The following definitions are from the Theosophical Glossary, unless otherwise noted or placed in square brackets.
Hermes Trismegistus (Gr.). The “thrice great Hermes,” the Egyptian. The mythical personage after whom the Hermetic philosophy was named. In Egypt the God Thoth or Thot. A generic name of many ancient Greek writers on philosophy and Alchemy. Hermes Trismegistus is the name of Hermes or Thoth in his human aspect, as a god he is far more than this. As Hermes-Thoth-Aah, he is Thoth, the moon, i.e., his symbol is the bright side of the moon, supposed to contain the essence of creative Wisdom, “the elixir of Hermes.” As such he is associated with the Cynocephalus, the dog-headed monkey, for the same reason as was Anubis, one of the aspects of Thoth. (See “Hermanubis.”) . . .
Hermetic. Any doctrine or writing connected with the esoteric teachings of Hermes, who, whether as the Egyptian Thoth or the Greek Hermes, was the God of Wisdom with the Ancients, and, according to Plato, “discovered numbers, geometry, astronomy and letters.” Though mostly considered as spurious, nevertheless the Hermetic writings were highly prized by St. Augustine, Lactantius, Cyril and others. In the words of Mr. J. Bonwick, “They are more or less touched up by the Platonic philosophers among the early Christians (such as Origen and Clemens Alexandrinus) who sought to substantiate their Christian arguments by appeals to these heathen and revered writings, though they could not resist the temptation of making them say a little too much.” Though represented by some clever and interested writers as teaching pure monotheism, the Hermetic or Trismegistic books are, nevertheless, purely pantheistic. The Deity referred to in them is defined by Paul as that in which “we live, and move and have our being”—notwithstanding the “in Him” of the translators.
Alchemists. From Al and Chemi, fire, or the god and patriarch, Kham, also, the name of Egypt. The Rosicrucians of the middle ages, such as Robertus de Fluctibus (Robert Fludd), Paracelsus, Thomas Vaughan (Eugenius Philalethes), Van Helmont, and others, were all alchemists, who sought for the hidden spirit in every inorganic matter. Some people—nay, the great majority—have accused alchemists of charlatanry and false pretending. Surely such men as Roger Bacon, Agrippa, Henry Khunrath, and the Arabian Geber (the first to introduce into Europe some of the secrets of chemistry), can hardly he treated as impostors—least of all as fools. Scientists who are reforming the science of physics upon the basis of the atomic theory of Democritus, as restated by John Dalton, conveniently forget that Democritus, of Abdera, was an alchemist, and that the mind that was capable of penetrating so far into the secret operations of nature in one direction must have had good reasons to study and become a Hermetic philosopher. Olaus Borrichius says that the cradle of alchemy is to be sought in the most distant times.
Alchemy. In Arabic Ul-Khemi, is, as the name suggests, the chemistry of nature. Ui-Khemi or Al-Kimia, however, is only an Arabianized word, taken from the Greek chemeia, (chemeia) from cumoz—“juice,” sap extracted from a plant. Says Dr. Wynn Westcott: “The earliest use of the actual term ‘alchemy’ is found in the works of Julius Firmicus Maternus, who lived in the days of Constantine the Great. The Imperial Library in Paris contains the oldest-extant alchemic treatise known in Europe; it was written by Zosimus the Panopolite about 400 A.D. in the Greek language, the next oldest is by Æneas Gazeus, 480 A.D.” It deals with the finer forces of nature and the various conditions in which they are found to operate. Seeking under the veil of language, more or less artificial, to convey to the uninitiated so much of the mysterium magnum as is safe in the hands of a selfish world, the alchemist postulates as his first principle the existence of a certain Universal Solvent by which all composite bodies are resolved into the homogeneous substance from which they are evolved, which substance he calls pure gold, or summa materia. This solvent, also called menstvuum universale, possesses the power of removing all the seeds of disease from the human body, of renewing youth and prolonging life. Such is the lapis philosophorum (philosopher’s stone).
Alchemy first penetrated into Europe through Geber, the great Arabian sage and philosopher, in the eighth century of our era; but it was known and practised long ages ago in China and in Egypt, numerous papyri on alchemy and other proofs of its being the favourite study of kings and priests having been exhumed and preserved under the generic name of Hermetic treatises. (See “Tabula Smaragdina”). Alchemy is studied under three distinct aspects, which admit of many different interpretations, viz.: the Cosmic, Human, and Terrestrial. These three methods were typified under the three alchemical properties—sulphur, mercury, and salt. Different writers have stated that there are three, seven, ten, and twelve processes respectively; but they are all agreed that there is but one object in alchemy, which is to transmute gross metals into pure gold. What that gold, however, really is, very few people understand correctly. No doubt that there is such a thing in nature as transmutation of the baser metals into the nobler, or gold. But this is only one aspect of alchemy, the terrestrial or purely material, for we sense logically the same process taking place in the bowels of the earth. Yet, besides and beyond this interpretation, there is in alchemy a symbolical meaning, purely psychic and spiritual. While the Kabbalist-Alchemist seeks for the realization of the former, the Occultist-Alchemist, spurning the gold of the mines, gives all his attention and directs his efforts only towards the transmutation of the baser quaternary into the divine upper trinity of man, which when finally blended are one. The spiritual, mental, psychic, and physical planes of human existence are in alchemy compared to the four elements, fire, air, water and earth, and are each capable of a threefold constitution, i.e., fixed, mutable and volatile.
Little or nothing is known by the word concerning the origin of this archaic branch of philosophy; but it is certain that it antedates the construction of any known Zodiac, and, as dealing with the personified forces of nature, probably also any of the mythologies of the world; nor is there any doubt that the true secret of transmutation (on the physical plane) was known in days of old, and lost before the dawn of the so-called historical period. Modern chemistry owes its best fundamental discoveries to alchemy, but regardless of the undeniable truism of the latter that there is but one element in the universe, chemistry has placed metals in the class of elements and is only now beginning to find out its gross mistake. Even sonic Encyclopædists are now forced to confess that if most of the accounts of transmutations are fraud or delusion, “yet some of them are accompanied by testimony which renders them probable. . . By means of the galvanic battery even the alkalis have been discovered to have a metallic base. The possibility of obtaining metal from other substances which contain the ingredients composing it, and of changing one metal into another . . . must therefore be left undecided. Nor are all alchemists to be considered impostors. Many have laboured under the conviction of obtaining their object, with indefatigable patience and purity of heart, which is earnestly recommended by sound alchemists as the principal requisite for the success of their labours.” (Pop. Encyclop.)
Fire-Philosophers. The name given to the Hermetists and Alchemists of the Middle Ages, and also to the Rosicrucians. The latter, the successors of the Theurgists, regarded fire as the symbol of Deity. It was the source, not only of material atoms, but the container of the spiritual and psychic Forces energizing them. Broadly analyzed, fire is a triple principle; esoterically, a septenary, as are all the rest of the Elements. As man is composed of Spirit, Soul and Body, plus a four fold aspect: so is Fire. As in the works of Robert Fludd (de Fluctibus) one of the famous Rosicrucians, Fire contains (1) a visible flame (Body); (2) an invisible, astral fire (Soul); and (3) Spirit. The four aspects are heat (life), light (mind), electricity (Kâmic, or molecular powers) and the Synthetic Essence, beyond Spirit, or the radical cause of its existence and manifestation. For the Hermetist or Rosicrucian, when a flame is extinct on the objective plane it has only passed from the seen world unto the unseen, from the knowable into the unknowable.
Lapis philosophorum (Lat.). The “Philosopher’s stone”; a mystic term in alchemy, having quite a different meaning from that usually attributed to it.
Mysterium Magnum (Lat.). “The great Mystery,” a term used in Alchemy in connection with the fabrication of the “Philosopher’s Stone” and the “Elixir of Life.”
Philosopher’s Stone. Called also the “Powder of Projection.” It is the Magnum Opus of the Alchemists, an object to be attained by them at all costs, a substance possessing the power of transmuting the baser metals into pure gold. Mystically, however, the Philosopher’s Stone symbolises the transmutation of the lower animal nature of man into the highest and divine.
Key Figures (Famous for Alchemy)
[Geber (Jabir ibn Hayyan).] A great Arabian sage and philosopher, in the eighth century of our era; the first to introduce into Europe some of the secrets of chemistry. Alchemy first penetrated into Europe through Geber.
Avicenna. The latinized name of Abu-Ali al Hoseen ben Abdallah Ibn Sina; a Persian philosopher, born 980 AD)., though generally referred to as an Arabian doctor. On account of his surprising learning he was called “the Famous,” and was the author of the best and the first alchemical works known in Europe. All the Spirits of the Elements were subject to him, so says the legend, and it further tells us that owing to his knowledge of the Elixir of Life, he still lives, as an adept who will disclose himself to the profane at the end of a certain cycle.
Roger Bacon. A Franciscan monk, famous as an adept in Alchemy and Magic Arts. Lived in the thirteenth century in England. He believed in the philosopher’s stone in the way all the adepts of Occultism believe in it; and also in philosophical astrology. He is accused of having made a head of bronze which having an acoustic apparatus hidden in it, seemed to utter oracles which were words spoken by Bacon himself in another room. He was a wonderful physicist and chemist, and credited with having invented gunpowder, though he said he had the secret from “Asian (Chinese) wise men.” . . . In his treatise on the Admirable Force of Art and Nature, he gives hints about gunpowder and predicts the use of steam as a propelling power, describing besides the hydraulic press, the diving-bell and the kaleidoscope. . . .
Raymond Lully. An alchemist, adept and philosopher, born in the 13th century, on the island of Majorca. It is claimed for him that, in a moment of need, he made for King Edward III. of England several millions of gold “rose nobles,” and thus helped him to carry on war victoriously. He founded several colleges for the study of Oriental languages, and Cardinal Ximenes was one of his patrons and held him in great esteem, as also Pope John XXI. He died in 1314, at a good old age. Literature has preserved many wild stories about Raymond Lully, which would form a most extraordinary romance. He was the elder son of the Seneshal of Majorca and inherited great wealth from his father.
Henry Khunrath. A famous Kabalist, chemist and physician born in 1502, initiated into Theosophy (Rosicrucian) in 1544. He left some excellent Kabalistic works, the best of which is the “Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom” (1598).
[Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. German Occultist, Hermeticist and Alchemist.]
Key Figures (Hermeticists)
See also: Renaissance Theosophists
[Marsilio Ficino. Italian philosopher, scholar and Catholic priest. He was the chief instigator of the new Academy in Florence. He translated the Works of Plato and the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin, wrote commentaries on Platonic dialogues and a work on Platonic theology. He was instrumental in bringing about the Renaissance.]
Picus, John, Count of Mirandola [aka Pico della Mirandola]. A celebrated Kabbalist and Alchemist, author of a treatise “on gold” and other Kabbalistic works. He defied Rome and Europe in his attempt to prove divine Christian truth in the Zohar. Born in 1463, died 1494.
Giordano Bruno. An Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, poet, and astrologer.—Theosophy.wiki
Fludd (Robert), generally known as Robertus de Fluctibus, the chief of the “Philosophers by Fire.” A celebrated English Hermetist of the sixteenth century, and a voluminous writer. He wrote on the essence of gold and other mystic and occult subjects.
Philalethes, Eugenius. The Rosicrucian name assumed by one Thomas Vaughan, a mediæval English Occultist and Fire Philosopher. He was a great Alchemist.
Paracelsus. The symbolical name adopted by the greatest Occultist of the middle ages—Philip Bombastes Aureolus Theophrastus von Hohenheim—born in the canton of Zurich in 1493. He was the cleverest physician of his age, and the most renowned for curing almost any illness by the power of talismans prepared by himself. He never had a friend, but was surrounded by enemies, the most bitter of whom were the Churchmen and their party. That he was accused of being in league with the devil stands to reason, nor is it to be wondered at that finally he was murdered by some unknown foe, at the early age of forty-eight. He died at Salzburg, leaving a number of works behind him, which are to this day greatly valued by the Kabbalists and Occultists. Many of his utterances have proved prophetic. He was a clairvoyant of great powers, one of the most learned and erudite philosophers and mystics, and a distinguished Alchemist. Physics is indebted to him for the discovery of nitrogen gas, or Azote.
Other Notable Figures
Artephius.—A great Hermetic philosopher, whose true name was never known and whose works are without dates, though it is known that he wrote his Secret Book in the XIIth century. Legend has it that he was one thousand years old at that time. There is a book on dreams by him in the possession of an Alchemist, now in Bagdad, in which he gives out the secret of seeing the past, the present, and the future, in sleep, and of remembering the things seen. There are but two copies of this manuscript extant. The book on Dreams by the Jew Solomon Almulus, published in Hebrew at Amsterdam in 1642, has a few reminiscences from the former work of Artephius.
Bono, Peter. A Lombardian; a great adept in the Hermetic Science, who travelled to Persia to study Alchemy. Returning from his voyage he settled in Istria in 1330, and became famous as a Rosicrucian. A Calabrian monk named Lacinius is credited with having published in 1702 a condensed version of Bono’s works on the transmutation of metals. There is, however, more of Lacinius than of Bono in the work. Bono was a genuine adept and an Initiate; and such do not leave their secrets behind them in MSS.
Borri, Joseph Francis. A great Hermetic philosopher, born at Milan in the 17th century. He was an adept, an alchemist and a devoted occultist. He knew too much and was, therefore, condemned to death for heresy, in January, 1661, after the death of Pope Innocent X. He escaped and lived many years after, when finally he was recognised by a monk in a Turkish village, denounced, claimed by the Papal Nuncio, taken back to Rome and imprisoned, August 10th, 1675. But facts show that he escaped from his prison in a way no one could account for.
Busardier. A Hermetic philosopher born in Bohemia who is credited with having made a genuine powder of projection. He left the bulk of his red powder to a friend named Richthausen, an adept and alchemist of Vienna. Some years after Busardier’s death, in 1637, Richthausen introduced himself to the Emperor Ferdinand III, who is known to have been ardently devoted to alchemy, and together they are said to have converted three pounds of mercury into the finest gold with one single grain of Busardier’s powder. In 1658 the Elector of Mayence also was permitted to test the powder, and the gold produced with it was declared by the Master of the Mint to be such, that he had never seen finer. Such are the claims vouchsafed by the city records and chronicles.
Butler. An English name assumed by an adept, a disciple of some Eastern Sages, of whom many fanciful stories are current. It is said for instance, that Butler was captured during his travels in 1629, and sold into captivity. He became the slave of an Arabian philosopher, a great alchemist, and finally escaped, robbing his Master of a large quantity of red powder. According to more trustworthy records, only the last portion of this story is true. Adepts who can be robbed without knowing it would be unworthy of the name. Butler or rather the person who assumed this name, robbed his “Master” (whose free disciple he was) of the secret of transmutation, and abused of his knowledge—i.e., sought to turn it to his personal profit, but was speedily punished for it. After performing many wonderful cures by means of his “stone” (i.e., the occult knowledge of an initiated adept), and producing extraordinary phenomena, to some of which Van Helmont, the famous Occultist and Rosicrucian, was witness, not for the benefit of men but his own vain glory, Butler was imprisoned in the Castle of Viloord, in Flanders, and passed almost the whole of his life in confinement. He lost his powers and died miserable and unknown. Such is the fate of every Occultist who abuses his power or desecrates the sacred science.
Campanella, Tomaso. A Calabrese, born in 1568, who, from his childhood exhibited strange powers, and gave himself up during his whole life to the Occult Arts. . . . He became an opponent of the Aristotelian materialistic philosophy when at Naples and was obliged to fly for his life. Later, the Inquisition sought to try and condemn him for the practice of magic arts, but its efforts were defeated. During his lifetime he wrote an enormous quantity of magical, astrological and alchemical works, most of which are no longer extant. He is reported to have died in the convent of the Jacobins at Paris on May the 21st, 1639.
Charnook, Thomas. A great alchemist of the sixteenth century; a surgeon who lived and practiced near Salisbury, studying the art in some neighbouring cloisters with a priest. It is said that he was initiated into the final secret of transmutation by the famous mystic William Bird, who “had been a prior of Bath and defrayed the expense of repairing the Abbey Church from the gold which he made by the red and white elixirs” (Royal Mas. Cycl.). Charnock wrote his Breviary of Philosophy in the year 1557 and the Enigma of Alchemy, in 1574.
Cremer, John. An eminent scholar who for over thirty years studied Hermetic philosophy in pursuance of its practical secrets, while he was at the same time Abbot of Westminster. While on a voyage to Italy, he met the famous Raymond Lully whom he induced to return with him to England. Lully divulged to Cremer the secrets of the stone, for which service the monastery offered daily prayers for him. Cremer, says the Royal Masonic Cyclopedia, “having obtained a profound knowledge of the secrets of Alchemy, became a most celebrated and learned adept in occult philosophy . . . lived to a good old age, and died in the reign of King Edward III.”
Gaffarillus [aka Jacques Gaffarel]. An Alchemist and philosopher who lived in the middle of the seventeenth century. He is the first philosopher known to maintain that every natural object (e.g., plants, living creatures, etc.), when burned, retained its form in its ashes and that it could be raised again from them. This claim was justified by the eminent chemist Du Chesne, and after him Kircher, Digby and Vallemont have assured themselves of the fact, by demonstrating that the astral forms of burned plants could be raised from their ashes. A receipt for raising such astral phantoms of flowers is given in a work of Oetinger, Thoughts onthe Birth and Generation of Things.
The Corpus Hermeticum, translated by G. R. S. Mead
Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius, translated by Brian P. Copenhaver
The Divine Pymander, translated by Dr. John Everard
Commentary on the Pymander, by G.R.S. Mead
Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier
A. E. Waite, Lives of Alchemystical Philosophers, 1888
A. E. Waite, The Hermetic Museum, 2 Vols., 1893
A. E. Waite, The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus, 2 Vols., 1894
A. E. Waite, Collectanea Chemica, 1893
G. R. S. Mead, Thrice-Greatest Hermes, 3 Vols., 1906
Selected Articles, Commentaries, etc.
- Alchemy and the Alchemists
- Giordano Bruno
- Giordano Bruno: A Martyr Theosophist
- Hermes Trismegistus
- Paracelsus: Philosopher
- Paracelsus: Physician
- Roger Bacon
- The Divine Pymander
- The Hermetic Philosophy
- The Life and the Doctrines of Paracelsus
- The Neoplatonic Revival
- The Science of Life
- The “Elixir of Life”
- [Notes from The Life of Paracelsus]
- [Notes on the “Philosopher’s Stone”]
- [Relation of Hermetic Philosophy to the Esoteric Teachings]