The English word ‘alchemy’ derives from the Arabic al-kīmiyāʾ, itself a loan-word from Syriac kīmīyā which in turn was taken from the Greek χημεια, meaning ‘the art of casting metals’. The earliest surviving alchemical texts in the West, which are written in Greek, hardly ever use the word χημεια and refer to their practice as ‘The Work’, ‘the divine and sacred Art’ or ‘The making of gold’. A large quantity of these Greek writings were translated into Arabic in the 2nd/8th and 3rd/9th centuries.
The fundamentals of Arab alchemy remain somewhat obscure, as relatively few manuscripts have survived. While the Greek χημεια has given rise to our word ‘chemistry’, its Arabic derivative is responsible for the term ‘alchemy’. This etymological history shows the way that scientific knowledge spread in medieval times from the highly developed and sophisticated Arab world to Europe, via writers and translators such as Abelard of Bath.
Some have also derived ‘alchemy’ from the Egyptian kême, the oldest official name for Egypt, meaning ‘black’, a reference to the ‘black earth’ of all Egypt. The rich arable land on either side of the Nile, which gave rise to the ancient Egyptian culture, became the basis for identifying Egypt as the land of special esoteric knowledge. This knowledge was held by the priests, and was not available to the ordinary public. It was understood that speaking the right words and applying the right mixture of potions could effect physical, psychological and spiritual change, and such secrets needed to be guarded.
Historically alchemy was absorbed into the Western religious traditions with relative ease. In Hellenistic Egypt, where practitioners of alchemy were versed in the Greek version of the Bible, the science of alchemy was traced back to biblical prophets, beginning with Adam and passing through Seth, Noah, Abraham and so on. According to Maria the Jewess (flor. Egypt 2nd or 3rd century CE), only ‘the seed of Abraham’ were entitled to delve into the mysteries of alchemy.
From the Christian point of view, the philosophers’ stone that turns base metals into silver and gold symbolises Christ. Since any pre-Islamic art or science was understood to be a wisdom inherited from earlier prophets, the Arabs regarded the science of alchemy as deriving from the ancients and wise men of legend, such as Hermes, but were keen to interpret it as springing from the sacred tradition of revelation. This was part of a general concern, common among writers from all three Abrahamic traditions, to show how the Semitic prophetic tradition had given rise to all forms of known wisdom and science, including Egyptian, Persian and Chinese traditions and Greek philosophy.
It was generally believed that the science of alchemy had been founded by Hermes Trismegistos, the ‘thrice-greatest Hermes’. This epithet seems to have been devised by unnamed sages, living in Roman Egypt and writing in Greek in the first centuries of the Common Era. It originated from an old Egyptian title of Thoth, found in Greek as ‘the greatest and greatest great god’ (megistos kai megistos theos megas), and thereby distinguished him from being confused with the Greek Hermes, messenger of the gods.
In the Hellenistic tradition Hermes Trismegistos was identified with the Egyptian god Thoth (‘He who is like the ibis’), the God of knowledge and wisdom, scribe of the gods/underworld, inventor of writing, the author of all works of science, religion, philosophy and magic – i.e. the priestly arts and sciences.
The Arabs, on the other hand, portrayed Hermes as a primordial Egyptian sage, who founded human religion before the Flood, ascended to the heavenly spheres of the planets and then returned to instruct his people in the sacred arts and sciences, especially astrology, alchemy and medicine. He was identified with the Quranic figure of Idrīs (considered identical to the biblical figure of Enoch, the great teacher of humankind), a major prophet in the Islamic tradition like Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, and he was said to have been the first to teach writing and the study of books (dars al-kutub).
Hermes’ teachings had been handed down by successive philosophers of the past, including Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato, or had been rediscovered on tablets hidden in Egyptian temples or in underground tunnels. Hermes was not regarded as a proper name but as a title like the Roman Caesar or Persian Khusraw.
His epithet of Trismegistos (Latin: Trismegistus) was explained as three separate persons connected to Egypt: a pre-Flood Hermes who was the prophet Idrīs, lived in Egypt and built the Pyramids; a post-Flood Hermes, who lived in Babylon, revived the original sciences and taught Pythagoras; and a later Hermes, who lived in Egypt, wrote about various sciences and crafts including alchemy and taught Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine.
For example, the 4th/10th century writer Ibn al-Nadīm (d. 380/990) wrote:
The practitioners of the art of alchemy, which is the art of producing gold and silver from other minerals, maintain that the first person to speak of the science of the alchemical art was the sage Hermes the Babylonian, who emigrated to Egypt when the people were dispersed from Babylonia, and ruled over Egypt. He was both a wise sage and a philosopher. He initiated the art (of alchemy) and wrote numerous books on the subject.
Ibn al-Nadīm goes on to give other versions of who Hermes might be, relating him to the Pyramids, and then gives a list of practitioners who wrote on the subject (including Zoroaster and Pythagoras) and those who he says discovered the mysterious elixir.
The Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ (Brethren of Purity) taught that Hermes Trismegistos, ‘who is the prophet Idrīs, ascended to the sphere of Saturn and resided there for thirty years, until he had witnessed all the states of the sphere; then he descended to the earth and instructed people in astrology.’
Later writers such as Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī (d. 911/1505) also followed this ancient tradition of identifying Idrīs with Hermes, adding that the epithet ‘thrice-greatest’ (Trismegistos, rendered into Arabic as al- muthallath bi-l-ḥikma, ‘triplicate in wisdom’ or ‘thricewise’) referred to his being a prophet, king and sage, and that ‘he could make lead into shining gold’.