Graeco-Egyptian Alchemy in Byzantium

Graeco-Egyptian Alchemy in Byzantium – Michèle Mertens, University of Liège

The main concern of this paper will be with the problems raised by
the reception of ancient alchemy in Byzantium. After a brief
introduction, I will start from the study of a pre-Byzantine author,
Zosimos of Panopolis, and deal with the following questions : How,
from a purely material viewpoint, were Zosimos’ writings handed
down during the Byzantine period? Did Byzantine alchemists have
access to his works and did they resort to them? Was Zosimos
known outside the alchemical Corpus; in other words, did Graeco-
Egyptian alchemists exert any kind of influence outside strictly
alchemical circles? When and how was the alchemical Corpus put
together? In a more general way, what evidence do we have,
whether in the Corpus itself or in non-alchemical literature, that
alchemy was practised in Byzantium? Answers (or at least partial
answers) to these questions should help us to understand and define
to some extent the place held by the ‘sacred art’ in Byzantium.

It is now usually accepted that alchemy came into being in Graeco-
Roman Egypt around the beginning of our era and that it originated
from the combination of several factors, the most remarkable of
which are (1) the practices of Egyptian goldsmiths and workers in
metals who experimented with alloys and knew how to dye metals
in order to simulate gold; (2) the theory about the fundamental unity
of matter, according to which all substances are composed of a
primitive matter and owe their specific differences to the presence
of different qualities imposed upon this matter; (3) the idea that the
aim of any technique must be the mimesis of nature ; (4) the
doctrine of universal sympathy, which held that all elements of the
cosmos are connected by occult links of sympathy and antipathy
which explain all the combinations and separations of the bodies.
The encounter of these different trends of thought brought about the
idea that transmutation ought to be possible, all the more so with
the addition of mystical daydreams influenced by gnostic and
hermetic currents and favoured by the decline of Greek

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