Alchemy as the Art of Dyeing

Alchemy as the Art of Dyeing: The Fourfold Division of Alchemy and the Enochian Tradition

Matteo Martelli

What is Graeco-Egyptian alchemy? What kinds of techniques and craft practices does it encompass? And what were its goals? This Working Group paper project addressed these questions by investigating the most ancient Greek alchemical texts preserved by both the Byzantine and the Syriac tradition. Already in the earliest times—that is, during the first centuries AD in the Graeco-Roman Egypt—it is possible to recognize some disagreement over the definition of alchemy and its expected outcomes. On the one hand some texts—in particular ps.-Democritus’ four books (first century AD) and the Leiden and Stockholm papyri (third to fourth century AD)—support a four-fold division of this science, which included processes for making gold, silver, and precious stones (glass working included), and for purple textile dyeing, or rather, for making cheaper substitutes for all these valuable items of commerce. When set in a wide framework conceiving alchemy as the art of dyeing, these four areas of expertise were not incompatible. The change of color was considered as the main result achieved by means of alchemical procedures: base metals were turned yellow or white, transparent quartz could be variously colored and wool was dyed in various shades of purple. On the other hand, Isis’ treatise (first to second century AD) emphasizes only the making of precious metals (silver and gold), which was identified with the main goal of alchemy during all the late Byzantine tradition. In the process that led to such a simplification of the technical background of alchemy Zosimus of Panopolis’ work seems to represent an important turning point. In fact this author inherited the above mentioned polarity and discussed different ideas of alchemy in a key text on the revelation of alchemy based on the Enochian myth of the fallen angels: this text is handed down only in Syriac translation and it is here edited and translated into English for the first time. Alchemy is presented as the art for dyeing metals, but, also within such a narrower focus, it was expected to deal not only with the making of gold and silver, but also with a wider range of dyeing techniques that alchemists had to apply to all the metallic bodies (copper, tin, lead, iron) in order to change their colors.