4 elements - fire, air, water, earth


Empedokles - (circa 495-435 BCE)  in Southern Italy - Akragas and Thurii,

       Now hear the fourfold Roots of everything:

       Enlivening Hera, Hades, shining Zeus,

       And Nestis, moistening mortal springs with tears.

Aer vs. Aither - 4 elements and quintessence

Philotes (love) and Neikos (strife)


Plato (427/8 - 347/8) in Athens


Aristotle (384-322 BCE) in Athens


practical alchemy (aurifiction)



metals (somata)

pure metals - gold and silver; base metals - lead, tin, copper, iron

nonmetals (asomata)

mercury (hydrargyron - quicksilver) and sulphur (theion - divine matter)

transformations between elements


Democritean alchemy - alloying of metals, coloring of metals

Marian alchemy - vaporization, sublimation, distillation



katharsis - purification

chrysosis - giving the appearance of gold

poiesis - manufacture

melanosis - blackening

dokimasia - testing

leukosis - whitening

diplosis - doubling

xanthosis - yellowing

sklerosis - hardening

iosis - reddening or purpling


dyes and tinctures



talent = 60 minas

mina = 25 staters

stater = 4 drachmas

drachma = 6 obols



equipment - tribikos, balneum mariae, kerotakis


mystical alchemy (aurifaction)


cosmic sympathy

“Nature delights in nature [sumpatheia], and nature conquers nature [antipatheia], and nature masters nature.” - ps. Democritus (Bolos of Mendes)

"What is below is like that which is above, and what is above is like that which is below." - Tabula Smaragdina (the Emerald Tablet)


metals and planets
















releasing pneuma from base matter


one and the many


theurgy and alchemy

Mithras Liturgy and the reformation of the self

Zosimus and the liberation of spirit from matter



Issues for Discussion

Cosmology and alchemy

Theories of elements and transformations

Democritean vs. Marian alchemy

Practical procedures and mystical meanings

Comarius, Zosimus, Olympiodorus

Theurgy vs. Alchemy - salvific procedures

Magic vs. Science


Zosimus, On Excellence III.i.4

All things are woven together and all things are undone again;  all things are mingled together and all things combine; and all things unite and all things separate; all things are moisteneed and all things are dried; and all things flourish and all things fade in the bowl of the altar.  For each thing comes to pass with method and in fixed measure and by exact weighing of the four elements.  The weaving together of things and the undoing of all things and the whole fabric of things cannot come to pass without method.  The method is a natural one, preserving due order in its inhaling and its exhaling; it brings increase and it brings decrease.  And to sum up:  through the harmonies of separating and combining, and if nothing of the method be neglected, all things bring forth nature.  For nature applied to nature transforms nature.  Such is the order of natural law throughout the whole cosmos, and and thus all things hang together.




 Plato, Timaeus 41a-44d

Now, when all of them, both those who visibly appear in their revolutions as well as those other gods who are of a more retiring nature, had come into being, the creator of the universe addressed them in these words: "Gods, children of gods, who are my works, and of whom I am the artificer and father, my creations are indissoluble, if so I will. All that is bound may be undone, but only an evil being would wish to undo that which is harmonious and happy. Wherefore, since ye are but creatures, ye are not altogether immortal and indissoluble, but ye shall certainly not be dissolved, nor be liable to the fate of death, having in my will a greater and mightier bond than those with which ye were bound at the time of your birth. And now listen to my instructions:-Three tribes of mortal beings remain to be created-without them the universe will be incomplete, for it will not contain every kind of animal which it ought to contain, if it is to be perfect. On the other hand, if they were created by me and received life at my hands, they would be on an equality with the gods. In order then that they may be mortal, and that this universe may be truly universal, do ye, according to your natures, betake yourselves to the formation of animals, imitating the power which was shown by me in creating you. The part of them worthy of the name immortal, which is called divine and is the guiding principle of those who are willing to follow justice and you-of that divine part I will myself sow the seed, and having made a beginning, I will hand the work over to you. And do ye then interweave the mortal with the immortal, and make and beget living creatures, and give them food, and make them to grow, and receive them again in death."

 Thus he spake, and once more into the cup in which he had previously mingled the soul of the universe he poured the remains of the elements, and mingled them in much the same manner; they were not, however, pure as before, but diluted to the second and third degree. And having made it he divided the whole mixture into souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star; and having there placed them as in a chariot, he showed them the nature of the universe, and declared to them the laws of destiny, according to which their first birth would be one and the same for all,-no one should suffer a disadvantage at his hands; they were to be sown in the instruments of time severally adapted to them, and to come forth the most religious of animals; and as human nature was of two kinds, the superior race would here after be called man. Now, when they should be implanted in bodies by necessity, and be always gaining or losing some part of their bodily substance, then in the first place it would be necessary that they should all have in them one and the same faculty of sensation, arising out of irresistible impressions; in the second place, they must have love, in which pleasure and pain mingle; also fear and anger, and the feelings which are akin or opposite to them; if they conquered these they would live righteously, and if they were conquered by them, unrighteously. He who lived well during his appointed time was to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have a blessed and congenial existence. But if he failed in attaining this, at the second birth he would pass into a woman, and if, when in that state of being, he did not desist from evil, he would continually be changed into some brute who resembled him in the evil nature which he had acquired, and would not cease from his toils and transformations until he followed the revolution of the same and the like within him, and overcame by the help of reason the turbulent and irrational mob of later accretions, made up of fire and air and water and earth, and returned to the form of his first and better state. Having given all these laws to his creatures, that he might be guiltless of future evil in any of them, the creator sowed some of them in the earth, and some in the moon, and some in the other instruments of time; and when he had sown them he committed to the younger gods the fashioning of their mortal bodies, and desired them to furnish what was still lacking to the human soul, and having made all the suitable additions, to rule over them, and to pilot the mortal animal in the best and wisest manner which they could, and avert from him all but self-inflicted evils.

 When the creator had made all these ordinances he remained in his own accustomed nature, and his children heard and were obedient to their father's word, and receiving from him the immortal principle of a mortal creature, in imitation of their own creator they borrowed portions of fire, and earth, and water, and air from the world, which were hereafter to be restored-these they took and welded them together, not with the indissoluble chains by which they were themselves bound, but with little pegs too small to be visible, making up out of all the four elements each separate body, and fastening the courses of the immortal soul in a body which was in a state of perpetual influx and efflux. Now these courses, detained as in a vast river, neither overcame nor were overcome; but were hurrying and hurried to and fro, so that the whole animal was moved and progressed, irregularly however and irrationally and anyhow, in all the six directions of motion, wandering backwards and forwards, and right and left, and up and down, and in all the six directions. For great as was the advancing and retiring flood which provided nourishment, the affections produced by external contact caused still greater tumult-when the body of any one met and came into collision with some external fire, or with the solid earth or the gliding waters, or was caught in the tempest borne on the air, and the motions produced by any of these impulses were carried through the body to the soul. All such motions have consequently received the general name of "sensations," which they still retain. And they did in fact at that time create a very great and mighty movement; uniting with the ever flowing stream in stirring up and violently shaking the courses of the soul, they completely stopped the revolution of the same by their opposing current, and hindered it from predominating and advancing; and they so disturbed the nature of the other or diverse, that the three double intervals [i.e. between 1, 2, 4, 8], and the three triple intervals [i.e. between 1, 3, 9, 27], together with the mean terms and connecting links which are expressed by the ratios of 3 : 2, and 4 : 3, and of 9 : 8-these, although they cannot be wholly undone except by him who united them, were twisted by them in all sorts of ways, and the circles were broken and disordered in every possible manner, so that when they moved they were tumbling to pieces, and moved irrationally, at one time in a reverse direction, and then again obliquely, and then upside down, as you might imagine a person who is upside down and has his head leaning upon the ground and his feet up against something in the air; and when he is in such a position, both he and the spectator fancy that the right of either is his left, and left right. If, when powerfully experiencing these and similar effects, the revolutions of the soul come in contact with some external thing, either of the class of the same or of the other, they speak of the same or of the other in a manner the very opposite of the truth; and they become false and foolish, and there is no course or revolution in them which has a guiding or directing power; and if again any sensations enter in violently from without and drag after them the whole vessel of the soul, then the courses of the soul, though they seem to conquer, are really conquered.

 And by reason of all these affections, the soul, when encased in a mortal body, now, as in the beginning, is at first without intelligence; but when the flood of growth and nutriment abates, and the courses of the soul, calming down, go their own way and become steadier as time goes on, then the several circles return to their natural form, and their revolutions are corrected, and they call the same and the other by their right names, and make the possessor of them to become a rational being. And if these combine in him with any true nurture or education, he attains the fulness and health of the perfect man, and escapes the worst disease of all; but if he neglects education he walks lame to the end of his life, and returns imperfect and good for nothing to the world below. This, however, is a later stage; at present we must treat more exactly the subject before us, which involves a preliminary enquiry into the generation of the body and its members, and as to how the soul was created-for what reason and by what providence of the gods; and holding fast to probability, we must pursue our way.





Corpus Hermeticum IV. The Cup or Monad (translated by G.R.S. Mead)

1. Hermes: With Reason (Logos), not with hands, did the World-maker make the universal World; so that thou shouldst think of him as everywhere and ever-being, the Author of all things, and One and Only, who by His Will all beings hath created.

This Body of Him is a thing no man can touch, or see, or measure, a body inextensible, like to no other frame. 'Tis neither Fire nor Water, Air nor Breath; yet all of them come from it. Now being Good he willed to consecrate this [Body] to Himself alone, and set its Earth in order and adorn it.

2. So down [to Earth] He sent the Cosmos of this Frame Divine - man, a life that cannot die, and yet a life that dies. And o'er [all other] lives and over Cosmos [too], did man excel by reason of the Reason (Logos) and the Mind. For contemplator of God's works did man become; he marvelled and did strive to know their Author.

3. Reason (Logos) indeed, O Tat, among all men hath He distributed, but Mind not yet; not that He grudgeth any, for grudging cometh not from Him, but hath its place below, within the souls of men who have no Mind.

Tat: Why then did God, O father, not on all bestow a share of Mind?

Hermes: He willed, my son, to have it set up in the midst for souls, just as it were a prize.

4. Tat: And where hath He set it up?

Hermes: He filled a mighty Cup with it, and sent it down, joining a Herald [to it], to whom He gave command to make this proclamation to the hearts of men:

Baptize thyself with this Cup's baptism, what heart can do so, thou that hast faith thou canst ascend to him that hath sent down the Cup, thou that dost know for what thoudidst come into being!

As many then as understood the Herald's tidings and doused themselves in Mind, became partakers in the Gnosis; and when they had "received the Mind" they were made "perfect men".

But they who do not understand the tidings, these, since they possess the aid of Reason [only] and not Mind, are ignorant wherefor they have come into being and whereby.

5. The senses of such men are like irrational creatures'; and as their [whole] make-up is in their feelings and their impulses, they fail in all appreciation of <lit.: "they do not wonder at"> those things which really are worth contemplation. These center all their thought upon the pleasures of the body and its appetites, in the belief that for its sake man hath come into being.

But they who have received some portion of God's gift, these, Tat, if we judge by their deeds, have from Death's bonds won their release; for they embrace in their own Mind all things, things on the earth, things in the heaven, and things above the heaven - if there be aught. And having raised themselves so far they sight the Good; and having sighted it, they look upon their sojourn here as a mischance; and in disdain of all, both things in body and the bodiless, they speed their way unto that One and Only One.

6. This is, O Tat, the Gnosis of the Mind, Vision of things Divine; God-knowledge is it, for the Cup is God's.

Tat: Father, I, too, would be baptized.



Plato, Timaeus 47e-49d

Thus far in what we have been saying, with small exception, the works of intelligence have been set forth; and now we must place by the side of them in our discourse the things which come into being through necessity-for the creation is mixed, being made up of necessity and mind. Mind, the ruling power, persuaded necessity to bring the greater part of created things to perfection, and thus and after this manner in the beginning, when the influence of reason got the better of necessity, the universe was created. But if a person will truly tell of the way in which the work was accomplished, he must include the other influence of the variable cause as well. Wherefore, we must return again and find another suitable beginning, as about the former matters, so also about these. To which end we must consider the nature of fire, and water, and air, and earth, such as they were prior to the creation of the heaven, and what was happening to them in this previous state; for no one has as yet explained the manner of their generation, but we speak of fire and the rest of them, whatever they mean, as though men knew their natures, and we maintain them to be the first principles and letters or elements of the whole, when they cannot reasonably be compared by a man of any sense even to syllables or first compounds. And let me say thus much: I will not now speak of the first principle or principles of all things, or by whatever name they are to be called, for this reason-because it is difficult to set forth my opinion according to the method of discussion which we are at present employing. Do not imagine, any more than I can bring myself to imagine, that I should be right in undertaking so great and difficult a task. Remembering what I said at first about probability, I will do my best to give as probable an explanation as any other-or rather, more probable; and I will first go back to the beginning and try to speak of each thing and of all. Once more, then, at the commencement of my discourse, I call upon God, and beg him to be our saviour out of a strange and unwonted enquiry, and to bring us to the haven of probability. So now let us begin again.

 This new beginning of our discussion of the universe requires a fuller division than the former; for then we made two classes, now a third must be revealed. The two sufficed for the former discussion: one, which we assumed, was a pattern intelligible and always the same; and the second was only the imitation of the pattern, generated and visible. There is also a third kind which we did not distinguish at the time, conceiving that the two would be enough. But now the argument seems to require that we should set forth in words another kind, which is difficult of explanation and dimly seen. What nature are we to attribute to this new kind of being? We reply, that it is the receptacle, and in a manner the nurse, of all generation. I have spoken the truth; but I must express myself in clearer language, and this will be an arduous task for many reasons, and in particular because I must first raise questions concerning fire and the other elements, and determine what each of them is; for to say, with any probability or certitude, which of them should be called water rather than fire, and which should be called any of them rather than all or some one of them, is a difficult matter. How, then, shall we settle this point, and what questions about the elements may be fairly raised?

 In the first place, we see that what we just now called water, by condensation, I suppose, becomes stone and earth; and this same element, when melted and dispersed, passes into vapour and air. Air, again, when inflamed, becomes fire; and again fire, when condensed and extinguished, passes once more into the form of air; and once more, air, when collected and condensed, produces cloud and mist; and from these, when still more compressed, comes flowing water, and from water comes earth and stones once more; and thus generation appears to be transmitted from one to the other in a circle. Thus, then, as the several elements never present themselves in the same form, how can any one have the assurance to assert positively that any of them, whatever it may be, is one thing rather than another? No one can.



First Enoch 6-8 

[Chapter 6]  And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto  them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: 'Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men  and beget us children.' And Semjaza, who was their leader, said unto them: 'I fear ye will not  indeed agree to do this deed, and I alone shall have to pay the penalty of a great sin.' And they all answered him and said: 'Let us all swear an oath, and all bind ourselves by mutual imprecations  not to abandon this plan but to do this thing.' Then sware they all together and bound themselves  by mutual imprecations upon it. And they were in all two hundred; who descended in the days of Jared on the summit of Mount Hermon, and they called it Mount Hermon, because they had sworn  and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it. And these are the names of their leaders: Samlazaz, their leader, Araklba, Rameel, Kokablel, Tamlel, Ramlel, Danel, Ezeqeel, Baraqijal,  Asael, Armaros, Batarel, Ananel, Zaqel, Samsapeel, Satarel, Turel, Jomjael, Sariel. These are their chiefs of tens. [Chapter 7]  And all the others together with them took unto themselves wives, and each chose for himself one, and they began to go in unto them and to defile themselves with them, and they taught them charms  and enchantments, and the cutting of roots, and made them acquainted with plants. And they  became pregnant, and they bare great giants, whose height was three thousand ells: Who consumed  all the acquisitions of men. And when men could no longer sustain them, the giants turned against  them and devoured mankind. And they began to sin against birds, and beasts, and reptiles, and  fish, and to devour one another's flesh, and drink the blood. Then the earth laid accusation against the lawless ones. [Chapter 8]  And Azazel taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals of the earth and the art of working them, and bracelets, and ornaments, and the use of antimony, and the beautifying of the eyelids, and all kinds of costly stones, and all  colouring tinctures. And there arose much godlessness, and they committed fornication, and they  were led astray, and became corrupt in all their ways. Semjaza taught enchantments, and root-cuttings, 'Armaros the resolving of enchantments, Baraqijal (taught) astrology, Kokabel the constellations, Ezeqeel the knowledge of the clouds, Araqiel the signs of the earth, Shamsiel the signs of the sun, and Sariel the course of the moon. And as men perished, they cried, and their cry went up to heaven . . .  




 ‘Isis’ writes to her son ‘Horus’ (probably in the first century CE), telling of the angel Amnaël who brought her these recipes.  (Aischulos attributed all human arts and sciences to Prometheus, Prometheus Bound 445-506, but Plato and his followers – plus many alchemists – looked to Hermes, Kratulos 425, Phaidros 274, and Philebos 18.)

To Horus

7. [theory] My son, now that you have heard this prologue, understand the whole creation and genesis of these things, and know that ‘human knows how to beget a human, lion a lion, and dog a dog’.  But if one of these happens to arise unnaturally, it is generated as a monster, and will not have structure [sustasis].  For ‘nature delights in nature and nature conquers nature’.

9. [whitening metal] Take quicksilver and fix it, either by clay or by Magnesian metal or by sulfur, and set aside (this is the ‘warm-freeze’ [chliaropagês, amalgam]).  Mixture of species: 1 part of warm-freeze lead, and two parts of marble, and 1 part of ‘massive’ stone [or ‘pure’ stone?], and 1 part of yellow realgar [orpiment, arsenic sulfide, see Theophrastos, Stones 40,50], and 1 part malachite.  Mix these with powdered lead and re-smelt thrice.

11. [softening metal] Take copper and iron, and smelt them, and slowly mix in these powders: one part sulfur and 10 parts Magnesian until the iron is thoroughly softened, grind and set aside.  Then take a carat [1/3-obol, ca. ½ gm] of tempered copper, cast 4 parts from it, and mix with it 1 part of the ground iron, adding slowly and stirring, until the iron and copper are ‘co-unified’.

13. [gold at last] Prepare a wash of gold-plate or gold-leaf, without chalkanthon or casting dross, and pour the flakes into a glass; set aside 35 days until it’s all macerated.  Then extract and preserve.

17. [arsenic vapor for silvering] Raise sublimed vapor thus: take arsenic, boil in water, put in a mortar, grind with vermilion and oil, and put in a pan or saucer.  Set this above the door of the furnace in the coals, until the vapor sublimes.  (Do the same with orpiment.)

*(Berthelot [1888/1967] 30-32)


Bolos of Mendes (–180 ± 30) wrote a work in 4 books (gold, silver, gems, and purple) based on ancient artisanal formulas explained through his saying “Nature rejoices in nature, …”, which was perhaps derived from Aristotle’s “the qualities supersede one another” (fragment quoted by Zosimos 12.4[p.150B.]), and which recurs in the astrologer Petosiris (fr.28-R.: Firmicius Maternus 4.16). He either advertised his work as by Demokritos or at least it is often so cited.

Physika and Mystika

3. [the key, revealed in a vision:] “Nature delights in nature [sumpatheia], and nature conquers nature [antipatheia], and nature masters nature.”  (We were entirely amazed that in one brief sentence the whole work was summarized.)  I have come to Egypt bringing the Physika, so that you may disregard much quibbling and confused [literally: ‘poured-together’] matter.

4. [making gold] Take quicksilver and fix it on the metal of Magnesia [one of various lead alloys, see Zosimos 28.5(p.195B.)] or on Italian antimony or on unfired sulfur or on aphroselênon [a copper-silver alloy named from its metals’ gods: Zosimos 6.7(p.123B.)] or cooked titanos [gypsum or lime] or Melian alum or arsenic, or whatever you prefer.  Project this white ‘earth’ [because no longer ‘wet’ and metallic] on copper and you’ll have ‘shadowless’ copper [brilliant and untarnished].  Add yellow silver [probably electrum] and you’ll have gold on gold and it will be metallized gold-glue [usually malachite].  Yellow arsenic [orpiment] does the same, and prepared realgar, and completely everted cinnabar.  But only quicksilver makes copper shadowless.  For nature conquers nature.


1. [originally from book 4, now the opening] To make a pound of purple: two obols of iron slag in 7 drachmas of urine [ratio is 1:21], place on a fire until it boils.  Take the decoction from the fire and pour into a vase (pour the purple in first and then pour the decoction onto the purple) and let it be steeped a day-and-night.  Then take 4 pounds of sea-lichen [orchil, Rytiphloea tinctoria; compare Theophrastos, Plant Researches 4.6.5] and pour on water so that it’s four daktuls [about 7.5 cm] above the sea-lichen; let it sit till it plumps, and strain it and heat the strainings, set out the wool and pour it on.  Squeeze the loose parts so that the wash reaches the roots, and leave it for two day-and-nights.  Next take it and dry it in the shade [to prevent sun-bleaching], and pour off the wash. Then put into the same wash two pounds of sea-lichen and add water to the wash so that it has the first ratio.  And leave it thus until the lichen plumps.  Then filter and add the wool as before, and do it for one day-and-night.  Then take and rinse off in urine and dry in the shade.

*(Berthelot [1888/1967] 41-44)


(unknown work) [cited as ‘Demokritos’ in ‘Zosimos’; compare Theophrastos, Stones 60]

Who does not know that the vapor of cinnabar is quicksilver, of which it is composed?  So that if one grinds cinnabar in natron-oil [sodium carbonate in oil], thoroughly mixing and sealing it in a double-boiler, setting it upon an uninterrupted fire, then all the vapor will be captured fused onto metals. [Dioskourides 1.68.7 describes sublimation of frankincense; 5.95.1 distillation of mercury]

*(Berthelot [1888/1967] 123)


Olympiodorus, In Phaed. 1.3 =  OF 220


e‰ta tÚn D€a died°jato ı DiÒnusow, ˜n fasi kat' §piboulØn t∞w ÜHraw toÁw per‹ aÈtÚn Titçnaw sparãttein ka‹ t«n sark«n aÈtoË épogeÊesyai.  ka‹ toÊtouw Ùrgisye‹w ı ZeÁw §keraÊnvse, ka‹ §k t∞w afiyãlhw t«n étm«n t«n énadoy°ntvn §j aÈt«n Ïlhw genom°nhw gen°syai toÁw ényr≈pouw:  oÈ de› oÔn §jãgein ≤mçw •autoÊw, oÈx ˜ti, …w doke› l°gein ≤ l°jiw, diÒti ¶n tini desm“ §smen t“ s≈mati, toËto går d∞lÒn §sti, ka‹ oÈk ín toËto épÒrrhton ¶legen, éll' ˜ti oÈ de› §jãgein ≤mçw •autoÁw …w toË s≈matow ≤m«n DionusiakoË ˆntow:  m°row går aÈtoË §smen, e‡ ge §k t∞w afiyãlhw t«n Titãnvn sugke€meya geusam°nvn t«n sark«n toÊtou.




Then Dionysus succeeds Zeus. Through the scheme of Hera, they say, his retainers, the Titans, tear him to pieces and eat his flesh.  Zeus, angered by the deed, blasts them with his thunderbolts, and from the sublimate of the vapors that rise from them comes the matter from which men are created.  Therefore we must not kill ourselves, not because, as the text appears to say, we are in the body as a kind of shackle, for that is obvious, and Socrates would not call this a mystery; but we must not kill ourselves because our bodies are Dionysiac; we are, in fact, a part of him, if indeed we come about from the sublimate of the Titans who ate his flesh.


Olympiodorus' Alchemical Allegory


Feature in
the myth

Mythical Term

Alchemical Term

Alchemical Meaning

Explanatory Note



êsbestow asbestos


t¤tanÒw §sti êsbestow »oË

titanos is the lime of the egg



l¤yow DionÊsou lithos Dionysou

êsbestow asbestos


l¤yow DionÊsou §st‹n êsbestow

the stone of Dionysos is lime


lightning of Zeus

keraÊnow keraunos



Fire, applied to the lime, produces vapors (ı étmÒw)which yield a sublimate (afiyãlh)


material from burnt Titans

afiyãlh  aithales

(éeiyalÆw -

ever young)


animating spirit of a human body

Afiyãlh d¢ pneËma, pneÊmati diå tå s≈mata.

The sublimate is the spirit which goes through the body.



Maria the Jewess worked in the first century BCE, and her writings survive only in extracts in Zosimos and later writers (Patai 1982).  She is credited with the invention of the tribikos (‘three-jar’) still and the method of producing in a kêrotakis (encaustic-painters’ wax-softener used as reflux-condenser) the golden mercury-copper amalgam (13 % mercury); the ‘bain-marie’ (double-boiler) is named for her. She made extensive use of sulfur (‘divine’: theios) water, and credits god with her inspiration.

(unknown work)

(p.171B.) [theory] The sulfurous [theiodês] is mastered by the sulfurous – Nature delights and conquers and dominates nature.  Just as a human is composed of elements, so also is copper; and just as a human is composed of liquids and solids and pneuma, so also is copper. (Pneuma is a cloud, as Apollo says in his oracles: “and pneuma darker, wet, unmixed.”)


(p.182B.) Copper is cooked with sulfur, reheated with natron-oil, and cleaned off; and repeating these steps many times it becomes fine shadowless gold.  And god says this: “Let everyone know by experience that heating the copper with sulfur does nothing; but if you heat the sulfur alone it not only makes copper shadowless, but also turns it toward gold.” God granted me this, to know that copper is first heated with sulfur, then the metal of Magnesia is; and the vapor streams forth until the sulfurous escapes with the shadow, and it becomes shadowless gold. [sulfur purifies in Iliad 14.228 and Odyssey 22.481]


(pp.192-3B.) [molubdochalk, leaded-copper, as quality-less metal] Without black lead the Magnesian metal which we have completed and perfected does not exist.  … You will find black lead: take this, I say, after mixing it with quicksilver. … Molubdochalk is ‘cinnabar’ or ‘lead’ or ‘annual stone’ … Which you are going to immerse and project onto it the limit of yellow realgar, so that it will no longer potentially but actually be purified gold.


(p.198B.) If our lead is black, it has become that (for ordinary lead is black from the start).  How did it become that?  If you do not demetallize metals and do not metallize the unmetals and make the two one, nothing expected happens.  And if all metals are not attenuated in the fire and the pneumatized vapor is not sublimed, nothing will be sublimed to the limit.  … I don’t mean with lead simply, but with our lead.  Here’s how they prepare the black lead, for it’s cooked with ordinary lead, and ordinary lead is black from the start, but ours becomes black not having been so at first. 

(p.146B.) [the kêrotakis] Take sulfur-water and a little gum and put them into hot ashes, and thus the sulfur-water is fixed.    In the preparation of gold-film [‘flower-of-gold’, meaning a surface coating] let the sulfur-water and a little gum be placed on the platform of the kêrotakis so that the gold-film is fixed by them; and heat this a little while over a dung-fire.  One part ‘our copper’, one part gold, make a twice-smelted plate and set it upon the suspended sulfur-water and let it cook for 3 day-and-nights until done. 

(p.236B.) [the tribikos] Make three tubes from beaten copper with a small flat end a little thicker than a pastry-pan, in length 1+½ cubits [ca. 65 cm].  So make such tubes, and make another having a width of about a palm [ca. 7.5 cm] with an opening fitted to a copper vessel.  And let the three tubes have an opening fitted as a nail into the neck of a small jar; one the ‘inverse’ [thumb] tube, so that the other two ‘index’ [literally: ‘licking-finger’] tubes on the sides are fitted to the two hands.  And about the base of the copper vessel the three holes are fitted to the three tubes and once fitted let them be soldered, receiving the pneuma from above.  Set the copper vessel above the pottery dish holding the sulfur, lute the joints all around with bread dough [or ‘bear fat’?], and affix to the ends of the tubes large glass jars, thick enough that they won’t break from the heat of the water entering their insides.

            (Kleopatra perhaps first-century CE) employed devices similar to Maria’s, and is credited with a book on make-up and one on weights and measures.  The diagram here is all that survives of her work on Chrusopoiia (Aurifaction or Gold-making); the numbers in the figure refer to the notes below (unnumbered entities remain mysterious).


[1: very carefully penned Greek meaning “All is One, and All is through One, and All is for One, and if One does not contain All then the All is Nothing”]

[2: very carefully penned Greek meaning “The snake is One that has the ios with two compositions”; ios means poison, rust, dye, transformation, and purple: Wilson 1984]

[3: symbol of mercury]

[4: symbol of silver filings]

[5: symbol of gold]

[6: the Ouroboros (‘tail-eating’) snake symbolizing cyclic transformation; the Greek inscription which it encircles is translated]

[7: two tribikoi, from above?]

[8: a kerotakis?]

*(Berthelot [1888/1967] 1.132)

Images from Greek alchemical manuscripts

The gold making equipment of Cleopatra.                     The still of Democritus.

The Balneum-Mariae                                               The three armed still of Maria the Jewess.