Symposium: "Byzantine and post-Byzantine alchemy: principles, influences and effects"

Symposium "Byzantine and post-Byzantine alchemy: principles, influences and effects"
5th International Conference of the European Society of History of Science
Athens, 1-3 November 2012

Historical research has traced the first written documents of alchemy back in the 3rd century AD. From the 1st to the 4th centuries, alchemical practice develops itself into an art of metallic transmutation and two distinct alchemical “schools” seem to emerge: the one, represented by Ostanes, is still based on the practical knowledge of craftsmen, blacksmiths and dyers, although a shift is being accomplished from “chrysosis” (giving to a base metal the appearance of gold) to “chrysopoeia” (transforming a base metal to gold); the other, represented by Zosimos and Maria the Jewess, assumes a religious, Gnostic orientation, putting the emphasis on the elaboration of distillation techniques. The period of Byzantium is a turning point, not only because there are many commentators of the ancient alchemical texts, but for the attempt, during the 10th century, to collect these texts and to articulate them in a coherent corpus, the surviving manuscript copies of which comprising, to our days, the main evidence for the emergence and the historical development of Greek alchemy.

During the last decades, historians have shown that from the Renaissance onwards a field of knowledge concerning chemical phenomena begun to crystallize itself and to be differentiated from traditional “chrysopoeia”, in the sense that it implies more an experimental research of how physical bodies are composed or decomposed than a quest for the proper process of metallic transmutation. We may denote this field of knowledge by the term “Chymistry”.
Key role in the articulation of chymistry played a kind of occultism which has developed at the end of the 15th century in Florence by Marsiglio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. What we may call “Renaissance Occultism” is the outcome of piecing together the fragments of many different ancient and medieval traditions. The whole construction, though, is a consistent one, aiming at the knowledge of nature in terms of becoming, and thus at the unfolding of the occult life of God, who permeates nature and is regarded as an emanative cause, tending, more and more, to be an immanent cause. Chymistry seems to emerge when this occultism gives an epistemic horizon to the late medieval, and especially Geberian, alchemy, in a way that henceforth the empirical knowledge of substances’ properties and “natural principles” has to be developed into the theoretical knowledge of material transformations.

In this context, we will try to explore in this symposium the relationship between Greek, Byzantine and post Byzantine alchemy, as well the transformation of alchemical principles from Eastern to Western Europe.


Gianna Katsiampoura, Institute fon Neohellenic Research, National Hellenic Research Foundation, Greece
Jennifer Rampling, Cambridge University, UK
Rémi Franckowiak, Université des Sciences et Technologies de Lille, France