In medieval alchemy, the Emerald Tablet of Hermes took pride of place, allegedly an ancient distillation of wisdom discovered by Alexander the Great. Albertus Magnus, in a book on the secrets of chemistry written around 1200, gives 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). This story, in turn, is a corruption or adaptation of an earlier Islamic myth, in two variants. One held that Sarah, the wife of Abraham, found the emerald tablet (written in Phoenician) held in the hands of a statue of Hermes at his tomb in Hebron, and the other than the honor fell to Balinas, who accomplished the same feat in Tyana, taking the Syriac-language tablet from the hands of Hermes’ corpse: “After my entrance into the chamber, where the talisman was set up, I came up to an old man sitting on a golden throne, who was holding an emerald table in one hand” (anonymous 1985 trans.). Another Arabic treatise, translated into Latin in the twelfth century, replaces Balinas with Galienus (an obvious misreading): “When I entered into the cave, I received from between the hands of Hermes the inscribed Table of Zaradi, on which I found these words” (trans. Steele and Singer).
Zaradi, or Albertus’ corrupt zatadi, is a transliteration of a Persian word for an underground chamber, suggesting that the story originates with the Persian astrologer Abu Ma‘shar, who wrote of Hermes and his wisdom in his Thousands.
The importance of the Emerald Tablet to alchemy led to a number of imitations. In the tenth century, the otherwise unknown Muhammad Ibn Umayl wrote a lengthy treatise on alchemy called the Book of the Silvery Water and the Starry Earth in which he produced a complex system of alchemy based on what he framed as ten symbols found a marble tablet held in the hands of Hermes. The text was a commentary in prose on a poem the author had written about alchemy.
Ibn Umayl’s book was badly translated into medieval Latin around 1200 CE, where it became one of the oldest and most influential works of Arabian alchemy in use in the Latin West, passing under the name of Senior Zadith ben Hamuel, a corruption of its authors’ titles Sheik (Senior), “the elder” and Sadiq (Zadith) “the righteous,” and his patronymic Ibn Umayl (ben Hamuel). The frame story, delivered in the introduction, is remarkably similar to the story of Balinas at Hermes’ tomb, but set in Egypt. The detail that Ibn Umayl reports is of such quality that scholars were able to identify the location as a small temple devoted to the deified polymath Imhotep at the site of Sidar Busir, near Memphis. In the Middle Ages, statues of the wisdom demigod Imhotep were often mistaken for the wise Hermes Trismegistus because of their characteristic posture of a sitting man holding an open book. (Imhotep himself, as the Hellenized Immuthes, became identified with Asclepius, another key Hermetic figure.)
Ibn Umayl’s text, though later than the proposed date for the composition of the Emerald Tablet myth, is nonetheless important because it suggests an origin point for the story of the Emerald Tablet, often assumed to originate from disparate materials in Late Antique Egypt, in a similar visit to a temple of Imhotep before passing through a Persian scholar’s recension.
The text below is my translation of the Latin text, with parentheticals noting important corruptions from the original Arabic. A translation of the original Arabic appeared in Three Arabic Treatises on Alchemy, published by Muhammad Turab ‘Ali in the Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (12, no. 1) in 1933.
Senior Zadith, the son of Hamuel, said: Abū al-Qāsim and I entered a birba into a kind of subterranean house, and afterward al-Hasan and I saw all of the burned-out prisons of Joseph [sic for Arabic: “the prison of Joseph, known as Sidar Busir”]. I saw on the ceiling nine painted images of eagles, having their wings extended, as if they were flying, with their feet truly extended and open. In the feet of each eagle was a large bow, like those that archers are accustomed to carry. And on the walls of the house, to the right and the left as one enters, were images of standing men as perfect and beautiful as it is possible to be, dressed in clothes of different kinds and colors, having hands extended toward the interior of the innermost chamber, toward a certain statue seated in the house, on side of the door of the innermost chamber, to the left of the one who enters, facing him. It was seated on a chair similar to the chairs of the physicians, which could be separated from the statue. In its lap and held atop its forearms and its hands, which were extended over its lap, was a tablet of marble which could be separated from the statue. It had the length of one of the forearms [sic for Arabic “one cubit”] and the width of one of the palms [sic for Arabic “one span”], and the fingers of its hands were curled over the tablet from underneath, as if it were holding the tablet. And this tablet was like an open book to those entering, as though signaling the visitor to take a look at it. And in the part of the innermost chamber where it sat, there were infinite images of diverse things and letters in the barbarous tongue [Arabic: “in the letters of the birba,” i.e., hieroglyphics]. And the tablet which it had on its lap was divided in twain. There was a line which ran through the middle. On the lower part, tilted against the statue’s chest, there was the image of two birds, one having cut wings and the other two wings, and each having its tail in the beak of the other, as if the flying one wished to fly with the other, or the other wished to retain the flying one with him. These two birds, of the same type, were depicted together in a circle, as though to make the image of the Two-in-One, and next to the head of the flying bird of the two there was a circle. And above these two birds, near to the head of the tablet, nearest the fingers of the statue, there was the image of the crescent moon. And on the other part of the tablet there was another circle, looking at [sic for Arabic “similar to”] the birds below. There were always [sic for Arabic “in total”] five images, that is to say, the two birds and [the circle] below, and the moon and the other circle.
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