Last Friday, Brent Swancer of Mysterious Universe posted an article discussing the famed Emerald Tablet, a medieval Arabic Hermetic text, perhaps of Late Antique origin, that gained fame in the West as a distillation of the secrets of Hermeticism and alchemy. But it was also pretty clear that he hadn’t done much research beyond Wikipedia for the Emerald Tablet, since his article betrayed little understanding of the text or its transmission across the centuries. He even refers to the extant text as a “section,” as though there were much more. It also doesn’t help that in places he conflates the medieval Emerald Tablet with the twentieth century “Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean,” a set of modern fakes cribbed from H. P. Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long, and other weird fiction writers by Maurice Doreal. He also writes that the object is “referred to variously as the Smaragdine Table, Tabula Smaragdina, or more commonly simply the Emerald Tablet,” apparently without knowing that smaragdus is the Latin word for “emerald” (Greek: σμάραγδος) and the three titles of the tablet are simply the Latin original, an anglicization of the Latin, and an English translation of the Latin.
Whatever the case may be, legends flock to and surround the tablet and where it went off to. One common tale is that it was buried under the Pyramids in Egypt, while others claim it was sequestered away within the Ark of the Covenant or that is was returned to the buried ruins of Atlantis. With so many legends and myths spiraling about the Emerald Tablet, it is hard to say who wrote it or when, or where it is now.
It should go without saying that most of these “legends” are modern fakes. The Atlantis claim, for example, is Doreal’s work, and the Ark of the Covenant claim is likely modern, too (the oldest reference I found was from 1999), conflating the Emerald Tablet with the stones of the Tablets of the Law placed in the Ark, by way of the Talmud’s claim that they were of sapphire. The Great Pyramid claim is a weird one, because it isn’t a standard element of the story. It’s popular in modern occult circles because Carl Jung and several other modern writers have referred to it. It was popularized in the mid-1800s when the occult writer Eliphas Levy made mention of it in his History of Magic, but he copied it from scientist Louis Figuier—whom you will remember as (a) the guy that first identified the destruction of Atlantis with the eruption of the Thera volcano and (b) the guy who co-created the myth that a college of antediluvian priests built the Sphinx at the end of the last Ice Age. In his Alchemy and the Alchemists (1854), Figuier writes:
Tradition reports that this piece was found by Alexander the Great in the tomb of Hermes, hidden by the care of Egyptian priests, in the depths of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The piece was called the Emerald Tablet, because it was said that it had been engraved by Hermes’ hand on an immense emerald slab with the point of a diamond. (my trans.)
What’s odd about it is that this isn’t really the tradition. As Albertus Magnus, writing around 1200, makes no mention of the pyramid in relating the story—“Alexander the Great discovered the sepulchre of Hermes, in one of his journeys, full of all treasures, not metallic, but golden, written on a table of zatadi, which others call emerald” (trans. Thomas Thomson). Most versions that substitute Alexander for the original Apollonius of Tyana place the tale in Hebron, which was the traditional location of Adam’s tomb. I’ve been unable to trace Figuier’s source back farther, and it seems that he conflated Albertus Magnus’ account with what he (correctly) knew to be an Arab-Egyptian tradition that the Great Pyramid was Hermes’ tomb. If that is the case, then Figuier’s error spawned a strange sidelight in occult studies, given how many later writers copied the version promulgated from this original by Levi. Ancient Aliens star William Henry, for example, copied nearly verbatim without credit from the 1999 translation of Levi in his Mary Magdalene: The Illuminator (2006).
But back to Swancer:
It is also known that the alleged writings upon it were highly influential in alchemy at the time, and this makes it all the more curious that no evidence of the actual physical existence of the lost tablet has ever been uncovered. We only know of it from written accounts and various translations, and some of these were from highly influential people, including Roger Bacon, Michael Maier, Aleister Crowley, Albertus Magnus, Eric John Holmyard, Julius Ruska, and Carl Jung, who claimed to have been visited by the tablet in his dreams.
This is technically true but quite deceptive. All but one of the modern European writers above are working from one of two Latin translations, from the earliest two known Arabic copies. Except for Ruska, writers translate from the Latin version included in the two Latin translations of the Secretum Secretorum of Pseudo-Aristotle, but this is a later text than the Latin translation made by Hugh of Santalla, from the Secrets of Nature of pseudo-Balinus. The underlying Arabic texts, which differ from one another in small but interesting ways, come from two sources. The Secretum Secretorum version derives from Jabir ibn Hayyan, an early alchemist known in the west as Geber, but Hugh’s version comes from the text of pseudo-Balinus, which is probably an Arabic translation of a Syriac translation of a Late Antique Greek original. I translated this material in my Library.
So, we know where the text came from, with reasonable accuracy. It’s also fairly clear that the text as given is not from an actual artifact from the tomb of Hermes, first because Hermes never existed. But also because the frame story is similar to many other tales of ancient wisdom on some inaccessible artifact, from Cainan’s tablets of the Watchers in the Book of Jubilees to the Pillars of the Giants in the Kyranides to the antediluvian scrolls of the Akhbar al-zaman. It was a literary conceit both widespread and incredible.
“It is all very intriguing,” Swancer writes, “but in the end there is no certainty that any of those who have translated the tablet ever even saw the actual tablet themselves. It seems more likely that they worked with alleged transcripts of the original tablet, and that there is a very good chance that much of the information was changed or corrupted over time and through subsequent translations throughout history.” The two Arabic versions still exist. The real question isn’t whether the text is corrupt but rather whether the text is an Arabic original or whether it is a translation of a Greek text. Pseudo-Balinus is no help here, for it isn’t clear whether the Emerald Tablet appended awkwardly to his fifth-century work was original to it or if the Syriac or Arabic translator added it. There are scholars who support both views.
Swancer concludes his article by asking whether the tablet existed, who wrote it, and where it might be today. These are the wrong question, asked by someone who has never read the source material that he claims to explicate. It would be nice if some of the writers looking to make hay out of “mysteries” did a little more research to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and passing them on to the future.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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