Graeco-Egyptian Alchemy in Byzantium By Michèle Mertens (University of Liège)
It is now usually accepted that alchemy came into being in Graeco-Roman Egypt around the beginning of our era and that it originated from the combination of several factors, the most remarkable of which are (1) the practices of Egyptian goldsmiths and workers in metals who experimented with alloys and knew how to dye metals in order to simulate gold; (2) the theory about the fundamental unity of matter, according to which all substances are composed of a primitive matter and owe their specific differences to the presence of different qualities imposed upon this matter; (3) the idea that the aim of any technique must be the mimesis of nature ; (4) the doctrine of universal sympathy, which held that all elements of the cosmos are connected by occult links of sympathy and antipathy which explain all the combinations and separations of the bodies.
The encounter of these different trends of thought brought about the idea that transmutation ought to be possible, all the more so with the addition of mystical daydreams influenced by gnostic and hermetic currents and favoured by the decline of Greek rationalism.1
The texts about Graeco-Egyptian alchemy that have come down to us are, in the first place, two collections on papyrus, which date back to about 300 A. D. and contain a series of recipes for imitating gold, silver, precious stones and purple dye;2 I will not dwell on them because they were not known to the Byzantines.
Next, a body of texts generally referred to as the ‘alchemical Corpus’, handed down by a large number of medieval manuscripts, among which three principal witnesses can be distinguished:
1. MS Marcianus graecus 299 (M), which, according to its handwriting, probably dates from the end of the tenth or the beginning of the eleventh century;
2. MS Parisinus graecus 2325 (B), of the thirteenth century;
3. MS Parisinus graecus 2327 (A), copied in 1478.4
These three manuscripts differ from one another by the number of texts they contain, by the organization of these texts and by their state of preservation. Manuscript M is the most beautiful of our alchemical manuscripts; the title of the first piece in it is inscribed in a pyle, a magnificently decorated frame painted in four colours, and the manuscript contains lavish illustrations; unfortunately, it was the victim of several accidents: it lost several quires and some of those that remain were inverted by the binder. On the other hand, it begins with a table of contents which corresponds only partially to its present content, but which is in fact that of the manuscript before its various misfortunes.6
Compared with M, B presents some important omissions; indeed, it looks as if the copyist of B was more interested in the technical content than in the philosophical and doctrinal texts, and that he organized the materials to make them into a workshop handbook. As for A, it encloses a larger collection than the first two manuscripts; it contains a number of texts that are peculiar to it and whose origin is unknown. Lastly, it is worth noting that the relations between those three manuscripts have not yet been conclusively clarified even though they were often and widely discussed.
As far as the content of the Corpus is concerned, it includes writings of extremely varied periods ranging from the beginning of our era to the fifteenth century, the chronology of which is very difficult to establish. Three levels are usually distinguished. To the oldest one belong the works of a Pseudo-Demokritos, as well as a long series of quotations or of short treatises placed under the names of prestigious authors whether historical or mythical like Hermes, Agathodaimon, Isis, Cleopatra, Mary the Jewess, Ostanes, Pammenes, which seem to have been written between the first and the third century.
The second coincides with Zosimos of Panopolis, who may be said to have raised alchemy to its highest degree; with him, alchemy appears as a subtle mixture of technical preoccupations and mystical religion. The third and last level is made up of the so-called exegetes, the most famous of whom are Synesios (4 th c.), Olympiodoros (6 th c.), Stephanos of Alexandria (7 th c.), further a commentator known as the Christian (7 c.), and another one called the Anonymous Philosopher, perhaps a little later. To the same period as Stephanos of Alexandria also belong four alchemical poems ascribed to Heliodoros, Theophrastos, Hierotheos and Archelaos. The alchemical tradition continues in Byzantium with Michael Psellos (11 c.) and Kosmas the Monk (11 th c. or later)8 as well as Nikephoros Blemmydes (13 c.).