The Dialog of Cleopatra and the Philosophers (Alchemy 11)

There were three women alchemists early on, all famous. Mary Prophetess (or Maria the Jewess, among other names) was reported to be a gifted artificer of lab equipment, among them the hot water bath, or bain marie. Theosobia received letters from her brother Zosimos (whom we will meet later) on the subject of alchemy told in obfuscating allegory. 

Here we meet Cleopatra. Not the Cleopatra of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, lover of Marc Anthony, but the alchemist Cleopatra. Again, she might not have been a real person, but a representative used in a dialog.

The dialog is with a group of sycophantic philosophers, followers of Cleopatra. It comes from F. Sherwood Taylor’s The Alchemists: Founders of Modern Chemistry (London: William Heinemann, 1951), 57–9, and is based on Berthelot’s French translation in his Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs, one of the great translation efforts of science.

Then Cleopatra said to the philosophers. “Look at the nature of plants, whence they come. For some come down from the mountains and grow out of the earth, and some grow up from the valleys and some come from the plains. But look how they develop, for it is at certain seasons and days that you must gather them, and you take them from the islands of the sea, and from the most lofty place. And look at the air which ministers to them and the nourishment circling around them, that they perish not nor die. Look at the divine water which gives them drink and the air that governs them after they have been given a body in a single being.”

Ostanes and those with him answered Cleopatra. “In thee is concealed a strange and terrible mystery. Enlighten us, casting your light upon the elements. Tell us how the highest descends to the lowest and how the lowest rises to the highest, and how that which is in the midst approaches the highest and is united to it, and what is the element which accomplishes these things. And tell us how the blessed waters visit the corpses lying in Hades fettered and afflicted in darkness and how the medicine of Life reaches them and rouses them as if wakened by their possessors from sleep; and how the new waters, both brought forth on the bier and coming after the light penetrate them at the beginning of their prostration and how a cloud supports them and how the cloud supporting the waters rises from the sea.”

And the philosophers, considering what had been revealed to them, rejoyced.

Cleopatra said to them. “The waters, when they come, awake the bodies and the spirits which are imprisoned and weak. For they again undergo oppression and are enclosed in Hades, and yet in a little while they grow and rise up and put on divers glorious colors like the flowers in springtime and the spring itself rejoices and is glad at the beauty that they wear.3 For I tell this to you who are wise: when you take plants, elements, and stones from their places, they appear to you to be mature. But they are not mature until the fire has tested them. When they are clothed in the glory from the fire and shining color thereof, then rather will appear their hidden glory, their sought-for beauty, being transformed to the divine state of fusion. For they are nourished in the fire and the embryo grows little by little nourished in its mother’s womb, and when the appointed month approaches is not restrained from issuing forth. Such is the procedure of this worthy art. The waves and surges one after another in Hades wound them in the tomb where they lie. When the tomb is opened they issue from Hades as the babe from the womb.”

The Alchemy Reader (pp. 44-45). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

The death and resurrection motif used here are probably disguising a process which is described later by the Arabic alchemists of the spirit of a substance rising up in sublimation where it is perfected, then recombined with the "corpse" or non-sublimated substance (prima materia), so that the perfected spirit will then create a more gold-like material.

References to the womb and to birth are analogous to the creation of the philosophers stone in a flask.

References to colors will be a near-constant theme in alchemy. The changing form one color to the next was accepted as proof that the material has changed its nature and has become a different element or metal.

It surprises me how fully developed alchemy seems to be even at this very early date.

A note on translations from the Greek (Alchemy 10 Interlude)

After Alexander, all trade was done in Koine Greek ("common" or "shared" Greek, pronounced "coin-ay"). It was the language of trade into the medieval times, lasting at least 900 years (the Byzantine empire used it until they were sacked by the Arabs in 1453). All the New Testament texts were first written in this language, the language used to communicate with the world. Koine Greek is not a sophisticated language, and in writing less so than in speaking. For example, "blue" and "sky" are the same word. Writing in Koine Greek takes many shortcuts, and only context can tell you the correct interpretation. But most cultural idioms are lost to us and so is the context, and we have a very difficult time making out what some passages mean. 

Papyrus 46, one of the earliest New Testament documents, 175 - 225 A.D. No punctuation, no paragraphs, no spaces; just a wall of letters:

An example is here:


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

So when reading these English translations from Koine, take them with a grain of salt. We are familiar with exactness in writing in English and it's easy to pass on the surety of meaning to English translations where that surety never existed in the original.

Map of where Koine Greek was spoken. Dark blue is where the Greeks lived; light blue is water:

The Beginning of Alchemy: Psuedo-Democritus (Alchemy 09)

The first writings we have on Alchemy are recipes. A little obscure philosophy, mostly instructions. This is dated first of second centuries A.D. but it could be as late as 400 A.D. Martelli puts this at 60 A.D. [Martelli, Matteo, The Four Books of Pseudo-Democritus (Maney Publishing: Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, 2013)]

It portends to be the Greek Democritus speaking, but we know it isn't. The author is Greek. There is a blend of mysticism ( aka magic) and philosophy here that puts it almost certainly in Alexandria. But already alchemy is developed much further than we generally think it would be. It is this early development which fascinates me, and is my only real proof that the ideas in the Timaeus and the Meteorology were widely spread through out the Mediterranean area well before 100 A.D. Only familiarity with those two books would make alchemy easy to adopt. It's my guess that these books were spread by Alexander's army or the traders who followed.

The following text is a nearly complete version of the translation by Robert B. Steele that appeared in Chemical News, 61 (1890): 88–125; a number of Steele’s notes have been incorporated in the annotations. Steel is convinced that this is very early first century. I'm not convinced. Steele's comments are in [square brackets,] mine are in {curly braces.}


Nature rejoices with Nature; Nature conquers Nature; Nature restrains Nature.” We (his disciples) greatly wondered at how briefly he had bound up the whole science. I come into Egypt, bearing the treatises of nature, that thou mayest cast off confused and superfluous matter.

1. Copper is Whitened with Mercury-Amalgam or Arsenic, and is then Coloured Golden by Electrum or Powdered Gold. Taking mercury, thrust it into the body of magnesia,[Any white body, steatite or soapstone. In later alchemical writing, magnesia has a broad range of meanings, including the quintessence or an ingredient of the philosopher’s stone.] or into the body of Italian antimony, or of unfired sulphur, or of silver spume,[Argentiferous litharge] or of quick lime, or to alum from Melos, or to arsenic, or as thou knowest, and throw in white earth of Venus, and thou shalt have clear Venus; then throw in yellow Luna,[Venus and Luna stand for copper and silver, respectively] and thou shalt have gold, and it will be chrysocoral[“gold solder” or chrysocolla, a name given to a specific mineral or minerals in ancient times] reduced into a body. Yellow arsenic also makes the same, and prepared sandarach,[red arsenic sulphide, or realgar] and well bruised cinnabar,{mercury sulfide, very easy to smelt} but quicksilver {mercury} alone makes brass shining; for nature conquers nature.

2. Sulphide of Silver is Treated with Sulphides of Lead or Antimony, and the Resulting Alloy is Coloured Golden. Treat silver marcasite, which is also called siderites, and do what is usual that it may be melted. It melts with yellow or white litharge, or in Italian antimony, and cleanse it with lead (not simply, say I, lest thou err, but with that from Scissile,[alum schist from Sicily] and our black litharge), or as thou knowest; and heat, and throw it made yellow to the material, and it becomes coloured; for nature rejoices with nature.

3. Copper Pyrites is Roasted and Treated with Salt and Alloyed with Silver or Gold to Form Gold-Coloured Alloys. Treat pyrites till it becomes incombustible, casting off darkness, but treat with brine, or fresh urine, or sea water, or oxymel, or as thou knowest, until it becomes as an incombustible shaving of gold; and as it becomes so, mix with it unfired sulphur, or yellow alum, or Attic ochre, or what thou knowest, and add to luna for sol, and to sol for auriconchylium;[sol represents gold; auriconchylium is gold in powder, coquille d’or] for nature conquers nature.

4. Claudian Metal is Rendered Yellow by Sulphur or Arsenic, and Alloyed on Gold or Silver. Taking claudianum,[a metal, named from its manufacturer. An alloy of tin and lead, with copper, zinc, &c.] thou shalt make a marble, as of custom, until it becomes yellow. Thou shalt not render the stone yellow, I say, but that which is useful of the stone. Thou shalt yellow it with alum burnt with sulphur, or with arsenic, or sandarach, or lime, or that thou knowest, and if thou apply it to luna thou makest sol,[gold] but if to sol thou makest auriconchylium; for victorious nature restrains nature.

5. Silver or Bronze are Treated with an Amalgam of Iron to Produce Gold or Electrum. Make cinnabar white by oil, or vinegar, or honey, or brine, or alum, then yellow by misy, or sory, or chalcanth,[misy: a mixture of iron and copper sulphate; sory: basic sulphate of iron; chalcanth: copperas or ferrous sulphate] or live sulphur, or that thou knowest, and add to luna and it will be sol if thou colourest golden, or to bronze for electrum. Nature rejoices with nature.

6. A Yellow Golden Varnish for Metals. Whiten, I say, copper, cadmia, or zonytes, as of custom, afterwards make it yellow. But you will yellow it with the bile of a calf, or terebinth,[the tree that serves as the source of turpentine or – most likely in this context – the resin itself] or castor oil, or radish oil, or yolks of eggs, which can render it yellow, and add to luna, for it will be gold for gold; for nature conquers nature.

7. The Treatment of Silver by Superficial Sulphidation to Render it Gold Coloured. Treat androdamas[arsenical pyrites; from its silvery lustre used with silver] with bitter wine, or sea water, or acid brine, which things can attack its nature, melt with Chalcidonian antimony, and treat it again with sea water, or brine, or acid brine; wash until the blackness of the antimony goes away, heat or roast it until it begins to grow yellow, and thou shalt treat with untouched divine water, and lay it on silver, and when thou addest live sulphur thou makest chrysosomium into golden liquid; for nature conquers nature. This is the stone called chrysites.[a mixture of silver and lead, which becomes yellow on heating]

8. An Alloy of Copper and Lead is Formed, which is turned Yellow. Taking white earth from ceruse, I say, or from the scoriæ of silver, or of Italian antimony, or of magnesia, or even of white litharge, whiten it with sea water, or acid brine, or with water from the air under the dew, I say, and the sun, that it, when dissolved, may become white as ceruse. Heat then this in the furnace, and add to it the flowers of copper,[small black scales of oxide of copper, which separate on cooling] or scraped rust of copper, worked up by art, I say, or burnt bronze sufficiently corroded, or chalcites, or cyanum;[chalcites is copper pyrites; cyanum is blue carbonate of copper or Azurite] then it becomes compact and solid, but it becomes so easily. This is molybdochalium.[an alloy of copper and lead] Test it therefore, whether it has cast off its blackness, but if not, blame not the bronze, but rather thyself, since thou hast not conducted the operation rightly; therefore thou shalt brighten it, and dissolve it, and add what is necessary to yellow it, and roast till it begins to grow yellow, and throw it into all bodies; for bronze colours every body where it is shining and yellow; for nature conquers nature.

9. Copper and Silver are made Yellow by Sulphate of Iron; with a Process of Cementation.[the process by which one solid is made to penetrate and combine with another at high temperature without liquefaction taking place] Rub up sory and chalcanth with unfired sulphur; but sory is, as leprous cyanus, always found in misy, they call it green chalcanth. Roast it, therefore, in the middle of coals for three days, until it becomes a red drug, and throw it into Venus, or Luna made by us, and it will be Sol. Place this, cut up in sheets, in vinegar, and chalcanth, and misy, and alum, and sal cappadociæ,[a variety of sal gemma or rock salt] and red nitre, or as thou knowest, for three, or five, or six days, until it becomes a rust, and it tinges; for chalcanth makes sol a rust. Nature rejoices with nature.

10. An Alloy of Gold is Heated by Superficial Cementation. Treat Macedonian chrysocolla, which is like the rust of bronze, by dissolving it in the urine of a young girl until it entirely changes; for the nature is hidden within. When, therefore, it is changed, dip it into castor oil, often heating it, and tinging it, afterwards roast with alum, first dissolving with misy or unfired sulphur; render it yellow, and colour the whole body of gold.

11. O! NATURES, Governors of natures! O! natures, how great, conquering natures with their changes! O! natures above Nature, delighting natures! Therefore these are great natures; no others are more excellent among tinctures than these natures; none are like, none are greater, all these take effect as solutions. You therefore, O! wise men, I plainly understand are not ignorant, but rather wonder, since ye know the power of nature, but the young men are much in error, and will not put faith in what is written, since they are ignorant of matter, not noticing that physicians where they wish to prepare a useful drug, do not set about making it inconsiderately, but first test it, whether it is warming, and how much cold, or humid, or other substance necessary, joined with it will make a medium temperament. They, on the other hand, boldly and inconsiderately desiring to prepare that valuable medicine and ending of all diseases, do not learn that they are running into danger. As they consider that we speak in fables and not mystically, they display no diligence in inquiring into the species of things. For example, if this is cleansing, but that unimportant; and if this is fitted to receive a colour, but that to prepare (for receiving it); and if this tinges the surface, or if the tincture gives off an odour from the surface, or vanishes from the interior of the metallic body; or if this resists fire, but that mixed with anything enables it to resist fire. For example, if salt cleanses the surface of Jove[Jove represents tin, Venus copper] it cleanses its interior parts; and if the exterior part contracts rust after the cleansing, the interior parts do so also; and if mercury whitens and cleanses the surface of Venus, it whitens also the interior; and if it leaves the exterior, it leaves the interior also. If the young men had been skilled in this kind of knowledge, applying their minds judiciously to the actions of substances, they would have suffered less loss; they know not the antipathies of nature, that one species may change ten, as a drop of oil stains much purple, and a little sulphur burns many things. Let these things be said, therefore, of medicines, and of the extent to which what is written may be relied on.

12. A Gold Varnish for Silver. Let us deal with liquids in their turn. Taking Pontic rhubarb, rub it up in bitter Aminean wine[in ancient alchemical treatises, substances frequently bear the names of their places of origin, as in the references to rhubarb and wine in this passage and the crocus of Cilicia below] to the consistency of wax, and take a thin piece of Luna to make Sol, the pieces of which may be a full nail in breadth, that thou mayest use the drug again and again; place it in an empty vessel, which, luting on all sides, gently heat from beneath until the middle (of the leaf) is reached. Then place the leaf in the remainder of the drug, and complete the action with the aforesaid wine, as long as the liquid appears thick. In this, throw at once the uncooled leaf, and allow it to absorb, then take it and place it in a crucible; and thou shalt find Sol. But if the rhubarb be dried with age, mix it with equal parts of celandine, preparing it, as of custom, for celandine has a relationship to rhubarb. Nature rejoices with nature.

13. Another Gold Varnish. Take crocus of Cilicia, and leave it with the crocus flower, and the aforesaid juice of the vine, and thou shalt have a liquor, as is accustomed to be done. Colour silver, cut into leaves, until it seems shining to thee. But if the leaf be bronze it will be better, but first cleanse the bronze, as customary. Then taking two parts of the herb aristolochia,[a type of shrub, one species of which is the Common Birthwort] and double of crocus, and celandine, make it of the consistency of wax, and anointing the sheet, do as before, and wonder, since the crocus of Cilicia has the same effect as mercury, as also cassia with cinnamon. Nature conquers nature.

14. Another Gold Varnish. Taking our lead made shining by Chian earth,[earth obtained from the Aegean island of Chios, used as “an astringent and a cosmetic”] and pyrites, and alum, burn with chaff, and melt into pyrites; and rub up crocus and cnicum, and the flower œcumenicus with the sharpest vinegar, and make a liquid, as of custom, and dip the lead into it, and allow it to absorb it, and thou shalt find Sol but let the composition have a little unburnt sulphur; for nature conquers nature.

15. This is the plan of Hepammenes, which he showed to the priests of Egypt, and it remains to the times of these philosophers, the matter of the Chrysopeia.[gold-making; the art of transmutation] Nor should ye wonder if one thing performs a mystery of this kind. Do ye not see that many drugs can with difficulty, even in the progress of time, heal up wounds produced by iron, but human excrement succeeds in no long interval of time; and many drugs employed for burns produce often no good, and most in no way diminish the pain, but lime alone, when rightly prepared, drives out the ailment; and if various cures are tried for ophthalmia,[inflammation of the eye] they generally increase it, but the plant buckthorn, used to all sickness of this kind, cures perfectly. Vain and unsuitable matter should therefore be despised, but things be used according to their natures. Now therefore learn from these also, that no one has ever been successful without the aforesaid natures. But if nothing can be done without these, why do we desire a forest of many things; what is our need of the concourse of many species for the work, when one surpasses all? Let us now see the composition of the species from which silver can be made.


16. The Surface of a Copper Alloy is Whitened by an Arsenical Compound. Fix quicksilver from arsenic, or sandarach, or that thou knowest, as of custom, and mix Venus with iron treated with sulphur, and it will be whitened; but whitened magnesia is also excellent, and sublimed arsenic, and calcined cadmia, unfired sandarach, whitened pyrites, and ceruse roasted with sulphur. Thou dissolvest iron by throwing into magnesia, or the half of sulphur, or a little of loadstone, since that has affinity with iron. Nature rejoices with nature.

17. A Composition for Amalgamating the Surface of Alloys. Taking the aforesaid vapour, heat it with castor or radish oil, mixing with a little alum; then taking tin, purge it with sulphur, as of custom, or marchasite, or what is known to thee, and throw it into the vapour, mixing the whole. Roast, covered with coals, and thou shalt see this medicine formed, like to white lead, which whitens all (metallic) bodies, but by anointing. Mix with it Chian earth, or Asterites, or Aphroselinum,[asterites is arsenical pyrites (identical with androdamas); aphroselinum is selenite, sulphate of lime] or that thou knowest, since Aphroselinum associated with mercury whitens all (metallic) bodies. Nature conquers nature.

18. The Same Applied to Orichalium Alloy. Take white magnesia; thou shalt whiten it with brine and alum, in sea-water, or citron juice, or with the smoke of sulphur; for the fume of sulphur, when it is white, whitens all things. But others say that the fume of cobathia[arsenical fumes of furnaces] whitens it. Mix with it, after whitening, equal parts of lye, that it may become white enough. Taking of whitish bronze, of orichalium, I say, 4 ounces, place it in a crucible, placing under it little by little 1 ounce of previously purged tin, agitating until the substances unite; it will be frangible. Throw on, therefore, the half of white medicine, and it will be the chief; for whitened magnesia does not render bodies fragile, or allow the blackness of bronze to come forth. Nature restrains nature . . .

24. Another Tincture of Amalgamation. Take 1 ounce of arsenic, and half an ounce of nitre, and 2 ounces of the cortex of the tender little leaves of Persea,[“A sacred fruit-bearing tree of Egypt and Persia”] and half (an ounce) of salt, and 1 ounce of mulberry juice, and equal parts of scissile, rub with vinegar, or urine, or of unslaked lime of urine, until a liquid is formed. Immerse in this glowing leaves of Venus growing black, and thou takest away the blackness. Nature conquers nature. Thou hast all things which are required for gold and silver, nothing is left out, nothing is wanting, except the elevation of the vapour and of water.[suggesting the process of distillation] But these I have omitted of purpose, seeing that I have dealt with them freely in my other writings. In this writing farewell.

The Alchemy Reader (pp. 38-43). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

The phrase, used many time, "or as thou knoweth," is enlightening. It means to use whatever you know will work. And how can there be so many reagents to accomplish the process? The author must be a follower of Aristotle, where altering the properties on one substance to become a different one. This is not chemistry in any form. This is the manipulation of found ores and metals to change the appearance. One would think that surely the difference could be easily seen; but these are philosophers following Plato, and they know that what is reasoned out is more true than what they observe. How they communicated that to the person buying the "gold" I have no idea. This is probably also the beginning of charlatanism in alchemy.

Many of these materials are obtained via the trade routes, and the locations where they are mined is mentioned. We have none of these mines any more, which makes the attempt at duplicating these "experiments" difficult or impossible. Some minerals named are unknown to us; we don't know what they are.

Crysopoeia: a Greek word meaning the making of gold by transmutation. This early gold-making was a central goal of alchemy, but not why you'd think. Alchemists were not trying to get rich. They are trying to perfect a philosophy proposed by Aristotle: that Nature makes gold in the interior of the earth from fumes of differing hotness and wetness, and so can we, but with sufficient skill we can do it faster. But only by following the example set by Nature.

“Nature rejoices with Nature; Nature conquers Nature; Nature restrains Nature.” This is another central concept of alchemy. We can only follow Nature's path; forcing ingredients to make gold would be fruitless, because it could not them be real gold.

Also here is the first discussion of the healing properties of some substances created. Medicine will be a constant in alchemy, and a central aspect of alchemy in 1600 AD.

What might have been: Democritus and the Atomic Theory (Alchemy 08 Interlude)

Democritus around 350 B.C. had a nice theory of atoms. He said any bit of matter can be divided up to a point. When the particles are small enough, they can be divided no further. He called these "atoms."

Plato hated him, Aristotle ignored him, and he taught Pythagoras.

He came to his atomic theory not how Dalton came to his in the very early 1800's. Democritus though atoms were unique in shape, and when they stacked together there was empty space between them (an idea both Plato and Aristotle rejected utterly in their philosophies).

Lucretius, describing atomism in his De rerum natura, gives very clear and compelling empirical arguments for the original atomist theory. He observes that any material is subject to irreversible decay. Through time, even hard rocks are slowly worn down by drops of water. Things have the tendency to get mixed up: Mix water with soil and mud will result, seldom disintegrating by itself. Wood decays. However, there are mechanisms in nature and technology to recreate "pure" materials like water, air, and metals. The seed of an oak will grow out into an oak tree, made of similar wood as historical oak trees, the wood of which has already decayed. The conclusion is that many properties of materials must derive from something inside, that will itself never decay, something that stores for eternity the same inherent, indivisible properties. The basic question is: Why has everything in the world not yet decayed, and how can exactly some of the same materials, plants, and animals be recreated again and again? One obvious solution to explain how indivisible properties can be conveyed in a way not easily visible to human senses, is to hypothesize the existence of "atoms". These classical "atoms" are nearer to humans' modern concept of "molecule" than to the atoms of modern science. The other central point of classical atomism is that there must be considerable open space between these "atoms": the void. Lucretius gives reasonable arguments that the void is absolutely necessary to explain how gases and liquids can flow and change shape, while metals can be molded without their basic material properties changing.

Wikipedia - Democritus

The idea of atoms is fundamental to our understanding matter and everything to do with matter. Once atoms are understood it merely several hundreds of years before chemistry and technology are in full swing.

So where would we be if Democritus was believed instead of Plato and Aristotle?

Astrology and Magic (Alchemy 07 Interlude)

Alchemy, astrology and Magic always seem to go together. They were combined in the early renaissance as a deliberate act, but early on they were informally combined as they all fit the same cosmology and religion.

We have seen a hint of this in Plato, where he had the Gods living far outside the sphere of the earth, and by the rotation of the planetary spheres have some influence over the earth. Aristotle made this a central aspect of his cosmology. But the origins are earlier.

From Persian Zoroastrianism (600 B.C., note the date relative to the conquest of the old world by the Persians) came the love of wisdom and the idea that all the world seeks to be like God. As these ideas were carried to Greece by Heraclitus (500 B.C.) he brought with it some mathematics which inspired Pythagoras, the eastern forms of astrology, and the practice of natural magic brought to Greece by Ostanes.

Astrology was practiced by everybody by about 2000 B.C. The astrologers controlled the calendar, and most religions incorporated astrology as the means of finding out which gods were influencing you right now. Egyptian religion went as far as to enumerate the "siderial gods" 36 in number, who rule each 40-minute block of each day.

Magic was not the black magic we play with on Halloween, it was the natural magic of using herbs to heal. It was a forerunner of medicinal alchemy and medicine. It required a vast understanding of the plants and how to prepare them so they would heal.

As these arts were practiced, the astrologer would calculate which planets were in the sky at your birth. Since you came from heaven, your soul needed to pass through each planetary sphere, picking up the vice associated with each one (pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, lust) each associated with a particular body in the cosmos. As these influence us, some have greater influences than others. That imparts our character. 

These vice-like aspects can be overcome. It requires that the astrologer find the "antidote" by finding the planets, stars, plants, shapes, objects that will undo our vices, then at the correct time of year, at the feet of the correct statue of deity, imbue a talisman that can help undo our vices. Potion making worked the same way. 

An astrologer would need to be a magician and later an alchemist to perform astrology. Alchemists relied on astrologers to get the timing right, and later some would become makers of medicines.

Alexander the Great: Spreading Ideas (Alchemy 06)

Alexander III, son of Philip of Macedon, was at the age of 16 a pupil of Aristotle. As his pupil he would have heard of Plato. Philip was obsessed with conquering Persia, current-day Iran/Iraq, as a consequence of Persia conquering all the known world around 540 B.C. and into Greece around 480 B.C. (and in the process, as Cyrus passed through Babylon, freed the Hebrews taken 60 years earlier). Alexander fulfilled that obsession by taking it all back. In 336 B.C. he took Philips army across Anatolia (Turkey, 333 B.C.), the Levant (Syria and Israel, 332 B.C.), Egypt (331 B.C.), Persia (Iran/Iraq, 330 B.C.), into the northeast provinces (Afganistan/Pakistan, 329 B.C.) and into Punjab (western India and Tibet, 328 B.C.).

His army moved fast, and picked up many many warriors along the way. He did this by mot being a cruel tyrant, but by opening trade in every land he conquered. His goal was not to tax, but to trade with everyone. Calm the land and open the trade routes. Teach everyone a simplified Greek (Koine Greek, common Greek), and let them govern themselves. Part of this was (probably, for this I have no proof) indoctrination into the Greek culture by bringing books with them, books like Aristotle's Meteorology and Plato's Timaeus. Books the Greeks told them to read so they could understand them. And read them they did. When alchemy was developed, it seem to spring from all parts of the old world: 

It worked well. The conquered people never rebelled, and hundreds of years later, Hellenism (as we call it) was still intact.

Towns were founded to help with the trade routes. Alexandria, in Egypt, as a trade port. In fact, almost every area conquered had a new Alexandria. All were founded as classical Greek cities.

But revolt did come, from his generals. Alexander wasn't done. He wanted to go as far as China, but the troops were done. In the end Alexander settled down in Babylon, and died in Nebuchadnezzar's palace in 323 B.C., probably from foul play. The empire was willed to four generals: Ptolemy got Egypt, Seleucid got Mesopotamia and Central Asia, Attalid got Anatolia (Turkey) and the Levant (Syria/Israel), and Antigonid got Macedonia, the Greek homeland. Each ruled by his own standards.

Ptolemy's kingdom lasted the longest, and was the most generous. He funded huge libraries over his little empire, and Alexandria became the world center of learning. By decree any book brought into Alexandria was allowed to be copied for the library, but typically the copy was returned to the owner; the original stayed with the library. Books at the great library of Alexandria were copied for the other libraries around the Mediterranean, and famous men began to be identified by the city housing the library where they studied.

But it was at Alexandria that the most ideas met. And fused. And grew.

Challenging Alchemy: Diogenes (Alchemy 05 interlude)

Diogenes tried hard to challenge the ideas underpinning alchemy. He was a troll, attending lectures and making fun of what was said or otherwise distracting from the solemnity of the moment. He wore only a blanket, slept where he wanted, tried his best to live a completely honest life, though not a comfortable one. He tried to live up to his own high ideals.

You can search out and read the many stories of the life of Diogenes, but his manner platform.

Diogenes couldn't do it. But he was our first cynic. Today cynicism is one of the foundations of the scientific method: don't believe anything which isn't multiple-times proven.

Aristotle (Alchemy 04)

Aristotle, the pupil of Plato, is considered one of the best minds the world has every produced. I'm afraid is just wasn't so, but ask anyone before 1600 who was the smartest man to ever live, and Aristotle would be the only answer you heard. He was seriously challenged by only two men, Diogenes who attended Plato and Aristotle's talks and made fun of them, and in 1536 by Peter Rami (Petrus Ramus in the Latinized form) in his Master's thesis Quaecumque ab Aristotele dicta essent, commentitia esse (Everything that Aristotle has said is false).

Aristotle was a good writer. I think that's why he's famous. His ideas are to our ears silly, but they were believable if you didn't look at nature so closely that you saw the flaws in Aristotle's statements of now Nature operates.

Around 300 B.C Aristotle wrote Meteorology, where the ideas of alchemy are presented. Again, Aristotle is not an alchemist, but alchemy would be constructed on his ideas.

We have already laid down that there is one principle which makes up the nature of the bodies that move in a circle, and besides this four bodies1 owing their existence to the four principles [elements], the motion of these latter bodies being of two kinds: either from the centre or to the centre. These four bodies are fire, air, water, earth. Fire occupies the highest place among them all, earth the lowest, and two elements correspond to these in their relation to one another, air being nearest to fire, water to earth. The whole world surrounding the earth [water, air, fire, cosmos], then, the affections of which are our subject, is made up of these bodies. This world necessarily has a certain continuity with the upper motions [the movements of the planets are influencing us]; consequently all its power is derived from them. (For the originating principle of all motion must be deemed the first cause. Besides, that element is eternal and its motion has no limit in space, but is always complete; whereas all these other bodies have separate regions which limit one another.) So we must treat fire and earth and the elements like them as the material causes of the events in this world (meaning by material what is subject and is affected), but must assign causality in the sense of the originating principle of motion to the power of the eternally moving bodies . . . Fire, air, water, earth, we assert, come-to-be from one another, and each of them exists potentially in each, as all things do that can be resolved into a common and ultimate substrate. [Bk. 1, 339a 11–339b 2]

So at the centre and round it [the earth-centred world] we get earth and water, the heaviest and coldest elements, by themselves; round them and contiguous with them, air and what we commonly call fire. It is not really fire, for fire is an excess of heat and a sort of ebullition; but in reality, of what we call air, the part surrounding the earth is moist and warm, because it contains both vapour and a dry exhalation from the earth. But the next part, above that, is warm and dry. For vapour is naturally moist and cold, exhalation warm and dry; and vapour is potentially like water, exhalation potentially like fire. [Bk. 1, 340b 19–28]

The Alchemy Reader (pp. 34-35). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition, from the translation of the Meteorology by E. W. Webster, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes, Bollingen Series 71.2, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984)

We have a few ideas here. The cosmos, circling as it does by way of it's natural motion to go in circles, is influencing everything below, in our sublunary sphere. We also have the formation of metals in the two vapors that exist below ground, the moist vapors and the dry ones. Keep in mind that Aristotle was from Greece, a geologically active area, and would have been familiar with volcanos.

Aristotle's elements[46]
Element Hot/Cold Wet/Dry Motion Modern state
of matter
Earth Cold Dry Down Solid
Water Cold Wet Down Liquid
Air Hot Wet Up Gas
Fire Hot Dry Up Plasma
Aether (divine
(in heavens)


He continues with an important idea, that by exposing a lesser metal, like copper, to wet or dry vapors, the nature of the metal is changed; it becomes a different metal. Aristotle has adopted the Platonic transmutation, and has defined how it is done: by altering the metal's properties.

We recognize two kinds of exhalation, one moist, the other dry. The former is called vapour: for the other there is no general name but we must call it a sort of smoke, applying to the whole of it a word that is proper to one of its forms. The moist cannot exist without the dry nor the dry without the moist: whenever we speak of either we mean that it predominates. Now when the sun in its circular course approaches, it draws up by its heat the moist evaporation: when it recedes the cold makes the vapour that had been raised condense back into water which falls and is distributed over the earth. (This explains why there is more rain in winter and more by night than by day: though the fact is not recognized because rain by night is more apt to escape observation than by day.) But there is a great quantity of fire and heat in the earth, and the sun not only draws up the moisture that lies on the surface of it, but warms and dries the earth itself. Consequently, since there are two kinds of exhalation, as we have said, one like vapour, the other like smoke, both of them are necessarily generated. That in which moisture predominates is the source of rain, as we explained before, while the dry one is the source and substance of all winds. [Bk. 2, 359b 29–360a 13]

Some account has now been given of the effects of the exhalation above the surface of the earth; we must go on to describe its operations below, when it is shut up in the parts of the earth.

Its own twofold nature gives rise here to two varieties of bodies, just as it does in the upper region. We maintain that there are two exhalations, one vaporous the other smoky, and there correspond two kinds of bodies that originate in the earth, things quarried and things mined. The heat of the dry exhalation is the cause of all things quarried. Such are the kinds of stones that cannot be melted, and realgar, and ochre, and ruddle, and sulphur, and the other things of that kind, most things quarried being either coloured lye or, like cinnabar, a stone compounded of it. The vaporous exhalation is the cause of all things mined – things which are either fusible or malleable such as iron, copper, gold. All these originate from the imprisonment of the vaporous exhalation in the earth, and especially in stones. Their dryness compresses it, and it congeals just as dew or hoar-frost does when it has been separated off, though in the present case the metals are generated before that separation occurs. Hence, they are water in a sense, and in a sense not. Their matter was that which might have become water, but it can no longer do so; nor are they, like savours, due to a qualitative change in actual water. Copper and gold are not formed like that, but in every case the evaporation congealed before water was formed. Hence, they all (except gold) are affected by fire, and they possess an admixture of earth; for they still contain the dry exhalation.

This is the general theory of all these bodies, but we must take up each kind of them and discuss it separately. [Bk. 3, 378a 14–378b 6]

We have explained that the causes of the elements are four, and that their combinations determine the number of the elements to be four.

Two of the causes, the hot and the cold, are active; two, the dry and the moist, passive.6 We can satisfy ourselves of this by looking at instances. In every case heat and cold determine, conjoin, and change things of the same kind and things of different kinds, moistening, drying, hardening, and softening them. Things dry and moist, on the other hand, both in isolation and when present together in the same body are the subjects of that determination and of the other affections enumerated. The account we give when we define their natures shows this too. Hot and cold we describe as active, for combining is a sort of activity; moist and dry are passive, for it is in virtue of its being acted upon in a certain way that a thing is said to be easy to determine or difficult to determine. So it is clear that some are active and some passive. [Bk. 4, 378b 10–25]

We must now describe the next kinds of processes which the qualities already mentioned set up in actually existing natural objects as matter.

Of these concoction is due to heat; its species are ripening, boiling, broiling . . . Concoction is a process in which the natural and proper heat of an object perfects the corresponding passive qualities, which are the proper matter of any given object. For when concoction has taken place we say that a thing has been perfected and has come to be itself. It is the proper heat of a thing that sets up this perfecting, though external influences may contribute in some degree to its fulfilment . . . In some cases of concoction the end of the process is the nature of the thing – nature, that is, in the sense of the form and essence. [Bk. 4, 379b 10–26]

Homogeneous bodies differ to touch by these affections and differences, as we have said. They also differ in respect of their smell, taste, and colour.

By homogeneous bodies I mean, for instance, the stuffs that are mined – gold, copper, silver, tin, iron, stone, and everything else of this kind and the bodies that are extracted from them . . . [Bk. 4, 388a 10–15]

The Alchemy Reader (pp. 35-36). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition, from the translation of the Meteorology by E. W. Webster, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes, Bollingen Series 71.2, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984)

Sorry this is so long, but so was Aristotle. He has redefined transmutation by making it all about the properties. Instead of earth, air, water and fire, he has hot/cold and dry/wet. Start with any matter, and subject it to one of these four properties, and by adding that property to the matter, new matter will result. This is the core philosophy of alchemy. And by using gold as his example, he set the stage for alchemy centered on the production of gold.

What's needed now is for these ideas to be spread abroad. 

Thus enters Aristotle's pupil, Alexander the Great.


Plato, the Foundational Theories of Alchemy (Alchemy 03)

Plato inherited the four-element idea from Empedocles. About 360 B.C. he wrote Timaeus where the foundations of alchemy are set forth. These underpinnings take the form of two concepts: Being & Becoming, and Transmutation. Note that Plato was not an alchemist. He was a philosopher, but so pervasive are his ideas that later alchemists almost always style themselves as philosophers also. Sorry for the long quotations below.

Being & Becoming. Plato, and his pupil Aristotle, are categorizers. Always organizing ideas and object in various categories. Foundationally are the two categories of Being and Becoming. Things that are being are perfect, have no change, are always right. Things which are becoming are imperfect, in the process of becoming more like God (as is the whole Earth), and thus are always changing and are not yet true. Into the Being category he places reason. Into the Becoming category he places opinion and observation. 

First then, in my judgment, we must make a distinction and ask, What is that which always is and has no becoming, and what is that which is always becoming and never is? That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state, but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is. Now everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for without a cause nothing can be created. The work of the creator, whenever he looks to the unchangeable and fashions the form and nature of his work after an unchangeable pattern, must necessarily be made fair and perfect, but when he looks to the created only and uses a created pattern, it is not fair or perfect. Was the heaven then or the world, whether called by this or by any other more appropriate name – assuming the name, I am asking a question which has to be asked at the beginning of an inquiry about anything – was the world, I say, always in existence and without beginning, or created, and had it a beginning? Created, I reply, being visible and tangible and having a body, and therefore sensible, and all sensible things are apprehended by opinion and sense, and are in a process of creation and created. Now that which is created must, as we affirm, of necessity be created by a cause. But the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out, and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible. This question, however, we must ask about the world. Which of the patterns had the artificer in view when he made it – the pattern of the unchangeable or of that which is created? If the world be indeed fair and the artificer good, it is manifest that he must have looked to that which is eternal, but if what cannot be said without blasphemy is true, then to the created pattern. Everyone will see that he must have looked to the eternal, for the world is the fairest of creations and he is the best of causes. And having been created in this way, the world has been framed in the likeness of that which is apprehended by reason and mind and is unchangeable, and must therefore of necessity, if this is admitted, be a copy of something . . .

The Alchemy Reader (p. 30). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition, from the translation of the Timaeus by Benjamin Jowett, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961);

Here Plato is using reason and observation in the opposite sense we do today; for us observation is undeniable fact, and reason can take on any fancy it likes. But for the alchemist who reads the Timaeus dialog, reason is paramount to truth, and observation is suspect. Aristotle will take this to new levels of lunacy.

Plato expounds on the four-element theory of Empedocles by doing several things. First, he established via reason that the creator is good, perfect, and wants everything to be like He is. The world is not perfect, but it is changing to become so. Thus, the world is alive, like plants and animals are alive; he called it anima mundi, the "aliveness of the world".

TIMAEUS: Let me tell you then why the creator made this world of generation. He was good, and the good can never have any jealousy of anything. And being free from jealousy, he desired that all things should be as like himself as they could be. This is in the truest sense the origin of creation and of the world, as we shall do well in believing on the testimony of wise men. God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable. Wherefore also finding the whole visible sphere not at rest, but moving in an irregular and disorderly fashion, out of disorder he brought order, considering that this was in every way better than the other. Now the deeds of the best could never be or have been other than the fairest, and the creator, reflecting on the things which are by nature visible, found that no unintelligent creature taken as a whole could ever be fairer than the intelligent taken as a whole, and again that intelligence could not be present in anything which was devoid of soul. For which reason, when he was framing the universe, he put intelligence in soul, and soul in body, that he might be the creator of a work which was by nature fairest and best. On this wise, using the language of probability, we may say that the world came into being – a living creature truly endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of God.

This being supposed, let us proceed to the next stage. In the likeness of what animal did the creator make the world? It would be an unworthy thing to liken it to any nature which exists as a part only, for nothing can be beautiful which is like any imperfect thing. But let us suppose the world to be the very image of that whole of which all other animals both individually and in their tribes are portions. For the original of the universe contains in itself all intelligible beings, just as this world comprehends us and all other visible creatures. For the deity, intending to make this world like the fairest and most perfect of intelligible beings, framed one visible animal comprehending within itself all other animals of a kindred nature. Are we right in saying that there is one world, or that they are many and infinite? There must be one only if the created copy is to accord with the original. For that which includes all other intelligible creatures cannot have a second or companion; in that case there would be need of another living being which would include both, and of which they would be parts, and the likeness would be more truly said to resemble not them, but that other which included them. In order then that the world might be solitary, like the perfect animal, the creator made not two worlds or an infinite number of them, but there is and ever will be one only-begotten and created heaven. [27c–31b]

The Alchemy Reader (pp. 30-31). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition, from the translation of the Timaeus by Benjamin Jowett, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961)

Secondly, Plato establishes that in the Creation, the world contains all the fire, air, water and earth that could exist, and that each of these contains differing properties that we observe. For example, earth always moves down toward the center of the spherical earth, and fire always moves up. Air and water behave similarly, but to a lesser extent.

Now the creation took up the whole of each of the four elements, for the creator compounded the world out of all the fire and all the water and all the air and all the earth, leaving no part of any of them nor any power of them outside. His intention was, in the first place, that the animal should be as far as possible a perfect whole and of perfect parts, secondly, that it should be one, leaving no remnants out of which another such world might be created, and also that it should be free from old age and unaffected by disease. Considering that if heat and cold and other powerful forces surround composite bodies and attack them from without, they decompose them before their time, and by bringing diseases and old age upon them make them waste away – for this cause and on these grounds he made the world one whole, having every part entire, and being therefore perfect and not liable to old age and disease. And he gave to the world the figure which was suitable and also natural. Now to the animal which was to comprehend all animals, that figure would be suitable which comprehends within itself all other figures. Wherefore he made the world in the form of a globe, round as from a lathe, having its extremes in every direction equidistant from the center, the most perfect and the most like itself of all figures, for he considered that the like is infinitely fairer than the unlike . . . Of design he was created thus – his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself. For the creator conceived that a being which was self-sufficient would be far more excellent than one which lacked anything, and, as he had no need to take anything or defend himself against anyone, the creator did not think it necessary to bestow upon him hands, nor had he any need of feet, nor of the whole apparatus of walking. But the movement suited to his spherical form was assigned to him, being of all the seven that which is most appropriate to mind and intelligence, and he was made to move in the same manner and on the same spot, within his own limits revolving in a circle. All the other six motions were taken away from him, and he was made not to partake of their deviations. And as this circular movement required no feet, the universe was created without legs and without feet.

The Alchemy Reader (pp. 31-32). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition, from the translation of the Timaeus by Benjamin Jowett, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961)

Plato continues then to the transmutation of the elements by introducing the idea of prima materia, primeval matter, matter which has no properties. Yet. To explain the act of matter taking on properties, he first needs matter with a soul, matter which is in some sense alive.

Such was the whole plan of the eternal God about the god that was to be; he made it smooth and even, having a surface in every direction equidistant from the center, a body entire and perfect, and formed out of perfect bodies. And in the center he put the soul, which he diffused throughout the body, making it also to be the exterior environment of it, and he made the universe a circle moving in a circle, one and solitary, yet by reason of its excellence able to converse with itself, and needing no other friendship or acquaintance. Having these purposes in view he created the world a blessed god. Now God did not make the soul after the body, although we are speaking of them in this order, for when he put them together he would never have allowed that the elder should be ruled by the younger, but this is a random manner of speaking which we have, because somehow we ourselves too are very much under the dominion of chance. Whereas he made the soul in origin and excellence prior to and older than the body, to be the ruler and mistress, of whom the body was to be the subject. [32c–34c] Now when the creator had framed the soul according to his will, he formed within her the corporeal universe, and brought the two together and united them center to center. The soul, interfused everywhere from the center to the circumference of heaven, of which also she is the external envelopment, herself turning in herself, began a divine beginning of never-ceasing and rational life enduring throughout all things. [36d–e]

The Alchemy Reader (p. 32). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition, from the translation of the Timaeus by Benjamin Jowett, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961)

Now he is ready to introduce transmutation, the shifting of the properties of matter, by the matter itself, to move it toward perfection.

Thus far in what we have been saying, with small exceptions, the works of intelligence have been set forth, and now we must place by the side of them in our discourse the things which come into being through necessity – for the creation of this world is the combined work of necessity and mind. Mind, the ruling power, persuaded necessity to bring the greater part of created things to perfection, and thus and after this manner in the beginning, through necessity made subject to reason, this universe was created. But if a person will truly tell of the way in which the work was accomplished, he must include the variable cause as well, and explain its influence. Wherefore, we must return again and find another suitable beginning – as about the former matters, so also about these. To which end we must consider the nature of fire and water and air and earth, such as they were prior to the creation of the heaven, and what was happening to them in this previous state, for no one has as yet explained the manner of their generation, but we speak of fire and the rest of them, as though men knew their natures, and we maintain them to be the first principles and letters or elements of the whole, when they cannot reasonably be compared by a man of any sense even to syllables or first compounds . . .

In the first place, we see that what we just now called water, by condensation, I suppose, becomes stone and earth, and this same element, when melted and dispersed, passes into vapor and air. Air, again, when inflamed, becomes fire, and, again, fire, when condensed and extinguished, passes once more into the form of air, and once more, air, when collected and condensed, produces cloud and mist – and from these, when still more compressed, comes flowing water, and from water comes earth and stones once more – and thus generation appears to be transmitted from one to the other in a circle. Thus, then, as the several elements never present themselves in the same form, how can anyone have the assurance to assert positively that any of them, whatever it may be, is one thing rather than another? No one can . . .

The Alchemy Reader (pp. 32-33). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition, from the translation of the Timaeus by Benjamin Jowett, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961)

And there it is. Matter, having a soul, can direct the properties it has to become more perfect. It can transform by altering those properties. Plato gives us examples, centered around gold.

Let me make another attempt to explain my meaning more clearly. Suppose a person to make all kinds of figures of gold and to be always remodeling each form into all the rest; somebody points to one of them and asks what it is. By far the safest and truest answer is, ‘That is gold,’ and not to call the triangle or any other figures which are formed in the gold ‘these,’ as though they had existence, since they are in process of change while he is making the assertion, but if the questioner be willing to take the safe and indefinite expression, ‘such,’ we should be satisfied. And the same argument applies to the universal nature which receives all bodies – that must be always called the same, for, inasmuch as she always receives all things, she never departs at all from her own nature and never, in any way or at any time, assumes a form like that of any of the things which enter into her; she is the natural recipient of all impressions, and is stirred and informed by them, and appears different from time to time by reason of them . . . Wherefore the mother and receptacle of all created and visible and in any way sensible things is not to be termed earth or air or fire or water, or any of their compounds, or any of the elements from which these are derived, but is an invisible and formless being which receives all things and in some mysterious way partakes of the intelligible, and is most incomprehensible. In saying this we shall not be far wrong; as far, however, as we can attain to a knowledge of her from the previous considerations, we may truly say that fire is that part of her nature which from time to time is inflamed, and water that which is moistened, and that the mother substance becomes earth and air, in so far as she receives the impressions of them. [47e–51b]

Of all the kinds termed fusile [by which he means metals], that which is the densest and is formed out of the finest and most uniform parts is that most precious possession called gold, which is hardened by filtration through rock; this is unique in kind, and has both a glittering and a yellow color. A shoot of gold, which is so dense as to be very hard, and takes a black color, is termed adamant. There is also another kind which has parts nearly like gold, and of which there are several species; it is denser than gold, and it contains a small and fine portion of earth and is therefore harder, yet also lighter because of the great interstices which it has within itself, and this substance, which is one of the bright and denser kinds of water, when solidified is called copper. [59b–c]

The Alchemy Reader (p. 33). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition, Kindle Edition, from the translation of the Timaeus by Benjamin Jowett, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961)

Aristotle will take these ideas, and run with them. 

Egyptian Creation Myths as Interpreted by Thales of Miletus (Alchemy 02)

There are four Egyptian creation myths, all similar.

The different creation myths have some elements in common. They all held that the world had arisen out of the lifeless waters of chaos, called Nu. They also included a pyramid-shaped mound, called the benben, which was the first thing to emerge from the waters. These elements were likely inspired by the flooding of the Nile River each year; the receding floodwaters left fertile soil in their wake, and the Egyptians may have equated this with the emergence of life from the primeval chaos. The imagery of the pyramidal mound derived from the highest mounds of earth emerging as the river receded.


Sunrise at Creation: The sun rises over the circular mound of creation as goddesses pour out the primeval waters around it
Scanned from the book Ancient Egypt, edited by David P. Silverman, p. 121; photograph from the Book of the Dead of Khensumose

Thales of Miletus, considered the first Greek philosophical sage (Melitus is in modern-day Turkey) was wealthy and may have traveled to Egypt and saw these creation myths on the walls of temples (where we found them also).

Thales (around 600 B.C.) brought them home and created a philosophy around them: everything on the Earth started as water. It's an astounding thing to say, because we don't observe this behavior in nature. You can find hints of it, when, say, you evaporate a glass of seawater to dryness, but nice pure rain water doesn't do this. But his theory of elements starts with water, from which all other matter is formed. The land, the sky, eventually fire.

Aristotle laid out his own thinking about matter and form which may shed some light on the ideas of Thales, in Metaphysics 983 b6 8–11, 17–21. (The passage contains words that were later adopted by science with quite different meanings.)

That from which is everything that exists and from which it first becomes and into which it is rendered at last, its substance remaining under it, but transforming in qualities, that they say is the element and principle of things that are. …For it is necessary that there be some nature (φύσις), either one or more than one, from which become the other things of the object being saved... Thales the founder of this type of philosophy says that it is water.

Wikipedia: Thales of Miletus

This marks the beginning of the Greek Philosopher, more interested in the thinking than in making their philosophy describe their observations. It's a trend that will last at least past 300 B.C. Thales worked in astronomy, hydraulics, geometry and the nature of God, but his ideas about water had the most influence.

The Miletus School of philosophers followed and expounded on what Thales taught. Water became a first "element" or "Principle" of matter.

Anaximander thought there were four elements, each primordial. They are recylced as the "waste" of mortality.

"Anaximander taught, then, that there was an eternal. The indestructible something out of which everything arises, and into which everything returns; a boundless stock from which the waste of existence is continually made good, “elements.”. That is only the natural development of the thought we have ascribed to Thales, and there can be no doubt that Anaximander at least formulated it distinctly. Indeed, we can still follow to some extent the reasoning which led him to do so. Thales had regarded water as the most likely thing to be that of which all others are forms; Anaximander appears to have asked how the primary substance could be one of these particular things. His argument seems to be preserved by Aristotle, who has the following passage in his discussion of the Infinite: "Further, there cannot be a single, simple body which is infinite, either, as some hold, one distinct from the elements, which they then derive from it, or without this qualification. For there are some who make this. (i.e. a body distinct from the elements). the infinite, and not air or water, in order that the other things may not be destroyed by their infinity. They are in opposition one to another. air is cold, water moist, and fire hot. and therefore, if any one of them were infinite, the rest would have ceased to be by this time. Accordingly they say that what is infinite is something other than the elements, and from it the elements arise.'⁠—Aristotle Physics. F, 5 204 b 22 (Ritter and Preller (1898) Historia Philosophiae Graecae, section 16 b)."

Anaximenes settled back on air as the primordial element. “Just as our soul...being air holds us together, so pneuma and air encompass [and guard] the whole world.” (Vamvacas, Constantine J. (2009), "Anaximenes of Miletus (ca. 585–525 B.C.)", The Founders of Western Thought – the Presocratics, Springer Netherlands, pp. 45–51). The phrase "breath of life" comes from Anaximenes.

Minor Miletians selected earth or fire as the primordial element.

Empedocles later selected all four.

Empedocles established four ultimate elements which make all the structures in the world—fireairwaterearth.[29][40] Empedocles called these four elements "roots", which he also identified with the mythical names of ZeusHeraNestis, and Aidoneus[41] (e.g., "Now hear the fourfold roots of everything: enlivening Hera, Hades, shining Zeus. And Nestis, moistening mortal springs with tears").[42] Empedocles never used the term "element" (στοιχεῖονstoicheion), which seems to have been first used by Plato.[43] According to the different proportions in which these four indestructible and unchangeable elements are combined with each other the difference of the structure is produced.[29] It is in the aggregation and segregation of elements thus arising, that Empedocles, like the atomists, found the real process which corresponds to what is popularly termed growth, increase or decrease. Nothing new comes or can come into being; the only change that can occur is a change in the juxtaposition of element with element.[29] This theory of the four elements became the standard dogma for the next two thousand years.

Wikipedia: Empedocles

And thus was the stage set for the disaster of alchemy. But the ideas needed hero, a believable hero. A hero of ideas so believed that no one would consider calling them wrong. These ideas needed Plato.