The Emerald Tablet
The Emerald Tablet, also known as the Tabula Smaragdina, is a compact and cryptic piece of the Hermetica (Egyptian-Greek wisdom texts from the 2nd century AD and later) that many people believe to contain the secret of the prima materia, and its transmutation, in their quest of finding the Philosopher’s Stone — the tool that turns base lead to gold.
The Emerald Tablet was highly regarded by European alchemists as the foundation of their art and its Hermetic tradition. Researchers are not entirely sure of the origin of the text of the Emerald Tablet, but the commonly accepted theory is that it originated in Arabia between 500 to 700 CE. Scholars and alchemists later translated it into Latin, English, and other languages. The earliest version of the Tablet still in existence is found in a compilation of ancient writings called “The Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature” from the 700’s.
Several researchers believe tablet was translated into Greek by Alexandrian scholars as far back as 330 B.C. Around the year 400 AD, it was also reportedly buried by Alexander the Great, somewhere on the Giza Plateau to protect it from the religious zealots who were burning libraries around the world at that time. Many believe the tablet still lies hidden there.
Jewish mystics identify the tablet’s author with Seth, who was the second son of Adam. They credit him with writing the Emerald Tablet, which was taken aboard the ark by Noah. After the Flood, Noah supposedly hid the tablet in a cave near Hebron, where it was later discovered by Sarah, wife of Abraham.
There are other more radical theories that insist that the original source of the Emerald Tablet is the fabled city of Atlantis. Overall, there is virtually no verifiable evidence for the creation and for the location of the tablet, and researchers base their discoveries only on reports in written records and other legends.
Although Hermes Trismegistus is the author named in the text, academic consensus is that Hermes Trismegistus, translated as "thrice-greatest Hermes”, is a fictional character. It is unclear if this person actually existed, or whether the name has some special meaning in the context of the tablet itself. Hermes Trismegistus has been linked to Apollonius of Tyana in some texts, and is often associated with the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth, (the Egyptian god of wisdom, writing, magic and the sciences — patron god of the sacred scribes). The Greeks in the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt recognized the equivalence of Hermes and Thoth, and consequently, the two gods were often worshiped as one.
In terms of study, the accepted version of what the tablet looked like is based on the alleged Phoenician translation by Wihelm Kriegsmann. The Emerald Tablet was described as a rectangular object of exquisite workmanship, with its sacred message written in bas-relief or carved out, using an alphabet similar to Phoenician. However, not all scholars see eye to eye on the exact material from which the Emerald Tablet was constructed, though very few have disagreed that it was formed from a single piece of glossy green crystal or stone. Large sized emeralds of this level of quality are likely not to have existed, and since there is confusion over what it was made out of, the stone in question may have been confused with an emerald. Some theorists suggest it was more likely another green crystal, jasper or jade, or it may have been simply green colored glass.
The tablet being emerald green suggests the concept of eternity, as it is a color that constantly renews itself in nature through generations. It is for this same reason why Osiris, the Egyptian lord of the underworld and embodiment of living resurrection, is depicted as green. Emeralds are also seen as symbols of divinity, or offerings to the gods. In the 16th century, Aztecs were reported to have “burned emeralds” before images of their highest divinities, and among the Hindus one was thought to receive knowledge of the soul and the eternal by offering emeralds to the god Krishna. Even the ancient Romans claimed soul of an individual was restored when they wore emerald jewelry.
The interpretation of the Emerald Tablet is not straightforward, as it is a piece of obscure text with essentially no information to cross reference. Some researchers have attempted to discern concrete meaning from the cryptic sections and have presented theories that the Emerald Tablet contains coded words or double meanings that could lead to the ability of changing base metals into a gold. The Tablet also captured the attention of many notable scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton.
Newton’s translation of the tablet from Latin is now housed in King’s College Library at Cambridge University and reads as follows:
Tis true without error, certain and most true.
That which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
And as all things have been and arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
It ascends from the earth to the heaven and again it descends to the earth and receives the force of things superior and inferior.
By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
and all obscurity shall fly from you.
Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing and penetrates every solid thing.
So was the world created.
From this are and do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world
That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished and ended.
Even among the different theories about what the translation means, it is generally agreed upon that the text engraved on the Emerald Tablet describes a hidden truth about the creator and the cause of creation. It provides a pattern, or “magical formula” by revealing the relationship that corresponds between creation and cause.
The Latin translations of the Emerald Tablet were organized into seven sections called rubrics (derived from the Latin rubeo, meaning “red”), because each letter of each paragraph was highlighted in red ink. The first section of the text sets up the message as being the highest truth. The second section introduces the reader to the universal law of correspondences, relating realms of the invisible (above) to the visible (below), possibly the mind and the body. The third section describes a third presence existing between the above and the below to form the one thing, which alchemists have referred to as “prima materia” (or first matter) or as the animating/vital life force. The fourth and fifth sections are instruction for unlocking the ability to make these changes, as well as the effect they will have when applied. The sixth section declares that the practitioner can manifest things and combinations of things in the same way spirit has manifested into physical form. The final section denotes the law of three, the relationship required to give form.
Newton was purportedly very impressed by the knowledge and processes written on the tablet, and it has been suggested that this knowledge could have influenced his theories of the laws of motion and universal gravitation. Newton is also said to have believed that the tablet contained the literal recipe for creating the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, and that if one could comprehend the text, understand its intricate arcane messages and geometrical patterns, then they would acquire the ability to create such a stone.
One interpretation suggests that the text purely describes the seven stages of alchemical transformation. These stages being – calcination, dissolution, separation, conjunction, fermentation, distillation and coagulation. Most medieval alchemists had a copy of the tablet hanging on the wall and often referred to the secret formula it contained in their practices.
Another interpretation is that the tablet’s mysterious wording is about a conversion of ourselves by accessing higher universal truths. The alchemical process serves more as an allegory of spiritual development — inescapable psychological steps through which everyone must pass to reach realization. It is the ultimate transmutation, turning the “base,” leaden ego, into gold, or enlightenment, via steps of destruction and refinement. To the master, producing physical gold is the inferior result — transmuting and refining the soul is the true prize.
Throughout history, the Emerald Tablet had such an impact on the minds of history’s greatest philosophers and mystics that it became the esoteric standard for medieval and renaissance systems of alchemy. Despite the various interpretations available, it seems that none of their authors claim to possess knowledge of the whole truth. Today, readers are encouraged to study text, to try to interpret its many layers, and to find the hidden truths themselves.