Recently, I completed a translation of some lengthy excerpts from the Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature (Kitāb sirr al-ḫalīqa), an Arabic-language treatise on Hermetic philosophy and cosmology attributed to Apollonius of Tyana (Balīnūs). It takes the form of a multi-book disquisition on the secret of creation, which is that all things are made from differing ratios of hot, cold, wet, and dry. (It was, in the end, a disappointing secret, not dissimilar to the harmony of the elements in Macrobius.) Several of the books pose questions about the natural world and explain them in tedious detail about the evaporation and condensation of primaeval fluids. The volume is famous as the oldest extant source for the famed Emerald Tablet, which became better known in the West from a Latin translation of a separate recension of the tablet’s text from a different and later Arabic source. Perhaps more interesting is the frame story attached to it, telling of how Apollonius discovered ancient wisdom in books held by a statue of Hermes Trismegistus in an underground chamber in Tyana, in modern Turkey:
I was an orphan of the people of Tuaya [read: Tuana (Tyana)], totally indigent and destitute of everything. There was in the place where I lived a statue of stone raised on a column of wood; on the column one could read these words: “I am Hermes, to whom knowledge has been given; I have made this wonderful work in public, but afterward I hid the secrets of my art, so that they can only be discovered by a man as learned as I am.” On the breast of the statue one could similarly read these words written in ancient language: “If anyone wishes to know the secret of the creation of beings, and in what way nature has been formed, he should look under my feet.” They came in crowds to see this statue, and everyone looked under its feet without seeing anything. As for me, I was still a weak child; but when I was stronger, and I attained a more advanced age, having read the words that were on the chest of the statue, I understood the meaning, and I undertook to dig the ground under the foot of the column. I discovered a subterranean vault where a thick darkness reigned, and in which the light of the sun could not penetrate. If one wanted to carry in the light of a torch, it was immediately extinguished by the movement of the winds which blew ceaselessly. I found no way to follow the path I had discovered, because of the darkness that filled the underground; and the force of the winds which blew through it did not allow me to enter by the light of the torch. Unable to overcome these obstacles, I slipped into depression, and sleep took hold of my eyes. While I slept an anxious and restless sleep, my mind occupied with the subject of my pain, an old man whose face resembled mine appeared before me and said to me: “Arise, Balīnūs, and enter into this underground path; it will lead you to knowledge of the secrets of creation, and you will come to know how nature was formed.” “The darkness,” I replied, “prevents me from discerning anything in this place, and no light can withstand the wind blowing there.” Then this old man said to me: “Balīnūs, place your light under a transparent vessel. It will thus be sheltered from the winds which will be able to put it out, and it will illuminate this dark place.” These words restored joy to my soul; I felt that I would finally enjoy the object of my desire, and I addressed the man with these words: “Who are you,” I said to him, “to whom I am indebted for such a great blessing?” “I am,” he replied, “your creator, the perfect being.” At that moment I awoke, filled with joy, and placing a light under a transparent vessel, as I had been ordered to do, I descended underground. I saw an old man sitting on a throne of gold, holding in one hand a tablet of emerald, on which was written: “This is the formation of nature”; before him was a book on which this was written: “This is the secret of the creation of beings, and the science of the causes of all things”" I took this book boldly, and without fear, and I departed from this place. I learned what was written in this book of the Secret of the Creation of Beings; I understood how nature was formed, and I acquired knowledge of the causes of all things. My knowledge made my name famous; I knew the art of talismans, and marvelous things, and I penetrated the combinations of the four elementary principles, their different compositions, their antipathies, and their affinities.
This particular story set the template for a number of Hermetic texts that would allege that ancient wisdom was stored in underground vaults in the hands of statues. When Ibn Umayl visited a temple of Imhotep in Egypt in the 900s and saw the statue of Imhotep holding a papyrus, he most likely thought of a story like this in interpreting the statues as Hermes holding an alchemical tablet.
The work of pseudo-Apollonius is believed to originally have been a Greek treatise on cosmology, but experts are divided whether it dates back to the Hellenistic period or to Late Antiquity. The frame story, being Hermetic, is probably late, since it has the sort of weirdness more typical of late sources. But regardless, the text has gone through many redactions, changes, and translations. In Late Antiquity, the Greek original was translated into Syriac by a Syrian priest named Sergius, and by no later than 955 CE, the Syriac version had been translated into Arabic. But these were not faithful translations. Sergius added twenty folios of a dissertation on Christian heresy, which heresies he sought to refute by appeal to Apollonius’s Hermetic wisdom. The Syriac copyists (or perhaps the Arabs who followed) developed two versions of the text, one close to Sergius’ version and the other interpolating pages of material from other Syriac writers to bulk up the text and expand its Christian historiography. Arabic translators redacted much of the explicitly Christian material, and they developed unusual reasons to try to explain why a text written by “Apollonius,” who lived in the early centuries CE, should feature disputations on authors who lived after him. Apparently, Apollonius became close to immortal.
Against this version of its history, P. Kraus argued in 1942 that the text was a pastiche created by an Arab writer living in Egypt under al-Ma‘mun in the early 800s and cobbled together from various Syriac Christian writings. His claim, however, doesn’t hold up since he wasn’t aware of the short version, without the interpolations, and for lesser reasons it is not worth getting int here.
The Arabic text fell into the hands of Hugo Sanctelliensis, a prolific translator of Arabic materials for an archbishop in northwestern Spain, and in the mid-1100s, Hugo produced a Latin translation, rather freely adapted. In places, Hugo admitted that he didn’t understand the confusing text, so, he said, he simply translated by substituting an Arabic word for its Latin equivalent. He also enhanced the story with extra pathos and fanciful details—for example, he turned Hermes’ column into a transparent one topped with a statue that shone in a kaleidoscope of color. But his Latin was obscure and confusing. I have read several transcriptions of his Latin manuscript, and no two editors can agree how to punctuate the sentences, or which words belong to which phrases, or even to which sentences. There seem to be some lacunae, further obscuring the text. The general sense is clear, but the details are difficult.
As best I can tell, this book has never been translated into English, despite its importance in the understanding of Arabic alchemy and Hermeticism. Modern critical editions of the Arabic text and the twelfth century Latin translation exist, but as far as I have been able to find, the only translation into a modern European language is Silvestre de Sacy’s 1798 translation of extended excerpts into French. I have translated Silvestre de Sacy’s excerpts, and some of the parallel Latin text, to make at least something of this important book available online in English.
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