Some excerpts from E.J. Holmyard’s Alchemy
with introductory note by Eric Darton
Is translation a kind of alchemy –- a form of transmutation? Of course the translator is hoping not to turn literary gold into lead, but produce a substance of equivalent value in another language.
The relation among translation, transmutation, and transmission was borne in upon me recently when I encountered E.J. Holmyard’s book, Alchemy, first published by Penguin in 1957. It is one of those rare books in which an author –- in this case a renowned scholar –- delights in presenting their material to a presumably erudite general public. Apart from the knowledge transmitted, the writer also, in effect, shares her or his sense wonder with the reader.
In reading Holmyard’s chapters on Islamic and Early Western Alchemy, I learned that the first alchemical texts to enter the European discourse were translations from Arabic. Further, the Arabic texts used as the basis for the European translations had themselves been translated from other sources. I leave it to the reader relish the implications of this cultural metamorphosis –- driven in all cases by a desire to transform dross into a pure and rarified, highly workable and seemingly “immortal” substance. The connection between polar states of matter extends to other cultures as well. I am reliably informed that the hieroglyph for gold in the Nahua language signifies “excrement of the gods.”
The passages below are taken from Holmyard's text:
Within a century after the Prophet’s death, Islam had become a vast empire stretching from the Pyrenees to the Indus and many various races had become incorporated into its civilization. Some of these peoples continued to speak their own languages, but Arabic was the religious, official, and literary language throughout the empire, and was occasionally made compulsory for speech in public. A ninth-century Bishop of Cordoba complained that his fellow Christians in Spain read Arabic poetry and romances not in order to be able to refute Muslim theologians but so that they might express themselves more elegantly and correctly in the Arabic language: ‘there is hardly one among a thousand to be found who can write to a friend a decent letter in Latin’. This general adoption of Arabic throughout the educated classes in Islam accounts for the fact that numerous Muslim works on alchemy are Arabic only linguistically, their authors being Persian or other nationality and not Arabs.
[Eventually,] having overrun not only Alexandria and Harran but all the other principal centres of Greek culture the Muslims were able to indulge to the full their [great interest in learning]. Under Harun al-Rashid (764?-809) and Al-Ma’mun (786-833) large numbers of academies and observatories were set up and the chief works of the Greeks on astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and other sciences were translated into Arabic, for the most part by Syriac-speaking Nestorians. From the eighth century onwards Islam was producing scholars of her own.
According to Ibn al-Nadim, a biographer of the second half of the tenth century, the first Muslim to interest himself in alchemy was the Umayyad prince Khalil ibn Yazid, who died about 704. Ibn al-Nadim says that Khalil had a general love for the sciences but was particularly attracted to alchemy; so he ordered some Greek philosophers to be summoned from Egypt and instructed them to translate alchemical books from the Greek and Coptic languages into Arabic. ‘This,’ adds the biographer, ‘was the first translation from one language to another in Islam.’
Alchemy came to the Muslims originally from Alexandria. The names venerated by the early Arabic alchemists are those already familiar to us, such as Hermes, Agathodemon, Plato, Zosimus, Democritus, Heraclius, Ostanes, Stephanos, Apollonius, Alexander, Archelaos, Mary the Jewess, and may others, the main interest of the list lying in the evidence it provides that Islam appropriated the Greek alchemical authorities in toto. Confirmation, if any were needed, of the close affiliation between Greek and Arabic alchemy is provided by the large number of Greek technical terms transliterated into Arabic from Hellenic treatises. [There also exist] unmistakable traces of Persian and even Assyrian influence in Muslim alchemy, manifested by the linguistic affinities in technical terms and usages and in names of minerals…
Syrian pagans from Harran were also widely employed in translation; they were star-worshippers and diligent astrologers. These Sabians, as the Arabs called them, possessed exceptional skill as linguists, and the ease with which they acquired Arabic recommended them to the court at Baghdad, where they were tolerated in spite of their unbelief. But this dependence on foreign translators was not long complete; as early as the eighth century there were Muslim scholars who could read Greek, and the number increased with the lapse of time.
While early medieval Europe was by no means destitute of skillful dyers, painters, glass-makers, goldsmiths, metallurgists and other craftsmen or technicians, there appears to have been no knowledge of alchemy in the West until it was introduced from Islam, a process beginning in the twelfth century. Until then almost the sole contact between Islam and Christian Europe was through the crusades, which were clearly not favorable to the transmission of learning. Soon after 1100, however, European scholars began to discover that the Saracens were possessed of much knowledge and ancient wisdom, and the bolder spirits began to travel in Muslim lands in search of learning and enlightenment. Sicily, an appendage of Islam from 902 to 1091, was captured by the Normans in the latter year, and the island thus became a centre of diffusion of Arabic learning. It was, however, in Spain – still largely under Moorish control – that the greatest activity prevailed. Students were welcomed to the colleges and libraries at Toldeo, Barcelona, Segovia, Pamplona and other Spanish towns, and study was soon followed by translation.
One of the earliest of the translators was the Englishman Robert of Chester. In 1141 he and his friend Hermann the Dalmatian were living in Spain near the Ebro, studying the arts of alchemy and astrology. Here they were found by Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, who persuaded them to translate the Koran into Latin, a task which they immediately started, and which took them two years. Robert then turned to the translation of an Arabic alchemical book, the ‘Book of the Composition of Alchemy.’ This was the first work on alchemy to appear in Latin Europe, so we can date the introduction of the art very precisely [to 1144]. In his preface Robert says:
Although our wit be but raw and our Latin but little, yet we have taken in hand to translate this
great work out of the Arabic tongue into Latin… And it hath seemed good unto me to set my name in
the beginning of the preface, lest any man should attribute this our labour unto himself and also
challenge the praise and desert as due unto himself.
Following Robert’s assertion of the intellectual property rights due the translator, Holmyard goes on to trace the ensuing textual explosion of Arabic alchemical works into Latin. Along with sophisticated glass instruments and a motley collection of materials with which to accomplish transmutation, these books entered into the laboratories of hundreds, if not thousands, of practitioners of an art that extended well past Shakespeare’s lifetime, even unto the alchemical priest of Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and whose mystique remains sublimated beneath the mental hegemony of positive science. Whilst in China, the concept of “alchemy” took a decidedly different turn… but this is for another time and page.
Source: E.J. Holmyard, Alchemy. New York: Dover Publications, 1990.
Editor's NOTE: In regard to the Translation Movement and Medieval Islamic origins of Alchemy, Jim Al-Khalili, British physicist and ofttime BBC presenter of programs of scientific interest, informs us via the link below in his series on Islam and science. There is a section on alchemy in the episode and mention in subsequent ones.
Al-Khalili has also authored a book on the subject, published in ebook form as The House of Wisdom or in paperback, international edition as Pathfinders, the Golden Age of Arabic Science. Amazon.UK sells an ebook version of Pathfinders.