BMCR 2019.12.09

Turba Philosophorum. Congrès pythagoricien sur l’art d’Hermès. Philosophia antiqua, 150

Grégoire Lacaze, Turba Philosophorum. Congrès pythagoricien sur l’art d’Hermès. Philosophia antiqua, 150. Leiden: Brill, 2018. xiii, 663. ISBN 9789004360327 $256.25.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Greco-Roman alchemy originated as an effort to perfect and codify craft-knowledge about materials—knowledge of what happens to metals, stones, and liquids when they are heated, cooled, roasted, boiled, melted, mixed, or dyed—in the context of a physics that was primarily Aristotelian in inspiration but featured certain Hermetic themes. The oldest pieces of the alchemical literary corpus were pseudonymous works by figures like ‘Democritus’, ‘Cleopatra’, and ‘Maria’ (though the latter’s name may be genuine) composed in Roman Egypt. Later alchemists like Zosimus of Panopolis and Stephanus of Alexandria wrote on the subject under their own names and with greater philosophical ambition. The transmission of this corpus to the Islamic world started in the seventh century CE, inspiring various creative appropriations. Shortly before 850 an unknown author working in Egypt composed a work framed as a dialogue in which a host of ‘Pythagorean’ sages expounded on various facets of the alchemical craft. Around 1300 this Arabic treatise was rendered into Latin under the title Turba Philosophorum. The Arabic text later went missing, but the Latin one would go on to have an impressive Nachleben in scholarly Europe, inspiring numerous commentaries and serious attention from figures like Cornelius Agrippa, Isaac Newton, and Carl Jung. Although the Turba has been edited before, by Julius Ruska in 1931, Lacaze’s edition is the first to take into account all of the available manuscript evidence, to spell out in detail all that is now known about its relationship to its Arabic- and Greek-language predecessors, and to offer prospective readers all the tools they will need to understand this curious treatise.1

A few remarks on the contents of the Turba may help to set the scene for Lacaze’s contribution. With its numerous set speeches the work bears a superficial resemblance to sympotic dialogues like Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists or Macrobius’ Saturnalia. The Turba, however, has many more participants—approximately forty-four—and their speeches are typically much shorter, sometimes no more than a page. Their names form a wonderfully exotic parade: Arsuberes, Horfachol, Iargos, Iksimidrius, Locustor, Pandulfus, and so on. In a few cases they are sufficiently transparent—e.g. Parmenides, Anaxagoras, ‘Democrites’—to permit the reader to guess the truth about their origins: these are Greek names, distorted in some cases beyond recognition by their double journey from Greek into Arabic, then into Latin. In the opening section of the work nine of the savants take turns expounding different aspects of a conventional four-element physics; together their speeches serve to adumbrate the cosmology in which alchemy must perform its work. The contributors in the Turba ’s middle section unfold a large collection of classic alchemical recipes, including procedures for altering the colors of metals and creating useful agents like sulfur water. The Turba concludes with an account of an elaborate dream narrated to Pythagoras by his student Arsileus. The vision features a kingdom afflicted by sterility, a mystic marriage, and a miraculous resurrection, and hints at alchemy’s ability to renew the world. For a technical treatise the work is quite lively: the participants banter back and forth, and the ‘crowd’ frequently interrupts speakers to demand that they expand on or clarify some point. Yet there is a noteworthy absence of polemic, and one gets the impression that the sages belong to a unified tradition, each contributor articulating different facets of a single underlying truth.

The challenges faced by a prospective editor are daunting. The text exists in two different versions, each represented by a dozen manuscripts. There is almost no end to the different ways in which the speakers’ names are spelled, some like Horfachol appearing in as many as thirty-five alternative forms. A similar diversity affects the technical names for alchemical substances, not to mention the Decknamen or code-names for idealized stuffs; for example, the lead ore galena is in various manuscripts referred to as absemerich, absemic, ebmich, ebsemech, esement, ebsemth, ebsemetich, ebsemith, ebsenc, emith, exebmich, exebsimerit, obsemech, obsemerich, obsemet, obstmerich, and obsemith.2 In his presentation of this material Lacaze has chosen to err on the side of thoroughness, which makes for a rather hefty volume but also a very useful one. Most of the information is broken out into separate sections, including a detailed account of the manuscripts and two substantial appendices dealing with nomenclature. To further assist the reader Lacaze has provided an analytic paraphrase and commentary on the entire work, along with a lucid translation into French which graces the facing pages of the Latin text.

One of the chief aims of scholarship surrounding the Turba is to understand its relationship to its precursors in the Greek and Arabic traditions, and to get some sense of the circumstances under which the Arabic original was composed. That book, as noted above, no longer exists; however, we possess a number of potential allusions to it by Islamic scholars, several fragmentary texts in Arabic that bear some resemblance to the Turba, and a fairly complete corpus of Greek antecedents. Lacaze surveys the scholarship on these matters, laying out what we do and do not know, and quotes the parallel passages in full at the bottom of his Latin text. (The latter are cited from published German, French, or English translations; if there is any criticism to be made of this volume, it is the curious absence of printed Arabic.) Among other things his treatment helps to resolve an issue which has considerable importance for the study of the Presocratics. The nine speakers who appear in the cosmological preface can be linked to certain Presocratics based in part on their names and in part on the substance of their teachings: Anaximander (‘Eximedrus’), Anaximenes (‘Eximidrius’), Anaxagoras, Empedocles (‘Pandulfus’), Archelaus (‘Arisleus’), and Leucippus (‘Lucas’), plus Pythagoras qua ‘Locustor’, and Pythagoras qua ‘Pitagoras’. In a pair of publications Martin Plessner suggested, on the basis of similarities between their speeches and the doxographical reports for these figures found in various Greek sources, that the author must have been drawing on some lost doxographic text for his information.3 His argument opened the door to the tantalizing possibility that, after allowance is made for the distortions of translation, the nine speeches might provide new, authentic testimony for the views of these early thinkers.4 However, Ulrich Rudolph has sought to rule this possibility out, arguing that the author of the Turba made use, directly or indirectly, of just one Greek doxographic source, Hippolytus’ Refutation of All Heresies.5 Lacaze’s presentation of the evidence makes it virtually certain that Rudolf’s view is the correct one: what sometimes look like unattested bits of doxography should instead be seen as the work of the Turba ’s author. There is, unfortunately, nothing new to be learned about the authentic doctrines of the Presocratics from this text.

Lacaze’s edition is, in short, an admirable piece of work, potentially of great interest to those interested in the reception of Greek and Islamic science, to medievalists, and to scholars of magic and alchemy.

Table of Contents

PARTIE I. Contribution à l’étude de la tradition manuscrite latine
I. Histoire de la recherché sur la Turba Philosophorum
II. Présentation de la tradition manuscrite latine
III. Les sources et parallèles de la Turba: avancées et synthèse
IV. La composition de la Turba Philosophorum
PARTIE 2. Texte et traduction
Appendice I: Les noms des orateurs
Appendice II: Substances et noms de substances
Appendice III: Fragments arabes découverts par Ruska, Stapleton et Plessner
Index des termes latins
Index des termes français
Index des auteurs et personnages antiques et médiévaux
Index des auteurs modernes


1. J. Ruska, Turba Philosophorum. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Alchemie, Berlin 1931.

2. Incidentally, one of these terms may be the origin of the element name ‘bismuth’.

3. M. Plessner, “The Place of the Turba Philosophorum in the Development of Alchemy”, Isis 45, 1954, 331-8, and Vorsokratische Philosophie und Griechische Alchemie in arabisch-lateinischer Überlieferung, Wiesbaden 1975.

4. Two recent studies that treat material from the Turba as evidence for the Presocratics are P. Kingsley, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic, Oxford 1995, 56-68, and A. V. Lebedev, “Alcmaeon of Croton on Human Knowledge, the Seasons of Life, and Isonomia: A New Reading of B 1 DK and Two Additional Fragments from Turba Philosophorum and Aristotle”, in C. Vassallo, ed., Physiologia. Topics in Presocratic Philosophy and its Reception in Antiquity, Trier 2017, 227-58.

5. U. Rudolf, “Christliche Theologie und vorsokratische Lehren in der Turba Philosophorum ”, Oriens 32, 1990, 97-123.