The Tabula Smaragdina Revisited

by Karen-Claire Voss

A paper presented at Inscriptions in the Sand, an Arts and Culture Conference and Festival.  The Sixth International Literature and Humanities Conference at Eastern Mediterranean Uuniversity, Famagusta, Northern Cyprus, June 4-6, 2003.


         The fabled Tabula Smaragdina (the Emerald Table), is a document that influenced alchemical thought for generations.  It was erroneously ascribed to the mythical figure of Hermes Trismegistus until 1614, when Isaac Casaubon discovered that it was the work of several authors living in the second and third centuries of the Common Era.  [1]

         Here I want to look closely at the importance the alchemists accorded to three major themes in the Tabula:  the idea of oneness, or unity; the concept of separateness or duality; and the concept of wholeness implicit in the union of opposites that comprises the alchemical coniunctio, or wholeness. [2] For reasons of space I have not provided many examples, but I have selected some from the collection known as The Hermetic Museum that are especially illustrative of these three themes. [3]   In passing, I will comment on the extent to which the Tabula Smaragdina functioned as “a model of” as well as a “model for” the world (following anthropologist Clifford Geertz [4] ) and thus provided the alchemists with a kind of recipe by giving an account of the creative process of the universe.  Essentially, though, this paper sets forth what might best be termed a kind of special pleading for scholarly work in the hermeneutics of alchemy.  In my view that this is a laudable and worthwhile enterprise since I firmly believe that the alchemical project is still meaningful.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that if the process of alchemy were properly understood we would see that each individual human life constitutes the alchemical work par excellence.  Moreover, I believe that this is the case today, in 2003, just as it was the case ten thousand years ago.    

         The necessity for constructing a hermeneutics of alchemy can appear to be a daunting project when modern readers first confront the heavily symbolic language of alchemical texts.  But just as the language used in other sacred writings, alchemical language is multivalent and can refer to many levels of reality simultaneously. [5] Happily, this characteristic may contribute to making the hermeneutical task somewhat less forbidding for the historian of religions who is thereby freed to approach alchemical writing as myth, pure and simple, in contrast to colleagues in history of science who are for most part compelled to approach alchemy as a rather naive and irrational pseudo-science.

         Finally, therefore, particular attention will be paid to the methodology used by contemporary researchers when examining alchemical texts.  Texts belonging to a tradition I call “spiritual alchemy” constitute compendia of illumination, and were written with the intention of making accessible to others a way of being in the world. [6] Since this is the case, I will argue that methodological approaches to the texts of spiritual alchemy must take account of the worldview that produced them and researchers must become thoroughly familiar with both the worldview and the intentions of their authors, which was to transmit gnosis.  

Oneness or Unity

         To begin with, alchemical texts contain so many instances proclaiming the notion of unity that we may with certainty conclude it was an important concept for the alchemists.  The characteristic multivalence of the language suggests that while the various stages of the alchemical work—nigredo, albedo, rubedo, and coniunctio—may refer to events occurring amidst the substances used in the alchemical laboratory, (the exoteric level of meaning which would be of particular interest to the historian of science), they may also refer to the intrinsic cosmic order, or to the spiritual experience of the operator, (the esoteric level of meaning); frequently, as I have said, a passage can refer to both levels at the same time.  For instance, in The Golden Tract we find the quality of unity ascribed to the desired end product of the laboratory process, generally called the Philosopher’s Stone, but referred to here as the alchemical matter:  “As concerning the matter, it is one, and contains within itself all that is needed . . . the thing is one in number and one essence . . .” [7] And although the author realizes that it may appear that “two things, namely a body and an acid . . . are required [to make the Stone],” he insists it is “clearer than day that the substance of our Blessed Stone is one . . .” [8] To further support this insistence he quotes the words of Arnold de Villa Nova:  “Our stone is made out of one thing, and with one thing . . . Its nature is one, and it is one thing . . .” [9] And those of Halys:  “The Stone is One . . . out of one substance the Sages obtain our remedy.” [10]   Basilius Valentinus, he writes, also tells us “that universal thing . . . is one thing.”  [11]   In each of these passages unity is ascribed to the object of the alchemical enterprise, and we could therefore be justified in interpreting these words as referring only to something that will be produced in the laboratory.  However we move to a more esoteric level of meaning in other texts like The Sophic Hydrolith which says that the “matter of the Philosophical Stone . . . is composed of three things, yet it is only one . . . ,” [12] but goes on to ascribe the quality of unity to the cosmic order itself:  “Now Nature may truly be described as being one, true, simple, and perfect in her own essence . . .” [13]

         Returning to The Golden Tract we find another passage that begins by speaking about unity in connection with the alchemical substance in the characteristic way, but ends up focusing on the alchemist’s psychological and spiritual disposition, the inner state that is a necessary condition for success in the alchemical enterprise:

As concerns the Matter, it is one, and contains within itself all that is needed.  Out of it the artist prepares whatever he wants.  Its ‘Birth is in the sand,’ as the philosopher Anastratus says in The Crowd:  ‘Nothing is more precious than the red sand of the sea; it is the distilled moisture of the moon joined to the light of the Sun and congealed.’  That only this one substance is required is attested to by Agadmon in the same book.  He says: ‘Know that unless you take my body (sulphur) without the spirit (mercury) ye will not obtain what ye desire.  Cease to think of many things.  Nature is satisfied with one thing, and he who does not know it is lost.’  [14]

The writer of The Sophic Hydrolith concurs: 

         If therefore you would know her, [i.e., Nature] you, too, should be true, single-hearted . . . If you know yourself to be so constituted and your nature adapted to Nature, you will have an intuitive insight into her working.  (emphasis mine) [15]

         In my view, at its most profound, the alchemical discussion of unity touches upon what Tillich called the ground of being, what Eliade named the sacred center, and what Whitehead referred to as the ontological principle.  It is the unity or the source which is most essentially real, which underlies all else, that which in itself constitutes the limitless potentiality from which is derived the multiple forms of the natural world and of human experience.  The Tabula Smaragdina speaks of it also:  “All things have been from one thing, while that thing is meditating, just as all things have been born from this one thing. “ [16] Indeed, the initial phase in the great work was understood symbolically by the wisest practitioners of alchemy as being a descent into the darkness to grapple with that “one thing,” the formlessness of the prima materia.  It was called “Our chaos,” by the alchemist who wrote An Open Entrance to the Closed Palace of the King:

         Let the student incline his ear to the united verdict of the Sages, who describe this work as analogous to the Creation of the World.  In the Beginning God created Heaven and Earth; and the Earth was without form and void, and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  And God said, ‘let there be light,’ and there was light.  These words are sufficient for the student of our Art. [17]  

The author of The Glory of the World calls the Stone “Hyle, or first principal of all things.”  It is “The matter that was from the beginning.  It was neither moist, nor dry, nor earth, nor water, nor light, nor darkness, but a mixture of all these things, and this mixture is HYLE.” [18] John Mehung’s A Demonstration of Nature personifies Nature who says: “Chaos is the first substance . . . the Mistress that maintains the King, the Queen, and the whole court.” [19] Later in the treatise she instructs the alchemist: “First learn to know me . . . Follow me that am the mother of all things created . . .” [20]

We can appropriately characterize the alchemists’ confrontation with the unknown and unnamed “heroic”:  their activities followed the paradigmatic activities of the gods at the time of creation and can therefore be defined as creative in the best and most profound sense of that term.  By assimilating to themselves the qualities and attributes of mythic heroes and creator divinities the alchemists were, in Eliadean terms, imitating the acts of the gods in the beginning. [21]   Out of an initial phase in which they struggled with chaos, the alchemists derived form.  That which had been a single, unformed mass was now cleaved into two distinct parts; essentially, although manifested in many different ways, those parts were spirit and matter, the great polarities of alchemy.

Separateness or Duality

         Thus, along with the importance accorded to unity by the alchemists of our Hermetic Museum we also find an emphasis on duality.  They compressed the rich multiplicity of forms in the physical and spiritual world into vivid language describing several kinds of symbolic oppositions.  The treatises are replete with descriptions of oppositions:  sun/moon, heaven/earth, ascension/descension, male/female, as if to herald, albeit faintly, the “chymical marriage” of the opposites.  When taken as a whole, the descriptions seem to fall into three broad, but fairly distinct types of oppositions that will be illustrated and discussed below.  I will also note some examples of oppositions for the purpose of comparison with the Tabula Smaragdina.

         First of all, there are pairs that are comprised of complementary elements, reminiscent of the delicately balanced oppositions we find prior to the ultimate alchemical resolution.  For example, in The Glory of the World we find an account of two kinds of water: “Know also that two waters flow forth from this fountain; the one (which is the spirit) towards the rising sun, and the other, the body, towards the setting sun.” [22] An understanding of the implications of the metaphor of the waters would be very important for the alchemical work, since the movement of the two waters has its analogue in the Tabula’s description of the ascending and descending movement of the creative will of the world.  Examples of this kind of balanced opposition can be found in other treatises as well:  “When there was nothing but Himself, God, who is infinite in His wisdom, created two classes of things, namely, those that are in heaven, and those that are under heaven,” thereby reiterating the Tabula’s oft-quoted pronouncement that “what is above is just as what is below.” [23]  

         There is also a second type of opposition that consists of pairs of opposites whose terms are quite unbalanced.  One example is found in An Open Entrance to the Closed Palace of the King:  “Gold is our male, and it is sexually joined to a more crude white gold—the female seed:  the two together constitute our fruitful Hermaphrodite.” [24] Here the female is described as inferior to the male, but from the same treatise comes the following:  “Our Mercury is not common mercury . . . all common mercury is corporeal, specific, and dead, while our Mercury is spiritual, female, living, and life giving,” and here we have the female described as being superior to the male.  In either case, however, what we have here are oppositions of the type I call unbalanced.   ‘Common Mercury’ is opposed to ‘our Mercury,’ ‘corporeal’ is opposed to ‘spiritual,’ and ‘dead’ is opposed to ‘living,’ and in each of the pairs the elements are not only opposed to each other but one is considered inferior to the other.

         At first this may appear inconsequential since the contexts in which the pairs in my examples appear make it obvious that none are elements in an alchemical union, nor are the alchemists giving directions here about how to accomplish the coniunctio.  However, the alchemists are making statements that hint at an esoteric dimension of meaning with regard to substances and qualities, and the implications of their conceptualizations are very interesting.  For example, the writer who speaks of “common mercury” seems to be demonstrating his belief in an ontological dualism that demands that the “common mercury” must be replaced by “our Mercury.”  If this is the case, it is a view that departs from the pattern found in the Tabula Smaragdina where all elements in oppositions are balanced. 

         Not all the alchemical oppositions are as benign as those that have been discussed thus far.  To a third group belong what I like to call “the great polarities” that are often described in terms denoting extreme conflict.  Several outstanding descriptions of oppositions like these can be found in The Book of Lambspring, which is comprised of fifteen verses representing different stages in the alchemical process; each verse is accompanied by a superbly executed engraving. [25]          Space does not permit an exhaustive commentary on The Book of Lambspring but I do want to make some comments about two verses in particular.  In one we find two birds, one white, the other red, depicted in combat with each other, while in a second verse a wolf “from the east” fights with a dog “from the west.” [26]   These are undoubtedly metaphors referring to elements that are in opposition to each other and must be resolved before the alchemical work can proceed.  Here it is important to note that not only are they imaged as radical polarities, but their resolution is portrayed as being possible only when one of them vanquishes the other.  Close examination of the oppositions in this text as well as many others like it show that the language of war was frequently used in alchemical descriptions.  This is significant. Elsewhere I have argued that of the three kinds of oppositions one finds in the alchemical texts, only those which depict paired elements in a balanced opposition follow the model found in the Tabula Smaragdina and that this warrants refraining from referring to the Tabula as if it were the only ancient text that functioned in a paradigmatic way for the alchemists. [27] However, here I want to emphasize that in my view the subtle dynamics involved in the alchemical coniunctio can only be modeled after a description like that found in the Tabula smaragdina

Wholeness or the Coniunctio

         At the level of the coniunctio, we see an emphasis on the resolution of the elements that the alchemists had struggled to separate.  “Time and time again,” writes Jung, “the alchemists reiterate that the opus proceeds from the one and leads back to the one.” [28]   Yet just as the problem of the coincidentia oppositorum is most fully manifested, and the elements are posed for union, we see that the issue of how their resolution can be represented best becomes very important.  There is a marked contrast between the rather austere description of the conjunction between upper and lower in the Tabula and the highly symbolic descriptions found in many of the treatises of The Hermetic Museum.  The alchemical texts contain language and imagery that are almost always mythic, and frequently erotic.  There is, for example, a text by Michael Maier containing a story of a royal wedding which is obviously an allegory representing the alchemical marriage. [29] In Thomas Norton’s Ordinall we are directed to the Laudabile Sanctum (which Norton attributes to Hermes) where we find the following reference to the alchemical conjunction:  “There lies the snowy wife wedded to her red spouse.” [30] And in a treatise written by Michael Sendivogius we read: 

The aim and object of our Art is to elicit from metals that Sulphur by means of which the Mercury of the Sages is, in the veins of the earth, congealed into silver and gold; in this operation the Sulphur acts the part of the male, and our Mercury that of the female.  Of the composition and action of these two are engendered the Mercuries of the Philosophers. [31]    

         An allusion to the alchemical marriage in The Sophic Hydrolith reads as follows:  “the sages have shadowed out this union in various ways, and likened it, for instance, to the wedlock of a bride and bridegroom (as in the Song of Songs). [32]

In my view those alchemists who imaged the alchemical union under the form of the hierosgamos would probably also have regarded the Tabula Smaragdina as paradigmatic.  Turning to the extent to which the Tabula functioned not only as a model of reality, but as a model for reality following Clifford Geertz’s articulation of the function of symbols, I think it is clear that the Tabula Smaragdina functioned as a model of reality in as much as it was understood to be a secret teaching about how the world actually is, how the creative process actually functions.  Given the emphasis in the Tabula Smaragdina on what I call process causality, it seems equally clear that the alchemists who understood that the Philosopher's Stone would come about as the result of a mechanistic process in which two distinct as well as absolutely opposed elements fought to the death, as it were, did not regard the Tabula Smaragdina as a model for reality.  In their view, in order to produce the Stone, one of the alchemical elements would have to vanquish the other, in the same way that is depicted in the ancient creation epic, the Enuma Eliş, in which Marduk, the direct descendant of Tiamat, the Mother of All the Living, vanquished her.  There we read that he

         released the arrow, it tore her belly, cut through her insides, splitting the heart. Having thus subdued her, he extinguished her life /and/ cast down her carcass to stand upon it.  Then the lord paused to view her dead body, that he might divide the monster and do artful works.  He split her like a shellfish into two parts. [33]

The creative process is depicted very, very differently in the Tabula Smaragdina.  It is what I call organic or process causality, and it is characterized by a mode of exquisitely subtle mutual reciprocity and interpenetration in which each term of an opposition enters fully into the being of the other, transforming and being transformed.  It is this process that is frequently imaged as a hierosgamos in the alchemical texts and its fruit was called the Philosopher's Stone. [34]


         As I stated earlier, the texts belonging to the tradition I call “spiritual alchemy” constitute compendia “of illumination,” and were written with the intention of making accessible to others a way of being in the world.  Alchemy is a collection of materials not only of interest for the history of science because of its bearing on the develop­ment of modern chemistry, but one which is of interest for the historian of religions because it represents an important current within the western esoteric tradition. [35]   That tradition was, and still is, as Antoine Faivre expressed it so beautifully, “both a way of life and an exercise of vision.” [36]   I recall this here in order to emphasize the fact that the esoteric tradition and the currents that comprise it are not merely historical artifacts, but have always been, and continue to be, dynamic, vital actualizations of the human spirit.  The texts and the iconography of spiritual alchemy are replete with images that attest to that vitality.  For this reason, I believe that methodological approaches to the texts of spiritual alchemy must take account of the worldview that produced them and researchers must become thoroughly familiar with both the worldview and the intentions of their authors, which was to transmit gnosis. 

         Elsewhere, I have written at some length about methodological problems, particularly in the study of esotericism. [37]   Here, I will simply close by stating that in my view, if we give in to the contemporary cult of meaninglessness, reductionism, and a distorted idea of what it means to be objective, [38] we may well end up with a formidable list of academically prestigious publications but we will have, as it used to be put so quaintly, lost our souls.  Texts like the ones we have looked at here were meant to be signposts to help guide us through the process of developing ourselves as spiritual beings. Although it may shock, disturb or amuse a contemporary audience to say, that process is the raison d'être of every human being. [39] It is for that reason these texts should not be marginalized, but taken seriously.  Given the fact that the world is today literally on the verge of destroying itself—an absolute fact, not to be confused with the slogan painted on a lunatic’s signboard proclaiming, “The end of the world is coming”—this loss, I think, is something that we cannot afford.

Karen-Claire Voss

31 May 2003   Istanbul

Appendix I - The Emerald Table

1.  The truth, without lie, certain and most true.

2.  What is below is just as what is above, and what is above is just as what is below for the purpose of penetrating the miracle of each thing.

3.  And just as all things have been from one thing, while that thing is meditating, just as all things have been born from this one thing, by the adaptation of this one thing.

4.  Its father is Sun, its mother is Moon, the wind brought it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.

5.  The father of all, the Thelema, of the whole world, is here. 1

6.  The strength of it is complete if it is transformed into earth.

7.  You will separate earth from fire, subtle from gross, gently, but with great intelligence.

8.  It ascends from earth to heaven, and repeatedly descends to the earth, and receives the power of upper and lower.  Thus you will have the glory of the whole world.  Therefore, all obscurity will flee from you.

9.  Herein is the strong strength of all strength:  because it overcomes each subtle thing, and penetrates every solid. 2

10.  Thus the world has been created. 3

11.  Hence there will be miraculous adaptation of which this is the way. 4

12.  For that reason, I am called Hermes Trismegistus; I hold three parts of the philosophy of the whole world.

13.  I have completed all that I have to say concerning the operation of the Sun.


1.  thelema, Gr., the will of the world

2.  This one thing is inherently capable of penetrating two things, and does.

3.  The Latin is in the present perfect tense, passive voice; thus, we have the idea of an action begun and completed in the past, but continuing its effect into the present.

4. This is the way,” in the sense of modus operandi; i.e., a recipe for the process of creating.

[1] See Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1966), p. 321; The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, (Boulder, Colorado:  Shambhala, 1978), p. 111and Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), pp. 432-440.  

[2] An excellent overview of alchemy is F. Sherwood Taylor, The Alchemists (1951; reprint, London, 1976).  The best exposition of the hermeneutical significance of the alchemical tradition is Mircea Eliade's The Forge and the Crucible:  The Origins and Structures of Alchemy (Chicago and London, 1978).  Also noteworthy is Françoise Bonardel's Philosophie de l'alchhimie: Grand oeuvre et modernité (Paris, 1993).

[3] The Hermetic Museum Restored and Enlarged, 2 vols. (London: James Elliot & Co., 1893).  Hereafter cited as Waite.

[4] Clifford Geertz, The Interpretatıon of Cultures (New York:  Basıc Books, Inc., 1973), pp. 93-94, 95, 114, 118, 123.

[5] On the multivalence of alchemical language see Carl G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis: an Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy, trans. R.F.C. Hull.  Bollingen Series, X (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1970, p. 457.

[6] I explored this contention in depth in "Spiritual Alchemy; Interpreting Representative Texts and Images" in Gnosis and Hermeticism:  From Antiquity to Modern Times, ed. by Roelof van den Broek and Wouter J. Hanegraaff (New York:  State University of New York Press, 1988), pp. 147-181.

[7] Waite, vol. I, p. 12.

[8] Waite, ibid., pp. 12-13.

[9] Waite, ibid., p. 12.

[10] Waite, ibid., p. 31.

[11] Waite, ibid., p. 14.

[12] Waite, ibid., p. 77.

[13] Waite, ibid., p. 75.

[14] Waite, ibid., p.12.

[15] Waite, ibid., p. 75.

[16] Tabula Smaragdina, verse 3.

[17] Waite, vol. II, pp. 167-168.

[18] Waite, vol. I, p. 187.

[19]   Waite, vol., I., p. 125.

[20]   Waite, ibid., p. 131.  The similarity between the feminine voice in this text and the one in Proverbs 8: 22-31 should not be overlooked. 

[21]   Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, trans. W. Trask.  (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959), p. 90 et passim

[22] Waite, ibid., p. 180.

[23]   Tabula Smaragdina, verse 8. 

[24]   Waite, vol. II, p. 165.

[25] Waite, vol. I, pp. 271-306.

[26]   Waite, ibid., pp. 290-291: pp. 285-285.

[27]   See my unpublished paper entitled “Body as Hierophany (presented at the annual American Academy of Religions Meetings in Chicago in 1988) on my website:  http://www.ı

[28] Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, trans. R.F.C. Hull.  Bollingen Series, XX (New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 1968; 1980), p. 293.

[29] Waite, vol. II, pp. 208-209.

[30]   Waite, ibid., p. 59.

[31]   Waite, ibid., p. 149.

[32]   Waite, ibid., p. 82.

[33] Quoted from James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts (New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 1950), pp. 60-72.  I discuss the implications of the Enuma Eliş in “Body as Hierophany,” p.3.  See n. 27, supra

[34]   In my paper on "spiritual alchemy," (supra, n. 4) I provided a detailed analysis of the stages of the alchemical work and closed by speculating that perhaps one could find in spiritual alchemy a form of Western tantra.  My views on this have been the subject of controversy in at least one instance.  See Dan Merkur's "Methodology and the Study of Western Spiritual Alchemy" in Theosophical History VII/2 (April 2000), 53; 61; and 69-70; my "A Response to Dan Merkur's Methodology and the Study of Western Sprıtual Alchemy” in Theosophical History VIII/9 (July 2002), 243-249; and Dan Merkur, "More on Methodology and Alchemy" in Theosophical History VIII/10 (October 2002), 270-272.

[35] See for example, Antoine Faivre Access to Western Esotericism (New York: State University of New York Press, forthcoming 1994); originally published as Access de l'Esotérisme occidental (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1986); cf. "Ancient and Medieval Sources of Modern Esoteric Movements," in Modern Esoteric Spirituality.  Antoine Faivre and Jacob Needleman, Editors; Karen Voss, Associate Editor.  (New York:  Crossroad Continuum, 1992), pp. 1-70.

[36] Antoine Faivre, "Esotericism," Hidden Truths: Magic, Alchemy, and the Occult, edited by Lawrence E. Sullivan (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987), p. 41. 

[37] See Karen-Claire Voss, “Prolegomena to a Transdisciplinary Approach to Esotericism,” in Transdisciplinarity: Theory and Practice.  Holmes Press, USA, forthcoming, 2003.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., “The Rockshelf Furthering All That Is: Rediscovering the Sacred in the 21st Century,” Memoire du XXIe siecle.  Éditions du Rocher; Paris, forthcoming, 2003.