Thrice Greatest Hermes
There is no official beginning of the practice of alchemy. While scholars dispute the geographic location of alchemy’s origin as well as the time period, Hermes Trismegistus or “Thrice Great Hermes” is popularly considered to be the legendary founder of alchemy.
In Ancient Egypt he was known as the god of wisdom, Thoth. The Greek god, Hermes was equated with Thoth. To the Romans he was known as Mercury or Mercurius, the messenger god. In alchemy, mercury represents a great many things, including the epitome of the ‘great riddle of life.’
The large body of writing ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus is known as the Corpus Hermeticum. These works had a profound impact on the European Renaissance as the advent of printing helped disseminate the Corpus Hermeticum throughout Europe.
Alchemists’ often refer to themselves as Hermeticists’ studying Hermetica or the Hermetic Arts.
“Here was an ancient body of theological, philosophical, scientific, and medical writings of extraordinary beauty, intellectual power, and spiritual authority, in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims could find confirmations, amplifications, and refinements of their own sacred teachings.” –– Francis Melville. The Book of Alchemy.
The Emerald Tablet
The Emerald Tablet or Tabula Smaragdina is the most famous work attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. The text was supposedly carved on green stone, possibly green granite or green jasper, and was later described as emerald.
There are several legends surrounding the discovery of the Emerald Tablet. One states that the tablet was found in the tomb of Hermes Trismegistus, clutched in his hand. Another states Alexander the Great first discovered it, and yet another says it was Apollonius of Tyana. Regardless, the original text does not survive and the earliest translations appeared in Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The Emerald Tablet contains Egyptian philosophy, magical secrets of the universe, and is considered to be the credo of Adepts. To the uninitiated the text is a nonsensical riddle; however, to alchemists it describes the process of transmutation.
Chymisches Lustgärtlein. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1964.
Daniel Stolcius (1600–1660) was a physician and Bohemian alchemist. This reproduction of the 1624 edition of Stolcius’s The Alchemical Pleasure–Garden shows a famous engraving of Hermes Trismegistus titled, “The Marriage of Sol and Luna.” Here Hermes holds the globe in his right hand and gestures to the sun and the moon with his left. The fire surrounding the sun and moon represents the union of two opposites that gives rise to the manifest universe. This image alludes to The Emerald Tablet which states, “Its father was the Sun, its mother the moon, the Earth its nurse, and the wind carries it in its belly.”
Iamblichvs De mysteriis Ægyptiorvm, Chaldæorum, Assyriorum: Proclvs in Platonicum Alcibiadem de anima, atque dæmone, Idem De sacrificio & magia: Porphyrivs De diuinis atq, dæmonib: Psellvs De dæmonibus: Mercvrii Trismegisti Pimander, Eiusdem Asclepius. Lvgdvni: Apud Ioan. Tornaesivm ..., 1577.
In 1460, Cosimo de Medici (1389–1464) received a manuscript containing fourteen of the seventeen treatises of the Corpus Hermeticum. Medici requested the Italian Humanist Philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) to make translating the text from Greek into Latin a high priority. This was to supersede even the translation of Plato’s works, which Ficino is now most famous for. Here it is opened to first page of the second book called “Poemander.”
Il Pimandro di Mercurio Trimegisto, tradotto da Tommaso Benci in lingua fiorentina. In Firenze: [L. Torrentino], 1548.
In 1464, Marsilio Ficino’s (1433–1499) esteemed friend, Tommaso Benci (1427–1470) a translator and poet, translated the manuscript into Italian. Benci’s work was the first time the Hermetic treatises were translated into the vernacular. The translation was first printed in 1548. Here it is opened to the first page of “Poemander.”
Musæum Hermeticum, reformatum et amplificatum: omnes sopho–spagyricæ artis discipulos fidelissimè erudiens: quo pacto summa illa veraque lapidis philosophici medicina, qua res omnes qualemcunque defectum patientes instaurantur, inveniri & haberi queat: continens tractatus chimicos XXI. Francofurti: Apud Hermannum à Sande, 1678.
This fold–out plate originally appeared in alchemist John Daniel Mylius’s (1585–1628) Opus Medico–Chymicum in 1618 and was reproduced in the Museum Hermeticum. The engraving represents the microcosm and the macrocosm, showing an alchemist in the center reconciling opposites which are depicted in the left and right sides of the image, day/night, light/darkness, sun/moon, fire/water, air/gravity, and masculine/feminine. The upper part of the circle shows the spiritual realm with the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost and angels who influence the world below. The five birds represent different alchemical processes and the symbols in the trees represent different substances.
Tabula smaragdina medico–pharmacevtica: in qua sexcentorum contra omnis generis morbos probatissimorum selectissimorumque medicamentorum, in nullo dispensatorio obviorum: sed partim ex optimis & hoc tempore nominatissimis practicis desumptorum. Norimbergæ: Sumpt. Johann. Ziegeri & Georg. Lehmanni, 1699.
This is a rare edition of German physician Philipp Fraundorffer’s (ca. 1650–1702) Tabula Smaragdina, which also contains hundreds of recipes and potions for ailments such as scurvy, worms, vomiting, colic, and asthma. On the left a previous owner has made notes of alchemical symbols.
Amphitheatrvm sapientiæ æternæ solivs veræ: Christiano–kabalisticvm, divino–magicvm, nec non physico–chymicvm tertrivnvm, catholicon. Hanoviæ: Excudebat Guilielmus Antonius, 1609.
Prominent German physician, philosopher, and alchemist Heinrich Khunrath’s (1560–1605) most famous work is Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (Amphitheater of Eternal Wisdom). First published in 1595, the book was reissued with additional plates in 1609. Among the several beautiful illustrations is this famous engraving of “The Alchemical Mountain.” For an adept, this image holds the secrets of the Emerald Tablet.
The Mirror of Alchemy composed by the thrice–famous and learned frier, Roger Bacon. With the Smaragdine Table of Hermes, Trismogistus of Alchemy. Los Angeles: Printed for the Globe Book Store at the Press of the Pegacycle Lady, 1975.
Seen here is a modern fine press edition of the philosopher and Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon’s (c. 1214–1294) famous alchemical manual Seculum Alchemiae, which was later translated into English as The Mirror of Alchemy. Influenced by Islamic scientists, specifically the alchemist Avicenna, Bacon composed his treatise about the origins of metals, theories of mercury and sulfur, and transmutation. Included in Bacon’s work is Hermes’s Emerald Tablet which has been translated into English. A facsimile of the conclusion on the following page is below.