By Dominic Selwood
A look at a mysterious medieval text and how it became an important text in the history of science.
Western chemistry started life in the Hellenistic world of Late Antiquity, developing in fizzing intellectual melting pots like Alexandria. It was then taken up by Arabic scholars before the European world grew interested in the twelfth century and produced Latin translations of core scientific works.
In Western Europe, this new field of proto-chemistry was called alchimia, or alchemy, with the root of the word mapping exactly onto the discipline’s cultural history. It derived from the Arabic al-kīmiyā’ (الكيمياء), which in turn originated in the Greek chemeia (χημεία), Egypt, and chumeia (χυμεία), to pour or infuse.
For Western European scholars, alchemy became a branch of natural philosophy, a discipline which offered various methods to explore and understand the workings of the physical world. (Hence the title of Isaac Newton’s most famous work, Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica, the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.) However, unlike modern science, alchemy had a profoundly religious core. It was an act of devotion, enabling the alchemist to participate in divine creation. At the same time, it took place within a metaphysical framework in which purifications of substances in the laboratory were innately connected to spiritual refinements in the soul of the alchemist. In this way, alchemy offered a collection of inseparably linked spiritual and chemical processes of progression and perfection.
Alchemy did not feature in medieval or Enlightenment university curricula and was never an official branch of learning. However, that did not stop many great minds from poring over its texts and spending long hours drinking the smoke of furnaces and alembics. Two of the most influential practitioners were the Somerset friar and Oxford academic, Roger Bacon, and Cambridge’s Lucasian professor of mathematics, Isaac Newton. The wider list includes Albertus Magnus, George Ripley, Johann Georg Faust, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, John Dee, Tycho Brahe, Elias Ashmole, Robert Boyle, and many others, whose interest in alchemy ranged from passing to profound.
Alchemy’s Core Text: The Emerald Tablet
The founding body of alchemic literature is attributed to a syncretic divinity known as Hermes Trismegistus, a cross between Egyptian Thoth, god of scribes and magic, and Greek Hermes (Roman Mercury), messenger of the Olympian gods. Hermes’s esoteric wisdom was largely collected in his secret and cryptic Corpus hermeticum, written in Late Antiquity, but for centuries believed to date back to the time of Moses. It was even seen as complementary to the Bible, and to have been the basis of Plato’s wisdom. Because of the connection to Hermes, these teachings became known as ‘hermetic philosophy’.
One of Hermes’s most famous alchemic works is the Tabula smaragdina (The Emerald Tablet), which soon came to be venerated as the key text on which all alchemy is based. The British Library has many copies of it, among which is a version in Arundel MS 164. This manuscript dates to the early 1400s, and was compiled by the Augustinian friars of Nuremberg in Bavaria. The volume eventually found its way into the collection of the Howards, dukes of Norfolk, who later presented it to the Royal Society. In 1831, the Society sold it to the British Museum.
The manuscript contains works of natural philosophy like Thomas of Cantimpré’s De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things) alongside alchemical texts like Albertus Magnus’s De occultis naturae (On the Hidden Things in Nature), some medical materials, and an exposition on the virtues of brandy. Of most interest, though, is a short text entitled Liber hermetis de alchimia (the Book of Hermes on Alchemy) on folio 155r. It is, in fact, a copy of the Emerald Tablet, and this is a translation.
This is true and no exaggeration, settled and an absolute fact.
What is above is like what is below, and what is below is like what is above, to accomplish the miracles of the One Thing, just as all things have been made from the One, by the consciousness of the One, and as all things were born from this One Thing by variations.
The sun is its father. The moon is its mother. The wind carried it in its womb. The earth is its nurse.
It is the father of all talismans throughout the world.
Its power is whole.
If cast into the earth, it will separate earth from fire, refined from crude.
With great art it rises gently from the earth into the sky, then it descends again into the earth, and receives the power of above and below.
And thus it will have the glory of the whole world.
And so all darkness will flee from you.
This is the strong power that vanquishes all powers, as it will conquer all refined things and penetrate all solid things.
This is how the world was created.
Out of it will come astonishing variations, whose method is set out here.
And so I am called Hermes, having the three elements of the wisdom of the whole world.
What we have said about the working of the sun is complete.
Over the centuries, there have been many different versions of the Emerald Tablet, ultimately deriving from three entirely separate Arabic traditions. The reason the text in Arundel MS 164 is so interesting is that it is a version of the ‘Vulgate’ Latin text of the Emerald Tablet. This came to be the standard, and was the basis of the version in the 1541 Nuremberg edition of Chrysogonus Polydorus’s De alchimia (On Alchemy), which proved highly influential. It was soon the go-to text for most late medieval and Early Modern alchemists, including Isaac Newton, who made his own translation from Latin into English based on it.
Arundel MS 164 does not give the name of the original translator of the Emerald Tablet from Arabic to Latin, but it is thought to have been Plato of Tivoli, an Italian mathematician and astronomer who lived in Barcelona and probably translated it in 1134–45. His Arabic source was the Kitāb sirr al-asrār (كتاب سر الأسرار. the Secret Book of Secrets), a text thought to have been written by Plato’s student, Aristotle, to his own pupil, Alexander the Great, passing on his secret teachings. Because of Aristotle’s superstar status in the medieval West, many versions of this book (and the Emerald Tablet inside it) soon appeared in Latin as the Secretum secretorum (the Secret of Secrets), and circulated immensely widely, making it one of the most popular books of the period.
One notably unusual word in the Emerald Tablet is telesmi (or thelesmi in some manuscripts), which is not Latin. The phrase in which it appears reads ‘pater omnis telesmi mundi tocius’ (the father of all telesmi throughout the world). Medieval and Enlightenment alchemists struggled with it. In perhaps the most influential medieval commentary, Hortulanus observed that it means ‘treasures’ or ‘secrets’, but gives no etymology. Isaac Newton simply gave up and wrote in his Latin version ‘pater omnis perfectionis totius mundi’, translating it as ‘the father of all perfection in ye whole world’.
In fact, the word is straightforward. The original Arabic of the Emerald Tablet has abu al-ṭilasmāt (أبو الطلسمات), the ‘father of talismans’. Why Plato of Tivoli kept the original Arabic word is unclear. It is not likely that he simply did not know the word so left it in Arabic, as almost every other later translator, including Roger Bacon, also wrote telesmi, and they cannot all have been ignorant of the term. The Arabic word is not obscure, and derives from the Byzantine Greek telesma (τέλεσμα), meaning a consecrated, magical object or, in later times, a defensive charm. Translators perhaps left it because a famous story about the Emerald Tablet relates that the neo-Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana originally discovered the text inscribed on a piece of emerald in the hands of an old man sitting on a golden throne in a vault under a statue of Hermes. The vault, the account relates, had been sealed by Hermes Trismegistus with talismans, which Apollonius overcame, and so Apollonius is known in Arabic as abu al-ṭilasmāt, Father of Talismans. Leaving this phrase in the Emerald Tablet was most likely a way of embedding a reference to the story of Apollonius and his original discovery of the text.
The Meaning of the Emerald Tablet
The cryptic language of the Emerald Tablet has baffled readers for centuries, lending itself to multiple interpretations.
It opens with principles of creation and change in the natural world, exploring the relationship between the sky and the earth. Since Classical times, many believed that the planets ruled life on earth, and that their phases influenced the natural world, leading to theories of unity between the celestial macrocosm and the human microcosm. Thanks to the opening words of the Emerald Tablet, the phrase ‘as above so below’ became a defining tenet of hermetic philosophy.
The sun and moon are clearly key to the text, with the final line noting that the tablet describes ‘the working of the sun’. These references plainly refer to the celestial bodies, but there is another meaning as, in the lexicon of the alchemic laboratory, sol ☉ is gold and luna ☽ is silver. Beyond these senses, there is also a strong, classical philosophical connotation, as for Aristotelians the sun was the centre of existence and a prime mover in creation.
Ultimately, ‘the One Thing’ is an enigma. It may be aether (the quinta essentia or fifth element), which lived outside earth, air, water and fire, yet acted decisively on them all. Or it could be the initial matter that created heaven and earth, linking them. Alternatively, it might be the Philosophers’ Stone itself, that elusive compound which alone could empower the alchemist to achieve the ultimate transmutation of base metal into gold — a process known as chrysopoeia — and simultaneously transform himself or herself into the androgyne rebis. This was the goal of the alchemist, who laboured to master the four stages of nigredo (blackness or putrefaction), albedo (whiteness or purification), citrinitas (yellowness or awakening), and rubedo (redness or completion) to achieve the Great Work.
The exact meaning of the Emerald Tablet has always been ambiguous, placing it firmly in the category of ancient wisdom literature. Its opacity is one of the many reasons why it fascinated a thinker like Isaac Newton, for whom all intellectual endeavour was a path to understanding creation and praising God. In alchemy, he believed he had found the ancient wisdom that would enable him to unlock all the secrets of natural philosophy. His work on mathematics, optics, forces, motion, sacred geography and alchemy were indivisible in his mind as routes to come closer to God through understanding the created universe. And the Vulgate text in Arundel MS 164 played a key role in that intellectual exploration, making it not only one of the core texts of alchemy, but also one of the foundational texts of modern, empirical, experimental science. This connection is not only part of the history of science. It is also hardwired into our language. The word ‘chemist’ is simply a version of ‘alchemist’, and ‘chemistry’ is merely ‘chemist’ plus the activity suffix -ry. The surprising reality is that today’s chemists are, even though they may not know it, the direct lineal, practical, and etymological descendants of the Hellenic, Muslim, medieval, and Enlightenment alchemists of old.
Dr Dominic Selwood is a historian and author. His most recent book, Anatomy of a Nation: A History of British Identity in 50 Documents (Constable 2021) comes out in paperback in June 2023, and includes Isaac Newton’s English translation of the Emerald Tablet as one of the 50 documents.
Note on Transcription/Translation
There are two published transcriptions (one with a translation) of the Latin text of the Emerald Tablet in Arundel MS 164 (see below). However, each contains material errors. The text of the manuscript reads as follows, and the English translation given above reflects this more accurate wording.
“uerum sine mendacio certum certissimum ● quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius et quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius ● ad perpetranda miracula rei unius sicut res omnes ab uno fuerunt meditatione unius sicut et fuerunt res omnes nate ab hac re una aptatione ⸝ pater eius sol ⸝ mater eius luna ⸝ portauit illud uentus in uentre suo ⸝ Nutrix eius terra est ⸝ pater omnis thelesmi mundi tocius hoc est ⸝ uis eius integra est ⸝ Si uersa fuerit in terram separabit terram ab igne ⸝ subtile ⸝ a spisso ⸝ suauiter cum magno ingenio ⸝ ascendit a terra in celum ⸝ iterumque descendit in terram ⸝ et recipit uim superiorum atque inferiorum ⸝ sicque habebit gloriam tocius mundi ⸝ Ideoque fugiet a te omnis obscuritas ⸝ hec fortitudinis fortitudo fortis ⸝ quia uincet omnem [rem] subtilem ⸝ omnem rem solidam penetrabit ⸝ sicut hic [mundus] creatus est ⸝ hinc erunt adaptationes mirabiles quarum modus hic est Itaque uocatus sum hermes ⸝ tres tocius mundi habens partes sapientie ⸝ completum est quod diximus ⸝ de opere solis.”
The two published versions are: (1) R Steele and D Singer, “The Emerald Table”, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 21, 1928, pp. 485–501, and (2) J-M Mandosio, “La Tabula smaragdina e i suoi commentari medievali”, in Hermetism from Late Antiquity to Humanism. La Tradizione ermetica dal mondo tardo-antico all’umanesimo. Atti del Convegno internazionale di studi, Napoli, 20–24 novembre 2001, Tumhout, Brepols, 2003, pp. 681–96.
Top Image: British Library MS Arundel 164 fol. 84r