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Zosimos, Theosebeia, and a Distillation Furnace

Zosimos, Theosebeia, and a Distillation Furnace

    For the last two weeks I have continued my research into the alchemists of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, including such shadowy figures as Hermes Trimegistos (the mythic father of alchemy who, according to some medieval writers was a grandson of Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, to others was a contemporary of Moses or Abraham) and Zosimos of Panopolis, the first verifiable real person whose alchemical writings have survived. Zosimos lived in Egypt, probably Alexandria, during the late 3rd and early 4th Centuries A.D. His teachings were written in Coptic Greek and later translated into Arabic. One book he wrote was the Mushaf as-Suwar, or Book of Pictures. The Chemical Heritage Foundation has a book edited by Theodor Abt with a facsimile copy of this manuscript, which was discovered in Istanbul and apparently dates from pre-Islamic times. This is seen from the fact that the book contains over forty color illustrations depicting Zosimos, his student Theosebeia, and various gods, demons, and angels. Depicting the human form is forbidden in the Quran, so these drawings predate Islam. In the Mushaf as-Suwar, Zosimos used allegorical language and the symbolism of gnostic Christianity to describe a series of dreams in which the processes of grinding and roasting and distillation where used to purify substances, but which also symbolized the inner transmutation of the soul; the purification of the alchemist himself. In the image above, Zosimos and Theosebeia with the sun and moon with faces over their heads (representing their eternal, perfected souls) are standing by a furnace with a distillation alembic on top. The size of the furnace (the same size as the figures) indicates an inner or spiritual transformation. Interestingly enough, these same symbols – sun god and moon queen standing by a distillation vessel – are quite common in alchemical allegorical symbology.

A recipe for red glass using gold powder

A recipe for red glass using gold powder

    In addition to this “deep alchemy” research, I’ve begun to photo books that document technologies and processes used in the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods. One such book is Antonio Neri’s Art of Glass, written in Florence around 1612. Neri was a master glassmaker and his book details recipes and techniques for glass blowing, enamels, paints, etc. One page of the English translation by Merritt shows Neri’s recipe for red glass using gold powder that has been “calcined” using Aqua Regis and roasting. The diagrams in the book show the use of tools very similar to those used today; this is one art form that has not changed all that much. A modern glass blower could go back in time 400 years and still be perfectly qualified to practice the art; the only real difference is that back then, the glass factories would make their own colored frit (hence Neri’s recipes) instead of buying the frit ready-made.

A windlass for raising ore

A windlass for raising ore

    Another fascinating book of technology that I’ve started to photograph is De Re Metallica by Georg Agricola, first published in 1556. It details mining practices in Germany at that time, and Agricola goes into elaborate detail on the types of mineral deposits and veins found, how to survey them, what tools to use to dig the ore out, how to raise and lower the ore buckets (as in the windlass diagram shown here), and even several techniques to pump water out of the mine shafts. Here he has a diagram of a multi-stage sump pump that is powered by an overshot waterwheel above the mine. Interestingly enough, Pliny the Elder talks about a similar technique that used human-powered treadmills to raise sump water in stages inside the Rio Tinto gold mines in Spain during Roman times.

Multi-stage water pump

Multi-stage water pump

    Agricola’s book required over 270 woodcut illustrations which held up its printing for years. It was a masterwork, a book of beautiful design and quality, as you can see. I feel very priveleged to even look at it, let alone photograph it.  Unfortunately, Agricola died in 1555, a year before it was finally printed. I guess that’s a lesson to scholars to not be too perfectionistic in our work!

    Finally, I continue to explore the area surrounding Philadelphia with my family. We traveled to Ocean City, New Jersey last Saturday and I took some good photos and video of the ocean, which will surely come in handy. I’m already thinking of places to use it. Here’s a sample photograph:

Beach at Ocean City, New Jersey

Beach at Ocean City, New Jersey

It reminds me of Isaac Newton’s saying, that he considered himself merely a boy playing on the beach looking at interesting shells and pebbles, while all around him the ocean of knowledge lay unexplored.

    I have also continued working on illustrations and animations for forthcoming podcast episodes. Here is a video clip of an animation of the Earth rotating. It was created in Daz Bryce 6 using a brass sphere surround by a gold sphere, the texture of which contains a world ocean mask (which I found at a NASA website) to cut out the ocean areas. I’ve been using this to create animations which zoom in to Greece, Egypt, Rome, etc. for various parts of the Greek atomic theory episode that will be posted at the end of August.

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