Hellenistic Alchemy

Western alchemy may go back to the beginnings of the Hellenistic period (c. 300 BC-c. AD 300), although the earliest alchemist whom authorities have regarded as authentic is Zosimos of Panopolis (Egypt), who lived near the end of the period. He is one of about 40 authors represented in a compendium of alchemical writings that was probably put together in Byzantium (Constantinople) in the 7th or 8th century AD and that exists in manuscripts in Venice and Paris. Synesius, the latest author represented, lived in Byzantium in the 4th century. The earliest is the author designated Democritus but identified by scholars with Bolos of Mende, a Hellenized Egyptian who lived in the Nile Delta about 200 BC.

He is represented by a treatise called Physica et mystica ("Natural and Mystical Things"), a kind of recipe book for dyeing and colouring but principally for the making of gold and silver. The recipes are stated obscurely and are justified with references to the Greek theory of elements and to astrological theory.

Most end with the phrase "One nature rejoices in another nature; one nature triumphs over another nature; one nature masters another nature," which authorities variously trace to the Magi (Zoroastrian priests), Stoic pantheism (a Greek philosophy concerned with nature), or to the 4th-century-BC Greek philosopher Aristotle. It was the first of a number of such aphorisms over which alchemists were to speculate for many centuries.

In 1828 a group of ancient papyrus manuscripts written in Greek was purchased in Thebes (Egypt), and about a half-century later it was noticed that among them, divided between libraries in Leyden (The Netherlands) and Stockholm, was a tract very like the Physica et mystica. It differed, however, in that it lacked the former's theoretical embellishments and stated in some recipes that only fraudulent imitation of gold and silver was intended. Scholars believe that this kind of work was the ancestor both of the Physica et Mystica and of the ordinary artist's recipe book. The techniques were ancient. Archaeology has revealed metal objects inlaid with colours obtained by grinding metals with sulfur, and Homer's description (8th century BC) of the shield of Achilles gives the impression that the artist in his time was virtually able to paint in metal. Democritus is praised by most of the other authors in the Venice-Paris manuscript, and he is much commented upon.