Zosimos of Panopolis was an Egyptian or Greek alchemist and Gnostic mystic from the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th century AD. He was born in Panopolis, present day Akhmim in the south of Egypt, ca. 300. He wrote the oldest known books on alchemy, of which quotations in the Greek language and translations into Syriac or Arabic are known. He is one of about 40 authors represented in a compendium of alchemical writings that was probably put together in Byzantium (Constantinople) in the 7th or 8th century AD and that exists in manuscripts in Venice and Paris. Stephen of Alexandria is another.
Arabic translations of texts by Zosimos were discovered in 1995 in a copy of the book Keys of Mercy and Secrets of Wisdom by Ibn Al-Hassan Ibn Ali Al-Tughra’i‘, a Persian alchemist. Unfortunately, the translations were incomplete and seemingly non-verbatim. The famous index of Arabic books, Kitab al-Fihrist by Ibn Al-Nadim, mentions earlier translations of four books by Zosimos, however due to inconsistency in transliteration, these texts were attributed to names “Thosimos”, “Dosimos” and “Rimos”; also it is possible that two of them are translations of the same book.
In about 300 AD, Zosimos provided one of the first definitions of alchemy:
- Alchemy (330) – the study of the composition of waters, movement, growth, embodying and disembodying, drawing the spirits from bodies and bonding the spirits within bodies.
In general, Zosimos’ understanding of alchemy reflects the influence of Hermetic and Sethian Gnostic spiritualities. He asserted that the fallen angels taught the arts of metallurgy to the women they married, as recorded in the the Book of Enoch and specifically in the Apocryphon of John. The external processes of metallic transmutation—the transformations of lead and copper into silver and gold (see the Stockholm papyrus)—had always to mirror an inner process of purification and redemption. Wrote Zosimos in Concerning the true Book of Sophe, the Egyptian, and of the Divine Master of the Hebrews and the Sabaoth Powers:
The alchemical vessel was imagined as a baptismal font, and the tincturing vapours of mercury and sulphur were likened to the purifying waters of baptism, which perfected and redeemed the Gnostic initiate. Zosimos drew upon the Hermetic image of the krater or mixing bowl, a symbol of the divine mind in which the Hermetic initiate was “baptized” and purified in the course of a visionary ascent through the heavens and into the transcendent realms. Similar ideas of a spiritual baptism in the “waters” of the transcendent Pleroma are characteristic of the Sethian Gnostic texts unearthed at Nag Hammadi. This image of the alchemical vessel as baptismal font is central to his Visions, discussed below.
Visions of Zosimos
One of Zosimos’ texts is about a sequence of dreams related to Alchemy, and presents the proto-science as a much more religious experience. In his dream he first comes to an altar and meets Ion (the Sabians consider him the founder of their religion), who calls himself “the priest of inner sanctuaries, and I submit myself to an unendurable torment.” Ion then fights and impales Zosimos with a sword, dismembering him “in accordance with the rule of harmony” (referring to the division into four bodies, natures, or elements), and then pulls the skin off Zosimos’ head (a reference to the Apocalypse of Elijah which mentions those who are cast “into eternal punishment”: “their eyes are mixed with blood”; and of the saints who were persecuted by the Anti-Messiah: “he will draw off their skins from their heads”). He takes the pieces of Zosimos to the altar, and “burned (them) upon the fire of the art, till I perceived by the transformation of the body that I had become spirit.” From there, Ion cries blood, and horribly melts into “the opposite of himself, into a mutilated anthroparion”—which Carl Jung perceived as the first concept of the homunculus in alchemical literature.
Zosimos wakes up, asks himself, “[i]s not this the composition of the waters?” and returns to sleep, beginning the visions again—he constantly wakes up, ponders to himself and returns to sleep during these visions. Returning to the same altar, Zosimos finds a man being boiled alive, yet still alive, who says to him, “[t]he sight that you see is the entrance, and the exit, and the transformation … Those who seek to obtain the art (or moral perfection) enter here, and become spirits by escaping from the body”—which can be regarded as human distillation; just as how distilled water purifies it, distilling the body purifies it as well. He then sees a Brazen Man (another homunculus, as Jung believed any man described as being metal is perceived as being a homunculus), a Leaden Man (named Agathodaimon and also a homunculus). Zosimos also dreams of a “place of punishments” where all who enter immediately burst into flames and “submit theirself to an unendourable torment.”
Jung believed these visions to be a sort of Alchemical allegory, with the tormented homunculi personifying transmutations—burning or boiling themselves to become something else. The central image of the visions are the Sacrificial Act, which each Homunculus endures. In alchemy the dyophysite nature is constantly emphasized, two principles balancing one another, active and passive, masculine and feminine, which constitute the eternal cycle of birth and death. In ancient alchemy this cycle was represented by the symbol of the uroboros, the dragon that bites its own tail. Self-devouring is the same as self-destruction, but the unison of the dragon’s tail and mouth was also thought of as self-fertilization. Hence the text of “Tractatus Avicennae” mentions “the dragon slays itself, weds itself, impregnates itself.” In the visions, circular thinking appears in the sacrificial priest’s identity with his victim and in the idea that the homunculus into whom Ion is changed devours himself—he spews fourth his own flesh and rends himself with his own teeth. The homunculus therefore stands for the uroboros, which devours itself and gives birth to self. Since the homonculus represents the transformation of Ion, it follows that Ion, the uroboros, and the sacrificer are essentially the same.