Prophetess Isis to Horus

Category: Ancient Learning > Natural Philosophy > Alchemy

1 Introduction

Surviving alchemical literature from antiquity is often entirely technical or, if it shows any religious character, Christian. But there are still some pieces of overtly pagan character, and this piece, a letter from the ‘prophetess’ (priestess) Isis to Horus about “the sacred art of Egypt” (=alchemy), ranks as perhaps the most interesting among them. That it features an angel with a quasi-Hebrew name, Amnaēl, does nothing to lessen this; it only makes it more interesting as a piece representing Greco-Egyptian religiosity.

This text survives in two redactions, one written in odd and sometimes barely comprehensible Greek, the other quite clear. Only the latter, technical portion is the same in both versions. I have based my translation on the less clear version on the assumption that it is closer to the original, but also added some material from the latter recension in italics, because on its own, the first redaction is often close to meaningless. That does not mean, however, that the second redaction has always guessed at the sense correctly, only that it has a better chance of being right than I do. Sometimes, the formulations cannot be integrated, and I insert the text of the second redaction {in curly brackets}.

As I know nothing about alchemy or chemistry, I heartily invite comments and suggestions, especially but not only for the technical section. Please do not attempt to use any of these recipes unless you are trained for such work.

At the end of the page I quote some passages of Zosimus of Panopolis, who comments on quotations from our text in his Book of Pictures, which is lost in Greek but extant in Arabic.

2 Translation (from the Greek of Bethelot & Ruelle, Alchimistes Grecs, vol. 2)


(Letter of) Isis, queen of Egypt and wife of Osiris, about the sacred art (tekhnē), to her son, Horus.

[Prefatory part]

Isis the prophetess to her son, Horus.

When you wished to go forth to war against faithless Typhon, o my child, to fight about the kingdom of your father, I was in Hormanouthi, where the sacred art of Egypt is practiced mystically (i.e., ‘in secrete’), and spent some time there. But at the end of that period and the necessary activity of discovery(?), it happened that a certain one of the prophets or the angels, who lives in the first firmament, beheld me from above and wished to have sexual intercourse with me. But when he came and wanted to do this, I did not yield, because I wanted to learn the production of gold and silver. When I asked this of him, he said he was not permitted to speak about this because of the eminence of the mystery; but that on the next day, the angel Amnaēl, who was greater than he {the first angel and prophet of these, who is called Amnaēl}, would come to me, and he would be great enough to give the solution to the investigation about these things. He told me that he would have a certain sign on his head, and would carry an unpitched vessel full of luminous water. And he wished to speak the truth.

On the next day, when the Sun was in the middle of its path, Amnaēl, the one who was greater than he, came. And because he was seized by the same desire for me, he did not delay, but asked what the issue at hand was, and I, no less heedful, asked him about those things. When he paused then, I did not give in, but prevailed over his desire, until he would show me the sign on his head and transmit the mysteries I was seeking ungrudgingly and truthfully.

Then, he showed me the sign and transmitted the mysteries; he began by first speaking commandments and oaths to me, as follows: “I adjure (orkizō) you by heaven, earth, light and darkness. I adjure you aby fire and water and air and earth. I adjure you by high heaven and earth and the depth of Tartarus. I adjure you by Hermes and Anubis, the barking of Kerkoros, the guardian serpent {and by the barking of the kerkouroboros serpent and the three-headed Kerberos, the guardian of Hades}.¹ I adjure you by that ferry-boat, and the ferryman Acheron.² I adjure you by the three Necessities and the whips and the sword.”³ Having adjured me with these words, he commanded me to reveal to nobody except my child or a true friend, so that he is you and you are he.⁴

But go and look, and ask some farmer,⁵ and learn from him what is that which is sown, and what is that which is reaped, and you will learn that the one who sows the wheat also harvests it; and likewise, the one who sows the barley also harvests the barley.

Now that you have heard these things, my child, as a preface, understand the entire crafting (dēmiourgia) and origination (gennēsis) of these things; and know that the human being knows how to sow a human being, the lion a lion, and the dog a dog. And if something happens to be born contrary to nature, it is born as a prodigy (teras), and has no stability (systasis). For nature delights in nature, and nature conquers nature.

Now, when those who partook in divine power and were blessed by (divine) presence, as these things were illuminated upon prayer, worked (kataskeuasantes) using sands, and not other substances, then they reached the intended matter of what was being produced (kataskeuazomenou) through it being of the essential(?) nature (dia to tēs ousēs physeōs hyparkhein).⁶ For as I said before that wheat begets wheat, and human sows human, so gold also harvests gold, and like (produces) like. Now, the mystery has been made manifest.

1: The first redaction’s “barking of Kerkoros, the guardian serpent” is a conflation of the Greek Kerberos, who is either a serpent-tailed dog or (more rarely) a serpent guarding the underworld, with the serpent swallowing its own tail, a much-discussed Egyptian symbol in the Roman period. Kerkoros must represent kerko-boros, ‘tail-devouring’, a clever pun on Kerberos.
In the second redaction, these concepts seem to have been split up again, with Kerberos restored to his ordinary description, but curiously, the serpent is still barking, and its name has become doubled: kerk-ouro-boros means ‘tail-tail-devouring’.
2: The editor takes this as a mistake for “ferryman across the Acheron”, but perhaps there is rather a confusion between the ferryman Charon and the river Acheron, due to the similarity of their names.
3: The three Necessities would seem to be none other than the Fates (Moirai); whip and sword are attributes of Hekate, albeit not only her.
4: I.e., Horus is both her son and a true friend.
5: The first redaction says akharanton geōrgon, which I do not understand (as neither, it seems, did the second redactor).
6: Understandably, this bizarre sentence is drastically simplified in the second redaction: “One must fabricate (kataskeuazein) the matter from sands and not from other substances.” Truthfully, however, I do not understand what this means, either.

ἡ γὰρ Φύσις τὴν Φύσιν τέρπεται,
καὶ ἡ Φύσις τὴν Φύσιν νικᾷ.

For Nature delights in Nature,
And Nature conquers Nature.

[Practical part]

And take quicksilver, and solidify (pēxon) it, either with a sod of earth, or with a body of Magnesian (magnet?), or with sulphur, and keep it; this is khliaropages (‘warm-solid’). Mixture of materials (lit. ‘species’):

  • One part khliaropages lead,⁷
  • Two parts marble,
  • One part homolithos (‘same-stone’; ‘pure stone’?),
  • One part yellow realgear (sandarakhē), and
  • One part malachite (batrakhion).

Mix these things with lead that is not powdered, and re-smelt thrice.

The mixture of a white color (pharmakos), which is the whitening of all bodies. Take quicksilver, made white with copper, and take:

  • One part from that,
  • One part of Magnesian mixed (ekzeukhtheisēs) with waters,
  • One part of fecula treated with citron juice,
  • One part of arsenic mixed (leiōthentos) with the urine of an uncorrupted (child),
  • One part of cadmia,
  • One part of pyrite with litharge,
  • One part of white lead burned with sulphur,
  • Two parts of litharge with asbestos,
  • One part of the ash of kōbathia (‘arsenical sulphides of cobalt’).

Mix (leiou) all these things with very sharp white vinegar, and when you have dried it, you have the white color.

[Work in Progress]

[Work in Progress]

[Work in Progress]

When you wish to whiten any body, do as follows. Take quicksilver, oil(?) of asbestos (staktē asbestou), urine, goat milk, sodium carbonate, salts, mix (leiou), and (use it to) whiten.

On the same basis, all things have been made known to you,⁸ and the compositions, the tinctures, and all the procedures, and whatever else leads to one understanding (nous), and to one working (ergon). So understand the mystery, my child, of the alchemical substance (pharmakos) of the widow.⁹

And soot (aithalē, ‘sublimed vapor’?) is separated out as follows. Take arsenic, boil it in water, and throw it in a mortar, mix it with vermilion (? stakhis) together with a little oil, and throw into a bowl and covering, and over an opening (? epanō pylēs) put it on coals.

And create realgar in a similar manner.

7: Apart from other difficulties in this recipe, it is not clear how we get from khliaropages to khliaropages lead. Perhaps there is an error in the text and these are really different ingredients. Or perhaps what is being produced is khliaropages lead?
8: The first redaction’s wording here is untranslatably ungrammatical.
9: The widow being Isis herself. Her husband Osiris had been slain by Typhon (Set), which led to the battle mentioned at the beginning of the letter.

3 Excerpts from Zosimus’ Book of Pictures
(translation of Salwa Fuad and Theodor Abt)

[These commentaries really stand in need of commentary themselves; at this time, I am unfortunately not able to give it.]

[Theosebeia] said: “Then tell me, O Zosimos, about the statement of Isis (ar. Asīda):
‘Out of a human being comes only a human being, and out of animals come only (animals) like themselves. Therefore limit yourselves to what I ordered you, as I have put you on the right path. So do not abandon it, after having known it, otherwise you will regret it.’”

[Zosimus] said: «She spoke well for whoever understands. Do you not see that she meant that a nature only works with its nature, and only what is similar to it can come from it. So take the honourable nature because the work comes from it, not from anything else. Know that if you do not operate on it well, you will have nothing, and know that this is one of the secrets of the sages.»

She said: “Will you not tell me about Isis (ar. Asïda) and what she said about the inundation of the moisture, and the great vision which was revealed to her when the planet rotated— it was Saturn—and [the vision’s] descending to her from the seventh sky, and its attempt to seduce her? But she refused his request unless he taught (offered to teach) her the making of gold and silver, because he was the master of that, and with him is the basis of the matter of nature, after the exalted God. He refused her this but then he returned to her, and she asked him about his name. He declared that he was the greatest fighter.”

He said: “If you are only asking me in order to confirm what you know, you are not the first who doubted. But if you are asking me out of ignorance of what Isis alluded to, maybe I should increase it (your ignorance) for you.”

She said: “Know, O Zosimos, by the great Judge of souls, all these questions that I am putting to you are not out of blindness or doubting about whoever came before you, rather I find pleasure and comfort in what you illuminate for me, by which God increases my happiness.”

He said: “Concerning these things which Isis said, they are: She is the white woman and the blond one is Amṯiāīl (read Amnaˀīl = Amnaēl). So she compared 5 herself with that woman, and she took Amṯiāīl as her companion. And I told you that they only write by giving enigmatic allusions and examples.”

She said: “Then tell me about when the sages said:
‘One should mix with this ferment some of the body which one wants to dye like it; if it is silver, then a plate of silver, and if it is gold, then a plate of gold until it is destroyed and rotten.’”

[He said:] «Because in the Book of Isis, which is called The Book of Power, [Isis said:]
‘Wheat brings forth wheat, a lion brings forth a lion, and a human being brings forth a human being. This is because the broth is one, making both of them rotten.’
And know that if the water of sulphur is mixed in the right way, it becomes good for every thing. And even if you mix the composition in the wrong way, it should show you a good dye because when it is dyed, it dyes. So if you know the truth, do not be afraid of any statement of the sages.”