still ifwe analyze such data closer they soon prove to be very decep tive. Thus is it true that the Egyptians called their country km.t, that is, "the black land." By this term they tried to express the contrast between the black, arable soil of the Nile Valley and the red, barren desert sand. But even the Coptic kerne is never connected with "the black art" or alchemy in any text. Hence the derivation of the word from Greek the that is, "casting," seems more plausible. alchemy chyma, What pertains to this little detail holds good for the supposed Egyptian origin of alchemy too ifwe examine the evidence closer. In order to assess the theories now presented we must realize that three streams of thought have contributed to the rise of alchemy:
1. The 2. The 3. The philosophy philosophical philosophy and and of the Ancient Near technology tenets of the Iranian and Indian science of the Greeks East civilizations

that alchemy was a child of Hellenism, it should Bearing in mind be realized that the great empires of Egypt and had Mesopotamia and that they spent their strength before the advent of Alexander had fallen an easy prey to the Persian King of Kings. This political decadence is by no means discernible in all aspects of civilization. On the contrary, themass of evidence on natural phenomena collected by the ancient craftsmen was constantly growing. It is often little realized that the ancient empires of the Near East arose from the Urban Revolution, which does not yield in importance
* Professor of Address: Haringvlietstraat the History of Science, Gemeente No. Holland. 1, Amsterdam-Z, 1 Universkeit, Amsterdam.



to the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century a.d.1 This Urban Revolution brought plough agriculture and irrigation, the wheel, the of gold, silver, copper, and bronze, textiles, and ship, metallurgy that the basic crafts of modern later is, writing, technology. The classical world had very little to add to these early achievements already in common use by 3000 b.c. The story of this urban civilization which could support the craftsmen with the surplus harvests of the peasants demonstrates a growing importance and specialization of these crafts texts of ancient Egypt recovered and published up to now little very technological material, though here and there a some on sheds this fragment light gradual growth of skill and knowl our On the other material from Mesopotamia is much hand, edge. The contain
abundant, and the texts from Sumerian up to Neo-Babylonian


times illustrate the accumulation of knowledge on minerals, natural and in Egypt and inMesopotamia Both the animals, products, plants. was accumulated of the craftsmen and their incor experience guilds porated in the body of knowledge which in both countries is often cast in the form of onomasticons, that is, in lists of objects thought to be related and classified according to external characteristics, some of which we would call chemical or physical tests now.3
Here the Sumerian onomasticons are the most


structure of that language. In these lists the the peculiar species is denoted by a root-word and each individual characterized by adding a suffix or prefix to this root, embodying the external characteristics.
denote may : cut stone), the outer form color (gin (igi : blue; : gug, eyestone; hus nunuz : : red; sig7 egg-stone; : yellow),





hardness (as : hard), effervescence with vinegar (za.tu) or application (?.a : house). The example of such a classification given here will demonstrate its close resemblance to the nomenclature of modern organic chemistry.
sumerian esir esir.lah esir.igi esir.harsag esir.ud.da esir.e.a. 1R. J. Forbes, J. Forbes, "Man nomenclature of bituminous substances

general for bitumen, crude oil, petroleum

"white" crude


("eye") bitumen, asphaltite

rock-asphalt mastic York, 1950. in Ancient Egypt," Near



"dry" refined bitumen

bitumen, New and Crafts the Maker,"

2 R.



3, 599-618 (1950). 3 R. "Man J. Forbes, sci. 1, 557-573 (1948).

intern, hist. sci.f intern, hist,

and Matter

in the Ancient




This very clear characterization of minerals and natural materials has enabled R. Campbell Thompson4 and others to identifymany of them. Thus a vast amount of experimental data was collected in the ages before alchemy. Familiar household, metallurgical, and other terms came to be used to certain and tech denote chemical indiscriminately in later alchemical texts we find terms nological operations. Likewise such as "cooking" (baslu), "leaching" or "washing" (mis?), and "roast ing" (kal?) being applied to similar operations in different crafts. Nor does this similarity with later alchemical texts stop there. have several texts that prove the incidental use of a secret We a of glass dating back to language. Thus recipe for the manufacture : "eagle" for ?r? : "copper." the 17th century b.c. uses ?r? (UD.HU) In other texts crude sulphur is called kibrit ilu nari : "bank of the
river." Often a kind of

medical and

terms not only in techno values are used for the Akkadian but in astronomers also those of the and physicians. In texts, logical
texts such "blood of cryptograms a black snake" as "lion for "castor fat, human are oil" fat"


is used,




also have many records of efforts to produce synthetic products. Recipes for themanufacture of synthetic lapis lazuli, the uknu or blue copper frit so dear to the Assyrians are frequent. Then we also find tablets giving recipes for synthetic copper (K 6246 -f- 8157 Rs 17; K 4290 + 9492 + 9477 Rs 23 if.) and synthetic silver (K 7942 + 8167, 16,22). Meissner5 believes that recipes for synthetic gold are still hidden ogists have found many artificial alloys, and Meissner's supposition is not at all fantastic. We must not forget that the art of assaying gold and such native alloys as electrum by the "fining pot" (cupellation) was known as early as 1500 b.c. The touchstone was certainly in use b.c. a vast lore of 600 Thus ancients the by possessed properties of metals and alloys, methods to refine and test them, and they synthesized some of them, as is proved both by texts and by archaeological finds. The reasons for thismanufacture of alloys apart from their tech nical merits can be partly found in the aesthetic pleasures which crafts men seem to have derived from the proper combinations of colored alloys in their works of art.We have recovered examples of inlay-work, metalwork of all kinds using natural and synthetic alloys, combining the colors of the gold applied by the their colors artistically. Thus from bright yellow, grey, various shades of red, reddish Egyptians range brown, brick color to dull-purple plum color and a peculiar rose-pink.
4 R. of Assyrian and Geology," Campbell Thompson, "Dictionary Chemistry of Assyrian Botany," 1949. Oxford, 1936; "Dictionary London, 5 B. Meissner, und Assyrien," Heidelberg, 1925, Vol. 2, p. 385. "Babylonien amongst the vast mass of unpublished cuneiform tablets. The archaeol



for "opium" common.

4 Most


of these colors are fortuitous and due to natural admixtures of layers varying quantities of silver, copper, and iron or to oxidation in certain cases this staining is caused of these baser metals. However, by organic matter. The peculiar rose-pink proved to be a heat-resisting translucent coat of oxide of iron. It proved to have been formed by an iron salt solution and heating it.6This process dipping the object in was in use many centuries before the oldest written recipes for tinting texts describe methods for staining minerals and metals. Old Akkadian stones by cooking them in solutions or embedding them in chemicals to obtain fake gems. The importance of color to the ancients ismanifest from the ancient terms for gold embrace no less than syllabaries. Thus the 16 Akkadian nine that refer to a peculiar color or shade. This color was not only important for the artistic effect to which it was put; it had magical as well. Here we touch a most important aspect of ancient meaning was technology. In antiquity scientific and experimental knowledge never collected as a body of data from which conclusions were drawn as from modern chemical data. Religion, philosophy, and science were still one. Then every bit of chemical knowledge meant deeper knowl World," edge of the Cosmos as a whole, another knot of the "Net of the another secret helping to understand the Order of Creation and maybe
to master Nature.8 The name, like

the element of secrecy and initiation gradually creeping into the body of texts. Warnings such as "Let him that knoweth show him that knoweth, but he that knoweth shall not show him that knoweth not!" are found in 7th century medical texts, but they occur on tablets on more than 10 cen Kassite of the period too, that is, glass technology turies earlier. Also there is that insistence on correct copying which to the written word. Any springs from the magical potency allotted
inaccurate texts.

any word,







other elements of later alchemy can be found in these early

ancient onomasticons same and forms of the mineral This or recipes chemical. curious







"male" and recognize form "male" is The of sex


the harder

or darker modification,

or it is characterized
way ascribing


the inorganic world is typical of pre-classical philosophy. Early metal like the lurgy is perhaps the best example of this philosophy. Metals, earth from which they spring, were believed to be subject to the cosmic laws of birth, growth, and death. Death and resurrection were their fate, and the smith working these "stones charged with mana" per formed a rite full of secret dangers. As he conjured the metal out of its ore with the help of the fire-god, his patron, he interfered with the
6 A. Lucas, "Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries," London, 1948, p. 266.



harmonious growth of the metals in the womb of their mother, the Earth. Perhaps the sacrifice of an embryo when building is an expiatory offering. By giving one life for another the smith avoided the revenge of theEarth-goddess. Or should we see in this rite a means of "charging" themetal with the budding life of the embryo? We have similar texts relating to the offering in sacrifice of embryos by Assyrian glassmakers in the hope that these incomplete beings might assist them during their experiments. It is clear that this belief in the growth of metals is basic for the later alchemical doctrine of the natural perfection of the base metals which gradually turns them into gold. Like the ancient smith,
the alchemist


An old Sumerian hymn compares the change of light into darkness with that of gypsum (gassu, im.par) into bitumen (idd?, esir),8 and words like salmu (night) and pis? (day) are often used for black and white. We also find metals being connected with gods or stars more times. Silver is called the particularly in Neo-Babylonian (Chaldean) A tablet from the British Museum (C.T.24.49.3b, K 4349) allots silver, to tin and Anu, Ea, and Nin-a-mal. Again we pos Enlil, gold, copper, sess tablets connecting gods, metals, : plants, and stars (VAT 9874 K. 11151). The correlation between gods and stars is already quite common, and thus gradually the "universal sympathy" principle of the
later alchemists of Marduk, gold that of, and copper that of Ea.9



a natural


In order to assess the effect of Iranian (and maybe Indian) philos on this body of knowledge, we may pause for one moment to ophy summarize the present views on the origin of astrology, a science so we can hardly point out an alchemist closely related to alchemy that who is not a believer in astrology at the same time. This is due to a of the basic tenets on which astrology and very large overlapping alchemy are built. Astrologists prophesying from celestial phenomena either the fate of the land or that of the king (wars, harvests, etc.) were common enough in early times. But the new horoscopical astrology was based on the calculation of celestial conjunctions and positions. It required a standardized zodiac of 12 signs of equal length and came to birth in the 6th and 5th centuries b.c. Side by side with the older omen-astrology it continued its course until through the centuries the horoscope-astrology prophesying personal fate from the positions of the
won or out.10 stars at birth and planets conception 7R. in Antiquity," 1950, pp. 85 ff. Leiden, "Metallurgy J. Forbes, 8 and "Sumerian Psalms," 1919, Liturgies Philadelphia, Langdon, Stephen Publications Museum. 10, Section, Vol. of the Babylonian of Pennsylvania University no. 4, p. 339. 9 ibid., p. 337. 10 B. L, van der Waerden, Eastern "The Thirty-Six Stars," /. Near Studies,


8, 6 (1949).




< o ot 1? U UJ -i ?i o u '5

/O u O )i > z o O? I? o LU CO <



> o O _i O J? CO < ?I < U Q_ O u CO o o X

Codification Period > UJ X u


Arab Alchemy


Alchemy until about 1800



This new astrology, the birth of which we can establish from dated cuneiform tablets containing horoscopes, is based in the following tenets: philosophical
1. The

2. The descent of the soul through a star to the body and its return to heaven through the same star, a belief of Avestan origin 3. The worship of zodiacal signs 4. Solar theology, as contrasted with the older Moon theology of 5. Number mystics, later so dear to the Pythagoreans and Gnostics The astrologers believed through the study of numbers and of the universe man could become divine and immortal. Initiation quickly as they are called in later becomes typical of these "mathematicians," antiquity. We need not go into details of early horoscopical astrology, but we can see from that doctrine how closely related was the atmosphere in it be which astrology grew up to that which we find in alchemy. Would too bold to believe that alchemy too, like astrology, had its origin in that seething period of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. when the basic
elements of Hellenism arose Mesopotamia






so favor pacification of theNear East had created the political situation to these universal beliefs? the of able spread This incubation period of astrology, which we believe to be that of alchemy too, is characterized by the penetration of the Greeks into the world, politically dominated by the Persians. Cnidian Mesopotamian serve at the court of the Persian Kings of Kings. Greek archi physicians tects and scientists travel and work in the Near East and bring back new data and strange beliefs to Greece.11 This body of knowledge is still growing and is hardly systematized as itwill be later on by genera tions of Greeks at the universities of the Hellenistic world. Through these Greek authors the vague and fluctuating theories of these pre centuries find their systematic treatment in the earliest Hellenistic Hellenistic books on astrology and alchemy. Plato has formulated this "What the Greeks may have taken from the so well in his "Epinomis": to higher perfection.,, Barbarians they have always carried is penetrated from the East. world same the time the At Babylonian the exponents of Zoroaster and the Avesta, bring toMeso The Magi, dualistic philosophy of the struggle between the potamia the Iranian and Evil in which man has to choose his side and Good of great powers were the intellectual leaders, who carried their dual fight. The Magi and microcosm the of their ism, harmony between macrocosm theory
ii G. Nouvelle Goossens, Clio, 1949, "Artistes et artisans 1/2, 32-44. ?trangers en Perse sous les Ach?m?nides,"

to flower,





8 and


their belief in the innate powers of man to reach perfection by they are gnosis, far beyond the pales of the Persian Empire. Though literature their great in later Hellenistic often dubbed Chaldaeans influence is clear from such writings as the ireplMayan/ written by of Alexandria about 200 b.c. From many sources we know Hermippos that theMagi had penetrated as far as Lydia by the 4th century b.c. By then their influence in Babylonia was so firmly established and mingled with the more ancient Akkadian doctrines that it is impossible to dis entangle them. Not only do Greeks like Kallisthenes bring back scien reach Greece but Chaldaeans tificdata and theories fromMesopotamia, and teach there. Socrates' death was predicted by a Syrian sage, and fate cast by a Chaldaean. Pythagoras is said to have been Euripides' in which the Semitized form of the the "Zaratas Chaldaean," taught by name of Zoroaster is typical for the interpenetration of culture then on inMesopotamia. going The old scientific centers of Mesopotamia, Babylon (and Borsippa), Assur, Kalah, Niniveh, and Uruk absorbed many Persian beliefs during times. This amalgamation went on through Seleucid Neo-Babylonian time up to the beginning of our era.12 Though generally writing their these scien scientific documents in imperfect Sumerian and Akkadian, tists and priests spoke Aramaic and even Greek, another proof of the Its results crystallized in the Greek syncretic character of this period.13 the great Hellenistic Hellenistic of the period. Then early writings and above all Alexandria tended centers like Pergamom, Antiochia, to attract the leading personalities and schools. This may be the ex and astrological for the fact that the earliest alchemical planation we know by name only) originated in documents (many of which have definite proof that astrology (and probably Alexandria. We in Mesopotamia and not in Egypt, which alchemy too) did originate where the direct links with the but traditional was its home, country centers In the troubled Seleucid era some of the five Babylonian to survive, but they declined and were extinguished somehow managed scientific activities were partly continued in the Parthian wars. Their where centers like Nisibin, Edessa, and in Western Mesopotamia, to the Arab period. The S?bi'ans Harr?n (Carrhae) flourished right up and "Chaldaeans" of Harr?n were branded as "star worshippers" by the young Arab civilization, and their activities were ended only by the in the 13th century a.d. Still, already in the days of the sue Mongols
de sous Alexandre 12 et les S?leucides," Annuaire "Les ?coles chald?ennes J. Bidez, et d'histoire I'lnstitut de philologie orientales, 3, 41-89 (1935). 13 G. Goossens, sous la civilisation Uruk les de "Au d?clin babylonienne: Bull, classe lettres, Acad. S?leucides," roy. Belg. [5], 27, 222-244 (1941). past are lacking.


cessors of Alexander, the center of gravity for scientific activities lay in and the other new Greek universities, and thence the new Alexandria philosophies gravitated. after its incubation period in Mesopotamia, Therefore, alchemy with other theories came to Alexandria, the great pooling center of the Hellenistic sciences, where it was crystallized into a clear-cut doc trine by the logical-minded Greeks. This codification period startswith of Mendes the "Physika" of Bolos Democritos (200 b.c.).14 Wellmann has pointed out that we still find the traces of this original work in the

composed of four books dealing with themaking of gold, themaking of silver, themaking of gems, and themanufacture of purple. Bolos takes and from Egyptian, Jewish, Babylonian, his data and philosophy the Magus becomes the teacher of Persian sources. Thus Ostanes in the art of alchemy. This is quite in line with the tradi Democritos tional stories about Ostanes, whom King Xerxes sends to Egypt to teach he the Egyptian priests alchemy. His methods are clearly Babylonian; to changes "bodies" by embedding them in chemicals which are then mass. The traditional of the the penetrate body by prolonged heating seems to have been the "projection" (by sublimation, Egyptian method onto the body to be changed, which may first be of chemicals etc.)










also uses the accumulated experimental data of the ancient seem to have compiled textbooks on alloying metals, technologists, who faking precious metals and gems, dyeing (Baphika), and similar tech that the Papyrus It is still widely believed nological operations. are such technological hand Leidensis X and the Papyrus Holmiensis form. However, both Pfister16 and books, though in a rather mutilated was book excellent whose unfortunately never carried Reinking,17 that these two papyri can never have the proved beyond proof-stage, have represented real textbooks or collections of recipes for dyers and as in the form the recipes are in, they cannot yield any metallurgists, We actually have a Coptic MS dealing with the prac results. practical tical dyeing of textiles which dates from the 7th or 8th century a.d. a format very similar to that of the (Berk Pap. 8316) but which has to reconstruct was it Hence possible forReinking Papyrus Holmiensis. Bolos
14M. Wellmann, Anaxilaos und der Magier "Die Physika des Bolos Demokritos hist. Klasse, aus Larissa," 7. Abhandl. 1928, No. preuss. Akad. Wiss. Phil. 15 et F. Cumont, "Les Mages hell?nis?s," Paris, 1938, 2 Vols. J. Bidez 16R. Pfister, "Teinture et alchimie Seminarium dans TOrient hell?nistique," der Wolle im Altertum," Leipzig, 1939 (un



Kondakovianum, 7, 1-59 (1935). 17 K. "Die F?rberei Reinking, published).



the original dyeing recipes which are reproduced in a mutilated form in the Leiden and Stockholm papyri. It seems that Bolos and the alchemists were interested in the transmutation of matter, which they believed to be effected and indicated by the color changes produced in alloying and dyeing operations. They therefore made extracts from the and the recipes of the craftsmen of their technological handbooks and of experiments which might allow them to series period produced this transmutation. In the alchemical treatises study and understand of which these two papyri form a part, many of the practical recipes are or cryptograms have been intro reproduced only partly. New terms duced to denote the perfectly innocuous chemicals of the dyers and metallurgists. Their aim is no longer a practical one but the study of one. The color change, the transmutation of matter, a philosophical which to these alchemists seems the proof of this transmutation, is effected by dyeing, by varnishing and alloying and is quantitatively controlled in some cases by the increase of weight. should never forget that the seemingly practical recipes of the We two papyri Leiden and Stockholm papyri do not stand alone. These were found in a grave at Thebes with the magical (Egypt), together and XIII and the magical papyri nos. XII published by Preisendanz Papyrus Leidensis V, which contains symbolical names for plants and stones. Bolos' book contained both the philosophical tenets and the tests of the alchemists. The Leiden and Stockholm papyri seem to go back to a Baphika written by Anaxilaos of Larissa in Egypt, where he had been banished by the Emperor Augustus about 26 b.c. The prac and philosophical tical (Isis, Iamblichos, Moses, Ostanes) (Maria the treatises, part of which were Jewess, Comarius, Hermes, Cleopatra) ascribed tomythical persons such as Toth, were composed in the early codification period ends with Zosimos of centuries of our era. The in who and 4th centuries summarizes the entire the 3rd Panopolis, alchemical doctrine and literature. Already in his writings we find a strong religious factor; there we read that salvation can be obtained by the Great Work. After Zosimos we enter the period of the epigones in which the literature as we know it is finally codified and corpus of alchemical commented upon by a host of authors, who have nothing new to con tribute. They are mainly Neo-Platonists or Gnostics, to whom alchemy is part of their religico-philosophical doctrine. Original contributions to alchemy begin to flow again when theArab scientists enter the scene. all aspects of Though we are of course far from understanding we should now also direct our atten alchemy in its codification period, tion to the incubation period proper. It will be necessary to cooperate with cuneiform scholars, but the harvest ismost promising. There are



still scores of cuneiform tablets yet undeciphered and now indifferently dubbed chemical, and technical" which "medical, pharmaceutical, on the rise of alchemical doctrines promise to yield important data codified in the early Hellenistic period by Bolos and the Greek
alchemists of Alexandria.