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The Treatise of Democritus
On Things Natural and Mystical

Translated by Robert R. Steele, F.C.S., &c

Chemical News 61 21 Feb 1890, 88-89 [Introduction, Sections I-X]; 28 Feb 1890, 101-102 [Sections XI-XV]; 7 Mar 1890, 113-114 [Sections XVI-XXIV]; 14 Mar 1890, 125 [Glossary and remarks].

Transcribed by John Koopmans and Alan Pritchard.

Little apology is needed to English readers for publishing the earliest known chemical treatise for the first time in English. It is a work on the manufacture of gold and silver, and the receipts are entirely practical ones, which can be followed out at the present time, and which produce alloys or superficial imitations of those metals. The idea of transmutation does not explicitly occur in the work.

Democritus lived in the Fourth Century, B.C. The work proceeds from writers of his school, and is certainly not later than the first centuries of our era. A somewhat magical introduction is prefixed in the text of M. Berthelot.

There were originally four books on the tincture of purple, gold, silver, and stones. Of these, we have the second and third and a fragment of the first.[1] The text I translate from is the Latin translation of Pizzimenti, published at Cologne, 1574, and Padua, 1575, with ancient commentaries. The English reader may see a sample of these at the end of the translation of Basil Valentine, London, 1678, 8vo. The commentators have well fulfilled their aim; they have explained words and letters, until the plain statements of their author are buried under a mountain of verbiage.

I have chosen this text to bring out the differences between it and the Greek text, first published by M. Berthelot in his “Collection of Ancient Greek Alchemists,” Paris, 1888, a work to which I am under great obligations, and to which I would refer any student interested in the study of alchemy. The variations (not merely verbal) I have indicated by italics. A glossary, with references to Pliny’s “Natural History,” is appended.

3, BlomfieldTerrace,
Shepherd’s Bush, W.


Nature rejoices with Nature; Nature conquers Nature; Nature restrains Nature.”

We (his disciples) greatly wondered at how briefly he had bound up the whole science. I come into Egypt, bearing the treatises of nature,[2] that thou mayest cast off confused and superfluous matter.

I. Copper is Whitened with Mercury-Amalgam or Arsenic, and is then Coloured Golden by Electrum or Powdered Gold.

Taking mercury, thrust it into the body[3] of magnesia, or into the body of Italian antimony, or of unfired sulphur, or of silver spume, or of quick lime, or to alum from Melos, or to arsenic, or as thou knowest, and throw in white earth of Venus,[4] and thou shalt have clear Venus; then throw in yellow Luna, and thou shalt have gold, and it will be chrysocoral reduced into a body.

Yellow arsenic also makes the same, and prepared sandarach, and well bruised cinnabar, but quicksilver alone makes brass shining; for nature conquers nature.

II. Sulphide of Silver is Treated with Sulphides of Lead or Antimony, and the Resulting Alloy is Coloured Golden.

Treat silver marcasite, which is also called siderites, and do what is usual that it may be melted. It melts with yellow or white litharge, or in Italian antimony, and cleanse it with lead (not simply, say I, lest thou err, but with that from Scissile, and our black litharge), or as thou knowest; and heat, and throw it made yellow to the material,[5] and it becomes coloured; for nature rejoices with nature.

III. Copper Pyrites is Roasted and Treated with Salt and Alloyed with Silver or Gold to Form Gold-Coloured Alloys.

Treat pyrites till it becomes incombustible, casting off darkness, but treat with brine, or fresh urine, or sea water, or oxymel, or as thou knowest, until it becomes as an incombustible shaving of gold; and as it becomes so, mix with it unfired sulphur, or yellow alum, or Attic ochre, or what thou knowest, and add to luna for sol, and to sol for auriconchylium; for nature conquers nature.

IV. Claudian Metal is Rendered Yellow by Sulphur or Arsenic, and Alloyed on Gold or Silver.

Taking claudianum, thou shalt make a marble, as of custom, until it becomes yellow. Thou shalt not render the stone yellow, I say, but that which is useful of the stone. Thou shalt yellow it with alum burnt with sulphur, or with arsenic, or sandarach, or lime, or that thou knowest, and if thou apply it to luna thou makest sol, but if to sol thou makest auriconchylium; for victorious nature restrains nature.

V. Silver or Bronze are Treated with an Amalgam of Iron to Produce Gold or Electrum.

Make cinnabar white by oil, or vinegar, or honey, or brine, or alum, then yellow by misy, or sory, or chalcanth, or live sulphur, or that thou knowest, and add to luna and it will be sol if thou colourest golden, or to bronze for electrum. Nature rejoices with nature.

VI. A Yellow Golden Varnish for Metals.

Whiten, I say, copper, cadmia, or zonytes, as of custom, afterwards make it yellow. But you will yellow it with the bile of a calf, or terebinth, or castor oil, or radish oil, or yolks of eggs, which can render it yellow, and add to luna, for it will be gold for gold[6]; for nature conquers nature.

VII. The Treatment of Silver by Superficial Sulphidation to Render it Gold Coloured.

Treat androdamas with bitter wine, or sea water, or acid brine, which things can attack its nature, melt with Chalcidonian antimony, and treat it again with sea water, or brine, or acid brine; wash until the blackness of the antimony goes away, heat or roast it until it begins to grow yellow, and thou shalt treat with untouched divine[7] water, and lay it on silver, and when thou addest live sulphur thou makest chrysosomium into golden liquid; for nature conquers nature. This is the stone called chrysites.

VIII. An Alloy of Copper and Lead is Formed, which is turned Yellow.

Taking white earth from ceruse, I say, or from the scoriae of silver, or of Italian antimony, or of magnesia, or even of white litharge, whiten it with sea water, or acid brine, or with water from the air under the dew, I say, and the sun, that it, when dissolved, may become white as ceruse. Heat then this in the furnace, and add to it the flowers of copper, or scraped rust of copper, worked up by art, I say, or burnt bronze sufficiently corroded, or chalcites, or cyanum; then it becomes compact and solid, but it becomes so easily. This is molybdochalium. Test it therefore, whether it has cast off its blackness, but if not, blame not the bronze, but rather thyself, since thou hast not conducted the operation rightly; therefore thou shalt brighten it, and dissolve it, and add what is necessary to yellow it, and roast till it begins to grow yellow, and throw it into all bodies; for bronze colours every body where it is shining and yellow; for nature conquers nature.

IX. Copper and Silver are made Yellow by Sulphate of Iron; with a Process of Cementation.

Rub up sory and chalcanth with unfired sulphur; but sory is, as leprous cyanus, always found in misy, they call it green chalcanth. Roast it, therefore, in the middle of coals for three days, until it becomes a red drug, and throw it into Venus, or Luna made by us, and it will be Sol. Place this, cut up in sheets, in vinegar, and chalcanth, and misy, and alum, and sal cappadociae, and red nitre, or as thou knowest, for three, or five, or six days, until it becomes a rust, and it tinges; for chalcanth makes sol a rust. Nature rejoices with nature.

X. An Alloy of Gold is Heated by Superficial Cementation.

Treat Macedonian chrysocolla, which is like the rust of bronze, by dissolving it in the urine of a young girl until it entirely changes; for the nature is hidden within. When, therefore, it is changed, dip it into castor oil, often heating it, and tinging it, afterwards roast with alum, first dissolving with misy or unfired sulphur; render it yellow, and colour the whole body of gold.

XI. O ! natures,  governors of natures! O ! natures, how great, conquering natures with their changes! O ! natures above Nature, delighting natures! Therefore these are great natures; no others are more excellent among tinctures than these natures; none are like, none are greater, all these take effect as solutions. You therefore, O ! wise men, I plainly understand are not ignorant, but rather wonder, since ye know the power of nature, but the young men are much in error, and will not put faith in what is written, since they are ignorant of matter, not noticing that physicians where they wish to prepare a useful drug, do not set about making it inconsiderately, but first test it, whether it is warming, and how much cold, or humid, or other substance necessary, joined with it will make a medium temperament.[8] They, on the other hand, boldly and inconsiderately desiring to prepare that valuable medicine and ending of all diseases, do not learn that they are running into danger. As they consider that we speak in fables and not mystically, they display no diligence in inquiring into the species of things. For example, if this is cleansing, but that unimportant; and if this is fitted to receive a colour, but that to prepare (for receiving it); and if this tinges the surface, or if the tincture gives off an odour from the surface, or vanishes from the interior of the metallic body; or if this resists fire, but that mixed with anything enables it to resist fire. For example, if salt cleanses the surface of Jove[9] it cleanses its interior parts; and if the exterior part contracts rust after the cleansing, the interior parts do so also; and if mercury whitens and cleanses the surface of Venus,[10] it whitens also the interior; and if it leaves the exterior, it leaves the interior also. If the young men had been skilled in this kind of knowledge, applying their minds judiciously to the actions of substances, they would have suffered less loss; they know not the antipathies of nature, that one species may change ten, as a drop of oil stains much purple, and a little sulphur burns many things. Let these things be said, therefore, of medicines,[11] and of the extent to which what is written may be relied on.

XII. A Gold Varnish for Silver.

Let us deal with liquids in their turn. Taking Pontic rhubarb, rub it up in bitter Aminean wine to the consistency of wax, and take a thin piece of Luna to make Sol, the pieces of which may be a full nail in breadth, that thou mayest use the drug again and again; place it in an empty vessel, which, luting on all sides, gently heat from beneath until the middle (of the leaf) is reached. Then place the leaf in the remainder of the drug, and complete the action with the aforesaid wine, as long as the liquid appears thick. In this, throw at once the uncooled leaf, and allow it to absorb, then take it and place it in a crucible; and thou shalt find Sol.

But if the rhubarb be dried with age, mix it with equa [sic! i.e. equal] parts of celandine, preparing it, as of custom, for celandine has a relationship to rhubarb. Nature rejoices with nature.

XIII. Another Gold Varnish.

Take crocus of Cilicia[12], and leave it with the crocus flower, and the aforesaid juice of the vine, and thou shalt have a liquor, as is accustomed to be done. Colour silver, cut into leaves, until it seems shining to thee. But if the leaf be bronze it will be better, but first cleanse the bronze, as customary. Then taking two parts of the herb aristolochia, and double of crocus, and celandine, make it of the consistency of wax, and anointing the sheet, do as before, and wonder, since the crocus of Cilicia has the same effect as mercury, as also cassia with cinnamon. Nature conquers nature.

XIV. Another Gold Varnish.

Taking our lead made shining by Chian earth, and pyrites, and alum, burn with chaff, and melt into pyrites; and rub up crocus and cnicum, and the flower oecumenicus with the sharpest vinegar, and make a liquid, as of custom, and dip the lead into it, and allow it to absorb it, and thou shalt find Sol, but let the composition have a little unburnt sulphur; for nature conquers nature.

XV. This is the plan of Hepammenes, which he showed to the priests of Egypt, and it remains to the times of these philosophers, the matter of the Chrysopeia. Nor should ye wonder if one thing performs a mystery of this kind. Do ye not see that many drugs can with difficulty, even in the progress of time, heal up wounds produced by iron, but human excrement succeeds in no long interval of time; and many drugs employed for burns produce often no good, and most in no way diminish the pain, but lime alone, when rightly prepared, drives out the ailment; and if various cures are tried for ophthalmia, they generally increase it, but the plant buckthorn, used to all sickness of this kind, cures perfectly. Vain and unsuitable matter should therefore be despised, but things be used according to their natures. Now therefore learn from these also, that no one has ever been successful without the aforesaid natures But if nothing can be done without these, why do we desire a forest of many things; what is our need of the concourse of many species for the work, when one surpasses all?

Let us now see the composition of the species from which silver can be made.


XVI. The Surface of a Copper Alloy is Whitened by an Arsenical Compound.

Fix quicksilver from arsenic, or sandarach, or that thou knowest, as of custom, and mix Venus with iron treated with sulphur, and it will be whitened; but whitened magnesia is also excellent, and sublimed arsenic and calcined cadmia, unfired sandarach, whitened pyrites, and ceruse roasted with sulphur. Thou dissolvest iron by throwing into magnesia, or the half of sulphur, or a little of loadstone, since that has affinity with iron. Nature rejoices with nature.

XVII. A Composition for Amalgamating the Surface of Alloys.

Taking the aforesaid vapour,[13] heat it with castor or radish oil, mixing with a little alum; then taking tin, purge it with sulphur, as of custom, or marchasite, or what is known to thee, and throw it into the vapour, mixing the whole. Roast, covered with coals, and thou shalt see this medicine formed, like to white lead, which whitens all (metallic) bodies,[14] but by anointing. Mix with it Chian earth, or Asterites, or Aphroselinum, or that thou knowest, since Aphroselinum associated with mercury whitens all (metallic) bodies. Nature conquers nature.

XVIII. The Same Applied to Orichalium Alloy.

Take white magnesia; thou shalt whiten it with brine and alum, in sea-water, or citron juice, or with the smoke of sulphur; for the fume of sulphur, when it is white, whitens all things. But others say that the fume of cobathia whitens it. Mix with it, after whitening, equal parts of lye, that it may become white enough. Taking of whitish bronze, of orichalium, I say, 4 ounces, place it in a crucible, placing under it little by little 1 ounce of previously purged tin, agitating until the substances unite; it will be frangible. Throw on, therefore, the half of white medicine, and it will be the chief; for whitened magnesia does not render bodies fragile, or allow the blackness of bronze to come forth. Nature restrains nature.

XIX. A white alloy of lead is modified by arsenical compounds.

Take the white sulphur, which will flourish whitest; but thou shall whiten it, dissolving with urine in the sun, or alum and sea-water. Dissolve it with sandarach, or the urine of a young girl, for six days, until the medicine nearly approaches the likeness of marble; when it becomes so, it will be wonderful, for it whitens Venus, softens iron, takes away the creaking of tin, renders lead white, and makes substances infrangible, and tinctures permanent. For sulphur mixed with sulphur makes divine substances, since they have close relationship with each other; for natures rejoice with natures.

XX. a white alloy of lead used to whiten the surface of metals.

Join whitened litharge with sulphur, or cadmia, or arsenic, or pyrites, or oxymel, lest it flow widely (be too fluid). Therefore roast it with glowing embers, furnishing the vessel with a lute. Let it be combined with roasted lime, and absorb vinegar for three days, that it may have greater power of cleansing. Apply it therefore (to the metal), when it is whiter than ceruse. Very often it will be yellow, if much fire be put under it; but if it becomes yellow it will not be of use to thee at present, for the intention is to whiten bodies with it. Heat it moderately, therefore, and mix it with every body which thou desirest to whiten. If litharge be whitened, it will be lead no longer, but it easily becomes (whitened). The nature of lead is quickly changed into many forms; for natures conquer natures.

XXI. a silver varnish for metals.

Taking the crocus of Cilicia, put it into sea-water, or brine, and make a liquor in which immerse heated leaves of bronze or iron, until they are whitened to thy satisfaction. Then take a half of the medicine, rub it up with sandarach and white arsenic, or unburnt sulphur, or that thou knowest, to the consistency of wax; anoint the leaf and place it in an empty closed vessel, as of custom, and put it in a vessel where shavings are being burnt the whole day. Then, taking it away, place it in a pure liquid, and the bronze will be very white; then set to work like a craftsman; for the crocus of Cilicia whitens with sea-water, and tinges metals a yellow colour with wine. Nature rejoices with nature.

XXII. another varnish.

Take white litharge, and rub it up with laurel shoots, and cimolia, and honey, and white sandarach, and let it have the consistency of scrapings (viscid). Anoint (the leaf of the metal) with half of the medicine, and warm from below, as of custom. Immerse it in the remainder of the medicine, dissolving with the water of the ash of white wood; for dissolved mixtures work well without fire. Such solutions with liquors are able to resist fire; for nature conquers nature.

XXIII. a metal is silvered by a mercury compound.

Taking the prescribed vapour, rub it up with alum and misy, washing with vinegar, add to it also a little white cadmia, or magnesia or unslaked lime, that it may become a (metallic) body from another (metallic) body. Mix with the whitest honey, and make a liquid, in which immerse ignited whatever thou will, and leave it in it, the operation takes place. But let the composition have a little native sulphur, that the medicine may pervade and penetrate. Nature conquers nature.

XXIV. Another Tincture of Amalgamation.

Take 1 ounce of arsenic, and half an ounce of nitre, and 2 ounces of the cortex of the tender little leaves of Persea, and half (an ounce) of salt, and 1 ounce of mulberry juice, and equal parts of scissile, rub with vinegar, or urine, or of unslaked lime of urine, until a liquid is formed. Immerse in this glowing leaves of Venus growing black, and thou takest away the blackness. Nature conquers nature.

Thou hast all things which are required for gold and silver, nothing is left out, nothing is wanting, except the elevation of the vapour and of water.[15] But these I have omitted of purpose, seeing that I have dealt with them freely in my other writings. In this writing farewell.

Glossary and remarks

(The references are to Pliny’s “Natural History.”)

Alum. (35, 15). Was generally an astringent salt of Fe or Al. Alum from Melos was a true alum and is still obtained there.

Androdamas. (36, 20; 37, 54). Arsenical pyrites; from its silvery lustre used with silver.

Antimony. (33, 33, 34). Is invariably the sulphide. The metal was obtained by the ancients, but confused with lead.

Aphroselinum. Selenite, sulphate of lime, &c.

Aristolochia. (25, 8). Birth-wort.

Arsenic. (34, 28). Orpiment, As2S3.

Asterites. Identical with androdamas.

Auriconchylium. Gold in powder, coquille d’or.

Bronze is here used for a metal of which copper is the principal constituent.

Cadmia. (34, 1). Generally calamine; sometimes the “furnace calamine,” ZnO, containing Cu, Pb, Sb, and As. (A passage in Strabo, liii., p.419, Ed. 1587, fo., shows metallic zinc to have been worked in his time, and called false silver).

Ceruse. (34, 18). White-lead.

Chalcanth. (34, 12). Copperas, FeSO4, of course containing copper. From the vitreous crystals are derived the words “vitriol,” &c.

Chalcites. (34, 12). Copper pyrites, CuFeS2.

Chian Earth. (35, 16). A white substance like fuller’s earth.

Chrysitis. (33, 6; 35). A mixture of silver and lead, which becomes yellow on heating. Davy thought it massicot, yellow oxide of lead.

Chrysocolla. (33, 5). Malachite; or a solder for gold, 9, 29. The name means “gold glue.” It did not contain borax.

Cimolia. (35, 17). Cimolite, a fuller’s earth.

Cinnabar. (33, 17). Minium, Pb3O4, was sometimes spoken of under this name.

Claudianum was a metal named from its manufacturer. An alloy of Sn and Pb, with Cu, Zn, &c.

Cnicus. (21, 15). Carthamus tinctoria, the safflower; still used as a tinctorial agent.

Cobathia. Arsenical fumes of furnaces (in which cobalt was first found).

Cyanus. (37, 9). Blue carbonate of copper. Azurite.

Electrum. (23, 4). An alloy of gold with more than 20 per cent silver, amber coloured.

Ecumenicus flower. Herb basil?

Flower of Copper. (34, 11). Small black scales of oxide of copper, which separate on cooling.

Jove. Tin.

Luna. Silver.

Magnesia. (36,16). Any white body, steatite; as in XVI., an amalgam; an ore of iron. Workmen in mines now are accustomed to call any white ore unknown to them magnesia.

Misy. (34, 12). Roman vitriol, a mixture of CuSO4, with basic sulphate of iron; oxidized copper pyrites.

Molybdochalium. An alloy of Cu and Pb.

Nitre. (31, 10). A white salt. Pliny’s description answers to sal ammoniac, may be Na2CO3, KNO3, Na2SO4, &c., &c.

Orichalium. (33). Yellow copper ore, mountain brass; or white copper, an alloy of Cu and As.

Oxymel. (23, 2). Vinegar and honey.

Persea. (13, 9). Balanites Ćg. Berthelot translates it peach.

Lead. (34, 16). White, is Sn; Black, is Pb.

Pyrites. (36, 19). White, arsenical pyrites. Yellow, iron pyrites.

Sal Cappadocić. A variety of sal gemma.

Sandarach. (34, 18). As2S2 (realgar) or HgS.

Scissile. Alum schist; any ore distinguished by a laminated structure, saline efflorescence, and styptic properties; yellow ochre colour.

Sol. Gold.

Sory. (34, 12). Basic sulphate of iron, brown from exposure, containing CuSO4.

Silver Spume. (33, 6). Argentiferous litharge.

Venus. Copper.

The gold and silver varnishes still used to brighten the colour of gold and silver alloys are nearly identical with those given in this work.

[1] Published in the CHEMICAL NEWS, vol. xlviii., p. 279.

[2] “Nature” seems to be used for the specific qualities of a substance; those which differentiate it from others.

[3] Probably, the reduced metal of.

[4] Berthelot’s text rarely used these alchemical names, never in the case of copper.

[5] For colouring the alloy – not expressed.

[6] Greek reads:- “Gold, for it will be golden through gold and the golden liquor.”

[7] A curious mistranslation, the words divine and sulphur being similar in Greek. It is probably a polysulphide of calcium.

[8] Alluding to the four principles of nature: warm, cold, dry, and moist, by the combination of which the four elements were formed.

[9] Greek, copper.

[10] Greek, orichalium.

[11] Greek, dry pow. substances.

[12] Is this the bulb, for which Cilicia was famous, or a yellow metallic compound?

[13] Probably sublimed mercury.

[14] The body of a substance is its metallic state.

[15] This seems to point to a work on distillation, which was practised in the first centuries of our era.

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