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The Great Work

The Great Work, Prima Materia, ladder of the wise, or the Stone of the Philosophers (not to be confused with the Philosopher’s Stone), is the material beginning and end of all things, the seed of perfection.  There are more than fifty names for the mysterious Prima Materia which literally means “First Matter.”

Generally there are seven stages in the Great Work, although according to some treatises there are as many as twelve, fourteen, or twenty–two. The seven stages are:

1. Calcination
2. Dissolution
3. Separation
4. Conjunction
5. Fermentation
6. Distillation
7. Coagulation

Despite being a fundamental concept in alchemy there is no single definition of what the Prima Materia is; in fact some explanations are contradictory.  The Great Work may mean something different to every alchemist, either chemical, metallic, mystical or philosophical. However, for all alchemists it is the ultimate achievement.


Democritvs Abderita De arte magna, siue, De rebus naturalibus: nec non Synesii, & Pelagii, & Stephani Alexandrini, & Michaelis Pselli in eundem commentaria. Patavi: Apud Simon Galignanum, 1573.

The Greek philosopher Democritus was a well–respected writer on alchemy. Although he wrote many works, only two survive. This work describes the chemical process of transmutation of metals and recipes for making alloys.

Nicolas Lenglet Dufresnoy

Histoire de la philosophie hermetique: accompagnée d’un catalogue raisonné des ecrivains de cette science: avec le véritable philalethe, revû sur les originaux. A La Haye: Chez Pierre Gosse ..., 1742.

Nicolas Lenglet Dufresnoy (1674–1755) was a French historian and bibliographer of chemistry. This eighteenth–century History of Hermetic Philosophy contains a timeline, which begins with Hermes Trismegistus.

Giacinto Grimaldi

Dell’ alchimia: opra, che con fondamenti di bvona filosofia, e perspicuità, ammirabile tratta della realtà, difficoltà, e nobiltà di tanta scienza, delle marauiglie della natura, dell’ arte, e de’ metalli, e delle regole, e methodo da offeruarsi nella compositione dell’ oro alchimico. In Palermo: Nella stamperia d’Alfonso dell’ Isola, 1645.

Giacinto Grimaldi was an Italian physician and alchemist of the seventeenth century; little else is known about him. The work discusses natural philosophy, the science of metals, and the composition of gold. The title page engraving depicts Hermes Trismegistus and Gerber.

Auriferae Artis, quam chemiam vocant, antiquissimi authores, sive turba philosophorum. Basileae, Apud Petrum Pernam, 1572.

Maria Prophetess, also known as Maria the Jewess, Maria the Hebrew, Maria Hebraea, and Mary the Prophetess. She is one of the earliest Hellenistic alchemists. She is said to have lived prior to Zorimus of Panopolis (c. 250 – 300 C.E.), a Greek philosopher and alchemist who quotes her extensively in his alchemical writings. There are many legends surrounding the Prophetess. It has been theorized that she was Moses’s sister, Miriam, and other lore suggests she acquired the secrets of alchemy directly from God. Her major works are Great Questions, Small Questions and Dialog of Maria and Aros. She invented several alchemical apparatuses and procedures, as well as a formula for the Philosopher’s Stone. The Practise of Mary the Prophetess in the Alchymicall Art was printed in a number of compendia in Latin and German.

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