Zosimos of Panopolis

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(b. Panopolis [now Akhmim], Egypt; fl. c. 300 CE)

alchemy. For the original article on Zosimos see DSB, vol. 14.

Unanimously recognized as the greatest of the Graeco-Egyptian alchemists, Zosimos was a prolific author whose texts have survived only in tiny scraps. His very complex manuscript tradition raises many questions that remained unresolved as of 2007. Imbued with gnosticism and hermetism, Zosimos may be said to have raised alchemy to the most sophisticated level that it attained in antiquity by impregnating technical preoccupations with mysticism for the sake of spiritual salvation.

Biographical Data. With the exception of the Suda, where Zosimos is said to be Alexandrian, all sources call him Panopolitan or Theban (i.e., born in the Thebaid). This discrepancy has puzzled modern scholars who, following Johannes Albertus Fabricius, consider that Zosimos, born in Panopolis, lived in Alexandria. Actually, nothing prevents scholars from assuming that Zosimos may have spent at least part of his life in his native city.

Zosimos is thought to have been active around 300 CE, for he quoted Julius Africanus, who died after 240, and mentioned the Serapeum in Alexandria, which was destroyed in 391. Furthermore, Zosimos perhaps alluded to the presence of Manichaeism in Egypt, which points to a date around 300 CE.

Zosimos may be considered as representing Graeco-Egyptian alchemy in its heyday because he came after the so-called old authors (between the first and third centuries CE), to whom belong the Physika and Mystika of a pseudo-Demokritos as well as the citations or short treatises attributed to legendary or celebrated figures, and because he preceded the times of the commentators, which began at the end of the fourth century with Synesios.

Manuscript Tradition. Zosimos undoubtedly wrote a vast number of texts in Greek, of which only a fragmentary part has come down to the present in the corpus of the Greek alchemists. Put together during the Byzantine period in what in the early 2000s remained unclear circumstances, this corpus loosely gathers writings of extremely varied periods ranging from the beginning of this era to the fifteenth century. The three principal witnesses, out of a large number of medieval manuscripts, are the Marcianus graecus 299 (= M; tenth or eleventh century), the Parisinus graecus 2325 (= B; thirteenth century), and the Parisinus graecus 2327 (= A; fifteenth century). They differ from one another by the number of texts they contain, by the organization of those texts, and by their state of preservation. The relations between those three manuscripts have as of 2007 not yet been conclusively clarified.

In contrast to most ancient texts, Zosimos’s works have not been preserved separately but have been disseminated among other Greek alchemists’ texts. Locating and identifying his works remain difficult tasks, because the corpus is made of inextricably assembled pieces of work, more or less complete. The manuscripts do not make much distinction between headings and subheadings, so that it is extremely difficult, in this hodgepodge of texts, to understand where a text begins and where it ends. Last but not least, manuscript M underwent various material accidents, which make the matter worse. However, a thorough examination of the manuscripts permits grouping the membra disjecta (scattered fragments) of Zosimos’s works into four bodies of texts:

  1. The Authentic Memoirs (also titled On Apparatus and Furnaces) consists of a series of thirteen opuscules that open with the famous treatise On the Letter Omega. Several sections deal with the technical apparatus and are illustrated with remarkable drawings of alchemical instruments; these sketches raise their own specific problems; for instance, when they coincide only partially with their descriptions. Others are expositions about a puzzling substance called “divine water.” Three of the thirteen opuscules are titled On Excellence (or On the Composition of Waters) and are known as Zosimos’s “Visions.”
  2. The Chapters to Eusebia, as they are called according to the title that is found in the table of contents of the Marcianus (this title, however, is problematic), appears as a series of extracts on various subjects collected by a Byzantine compiler.
  3. The Chapters to Theodore appears as a series of short paragraphs, summaries of summaries.
  4. The Final Count forms a group with the two extracts of the Book of Sophe, between which it is enclosed.

Each group raises specific questions, and the attribution of certain passages to Zosimos sometimes remains problematic. It is evident that most of the texts have suffered badly from the transmission. To these four groups of writings, one must add a number of fragments of Zosimos disseminated among later alchemists.

Moreover, Zosimos himself and some commentators alluded to several writings that have not been preserved in the direct tradition, such as Cheirokmeta (Things Wrought by Hand), According to Action, Letter Kappa, Letter Sigma, On the Intensity of Fire, and The Book of Keys. Scholars also have the nonalchemical testimonies of George the Synkellos, who referred to a book Imouth, and of the Suda, which credits Zosimos with twenty-eight books “designated by letters of the alphabet.”

The problem, therefore, is that if one starts from the remaining opuscules and from the other available pieces of evidence, it is extremely difficult to imagine Zosimos’s work as a whole. It is likely that the treatise On the Letter Omega, which has been preserved, constituted the introduction to the Book Omega, one of the twenty-eight books to which the Suda refers; the same applies to the books entitled Letter Kappa and Letter Sigma. As for the other titles preserved, it is impossible to situate them in Zosimos’s work. What seems to be certain is that what has come down from Zosimos cuts a sorry figure compared with what must have been a very wide production. The complexity of this manuscript tradition no doubt explains why the sole general edition of the Greek texts as of 2007 remains the Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (1888) of Berthelot-Ruelle, which is rather mediocre.

Writings under Zosimos’s name have also been preserved in Syriac, Arabic, and Latin. The Syriac tradition remains largely inaccessible: Rubens Duval has given a partial and not too reliable translation of it in the second volume of La chimie au Moyen Âge(1893), but it seems sufficient to ascertain that these texts are undeniably somehow related to the Greek ones. A critical edition of the Syriac tradition would be most welcome and would procure a deeper insight into the general structure of the Panopolitan’s work. Our principal witness, the Cambridge manuscript Mm 6,29 (fifteenth century), has been the subject of partial studies by Alberto Camplani in “Procedimenti magico-alchemici” (2000), Alessandra GiumliaMair in “Zosimos the Alchemist” (2002), and Erica C. D. Hunter in “Beautiful Black Bronzes” (2002).

In the Arabic tradition, Zosimos had a great influence upon later alchemists, particularly Ibn Umail. His name is variously transcribed as Zusimus, Risamus, Rusim, and Arsimun, among other names. This tradition is as of 2007 an almost uncharted territory, but a study of the figure of Zosimos in Arabic writings, which will contain editions and translations of most of the Arabic Zosimos texts, was as of 2007 being prepared by Bink Hallum, whose research already allowed scholars to distinguish three groups of writings under the name of the Panopolitan: (1) genuine translations from the Greek tradition; (2) original works based on a knowledge of, at least, some aspects of the Greek tradition; and (3) Arabic forgeries passed off under the name of Zosimos.

In the Latin tradition, Zosimos appears under the names of Rosinus, Datin, or Reson, names that bring out its affiliation with the Arabic tradition. A few manuscripts have been located so far. But since they have been neither edited nor translated as of this writing, there is no indication available as to the content of these texts.

Practices and Ideas. Although fragmentary, the Greek tradition, as it stands, enables scholars to make some general reflections on Zosimos’s practices and ideas. It is not easy to assess how far he was original in his practices, because he is most probably indebted to Mary the Jewess, whose work is lost. The main apparatuses described by Zosimos are as follows: (1) multi-piped alembics for the distillation of liquids; (2) the so-called kerotakis, a kind of closed vessel, heated from under, inside which sheets of metal were exposed to tinctorial vapors; and (3) sublimation equipment. One must here single out the role of the divine water or sulphur water (theion hydõr), which is mentioned in several texts: it can be the liquid obtained by distillation in order to color metals, and it can also be “the one and the whole,” that is, the undifferentiated original matter, perhaps mercury, that was considered as the basic substance for transmutation.

Zosimos’s ideas were clearly influenced by hermetism and gnosticism; his writings contain some references to the Hermetic Corpus, and many parallels can be drawn between Zosimos and the gnostic texts from Hag Hammadi. (If one accepts that Zosimos could be influenced by a Christian gnosis, it is not necessary to expel from his work passages in which Christ is mentioned.) For instance, Zosimos not infrequently liked to establish symbolic correspondences between alchemical operations and the alchemist’s spiritual elevation. Playing on the notion of “pneuma,” which designates the spiritual part of man and the volatile part of a substance or of a metal, obtained by distillation or sublimation, Zosimos brought out a parallelism between the liberation of the divine spark of humans and the transformation of substances or the transmutation of metals. In the “Visions,” this liberation of the pneuma is ritualized under the form of torture, death, and resurrection; the alchemical utensils become temples and altars, whereas the vile metals are figured as human beings that must be sacrificed before they are raised in the shape of noble metals.

In short, Zosimos may be credited with endowing alchemy with a real mystical dimension. With him, alchemy appears to have become a way of life that demanded from its followers a preliminary work of mental purification and that would give them access to spiritual salvation.


The Greek texts by Zosimos contained in the Marcianus graecus 299 (Venice) and in the Parisini graeci 2325 & 2327 (Paris) have been edited by Berthelot and Ruelle in their Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (1888), and partly reedited by the author of this article (1995). The Syriac manuscripts of Zosimos (Cambridge Mm 6,29 and British Museum Egerton 709 and Oriental 1593) have been at least partially translated or edited by R. Duval (1893). There are Arabic manuscripts containing texts under the name of Zosimos in Teheran, Cairo, Istanbul, Dublin, Gotha and Rampur, among other places, but whether they contain significant quantities of documents is not known As far as the Latin tradition is concerned, there are manuscripts in Glasgow, Brussels, Palermo, Cambridge, Naples, Rome, Venice, Florence, and London (this list is certainly not exhaustive), but as they have been neither edited nor translated; scholars are not even sure that the texts they contain are really translations from Zosimos.


Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs. Edited and translated by M. Berthelot and C. E. Ruelle. 3 vols. Paris: G. Steinheil, 1888. The only complete edition of the Greek text of Zosimos.

Zosimos of Panopolis, On the Letter Omega. Edited and translated by Howard M. Jackson. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1978.

Zosime de Panopolis, Mémoires authentiques. Texte établi et traduit par [Text edited and translated by] Michèle Mertens. Les alchimistes grecs, vol. 4, pt. 1. Paris: Les belles lettres, 1995. An edition of the Authentic Memoirs, with a survey of the whole manuscript tradition and a study of the technical apparatus, includes indexes and illustrations.


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———. “Hermetism and Alchemy: Contribution to the Study of Marcianus Graecus 299 (= M).” In Magia, alchimia, scienza dal '400 al '700: L’influso di Ermete Trismegisto, edited by Carlos Gilly and Cis van Heertum. Vol. 1. Florence, Italy: Centro Di, 2002. An edition of On the Letter Omega.

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———. “Mort et transformation de la matière: À propos d’un locus desperatus des Mémoires authentiques de Zosime de Panopolis (X 6.130).” In L’alchimie et ses racines philosophiques: La tradition grecque et la tradition arabe, edited by Cristina Viano. Paris: Vrin, 2005.

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Michèle Mertens