The origins of Western alchemy can be traced back to Hellenistic Egypt, in particular to the city of Alexandria. One of the most important characters in the mythology of alchemy is Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes the Thrice-Great). The name of this figure is derived from the Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth and his Greek counterpart, Hermes. The Hermetica, which is said to be written by Hermes Trismegistus, is generally regarded as the basis of Western alchemical philosophy and practice. In addition, Hermes Trismegistus is also believed to be the author of the Emerald Tablet.
The Emerald Tablet is said to be a tablet of emerald or green stone inscribed with the secrets of the universe. The source of the original Emerald Tablet is unclear, hence it is surrounded by legends. The most common legend claims that the tablet was found in a caved tomb under the statue of Hermes in Tyana, clutched in the hands of the corpse of Hermes Trismegistus himself. Another legend suggests that it was the third son of Adam and Eve, Seth, who originally wrote it. Others believed that the tablet was once held within the Ark of the Covenant. Some even claim that the original source of the Emerald Tablet is none other than the fabled city of Atlantis.
Whilst various claims have been made regarding the origins of the Emerald Tablet, as yet, no verifiable evidence has been found to support them. The oldest documentable source of the Emerald Tablet’s text id the Kitab sirr al-haliqi (Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature), which was itself a composite of earlier works. This was an Arabic work written in the 8th century A.D., and attributed to a ‘Balinas’ or Pseudo-Apollonius of Tyana. It is Balinas who provides us with the story of how he discovered the Emerald Tablet in the caved tomb. Based on this Arabic work, some believe that the Emerald Tablet was an Arabic work written between the 6th and 8th centuries A.D., rather than a piece of work from Antiquity, as many have claimed.
Whilst Balinas claimed that the Emerald Tablet was written originally in Greek, the original document that he purportedly possessed no longer exists, if indeed it existed at all. Nevertheless, the text itself quickly became well known, and has been translated by various people over the centuries. For instance, an early version of the Emerald Tablet also appeared in a work called the Kitab Ustuqus al-Uss al-Thani (Second Book of the Elements of the Foundation), which is attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan. It would, however, take several more centuries before the text was accessible to Europeans. In the 12th century A.D., the Emerald Tablet was translated into Latin by Hugo von Santalla.
The Emerald Tablet would become one of the pillars of Western alchemy. It was a highly influential text in Medieval and Renaissance alchemy, and probably still is today. In addition to translations of the Emerald Tablet, numerous commentaries have also been written regarding its contents. For instance, a translation by Isaac Newton was discovered among his alchemical papers. This translation is currently being held in King’s College Library in Cambridge University. Other notable researchers of the Emerald Tablet include Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, John Dee and Aleister Crowley.
The interpretation of the Emerald Text is not a straightforward matter, as it is after all a piece of esoteric text. One interpretation, for instance, suggests that the text describes seven stages of alchemical transformation – calcination, dissolution, separation, conjunction, fermentation, distillation and coagulation. Yet, despite the various interpretations available, it seems that none of their authors claim to possess knowledge of the whole truth. Furthermore, readers are encouraged to read the text and try to interpret and find the hidden truths themselves.
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