Zosimus of Panopolis

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(b. Panopolis [now Akhmīm], Egypt;d. Alexandria, Egypt; fl. ca. A.D. 300),


Zosimus appears to be the earliest genuine historcal figure mentioned as an author in the Greek alchemical texts. Almost notheing is known about his life. That he came from Panopolis, in the Thebaid (Upper Egypt), is known from the extant texts, as well as from two of the three nonalchemical authors who mention him: Photius (ninth century) and Georgus Syncellus (eighth-ninth century). The third source, the Suda (formerly called the Suidas, about 950), refers to him a sAlexandrian, but this undobutedly means that he later lived in Alexandria. No source gives his dates. He is generally thought to have lived somewhat earlier than the alchemist Synesius, whcose dates have been established by his having sent a book to Dioscorus, the high priest of the Serapeaum in Alexandria, whcih was destroyed in 389. Accordingly, Zosimus is presumed to have lived around A.D. 300.

Books in which the author’s name is given as Zosimus are preserved in Greek, Syriac, and Arabic. Syncellus mentions the book Imuth and cites form it a story (known from the Book of Enoch, chapters 6-8) in whcih alchemy, along with other arts, is revealed to mortal women by the fallen angels, who seek to win their favor in this way. This tory is repeated in one of the Syriac texts by Zosimus, and the title Imuth occurs in various places in the Syriac texts (see La chimie au moyen âge, II, 238). The citations in the latter are consistent, how ever and it is therefore impossible to infer anything with certainly about the nature of this book.

The Suda mentions a much more famous work, the twenty-eight books addressed to Zosimus’ (spiritual) sister Theosebeia, each of which is supposedly designated by a different letter of the alphabet. The book Omega is found among the surviving Greek texts; and it, along with the books called Kappa and Sigma, is cited in certain Greek texts. In various books Theosebeia is addressed by name and by the pharase “O woman.” Her name also appears in the Syriac texts, as does the secondperson feminine form of address. Since the Greek alphabet contains only twenty-for letters, the designation of four of the books remains problematic.

Also unclear is the relationship between these twenty-eight books and the thirty-five chapters addressed to Eusebius, which are cited in the list of alchemical writings in Codex Marcianus 299. This list, which obviously records the contents of the codex (the oldest one preserved-it dates from the eleventh century) as it existed at an earlier date, mentions several works of Zosimus that are preserved. Among these are the book On “Arete” (outstanding quality or, perhaps, peculiarity), On the Compositon of Waters, and fifteen chaptes addressed to Theodorus, known as On Tools and Ovens. Another extant work in the list is the commentary by Olympiodorus on Zsimus’ but it cannot be determined form the commentary how this title ought to be translated. Bertholot classified the book among the “traites democritains.”

The grouping of texts in Berthelot’s Collection des anciens alchimistes greces does not give a clear idea of which texts were really written by Zosimus. Among those under the name “Zosimus,” serveral contain only citations from Zosimus; and for others not even this much is true. On the other hand, many of the texts attributed to Zosimus include citations from later authors. Further, berthelot did not collect the citations from Zosimus that appeared in other books not published under his name, nor did he carry out a systematic comparison of the Syriac and Greek texts. Finally, the Syriac texts are given only in a French abridgment, not in the orignial.

As a result, it is not clear which texts can rightly be attributed to Zosimus. And the incomprehensibility of many of the writings makes textual criticism all the more difficult.

Of the approximately twenty Arabic book titles that F. Sezgin has assigned to zosimus, some sound as if they might be translations form the Greek, while others appear to be Arabic forgeries. Something is known about the contents of only one of these books-thanks to H.E. Stapleton; the assertion found in this book that it was translated in the year A.H. 38 (A.D. 659) does not fit its context and is obviously false.Many citations from Zosimus can be found in published Arabic texts or in their Latin translatioin, sometimes with his name and sometimes, as in the Turba philosophorum without it. The citations in the latter book are mentioned by J.Ruska in hhis notes to the translation. Sezgin’s remarkes on the individual titles require more careful examination

Given the absence of a critical monographic study of Zosimus, it is scarcely possible to present an accurate account of his teachings. His alchemical statements sometimes takes the form of visions, in which chemical apparatus is represented as a temple and the metals are personified (for example as “lead man” and “copper man”) The alchemical,operatioin itself is viewed as a sacrificial act.Elsewhere, his remarks bear the stamp of a kind of natural philosphy but are confined to general discussions. In any case, because of Zosimus frequently allegorical style, it is not evident whether his subject is alchemy or religion. On the whole, his works seem to be the expressioin of a mystic religion that is almost never entirely of a mystic religion that is almost never entirely eliminated even in the seemingly technical sections. He warns Theosebeia about deceitful prophets and against according the art too high a value. He advises her to cool her passion and to resist desire (for gold). Genuine and natural change of color is obtained by public worship.In this connection he cites two treatises from the Corpus Hermeticum the Poimandres(I) and the Crater(IV)

Despite this attitude, Zosimus, fulfills Theosebeia’s wish and describes the apparatus and the ovens used in alchemical work. He warns her, however, to beware of persons who have misled her into adopting a contrary method of alchmical practice-people who love gold more than reason. He derides a priest named Nilus and is especially pleased with his lack of success.

Zosimus, who in the later texts is called “the Old One,” “the Divine,” and the Most Learned", shows in all his writings a great reverence for the ancient masters of the art; Hermes, Agathodaemon, Zoroaster, Democritus, Ostanes, and Maria. On the whole he, gives the impression of having been a pagan, and E.Riess is certainly correct in ascribing the Christian passages in his books to later writers. Zosimus calls himself unoriginal, simply a complier and commentator; but this is not necessarily sincere. He may have been seeking to win more confidence in his writings or perhaps was following an established literary practice.

Zosimus’ works have attracted the interest of a number of historians of religion, who have investigated his relations to Gnosticism and especially to the Hermetic tradition (for example, R. Reitzenstein, W. Scott, H. Jonas, and A. J. Festugiere). Ruska has been particularly concerned with the Hermetic tendencies in Zosimus’ thought; he and Festugiere have edited and translated some of his works, making many improvements in Berthelot’s texts. The extensive use of pseudonyms in these writings makes it impossible to give an account of Zosimus’ own chemical theories until further progress is made in the study of the entire corpus of Greek alchemical texts. Only then will scholars be able to judge the originality of Zosimus’ ideas-a problem that has been studied especially by I. Hammer Jensen.


See M. Berthelot, Les origines de l’alchimie (Paris, 1885); Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (Paris, 1888; repr. London, 1963); and La chimie au moyen âge, II and III (Paris, 1893); Catalogue des manuscrits alchimiques grecs, II and III (Paris, 1893); Catalogue des manuscrits alchimiques grecs, Ii (Brussels, 1927); A.J. Festugière, “Alchymia,” in Antiquité classique, 8 (1939), 71 ff.; and La révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste, 1(Paris, 1944; 2nd ed., 1950); W. Gundel, “Alchemie,” in Real Lexikon fur Antike Christentum,1 (1950); I. Hammer Jensen, Die älteste alchymie (Copenhagen, 1921); H. Jonas, G nosis und spätantker Geist (Göttingen, 1921); H. Jonas, G nosis un spatantiker G eist (Gottingen, 1934-1964); E. O. von Lippmann, Entstehung und Ausbreitung der Alchemie (Berlin, 1919), 75-92; A. D. Nock and A. J. Festugière, eds. and trans., Corpus hermeticum, IV (Paris, 1954), 117-121; R. Reitzenstein, Poimandres (Leipzig, 1904); E. Riess, “Alchemie,” in Real Encyclopadie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, 1 (1894); J. Ruska, Tabula smaragdina (Hedidelberg, 1926); “Zosimos,” in G. Bugge, ed., Das Buch der grossen Chemiker (Berlin, 1929); and Turba philosophorum (Berlin, 1931) W. Scott, Hermetica, IV (Oxford, 1936); F. Sezgin, G eschichte des arabischen Schrifttums, IV (Leiden, 1971) 73-77; and H. E. Stapleton and R. F. Azo, “An Alchemical Compliation of the Thirteenth Centuray A.D.,” in Memoirs of the Asatic Society of Bengal,3 no. 2 (1910).

M. Plessner