Issues for Discussion

Cosmology and alchemy

Theories of elements and transformations

Democritean vs. Marian alchemy

Practical procedures and mystical meanings

Zosimus, Olympiodorus

Divine Alchemy - salvific procedures

Magic vs. Science


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 spirit from base matter – pneuma, psyche, hyle

one and the many

Olympiodorus and the purification of spirit

Zosimus and the liberation of spirit from matter

divine origin of alchemy


Olympiodorus, In Phaed. 1.3 =  OF 220

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



ἄσβεστος asbestos


τίτανός ἐστι ἄσβεστος ὠοῦ

titanos is the lime of the egg



λίθος Διονύσου lithos Dionysou

ἄσβεστος asbestos


λίθος Διονύσου ἐστὶν ἄσβεστος

the stone of Dionysos is lime


lightning of Zeus

κεραύνος keraunos



fire, applied to the lime, produces vapors (ὁ ἀτμός) which yield a sublimate (αἰθάλη)


material from burnt Titans

αἰθάλη  aithale

(ἀειθαλής -

ever young)


animating spirit of a human body

αἰθάλη δὲ νεῦμα, νεύματι διὰ τὰ σώματα

the sublimate is the spirit which goes through the body


The Emerald Tablet

       True, without error, certain and most true: that which is above is as that which is below, and that which is below is as that which is above, to perform the miracles of the One Thing.

       And as all things were from One, by the meditation of One, so from this One Thing come all things by adaptation. Its father is the Sun, its mother is the Moon, the wind carried it in its belly, the nurse thereof is the Earth.

       It is the father of all perfection and the consummation of the whole world. Its power is integral if it be turned to Earth.

       Thou shalt separate the Earth from the Fire, the subtle from the coarse, gently and with much ingenuity. It ascends from Earth to heaven and descends again to Earth, and receives the power of the superiors and the inferiors.

       Thus thou hast the glory of the whole world; therefore let all obscurity flee before thee. This is the strong fortitude of all fortitude, overcoming every subtle and penetrating every solid thing. Thus the world was created. Hence are all wonderful adaptations, of which this is the manner.

      Therefore am I called Hermes the Thrice Great, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world. That is finished which I have to say concerning the operation of the Sun.