The Emerald Tablet of Hermes
The Emerald Tablet is a series of aphorisms or brief statements which describe the Prima Materia, or First Matter, of alchemy and how it is transmuted in order to perform the Great Work. According to legend it was written by Hermes Trismegistus, or Thrice Greatest Hermes. Thrice Greatest Hermes was the mythological progenitor of Hermeticism. He was considered to be divine, or an initiate who achieved divinity and was an amalgam of Hermes, Mercury, and Tahuti, hence the Thrice Greatest.
The Tabula Smaragdina, or Emerald Tablet, was allegedly left behind by Hermes, inscribed on an emerald and left in a tomb. In some versions it was the tomb of Thrice Greatest Hermes and the Tablet was placed in his hand in the tomb. Off all the writings ascribed to Thrice Greatest Hermes this was the one considered important enough to be held in his hand as he was enshrined for eternity. This speaks to its believed importance.
Balinas is given in the early versions of the Tablet as the individual to find it. Balinas was the Arabic name given to Apollonius of Tyana. Apollonius was a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth whose life presents a very similar story attested in various ancient sources. He was most likely a Pythagorean philosopher and mystic. He was held in esteem by the important NeoPlatonists such as Iamblichus and Porphyry and what we have left attesting to his view points reflects a certain early NeoPlatonic thinking. NeoPlatonism of course shares similarities and overlap with Hermeticism.
The connection with Balinas and the appearance of the Tablet in several Arabic texts has given some cause to assert that it was written by Appolonius or by someone devoted to his teachings. The legend is, however, that Balinas found the Tablet therefore suggesting that he is not its author but that his teachings are within the same school from which the Tablet stems.
The Tablet makes its earliest appearance, in Kitab Sirr al-Asrar of the Book of the Secret of Secrets. The book is attributed to Aristotle, although this is likely spurious. There is no Greek original that survives, but the book itself claims to be translated from Greek to Syriac to Arabic. This is interesting as the primary surviving biography of Apollonius of Tyana was commisioned by Julia Domna, who was herself a Syrian. The relation to Aristotle is also interesting as he continued Plato's work, linking the Tablet to the Platonic school, and Aristotle's concepts of ontology form the basis for certain elements of alchemical thinking. There are following the Book of the Secret of Secrets several other Arabic sources for the Tablet.
The tablet appears in works by Jabir, known in Europe as Geber, one of the most important Arabic alchemists, as well as within the journals of Sir Isaac Newton, an important European scientist who committed more of his life to the alchemical work than to the elements of math and science for which he is celebrated today.
Jabir Ibn Hayyan gives the Emerald Tablet as follows:
0) Balinas mentions
the engraving on the table in the hand of Hermes, which says:
1) Truth! Certainty! That in which there is no doubt!
2) That which is above is from that which is below, and that which is below is from that which is above, working the miracles of one.
3) As all things were from one.
4) Its father is the Sun and its mother the Moon.
5) The Earth carried it in her belly, and the Wind nourished it in her belly,
7) as Earth which shall become Fire.
7a) Feed the Earth from that which is subtle, with the greatest power.
8) It ascends from the earth to the heaven and becomes ruler over that which is above and that which is below.
14) And I have already explained the meaning of the whole of this in two of these books of mine.
Sir Isaac Newton
provides this version:
1) Tis true without lying, certain & most true.
2) That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing.
3) And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
4) The Sun is its father, the moon its mother,
5) the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth its nurse.
6) The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
7) Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
7a) Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
8) It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth and receives the force of things superior & inferior.
9) By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
10) Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
11a) So was the world created.
12) From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (Or process) is here in this.
13) Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world.
14) That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended.
This version is from
the 12th century and was translated by Steele and Singer
in 1928. I include this one as it is possibly the easiest to
0) When I entered into the cave, I received the tablet zaradi, which was inscribed, from between the hands of Hermes, in which I discovered these words:
1) True, without falsehood, certain, most certain.
2) What is above is like what is below, and what is below is like that which is above. To make the miracle of the one thing.
3) And as all things were made from contemplation of one, so all things were born from one adaptation.
4) Its father is the Sun, its mother is the Moon.
5) The wind carried it in its womb, the earth breast fed it.
6) It is the father of all ‘works of wonder' (Telesmi) in the world.
6a) Its power is complete (integra).
7) If cast to (turned towards- versa fuerit) earth,
7a) it will separate earth from fire, the subtile from the gross.
8) With great capacity it ascends from earth to heaven. Again it descends to earth, and takes back the power of the above and the below.
9) Thus you will receive the glory of the distinctiveness of the world. All obscurity will flee from you.
10) This is the whole most strong strength of all strength, for it overcomes all subtle things, and penetrates all solid things.
11a) Thus was the world created.
12) From this comes marvelous adaptions of which this is the proceedure.
13) Therefore I am called Hermes, because I have three parts of the wisdom of the whole world.
14) And complete is what I had to say about the work of the Sun, from the book of Galieni Alfachimi.
So let's take a look at what all of this means. There are several ways to tease out meaning from the Emerald Tablet. My friend, Rufus Opus, has approached it as a model for his Red Work course and views it as an outline of the process of solar initiation. I myself have approached it in the past as direction towards understanding the Philosophers Stone and wonder working. I have also found ways to link it to the Mysteries of Eleusis, and other initiatic orders have linked it to their own mysteries. The most simple, and most likely original intention, seems to be describing the process of creation through understanding the First Matter.
The First Matter is the alchemical or philosophical Mercury. This is the “spirit” component of creation, or the undifferentiated substance from which all things come. In Thelema this concept is encapsulated in Nuit, the undifferentiated all encompassing spiritual material of the cosmos. In the Golden Dawn this is the LVX or Light in Extension, the luminferous ether upon which all creation rests. It is the first form of Brahma, the spiritual presence from which creation creates itself. The word alchemy itself is thought to reference this material, with the syllable “al” indicating divinity and “chemy” referencing “khem” the fertile black soil of the Nile – a symbol of fecundity and growth.
The nature of this First Matter is a bit unlike most things we find in nature. It is a perfect solvent and can dissolve all things. It is volatile and changes state and form constantly. It is reactive and takes on the nature of whatever form it encounters and it is easily fixed once given form. It is deep and vast and eternal. All things come from it and all things return to it. It is unlike that which we find in nature, but it is the basis of nature.
Laboratory alchemy has linked the First Matter to various material substances because no one subtance truly matches the spiritual substance which is the First Matter. When we say that a substance is our Mercury we are referring in part to the idea that it represents and behaves as our Mercury does within a certain context. We are also noting that the substance has a high proportion of Mercury in its composition. This is not to say that it contains a lot of quicksilver, or that its material composition is in some way similar to other substances with which we associate Mercury, but the underlying metaphysical basis of its existence is more mercurial and less sulfuric. In other words it has a greater degree of Being and a lesser degree of Essence to take on the Aquinian terminology.
Now, to look at the
“2) What is above is like what is below, and what is below is like that which is above. To make the miracle of the one thing.
3) And as all things were made from contemplation of one, so all things were born from one adaptation.”
Here we reference the One and the Good, to use the NeoPlatonic terminology. This is the divine origin, the Perfect, the God without any characteristic. This God is Mind and thus all which exists is his contemplation of himself. Therefore all creation, all change and development is made by the same means.
“4) Its father
is the Sun, its mother is the Moon.
5) The wind carried it in its womb, the earth breast fed it.”
On the surface this could easily be read as a reference to the elements with the Sun as Fire, the Moon as Water, the Wind as Air and the Earth as Earth. Reading it this way we could assume it refers to some process of elemental initiation, or to some rebalancing of elemental composition. These would likely be due to our more modern systems of magic and initiation.
If we look at it from its own perspective, dew was considered to be one of the physical materials which reflected the First Matter. Dew was stirred to motion and volatility by the Sun and returned to condensation by the Moon, or in actuality, the Moon draws water from the bodies of plants. When fixed it rested upon the Earth and when volatile it rested within the air. Now the motion of dew will reveal some nature about the First Matter and the alchemical processes in the light of the rest of the Tablet but admittedly it doesn't elucidate a lot for us simply examining how a water cycle works. So if we return to our elemental thinking we can see that this does in fact describe an elemental process, the Rotation of the Elements which was a classical alchemical treatment of the elements.
The Rotation of the Elements refers to a process very similar to the movement through the phases of matter. A substance is subjected to the various elements in order to move it through different states of separation and combination. This is much the basis of the alchemical process of elemental initiation. This rotation in addition to purifying and perfecting a substance also releases its spiritual essence to be the active nature of the purified substance.
“6) It is the
father of all ‘works of wonder' in the world.
6a) Its power is complete.”
Again this reiterates the nature of this substance as the initial element of creation and the means by which all things are accomplished.
“7) If cast to
7a) it will separate earth from fire, the subtle from the gross.”
“Cast to earth” refers to setting the solvent upon a material substance. The next line expresses its powers as a solvent to remove the dross or the impure and imperfect material accretions from the true nature of the substance. The essential components of the substance exist in a state in which they are entrapped within a body composed of the true Salt Sulfur and Mercury of the substance and then also other Salts or material components not of its core nature. The processes of alchemy remove these impure components and strengthen the true and isolated components. This is the process by which alchemical medicines are created, but it is also the process by which alchemy is itself the medicine of nature and heals the world. Alchemy is intended to remove impurity and corruption, and strengthen Truth and virtue returning things to their divine origin.
“8) With great
capacity it ascends from earth to heaven. Again it descends to earth,
and takes back the power of the above and the below.
9) Thus you will receive the glory of the distinctiveness of the world. All obscurity will flee from you.”
This, in my thinking, alludes in part to the doctrine of the creation of the metals by action of planetary force upon the First Matter, which is in its own way an allegory for all creation. In this process the First Matter, or the dew incubated in the Earth rises and falls based upon the call of the Sun and the Moon, which represent the two polar natures of the metals, Gold and Silver. All other metals are some relation of the elemental nature in comparison to the nature of Gold or Silver. The elemental natures reside within the Earth and their motion purifies the dew, and also determines the condition of the Earth through which it passes. The stimulation of the light of the planets determines how the dew passes through the Earth and provides the sulfuric nature of its fixation and therefore its character. Dew which is drawn and cooled in the light of Saturn produces lead, in that of Jupiter, tin, and so forth. Thus as the dew ascends from earth to heaven it manifests into material taking the power of the Earth, the below, and the Heavens, the above. In comprehending this process of creation we comprehend that this is not simply the translation of dew into metals, but the substance of creation into the created. The world of forms, the higher nature, fixes Being by nature of its Essence into a thing so that it may accrete substance. Therefore you understand the distinctiveness of things, and the obscurity which flees is the lack of understanding of nature.
“10) This is
the whole most strong strength of all strength, for it overcomes all
subtle things, and penetrates all solid things.
11a) Thus was the world created.
12) From this comes marvelous adaptions of which this is the procedure. ”
This essentially begins the process of closing the instructions in the way they began. The First Substance is the ultimate solvent, it can penetrate and dissolve all material. In understanding the nature of the First Matter and its interaction with Sulfur we understand the process by which all phenomena and material are generated. All diversity of adaptation comes from the same source, and in studying nature and her ways we understand the true strength by which the wonders of creation occur.
There is a great deal more we can draw from the Tablet, but this is the essential nature of its most basic meaning. Even in this most basic meaning we can still draw out much which is useful for understanding alchemy, mysticism, and magic.