Ishtar – Chapter 2

January 7, 2011 § 6 Comments

(Note:  This reflection was originally posted on Ishtar’s Gate)

As some of you may know, I’ve been doing some research into Plato’s Atlantis to discover whether it is an allegorical story designed to carry a sub-strata of Hermetic alchemical teachings. To that end, I’m having to learn about the processes of alchemy fast.

I’m not sure whether the ‘Complete’ in the title refers to the Idiot or the Guide, but I am beginning to suspect that it’s both. It’s very clearly written in terms which help to demystify this previously arcane and complicated ancient art, with Hauck providing an easy-to- understand overview of the history, philosophies and practices of alchemy. The book includes the basic principles of alchemy, the alchemist’s code, alchemical medicines and elixirs and the three stages of alchemical transformation.

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to start this thread, so that I can add to it from time to time about interesting bits that I’ve read or understood, and please do also join in if you want to.

In his history of alchemy, Hauck says that “Specifically scholars consider Egyptian alchemy to span the centuries from 5000 BCE to 350 BCE.”

I’m not sure about this bit. It is an Idiot’s Guide after all, and so he doesn’t quote references. I think it is likely to be true, but I’m wondering if you’d actually get “scholars” (like those on the Hall of Maat) as opposed to “intuitives” to say it? He is, by the way, referring to Egypt as the land of Khem. The word ‘alchemy’ comes from Al Khem, which means ‘from the Land of Khem’.

Alchemy became part of the Greek practise of Hermeticism. You probably know that the Greek word ‘Hermeticism’ is based on Hermes, which is the Greek name for the great Egyptian god Thoth upon whose writings the practice of Hermeticism and alchemy was based. Thoth is often depicted as an ibis.

Egyptian Thoth

But you may not have known — well, I didn’t — that …

“… according to legend, Thoth preserved his canon of writings inside two great pillars “just before the Great Flood inundated the world.” Thousands of years later, the pillars were rediscovered. According to existing texts written by Egyptian priests, one of the pillars was discovered outside the city of Heliopolis (city of the Sun), and the other was unearthed near Thebes.”

Greek Hermes

The massive columns were covered with sacred hieroglyphics. When first discovered, they were referred to as “The Pillars of the Gods of the Dawning Light.” The pillars were eventually moved to a secret temple dedicated to the First Gods. Some texts indicate that this location was the Temple of Amun in Siwa, which is the oldest temple in Egypt. Only priests and pharoahs were allowed to view the sacred objects and scrolls.

Some evidence suggests the pillars really existed. Not only were they described in scrolls dating back to 1550 BCE, but they were also periodically put on public display and have been mentioned by credible sources throughout history. Solon, the Greek legislator and writer, studied them firsthand and noted that they memorialised the destruction of an ancient advanced civilisation. The great historian Herodotus encountered the two pillars in a secret Egyptian temple he visited in 400 BCE. “One pillar was of pure gold,” said Herodotus, “and the other was as of emerald, which glowed at night with great brilliancy.” He named them the Pillars of Hermes.”

The High Priestess Tarot Card, depicting the two pillars from Solomon’s Temple,
which were obviously based on the Pillars of Hermes.

So Solon, who appears to bring the story of Atlantis to Plato after hearing it from the priests of Sais, it now turns out actually read it on the Pillars of Hermes, which, by their very name, we know are connected to Hermeticism and the Emerald Tablet of Thoth.

Thoth’s Emerald Tablet, by the way, was said to be inside the emerald-like pillar which opened to reveal it.

But there’s more….

According to Hauck, Alexander (the Great) specifically commissioned the building of the Library of Alexandra in order to house the thousands of alchemical texts. I had always thought that the purpose and role of the LofA was to house mythological texts, which I’m sure were there too. But Alexander was much more concerned with alchemy, which he learned from his tutor Aristotle.

Of course, as we know, the LoA was burned down ~ three times. The first two destructions by fire were accidents as a result of war, but the third one was the deliberate act of a Christian Roman emperor who deliberately set out to destroy all wisdom derived from Hermeticism. Strangely enough, what few scorched and dog-eared manuscripts (around 30,000) remaining from the excesses of the Emperor Diocletian, which had been moved into a new building for safekeeping, were finally destroyed by Caliph Umar in 642 CE, when the Arabs conquered Egypt. He told his generals:

“If these writings of the Greeks agree with the Book of Allah, they are redundant and need not to be preserved. If they disagree, they are blasphemous and need to be destroyed.”

Anyway, the subject of Alexandria brings us to the first alchemist of record, Bolos of Mendes, a ‘sorceror’ of Alexandria who lived around 300 BCE, and the first mention of the Emerald Tablet.

Artist's Depiction of the Emerald Tablet

In Bolos’s most influential work, On Natural and Mystical Things, he describes the discovery of an ancient text hidden within a great column which dealt with the universal harmony of nature. Many believe this to be the first recorded reference to the Emerald Tablet.

According to Arab tradition (bearing in mind that they were the sole keepers of the tradition for centuries while Hermeticism was driven underground by the Romans), there was also a Babylonian Hermes who wrote at least fifteen books on alchemy and magic, including The Great Epistle of the Celestial Spheres.

“Many works by Greek philosophers were among the Arabian alchemical translations. Plato or “Aflatun” (as he was known to the Arabs), was considered by the Arabians to have been a great alchemist who invented several devices for use inside the laboratory.

Also, according to the Arab tradition, Pythagorus acquired his knowledge of mathematics and alchemy from scrolls found in the Pillars of Hermes. Known as “Fithaghurus” to the Arabs, Pythagorus’s Book of Adjustments was very popular among alchemists.

There were also translations of the works of Archelaos, the teacher of Socrates to whom the Arabs attribute the great alchemical treatise Turba Philosophorum. Also, translations exist of the oral teachings of Socrates, who was considered a practising alchemist who successfully generated an artificial life form. Socrates never publicly admitted to being an alchemist and was opposed to writing down any alchemical treatises for fear they would fall into the wrong hands.

Plato & Aristole

Aristotle, who the Arabs called “Aristu”, was revered as a great alchemist and scholar. Aristotle wrote a book on alchemy for his student, Alexander the Great, which, by order of Heraclitus, was translated into Syrian in 618 CE. Several works by Aristotle survived only in Arabic, including a discourse between him and Alexander called Epistle of the Great Treasure of God. The book has three chapters entitled “About the Great Principles of Alchemy” “Alchemic Operations and “The Elixir”. In it, Aristotle reviews the alchemical writings of Hermes, Asclepius, Pythagorus, Plato, Democritus and Ostanes.”

So a picture is beginning to form very clearly through the mists shrouding this time. I now see that it would have been almost impossible for Plato NOT to have been an alchemist and a Hermeticist, given the lineage which he was a part of stretching back through not only Socrates and his teacher, Archelaos, but all the way back to Pythagorus, who would have learned it from the Egyptians or the Khem.

Now I only have to understand the alchemical processes themselves to see how Plato has very cleverly and astutely buried the teachings about them in the story of Atlantis, which his teacher Socrates would have thoroughly approved of, so long as they were buried so deep that only those with the eyes of seers could see them.


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§ 6 Responses to Ishtar – Chapter 2

  • Many thanks for posting this up for me, David! 🙂

  • David says:

    That detail from the painting including Aristotle and Plato is interesting, portraying Plato and Aristotle as two sides of the issue. Plato pointing up creating the vertical or Divine axis and Aristotle with his hand flat, and outwards making the horizontal or Material axis of the alchemical cross.

    I’ve seen that painting before, who is the artist?

    Dennis discussed the ways in which alchemy was portrayed in works of art during his lecture at the University of Chicago, and it’s interesting to see in this work the same symbolism that is more explicit in other works specifically dealing with alchemy.

  • […] A lot of interesting ground covered in this second installment. Ishtar has done a wonderful job of recapping some of the ideas and bringing them into a broader perspective in the analysis that she posted to the Ishtar’s Gate site. […]

  • Sorry for the delay in responding. We had a little issue to deal with on the Gate.

    The painting is by Leonardo da Vinci, David. It’s a detail from a much bigger one, which you can find here:

    The issue on the Gate involved a poster who was questioning whether the Land of Khem was actually Egypt, and he showed me the views of a linguist who had found that the Egyptians had dropped the ‘t’ of Khemet only after the Greeks had already called alchemy ‘khemia’, thus bolstering his view that the name Alchemy does not derive from the art originating in Egpt, but in Greece. Here’s his quote from Wikipedia.

    Alchemy, originally derived from the Ancient Greek word khemia (Χημία) meaning “art of transmuting metals”, later arabicized as Arabic word al-kimia (الكيمياء, ALA-LC: al-kīmiyā’)

    He also believes it to be doubtful that the term Black Lands actually pertains to Egypt.

    I think he’s wrong and that he has come to his view based on limited knowledge and so I spent some time explaining it to him. But one interestng nugget fell out of that debate which I felt that I should let everyone know about here. Hauck says that Herodotus saw the Pillars of Hermes in Egypt, but he did in fact see them in Tyre, Phoenicia. Therefore the fact that Herodotus saw them cannot be used to bolster the argument that the pillars were in Egypt and thus alchemy began in Egypt.

    Here is the actual quote from Herodotus:

    In the wish to get the best information that I could on these matters, I made a voyage to Tyre in Phoenicia, hearing there was a temple of Hercules at that place, very highly venerated. I visited the temple, and found it richly adorned with a number of offerings, among which were two pillars, one of pure gold, the other of emerald, shining with great brilliancy at night. In a conversation which I held with the priests, I inquired how long their temple had been built, and found by their answer that they, too, differed from the Greeks. They said that the temple was built at the same time that the city was founded, and that the foundation of the city took place two thousand three hundred years ago. Herodotus II.44

    It does, however, confirm in wonderful terms that the emerald pillar did exist, and existed long before the Greeks civilisation.

    I expect most people in this discussion are mainly interested in how alchemy works and thus have little interest in historical antecedents, but I thought I’d let everyone know about this anyway.

    If you’d like to read the debate on the Gate with the poster over the etymology of Alchemy, you can find it here:



    • David says:

      I was actually just on the Gate getting ready to reply. 🙂 The last few weeks I’ve had my head down in a post lay off job search and am just now getting (sort of) back to things.

      Adam McLean has one of the most extensive websites on alchemy, and there are scholars as well as practioners who post there, so I went over there to see if I could find some answers.

      Prof. Hamed Abdel-reheem Ead, Professor of Chemistry at Faculty of Science-University of Cairo Giza-Egypt and director of Science Heritage Center, indicates that Egyptian metallurgy goes back to 3400 B.C. and with the ancients fondness for poetic narrative, and the intimate ties between technical guilds and mystical teachings, I have no doubt that whether it was called alchemy then or not, there has to be a fairly solid line of transmission from that time to the Alexandrian period.

      I tried to dig through that etymological argument on the Gate, but it seemed like nitpicking. Especially after I found the information on ancient Egyptian metallurgy. If 19th century Scottish horse training guilds still held remnants of mysticism (Horseman’s Word) what would a metallurgic guild that served the priesthood and aristocracy of ancient Egypt be like?

  • Mike says:

    Astute. Look forward to you delivery. Actually, anxiously awaiting.

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