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Bink Hallum on Zosimus Arabicus: The Final Quittance

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Bink Hallum has written the book on the Arabic Zosimus, and in this special episode, for the hardcore lovers of the history of alchemy, we go through the textual corpus of Zosimus in Arabic in a detailed way, discussing what’s there, how much definitely goes back to original Greek alchemical texts by Zosimus, how much probably does, and how much definitely doesn’t. This detailed survey of the whole Arabic Zosimus corpus – authentic, probably authentic, and definitely not authentic – all of which is fascinating stuff, and can be summarised as follows:

• Epistles: The Seven Epistles or Book of Images (Kitāb al-ṣuwar), a few known as the Private Epistles (al-Rasāʾil al-khāṣṣah) and a few other epistles scattered here and there in the evidence,

The Keys of the ArtKitāb mafātīḥ al-ṣanʿah), a collection of ten epistles to Theosebia, probably a commentary on the Pseudo-Democritus’ work The Ten Keys,

• A book provisionally called The Sulfurs, divided into six books of technical alchemy,

• The Muṣḥaf al-ṣanʿah or Tome of the Work, a dialogue between Zos and Theosebia on the art,

• The much longer dialogue between the two contained in the Muṣḥaf al-ṣuwar or Tome of Images, a richly-illustrated work which is our earliest-known alchemical emblem-book,

• And the Risalah fi-Bayān Tafrīq al-Adyān, the Treatise on the Explanation of the Divisions of the Religions, a work definitely not by Zosimus, but attributed to one ‘Zosimus the Hebrew’, but which is absolutely fascinating.

We discuss the procedures Bink has developed for trying to judge the authenticity or otherwise of a given text in the thickets of Zosimean Arabic works, once you have exhausted the few Greek-Arabic parallel texts which survive (a couple of epistles).

We then dive into the Tome of Images in a detailed discussion. What do the illustrations of this, our first illustrated alchemical emblem-sequence, tell us? What are we to make of the messed-up text accompanying the illustrations: intentional esoteric misdirection or just a tangled textual transmission?

Interview Bio:

Dr Bink Hallum is Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator at the British Library, and is currently doing Wellcome-Trust-funded postdoctoral research at the University of Warwick on the alchemical Twelve Books of Abū Bakr al-Rāzī. His research centres on Islamicate codicology, Græco-Arabic studies, the history of the sciences, and loads of other interesting stuff.

Works Cited in this Episode:

Theodor Abt. The Book of Pictures. Mushaf as-suwar by Zosimus of Panopolis. Facsimile with an Introduction. Number II.i in Corpus Alchemicum Arabicum. Living Human Heritage Publications, Zurich, 2007.

Marcelin Berthelot and C.E. Ruelle, editors. Collection des Anciens Alchimistes Grecs, texte et traduction. G. Steinheil, Paris, 1887-8.

Bink Hallum. Zosimus Arabus. The Reception of Zosimos of Panopolis in the Arabic/Islamic World. PhD thesis, Warburg Institute, University of London, 2008.

For Recommended Reading, see the previous episode, as well as:

Hallum, Bink and Marcel Marée, ‘A Medieval Alchemical Book Reveals New Secrets’, The British Museum Blog (posted 5 February 2016).


‘Image of a tree with three branches. The upper branch has red leaves, the middle branch has white leaves, and the lower branch has purple leaves. [The tree is] between two standing statues, one of which is pointing to the tree as if it were explaining it to its companion.’ (صورة شجرة لها ثلثة أغصان أعلاهن غصن فيه ورق أحمر وأوسطها غصن فيه ورق أبيض وأسفلها غصن فيه ورق فرفر بين تمثالين قائمين يشير أحدهما إلى هذه الشجرة كأنّه يعرّفها صاحبه). İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzeleri Kütüphanesi, MS 1574, fols 156v (description) and 157r (image).
‘Image of a man of gold with a Sun of gold on his head being carried by the hands of three people with wings and crowns of gold on their head. Theosebeia is standing in under a red dome with a rope of water of gold in her hand with which she has yoked together by their necks six people with wings, and their legs are yoked together.’ (صورة رجل من ذهب على رأسه شمس من ذهب يحمله ثلثة نفر بأيديهم وعليهم أجنحة على رؤوسهم تيجان من ذهب ويتوسانية قائمة في قبة حمراء بيدها حبل من ماء الذهب قد قرنت فيه ستة نفر في أعناقهم وعليهم أجنحة مقرونة أرجلهم). İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzeleri Kütüphanesi, MS 1574, fols 195v (description) and 196r (image).
‘Image of a man of gold with his head cut off lying down, and standing with him are three men with wings. At his head stands Theosebeia as we described above. At his feet stands Zosimus as we described him. And an image of six standing people yoked by their neck with a rope of water of gold the end of which is in Zosimus’ hand. Their legs are yoked with a rope of water of gold in Theosebeia’s hand’ (صورة رجل من ذهب مقطوع الرأس مضجع معه ثلثة رجال قيام عليهم أجنحة وعند رأسه يتوسانية قائمة على صورة ما وصفنا فوق وعند رجله ريسموس قائمًا على صورة ما وصفنا وصورة ستة نفر قيام مقرنين في أعناقهم <بـ>ـحبل من ماء الذهب طرفه بيد روسم وأرجلهم مقرنة بحبل من ماء الذهب بيد يتوسانية). İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzeleri Kütüphanesi, MS 1574, fols 204v (description) and 205r (image).