Sources returnpage

Zosimos of Panopolis

Category: Mystic

 

Zosimos of Panopolis (Greek: Ζώσιμος; also known by the Latin name Zosimus Alchemista, i.e. "Zosimus the Alchemist") was an alchemist.

The late tenth century lexicon known as the Suda, calls him an 'Alexandrian philosopher'.  Scholars have thus concluded that Panopolis [present-day Akhmim] was Zosimos' birthplace, but that later he came to reside at Alexandria. 

But I have concluded that he was probably also a key mystic, and have thus classified him as one.

Howard M Jackson – Preface to The Letter of Omega
What do we know about Zosimos himself? Unfortunately very little; our information derives for the most part from his own writings and from those of later alchemists who cite him. He was certainly an Egyptian; the phrase "amongst us" in 9.L-2 of the tractate ‘On the Letter Omega’ is sufficient indication of this fact. The title attached to two of his other works describe him as a Theban,  but other titles and authors are more explicit in making him a Panopolitan.  Panopolis, the City of Pan, was the Greek name for the present-day city of Akhmim on the east bank of the Nile, an intellectual centre in Coptic times. Its ancient Egyptian name was Chemmis.

Panopolis is about 200km north of Luxor, but about 70km north of Nag Hammadi where the Gnostic Gospels were discovered.  This is significant, as these Gospels are one of the few sources available to us on Christian mysticism, before it was stamped out.  Abydos is also mentioned in the writings of Zosimos and is about 30km south of Panopolis.  It was a site for the Mysteries and had a 'resurrection chapel' - used in provoking rebirth experiences. 

There are no firm dates of when Zosimos lived, but knowing when he lived is key to understanding why his texts are so coded and symbolic in nature, thus we will explore this a little further.

 

Howard M Jackson – Preface to The Letter of Omega
None of our sources provides us with an absolute dating for any point in Zosimos' life. Consequently his floruit must be deduced from the character of his writings themselves, from the traditions which he cites, and from the commentators who, in turn, cite him as an authority.
Berthelot dates him towards the end of the third century, and so too does Festugiere, though later he widens this dating to include the beginning of the fourth century.
The latter scholar’s dating depends upon Riess' arguments in its favor; they may be tabulated as follows:
(1) the alchemist Synesios cites Zosimos, though without explicitly naming him; Zosimos must therefore well antedate A.D. 389, for Synesios addresses his tractate "to Dioskoros, priest of the great god Sarapis in Alexandria”, and Alexandrian Sarapeion was destroyed in that year.
(2)  Zosimos himself cites Porphyry. He must therefore be later than the last decades of the third century. Finally,
(3) the Gnostic source from which Zosimos quotes in section 14 of The Letter of Omega itself dates circa A.D. 290 ….

Zosimos and Theosebeia, the Moon and the Sun

At the time of Zosimos’s life, the Mystery religions were under serious threat from both political and religious sources.  Alexandria and Memphis along with a number of key sites were very important centres for the Egyptian Mysteries and Zosimos from his writings, the interest he shows in the Sarapeion and the library of the Ptolemies and some of the locations he visited appears to have been an Adept and a very important Adept. 

Howard M Jackson – Preface to The Letter of Omega
 Zosimos' floruit would have followed upon the disastrous political and economic conditions in Egypt at the end of the third century. Diocletian's monetary reforms, the widespread discontent that spawned Domitius Domitianus' revolt, and the upheaval created by the emperor's investiture of Alexandria in A.D. 296/7, would be events of the recent past. Similarly, the hatred of the Manichaeans displayed by Zosimos' source document would be most understandable if it were seen as influenced by Diocletian's violent edict against the sect promulgated circa A.D. 303.

The mystic marriage showing Sun and Moon

So great was the threat perceived to be, that Zosimos appears to have been given the task of coding even further the already heavy symbolic stages and practises used in the Mystery religions’ spiritual path

For reasons explained in the section on alchemy, the symbolic metals provided a perfect foil, as many basic physical chemical studies were underway to advance the knowledge of both the healing herbs and also investigate the plants useful in gaining spiritual experience.

The 1st book of the Mushaf as-suwar – The Book of Truth 

Theosebeia said: "Then tell me, O Zosimos, about your statement that all the sages wrote frequently about the cooking. Is all of this to deter people from this science, and because of their jealousy?"
He replied: "Concerning the people of right attitude and wisdom, who desire it [the work], they did not do anything like that to them. However, they made their operation inaccessible to the shameless, in order that they could not corrupt the world, and the responsibility for those would be with whoever taught it to them."

the 'furnace' as a symbol of the sexual source
of kundalini energy

 

kundalini experience

In some respects, Zosimos invented alchemy in the form we see it today, although everywhere persecution of mystics and mystic movements took place ‘alchemy’ was being practised.  In about 300 AD, for example, Zosimos provided one of the first definitions of alchemy as “the study of the composition of waters, movement, growth, embodying and disembodying, drawing the spirits from bodies and bonding the spirits within bodies."  If we now decode this, it means the study of the spiritual path and how to progress along it, the kundalini experience, along with bilocation, out of body experiences and other spiritual experiences.

Interestingly, Zosimos saw two great sources for knowledge on the Mysteries - Egypt and the Hebrew/Kabbalistic tradition.  

Zosimos - Concerning the true Book of Sophe, the Egyptian, and of the Divine Master of the Hebrews and the Sabaoth Powers:
There are two sciences and two wisdoms, that of the Egyptians and that of the Hebrews, which latter is confirmed by divine justice. The science and wisdom of the most excellent dominate the one and the other. Both originate in olden times. Their origin is without a king, autonomous and immaterial; it is not concerned with material and corruptible bodies, it operates, without submitting to strange influences, supported by prayer and divine grace.
The symbol of chemistry is drawn from the creation by its Adepts, who cleanse and save the divine soul bound in the Elements, and who free the divine spirit from its mixture with the flesh.
As the Sun is, so to speak, a flower of the Fire and (simultaneously) the heavenly Sun, the right eye of the world, so copper when it blooms—that is when it takes the color of gold, through purification—becomes a terrestrial sun, which is king of the earth, as the sun is king of heaven

It is essential to recognise that everything of which Zosimos wrote was spiritual, allegorical and symbolic.  There is nothing 'physical'.  

Even at the time of his birth, the use of sexual energy to provide spiritual experience was being criticised heavily.  Thus a great part of the practises had to be allegorically described as 'chemical processes' involving women 'chemists' and with wonderful symbolism involving 'ovens' and 'furnaces'.  Zosimos asserted, for example, in a fragment preserved by Syncellus, that:

The ancient and divine writings say that the angels became enamoured of women; and, descending, taught them all the works of nature. From them, therefore, is the first tradition, chema, concerning these arts; for they called this book chema and hence the science of chemistry takes its name.

 Having encoded the practises and added symbols, Zosimos then wrote a series of volumes describing them.  The result was a very large set of volumes, the majority of which have been lost:

Howard M Jackson – Preface to The Letter of Omega
The Suda remarks: "it consists of 28 books, each superscribed with a letter of the alphabet; some entitle it Manufactures"
This work was evidently a compendious alchemical manual compiled by Zosimos himself in order to coordinate and systematize what was certainly a body of writings far more massive than what survives from his hand. Each section superscribed with a letter of the alphabet treated a specific facet of the 'art'. 

His next step appears to have been to travel the length and breadth of the Mystery religion sites to distribute copies of the final work.

Howard M Jackson – Preface to The Letter of Omega
It appears that [he made] a voyage to Rome, he appears to have visited Syria: he traveled to sites in Coele-Syria, on Cyprus and Lemnos. He toured Macedonia and Thrace, travelled on to Rome and eventually made his way back to Egypt again. 

'The huge alchemical oven with small vessels' -
note the finger pointing, Sun and Moon

These texts were translated and copies have been found in the Greek language,  Syriac and Arabic are known. Arabic translations of texts by Zosimos were discovered in 1995 in a copy of the book Keys of Mercy and Secrets of Wisdom by Ibn Al-Hassan Ibn Ali Al-Tughra'i', a Persian alchemist. The famous index of Arabic books, Kitab al-Fihrist by Ibn Al-Nadim, mentions earlier translations of four books by Zosimos, however due to inconsistency in transliteration, these texts were attributed to names "Thosimos", "Dosimos" and "Rimos".  He is one of about 40 authors represented in a compendium of alchemical writings that was probably put together in Byzantium (Constantinople) in the 7th or 8th century AD and that exists in manuscripts in Venice and Pari.  F. Sezgin has found 15 manuscripts of Zozimos in six libraries, at Tehran, Caire, Istanbul, Gotha, Dublin and Rampur.  In other words, if all these scattered manuscripts could be pulled together and the most authentic used, far more of Zosimos’ work might be known – a very exciting prospect for the future.  The symbolism he will have used, incidentally, is that found on this site.

from the Mutus Liber I - another later [17th century] alchemical text, Sun, Moon, Bow, Armour

It is worth adding that Zosimos used all the same concepts now used today in mystic movements, thus we have much to thank him for, even though to anyone who knows nothing of the symbolism, his work appears undecipherable - which is what it was intended to be.  He used the symbol of the baptismal font in the same way we might use the chalice [or the Holy Grail].  The spiritual path is described as ascent through the planets.

There is also reason to believe that he provided essential continuity in mystic thinking at a key time.  All Initiates in the Mystery religions had a 'guru' - a seer or sage that they used as their principle source of wisdom, and Zosimos chose Democritus.  Democritus himself was a mystic.

The Mushaf as-suwar - folio 106a line 1-8
I did not desire anything from the sages except to become one of their students. However, I particularly selected Democritus for this, and I became a student of his, although there are 660 years between us. This is because he spoke the truth, making it clear, and striving for sincerity. He spoke it clearly for those who knew its meanings, with knowledge the generality of sages protected. Also [I selected him] because Ostanes the great preferred him, for Ostanes ordered each of the sages to write an illuminating, difficult, and enigmatic book about this work. Maria was with them at that time. Then he told them that the best for illumination, revealing and hiding the truth, and [protecting] the knowledge, was Democritus, who has the crown.

Ostanes was the son of the Persian Emperor Darius II.  It is worth noting that, if we add 660 years to the period when Democritus of Abdera lived (460-370), we get further confirmation of the dating of the life of Zosimos to the 3rd/4th century.

Theodor Abt - Foreward to the Book of Pictures
Authors praised him as one of the great authorities referring to him as the "crown of sages" and "the one whose language has the depths of oceans" as well as "the old one" and "the one inspired by the gods - the divine Zosimos, the friend of truth".  Later on, in Arabic alchemy, he was praised by Ibn Arfa' Ra as "the universal sage and the shining flame" and "the head of the philosophers and the collector of the dispersed"

So a key figure in mystic systems.

References

 

We have taken from three works

  • The Book of Pictures (Muṣḥaf aṣ-ṣuwar) - which has in total 13 'chapters' and also contains a great number of [around about 40] very useful pictures which I have used both in the observations and in the text above.  The text is written as a dialogue with a female pupil Theosebeia and the images are used to discuss the symbolism.  Personally I do not think this lady existed, it is simply a means of emphasising the importance of women in all mystic religions and the dialogue style provides a very handy form for explanation.  Plato used much the same approach and Zosimos was an admirer of Plato.  As colour is symbolic, the colours in the images are exceptionally important.
  • On the Letter Omega - there is an English translation by  G R S Mead, but here we use the translation by Howard M Jackson
  • The Visions of Zosimos (English translation) - The version here was obtained from the Alchemy web site

The complete (as of 1888) "Œuvres de Zosime" were published in French by M. Berthelot in Les alchimistes grecs.

In the Book of the Catalogue of Ibn Nadim written in 987, four books of Zosimos are listed which are of interest, but not included [yet] on the site:

  • The Book of the keys to the Art
  • The 70 epistles
  • The Book of Elements
  • The Book for all sages on the Art

Observations

For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.