By: Moses Gaster
The undeveloped chemistry of the Middle Ages, characterized by belief in the transmutation of base metals into gold, the discovery of a panacea, etc. Traces of the connection of Jews with the science of Alchemy are very scanty in Hebrew literature. Not a single distinguished adept is found who has left in a Hebrew form traces of his knowledge of the subject. There is, however, scarcely a single important ancient work upon the science which is not directly related to the Jews, with their traditions and their science. Alchemy, like others of the exact sciences, suffered from the introduction of foreign elements, and developed from a more or less secret science belonging to a particular craft, into a mysterious science dealing with changes in the organic as well as the metallic world. From the art of gilding, it became that of the gold-maker; passing from the simple solutions and chemical baths used in the goldsmith's workshop, it aimed at compounding the elixir of life and the philosopher's stone. In the evolution of Alchemy there are at least three epochs: The first, the Greek and Egyptian period; the second, the Arabic of the Middle Ages; and the last, or modern, period, extending from the sixteenth century to the present day. Undoubtedly the home of Alchemy was Egypt; and the researches of Berthelot show conclusively that the ancient Egyptian tradition concerning Alchemy has survived political changes and been preserved in a surprisingly correct form in Greek, old Roman, and medieval tradition.Pseudepigraphic Writings.
Alchemy had already in the second or third century assumed a mystical and magical character, exemplified in such recipes as appear in the magic papyri. The whole syncretism of the East—Jewish and Egyptian gnosis, Greek mysteries, and Ophite speculations—combined to produce a current of thought which affected every mental production of the age. They were all thrown into the same alembic; and the result was expected to be another kind of philosopher's stone—a stone that could change this base mundane life into one of ethereal spirituality. Alchemy partook of the same peculiarity. Gods of the Pantheon, with Hermes at their head, the gods of Egypt, the patriarchs and prophets were pressed into the service of magic and Alchemy. A whole series of so-called pseudepigraphic writings exist, though they are not all of a purely religious character. To be great in one department meant to be great in every department—in the knowledge of all the mysteries. Hence all of the sages of the past were credited with such knowledge, and were considered as authors of books containing the information sought. Adam and Abraham have in their turn been described as authors of alchemistic treatises, and Moses is repeatedly met with as the author of such works. To Moses are ascribed the Greek treatise known as "Diplosis" (that is, the art of doubling the weight of gold), and the treatise "The Chemistry of Moses" (dealing with metallurgy), published by Berthelot in his "Collection des Anciens Alchimistes Grecs," Paris, 1887-88, ii. 300-315, iii. 287-301. In the Greek manuscript of St. Mark of the ninth century Zosimos quotes long passages from "The Chemistry of Moses."
More important than these texts is the one preserved in the magical papyri of Leyden, especially papyrus W, which contains many such chemical recipes, probably the oldest known. Among otherpowers and gods are mentioned Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the angel Michael, and the Temple of Jerusalem. This work is the so-called "Eighth Book of Moses," or "The Key of Moses": the prototype for so many subsequent magical claviculœ, containing recipes intermingled with invocations and incantations. These recipes in the papyrus and in the "Book of Moses" are identical with those attributed to Pseudo-Demetrius, and belong to a particular class of practical recipes (Berthelot, l.c. iii. 288, note). Many of these recipes of practical metallurgy are to be found in the Latin compositiones of the eighth century. The date of the above-named papyrus is of the second or third century (compare Berthelot, "La Chimie au Moyen-Âge," i. 67). Berthelot refers to this work and to similar ones in order to show the Jewish origin of some portions of it (Berthelot, "Les Origines de l'Alchimie," pp. 53-57, Paris, 1885). King Solomon also comes in for a share in the history of Alchemy; and his "Labyrinth" is one of the old formulæ which have survived. Johanan Alemanno, in his "ḤesheḲ Shelomoh" (Solomon's Desire) mentions a book of Alchemy as the work of Solomon (see Steinschneider, "Cat. Bodl." under "Solomon," col. 2296). One who lived much earlier had been credited with the knowledge of changing copper into gold: The name of Me-zahab, R. V. ("Waters of Gold"; Gen. xxxvi. 39), was interpreted to mean —according to Ibn Ezra in his commentary on the passage —that "he transmuted copper into gold."Maria the Jewess.
Of a far less legendary character than all these seems to have been
Syriac translations from the Greek (Berthelot, "Collection des Anciens Alchimistes Grecs," ii. 107, iii. 252), and then into Arabic—or, as it is often stated, into Hebrew—lead from the first to the second period. Kalid b. Jasiki—that is, Khalid b. Yazid (died 708)—figures as the oldest alchemist; and Berthelot does not question his existence. The following work is attributed to him: "Liber Secretorum Artis . . . ex Hebræo in Arabicum et ex Arabico in Latinum versus Incerto Interprete." This treatise has often been reprinted; in Manget, "Bibliotheca Chemica," ii. 183, and in the "Theatrum Chemicum," v. 186, Strasburg, 1660. Steinschneider ("Hebr. Uebers." pp. 852, 853) doubts the existence of a translation from "the Hebrew into Latin," as he has not seen it, and believes the statement to be an invention of the alchemists. Such a translation may have been made from the Arabic into Hebrew, as other treatises are in existence of which heretofore not the slightest indication had been found.
The Jewish writers of the Middle Ages were acquainted with this science. Judah ha-Levi mentions it in his "Cuzari" (iii. chap. liii.). Maimonides knew the writings of Hermes ("Moreh," iii. chap. xxix., where also other similar pseudepigraphic treatises are mentioned); in the same chapter Maimonides speaks of the Sabeans, whose statues of the planets correspond to the seven metals and the seven climates.
Gerson b. Solomon, the author of the compendium "Sha'ar ha-Shamayim," gives a succinct description of the fundamental theory of "AlḲiminiya" (ii. chap. ii.), being the science of changing base metals into gold. Gerson derived all his knowledge on the subject from Hebrew translations of Arabic writings (see Steinschneider, "Hebr. Uebers." pp. 9 et seq.).
Of the next important Arabic writer, Abul Kasim Majriti (tenth century), only a fragment of the Hebrew translation has been preserved in the Munich manuscript, No. 214, ("The Aim of the Wise")—a kind of a compendium made by an anonymous writer of the fourteenth century containing merely the magical portion, and omitting the first part, which dealt with Alchemy (see Steinschneider, "Zur Pseudepigraphischen Literatur," pp. 28-51, and "Hebr. Uebers." pp. 853-854). This manuscript contains, in addition, an alchemistic treatise ascribed to Maimonides, and briefly described by Steinschneider ("Zur Pseudepigraphischen Literatur," pp. 26-27). It is in the form of a letter, as so many alchemists' writings often are.Abul Kasim and Abu Aflah.
At the bottom of the last page (the whole numbering four leaves: folio, 29b-33b) there is a note by the Spanish owner of the manuscript describing a method of transmutation of silver into gold, which he claims to have taken from an old book. This manuscript—which, according to Steinschneider, belongs to the fifteenth century—contains, furthermore, a treatise on divination by means of the palm-tree, ascribed to a certain Abu Aflah al-Sarakusti; it isdescribed in detail by Steinschneider (p. 14). He was known in the fourteenth century to Profiat Duran and especially to Johanan Alemanno, the teacher of Pico di Mirandola, of the fifteenth century. Abu Aflah states that he derived his knowledge from the writings of King Solomon the Jew, thus connecting his science with old Hebrew tradition. From the same author a treatise on Alchemy is mentioned, by Alemanno, of which he made a copy in his "LiḲḲuṭim" (Collectanea) in the Hebrew translation. From this, Abraham Jagel—end of the sixteenth century; afterward called Camillo Jagel, author of the well-known Hebrew catechism "LeḲaḥ Ṭob" (The Good Doctrine)—made an abstract in his manuscript "Bet Ya'ar ha-Lebanon." I. S. Reggio, the first possessor of this manuscript, published a portion of this alchemistic treatise of Abu Aflah in "Kerem Ḥemed," ii. 46-48, v. 41-53, limiting himself to the historical introduction, in which it is set forth that the work is really that of a certain "Smn" () who had married the daughter of the king of Saba; his widow is the Biblical queen of Sheba, and she brought the knowledge of this stone—or other material which changed everything into gold—to Solomon, who then wrote it down in the book now translated by Abu Aflah.
Jagel also wrote a chapter on the philosopher's stone in the same work, part iv., quoted above (see "Bikkure ha-'Ittim," 1828, ix. 14). The translation of the book on the palm-tree was, according to Steinschneider ("Hebr. Uebers." p. 849), made in the fourteenth century. It is dated 1391, and the author may have been the same who translated Majriti's work (ib. p. 854); in both cases the translation has evidently been made from the Arabic. The treatise ascribed to Plato in the same Munich manuscript is of a magic character. Steinschneider mentions further, in "Codex Berlin," 70, 2, a short treatise of only three pages on a subject somewhat akin to Alchemy, "Maleket Me ha-Zahab" (The Art of the Waters of Gold). See "Cat. Berlin," i. 46, and Steinschneider, "Hebr. Uebers." p. 967.
The "Codex Paris," No. 1207, contains, on some blank leaves, made by a late author, a Hebrew translation of the treatise "Quinta Essentia," written by a certain "Roman." Steinschneider ("Hebr. Uebers." p. 824) thinks it identical with the treatise of Pseudo-Raymond Lully, "Liber de Secretis Naturæ," or "Quintæ Essentiæ." His alchemistic writings—that is to say, those ascribed to him—are printed in full by Manget, "Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa," i. 707-911. With Abraham de Portaleone's "De Auro, Dialogi Tres" (Venice, 1514), the end of all that has hitherto been written on the subject is apparently reached.
An important manuscript has, however, come into possession of the writer of this article which turns out to be a complete collection of alchemistic works. This manuscript—written in 1690, somewhere in the East or possibly Morocco, in a fine Spanish hand—is as complete a bibliotheca alchemica Judaica as one could desire. It is evidently a copy of a much older manuscript, as the copyist has often suggested corrections on the margin. It consists of two parts: the first embracing the Greek-Arabic period, with possibly one exception; the second, the alchemists of the Latin world. A large number of alchemists are mentioned here of whom no mention is made elsewhere, and the identification either of the authors or of the works of which abstracts are given in the Hebrew compilation is extremely difficult. In not few cases they have defied identification. The trend of the work is more in the direction of practical chemistry and of precise indications of the manner in which chemical operations are conducted. It resembles the so-called "Avicenna" of medieval Latin texts. Its completeness merits a tolerably full description. Passing through many hands, the original names have been corrupted, and thus the difficulty of identification is increased. That this compilation is old is shown by the fact also that we find here the alchemistic treatise of Abu Aflah al-Sarakusti, of which Alemanno had made the abstract mentioned above. It agrees absolutely with the manuscript.An Important Manuscript.
The manuscript begins with a short note about the "Moon." In alchemistic terminology the moon is equivalent to silver, and the sun to gold. The next chapter deals with "Moon and Sun"; not a few treatises ascribed to Geber have the same title (compare "De Massa Solis et Lunæ," "Theatrum Chemicum," v. 429). Then follows a prescription entitled "La'alot ha-Zahab" (evidently a recipe for making gold, a "chrysopoiæa"). Now comes the treatise of Abu Aflah in full, with all the details that Reggio omitted when publishing Jagel's abstract. The next chapter is by the author of many anonymous—and, as a rule, old—treatises found in Manget and in the "Theatrum Chemicum." The chapter following is ascribed to a certain Johanan "Ashprmantt." This curious name seems to indicate the Greek alchemist "Johannes Archipresbyter," or according to medieval Greek, "Archiprètt." After these follows a compendium of fourteen books, counted as such, and each one taken from a different author. The first is called "Astuta," a name elsewhere unknown, but which may be identical with the mythical "Sastiton" mentioned in connection with another alchemistic or mystical work ascribed to King Solomon and quoted by Alemanno (see Steinschneider, "Cat. Bodl." col. 2297). This "Sastiton" is probably "Ostanes," the great alchemist, whose name is often written in medieval Latin texts "Astanes." The last two letters were afterward misread in the Hebrew into one by the copyist or by the writer of the older original. In this treatise is mentioned a master called "Humash" or "Homesh"; unquestionably Hermes is meant. The corruption was due to the Hebrew transliteration (). About Ostanes, see Berthelot ("Chimie au Moyen-Âge," iii. 13, 116). Book ii. is ascribed to "Aliberto Manyo" (Albertus Magnus). The oldest Latin manuscript of Alchemy of the fourteenth century—studied in detail by Berthelot (l.c. vol. i.)—shows a marked similarity with this compilation (ibid. pp. 290 et seq.).
Book iii. is ascribed to "Spros" (unknown); Book iv., to "Aristotle"; Simon Duran (died 1425) knew a treatise written by Aristotle on four hundred stones and chemical preparations (see Steinschneider, "Zur Pseudepigraph. Lit." p. 82, Nos. 1 and 8). For a treatise of "Aristotle" agreeing more with this text, see Manget ("Bibliotheca," i. 638-650; and also "Theatrum Chemicum," v. 880-893). The sixth book is ascribed to "Yeber," the Pseudo-Geber (compare Manget, "Summa Perfectionis Magisterii," i. 519; and also Berthelot, "Chimie au Moyen-Âge," iii. 149). Of the authors of the following books,"Arcturus" (book vii.) is unknown. "Archelaos" (book viii.) is, on the contrary, often mentioned by ancient alchemists. Book ix. is the book of "Light." It may be the translation of "Speculum," a name borne by many works, such as Roger Bacon's and Geber's; or it may be the "Liber Lucis" of Joan de Rupescissa (Manget, ii. 84-87; and "Theatrum Chemicum," 1659, iii. 284-292). Book x. is by "Irimans of Kostantina"—probably Morienus, or by his full name, Morienus Romanus. Book xi. deals with the "Thirty Paths." Book xii., "Avisina," is Avicenna. A methodical practical treatise in the old Latin manuscript of the fourteenth century bears his name (Berthelot, l.c. i. 293). This Latin text—which is, according to Berthelot, the source of the alchemistic sections in Vincentius of Beauvais's work "Speculum Naturale"—is of special interest, as in it is found an interpolated list of alchemists, among whom are "Isaac the Jew," and a certain "Jacob, a philosopher," who played important rôles. A pope is also mentioned; and among the authors in the manuscript is also "The Pope."
The book of "Razis"—here book xiii.—is found also in the old Latin manuscript; only the text has been divided into two sections, of which the first is ascribed to "Abubacar" and the second to "Raẓis" (Berthelot, l.c. i. 306-310, 311). The second treatise is identical with the one that goes under the name of Aristotle in "Theatrum Chemicum" (iii. 56) as "De Perfecto Magisterio," while Razis' treatise has the title "Lumen Luminis," and that of Abubacar "Liber Secretorum." The last book, xiv., is ascribed to Plato. In the Latin manuscript of the fourteenth century an alchemistic treatise was ascribed to Plato under the name of "Anagnensis," probably connected with the "Nomes of Plato (see Steinschneider, "Zur Pseudepigraphischen Literatur," p. 52, and his "Hebr. Uebers." p. 849). In "Theatrum Chemicum," v. 101 et seq., is also published "Platonis Libri Quatuor cum Commento Hebuhabes Hamed: Explicatus ab Hestole." It differs somewhat from the Hebrew text, and is mentioned here because Berthelot, in speaking of this treatise of Plato (found also in the old Latin manuscript), pointed to the "Aron noster," referred to in the commentary as being a Jew. This is doubtful, however, as he is not mentioned as "Judæus." A double glossary of Arabic and Greek words concludes this first part of the manuscript, in which, with the exception of Albertus Magnus, all the authors mentioned belong to the Greek-Arabic period as reflected in compilations of the thirteenth century.Contents of Second Collection.
To a later period belong the authors of the second "Collection" (), as it is called in the manuscript. It must suffice to mention merely the names, as only a few of them are prominent and known elsewhere as authorities in Alchemy. The list begins with "Mestre Arnaldes"—Arnaldus de Villanova (flourished 1300). Many of his works have been translated into Hebrew (see Steinschneider, "Hebr. Uebers." pp. 778 et seq., under "Arnaldes" in the index), but outside of this manuscript no trace has been found of the alchemistic writings. For the Latin texts, see Manget, l.c. i. 662-706; "Theatrum Chemicum," 1659, iii. 118-136, and iv. 515 et seq. "Joane Ashkenazi" is then mentioned; perhaps "Theodonicus" or "Theotonicus," whose name was afterward changed by popular etymology into "Teutonicus" (see Berthelot, l.c. i. 71). "Messir Piero Dabano" is none other than the famous Petrus Bonus, author of the "Margarita Pretiosa" (Manget, l.c. ii. 1-79; "Theatrum Chemicum," 1660, v. 507). Less known, or perhaps unknown, are the following names mentioned in this part of the manuscript (accompanying each some short abstract is given): Nicolo d'Inglitera, "who had left England together with his art"; Mestero Ermano de Normandia; Messer Andrea de Napoli; Bartolomeo dal Tempio; Messer Guaspare della Bolonya; Cristofano della Bolonya; Messer Joane Botrio; Frate Elia ("Helia," "Alia," occurs very often; a certain Ylia is mentioned in Plato's "Quartorum"); Messer Simone Reco, who had "made the white vestment"; Gulielmo da Monte Polaseno. The last on the list is a certain "Romito," who speaks on the "Partikolare." This name is the only one that might help to fix the time and place of this compilation. In folio 130b the following statement appears: "These artifices were given me by Mestro Yacopo Davinisia (i.e., Jacob of Venice), who performed them in Rome before the Cardinal della Colonna, and I have given him, for teaching them to me, sixty florins." Unfortunately there were fourteen cardinalsof the name Colonna between the years 1230 and 1665 —the latest possible date for this manuscript, which is a copy made in 1690. The reference to Rome, though explicit enough, may refer only to the place where Yacopo had been, but is not sufficient to place the author of the compilation: it points to Italy, at any rate, as his possible home. The manuscript was evidently compiled by a man who knew one or more of the Romance languages besides Latin: Italian and Latin words occur throughout the book. It is shown besides in the form of the proper names of the authors, and of the names of ingredient metals, etc., although they may just as well be considered as Catalan or even Provençal. It is an admitted fact that some of the oldest translations of alchemistic writings have been in these languages. In the works attributed to Lully, quotations in Provençal are found.Date of Compilation.
In fact, all the oldest translations were made in Spain or Provence (see Berthelot, l.c. i. 66, and note), and in the twelfth or thirteenth century. One of the oldest is that made by Morienus, in 1182, while no Latin manuscripts earlier than 1300 are known to exist (ibid. p. 232). Undoubtedly the first books forming the foremost part of the manuscript were translated in Spain, either from Arabic or from Latin. Probably all the rest were translated from the latter language, at a period prior to the time of Johanan Alemanno, or before the end of the fifteenth century; for, as stated above, he copied the portion of Abu Aflah in his collectanea. Another proof of an earlier period than the fifteenth century for the original compilation lies in the fact that not a single alchemist who is known to have lived after that time is mentioned in the text. The absence of all the magic symbols is another proof for the early date of the compilation, as these symbols found in old Greek manuscripts disappear from the Latin and Arabic writings up to the fifteenth century (Berthelot, l.c. iii. 10). Its date must therefore be placed between 1300 and 1450. Moreover, the author must have been an adept; for on one occasion he remarks (folio 136b) that Cristofano della Bolonya "had operated in our house." One might feel inclined to ascribe this compilation to Alemanno, were it not for the fact that he would not in that case have copied the same text separately into his collectanea; besides which there is the fact that a profound difference exists between these alchemistic treatises and Picodella Mirandola's "Opus Aureum" (Manget, l.c. ii. 558-585; "Theatrum Chemicum" (1602), ii. 357; (1659), pp. 312 et seq.). Pico knows and quotes only classical writers, and, with the exception of Albertus Magnus and Vincentius, not one single name of the whole host of Greek and Arabic alchemists is given. It would at least be surprising, considering that he was the pupil of Alemanno, that the latter should not have communicated to him or drawn his attention to these alchemists.
The closing pages of the manuscript are devoted to the description of alchemic alembics, retorts, furnaces, and other instruments. The drawings very closely resemble those made by Albertus Magnus, Lully, and Isaac Hollandus, which again confirms the date suggested for the compilation. An alphabetical index of names and subjects concludes this manuscript, which contains 181 small folios, written in an Eastern Sephardic hand, and dated in the year (5)450 .
More modern writers from the time of Theophrastus combine Alchemy with cabalistic notions, derived, no doubt, from the Cabala literature, but not a single Jewish author is mentioned. The sixteenth century is the period of this cabalistic Alchemy, notably in the "Monas Hieroglyphica" of the London doctor, John Dee, "Theatrum Chemicum" (1602), ii. 203 et seq.; (1659), pp. 178 et seq.; and still more pronounced in the "Ars et Theoria Transmutationis Metallicæ" of Johannes Augustinus Pantheus (ibid. pp. 459, 528 et seq.). Jews themselves apparently took no more interest in the science of Alchemy, deprived, as they were, from that period on, of any further intercourse with the world of science.