"Samizdat: Publishing the Forbidden."

Category: Avicenna

Arabic Antecedents of Alchemy

Another “oriental” influence is that found in the Western alchemical traditions, deeply influenced by Islamic spiritual practices and philosophies. The entire history of alchemy passes through Islamic alchemical traditions, inherited from the Greeks, but is infused with Islamic spiritual ideas regarding the alchemical processes. Jabir ibn Hayyan (fl. c. 760 CE), later known as Gerber (in Latin), a Persian Sufi living in southern Arabia, was believed to be the author of many alchemical texts, showing a clear attribution to “oriental wisdom” in the transmission of alchemy to the Medieval west. The mystical style of the Jabir corpus reflects many Sufi ideas and may have been authored by the Iranian brethren of Purity (c. 1100). However, one text, the Kitab Sirr al-Khaliqa wa San`at al-Tabi`a (Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature), attributed to Jabir, c. 800, who in fact attributes this text to Apollonius of Tyana, is the basis for the single most popular text in Western Hermeticism, translated into Latin (1140) as the Tabula Smaragdina (Emerald Tablet) (43).

This text, transiting from Greek to Syriac, to Arabic, to Latin and finally to modern European languages, is a symbolic testimony to the interweaving of classical, “oriental” and later European alchemical and hermetic thought. The very term alchemy (al-kimia) is, of course, Arabic transmitted from the Greek (chemeia) and carries with it a fusion of Greek and Arabic ideas, as expressed in the famous, influential alchemical text, the Turba Philosophorum (“Conference of Philosophers,” c. 900 CE, translated into Latin by the 13th century) which combines pre-Socratic philosophy with Islamic-Sufi ideas (44). Maslama ibn Ahmad’s The Aim of the Wise was translated into Spanish and Latin, where it became known as Picatrix (1256). Many other Arabic influences (Razi, Avicenna, and so on) can be traced in the history of western alchemy, stemming particularly from the 7th through the 11th centuries (45).

–Lee Irwin, “Western Esotericism, Eastern Spirituality, and the Global Future.”

The Absolute Book

“Superimposed on the notion of a God who speaks with men in order to command them to do something or to forbid them to do something was that of the Absolute Book, of a Sacred Scripture.

For Muslims, the Koran, (also called “The Book,” al-Kitab) is not merely a work of God, like men’s souls or the universe; it is one of the attributes of God, like His eternity or His rage.

In chapter XIII we read that the original text, the Mother of the Book, is deposited in Heaven.

Muhammed al-Gazali, the Algazel of the scholastics, declared: “The Koran is copied in a book, is pronounced with the tongue, is remembered in the heart and, even so, continues to persist in the center of God and is not altered by its passage through written pages and human understanding.”

George Sale observes that this uncreated Koran is nothing but its idea or Platonic archetype; it is likely that al-Gazali used the idea of archetypes, communicated to Islam by the Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity and by Avicenna, to justify the notion of the Mother of the Book.”

–Jorge Luis Borges, “On the Cult of Books.”

Spurious Attributions in Renaissance Alchemical Literature.

“The Processus sub forma missae and its author were not unknown to the alchemists of the early modern era. The text was printed in the famous anthology of alchemical literature, the Theatrum Chemicum (Chemical Theater), by Lazarus Zetzner in 1602.

This point needs to be emphasized because the confusion in the literature concerning both the person and the work of Melchior is so great that it is hard to differentiate between evidence and legends even with regard to such simple things as the bibliographical data of his published text.

Melchior’s portrait appears on the title page of the Symbola Aureae Mensae Duodecim Nationum (The Symbols of the Golden Table of the Twelve Nations) by Michael Maier (1568–1622), the alchemist of Emperor Rudolf II. In this international history of the royal art, Melchior is chosen to represent Hungary among the twelve most famous alchemists of the world, and thus he appears in the noble company of Hermes Trismegistos, Maria the Jewess, Avicenna, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, and Raimundus Lullus.

He is mentioned and quoted by such authors and editors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as Daniel Stolz von Stolzenberg, Petrus Borelius, Libavius, and Athanasius Kircher. Even Isaac Newton was acquainted with Melchior’s name; relying on Maier’s description, he incorporated a number of Latin notes on a wide range of alchemical authors and myths in one of his many alchemical manuscripts, among these a few references to the alchemist of Transylvania.”

–Benedek Lang, Unlocked Books: Manuscripts of Learned Magic in the Medieval Libraries of Central Europe, 2008. Pg. 145.

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