The Emerald Tablet

The Emerald Tablet, also known as the Smaragdine Tablet or the Tabula Smaragdina (Latin, from the Arabic: لَوْح الزُّمُرُّذ, Lawḥ al-zumurrudh), is a compact and cryptic Hermetic text. It was highly regarded by Islamic and European alchemists as the foundation of their art. Though attributed to the legendary Hellenistic figure Hermes Trismegistus, the text of the Emerald Tablet first appears in a number of early medieval Arabic sources, the oldest of which dates to the late eighth or early ninth century. It was translated into Latin several times in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Numerous interpretations and commentaries followed.

Medieval and early modern alchemists associated the Emerald Tablet with the creation of the philosophers’ stone and the artificial production of gold.

It has also been popular with nineteenth and twentieth century occultists and esotericists, among whom the expression “as above, so below” (a modern paraphrase of the second verse of the Tablet) has become an often cited motto.

Textual history

The tablet states its author as Hermes Trismegistus (“Hermes the Thrice-Greatest”), a legendary Hellenistic combination of the Greek god Hermes and the ancient Egyptian god Thoth.[3] Like most other works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, the Emerald Tablet is very hard to date with any precision, but generally belongs to the late antique period (between c. 200 and c. 800). The oldest known source of the text is the Sirr al-khalīqa wa-ṣanʿat al-ṭabīʿa (The Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature, also known as the Kitāb al-ʿilal or The Book of Causes), an encyclopedic work on natural philosophy falsely attributed to Apollonius of Tyana (c. 15–100, Arabic: Balīnūs or Balīnās). This book was compiled in Arabic in the late eighth or early ninth century, but it was most likely based on (much) older Greek and/or Syriac sources. In the frame story of the Sirr al-khalīqa, Balīnūs tells his readers that he discovered the text in a vault below a statue of Hermes in Tyana, and that, inside the vault, an old corpse on a golden throne held the emerald tablet.

Slightly different versions of the Emerald Tablet also appear in the Kitāb Usṭuqus al-uss al-thānī (The Second Book of the Element of the Foundation, c. 850–950) attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan, in the longer version of the Sirr al-asrār (The Secret of Secrets, a tenth century compilation of earlier works that was falsely attributed to Aristotle), and in the Egyptian alchemist Ibn Umayl’s (ca. 900 – 960) Kitāb al-māʾ al-waraqī wa-l-arḍ al-najmiyya (Book of the Silvery Water and the Starry Earth).

The Emerald Tablet was first translated into Latin in the twelfth century by Hugo of Santalla as part of his translation of the Sirr al-khalīqa. It was again translated into Latin along with the thirteenth century translation of the longer version of the pseudo-Aristotelian Sirr al-asrār (Latin: Secretum secretorum). However, the Latin translation which formed the basis for all later versions (the so-called ‘vulgate’) was originally part of an anonymous compilation of commentaries on the Emerald Tablet variously called Liber Hermetis de alchimiaLiber dabessi, or Liber rebis (twelfth or thirteenth century).

Arabic versions of the tablet text

From pseudo-Apollonius of Tyana’s Sirr al-khalīqa (c. 750–850)

The earliest known version of the Emerald Tablet on which all later versions were based is found in pseudo-Apollonius of Tyana’s Sirr al-khalīqa wa-ṣanʿat al-ṭabīʿa (The Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature).

حق لا شك فيه صحيح
إن الأعلى من الأسفل والأسفل من الأعلى
عمل العجائب من واحد كما كانت الأشياء كلها من واحد بتدبير واحد
أبوه الشمس ، أمه القمر
حملته الريح في بطنها، غذته الأرض
أبو الطلسمات، خازن العجائب، كامل القوى
نار صارت أرضا اعزل الأرض من النار
اللطيف أكرم من الغليظ
برفق وحكم يصعد من الأرض إلى السماء وينزل إلى الأرض من السماء
وفيه قوة الأعلى والأسفل
لأن معه نور الأنوار فلذلك تهرب منه الظلمة
قوة القوى
يغلب كل شيء لطيف، يدخل في كل شيء غليظ
على تكوين العالم الأكبر تكوّن العمل
فهذا فخري ولذلك سمّيت هرمس المثلّث بالحكمة

From the Kitāb Usṭuqus al-uss al-thānī (ca. 850–950) attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan

A somewhat shorter version is quoted in the Kitāb Usṭuqus al-uss al-thānī (The Second Book of the Element of the Foundation) attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan. Lines 6, 8, and 11–15 from the version in the Sirr al-khalīqa are missing, while other parts seem to be corrupt. Jabir’s version was translated by Eric J. Holmyard:

حقا يقينا لا شك فيه
إن الأعلى من الأسفل والأسفل من الأعلى
عمل العجائب من واحد كما كانت الأشياء كلها من واحد
وأبوه الشمس وأمه القمر
حملته الأرض في بطنها وغذته الريح في بطنها
نار صارت أرضا
اغذوا الأرض من اللطيف
بقوة القوى يصعد من الأرض إلى السماء
فيكون مسلطا على الأعلى والأسفل
Truth! Certainty! That in which there is no doubt!
That which is above is from that which is below, and that which is below is from that which is above,
working the miracles of one [thing]. As all things were from One.
Its father is the Sun and its mother the Moon.
The Earth carried it in her belly, and the Wind nourished it in her belly,
as Earth which shall become Fire.
Feed the Earth from that which is subtle,
with the greatest power. It ascends from the earth to the heaven
and becomes ruler over that which is above and that which is below.
—Zirnis, Peter 1979. The Kitāb Usṭuqus al-uss of Jābir ibn Ḥayyān. PhD diss., New York University, p. 90.—Holmyard, Eric J. 1923. “The Emerald Table” in: Nature, 122, pp. 525-526.

From the pseudo-Aristotelian Sirr al-asrār (tenth century)

A still later version is found in the pseudo-Aristotelian Sirr al-asrār (Secret of Secrets, tenth century).

حقا يقينا لا شك فيه
أن الأسفل من الأعلى والأعلى من الأسفل
عمل العجائب من واحد بتدبير واحد كما نشأت الأشياء من جوهر واحد
أبوه الشمس وأمه القمر
حملته الريح في بطنها، وغذته الأرض بلبانها
أبو الطلسمات، خازن العجائب، كامل القوى
فان صارت أرضا اعزل الأرض من النار اللطيف
أكرم من الغليظ
برفق وحكمة تصعد من الأرض إلى السماء وتهبط إلى الأرض
فتقبل قوة الأعلى والأسفل
لأن معك نور الأنوار فلهذا تهرب عنك الظلمة
قوة القوى
تغلب كل شيء لطيف يدخل على كل شيء كثيف
على تقدير العالم الأكبر
هذا فخري ولهذا سمّيت هرمس المثلّث بالحكمة اللدنية

Medieval Latin versions of the tablet text

From the Latin translation of pseudo-Apollonius of Tyana’s Sirr al-khalīqa (De secretis nature)

The tablet was first translated into Latin in the twelfth century by Hugo of Santalla as part of his translation of the Sirr al-khalīqa (The Secret of Creation, original Arabic above).

Superiora de inferioribus, inferiora de superioribus,
prodigiorum operatio ex uno, quemadmodum omnia ex uno eodemque ducunt originem, una eademque consilii administratione.
Cuius pater Sol, mater vero Luna,
eam ventus in corpore suo extollit: Terra fit dulcior.
Vos ergo, prestigiorum filii, prodigiorum opifices, discretione perfecti,
si terra fiat, eam ex igne subtili, qui omnem grossitudinem et quod hebes est antecellit, spatiosibus, et prudenter et sapientie industria, educite.
A terra ad celum conscendet, a celo ad terram dilabetur,
superiorum et inferiorum vim continens atque potentiam.
Unde omnis ex eodem illuminatur obscuritas,
cuius videlicet potentia quicquid subtile est transcendit et rem grossam, totum, ingreditur.
Que quidem operatio secundum maioris mundi compositionem habet subsistere.
Quod videlicet Hermes philosophus triplicem sapientiam vel triplicem scientiam appellat.

From the Latin translation of the pseudo-Aristotelian Sirr al-asrār (Secretum secretorum)

The tablet was also translated into Latin as part of the longer version of the pseudo-Aristotelian Sirr al-asrār (Latin: Secretum Secretorum, original Arabic above). It differs significantly both from the translation by Hugo of Santalla (see above) and the vulgate translation (see below).

Veritas ita se habet et non est dubium,
quod inferiora superioribus et superiora inferioribus respondent.
Operator miraculorum unus solus est Deus, a quo descendit omnis operacio mirabilis.
Sic omnes res generantur ab una sola substancia, una sua sola disposicione.
Quarum pater est Sol, quarum mater est Luna.
Que portavit ipsam naturam per auram in utero, terra impregnata est ab ea.
Hinc dicitur Sol causatorum pater, thesaurus miraculorum, largitor virtutum.
Ex igne facta est terra.
Separa terrenum ab igneo, quia subtile dignius est grosso, et rarum spisso.
Hoc fit sapienter et discrete. Ascendit enim de terra in celum, et ruit de celo in terram.
Et inde interficit superiorem et inferiorem virtutem.
Sic ergo dominatur inferioribus et superioribus et tu dominaberis sursum et deorsum,
tecum enim est lux luminum, et propter hoc fugient a te omnes tenebre.
Virtus superior vincit omnia.
Omne enim rarum agit in omne densum.
Et secundum disposicionem majoris mundi currit hec operacio,
et propter hoc vocatur Hermogenes triplex in philosophia.

Vulgate (from the Liber Hermetis de alchimia or Liber dabessi)

The most widely distributed Latin translation (the so-called ‘vulgate’) is found in an anonymous compilation of commentaries on the Emerald Tablet variously called Liber Hermetis de alchimiaLiber dabessi, or Liber rebis (twelfth or thirteenth century). Again, it differs significantly from the other two early Latin versions.

Verum sine mendacio, certum, certissimum.
Quod est superius est sicut quod inferius, et quod inferius est sicut quod est superius.
Ad preparanda miracula rei unius.
Sicut res omnes ab una fuerunt meditatione unius, et sic sunt nate res omnes ab hac re una aptatione.
Pater ejus sol, mater ejus luna.
Portavit illuc ventus in ventre suo. Nutrix ejus terra est.
Pater omnis Telesmi tocius mundi hic est.
Vis ejus integra est.
Si versa fuerit in terram separabit terram ab igne, subtile a spisso.
Suaviter cum magno ingenio ascendit a terra in celum. Iterum descendit in terram,
et recipit vim superiorem atque inferiorem.
Sicque habebis gloriam claritatis mundi. Ideo fugiet a te omnis obscuritas.
Hic est tocius fortitudinis fortitudo fortis,
quia vincet omnem rem subtilem, omnemque rem solidam penetrabit.
Sicut hic mundus creatus est.
Hinc erunt aptationes mirabiles quarum mos hic est.
Itaque vocatus sum Hermes, tres tocius mundi partes habens sapientie.
Et completum est quod diximus de opere solis ex libro Galieni Alfachimi.
True it is, without falsehood, certain and most true.
That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above,
to accomplish the miracles of one thing.
And as all things were by contemplation of one, so all things arose from this one thing by a single act of adaptation.
The father thereof is the Sun, the mother the Moon.
The wind carried it in its womb, the earth is the nurse thereof.
It is the father of all works of wonder throughout the whole world.
The power thereof is perfect.
If it be cast on to earth, it will separate the element of earth from that of fire, the subtle from the gross.
With great sagacity it doth ascend gently from earth to heaven. Again it doth descend to earth,
and uniteth in itself the force from things superior and things inferior.
Thus thou wilt possess the glory of the brightness of the whole world, and all obscurity will fly far from thee.
This thing is the strong fortitude of all strength,
for it overcometh every subtle thing and doth penetrate every solid substance.
Thus was this world created.
Hence will there be marvellous adaptations achieved, of which the manner is this.
For this reason I am called Hermes Trismegistus, because I hold three parts of the wisdom of the whole world.
That which I had to say about the operation of Sol is completed.
—Steele, Robert and Singer, Dorothea Waley 1928. “The Emerald Table” in: Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 21, pp. 41–57/485–501, p. 48/492—Steele, Robert and Singer, Dorothea Waley 1928. “The Emerald Table” in: Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 21, pp. 41–57/485–501, p. 42/486.

Early modern versions of the tablet text

Latin (Nuremberg, 1541)

Latin text of the Emerald Tablet, from Johannes Petreius, De Alchemia, Nuremberg, 1541.

Despite some small differences, the 16th century Nuremberg edition of the Latin text remains largely similar to the vulgate (see above). A translation by Isaac Newton is found among his alchemical papers that are currently housed in King’s College Library, Cambridge University:

Verum sine mendacio, certum, et verissimum.
Quod est inferius, est sicut quod est superius.
Et quod est superius, est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius.
Et sicut res omnes fuerunt ab uno, meditatione unius, sic omnes res natae ab hac una re, adaptatione.
Pater eius est Sol, mater eius est Luna.
Portavit illud ventus in ventre suo.
Nutrix eius terra est.
Pater omnis telesmi totius mundi est hic.
Vis eius integra est, si versa fuerit in terram.
Separabis terram ab igne, subtile ab spisso, suaviter cum magno ingenio.
Ascendit a terra in coelum, iterumque descendit in terram, et recipit vim superiorum et inferiorum.
Sic habebis gloriam totius mundi.
Ideo fugiet a te omnis obscuritas.
Haec est totius fortitudinis fortitudo fortis, quia vincet omnem rem subtilem, omnemque solidam penetrabit.
Sic mundus creatus est.
Hinc erunt adaptationes mirabiles, quarum modus hic est.
Itaque vocatus sum Hermes Trismegistus, habens tres partes philosophiae totius mundi.
Completum est, quod dixi de operatione Solis.
Tis true without lying, certain and most true.
That which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below
to do the miracle of one only thing
And as all things have been and arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
The Sun is its father, the moon its mother,
the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
Separate thou the earth from the fire,
the subtle from the gross
sweetly with great industry.
It ascends from the earth to the heaven and again it descends to the earth
and receives the force of things superior and inferior.
By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world and thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
Its force is above all force,
for it vanquishes every subtle thing and penetrates every solid thing.
So was the world created.
From this are and do come admirable adaptations where of the means is here in this.
Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world.
That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished and ended.
—Petreius, Johannes 1541. De alchemia. Nuremberg, p. 363. (available online)—Isaac Newton. “Keynes MS. 28”. The Chymistry of Isaac Newton. Ed. William R. Newman. June 2010. Retrieved March 4, 2013.

Influence

In its several Western recensions, the Tablet became a mainstay of medieval and Renaissance alchemy. Commentaries and/or translations were published by, among others, Trithemius, Roger Bacon, Michael Maier, Albertus Magnus, and Isaac Newton. The concise text was a popular summary of alchemical principles, wherein the secrets of the philosophers’ stone were thought to have been described.

The fourteenth century alchemist Ortolanus (or Hortulanus) wrote a substantial exegesis on The Secret of Hermes, which was influential on the subsequent development of alchemy. Many manuscripts of this copy of the Emerald Tablet and the commentary of Ortolanus survive, dating at least as far back as the fifteenth century. Ortolanus, like Albertus Magnus before him saw the tablet as a cryptic recipe that described laboratory processes using deck names (or code words). This was the dominant view held by Europeans until the fifteenth century.

By the early sixteenth century, the writings of Johannes Trithemius (1462–1516) marked a shift away from a laboratory interpretation of the Emerald Tablet, to a metaphysical approach. Trithemius equated Hermes’ one thing with the monad of pythagorean philosophy and the anima mundi. This interpretation of the Hermetic text was adopted by alchemists such as John Dee, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, and Gerhard Dorn.

In popular culture

In the time travel television series Dark, the mysterious priest Noah has a large image of the Emerald Tablet tattooed on his back. The image, which is from Heinrich Khunrath’s Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom (1609), also appears on a metal door in the caves that are central to the plot. Several characters are shown looking at copies of the text. A line from the Latin version, “Sic mundus creatus est” (So was the world created), plays a prominent thematic role in the series and is the title of the sixth episode of the first season.

In 1974, Brazilian singer Jorge Ben Jor recorded a studio album under the name A Tábua de Esmeralda (“The Emerald Tablet”), quoting from the Tablet’s text and from alchemy in general in several songs. The album has been defined as an exercise in “musical alchemy” and celebrated as Ben Jor’s greatest musical achievement, blending together samba, jazz and rock rhythms.

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