Image 1: An imaginative portrayal of the Emerald Tablet in Heinrich Khunrath's Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (1609). Source: Wellcome Collection. Copyright: CC BY 4.0.
Image 2: Illustration of Hermes holding the tablet in a manuscript found in Topkapi Sarayi Ahmet III Library, Istanbul, Turkey. Source: Wikimedia Commons (user: Kildwyke). Copyright: Public Domain.
Image 3: Hermes Trismegistus with the tablet as portrayed in an Aurora consurgens manuscript, MS Rh. 172 in the Zürich Zentralbibliothek (3r). Source: e-codices Switzerland. Copyright: CC BY-NC 4.0.
Image 4: An engraving of Hermes Trismegistus from De Chemia Senioris antiquissimi philosophi libellus (Strasbourg, 1560). Source: SLUB Dresden. Copyright: Public Domain (Non-commercial use).
Image 5: The first emblem from Michael Maier's Atalanta fugiens. This emblem refers to 'the wind carried it in its womb' (verse 4 of the Emerald Tablet). Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France. Copyright: Public Domain (Non-commercial use).
Image 6: Engraving from Daniel Stolcius, Viridarium chymicum, 1624. Source: Wellcome Collection. Copyright: CC BY 4.0.
Hermes Trismegistus, a legendary ancient Egyptian sage, was supposed to have been the author of the Emerald Tablet, which many have seen as the foundational work of alchemy. Contrary to Renaissance beliefs, the work does not originate from ancient times: this short text has been traced back by German scholar Julius Ruska to 7th-9th century Arab treatise Kitab Balaniyus al-Hakim fi'l-`Ilal (The Book of Wise Balinas on the Causes). Balinas (Pseudo-Apollonius of Tyana) claims to have found an entrance to a secret chamber, where 'I came up to an old man sitting on a golden throne, who was holding an emerald table in one hand'.
The text of the tablet was translated into Latin in the twelfth century by Hugo of Santalla. Here is the translation by Steele and Singer (1928):
True it is, without falsehood, certain and most true. That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above, to accomplish the miracles of one thing.
And as all things were by contemplation of one, so all things arose from this one thing by a single act of adaptation.
The father thereof is the Sun, the mother the Moon.
The wind carried it in its womb, the earth is the nurse thereof.
It is the father of all works of wonder throughout the whole world.
The power thereof is perfect.
If it be cast on to earth, it will separate the element of earth from that of fire, the subtle from the gross.
With great sagacity it doth ascend gently from earth to heaven. Again it doth descend to earth, and uniteth in itself the force from things superior and things inferior.
Thus thou wilt possess the glory of the brightness of the whole world, and all obscurity will fly far from thee.
This thing is the strong fortitude of all strength, for it overcometh every subtle thing and doth penetrate every solid substance.
Thus was this world created.
Hence will there be marvellous adaptations achieved, of which the manner is this.
For this reason I am called Hermes Trismegistus, because I hold three parts of the wisdom of the whole world.
That which I had to say about the operation of Sol is completed.
The mysterious sayings of Hermes have received numerous interpretations and commentaries throughout the centuries. The most influential early commentary was that of Muhammed ibn Umail al-Tamîmî (10th century), known to the Latin West as Senior Zadith or simply Senior. His work, The Silvery Water and the Starry Earth was later translated into Latin as Tabula chemica. It contained an iconic illustration of Hermes Trismegistus holding his tablet, an obvious reference to the Balinas text [image 2]. This image would inspire a similar one in the 15th century Latin manuscript Aurora consurgens [image 3] and an engraving in the 1560 De Chemia Senioris antiquissimi philosophi libellus [image 4].
In the Latin world, an influential commentary was that of the English alchemist John Garland, known as Hortulanus (14th century). The Hermetic revival of the Renaissance brought the Emerald Tablet to widespread philosophical attention. The main person responsible for this was Johannes Trithemius, the Abbot of Sponheim (1462–1516). He put a distinctly Neoplatonic-Neopythagorean interpretation to the 'one thing' of the Tablet, describing it as 'the One' or monad of Pythagoras.
The Trithemian interpretation mixed with medieval alchemy and the Paracelsian current to create new developments, such as John Dee's Hieroglyphic Monad (1564), Gerard Dorn's Liber de Naturae luce Physica, ex Genesi desumpta (1583), or Michael Sendivogius's Novum lumen chymicum (1616). The teachings of the Emerald Tablet were also graphically represented in Michael Maier's Atalanta fugiens (1618), emblem I [image 5] and II and in Daniel Stolcius' Viridarium chymicum (1624) [image 6].
The tradition of direct commentary on the Tablet continued during the 17th century. Amongst those that sought to interpret the Emerald Tablet was Isaac Newton, who left his own English translation and Latin-language commentary in one of his alchemical manuscripts (Keynes MS 28). His interpretation of the Emerald Tablet draws on that of Hortulanus, taking the 'one thing' as referring to the alchemical Chaos, which is 'like' the primordial Chaos of Genesis.
Credit: Georgiana Hedesan, June 2018
Forshaw, Peter J. (2005) 'The Early Alchemical Reception of John Dee's Monas Hieroglyphica', Ambix, 52:3, pp. 247-269, DOI: 10.1179/000269805X77772
Holmyard, E.J. (1923) 'The Emerald Table', Nature, 2814: 112, October 6, pp 525–6.