A Preliminary Account of the Hermetic Philosophy, with the more salient Points of its Public History



A Preliminary Account of the Hermetic Philosophy, with the more salient Points of its Public History.

The Hermetic tradition opens early with morning dawn of philosophy in the eastern world. All pertaining thereto is romantic mystical. Its monuments, emblems, and numerous written records, alike dark and enigmatical, form one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of the human mind. A hard task were it indeed and almost infinite to discuss every particular that has been presented by individuals concerning the art of Alchemy; and as difficult to fix with certainty the origin of a science which has been successively attributed to Adam, Noah and his son Cham, to Solomon, Zoroaster, and the Egyptian Hermes. Nor, fortunately, does this obscurity concern us much in an inquiry which rather relates to the means and principles of occult science than to the period and place of their reputed discovery. Nothing, perhaps, is less worthy or more calculated to distract the mind from points of real importance than this very question of temporal origin, which, when we have taken all pains to satisfy and remember, leaves us no wiser in reality than we were before. What signifies it, for instance, that we attribute letters to Cadmus, or trace oracles to Zoroaster, or the Kabalah to Moses, the Eleusinian mysteries to Orpheus, or Free-masonry to Noah; whilst we are profoundly ignorant of the nature {3} and true beginning of smy one of these things, and observe not how truth, being everywhere eternal, does there always originate where it is understood?

We do not delay, therefore, to ascertain, even were it possible, whether the Hermetic Science was indeed preserved to mankind on the Syriadic pillars after the flood, or whether Egypt or Palestine may lay equal claims to the same; or, whether in truth that Smaragdine table, whose singular inscription has been transmitted to this day, is attributable to Hermes or to any other name. It may suffice the present need to accept the general assertion of its advocates, and consider Alchemy as an antique artifice coeval, for aught we know to the contrary, with the universe itself. For although attempts have been made, as by Herman Conringius,1) to slight it as recent invention, and it is also true that by a singularly envious fate, nearly all Egyptian record of the art has perished; yet we find the original evidence contained in the works of A. Kircher,2) the learned Dane Olaus Borrichius,3) and Robert Vallensis in the first volume of the Theatrum Chemicum4) more than sufficient to balance every objection of this kind, besides ample collateral probability bequeathed in the best Greek Authors, historical and philosophic.

In order to show that the propositions we may hereafter have occasion to offer are not gratuitous as also with better effect to introduce a stranger subject, it will be requisite to run through a brief account of the Alchemical philosophers, with the literature and public evidence of their science; the more so, as no one of the many histories of philosophy compiled or translated into our language {4} advert to it in such a manner as, considering the powerful and widespread influence formerly exercised on the human mind, it certainly appears to deserve.

This once famous Art, then, has been represented both as giving titles and receiving them from its mother land, Cham; for so, during a long period, according to Plutarch, was Egypt denominated, or Chemia, on account of the extreme blackness of her soil: —or, as others say, because it was there that the art of Vulcan was first practised by Cham, one of the sons of the Patriarch, from whom thev thus derive the name and art together. But b}7 the word Chemia, says Plutarch, the seeing pupil of the human eye was also designated, and other black matters, whence in part perhaps Alchemy, so obscurely descended, has been likewise stigmatized as a Black Art.5)

Etymological research has doubtless proved useful in leading on and corroborating truths once suggested, but it is not a way of first discovery; derivations may be too easily conformed to any bias, and words do not convey true ideas unless their proper leader be previously entertained. Without being able now, therefore, to determine whether the art gave or received a title from Cham, the Persian prince Alchimin, as others have contended, or that dark Egyptian earth; to take a point of time, we may begin the Hermetic story from Hermes, by the Greeks called Trismegistus, Egypt's great and far-reputed adeptist king, who, according to Suidas, lived before the time of the Pharaohs, about four hundred years previous to Moses, or, as others compute, about 1900 before the Christian era.6) {5}

This prince, like Solomon, is highly celebrated by antiquity for his wisdom and skill in the secret operations of nature, and for his reputed discovery of the quintessential perfectibility of the three kingdoms in their homogeneal unity; whence he is called the Thrice Great Hermes, having the spiritual intelligence of all things in their universal law.7)

It is to be lamented that no one of the many books attributed to him, and which are named in detail by Clemens Alexandrinus, escaped the destroying hand of Dioclesian;8) more particularly; if we judge them, as Jamblicus assures us we may, by those Asclepian Dialogues and the Divine Pœmander, which yet pass current under the name of Hermes.9) Both are preserved in the Latin of Ficinus, and have been well translated into our language by Dr. Everard. The latter, though a small work, surpasses most that are extant for sublimity of doctrine and expression: its verses flow forth eloquent, as it were, from the fountain of nature, instinct with intelligence; such as might be more efficacious to move the rational sceptic off from his negative ground into the happier regions of intelligible reality, than many theological discourses which, of a lower grade of comprehension, are unable to make this highly affirmative yet intellectual stand. But the subjects treated of in the books of the Pœmander and Asclepias are theosophic and ultimate, and denote rather our divine capabilities and promise of {6} regeneration than the physical ground of either; this, with the practical method of alchemy being further given in the Tractatus Aureus, or Golden Treatise, an admirable relic, consisting of seven chapters, attributed to the same author.10) The Smaragdine Table, which, in its few enigmatical but remarkable lines, is said to comprehend the working principle and total subject of the art, we here subjoin: from the original Arabic and Greek copies, it has been rendered into Latin by Kircher as follows:—


Verum sine mendacio certum et verissimum; quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius; et quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius: et sicut omnes res fuerunt ab uno, mediatione unius, sic omnes res notæ fuerunt ab hac una re adaptatione. Pater ejus Sol est, mater vera Luna: portavit id ventus in ventre suo, nutrix ejus terra est; pater omnis telesmi, sive consummatio totius mundi est hic. Vis ejus integra est si versa fuerit in terram. Separabis terram ab igne, subtile a spisso, suaviter cum multo ingenio; ascendit a terrâ in cœlum, interumque descendit in terram, recipitque vim superior um et inferiorum. Sic habebis gloriam totius mundi, ideò fugit a te omnis obscuritas; hic est totius fortitudinis fortis, qui vincet omnem rem subtilem omnemque solidam penetrabit. Sicut mundus creatus est. Hinc erunt adaptationes mirabiles quarum modus est hic. Itaque vocatus sum Hermes Trismegistus, habens tres partes philosophiæ totius mundi. Completum est quod dixi de operatione Solis.

We shall have occasion to revert to this tablet and its applicability hereafter, when we come to a particular examination of the philosophic subject in its active and passive relations, and the intimate mystery of those Hermetic luminaries in conjunc-tion. The inscription may be thus rendered.


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, for performing the miracles of the One Thing; and as all things were from one, by the mediation of one, so all things arose {7} from this one thing by adaptation; the father of it is the Sun, the mother of it is the Moon; the wind carries it in its belly; the nurse thereof is the Earth. This is the father of all perfection, or consummation of the whole world. The power of it is integral, if it be turned into earth. Thou shalt separate the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross, gently with much sagacity; it ascends from earth to heaven, and again descends to earth: and receives the strength of the superiors and of the inferiors—so thou hast the glory of the whole world; therefore let all obscurity flee before thee. This is the strong fortitude of all fortitudes, overcoming every subtle and penetrating every solid thing. So the world was created. Hence were all wonderful adaptations of which this is the manner. Therefore am I called Thrice Great Hermes, having the Three Parts of the philosophy of the whole world. That which I have written is consummated concerning the operation of the Sun.

This Emerald Table, unique and authentic as it may be regarded, is all that remains to us from Egypt of her Sacred Art. A few riddles and fables, all more or less imperfect, that were preserved by the Greeks, and some inscrutable hieroglyphics are still to be found quoted in certain of the alchemical records: but the originals are entirely swept away. And—duly considering all that is related by the chroniclers of that ancient dynasty, her amazing reputation for power, wealth, wisdom, and magic skill;—and, even when all these had faded, when Herodotus visited the city, after the priestly government of the Pharaohs had been overthrown by Cambyses, and that savage conqueror had burned the temples and almost annihilated the sacerdotal order,—after the influx of strangers had been permitted, and civil war had raged almost to the fulfilment of the Asclepian prophecy,—the wonders then recorded by the historian of her remaining splendour and magnificence;—what shall we now conclude, when, after the lapse of so many more destroying ages, we review the yet mightily surviving witnesses of so much glory, surpassing and gigantic even in the last stage of their decay? Shall we suppose the ancient accounts fallacious because they are too wonderful {8} to be conceived; or have we not now present before our eyes the plain evidence of lost science and the vestiges of an intelligence superior to our own? For what did the nations flock to Memphis? For what did Pythagoras, Thales, Democritus, and Plato become immured there for several solitary years, but to be initiated in the wisdom and learning of those Egyptians? For what else, but for the knowledge of that mighty Art with which she arose, governed, and dazzled the whole cotemporary world; holding in strong abeyance the ignorant, profane, vulgar, until the evil day of desolation came with self-abuse, when, neglecting to obey the law by which she governed, all fell, as was foretold, and sinking gradually deeper in crime and presumption, was at last annihilated, and every sacred institution violated by barbarians, and despoiled? “Oh, Egypt! Egypt! Fables alone shall remain of thy religion, and these such as will be incredible to posterity, and words alone shall be left engraved in stones narrating thy pious deeds. The Scythian also, or Indian, or some other similar nation, shall inhabit Egypt. For divinity shall return to heaven, all its inhabitants shall die, and thus Egypt bereft both of God and man shall be deserted. Why do you weep, Asclepias? Egypt shall experience yet more ample evils; she was once holy, and the greatest lover of the gods on earth, by the desert of her religion. And she, who was alone the reductor of sanctity and the mistress of piety, will be an example of the greatest cruelty. And darkness shall be preferred to light, and death shall be judged to be more useful than life. No one shall look up to heaven. The religious man shall be counted insane; the irreligious shall be thought wise; the furious, brave; and the worst of men shall be considered good. For the soul, and all things about it, by which it is either naturally immortal, or conceives it shall attain to immortality, conformably to what I have explained {9} plained to you, shall not only be the subjects of laughter, but shall be considered as vanity. Believe me, likewise, that a capital punishment shall be appointed for him who applies himself to the Religion of Intellect. New statutes and new laws shall be established, and nothing religious, or which is worthy of heaven or celestial concerns, shall be heard or believed in by the mind. Every divine voice shall, by a necessary silence, be dumb: the fruits of the earth shall be corrupted ; and the air itself shall languish with a sorrowful stupor. These events, and such an old age of the world as this, shall take place—such irreligion, inordination, and unseasonableness of all good.”11)

Such is the substance of a prediction which, as it was supposed to have reference to the Christian era, has been abused and reputed a forgery by the faithless learned of modern times. It is, however, difficult to conceive why it should have been considered so obnoxious, for the early history of Christianity certainly does not fulfil it; it was a falling off from Divinity that was predicted, and not such a revival as took place upon the teaching of Jesus Christ and his apostles. At that period philosophy too flourished, and the Spirit of the Word was potent in faith to heal and save. If the prediction had been a forgery of Apuleius, or other cotemporary opponent of Christianity, the early fathers must have known it, which they did not as is plain from Lactantius, and St. Augustin mentioning, without expressing any doubt about its authenticity; and though the latter (then adopting probably the popular notion) esteemed it instinctu fallacis spiritus,12) he might subsequently perhaps have thought otherwise, had he lived so long. Christianity was yet in his time glowing, {10} bright, and efficacious, from the Divine Fountain; faith was then grounded in reality and living operation, and the mystery of human regeneration, so zealously proclaimed, was also rationally understood. The fulfilment, with respect to Egypt, appears to have taken place in part long previously, and in part to have been reserved to later times, when sacred mysteries, too openly exposed to the multitude, became perverted and vilified by their abuse.

But this prophecy carries us out of all order of time: it will be necessary, in tracing the progress of our science, to pass again to Egypt. The period of her true greatness is, as is well known, shrouded in oblivion; but, during the succession of the Ptolemies, the influx of strangers, so long before successfully prohibited, became excessive: her internal peace was destroyed, but her Art and Wisdom spread abroad with her renown: foreigners obtained initiation into the Mysteries of Isis; and India, Arabia, China, and Persia vied with her and with each other in magian skill and prowess.

Pliny informs us that it was Ostanes, the Persian sage accompanying the army of Xerxes, who first inoculated Greece with the portentous spirit of his nation.13) Subsequently the Greek Philosophers, both young and old, despising the minor religion of their own country, became anxious to visit the eastern temples, and that of Memphis above all, in order to obtain a verification of those hopes to which a previous spirit of inquiry and this new excitement had abundantly given rise.

Amongst the earliest mentioned of these, after Thales, Pythagoras, and a few others, whose writings are lost, is Democritus of Abdera, who has been frequently styled the father of experimental philosophy, and who, in his book of Sacred Physics, {11} treats especially of the Hermetic art, and that occult discovery on which the systems of ancient philosophy appear to have been very uniformly based.14) Of this valuable piece there are said to be several extant editions, and Synesius has added to it the light of a commentary.15) Nicholas Flammel also, of more recent notoriety, has given extracts from the same at the conclusion of a very instructive work.16) That its authenticity should have been disputed by the ignorant is not wonderful; but the ancients are nowhere found doubt about it. Pliny bears witness to the experimental fame of Democritus, and his skill in the occult sciences and practice of them, both in his native city of Abdera and afterwards at Athens, when Socrates was teaching there. Plenum miraculi et hoc pariter utrasque artes effloruisse, medicinam dico, magiciemque eâdem ætate, illam Hippocrate hanc Democrito illustrantibus, &c.17) Seneca also mentions his artificial confection of precious stones;18) and it is said that he spent all his leisure, after his return home, in these and such-like hyperphysical researches.19)

During the sojourn of Democritus at Memphis, he is said to have become associated in his studies with a Hebrew woman named Maria, remarkable at that period for the advances she had made in Philosophy, and particularly in the department of the Hermetic Art. A treatise entitled Sapientissima Maria de Lapide Philosophica Prœscripta is extant; also Maria Practica, a singularly excellent {12} and esteemed fragment, which is preserved in the alchemical collections.20))

But amongst the Greeks, next Democritus, Anaxagoras is celebrated as an alchemist. The remains of his writings are unfortunately scanty, and even those to be found in manuscript only, with exception of some fragments which have been accidentally translated. From these, however, we are led to infer favourably of the general character of his expositions, which Norton, our countryman also, in the Proheme to his quaint Ordinal of Alchemy, lauds, thus holding him up in excellent comparison with the envious writers of his age.

All masters that write of this solemn werke,
Have made their bokes to manie men full derke.
In poysies, parables, and in metaphors alsoe,
Which to schollors causeth peine and woe;
For in their practise when they would assaye
They leefe their costs, as men see alle daye.
Hermes, Rasis, Geber, and Avicen,
Merlin, Hortolan, Democrit and Morien,
Bacon and Raymond with many moe
Wrote under coverts and Aristotle alsoe.
For what hereof they wrote cleare with their pen,
Their clouded clauses dulled; fro manie men
Fro laymen, fro clerks, and soe fro every man
They hid this art that noe man find it can.
By their bokes thei do shew reasons faire,
Whereby much people are brought to despaire:
Yet Anaxagoras wrote plainest of them all
In his boke of Conversions Naturall;
Of the old Fathers that ever I founde,
He most discloses of this science the grounde; {13}
Whereof Aristotle had great envy,
And him rebuked unrightfully,
In manie places, as I can well report,
Intending that men should not to him resort,
For he was large of his cunnying and love,
God have his soul in bliss above;
And such as sowed envious seede
God forgive them for their mis-deede.21)

Aristotle is much blamed by Adepts in general for the manner in which he has not only veiled the knowledge which he secretly possessed, but also for having wilfully, as they complain, led mankind astray from the path of true experiment. We hesitate to judge this question, since, however much the barrenness of his philosophy may be deplored, it appears improbable that any philosopher, much less one who took so much pains as Aristotle, should designedly labour to deceive mankind. His idea was peculiar and appears in itself just. He blames his predecessors for the various and contradictory positions they had made in philosophising; i.e., apparently contradictory, as respects their language taken in a literal sense; for he never quarrels with their true meaning, and carefully avoids disputing their general ground. His metaphysics indeed, which are the natural touchstone of his whole system, differ in no one fundamental respect or particular that is essential from those of Anaxagoras, Plato and Heraclitus. Certain epistles to Alexander the Great on the Philosopher's stone, attributed to Aristotle, are preserved in the fifth volume of the Theatrum Chemicum; and the Secreta Secretorum is generally acknowledged to be authentic. In the book of Meteors also a clearer intelligence of intrinsic {14} causes is evinced than may be apparent to the common eye.22)

But the whole philosophy of Plato is hyperphysical; the Phædrus, Philebus, and seventh book of Laws, the beautiful and sublime Parmenides, the Phædo, Banquet, and Timæus have long been admired by the studious without being understood; a mystic semblance pervades the whole, and recondite allusions baffle the pursuit of sense and ordinary imagination. Yet the philosopher speaks more familiarly in his Epistles;—and if the correspondence with Dionysius of Syracuse had concerned moral philosophy only and the abstract relations of mind, why such dread as is there expressed about setting the truth to paper? But the science which drew the tyrant to the philosopher was more probably practical and profitably interesting than abstracts would appear to be to such a mind. “Indeed, son of Dionysius and Doris, this your inquiry concerning the cause of all beautiful things is endued with a certain quality, or rather it is a parturition respecting this ingenerated in the soul, from which he who is not liberated will never in reality acquire truth.”23) Wisdom must be sought for her own sake, neither for gold or silver or any intermediate benefit, lest these all should be denied together without the discovery {15} of their source. There is a treatise on the philosopher's stone in the fifth volume of the Theatrum Chemicum attributed to Plato, but the authenticity is doubtful; and since the principal Greek records of the art were afterwards destroyed with the remnant of Egyptian literature at Alexandria, we are not desirous to enrol either of these names without more extant evidence to prove their claim to the title of Hermetic philosophers. They are mentioned here in their series, because we hope to make it probable, as the nature of the subject comes to be developed, that the most famous schools of theosophy have in all ages been based on a similar experimental ground and profound science of truth in their leaders.

It was about the year 284 of the Christian era when, as Suidas relates, the facility with which the Egyptians were able to make gold and silver, and in consequence to levy troops against Rome, excited the envy and displeasure of the emperor to such an extent, that he issued an edict, by which every chemical book was to be seized and burned together in the public market-place vainly hoping, as the historian adds, by this shameful act, to deprive them of the means of annoying him any more. Thus Suidas also endeavours to account for the silence of antiquity with respect to the Egyptian Art.24) Yet, notwithstanding all this sacrilege, the art appears to have been continually revived in Egypt throughout the whole period of her decline; and, though the records are scanty, we have the memorable story of Cleopatra, the last monarch, dissolving her earring in such a sharp vinegar as is only known to philosophers on the ground of nature. Mystical tales, too, there are related of her pursuits with {16} Mark Antony, and certain chemical treatises attributed to this princess are yet extant.25)

It will be unnecessary to delay our enquiry long at Rome; a city so pre-eminently famous for luxury and arms was not likely to arrive at much perfection in the subtler sciences of nature. Some failing attempts of Caligula there are recounted by Pliny;26)) and Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Vitruvius, and other men noted of the Augustan Age, have been gravely accused of sorcery and dabbling in the black art. But the perpetual lamps best prove, and without offence, that the Romans understood something of chemistry and the occult laws of light; several of these are described by Pancirollus; and St. Augustin mentions one consecrated to Venus in his day, that was inextinguishable. But the most remarkable were those found in Tullia's (Cicero's daughter's) tomb;—and that one near Alestes in the year 1500, by a rustic who, digging deeper than usual, discovered an earthen vessel or urn containing another urn, in which last was a lamp placed between two cylindrical vessels, one of gold the other of silver, and each of which was full of a very pure liquor, by whose virtue it is probable these lamps had continued to shine for upwards of fifteen hundred years; and, but for the recklessness of barbarian curiosity, might have continued their wonderful illumination to this time. By the inscription found upon these vessels, it appears they were the work of one Maximus Olybius, who certainty evinced thereby some superior skill in adjusting the gaseous elements, or other ethereal adaptations than is known at this {17} day. The verses graven on the larger urn are as follows:—

Platoni sacrum munus ne attingite fures:
      Ignotum est vobis hac quod in urna latet.
Namque elementa gravi clausit digesta labore
      Vase sub hoc modico Maximus Olybius.
Adsit fecundo custos sibi copia cornu,
      Ne pretium tanti depereat laticis.

Which have been translated thus:

Plunderers, forbear this gift to touch
      'Tis awful Pluto's own;
A secret rare the world conceals
      To such as you unknown.
Olybius, in this slender vase,
      The elements has chained,
Digested with laborious art,
      From secret science gained.
With guardian care, two copious urns
      The costly juice confine,
Lest through the ruins of decay,
      The lamp should cease to shine.

On the lesser urn were these:

Abite hinc pessimi fures!
Vos quid voltis vestris cum oculis emissititiis?
Abite hinc vestro cum Mercurio petasato caduceatoque!
Maximus maximo donum Plutoni hos sacrum facit.

Plunderers, with prying eyes, away!
What mean you by this curious stay?
Hence with your cunning patron god,
With bonnet winged and magic rod!
Sacred alone to Pluto's name
This mighty art of endless fame!27)

Hermolaus Barbaras, in his corollary to Dioscorus, or some other, where he is treating of the element of water in general, alludes to a particular kind that is distinct from every other water or liquor, saying,—There is a cœlestial, or rather a divine water of the chemists, with which both Democritus and Trismegistus were acquainted, calling it divine water, Scythian latex, &c, which {18} is a spirit of the nature of the ether and quintessence of things, whence potable gold, and the stone of philosophers, takes its beginning. The ancient author of the Apocalypse of the Secret Spirit of Nature, is also cited by H. Khunrath, concerning this water; and he devoutly affirms, that the ether in this praeter-perfeet aqueous body will burn perpetually, without diminution or consumption of itself, if the external air only be restrained.28) There are also, besides those mentioned by Pancirollus, modern accounts of lamps found burning in monuments and antique caves of Greece and Germany. But the Bononian Enigma, long famous, without a solution, should not be omitted here, since this relic has puzzled many learned antiquaries; and the adepts claim it as having exclusive reference to the occult material of their art.


Nec vir, nec mulier, nec androgyna,
Nec puella, nec juvenis, nec anus,
Nec casta, nec meretrix, nee pudica,
          Sed omnia!
Sublata neque fame, neque ferro, neque
Veneno, sed omnibus!
Nec cœla, nec terris, nec aquis,
          Sed ubique jacet!


Nec maritus, nec amator, nec necessarius,
Neque mœrens, neque gaudens, neque flens,
Neque molem, neque pyramidem, neque sepulcrum,
          Sed omnia,
Scit et nescit cui posuerit,
Hoc est sepulcrum certè, cadaver
Non habens, sed cadaver idem,
          Est et sepulcrum!29)

The following excellent translations appeared amongst some original contributions in the early: number of a literary periodical, a few years since:30) {19}


Nor male, nor female, nor hermaphrodite,
Nor virgin, woman, young or old,
Nor chaste, nor harlot, modest hight,
    But all of them you're told—
Not killed by poison, famine, sword,
But each one had its share,
Not in heaven, earth, or water broad
    It lies, but everywhere!


No husband, lover, kinsman, friend,
Rejoicing, sorrowing at life's end,
Knows or knows not, for whom is placed
This—what? This pyramid, so raised and graced,
This grave, this sepulchre? 'Tis neither,
'Tis neither—but 'tis all and each together.
      Without a body I aver,
      This is in truth a sepulchre;
      But notwithstanding, I proclaim
      Both corpse and sepulchre the same!

All these contradictory claims are said by the alchemists to relate to the properties of their universal subject, as we shall hereafter endeavour to explain. Michael Maier has detailed the whole allusion in his Symbola.31) And N. Barnaud, in the Theatrum Chemicum, has a commentary on the same.32)

But to proceed; transferring our regards from Rome to Alexandria, we find many Christian Platonists and divines studying and discussing the Occult Art in their writings. St. John, the Evangelist Apostle, is cited as having practised it for the good of the poor; not only in healing the sick, but also confecting gold, silver, and precious stones for their benefit. St. Victor relates the particulars in a commentary, and the Greek Catholics were accustomed to sing the following verses in a hymn appointed for the mass on St. John's day. {20}

Cum gemmarum partes fractas
    Solidasset, has distractas
          Tribuit pauperibus.
Inexhaustum fert thesaurum
    Qui de virgis fecit aurum
          Gemmas de lapidibus.33)

Looking to the general testimony of the Fathers, we observe that the early Church Catholic did not neglect to avail herself of the powers which sanctity of life and a well-grounded faith had gotten her. There is no doubt either that the Apostles, when they instituted and left behind them certain ordinances and elementary types, as of water, oil, salt, and light, signified some real and notable efficacies. But our Reformers, mistaking these things for superstitions, and since they had ceased to have any meaning, turned them all out of doors retaining, indeed, little more of the mystery of regeneration than a traditional faith. The Papists, on the other hand, equally oblivious, evinced only to what a length human credulity and ignorance may be carried, by placing inherent holiness in those material signs, apart from the spirit and only thing signified; adding, moreover, to the original ordinations many follies of their own, they fell into a very slavish and stupid kind of idolatry. And since one of the most fertile sources of dissension that have arisen in the Christian Church has been about these very shadows and types of doctrines, it is to be hoped that, if ever again they should come to be generally reintroduced, it will not be on the ground of ecclesiastical persuasion, or any mere written authority, which, however high {21} and well supported, has never yet been found sufficient to produce unanimity; but from a true understanding and co-operation of that original virtue, apart from which they do but mimic an efficacy, and gather unwholesome fruits. There is a curious story of an early Christian mission to China, related by Thomas Vaughan, in his Magia Adamica, showing how the faith became originally established there and elsewhere by its open efficacy, and the power of works, in healing and purifying the lives of men.

But we are at Alexandria, and during that grand revival of philosophy which took place and continued there some centuries subsequent to the Christian epoch, Plotinus, Philo-Judæus, Proclus, Porphyry, Jamblicus, Julian, and Apuleius, each professing a genuine knowledge of the Theurgic art, and experimental physics on the Hermetic ground. We shall have frequent occasion to quote their evidence hereafter; Heliodorus, Olympiodorus, Synesius, Athenagoras, Zozimus, and Archelaus, have each left treatises which are extant on the philosopher's stone.34) The excellent Hypatia, also, should be mentioned amongst these, so celebrated for her acquirements and untimely end; it was from this lady that Synesius learned the occult truths of that philosophy, to which he ever afterwards devoted his mind, and which he never abandoned, pursuing it still more zealously when, converted to Christianity, he became a bishop of the Alexandrian Church. He was careful, however, to protect the mysteries of his religion from vulgar abuse, and refused to expound in public the {22} philosophy of Plato ; he and his brethren having unanimously bound themselves by oath to initiate none but such as had been worthily prepared and duly approved by the whole conclave.35) Of Synesius, we have remaining the Alchemical commentary on Democritus before mentioned, with an admirable piece commonly found appended to other treatises, those of Artephius and Flammel's Hieroglyphics, for example, and translated into English, with Basil Valentine's Chariot of Antimony and the useful commentaries of the adept Kirchringius.36)

Heliodorus was a familiar friend of Synesius, and brother adept; besides the writings already named, the mystical romance of Theagenes and Chariclea being attributed to him as an offence, rather than disavow it, as was required, he relinquished his bishopric of Tricca, in Thessaly, and went to pursue his studies in poverty and retirement.

Zozimus was an Egyptian, and reputed a great practitioner. The name of Athenagoras is familiar in Church history; his tract, which has been translated into French, and entitled Du Parfait Amour, shows him to have been practically conversant with the art he allegorizes.

The taking of Alexandria by the Arabs, in the year 640, dispersed the choice remnant of mind yet centred there; and it was not long afterwards that the Calif Omar, mad in his Mahomedan zeal, condemned her noble and unique library to heat the public baths of the city, which it is said to have done for the space of six miserable months. A wild religious fanaticism now prevailed Christians and Mahomedans struggling for temporal supremacy:—and here we may observe {23} something similar to a fulfilment of the Asclepian prophecy, but the evil was more profusely spread even than was predicted for religion had everywhere fallen off from her vital foundation; tradition and sectarian delirium had taken place of intellectual enthusiasm, and idle dreams were set up as oracles in the place of Divine inspiration. The priests, above all blameworthy, having forsaken the law of conscience, attempted to wield without it the rod of magic power. Confusion and licentiousness followed; and from gradual sufferance grew, and came to prevail, in the worst imaginable forms. Necessity, at length, compelled an abandonment of the Mysteries; Theurgic rites, no longer holy, were proscribed; and a punishment, no less than death, was menaced against him who dared to pursue the “Religion of Intellect.” In the interim, those few who had withstood the torrent of ambitious temptation, indignant at the multiform folly, and observing by aid of their remaining wisdom, that the ingression of evil was not yet fulfilled, hastened rather than delayed the crisis ; and by burying themselves with their saving science in profound obscurity, have left the world to oblivion, and the deceit of outer darkness, with rare individual exceptions, to this day.

It is a peculiarity of the Hermetic science that men of every religion, time and country and occupation, have been found professing it; and Arabia, though she was guilty of so great a sacrilege at Alexandria, has herself produced many wise kings and renowned philosophers. It is not known exactly when Prince Geber lived; but since his name has become notorious, and is cited by the oldest authors, whereas he himself quotes none, he merits, at all events, an early consideration. Besides, he is generally esteemed by adepts as the greatest, after Hermes, of all who have philosophized through this art. {24}

Of the five hundred treatises, said to have been composed by him, three only remain to posterity: The Investigation of Perfection, The Sum of the perfect Magistery, and his Testament;37) and the light estimation in which these are held by more modern chemists, forms a striking contrast to the unfeigned reverence and admiration with which they were formerly reviewed and cited by the adepts, Albertus Magnus, Lully, and many more of the brightest luminaries of their age.

“If we look back to the seventh centurv (we quote from the address delivered at the opening meeting of the Faraday Society, 1846), the alchemist is presented brooding over his crucibles and alembics that are to place within his reach the philosopher's stone, the transmutation of metals, the alkahest, and the elixir of life. With these we associate the name of Geber, the first authentic writer on the subject; from whose peculiar and mysterious style of writing we derive the word geber or gibberish.”

Yet, notwithstanding this and much more that they descant upon, if our modern illuminati were but half as experienced in nature as they might be—had they one ray even of the antique intellect they deride, how different a scene would not that remote age present to them? Instead of imagining greedy dotards brooding over their crucibles and uncouth alembics, in vain hope of discovering the elixir and stone of philosophers, they would observe the philosophers themselves, by a kindred light made visible, on their own ground: experimenting, {25} indeed, but how and with what? Not with our gross elements, our mercuries, sulphurs, and our lifeless salts; but in a far different nature, with stranger arts, and with laboratories too, how different from those now in use:—of common fittings, yet not inferior either; but most complete with vessels, fuel, furnaces, and every material requisite, well adapted together and compact in one. Right skilfully has old Geber veiled a fair discovery, by his own art alone to be unmasked: his gibberish is not of the present day's commonplace, tame, and tolerable; but such ultra-foolishness in literality are his receipts, as folly is never found to venture or common sense invent. For they are a part of wisdom's envelope, to guard her universal magistery from an incapable and dreaming world; calculated they are, nevertheless, though closely sealed, to awaken rational curiosity, and lend a helping hand to those who have already entered on trie right road; but to deceive in practice only the most credulous and inept. They who have really understood Geber, his adept compeers, declare with one accord that he has spoken the truth, though disguisedly, with great acuteness and precision: others, therefore, who do not profess to understand, and to whom those writings are a mere unintelligible jargon, may take warning hence, lest they exhibit to posterity a twofold ignorance and vanity of thought.

Rhasis, another Arabian alchemist, was even more publicly famous than Geber, on account of the practical displays he made of his transmuting skill. Excellent extracts from his writings, which are said to exist principally in manuscript, often occur in the works of Roger Bacon.

The story of the hermit Morien, how in early life he left his family and native city (for he was a Roman), to seek the sage Adfar, a solitary adept, whose fame had reached him from Alexandria; the {26} finding him, gaining his confidence, and becoming at length his devoted disciple;—is related by his biographer in a natural and very interesting manner: also his subsequent sojournings, after the death of his patron, his intercourse with King Calid, with the initiation and final conversion of that prince to Christianity. But the details are given at much too great length for extract in this place. A very attractive and esteemed work, purporting to be a dialogue between himself and Calid, is extant under the name of Morien, and copied into many of the collection.38) Calid also wrote some treatises: his Liber Secretorum, or Secret of Secrets, as it has been styled, is translated into English, French, and Latin.39)

Prinve Averroes, and the notorious Avicenna, next demand notice. The latter became known to the world somewhere between the ninth and tenth centuries. His strong but ill-directed genius, so similar to that of Paracelsus, was the occasion of much suffering and self-desolation; but his name was illustrious over Asia, and his authority continued pre-eminent in the European schools of medicine until after the Reformation. He is said to have carried on the practice of transmutation, with the magical arts in general, to a great extent; but his Alchemical remains are neither lucid nor numerous, not those at least which are well authenticated.40)

Artephius was a Jew, who, by the use of the elixir, is reported to have lived throughout the period of a thousand years, with what truth or credibility opinions may vary; he himself affirms {27} it, and Paracelsus, Pontanus, and Roger Bacon appear to give credence to the tale,41) which forms part of his celebrated treatise on the philosopher's stone, and runs as follows:—Ego vero Artephius postquam adeptus sum veram accompletam sapientiam in libris veridici Hermetis, fui aliquando invidius sicut cæteri omnes, sed cum per mille annos aut circiter quæ jam transierunt super me à nativitate meà gratiâ soli Dei omnipotentis et usu hujus mirabilis quintæ essentiæ.—i.e., I Artephius, having learnt all the art in the books of the true Hermes, was once, as others, envious; but having now lived one thousand years, or thereabouts (which thousand years have already passed over me since my nativity, by the grace of God alone, and the use of this admirable quintessence), as I have seen, through this long space of time, that men have been unable to perfect the same magistery on account of the obscurity of the words of philosophers, moved by pity and a good conscience, I have resolved, in these my last days, to publish it all sincerely and truly; so that men may have nothing more to desire concerning this work. I except one thing only, which it is not lawful that I should write, because it can be revealed truly only by God, or by a master. Nevertheless, this likewise may be learned from this book, provided one be not stiff-necked, and have a little experience.42)

This Artephius forms a sort of link in the history of Alchemy, carried as it was in the course of time from Asia into Europe, about the period of the first crusades, when a general communication of the mind of different nations was effected by their being united under a common cause. Sciences, arts, and civilization, which had heretofore flourished in the {28} East only, were gradually transplanted into Europe; and towards the end of the twelfth century, or thereabouts, our Phoenix too bestirred herself, and passed into the West.

Roger Bacon was amongst the first to fill his lamp from her revivescent spirit; and with this ascending and descending experimentally, he is said to have discovered the secret ligature of natures, and their magical dissolution: he was moreover acquainted with theology in its profoundest principles; medicine, likewise physics and metaphysics on their intimate ground; and, having proved the miraculous multiplicability of light by the universal spirit of nature, he worked the knowledge into such effect, that in the mineral kingdom he produced gold.43) What marvel, persecuted as he was for the natural discoveries which he gave to the world, without patent or profit to himself, if he should appropriate these final fruits of labour and long interior study? Yet it does not appear that he was selfishly prompted even in this particular reservation; it was conscience, as he declares, that warned him to withhold a gift somewhat over rashly and dangerously obtained. His acutely penetrative and experimental mind, not content even with enough led him by a fatal curiosity, as it is suggested, into forbidden realms of self-sufficiency and unlawful perscrutinations, which ended in disturbing his peace of mind, and finally induced him to abandon altogether those researches, in order to retrieve and expiate in solitude the wrongs he had committed. We know that the imputation of magic has seemed ridiculous, and every report of the kind has been referred to the friar's extraordinary skill in the natural sciences. The rejection of his books at Oxford has often been cited as an instance of the exceeding bigotry of those times, as indeed it {29} was; and yet are we not nearly as far off perhaps from the truth in our liberality as were our fore- fathers in their superstition? An accusation of magic has not occurred of late, nor would be likely to molest seriously any philosopher of the present age; but then it did occur often during the dark ages, and who can tell whether it may not again at some future day, when men are even more enlightened and intimate with nature than they are now?

There are still remaining two or three works of Roger Bacon, in which the roots of the Hermetic science are fairly stated; but the practice most carefully concealed, agreeably to that maxim, which in his latter years he penned, that truth ought not to be shown to every ribald, for then that would become most vile, which, in the hand of a philosopher, is the most precious of all things.44)

Many great lights shone through the darkness of those middle ages; Magians, who were drawn about the fire of nature, as it were, into communication with her central source. Albertus Magnus, his friend and disciple the acute Aquinas, Scotus Erigina the subtle doctor, Arnold di Villa Nova, and Raymond Lully, all confessed adepts. John Reuchlin, Ficinus the Platonist, Picus di Mirandola, blending alchemy and therapeutics with neoplatonism and the cabalistic art. Spinoza also was a profound metaphysician and speculator on the same experimental ground. Alain de l'Isle the celebrated French philosopher, Merlin (St. Ambrose), the abbot John Trithemius, Cornelius Agrippa his enterprising pupil, and many more subsequent to these, great, resolute, and philosophic spirits, who were not alone content to rend asunder the veil of ignorance from before their own minds, but held it still partially open for others, disclosing the interior lights of science to {30} such as were able to aspire, and willing to follow their great example, labouring in the way. Medium minds set limits to nature, halting continually, and returning, before barriers which those others over-leaped almost without perceiving them. Faith was the beacon-light that led them on to conviction, by a free perspicuity of thought beyond things seen, to believe and hope truthfully, which is the distinguishing prerogative of great minds. But it will be necessary to regard this extraordinary epoch of Occult Science more in detail, with the testimony of its heroes, whose reputation, together with that of alchemy, has suffered from the faithlessness of biographers, compilers, commentators, and such like interference.

Most of the alchemical works of Albert, for instance, have been excluded from the great editions of his works, and the authenticity of all has been disputed, but without lasting effect; for in that long and laborious treatise, De Mineralibus, unquestionably his own, even if the rest were proved spurious, there is sufficient evidence of his belief and practice to admit all. Therein he describes the first matter of the adepts with the characteristic minuteness of personal observation, and recommends alchemy as the best and most easy means of rational investigation. De transmutatione horum corporum metallicorum et mutatione unius in aliud non est physici determinare, sed artis quæ est Alchimica. Est autem optimum genus hujus inquisitionis et certissimum, quia tunc per causam unius cujusque rei propriam, res cognoscitur, et de accidentibus ejus mimimè dubitatur, nec est difficile cognoscere.45)

This passage is one amongst many that might be adduced from his own pen to prove that Albert was an alchemist; but Aquinas' disclosures are ample, removing all doubt, even if he himself had left room for any. Besides the treatise of minerals {31} already mentioned, there is the Libellus de Alchemia, published with his other works;46) also, the Concordanditia Philosophorum de Lapide, the Secretum Secretorum, and Breve Compendium in the Theatrum Chemicum, all treating of the same subject. Albert's authority is the more to be respected in that he gave up every temporal advantage, riches, fame, and ecclesiastical power, to study philosophy in a cloister remote from the world during the greater portion of a long life. An opinion has commonly obtained that the philosopher's stone was sought after from selfish motives and a blind love of gain; and that such has been frequently the case there is no doubt but then such searchers never found it. The conditions of success are peculiar, as will be shown. Avarice is of all motives the least likely to be gratified by the discovery of wisdom. It is philosophers only that she teaches to make gold.

Quærunt Alehimiam, falsi quoque recti;
Falsi sine numero, sed hi sunt rejecti;
Et cupiditatibus, heu, tot sunt infecti
Quod inter mille millia, vix sunt tres electi
Istam ad scientiam.47)

The true adepts have been rare exceptions in the world, despite of all calumny, famous, and favoured above their kind. Let anyone but with an unprejudiced eye regard the writings of those who may be believed on their own high authority to have succeeded in this art, and he will perceive that the motives actuating them were of the purest possible kind; truthful, moral, always pious and intelligent, as those of the pseudo-alchemists, on the other hand, were reckless and despicable. But more of this hereafter. Albertus died, magnus in magiâ, major in philosophiâ, maximus in theologiâ;48) {32} and his learning and fame descended fully on him who had already shared it, his disciple, the subtle and sainted Aquinas.

The truth was not likely to lie dormant in such hands: Aquinas wrote largely and expressly on the doctrine of transmutation, and in his Thesaurus Alchimicæ, addressed to his friend, the Abbot Reginald, he alludes openly to the practical successes of Albert and himself in the Secret Art.49) Vain, therefore, are attempts of his false panegyrists, who, anxious it would seem rather for the intellectual than the moral fame of their hero, have ventured to slur over his assertions as dubious. Aquinas is much too far committed in his writings for their quibbling exceptions to tell in proof against his own direct and positive affirmation. Metalla transmutari possunt unum in aliud, says he, cum naturalia sint et ipsorum materia eadem. Metals can be transmuted one into another, since they are of one and the same matter.50) Declarations more or less plain to the same effect are frequent, and his treatise, De Esse et Essentia, is eminently instructive. It is true he slurs over points and sophisticates also occasionally in order to screen the doctrine from superficial detection; for Aquinas was above all anxious to direct inquirers to the higher purposes and application of the Divine Art, and universal theosophy, rather than to rest its capabilities of quickening and perfection in the mineral kingdom, as at that period many were wont to do, sacrificing their whole life's hope to the multiplication of gold. Fac sicut te ore tenens docui, ut scis quod tibi non scribo, quoniam peccatum esset hoc secretum viris {33} secularibus revelare, qui magis hanc scientiam propter vanitatem quam propter debitum finem et Dei honorem quærunt. And again, Ne sis garrulus sed pone ori tuo custodiam; et ut filiam sapientum margaritam ante porcas non projicies. Noli te, charissime, cum majori opere occupare, quia propter salutis et Christi prædicationis officium; et lucrandi tempus magni debes attendere divitiis spiritualibus, quam lucris temporibus inhiare.51)

The pretensions of Arnold di Villa Nova have not been contested, nor are his writings the only evidence of his skill in the Great Art. Cotemporary scholars bear him witness, and instances are related of the wonderful projections which he made with the transmuting powder. The Jurisconsult, John Andre, mentions him, and testifies to the genuine conversion of some iron bars into pure gold at Rome. Oldradus also and the Abbot Panorimitanus of about the same period, praise the Hermetic Art as beneficial and rational, and the wisdom of the alchemist Arnold di Villa Nova.52) The works of this philosopher are very numerous. The Rosarium Philosophicum, esteemed amongst the best, is published in the Theatrum Chemicum, and at the end of the folio edition of his works. The {34} Speculum, a luminous treatise; the Carmina, Questiones ad Bonifacium, the Testamentum, and some others are given entire in the Theatrum Chemicum, but have not been translated.

About this time and towards the close of the fourteenth century, an excitement began to be perceptible in the public mind. So many men of acknowledged science and piety, one after another, agreeing about the reality of transmutation, and giving tangible proofs of their own skill, could not fail to produce an effect; the art became in high request, and its professors were invited from all quarters, and held in high honour by the world. Lesser geniuses caught the scattered doctrine and set to work, some with sufficient understanding and with various success.

Alain de l'Isle is said to have obtained the Elixir, but his chief testimony has been excluded by the editors of his other works; so often and unscrupulously has private prejudice interfered to defraud the public judgment of its rights and true data. The rejected treatise, however, was printed separately, and may be found in the third volume of the Theatrum Chemicum.53) This philosopher also wrote a commentary on the Prophecies of Merlin, which are reported to have sole reference to the arcana of the Hermetic Art.54)

Raymond Lully is supposed to have become acquainted with Arnold, and the Universal Science, late in life; but when the fame of his Christian zeal and talents had already become known and acknowledged abroad, his declarations in favour of alchemy had the greater weight. Unlike his cloistered predecessors, secluded and known as they were by name only to the world, Raymond had travelled over Europe, and a great part of {35} Africa and Asia; and with his former fame was at length mingled the discovery of alchemy and the philosopher's stone. John Cremer, Abbot of Westminster, had worked for thirty years, it is related, assiduously with the hope of obtaining the secret. The enigmas of the old adepts had sadly perplexed and led him astray; but he had discovered enough to convince him of the reality, and to encourage him to proceed with the investigation; when, Lully's fame having reached him, he determined to seek that philosopher, then resident in Italy; was fortunate in meeting with him and gaining his confidence; became instructed in the method of practice, and not a little edified by the pious and charitable life which Lully led there, and recommended to others. Desirous of becoming still more intimately enlightened than was convenient in that place, Cremer invited and brought over with him Raymond Lully to England, where he was presented to the king, then Edward II., who had also before invited him from Vienna, being much interested in the talents and reputed skill of the stranger, and now more than ever by the promise of abundant riches which the sight of Cremer's gold held out to him. Lully, still as ever zealous for the promulgation of the Christian religion, promised to produce for the king all monies requisite, if he felt disposed to engage in the crusades anew. Edward did not hesitate, but complied with every condition respecting the appliance of the gold, provided only Lully would supply it. The artist accordingly set to work, so the story runs, in a chamber set apart for him in the Tower, and produced fifty thousand pounds weight of pure gold. His own words relative to the extraordinary fact in his testament, are these;—Converti una vice in aurum 50 millia pondo argenti vivi, plumbi, et stanni. I converted, says he, at one time fifty thousand pounds weight of quicksilver, lead and tin, into gold.55) {36}

The king no sooner received this, than breaking faith with Lully, in order to obtain more, the artist was made a prisoner in his own laboratory, and without regard at all to the stipulation, before engaged in, ordered to commence his productive labours anew. This base conduct on the part of his king was much lamented by Cremer, who expresses indignation thereat openlv in his Testament;56) and the whole story has been repeatedly; recorded in the detailed chronicles of those times. But to be short, our hero fortunately escaped from his imprisonment, and a coinage of the gold was struck in pieces weighing about ten ducats each, called Nobles of the Rose. Those who have examined these coins pronounce them to be of the finest metal, and the inscription round the margin distinguishes them from all others in the Museums, and denotes their miraculous origin. They are described in Camden's Antiquities, and for the truth of the whole story, we have, besides Cremer's evidence and the declarations of Lully, a great deal of curious cotemporary allusion to be found in the books of Olaus Borrichius, R. Constantius, l' Englet Dufresnoy, and Dickenson. The last relates that some time after the escape of Lully, there was found in the cell he occupied at West- minster with Cremer, whilst it was undergoing some repairs, a certain quantity of the powder of transmutation, by means of which the workmen and architects became enriched.57) {37}

Lully's writings on Alchemy are, as the rest, obscure; and have only been understood with great pains and application even by those who have been so fortunate as to possess the key of his cabalistic mind. Whether his equivocal and contradictory language was so contrived to baffle the sordid chemists; or whether, as before said, he learned the art late in life, being previously incredulous, and was convinced at last only by Arnold exhibiting the transmutation in his presence; it would require scrupulous examination to judge at this day: certain it is there are passages in his writings which leave room for controversy, though none, we think, virtually denying the art, whilst his essays in favour of it are acknowledged excellent and numerous; as many as two hundred are given in the catalogue of Dufresnoy treating exclusively on this subject.58)

Those were singular times when few any longer doubted the possibility of gold-making, and individuals of the highest repute devoted their lives to the subtle investigation. We have adduced this notable instance of Lully's prowess in England, as one only amongst many others, quite as well authenticated, which are told by the authors before cited and in the alchemical collections. Public curiosity was stimulated to the highest pitch; experiments were made reckless of consequences, and the spirit of avarice, bursting forth expectant, absolutely raged. Whether the incaution of adepts, in making their art too publicly profitable, had given rise to the frenzy, or whether it was spontaneously kindled, or from whatever cause, the fact is lamentably certain; the Stone was no longer sought after by philosophers alone; not only have we Lully, Cremer, Rupecissa, De Meun, Flammel, John Pontanus, Basil Valentine, Norton, Ripley, {38} and the host of cotemporary worthies, successively entering the lists; but with these a spurious brood of idlers living on the public credulity, and which the practical evidence of these others continued to ferment; men of all ranks, persuasions and degrees of intelligence, of every variety of calling, motive and imagination, were, as monomaniacs, searching after the stone.

As Popes with Cardinals of dignity,
Archbyshops with Byshops of high degree,
With Abbots and Priors of religion,
With Friars, Heremites, and Preests manie one,
And Kings with Princes and Lords great of bloode,
For everie estate desireth after goode;
And the Merchaunts alsoe, which dwell in fiere
Of brenning covetise, have thereto desire:
And common workmen will not be out-lafte,
For as well as Lords they love this noble crafte.
As Gouldsmithes, whome we shall leaste repreuve
For sights in their craft meveth them to beleeve;
But wonder it is that Brweers deale with such werkes,
Free Masons, and Tanners, with poore parish clerkes;
Tailors and Glaziers woll not therefore cease,
And eke sely Tinkers will put them in prease
With great presumption; yet some collour there was
For all such men as give tincture to glasse;
But manie Artificers have byn over swifte,
With hastie credence to sume away their thrift;
And albeit their losses made them to smarte
Yet ever in hope continued their hearte;
Trustinge some tyme to speede right well,
Of manie such truly I can tell;
Which in such hope continued all their lyfe,
Whereby they were made poore and made to unthrive:
It had byne good for them to have left off
In season, for noughte they founde except a scoffe,
For trewly he that is not a great clerke,
Is nice and lewde to medle with this werke;
Ye may trust me it is no small inginn,
To know alle secrets pertaining to this myne.
For it is most profounde philosophye
This subtill science of holy Alkimy.59)

Many usurped the title of adepts, who had no knowledge even of the preliminaries of the Art; {39} sometimes deceiving, at others, being themselves deceived; and it has been principally from the fraudulent pretensions of those dabblers that the world has learned to despise alchemy, confounding the genuine doctrine with their sophistical and vile productions; and a difficulty yet remains to distinguish them, and segregate, from so great an interspersion of darkness, the true light. For a multitude of books were put forth with the merest purpose of deception, and to ensnare the unwary; some indeed affirming, that the truth was to be found in salts, or nitres, or boraxes; but others, in all vegetable bodies indiscriminately, committing a multifarious imagination to posterity. Nor did these alone content the evil spirit of that day, but it must introduce mutilated editions of the old masters, filled with inconsistencies, and the wicked inventions of designing fraud; and thus, as the adept observes, they have blasphemed the Sacred Science, and by their errors have brought contempt on men philosophising.

As of that Mounke which a boke did write
Of a thousand receipts in malice for despighte,
Which he copied in manie a place,
Whereby hath byn made manie a pale face
And manie gowndes have been made bare of hewe,
And men made fals which beforetimes were trewe.60)

Nor has the literature alone suffered from such knavish interpolation; but the social consequences are described, at the time, as deplorable; rich merchants, and others, greedy of gain, were induced to trust quantities of gold, silver, and even precious stones, which they lost, in the vain hope of getting them multiplied; and these rogueries became so frequent and notorious, that at last acts of Parliament were passed in England, and Pope's Bulls issued over Christendom, forbidding transmutation, on pain of death, and the pursuit of alchemy.61) But this, whilst giving an external {40} check, did not smother the desire of riches, or that morbid desire of them, so long fostered in the expectation; experiments continued to be carried on in secret with no less ardour than before, both, by knaves and philosophers. Pope John XXII. who interdicted it, is said to have practised the art himself extensively, and to have wonderfully enriched the public treasury through its means. But to bring forward each extraordinary tradition and character of the various artists who flourished during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, would trespass too far on our pages; and for the present purpose, it may be needful only to detail the more remarkable.

Amongst them, the story of Nicholas Flammel, and his wife Pernelle, has been thought interesting. Their humble origin, sudden accumulation of wealth, their charitable distribution of it, and the eminent piety and mystery of their lives, attracted great attention in their own country, and a widespread fame has descended and connects their name honourably with the history of the Hermetic art. The relation given simply by the author concerning himself is as follows:—I, Nicholas Flammel, Scrivener, living in Paris, in the year of our Lord, 1399, in the Notary-street, near St. James, of the Boucherie, though I learned not much Latin, because of the poverty of my parents, who, notwithstanding were, even by those who envy me most, accounted honest and good people; yet, by the blessing of God, I have not wanted an understanding of the books of the philosophers, but learned them, and attained to a certain kind of knowledge, even of their hidden secrets. For which cause's sake, there shall not any moment of my life pass wherein, remembering this so vast good, I will not render thanks to this my good and gracious God. After the death of my parents, I Nicholas Flammel, got my living by the art of writing, ingrossing, and the like; and in the course of {41} time, there fell by chance into my hands a gilded book, very old and large, which cost me only two florins. It was not made of paper or parchment, as other books are, but of admirable rinds, as it seemed to me, of young trees; the cover of it was brass, well bound, and graven all over with a strange kind of letters, which I took to be Greek characters, or some such like. This I know, that I could not read them; but as to the matter which was written within, it was engraven, as I suppose, with an iron pencil, or graver, upon the said bark leaves; done admirably well, and in fair neat Latin letters, and curiously coloured. It contained thrice seven leaves, for so they were numbered on the top of each folio, and every seventh leaf was without writing; but in place thereof were several images and figures painted.

Further, going on to describe the book and these hieroglyphics minutely, Flammel relates how, at length, after much study and fruitless toil, their meaning was explained to him by a Jew stranger, whom he met with in his travels; and how on his return home, he set tow ork and succeeded in the discovery, is thus familiarly declared:—He that would see the manner of my arrival home, and the joy of Pernelle, let him look upon us two in the city of Paris, upon the door of the chappel of James', in the Boucherie, close by one side of my house, where we are both painted, kneeling, and giving thanks to God: for through the grace of God it was, that I attained the perfect knowledge of all that I desired. I had now the prima materia, the first principles, yet not their preparation, which is a thing most difficult above all things in the world; but in the end I had that also, after a long aberration and wandering in the labyrinth of errors, for the space of three years. During which time, I did nothing but study and search and labour, so as you see me depicted without this arch, where I have shown my process, praying also continually unto {42} God, and reading attentively in my book, pondering the words of the philosophers, and then trying and proving the various operations which I thought they might mean by their words. At length, I found that which I desired; which I also soon knew, by the scent and odor thereof. Having this, I easily accomplished the magistery. For knowing the preparations of the prime agents, and then literally following the directions in my book, I could not then miss the work if I would. Having attained this, I came now to Projection; and the first time I made projection, was upon mercury; a pound and a half whereof, or thereabouts, I turned into pure silver, better than that of the mine; as I proved by assaying it myself, and also causing others to assay it for me, several times. This was done in the year a.d. 1382, January 17th, about noon, in my own house, Pernelle alone being present with me. Again following the same directions in my book, word by word, I made projection of the Red Stone, on a like quantity of mercury, Pernelle only being present, and in the same house; which was done in the same year, April 25, at five in the afternoon. This mercury I truly transmuted into almost as much gold, much better indeed than common gold, more soft also, and more pliable. I speak in all truthfully. I have made it three times with the help of Pernelle, who understands it as well as myself; and, without doubt, if she would have done it alone, she would have brought the work to the same, or full as great perfection as I had done. I had truly enough, when I had once done it; but I found exceeding great pleasure and delight in seeing and contemplating the admirable works of nature, within the vessels. And to show you that I had then done it three times, I caused to be depicted under the same arch, three furnaces, like to those which serve for the operations of the work. I was much concerned for a long time, lest Pernelle, by reason of extreme {43} joy, should not hide her felicity, which I measured by my own; and lest she should let fall some words amongst her relations, concerning the great treasure which we possessed. But the goodness of the great God, had not only given and filled me with this blessing, in giving me a sober chaste wife; but she was also a wise prudent woman, not only capable of reason, but also to do what was reasonable; and made it her business, as I did, to think of God, and to give ourselves to the work of charity and mercy. Before the time wherein I wrote this discourse, which was at the latter end of the year 1413, after the death of my beloved companion; she and I had already founded and endowed with revenues fourteen hospitals, three chapels, and seven churches, in the city of Paris; all which we had new built from the ground, and were able to enrich with gifts and revenues. We have also done at Bologne about the same as at Paris, besides our private charities, which it would be unbecoming to particularise. Building, therefore, these hospitals, churches, etc., in the aforesaid cities, I caused to be depicted under the said fourth arch, the most true and essential marks and signs of this art, yet under veils and types and hieroglyphical characters; demonstrating to the wise and men of understanding, the direct and perfect way of operation and lineary work of the philosopher's stone; which being perfected by any one, takes away from him the root of all sin and evil; changing his evil into good, and making him liberal, courteous, religious, fearing God, however wicked he was before, provided only he carries through the work to its legitimate end. For from thenceforward he is continually ravished with the goodness of God, and with his grace and mercy, which he has obtained from the fountain of eternal goodness; with the profundity of his Divine and adorable power, and with the contemplation of his admirable works. {44}

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De Hermetica Ægyptior. vetere et Paracelsicor. Nova Medicina.
Œdipus Ægyptiacus. Idem, de Lapide Philos. Dissert.
De Ortu et Progressu Chemiæ. Idem, Ægyptior. et Chemicor. Sapientia, ab H, Conringii Animad. vindic.
De Veritate et Antiquitate Artis Chemiæ.
See Plutarch de Iside et Osiride, sub init., and Bryant's Analysis of Ancient Mythology, vol. ii.
See Suidas de Verbo Chemeia, “Credo Mercurium Trismegistum, sapientem Ægyptium, floruisse ante Pharaonem,” etc.
See Tertullianus de Anima, cap. ii. adversus Valentinianus, cap. xv. Hermetem vocat Physicorum Magistrum.
Chimia est auri et argenti confectio, cujus libros Dioclesianus perquisitos exussit eo quod Egyptii res novas contra Dioclesianum moliti fuerant, duriter atque hostiliter eos tractavit. Quo tempore etiam libros de chimia, auri et argenti a veteribus conscriptos, conquisivit et exussit, ne deinceps Egyptiis divitiae exfiuentia confisi in posterum Romania rebellarent. (Suidas in Verbo Chemeia).
See Jamblicus de Mysteriis, sect. viii. cap. iv. &c.
Hermetis Trismegisti Tractatus Aureus de Lapidis physic secreto.
From the Asclepian Dialogue of Hermes, by Ficinus, as rendered by T. Taylor.
See Taylor's notes to the Prophecy, in Plotinus' Select Works, at the end, p. 557, &c.
De Ostane Magno, vide Plinium, Histor. Nat. lib. xxx. cap. i.
Democriti Abderitae de Arte Sacra, sive de rebus naturalibus et mysticis libellus, ex venerandae Graecae vetustatis de Arte Chimica reliquiis erutus.
Synesius in Democritum Abderitam de Arte Sacra.
Flammelli Summario Philosophico.
Hist. Nat. lib. xxx. cap. i.
Epistola, xci.
Petronius Arbiter in Satyrico.
Democriti Abderitæ physici philosophi præsclarum nomen; hic ab Ostane Medo, ab ejus ævi Persarum Regibus sacrorum præfecturæ causâ in Egypto misso, sacris litteris initiatur et imbuitur, in Memphis fano inter sacerdotes et philosophos, quædam Hebæa, omni disciplinam genere excultu, et Pammenes. De auro et argento et lapidibus et purpura, sermone per ambages composito scripsit, quo dicendi genere usa est etiam Maria. Verum hi quidem Democritus et Maria quod enigmatibus plurimis et eruditus artem occultassent laudati sunt: Pammenes quod abunde et aperte scripsisset vituperatus est. (Synceilus, Chronographia, p. 248.
See Norton's Ordinal in Ashmole's Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, p. 8.
See lib. iii. cap. 15. Ubi, inter alia, dicit, metalla fieri ex aqueo halitu et sicca exhalatione, quæ sunt argentum et sulphur. Metalla autem omnia, ut ad rem redeam, fiunt ex una eademque materia propinqua, utpôte ex argento vivo et sulphure, quod omnes asserunt. Different tamen forma id est puritate et coctione seu digestione. Spoliatio vero accidentium, vel formarum ipsarum essentialiam corruptio et aliarum introductio, possibilis est, et in habentibus symbolum facilis est transitus, ut circularis est generatio elementorum, ita et metallorum ex se invicem. Which universal principle of transmutation, thus indicated by Aristotle, Hermes, Albertus Magnus, and the rest of the alchemists assert. See also Aristotelis de Lapide ad Alexandrum Magnum; Theat. Chem. vol. v.
Epistle II. Plato's Works, by Taylor, vol.v.
Suidas in Verbo Chemeia. See the foregoing note, p. 6.
Cleopatra Regina Egypti Ars auri faciendi, &c., and others mentioned in the Catalogue of the Royal Library at Paris, 1742. See Dufresnoy, Hist. Herm. vol. iii.
Invitaverat spes Caium Caligulam Principem avidissimum auri; quam ob rem jussit ex coqui magnum auri pigmenti pondus; et plane fecit aurum excellens, sed ita parvi ponderis ut detrimentum sentiret, &c. (Hist. Nat. lib. xxxiii. cap. iv.
See Theat. Chem. vol. i. p. 26 ; Ex Petri Apiani Antq. desumpta ; also, Taylor's notes to his Pausanias, vol. hi.
Amphitheatrum Sapientiæ Eternæ, circa medium.
Theat. Chem. vol. v. p. 746. Kircheri Œdipus Ægyptiacus, vol. i.
The Critic, new series, No. 13, 1845, p. 352.
Symbola Aurise Mensae, p. 170, &c.
Commentariolum in Enigmaticum quoddam Epitaphium Bononiæ studiorum, ante multa secula marmoreo lapidi insculptum. Theat. Chem. vol. v.
See Alexander Beauvais in Speculo Naturali. Hie Johannes Evangelista numeratur etiam ab Avicenna, dictione prima libri de anima, inter possessores lapidis philosophici suasque institutions, qui se Avicenna artem hanc docuerint quod verisimile est, nam et ecclesia prisca, auctore Adamo a Sancto Victore, die D. Johanni Evangeliststæ sacro mente decinit in hymno incipiente: “Gratulemur ad festivum,” &c. Vide Lucerna Salis, p. 65 &c.
Heliodorus Phil. Christ, de Arte Sacra Chimicor, ad Theod. Imp. Idem, versus Græc. circa Chimiam. Olympiodori Phil. Alex. de Divina et Sacra Arte Lapidis Philosophici Tractatus. Athenagoras de Perfect. Amoris. Zozimus de Virtute et Compositione Aquarum. Idem, de Aqua Divina. Idem, de Auri Conficiendi. Archelai, Carmen Iambicumde Sacra Arte. See Dufresnoy, Histoire de l'Art Hermetique, vol. iii. Cat. Gr MSS.
Synesius, Epistola 36, 142.
Troics, Traitez de la Philosophie, &c, Paris, 1612. The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony, from Kirchringius's ed., and The True Book of Synesius, on the Philosopher's Stone.
Gebri Arabian Summa Perfectionis Magisterii in sua Natura. Idem, de Investigatione Perfectionis Metallorum. Idem, Testamentum. These were printed together at Dantzic from the Vatican MSS., and have been translated into English, and entitled “The Works of Geber, comprising the Sum and Search of Perfection; Of the Investigation of Verity; and of Furnaces; with a Recapitulation of the Author's Experiments, by R. Russel: London, 1678.” There are other translations, but all faulty in one or other respect.
Morienus Eremita Hierosol. de Transfiguratione Metal lorum, seu Dialogus Morieni cum Calide rege, de Lapide Philos.
See Theat. Chem. vol. v.; Salmon's Practical Physic; and Le Bibliothèque des Philosophes Chimiques.
The following have been attributed to him:—Avicenna de Tinctura Metallorum. Idem, Porta Elementa. Idem, de Mineralibus,—printed with the Dantzic edition of Geber and a few others.
See Theophrastus Paracelsus in Libro de Vita longa, Pontanus, Epistola, &c. R. Bacon, in Libro de Mirab. Natur. Operib.
Arteni Antiquissimi Philosophi de Arte Occulta atque Lapide Philosophorum Liber secretus.
See, Speculum Alchimiæ Rogerii Bachonis, Theat. Chem. vol. ii. De Mirabilibus Potestatibus Artis et Naturæ, &c.
Speculum Alchimiæ. in fine. Fr. Bachonis Anglici libellus cum influentiis Cœli, relates to the same mystical subject.
Lib. iii. de Mineralibus, cap. 1.
Tom. 21, in fol. Lugduni, 1653, and in Theat. Chem. vol. ii.
Norton's Ordinal of Alchemy, Preface, in Ashmole's Theat. Chem. Brit,
See Chronicon Magnum Belgicum.
Tractatus D. Thomse Aquino datus fratri D. Reinaldo de Arte Alchimiæ.
Meteorum Initio, lib. iv.; and again, Præcipuus Alchimistarum scopus est transmutare metalla scilicet imperfecta secundum veritatem et non sophistice.
Thesaurus Alchimiaæ, cap. 1 and 8. Tractatus clatus Fratri Reinaldo. This with the Secreta Alchimiæ and another are given in the Theatrum Chemicum, and other collections of the Art.
Nostris diebus habuimus magnum Arnold um di Villa Nova, in Curia Romana summum medicinam et theologiam, qui etiam magnus Alchymista virgulas auri, quas faciebat consentiebat omni probationi submitti, &c. (Joán Andreas in addit. ad Speculum Rub. decrim. falsi.) Hæc ille Andreas enim a doctis omnibus ad cœlum usque laudibus vectus est, quem Ludovicus Romanus omnium hominum præstantissimum appellavit. (R. Vallensis de Veritate, &c., in Theat. Chem. vol. i. p. 4.) Alchimia est ars perspicaci ingenio inventa, ubi expenditur tantum pro tanto et tale pro tali, sine aliqua falsificatione formæ vel materiæ, secundum Andream de Isernia et Oldradum. Hoc insuper firmavit Abbas Siculus Panoramitanus, &c. (D. Fabianus de Monte, S. Severin in Tractatu de Emptione et Venditione, Quest 5. Oldradus, lib. Concilio, Quest. 74.)
Alani Philosophi, Dicta de Lapide.
Prophetia Anglicana Merlini, una cum Septem Libris Explicationum in eandem Prophetiam, &c5 Alani de Insulis, Francf. 1608.
Ultimum Testamentum R. Lullii.
Cremeri Testamentum.
Aureas illas nobiles Anglorum primûm profectas memorat (ex Raymundi) Camdenus. Idem hodieque asseverantissime confirmant Anglorum curiosi, additque Edmundus Dickensonus Lullium in cœnobio Westmonasteriensi vixisse non ingratum hospitem: enimvero pluribus ab ejus discessu amnis, resartâ quam incoluerat cellulâ multum adhuc pulveris Chrysopœi in Cistula repertum, magno inventoris architecti emolumento. See Olaus Borrichius de Ortu et Progressu Chemisæ, 4to. p. 242; and E. Dickenson, de Quintessentia.
Histoire Hermetique, vol. iii. His Theoria et Practica, given in the third volume of the Theat. Chem., appears to us one of the very best pieces of Alchemical philosophy extant.
Norton's Ordinal in Ashmole's Theat. Chem. Brit. p. 7.
Norton's Ordinal, cap, 1.
See Dufresnoy, Hist. Herm. vol. ii. p. 11, &c.