The Alchemy of Plato, Atlantis and the Emerald Tablet

It always amazes me how often those who claim that Atlantis was once a real place have never referred to the source literature – or are even completely ignorant of its existence.  The original story of Atlantis is found in two Socratic dialogues called Timaeus and Critias, and both were written about 360 BCE by the Greek playright Plato.

It’s really obvious when you read those original plays that they were as mythological – and not historical – as any other ancient multi-dimensional story that features gods and goddesses living around a labyrinth in which one god is Poseidon who rules the seas, and another (Atlas) holds up the whole universe on his shoulders.

But what’s even less widely known is that Plato was also an alchemist and a mystic, and so in  researching the idea that Plato’s dialogues about Atlantis were allegorical stories designed to carry a sub-strata of Hermetic alchemical teachings, I had to sort out my misconceptions about the Great Art. So I followed Ariadne’s thread out of the labyrinth and went back to school with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Alchemy by Dennis William Hauck.

I’m not sure whether the ‘Complete’ in the title refers to the Idiot or the Guide, but I am beginning to suspect that it’s both. It’s very clearly written in terms which help to demystify this previously arcane and complicated ancient art, with Hauck providing an easy-to- understand overview of the history, philosophies and practices of alchemy. The book includes the basic principles of alchemy, the alchemist’s code, alchemical medicines and elixirs and the three stages of alchemical transformation.

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to start off a discussion about this so that I can add to it from time to time about interesting bits that I’ve read or understood, and please do also join in if you want to.

In his history of alchemy, Hauck says that “Specifically scholars consider Egyptian alchemy to span the centuries from 5000 BCE to 350 BCE.”

I’m not sure about this bit. It is an Idiot’s Guide after all, and so he doesn’t quote references. I think it is likely to be true, though, in referring to Egypt as the land of Khem and that the word ‘alchemy’ comes from Al Khem, which means ‘from the Land of Khem’.

Alchemy seems to have become a part of the Greek practise of Hermeticism soon after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in the 4th century BCE. The Greek word ‘Hermeticism’ is based on Hermes, which is the Greek name for the great Egyptian god Thoth upon whose writings the practice of Hermeticism and alchemy was based. Thoth is often depicted as an ibis.

The Egyptian Thoth

The Greek Hermes

But you may not have known — well, I didn’t — that …

… according to legend, Thoth preserved his canon of writings inside two great pillars “just before the Great Flood inundated the world.”  Thousands of years later, the pillars were rediscovered. According to existing texts written by Egyptian priests, one of the pillars was discovered outside the city of Heliopolis (city of the Sun), and the other was unearthed near Thebes.

The massive columns were covered with sacred hieroglyphics. When first discovered, they were referred to as “The Pillars of the Gods of the Dawning Light.” The pillars were eventually moved to a secret temple dedicated to the First Gods. Some texts indicate that this location was the Temple of Amun in Siwa, which is the oldest temple in Egypt. Only priests and pharoahs were allowed to view the sacred objects and scrolls.

Some evidence suggests the pillars really existed. Not only were they described in scrolls dating back to 1550 BCE, but they were also periodically put on public display and have been mentioned by credible sources throughout history. Solon, the Greek legislator and writer, studied them firsthand and noted that they memorialised the destruction of an ancient advanced civilisation. The great historian Herodotus encountered the two pillars in a secret Egyptian temple he visited in 400 BCE. “One pillar was of pure gold,” said Herodotus, “and the other was as of emerald, which glowed at night with great brilliancy.” He named them the Pillars of Hermes.

Artist’s impression of the Emerald Tablet

So Solon, who appears to bring the story of Atlantis to Plato after hearing it from the priests of Sais, it now turns out actually read it on the Pillars of Hermes, which, by their very name, we know are connected to Hermeticism and the Emerald Tablet of Thoth.

Thoth’s Emerald Tablet, by the way, was said to be inside the emerald-like pillar which opened to reveal it.

But there’s more….

According to Hauck, Alexander (the Great) specifically commissioned the building of the Library of Alexandria in order to house the thousands of alchemical texts. I had always thought that the purpose and role of the LofA was to house mythological texts, which I’m sure were there too. But Alexander was much more concerned with alchemy, which he learned from his tutor Aristotle.

Of course, as we know, the LoA was burned down ~ three times. The first two destructions by fire were accidents as a result of war, but the third one was the deliberate act of a Christian Roman emperor who deliberately set out to destroy all wisdom derived from Hermeticism. Strangely enough, what few scorched and dog-eared manuscripts (around 30,000) managed to survive the excesses of the Emperor Diocletian, which had been moved into a new building for safekeeping, were finally destroyed by Caliph Umar in 642 CE, when the Arabs conquered Egypt. He told his generals:

“If these writings of the Greeks agree with the Book of Allah, they are redundant and need not to be preserved. If they disagree, they are blasphemous and need to be destroyed.”

Anyway, the subject of Alexandria brings us to the first alchemist of record, Bolos of Mendes, a ‘sorceror’ of Alexandria who lived around 300 BCE, and the first mention of the Emerald Tablet.

In Bolos’s most influential work, On Natural and Mystical Things, he describes the discovery of an ancient text hidden within a great column which dealt with the universal harmony of nature. Many believe this to be the first recorded reference to the Emerald Tablet.

According to Arab tradition (bearing in mind that they were the sole keepers of the tradition for centuries while Hermeticism was driven underground by the Romans), there was also a Babylonian Hermes who wrote at least fifteen books on alchemy and magic, including The Great Epistle of the Celestial Spheres.

Many works by Greek philosophers were among the Arabian alchemical translations. Plato or “Aflatun” (as he was known to the Arabs), was considered by the Arabians to have been a great alchemist who invented several devices for use inside the laboratory.

Also, according to the Arab tradition, Pythagorus acquired his knowledge of mathematics and alchemy from scrolls found in the Pillars of Hermes. Known as “Fithaghurus” to the Arabs, Pythagorus’s Book of Adjustments was very popular among alchemists.

There were also translations of the works of Archelaos, the teacher of Socrates to whom the Arabs attribute the great alchemical treatise Turba Philosophorum. Also, translations exist of the oral teachings of Socrates, who was considered a practising alchemist who successfully generated an artificial life form. Socrates never publicly admitted to being an alchemist and was opposed to writing down any alchemical treatises for fear they would fall into the wrong hands.

Aristotle, who the Arabs called “Aristu”, was revered as a great alchemist and scholar. Aristotle wrote a book on alchemy for his student, Alexander the Great, which, by order of Heraclitus, was translated into Syrian in 618 CE. Several works by Aristotle survived only in Arabic, including a discourse between him and Alexander called Epistle of the Great Treasure of God. The book has three chapters entitled “About the Great Principles of Alchemy” “Alchemic Operations and “The Elixir”. In it, Aristotle reviews the alchemical writings of Hermes, Asclepius, Pythagorus, Plato, Democritus and Ostanes.

Plato and Aristotle (detail from painting by
Leonardo da Vinci)

So a picture is beginning to form very clearly through the mists shrouding this time. I now see that it would have been almost impossible for Plato NOT to have been an alchemist and a Hermeticist, given the lineage which he was a part of stretching back through not only Socrates and his teacher, Archelaos, but all the way back to Pythagorus, who would have learned it from the Egyptians or the Khem.

Now we only have to understand the alchemical processes themselves to see how Plato has very cleverly and astutely buried the teachings about them in the story of Atlantis, which his teacher Socrates would have thoroughly approved of, so long as they were buried so deep that only those with the eyes of seers could see them.