How did the Ancients Decode Alchemical Recipes?

Paper delivered by Matteo Martelli in the framework of the panel Encoding Technical Knowledge in the Pre-Modern World, SHOT Annual meeting, 2019.

Abstract. Graeco-Egyptian alchemical writings exhibit different degrees of opacity. Along with the use of code-names (or Decknamen), other elements can make alchemical recipes difficul to understand: the fluid and rich vocabulary used to refer to the ingredients, the lack of any indication of their quantities, or gaps in the explanation of the different steps in the described techniques. All these difficulties make modern interpreters struggle to fully understand even ‘simple’ alchemical procedures that have not been put into practice since centuries. Similar problems already arose in Late Antiquity, when alchemists such as Zosimus of Panopolis (3rd-4th century CE) or Synesius (4th century CE) tried to interpret and explain the writings of the founders of alchemy (Ostanes, Democritus, or Hermes Trismegistus). In alchemical texts, the original teaching of these sages is always described as a written ‘revelation,’ that is, a form of knowledge encapsulated in ancient books, whose contents and structure were to be interpreted and commented on by later practitioners. In my paper, I will explore the strategies used by these ancient readers of alchemical recipes to decode the instructions they discovered in the foundational books of their art.

October 26, 2019, University of Milano



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