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The start of Western alchemy may generally be traced to Hellenistic Egypt, where the city of Alexandria was a center of alchemical knowledge, and retained its pre-eminence through most of the Greek and Roman periods. Here, elements of technology, religion, mythology, and Hellenistic philosophy, each with their own much longer histories, combined to form the earliest known records of alchemy in the West. Zosimos of Panopolis wrote the oldest known books on alchemy, while Mary the Jewess is credited as being the first non-fictitious Western alchemist. They wrote in Greek and lived in Egypt under Roman rule.
Mythology – Zosimos of Panopolis asserted that alchemy dated back to Pharaonic Egypt where it was the domain of the priestly class, though there is little to no evidence for his assertion, Alchemical writers used Classical figures from Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology to illuminate their works and allegorize alchemical transmutation. These included the pantheon of gods related to the Classical planets, Isis, Osiris, Jason, and many others.
The central figure in the mythology of alchemy is Hermes Trismegistus (or Thrice-Great Hermes). His name is derived from the god Thoth and his Greek counterpart Hermes. Hermes and his caduceus or serpent-staff, were among alchemy's principal symbols. According to Clement of Alexandria, he wrote what were called the "forty-two books of Hermes", covering all fields of knowledge. The Hermetica of Thrice-Great Hermes is generally understood to form the basis for Western alchemical philosophy and practice, called the hermetic philosophy by its early practitioners. These writings were collected in the first centuries of the Common Era.
Technology – The dawn of Western alchemy is sometimes associated with that of metallurgy, extending back to 3500 BC. Many writings were lost when the emperor Diocletian ordered the burning of alchemical books after suppressing a revolt in Alexandria (AD 292). Few original Egyptian documents on alchemy have survived, most notable among them the Stockholm papyrus and the Leyden papyrus X. Dating from AD 300–500, they contained recipes for dyeing and making artificial gemstones, cleaning and fabricating pearls, and manufacturing of imitation gold and silver. These writings lack the mystical, philosophical elements of alchemy, but do contain the works of Bolus of Mendes (or Pseudo-Democritus), which aligned these recipes with theoretical knowledge of astrology and the classical elements. Between the time of Bolus and Zosimos, the change took place that transformed this metallurgy into a Hermetic art.
Philosophy – Alexandria acted as a melting pot for philosophies of Pythagoreanism, Platonism, Stoicism and Gnosticism which formed the origin of alchemy's character. An important example of alchemy's roots in Greek philosophy, originated by Empedocles and developed by Aristotle, was that all things in the universe were formed from only four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. According to Aristotle, each element had a sphere to which it belonged and to which it would return if left undisturbed. The four elements of the Greek were mostly qualitative aspects of matter, not quantitative, as our modern elements are; "...True alchemy never regarded earth, air, water, and fire as corporeal or chemical substances in the present-day sense of the word. The four elements are simply the primary, and most general, qualities by means of which the amorphous and purely quantitative substance of all bodies first reveals itself in differentiated form." Later alchemists extensively developed the mystical aspects of this concept.
Alchemy coexisted alongside emerging Christianity. Lactantius believed Hermes Trismegistus had prophesied its birth. St Augustine later affirmed this in the 4th & 5th centuries, but also condemned Trismegistus for idolatry. Examples of Pagan, Christian, and Jewish alchemists can be found during this period.
Most of the Greco-Roman alchemists preceding Zosimos are known only by pseudonyms, such as Moses, Isis, Cleopatra, Democritus, and Ostanes. Others authors such as Komarios, and Chymes, we only know through fragments of text. After AD 400, Greek alchemical writers occupied themselves solely in commenting on the works of these predecessors. By the middle of the 7th century alchemy was almost an entirely mystical discipline. It was at that time that Khalid Ibn Yazid sparked its migration from Alexandria to the Islamic world, facilitating the translation and preservation of Greek alchemical texts in the 8th and 9th centuries.
On the Swift Wings of the Mighty Dragon.