The Book of Comarius

portrait of Cleopatra from Hermetico-Spagyrisches Lustgärtlein

The Greek text of the Book of Comarius [also known as "Cleopatra and the Philosophers"] reads like a translation from another language, or perhaps it was written by someone whose Greek was inadequate. It is certainly far removed from classical Greek. There are, in addition, textual corruptions introduced by the scribes. Texts that were put to practical use were often tampered with. The successive owners of such handbooks were no doubt practicing alchemists themselves, and they probably annotated their copies. Or if they copied a text, they were likely to leave out material that was of little interest to them. Hence, these treatises have survived in diverent versions or "recensions," and it is therefore impossible to reconstruct an archetype.

The language is that of a mystic in trance and can, perhaps, only be fully understood by other mystics. Or else it uses words with hidden meanings and is a language that must be learned by those who have been initiated.

An additional problem is created by the apparently deliberate gaps left in such texts by authors who were unwilling to reveal all the secrets of their art and who therefore forced their readers to study with a teacher. Certain things are to be explained later, but the explanations never come, either because the text is incomplete or because the author forgets his promise. (We encounter the same diffculty in astrological literature: none of the treatises we have is a complete textbook enabling the beginner to become a master in a series of steps, following practical examples. This was apparently not the way these subjects were taught.)

The Book of Comarius is dedicated to "Cleopatra the Divine," also called "the wise woman," but not necessarily the famous queen. The prayer at the beginning, with its unmistakably Christian character, must be considered a later addition, perhaps by a Byzantine monk who copied (or edited) a pagan treatise. For a long time alchemy was not banned by the Church as a form of magic: on the contrary, as centers of learning, the monasteries were probably among the few places where alchemy could be studied and where texts were available. The prayer at the beginning of this text was perhaps designed to give an edifying character to the work and to place it above suspicion.

Comarius begins with a brief cosmogony and then turns to practical matters such as metals, colors, and apparatuses. A group of philosophers (i.e., scientists) is then introduced, and Cleopatra delivers to them the knowledge she has received from Comarius.

From the more practical precepts, the reader is led to general discourses on the wonders of nature. The symbolism is rich, the language mystic, and the frequent exhortations to the reader to listen to what clearly cannot really be understood increase one's frustration. In the concluding section, alchemy is described as providing a key to the mystery of resurrection, another reason for a Christian to study the subject.

Book of Comarius, Philosopher and High Priest Who Was Teaching Cleopatra the Divine the Sacred Art of the Philosopher's Stone, excerpts (3:289-99 Berthelot)

Lord, God of all powers, Creator of all of nature, creator and maker of all the celestial and supercelestial beings, blessed and eternal ruler! We celebrate you, we bless you, we praise you, we worship the sublimity of your kingdom. For you are the beginning and the end, and every creature visible and invisible obeys you, because you have created them. Since your eternal kingdom has been created as something that is subject to you [?], we implore you, most merciful ruler, in the name of your unspeakable love for mankind, to illuminate our minds and our hearts so that we, too, may glorify you as our only true God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, with your all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now and forever and ever. Amen.

I shall begin this book with the account concerning silver and gold that was given by Comarius, the philosopher, and Cleopatra, the wise woman. The book at hand does not include the demonstrations concerning lights and substances. In this book we have the teaching of Comarius, the philosopher, addressed to Cleopatra, the wise woman.

Comarius, the philosopher, teaches the mystical philosophy to Cleopatra. He is sitting on a throne. He has devoted himself to philosophy, which he ignored before [?]. Even now [?] he has spoken to those who understand mystical insight, and with his hand he has shown that everything is One and consists of four elements.

As an [intellectual] exercise he said: "The earth has been established above the waters, the waters on the tops of mountains. Now, take the earth that is above the waters, Cleopatra, and make a spiritual body from it, the spirit of alum. These things are like the earth and the fire, in respect of their warmth to the fire, in respect of their dryness to the earth. The waters that are on the mountaintops are like the air in respect of their coldness, like the water in respect of their wetness with the air and the fire [?]. Look, from one pearl, Cleopatra, and from another one you have the whole [technique of ] dyeing."

Cleopatra took what Comarius had written and began to put into practice the applications of other philosophers, to divide into four parts the beautiful philosophy [?], the one [that teaches that] the matter derived from the natures, as it has been taught and discovered, and an idea of the operations of its difference [?]. Thus [they say?], searching for the beautiful philosophy we have found that it is divided into four parts, and thus we have discovered [?] the general idea of the nature of each of them, the first having blackness, the second whiteness, the third yellowness, the fourth [?] purpleness or refinement. On the other hand, each of these things does not exist from its own general nature [?], but they depend [?] generally on the elements, [and so?] we have a center from which we can proceed systematically. Thus, in between the blackness and the whiteness, the yellowness and the purpleness [?] or refinement, there is the maceration and the washing [out?] of the species. Between the whiteness and the yellowness there is the technique of casting gold, and between the yellowness and the whiteness there is the duality of the composition.

The work is accomplished by the application of the breast-shaped apparatus, the first experiment consisting in separating the liquids from the oxides [?], and this takes a long time.

Next comes the maceration, which consists [?] of the mixture of water and wet oxide [?].

Third, the dissolution of the species, which are burned seven times in an "Askelon vessel." This is how one operates the whitening process and the blackening process of the species by the action of the fire.

Number four is the yellowing process by which one mixes [the substance?] with other yellow liquids and produces wax [?] for the yellowing, in order to achieve the desired goal.

Number five is the fusion, which leads from the yellowing to the gilding.

For the yellowing one must, as mentioned above, divide the composition into two halves. Once it has been halved, one of the parts is mixed with yellow and white liquids, and then you can blend it for any purpose you have in mind.

Again, if the fermentation is a refinement [of the species?], that is to say that refinement and fermentation [constitute the?] perfect transmutation of the composition of the gilding. This is the way that you, too, must proceed, my friends, when you want to approach this beautiful technique. Look at the nature of plants and their origin. Some descend from the mountains and grow from the earth; some ascend from the valleys; others come from the plains. Look how they develop, for you will [must?] harvest them at special times, on special days; you will pick them from the islands of the sea and from the highest place. Look at the air that is at their service and the nourishment that surrounds them, to make sure that they are not harmed and do not die. Look at the divine water that moistens them and the air that governs them, once they have been incorporated into one essence.

Ostanes and his followers answered Cleopatra: "In you is hidden the whole terrible and strange mystery. Enlighten us in general, but especially about the elements. Tell us how the highest descends toward the lowest, and how the lowest ascends toward the highest and how the one in the middle approaches the highest to unite itself with it and what is the element (that acts) on them. And (tell us) how the blessed waters descend from above in order to see the dead that are lying around, in chains, oppressed in darkness and obscurity inside Hades, and how the remedy of life reaches them and wakes them up from sleep and awakens them to an awakening [reading eis gregorsin for tois ktetorsin vel sim.], and how the new waters flow toward them, at the beginning of the descent and borne on the couch, descend approaching with the fire, and a cloud carries them, and out of the sea ascends the cloud that carries the waters."

Considering what had been revealed to them, the philosophers rejoiced.

Cleopatra said to them: "When the waters come, they awaken the bodies and the spirits that are enclosed in them and are weak. For again they suffer oppression, and again they will be shut up in Hades, and in a short while they grow and ascend and put on different glorious colors like flowers in spring, and spring itself rejoices and is glad at the beauty they wear.

"For to you who are wise I say this: When you take plants and elements and stones from their places they appear to be mature and [yet they are] not mature; for the fire tests everything. When they are clothed in glory and in shining colors from the fire, then they will appear to you as greater ones through their hidden glory, and [you will see] their exquisite beauty, and fusion [will be] transformed into divinity, for they get nourished in the fire, just as an embryo, nourished in its mother's womb, grows slowly. When the appointed month is near, nothing prevents it from coming out. Such also is the power of this admirable art.

"They suffer in Hades and in the tomb in which they lie from waves and ripples that follow each other, but when the tomb is opened, they will ascend from Hades like the babe from the womb. When the philosophers have contemplated the beauty [of this], just like a loving mother [contemplates] the baby to which she has given birth, they seek to nourish, like a baby, this art, [but] with water instead of milk. For the art imitates [or: is like] the baby and, like the baby, it takes shape, and [there comes a time] when it is perfect in every respect. Here you have the sealed mystery.

"From now on I shall tell you clearly where the elements and plants lie. But first I shall speak in riddles. Climb to the top of the ladder, up the mountain covered with trees, and see: there is a stone on top. Take the arsenic from the stone and use it for whitening divinely. And see: in the middle of the mountain, underneath the arsenic, there is its bride [mercury?, or yellow arsenic, as opposed to the white one?], with whom it unites itself and in whom it finds its pleasure. Nature rejoices in nature, and outside of it there is no union. Descend to the Egyptian Sea and bring back from the sand, from the source, the so-called natron. Unite it with these substances, and they bring out the all-coloring beauty; outside of it there is no union, for the bride is its measure. See, nature corresponds to nature, and when you have assembled everything in an equal proportion, then natures conquer natures and rejoice in one another.

"Look, scientists, and understand! Here you have the fulfillment of the technique of bridegroom and bride having been joined and becoming one. Here you have the plants and their varieties. Look, I have told you the whole truth, and I shall tell it to you again. You must look and understand that from the sea ascend the clouds carrying the blessed waters, and they refresh the earth and make the seeds and the flowers grow. Similarly, our cloud, coming out of our element and carrying the divine waters, refreshes the plants and the elements and does not need anything that is produced by any other soil.

"Here you have the strange mystery, brothers, the completely unknown [mystery]; here you have the truth that has been revealed to you. Look how you sprinkle your soil, how you sprinkle your soil and make your seeds grow in order to harvest when it is ripe.

"Now listen and understand and judge correctly what I say. Take from the four elements the highest arsenic and the lowest arsenic and the white and the red, equal in weight, male and female, so that they are joined to each other. Just as the bird hatches and brings to perfection its eggs in warmth, so you, too, must hatch and polish [or, bring to perfection?] your work by taking it out and watering it in the divine waters and [warming it] in the sun and in burned places, and you must roast it in a gentle flame with the virgin milk and hold it [away] from the smoke. And enclose it in Hades and move it in safety until its structure becomes more solid and does not run away from the fire. Then you take it out of it, and when the soul and spirit have joined each other and become one, then you must throw it on solid silver, and you will have gold [of a quality] that the storehouses of the kings do not have.

"Here you have the mystery of the philosophers. Our fathers made us swear never to reveal it and never to divulge it, since it has divine shape and divine power. For divine is that which is united with the Godhead and accomplishes divine substances, in which the spirit is embodied and the mortal elements are animated; receiving the spirit that comes out of them, they dominate each other and in turn are dominated by each other, just like the dark spirit, which is full of vanity and despondency, the one that has power over the bodies and prevents them from growing white and receiving the beauty and the color in which they were clothed by the Creator (for body, spirit, and soul are weak because of the darkness that stretches over them).

"But once the dark, evil-smelling spirit itself has been disposed of, so that neither the smell nor the color of the darkness appears [any more], then the body is illuminated, and the soul and the spirit rejoice, because [reading hoti for hote] the darkness has gone away from the body. The soul calls out to the illuminated body: Wake up from Hades! Resurrect from the tomb! Come out alive from the darkness! Enter the process of becoming spiritual, of becoming divine, for the voice of resurrection has sounded, and the remedy of life has come to you. For the spirit rejoices again in the body in which he is, and so does the soul, and it runs fast and full of joy to embrace it, and it does embrace it, and the darkness does not gain power over it because it depends on light, and it cannot be separated from it forever, and it enjoys being in her house, because, hiding it in darkness, she found it filled with light. It was joined with it, since it had become divine according to her [?], and it lives in her. For it put on the light of godliness, and the darkness ran away from them, and all joined in love — the body, the soul, and the spirit — and they have become one in the one that hides the mystery. In the act of their coming together, the mystery was accomplished, the house was sealed, and a statue full of light and godliness was placed there, for the fire brought them together and transformed them, and from the lap of its womb it came forth.

"Similarly, from the womb of the waters and from the air, which ministers to them, it also brought them out from darkness into light, from grief to joy, from sickness to health, from death to life. And it clad them in divine spiritual glory, which they had never worn before, because in them the whole mystery is hidden, and the divine is there unchanged. For it is because of their courage that the bodies enter along with each other and, coming out of the earth, put on light and divine glory, because they grew according to their nature and were changed in their appearance and arose from sleep and came out of Hades. For the womb of the fire gave birth to them, and from it [the womb] they put on the glory. And it brought them to a single unity, and the image was perfected in body and soul and spirit, and they became one. For the fire was subordinated to water, [as was] the earth to the air. Similarly, the air is with the fire, and the earth is with the water, and the fire and the water are with the earth, and the water is with the air, and they are one. For from plants and ashes the One came into being, and it was created divine from nature and by the divine, capturing and controlling all of nature. Look, the natures controlled and conquered the natures, and through this they changed the natures and the bodies and everything from their nature, for he who fled entered into the one who did not flee, and he who controlled entered into the one who did not control, and they were united with each other.

"This mystery that we have learned, brothers, comes from God and from our father, Comarius, the Ancient. Look, brothers, I have told you, the whole hidden truth [handed down] from many wise men and prophets."

The philosophers said to her: "Cleopatra, you have given us ecstasies by telling us what you have. Blessed is the womb that bore you!"

Again, Cleopatra spoke to them: "What I have told you concerns heavenly bodies and divine mysteries. For through their changes and transformations they change the natures and clothe them [?] in an unknown glory, a supreme glory that they did not have before."

The sages said: "Tell us this, too, Cleopatra, Why is it written: 'The mystery of the hurricane... the art is a body, and like a wheel above it; just like the mystery, and the course, and the pole above, and houses and the towers and the most glorious encampments'? "

Cleopatra said: "The philosophers were right to put it [the art] there, where it had been put by the Demiurge and the Lord of all things. And, look, I tell you that the pole will move as a result of the four elements, and that it will never stop. These things have been arranged in our own country, in Ethiopia, and from here the plants, the stones, and the sacred bodies are taken; the one that put them there was a god, not a man. Into everyone the Demiurge placed the seed of power. One greens, the other does not green; one is dry, the other wet; one tends to combine, the other to separate; one dominates, the other is subordinate; and as they meet, some dominate the others, and one rejoices in another body, and one imparts splendor to another. One single nature results that pursues and dominates all natures, and the One itself conquers the nature of fire and earth and transforms its whole nature. And look, I tell you what is beyond it: when it is perfected, it becomes a deadly drug that runs through the body. For just as it enters its own body, it circulates in the [other] bodies. For by decomposition and warmth a drug is obtained that runs unhindered through every kind of body. At this point has the art of philosophy been accomplished."

(Excerpted from: Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Collection of Ancient Texts by Georg Luck)