How to correct Plato, alchemically?

By Bojidar Dimitrov, AlchemEast Project

Jabir Ibn Hayyan is a figure of key importance for the development of alchemy and chemistry. A vast body of literature virtually covering the entire spectrum of ancient science has been attributed to the Islamic polymath, and yet much of the little we know about him remains shrouded in mystery. The very historicity of Jabir’s person and the authenticity of his works have been the subject of rigorous scholarly debate. This is largely due to the fact that the majority of the texts which belong to the Jabirian corpus have not been edited and published.

The scant biographical data provided by mediaeval Islamic sources and Jabir’s own works suggests that his lifetime spanned the period between ca. 721/725 and 812/815 AD. The so-called Jabir Problem mainly revolves around different aspects of this alleged historical context. The ambiguous relationship between the Arabic Jabirian corpus and the nascent alchemical tradition of the Latin West is the other major side of the conundrum. 

Paul Kraus’ ground-breaking studies on Jabir[1] proposed that the Jabirian corpus was probably compiled over a longer period of time by a school of alchemists who circulated their works under Jabir’s name. Similar doubts were already expressed by mediaeval Islamic scholars, and Kraus’ detailed analysis of the language and the content of seminal texts argues that the scientific terminology, doctrines and references to Greek authorities found in them point to a later stage of Islamic intellectual history, which began in the ninth century. Kraus’ conclusions have been debated by scholars since their publication in the 1940s, but the scope and depth of his research remain unmatched to this day.

One of the current objectives of the AlchemEast Project is to make available a collection of alchemical recipes belonging to a sub-genre of Jabir’s corpus. Plato’s Rectifications is the only surviving collection of a cycle of pseudepigraphical ‘rectifications’ associated with ancient authorities. The work is presented as a commentary on alchemical doctrines ascribed to Plato that the Greek sage is said to reveal to his disciple, Timaeus. The ninety recipes involve alchemical procedures with mercury which are intended to illustrate the application of Plato’s theories.

Socrates discussing philosophy with his disciples (from a thirteenth-century Arabic manuscript).

Jabir’s attribution of alchemical material to Plato is pertinent to the reception of Platonic influences in Islamic alchemy and the wider context of Islamic thought. While Jabir’s system incorporates key Neoplatonic traits of Greek philosophical alchemy, its experimental and arithmological developments are highly original and do not seem to derive from extant Greek texts. Furthermore, no alchemical texts are attributed to Plato (or Socrates) in the Greek tradition.[2] There are, however, Syriac recipes attributed to Plato, and he is generally accorded a prominent place in Arabic occult literature. Such facts may indicate that Jabir could have been influenced by late antique Neoplatonic traditions of a distinctly Near Eastern flavour.

An excerpt from Rectification Nr. 14 presents a recipe which involves the heating and cooling of mercury:

Then he said: take ten measures of spirit (i.e. mercury), put it in the middle gourd (i.e. glass vessel), and tighten upon it the alembic which has no aperture (i.e. valve). Heat it over gentle fire for ten days, then cool it off on the eleventh. Repeat the operation and gather the first water. The gourd containing mercury will be heated, or joined to the other gourd until it (i.e. mercury) dissolves in one of the two gourds. Take the thickened [residue], put it in the second gourd, and heat it until it melts, becomes liquid and turns red. Then heat the water until it boils and [the condensate] starts dripping all over the residue, [so that] it swells, absorbs some of the water and is incerated by it, and yields. It will become like wax, just as we described initially, and [even] better. If the procedure starts by heating the water until [the condensate] drips over the residue, it will be dissolved, and both will be dissolved, coagulated and incerated together, [and thus the procedure] is also complete. Peace.

Image 2: Depiction of alchemical apparatus with an alembic (MS, BNF Arabe 6915)

Depiction of alchemical apparatus with an alembic (MS BNF Arabe 6915).

The text exemplifies the fluidity of content that alchemical recipes often exhibit. The procedures it describes are relatively simple, but the textual variants in the manuscripts allow different possibilities. The translation above is not conclusive, since the relationship of the alembic and the two vessels is somewhat ambiguous. According to certain readings, for instance, the second vessel and the alembic must be alternated during the process of dissolution. The examination of further textual variants and manuscripts can expand our understanding of Jabir’s technical methodology. Ultimately, the intertextuality of Platonic pseudepigrapha found in Jabir and other traditions calls for an overarching discussion of Plato’s role in alchemical discourse. Whether this role was itself rectified by practitioners over the centuries, or the fluctuations we encounter in manuscripts are of a purely textual nature, are the main questions AlchemEast aims to address.


[1] Paul Kraus, Jābir ibn Ḥayyān. Contribution à l’histoire des idées scientifiques dans l’Islam, Vol. II. Jābir et la science grecque (Cairo: Mémoires de l’Institut d’Égypte 45.1, 1942).

[2] Ibid., p. 58.

Alchemical Recipes in the AlchemEast Project

By Matteo Martelli

What makes a recipe alchemical? Its inclusion in an alchemical treatise, one might suggest. Indeed, naïve as it may sound, such a simple answer opens an interesting perspective from which to look at the ancient alchemical tradition.

The earliest alchemical writings produced in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1st-2nd c. AD) include recipes that describe a variety of techniques for dyeing and manipulating the natural world – a spectrum of practices that goes far beyond simple attempts to produce gold out of ‘vile’ metals. Some of these techniques, ancient authors claim, were inherited from the Egyptian or Babylonian tradition; others reached Byzantium or Baghdad, often through translations of Greek texts into Syriac and Arabic.

This long-lasting tradition is as fluid as the boundaries of ancient alchemy. By mapping the specific practices and recipes detailed in each alchemical work, it will be possible to investigate changing ideas of alchemy over time as well as how these ideas responded to specific technological settings. On top of that, it will also be possible to follow the trajectories of single recipes which moved across works written in different languages or pertaining to different disciplines, such as medicine or natural philosophy.

Cinnabar (from the Monte Amiata mine, Tuscany) and metallic mercury

But let’s take an example from a set of texts that are being investigated in the framework of the ERC project AlchemEast, acronym for “Alchemy in the Making From ancient Babylonia via Graeco-Roman Egypt into the Byzantine, Syriac and Arabic traditions (1500 BCE – 1000 AD)”. Ancient natural philosophers and physicians recorded specific techniques for extracting mercury from cinnabar, its natural ore.

In his book On stones, Theophrastus, successor of Aristotle as head of the Lyceum, explained that it is possible to produce mercury by grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a copper mortar with a copper pestle.[1] The same procedure is described by Pliny the Elder, in book 32 of his Natural History, where the medical uses of minerals – mercury included! – are illustrated (NH 32.123).

Modern chemists noticed that these accounts actually described a mechano-chemical reaction between copper and cinnabar, a mercury sulfide: copper would react with sulfur, thus liberating free metallic mercury (chemically speaking, a redox reaction).[2] With the assistance of Lucia Maini and Massimo Gandolfi, two chemists of the AlchemEast team, we did replicate the technique with some adjustments. Rather than using a copper mortar – which proved to be very difficult to find in the shops that supply chemical labs today! – we decided to use a ceramic mortar where to grind pure cinnabar, acetic acid and copper powder.

Pure cinnabar, acetic acid and copper powder in a ceramic mortar

After grinding the mixture for a while, we were actually able to produce a layer of blackish powder (a mixture of metacinnabar and copper sulfide) on which a few drops of ‘dirty’ mercury were moving.

Mercury “floating” on a blackish layer of residues

The same procedure is described in ancient alchemical texts as well. The Graeco-Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (3rd-4th century AD) credits legendary figures, such as Maria the Jewess or Chymes, the eponymous hero of alchemy (called chymeia in Antiquity), with the use of similar technique for grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a lead or tin mortar.[3] Different metals were therefore used. In the lab, we actually tried to use tin rather than copper powder, thus obtaining a shiny mercury-tin amalgam.

Mercury-tin amalgam

We may preliminarily observe how this extraction technique was a kind of transdisciplinary know-how, shared by experts in different fields. A certain degree of variation is detectable in alchemical texts, which mention various metals. Moreover, ancient alchemists believed that mercury could be extracted from any metallic (or even mineral) body:  did this idea in some way depend on the empirical evidence they tried to conceptualize when treating cinnabar with a variety of metals?

This kind of questions are at the basis of the AlchemEast project, which explores ancient recipes from a double angle: as textual units that travelled over time and space; as invaluable windows on a wide spectrum of real practices and techniques. Textual criticism, replications, and historical investigations are critical keys to unlock ancient alchemical sources, from Babylonian tablets to Greek, Syriac and Arabic manuscripts.  This post is only a first, tentative attempt to illustrate how we applied this method, a preliminary result of our investigation, which, needless to say, is still “in the making.” We plan to continue keeping you posted in the following months.


[1] David E. Eichholz, Theophrastus, De Lapidibus, edited with Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 81.
[2] Lazlo Takacs, “Quicksilver from Cinnabar. The First Documented Mechanochemical Reaction?” JOM. Journal of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, 52 (2000): 12-13.
[3] Marcelin Berthelot and Charles-Émile Ruelle, Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (Paris: G. Steinheil, 1887-1888), vol. 2, 172. Part of Zosimus’ writings is only preserved in Syriac translation, where one finds further interesting details: cinnabar must be ground in the sun; copper filings are added to cinnabar and vinegar before grinding. The Syriac books of Zosimus will be published within the AlchemEast project.