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A Light In Darkness

A Seventeenth-Century Commentary on John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica

One of the minor treasures to be found in the manuscripts of Elias Ashmole is this introduction to an English translation of the Monas Hieroglyphica, the most obscure of the works of the Elizabethan polymath John Dee. Both the introduction and the translation (which apparently has not survived) are the work of Thomas Tymme, an Anglican minister and author of Hermetic and devotional works active in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I.

While A Light In Darkness may provide little help to the student of Dee’s enigmatic treatise, the essay is worth reading as a clear and concise exposition of the alchemical worldview in its last and most fully developed phase, on the eve of the scientific revolution. Mythology, scholastic logic, Aristotelian physics and the number mysticism of Renaissance Pythagoreanism all play a part in Tymme’s exposition of the fundamentals of alchemy.

A Light In Darkness may be found in Ms. Ashmole 1459. It has apparently seen print only once, in an edition of 75 hand-printed copies edited by S.K. Heninger Jr. (Oxford: New Bodleian Library, 1963). Spelling has been modernized throughout for the sake of readability; editorial notes, inserted for clarity, are in square brackets.

A Light In Darkness

Which illumineth for all the Monas Hieroglyphica of the famous and profound Dr. John Dee, discovering Nature’s closet and revealing the true Christian secrets of alchemy.

by Thomas Tymme,
Professor of Divinity
Iamblichus, Adhortat. ad Philos. cap. xxi:
De Pythagoreis sine lumine ne loquitor
[Do not speak of Pythagorean things without light — one of the traditional Pythagorean symbola]


Epistle Dedicatory

To the right worshipful his singular good patron Thomas Baker esquire Thomas Tymme wisheth health and prosperity in this world, and in the life to come perfect felicity in Jesus Christ.

The rich and golden jewel, which the famous and profound Dr. Dee thought not unfit the royal majesty of Maximilian the Emperor, expressed in the Latin tongue, I deemed convenient for your worship in the English; albeit I know you sufficiently learned in that other, specially for this reason, that in the perusing this enigmatical Monas, you might the more easily attain the marrow of the author’s meaning, the bond of a tongue, not so much in use with you as the vulgar, being broken and laid open. For the author of set purpose hath endeavored (according to the usual manner of philosophers skillful in adeptive philosophy) to be harsh in style using terms of art to you unknown, and words of Hebrew and Greek, and also obscure in the matter itself…of great consequence.

In this Hieroglyphical Monas of he hath comprehended the whole science and practice of alchemy, in which one figure is set before you the character of the seven planets, and therein also a mystical signification of the seven metals, whereof two are perfect, and the other imperfect, yet able to be perfected by art and nature. The which work of art and nature concurring together he hath also inserted, and closely couched in the figure, as in reading the process you shall with diligent observation understand, and the more easily if you compare therewith that which I have inferred and added, to the end of this his Monas.

His whole purpose and drift is, to give unto Mercury the mastery in alchemy, and the alpha and omega in the work, and for this cause his Monas Hieroglyphical hath the first in the top and the last in the foot, the cross going between, which signifies the dejecting and humiliation of Mercury before his exaltation.

The causes of such enigmata, close characters and obscure riddles in the writings of the philosophers of this kind are principally two; first to exercise the wits of the more wise, for whom these traditions and monuments are left in writing, who take no delight in things nearest to common sense, condemning vile things, and soaring aloft with the eagle to attain divine science.

The second cause is the contempt of science in the vulgar sort, who rashly reject and condemn whatsoever they understand not, utterly ignorant of things most excellent: in whom this proverb is verified, Scientia non habet inimicum nisi ignorantem [science has no enemy except the ignorant]. He then shall be greatly overseen, that publisheth secret mysteries to the multitude. Yea, he shall break the celestial seals, who shall make the secrets of art and nature common. It is {24} folly to give an ass lettuce, when thistles are more fit, and it is madness to set a looking glass before a wolf, seeing there is danger to him that offers it. Secrets are no longer to be reputed secrets, when the multitude is acquainted with them. Not without cause therefore God speaking out of the burning bush to Esdras (as He had done before to Moses) gave him this commandment saying, The first books that thou hast written publish openly, that both the worthy and unworthy may read them, but keep the seventy last, that thou mayest give them to the wise among the people, for in them is the vein of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge. And it was grave and sage counsel which Libavius gave to Trithemius in this precept, Use secrecy and put not forth the dove before his time.

My purpose in this dedication is not to procure you into the labyrinth of alchemists’ practice, whereinto all that have entered with unwashed hands have hurt themselves, and then falsely exclaimed against the divine science, as mere[ly] sophistical and deceitful; but rather to allure you, to like that which I myself doth love, and yet not doting as Narcissus did with the shadow. The speculation…before the dexterity of the art, (which I know to be like a quick con…) will be a fit subject for your recreation at your leisure, and far unfit for a moody and gross brain.

My labor and pains herein bestowed in translating and collecting that which I have added, taken from the monuments of many profound philosophers both speculative and practical, together with giving to each instrument belonging to this science his lively limnes, due proportion and natural colors, so far as my simple skill could extend…but a rude novice in this faculty, in some sort to be equalled with the care and pains of those which travel to Peru and China for gold, I wholly dedicate to your worship with hearty good will, having in my power no better thing to give you than a scholar’s gift, which I offer to you (my worshipful and most precious friend in the world) wishing for you thassus bonorum [ ]and the true and most perfect elixir, both in this life and the life to come.

Your worship’s devoted in fidelity and kindness during life,

Thomas Tymme

The Forespeech to the Reader

Adam, before his fall, was by God endowed with such excellent knowledge in natural philosophy, that is to say, with the understanding of the secrets of nature and the natural reasons of all things, that he gave to all the creatures of God their proper names, agreeing with their nature and kind. And albeit the perfection of {25} that knowledge (as a special ornament of the soul) was much weakened by the Fall, yet he had so much light thereof, that he was the first founder and inventor of art. For his posterity building upon that foundation and by experience and advantage of his invention, and perfecting that which was but rude in the beginning, erected two tables of stone, wherein they engraved their natural philosophy, not in letters (which were not then known) but in hieroglyphical characters, to the end that the presage, concerning the general deluge to come, which they had learned from their grandfather Adam, might be known unto posterity, that if it were possible they might prevent the peril.

Noah after the flood found one of these tables in Armenia at the foot of the mountain Ararat; wherein was shewed the order and course of the superior firmament, of the planets, and of the inferior globe. At length this universal knowledge in natural philosophy, particularly drawn into several parts, was in force diminished, in such sort that such separation made one an astronomer, another a magician, a third a Cabalist, and a fourth an alchemist.

Magic is an art, whereby men came to the knowledge of elements, of their bodies, and of their hidden properties, virtues and operations. That Vulcanical Abram Tubalcain the astrologian and great arithmetitian went out of Egypt into the land of Canaan, by whose means Egypt won great fame. And Jacob had learned some rule magical, to make his uncle Laban’s sheep spotted, and party-colored, albeit almighty God furthered and blessed the invention and the means.

The Cabala, out of hidden and mystical sense, seemeth to make a way for men to come unto God. For as the art magic, (I mean not magic diabolical, or necromantical) is full of natural secrets: so the Cabala is full of divine mysteries, foretelling many things by the nature of things present and to come.

The greatest worthy among mortal men, Moses, was brought up in the schools of the Egyptians at the cost and expenses of Pharaoh’s daughter, to learn these sciences, and the learned and excellent prophet Daniel, in the doctrine and wisdom of the Chaldeans, became a perfect Cabalist, the wisdom of God’s spirit dwelling in him, whereby he expounded these mystical words Mene Mene Tekel Upharzin. The tradition of this Cabalistical art, was much in use among the ancient sages, whereby they learned the true and right knowledge of God, and walked the more firmly in his laws and commandments.

This extraordinary wisdom was given by God to the priests who walked in his commandments, and it was the manner of the Persians, to admit no man to the royal throne but him which was Sophus, both in deed and name, and thereof it came that their kings were called Sophi, that is to say wise. Such were those Sophi and Persian Magi, which came from the East to seek Christ. {26}

The Egyptians excelling in this natural philosophy, thought it necessary for their priests to learn the same wisdom wherein they profited so greatly, that they were had in admiration of all their neighbor countries round about them, and for this cause Hermes, who lived about Moses’ time, was truly called Trismegistus becuase he was a king, a priest and a prophet, a Magus and Sophus, a famous Egyptian philosopher, excellent in knowledge of natural things.

Alchemy is a science, whereby the principles, causes, properties and passions of all metals are thoroughly known and discovered and by which those metals which are imperfect and corrupted, are altered and changed into true and perfect gold. That this is no fable nor deceitful imagination, is thus proved.

Everything which is indigested, and ordained to be digested, and every pure thing, and able to be purified, may be fully digested and purified. But certain imperfect metals are [in]digested and impure as tin and lead, and other some are only impure, as copper and iron, and are able perfectly to be digested.

Therefore they may be perfectly and fully digested and purified.

The major and minor [premises of the argument] are plainly proved by the saying of the Philosopher [i.e., Aristotle] in the fourth chapter of Meteors, concerning the digestion of Opsesis and Epsesis, and likewise in the second chapter of Generation and Corruption.

Again the certainty of this science is thus proved.

Those things which have conveniency and likeness in the matter may easily be altered and changed one into another, But metals are such. Therefore they be easily altered and changed, one into the other. And so by consequence metals imperfect may be made perfect.

Also by a third argument thus. Whatsoever is in the half part forward in motion, to take any form, may be brought to the end of that motion, if it be not hindered. But imperfect metals are in the half part forward to take the form of the perfect which is the motion to the right end. Therefore they may be brought to the right end.

In regard to the assurance of this science the famous philosopher Trismegistus before remembered wrote thus. True it is without a lie, certain and most true, by the affinity of unity. That which is superior is like to that which is inferior, and that which is inferior is like to that which is superior, because all numbers consist of units, for the working of many miracles of one thing. Do not all things flow from unity through the goodness of one? Nothing that is varying, and in {27} discord, can be joined to unity, but the like, that by the simplicity, aptation and fitness of one, it may bring forth fruit; what else springeth from unity, but the ternary itself. The unary is simple, the binary is compound, and the ternary is reducible to the simplicity of unity. His father is the Sun, his mother is the Moon. The wind carrieth the seed in his womb, the Earth is the nurse. Thou shalt separate the earth from the fire, the thick from the thin, and the ternary being now brought to itself with wit, it ascendeth upward with great sweetness, and returneth again to Earth and adorned with great virtue and beauty, and so it receiveth superior and inferior force, and it shall be from henceforth potent and orient in the brightness of unity, to produce all apt number, and all obscurity shall flee away. Thus Hermes.

Therefore whosoever he be that will attain to the science of the great work in alchemy, let him well consult and view this figure following, that he may bring the ternary to unity.

The unary, simple in itself, is no number, but yet from it all number ariseth. The binary, going from unity, is the first compound number, because it is impossible there should be two beginnings. Number standeth upon order and measure. And order cannot be without number and measure, and measure standeth upon number and order. The unity here, and the ternary, will not admit number, but putting off all multitude, having in them natural[ly] a most simple purity, do consist in the first degree. {28}

Pythagoras saith, that there is one essence in everything which God hath created, which essence dieth not, until the day of judgment. This is that essence whichis in everything and in every place, which the philosophers call mercury.

There are two mercuries used in the work of alchemy. The one is the male, not flying which is the philosophers’ mercury, the other is the female or common mercury which hath wings and flieth. Of the flying mercury Hermes writeth thus: My son, extract out of the shining beam, his shadow, for the beam is the moisture, and female, and the shadow is the dryness, hidden in moistures, and is the male, which was begotten by Nature before the female.

As there are two sorts of mercury so there are two sorts of sulphur in every metal, the one externally burning, the other internal, not burning. The internal which burneth not is of the substantial composition of quicksilver. This is separable, the other not so. This sulphur is not united to quicksilver, and therefore when it is separated, the quicksilver remaineth still pure, which would not so remain, if it were united thereunto.

The philosophers have called that the body which according to natural power, may be fixed: and with continual perseverance, can constantly abide the trial of fire. And they have called that the soul, which according to her natural power, hath no steadfastness or perseverance to abide the trial of the fire, but is lifted up and fleeth from the fire. Also they have called that spirit, which being subtiled, dissolved, or molten with fire, according to the natural power thereof, hath ability to resoul the body with the soul into vapor or of retaining the soul with the body to the fiery trial, if it vapor not. Because the spirit when it shall be equal, maketh the body to retain the soul, and when it shall be more, or stronger, it maketh the soul to depart from the body, and so it forsaketh the body, for that without the spirit, the soul tarrieth not with the body, neither is it separated from the body because it is the bond of them both. And thus this one thing mercury is body, soul, and spirit in diverse respects.

The male is more hot than the female, because heat is attributed to the agent. And yet sulphur (which is the male) is not the principal agent; but a hidden mineral virtue existing in quicksilver (the digesting heat of the mine going between) is the principal extrinsical agent with the celestail bodies, and maketh sulphur with his heat as an instrument. And sulphur moveth quicksilver, as the matter proper to itself, for generation by the same motion, with the which it is moved of the first agents. As Nature worketh effectually alone in this manner, so much more effectually, when art is joined with Nature, for art prepareth for Nature, and ministereth unto it the matter in the last preparation, and Nature prepareth and disposeth for herself unto the end with the help of art, and afterwards bringeth in the form, even gold chemical, better than that which is simply natural, because it is mixed with a {29} burning sulphur, corrupting and wasting. Nature (without art) hath congealed and hardened some things, with weak and faint heat; and have left them half digested as lead and tin, and some things it hath hardened with superfluous heat as iron and copper. Some things it hath hardened with a sufficient temperate heat, as silver. Some things it hath not hardened, by reason of the want of heat, and for the want and separation of silver, as quicksilver. And some things it hath hardened with a convenient temperature, as gold. Imperfect metals are in fact gold and silver, but their sickness and imperfections do hide their properties, which imperfections and sicknesses proceed of these causes.

The leprosy of iron cometh of the corruption of choler, turned into the nature of melancholy, which is called leonina. The leprosy of brass cometh of corruption of blood, turned to the nature of melancholy, which is called allopetia. The leprosy of tin cometh of the corruption of phlegm, turned to the nature of melancholy, which is called thegia. The leprosy of lead cometh of the corruption of melancholy alone, which is called eliphantia. All these leprosies come by the mixture of diverse sulphurs in them, which was [sic] in their mines.

Therefore as a sick man taking medicine is made sound, only by alteration, and remaineth a man formally [i.e., in form] as before; so metalline bodies, by the true medicine altering them, are made perfect, and become pure and good gold and silver. For metals are cured with their minerals even as men are cured with vegetables.

This noble science is the way to celestial and supernatural things, by which the ancient wise men were led from the work of art and Nature to understand, even by reason the wonderful power of God in the creation of all things: and their final purification through fire in the day of doom. At which time God will separate all the unclean feces, and corruption that is in the four elements and bring them to a crystalline clearness. After the which there shall be no more corruption, but they shall endure forever. For we must not think that all things which God hath created in these lower parts, shall utterly perish in that consumption by fire: no, none of them, no more than the incorruptible heaven. But God in His power will change all things and make them crystalline, and the four elements shall be perfect, simple, and fixed in themselves, and they shall be all a quintessence. Demonstration of these things is made here on Earth by this honest and holy art. For whatsoever God hath created may be brought to a crystalline clearness, and the elements gathered together into a simple fixed substance; which being done no man can alter them, nor the fire itself burn or change them, but they shall continue perpetually in eternity.

Thus we see, that the heavenly contemplation in this science is no common ascending, nor for every man’s pitch, neither is it to be gotten of them which are carried upward with one wing only, but is familiar to very few, namely to them {30} which have seriously reduced themselves to unity. Many go about this thing, but they do not rightly understand this ternary. For every operation of wonders consisting in the limits of nature, descendeth from unity by the binary, into the ternary; and yet not before such time as it ariseth from the ternary, by order of degrees into simplicity.

Secret and celestial is this adepted philosophy, wherein whosoever desireth to have true knowledge, the same must be contemplative and solitary, free from common tumult. The spirit of God doth breathe where it listeth, illumineth where He wills, and whom He protecteth and shadoweth with His divine grace, He leadeth into all knowledge of truth. Let him therefore which shall receive such knowledge, give thakns to the Lord God; and let him be answerable to that his knowledge in the deeds of charity and in Christian life, that God may be glorified in such science, and the worker of good works receive the reward of mercy, even eternal felicity in the kingdom of heaven. Amen.

A Light in Darkness

For the better understanding of these close words and obscure figures in the Monas following, I thought good to deliver this short exposition following:

By the word ternary is meant (as I conjecture) the first matter of the Philosopher’s Stone, which are therein.

By the quaternary is meant the four elements: water, earth, fire and air.

By the quinary is understood quintessence.

By the septenary is understood the seven heavenly planets: Sun, Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury by which are meant gold, silver, lead, tin, iron, copper and mercury or quicksilver.

By the binary is understood common quicksilver, which is not the mercury of the philosophers, and therefore being without that mercury it is rejected as a false medicine, because it swerveth from unity.

By the octonary is understood the eight parts of alchemy: calcination, dissolution, conjunction, putrefaction, separation, coagulation, sublimation, and fixation.

By the denary is meant the multiplication of gold and silver, by the perfection of the medicine, from 1 to 10, from 10 to 100, and so by the number to a number infinite by arithmetical proportion. {31}

Concerning the figures in this Monas you shall easily enough understand, none of the which are hid and dark, but that in the 222nd page of the Latin Theatrum [i.e., the Theatrum Chemicum of Lazarus Zetzner (Ursel, 1602), in which the Latin text of Dee’s Monas appears], wherein he describes the whole practice of alchemy, calling the Philosopher’s Stone in the first beginning of the work Adam mortal, but in the end and perfection of the work, passing through the four elements into a quintessence, he calleth it Adam immortal, because it will never decay, but purgeth and transformeth all imperfect bodies or metals. The collaterals of the figures are certain circulations or circumstances in the work.

That figure in the 223rd page of the Latin Theatrum signifies the proportions of mixtures. That in the 228th of the Latin Theatrum representeth the athanor of the philosophers, wherein the glass with the matter is brought to the fire. But this athanor or furnace is there set with the top downward, to deceive the ignorant.

Thus briefly I have delivered my conjecture. If any can aim more near the mark, I refuse not to learn.

Thomas Tymme of Hasketon


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