Graeco-Egyptian Alchemy and The Occult Sciences in Byzantium

Graeco-Egyptian Alchemy in Byzantium” is a paper by Michèle Mertens which may be of interest [HT David Pecotic]. You can gander at this short paper via the University of Liége’s Open Access portal. But this is an excerpt from The Occult Sciences in Byzantium edited by Paul Magdalino and Maria Mavroud, which full volume may be of further interest. Joel T Walker reviews the entire volume in Aestimatio 5 if you want a survey of the papers within the book, and there is a limited preview via Google Books as well.

“The main concern of this paper will be with the problems raised by the reception of ancient alchemy in Byzantium. After a brief introduction, I will start from the study of a pre-Byzantine author, Zosimos of Panopolis, and deal with the following questions: How, from a purely material viewpoint, were Zosimos’ writings handed down during the Byzantine period? Did Byzantine alchemists have access to his works and did they resort to them? Was Zosimos known outside the alchemical Corpus; in other words, did Graeco-Egyptian alchemists exert any kind of influence outside strictly alchemical circles? When and how was the alchemical Corpus put together? In a more general way, what evidence do we have, whether in the Corpus itself or in non-alchemical literature, that alchemy was practised in Byzantium? Answers (or at least partial answers) to these questions should help us to understand and define to some extent the place held by the ‘sacred art’ in Byzantium.

It is now universally 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.” (205-206)

“Before 500 A.D., alchemy appears to be a rather marginal activity, as suggested by the absence of evidence outside the alchemical Corpus. In the sixth century, references to alchemy become increasingly numerous in Byzantine literature, but some suspicion can be perceived with regard to the sacred art, a suspicion reinforced by the schemes of swindlers. From the seventh century onwards, alchemy seems to have been perfectly well integrated into the official learning, judging by the vogue it apparently enjoyed under Heraclius. The evidence of the Marcianus (10th or 11th c.), the sumptuous decoration of which suggests that it must have been made for a high-ranking person, points in the same direction.” (228)