Zosimos, Zoroaster, Philo the Jew and Thrice Greatest Hermes
Lecture VI 13th December, 1940
The treatise of Zosimos, which we began in the last lecture, is among the most difficult texts which are to be found in this kind of alchemistic literature.
It would be asking a great deal of you, were I to expect you to follow the elucidation of such a text; particularly as it is not my intention really to explain it.
I only intend to give you a certain impression of the curious way in which such texts are composed, of the peculiar thoughts which they contain and of the allusions which we meet in them.
I shall only comment upon it sufficiently for you to be able to see, that it is not utter nonsense or completely indigestible; I do not ask you to understand such a text thoroughly.
The “element Omega” can be imagined much as Zosimos describes it: as something round.
Its locality, size, consistency and so on, are all left in the dark.
We only know that Zosimos relates it to Saturn, and that Saturn is lead.
So we can assume that it has something to do with lead, and has a curious relation to the nature of Saturn, that troubled and dark maleficus, the evil-doer, as we hear in astrology.
This element is also brought into connection with the ocean, the sea, the mother and origin of all living beings .
So this element is also the universal mother, the place of origin.
Such an idea is very strange to us, we could go a long way before we could find anything similar.
For such reasons these texts were considered hopelessly abstruse during many centuries, and were not thought to be worthy of serious study.
This began to change, however, with the school of REITZENSTEIN, who explored such texts and papyri very seriously.
But we are still only at the very beginning of understanding them, for they are so mixed up with concrete chemical prescriptions and ideas , that they are most deceptive.
It was a misfortune that it was not realized earlier, that these “origins of chemistry” were no real chemistry but were full of psychological projection.
They were really psychology, a science which was then unknown. The text continues: “These are the determinants of the language of corporeal beings.”
This refers to the before mentioned designations.
The outward appearance of this element can be described as the ocean or as lead.
“Under the name of the great and indescribable element Omega is to be understood: the description of the apparatus of the divine water, of the simple as well as the highly ingenious and of all ovens in general.”
We are here introduced to the fact, that this element is the secret of chemistry.
We must assume, therefore, that the old alchemists worked with such an element, or at least were under the impression that they were doing so.
The text continues:’ Zosimos benevolently explains this to Theosebeia. ”
This is probably an interpolation of some copyist. Many of the texts of Zosimos are addressed to this Theosebeia, and he begins them simply: “0 woman. ”
She was his soror mystica, his spiritual friend.
The name Theosebeia, which means the worshipper of God, was most probably a name which she received at her baptism into the mysteries.
We must not forget that Zosimos was not a Christian but a Gnostic pagan, and how much he was influenced by Christianity is a very controversial question.
“The suitable (kairikai) tinctures, 0 woman, have made my book on the ovens ridiculous.”
He says here that his book on the ovens (this treatise) has been made ridiculous in some way, presumably by another book, which he wrote himself, about the suitable tinctures; but we do not know exactly.
“In fact many authors, blinded by their own daemons, have amused themselves about the right tinctures, and have not regarded the book on ovens and apparatus as being in accordance with the true facts.”
We should notice here, that he does not say that these authors have ridiculed or criticized his book from their own conscious critique, but on account of their daemons.
That is, everyone has a daemon in himself, that whispers criticisms and opinions to him; in this case, Zosimos thinks, in a misleading way.
We shall often meet with this idea, it belongs to popular superstition, but we have a very reputable example from antiquity in the daemon of Socrates.
Such a daemon was by no means necessarily evil, it was rather something between a divine being and a spirit.
It would not be wrong to translate the passage as “their own mind ” , though that would be to modernize it, and to invite misunderstandings.
Man in antiquity differentiated between man’s “daemon” and his “own mind”.
Psychologically this is correct, it is quite a different thing, if I reflect ab out a book and give my own criticism, than if I have a hunch about it.
I prepared the criticism, but the hunch “drops into me”, into my head from above, as it were.
We are apt to identify with our hunches, and instead of saying “an idea came to me”, we say “I thought”, when we have done nothing of the kind but something has happened to us.
To be psychologically correct, we should differentiate between these two things most carefully.
We see here, that the old authors were very careful to do so, Zosimos did not attribute their criticism to the authors but to their daemons.
Some of these daemons were deceitful or malevolent, so they made the authors say stupid things .
“No words can convince them about the truth, if they are not inspired by their own daemon.”
So it is of no use to formulate the truth convincingly, it must be told to people by their own daemons.
This also is a great psychological truth, one cannot tell people the most important things, it simply does not penetrate; unless at the same time, by the grace of God, the truth drops in as a sort of hunch,
and then it is usually accompanied by the conviction: “I thought that myself ! ”
“Through an unfavorable fate they distorted in their speech that which they had received, to the detriment of the art and of their own success, so that two different contrary meanings were given by the same words .
They only granted a point with reluctance, when forced thereto by the demonstrations”,
That is through proofs during the experiments.
“even concerning things which they had understood before. Such authors should not be recognized by God or the philosophers. When the time of the operations had been fixed to the last detail, and when
the daemon had favored them physically ” ,
The operations are the chemical experiments and, in order to succeed, the experimenter must be favorably disposed by his own daemon; that is: the psychological conditions, which produce useful
and helpful hunches, must be present.
We should say now: he must have the unconscious with him, for if the unconscious is against him, he will be hindered by every kind of obstacle and will get no helpful hunches.
In those days they expressed the same thing by talking of daemons .
“they still hesitate to admit a further point, and forget all the former obvious things. Everywhere they were forced to obey the Heimarmene (compulsion of the stars), in the things already said, and in their opposites, without being able to imagine anything different to the Heimarmene in relation to physical things.”
This is rather complicated.
The Heimarmene belongs to, and plays a great role in, Stoic philosophy.
They understood by this, that from birth man was dependent on his astrological constellations, that he had no freedom but must live his horoscope right to the bitter end.
It is the manuscript, so to speak, which is given to man as he comes down to earth through the sphere of the planets .
He is entirely dependent in this world on the impressions which he received from the stars, he must live according to them till the end of his days , and can only do and think that which is written in his stars .
The horoscope must be fulfilled, it is simply man’s evil, or perhaps good, destiny.
Man cannot go beyond it, unless he is redeemed in a mystical manner by a redeemer or through initiation into certain mysteries, whose goal is to free man from this compulsion.
We know one aspect of this idea in the Church’s doctrine of original sin; man can only be redeemed from original sin through baptism and the other sacraments.
This is an exact parallel to the ancient conception of the Heimarmene.
Zosimos says here that these adversaries of his can only think as the stars command them, they cannot imagine anything beyond this, they have to accept what good or bad fortune hands to them,
and they can only speak and understand corporeal language.
They know nothing of incorporeal language or of symbols.
They work with lead, for instance, and for them it is just lead, whereas, to the real artist or philosopher, it is the symbol for something quite different, something which cannot be expressed and
which transcends our understanding.
Man has always expressed incomprehensible things by symbols.
The word symbol, in its right sense, is never used for something which we know.
When a railway official wears a wing on his coat it stands for the sign of the railway, were it a symbol, it would stand for some mystery, some secret society, for instance, to which the
man belonged. Zosimos continues:
“Hermes, in his paper on the natures, called people of this kind senseless”
The Greek word is anoi, that is without Nous or ratio, without understanding.
We could translate it as unconscious; these people are unconscious, they have no understanding, they do not know what they say or do. Zosimos tells us here that Hermes called people of this nature senseless.
The anima rationalis has signified human consciousness since olden days; so to be senseless, unreasonable, was even then to be without the consciousness of reasonable people, and therefore to be
entirely delivered over to the rule of the stars.
Zosimos continues that these people, whom Hermes called “senseless”, were “incapable of understanding immaterial things and could only follow the Heimarmene, and were not even in the position to understand fate as it led them justly.”
They had no idea, i n fact, what they were doing or what they were living, because they could only think and see the concrete things which lay directly under their noses; they were quite incapable
of interpreting anything.
“They mocked his (Hermes’) teaching about corporeal things and gave themselves to phantasies which went against their own happiness . . . .
But Zoroaster, who rejoices in his knowledge of magic and all higher things, declares that he turns away from the language of corporeal beings, and that everything which comes from the Heimarmene is bad,
in detail as also in the whole.”
The old Persian founder of a religion, Zoroaster (Zarathustra), is mentioned here.
His date is uncertain but he lived many centuries before Zosimos, at least a thousand years, and was already then a legendary figure .
He was known to the ancients as a sort of arch-magician, astrologer and alchemist, who was credited with the knowledge of all secrets.
Texts attributed to him still existed in those days, and he is quoted as an authority here.
Zoroaster says that he has turned away from the language of men who were under the Heimarmene; as it was only concerned with concrete things which were wholly bad.
Such corporeal language would lead to no divine freedom, in which a symbol could be evolved.
“Hermes, however, speaking of external things, condemns magic, and says that the spiritual man, he who knows himself, does not attain things through magic, and does not think it decent to force necessity
(fate), but allows things to happen as they would by nature and authority. He has only one goal, to strive to know himself and God, and to rule the inexpressible Trias (Triad) . ”
This means that Hermes entirely renounces magic, he says it i s not the right thing for spiritual men.
He defines the spiritual man par excellence, as he who knows what he is doing in that he knows himself.
He is conscious of himself, and he is endowed with divine intelligence, he is not cursed with only being able to think concretely, but can think beyond himself.
He does not think it decent to offer violence to fate, that is, he refuses to use magic to overthrow fate.
This latter device was naturally attempted a great deal at that time, magic was used to avert unfavorable destiny.
But Hermes rejects this procedure, and says things should be allowed to happen as they would by nature and rule; that is, one should let fate flow over one, without losing one’s reason.
But beyond that, the spiritual man must rule the “inexpressible triad ” .
The word triad is usually taken as an allusion to God, to the Holy Trinity.
The classical expression of the Greek Orthodox Church, “Hagia Trias”, is not used here, Zosimos simply says Trias (triad) and thus leaves it uncertain whether he alludes to the former.
But it is the task of the spiritual man to govern this triad.
No Christian could say that he must govern the Holy Trinity; for that is God himself, but Zosimos says the spiritual man must learn to know God and himself, and to govern the triad, so this triad cannot
possibly be the Holy Trinity, it must be something else .
This passage has been quoted to prove that Zosimos was perhaps a disguised Christian, because he speaks of a trinity and there was no other trinity known.
But alchemy did know another trinity, the trinity of the underworld, Hecate Tricephalos, and also the three-headed hound of Hell.
It would make sense to govern the demonic, three headed Hecate, or the three-headed hound, so it is much more probable that Zosimos alluded to this, and that he means the spiritual man should learn to rule
the world of dark bodies, into which man is born and entangled by the Heimarmene.
Zosimos continues, speaking of the spiritual man :
“He allows fate to do as it pleases, in that he lets it fulfil itself in earthly life, that is, through the body. ”
He allows whatever fate has decreed in the eternal stars to fulfil itself, in that he gives his body to its purposes, for it must be fulfilled in his personal destiny.
He uses no magic to avert his fate in any way.
This means : he puts distance between himself and his own body, his physical existence, in that he has discovered the existence of his spiritual freedom. Zosimos continues :
“He (Hermes) expresses himself in the following way :
‘If thou understandest, and if thou dost conduct thyself as is suitable, thou wilt behold the Son of God, who has become All, for the benefit of devout souls. In order to free thy soul from the bosom
of the corporeal region, ruled by the Heimarmene, and to lead it over into the incorporeal region, behold how He has become All, namely God, angel, and man who is subject to suffering.
He, who can do All, becomes everything as he will; he obeys his father, in that he penetrates all substances and enlightens the spirit of each one ; he has soared up into the happy region, where he was before
he became flesh. Thou wilt follow him, encouraged and led in that light’. ”
This is a passage which one is immediately inclined to connect with Christianity; but when we examine the text more closely, we soon discover that the Christian analogy is again doubtful.
The passage contains ideas which are unknown in Christianity, but which are to be found in a parallel literature, that of the Gnosis .
The latter contained the same concept of the redeemer, and the Son of God, as described here, is more Gnostic than Christian.
Such conceptions in Gnosticism are often attributed to Christian influence, but the reverse is more often true, for Christianity originated in the Gnosis.
But it was inconvenient to admit this, so early Fathers of the Church preferred, for political interests, to assume that Christianity fell down ready made from Heaven, and that nothing of the kind
ever existed before.
Yet in the gospels themselves, we come on teaching, which was undoubtedly pre-Christian.
The very foundation of the gospel of St. John is the Logos, which comes from the philosophy of Philo, who was a Gnostic Jew and not a Christian.
He lived at the same time as Christ, but his writings never refer to Christianity.
The idea, that the Son of God should become All for the benefit of the souls to be saved for instance, is not a Christian but a Gnostic idea .
We never hear in Christianity that Christ, so to speak, transformed himself into all the elements, became every kind of creature and thing, in order to redeem the whole cosmos.
But our text says: “He who can do All, becomes everything as he will,” and that “he penetrates all substances and enlightens the spirit of each one.”
On the other hand, that “he has become God, angel, and man who is subject to suffering” is an idea which is certainly Christian, but it is also to be found in Gnosticism.
This passage from a Hermetic writing, quoted by Zosimos, really formulates the teaching which is the basis of the whole alchemistic philosophy of Zosimos .
One sees that it is Gnostic knowledge, and that this Son of God is closely related to the Monogenes which we read of in the Codex Brucianus.
The idea of an all-penetrating spirit, that permeates all substances, is pure Gnosis, and it became the foundation of later alchemy.- We have already met the same idea before in Zosimos,
when he said that the task of the alchemists was to free the divine soul and spirit bound in matter.
That is the spirit which permeates everything. In the quotation from Hermes it is a spirit which penetrates all things with the purpose of redeeming them.
This corresponds to the divine water of alchemy, which is said to penetrate all things and to transform them ; and also to free e the spirit which is bound in them.
Later in the same treatise Zosimos says :
” . . . . Now I come to my subject, which concerns the apparatus. I have read the letters that thou (Theosebeia) protest unto me, and have seen, that thou askest me to give thee a description of the apparatus. I was
astonished to see that thou wouldst receive information from me, ab out things which may not be known. Hast thou not heard of the philosopher who said: ‘I have intentionally kept silence about these things, for they
are fully described in my other writings .’ And yet thou wouldst hear of them from me. But do not believe, that what I write will be more worthy of credence, than that which the ancients said, and know that I
cannot surpass them. But that we may hear all that they said, I will expose what I know unto thee. It is the following: A vessel of glass, a tube of clay an ell long. A retort or vessel with a narrow mouth, the neck of which should correspond to the size of the tube. One should have a b owl of water and moisten the vessel with a sponge. ”
This was the old method of cooling the neck of a retort, so that the distilled substance should settle at the bottom when it cooled.
“For sublimated vapours , as well as for mercury, it is the same vessel. One can fix mercury in the vessel and in similar apparatus, which have a receptacle twisted in the form of a snake.”
This is a kind of apparatus used for distillation.
“The mercury is made yellow by the steam of the sulphur (theion) , as the old texts recommend . . . . ”
The treatise then continues with certain chemical transformations which have nothing to do with reality. If, for instance, you put quicksilver with sulphur it turns black not yellow.
The chemical instructions are absolutely incorrect, one is not surprised that he says they are not worthy of credence; and yet he writes ab out them for pages.
All these alchemistic treatises consist of such prescriptions, and one becomes more and more bewildered and has no idea what to make of them.
When you read the Latin texts, you fall from one hole into the next.
You think you have a glimmer of what the author means, and in the next sentence it is contradicted.
One can only say, that it was apparently an attempt to discover chemistry, but I do not remember ever finding a chemical prescription that really made sense.
Sometimes what the alchemists say about such ingredients as lead or quicksilver seems to be fairly reasonable, but most of the time one can only hold one’s head in despair!
You will have got some idea from all this of how these old texts are composed.
I will read you another text whose antiquity is not beyond doubt, because we only, know of it through Arab sources.
Arab texts still exist which contain versions of this celebrated “TABULA SMARAGDINA” of HERMES TRISMEGISTUS.
Hermes (who is analogous to the Egyptian Thoth, the teacher of knowledge, the god of revelation) is the patron of alchemy.
The old tradition was that these books originally came from him, the Hermes who was mentioned by Zosimos, is this Hermes Trismegistus.
The “Tabula Smaragdina” was said to have been written on a green stone, buried and secretly discovered.
It was regarded, throughout the whole Middle Ages, as the epitome of the alchemical mysteries and was quoted again and again.
The text runs :
1 . Verily, without deception, surely and the most true.
2 . That which is below is like that which is above, and that which is above is like that which is below, in order that the miracle of the one thing may come to pass. (That is in this one thing.)
3. And so, as all things proceeded from one, through the meditation of the one, so all things came from this one thing through adaptation ( Angleichung) .
4. Its father is the sun, its mother the moon; the wind has carried it in its belly; the earth nourishes it.
5. The father of all the completion of the whole world is here. (Pater telesmi totius mundi est hie. Telesm6s = totality and perfection.)
6. Its strength is perfect when it has turned towards the earth.
7 . Separate the earth from the fire, the subtle from the dense, gently, with great mental ingenuity.
8. It rises from the earth to the sky and descends again on to the earth, and receives the power of above and b below into itself. Thus thou wilt have the glory of the whole world. Therefore all darkness will flee from
9. Here is the strong p power of the whole strength: for it overcomes every subtle thing and penetrates every solid thing.
10. Thus the world has been created.
11. Therefore the marvelous- adaptations will come whose manner this is.
12. So I am called HERMES TRISMEGISTUS, for I possess the three parts of the philosophy of the universe .
1 3 . What I have said about thee operation of the sun is finished.) ~Carl Jung, Modern Psychology, Pages 49-56.