Since the beginning, alchemical literature of a more or less openly ‘‘scientific’’ nature was accompanied by translations of a great deal of allegorical literature. It is worth mentioning that this genre is not original to the Muslim world; already Greek alchemy had Zosimus, or Hermetical texts, or the vast body of works attributed to various authors of Alexandria during the early centuries: this literature, which originated to protect and expand on very ancient techne, reached Islam along with the other translations, and was studied and commented upon by a number of authors. The mystery grew with the inevitable fracture between the polytheistic rebirths and Islamic monotheism and with the spread of quotes out of context; on the contrary, when characters were known and cherished, the various stories were expanded upon and details were added to them. A well-known case, for example, is that of Alexander the Great, who in Arabic became Dhu l-Qarnayn (the two-horned one); the Alexander Romance, attributed to Callisthenes, was the origin for the creation of an alchemical heroic figure, which combined the wisdom of the Greeks, the Persian tradition, and Indian science. Along with Alexander, there are many other revered characters that were adopted and are often mentioned in alchemical allegory: philosophers like Democritus, Aristotle, and Socrates; physicians like Galen; and also prophets, like MUsa (Moses), ‘Isa (Jesus), and even Adam, father of the humankind, to whom God transferred, along with other knowledge, a few pages of alchemy.
In allegorical texts, the Great Work takes on various different forms. In its different stages, in the retort and alembic, it often became an event: a journey, an ascent, an access to the temple, an exile in a palace or chamber, a siege, the destruction of a city and a pacification amongst its ruins, the hunt and cooking of prey, a gathering of rain and dew, the gestation of an embryo in the uterus, and an infinite number of other events that are vivid images of the procedure. In its condition of completeness, taken as a single entity somewhere between action and result, the event is replaced by an object: like the egg, be it a hen’s egg or the cosmic egg, which contains within itself each element and nature; or like the hermetic tree, firmly planted and motionless, but ‘‘readable’’ even in its becoming, from its roots to its leaves. At the core of all this proliferation there was a unique reality: as the alchemists themselves wrote, the endless number of alchemical allegories are nothing but the descriptions of a single procedure and a single object.
At the root of this vast body of allegorical work there is not only a religious or initiatic literature, or that of writers and poets: a large part of Arab alchemy is in fact based on philosophical texts, often Aristotelian: a great deal of imagery and names of minerals, plants, and animals, descriptions of man and other creatures, depictions of the skies, the heavenly bodies, etc. are “alchemized” borrowings from various sciences, from which alchemy borrowed more or less faithfully. And not all ofit came from Alexandria and from the Greeks: as mentioned previously, Persia, India, and ancient Mesopotamia also had a strong influence.
Alchemical allegory had a strong impact on its readers, from East to Spain. Alchemical allegory appears sporadically throughout literary texts, poetry, and prose and, as time went by, even in the musings of mystics, with interventions that are often as brief yet effective as lightning: in the East, alchemical allegory is quoted by al-BirunI, the scientist, who in one of his works even mocked the alchemists, and by al-GGazall (d. 1111), the theologian; between the two worlds, it is mentioned by Ibn ‘ArabI (d. 1240) the mystic; in the West, Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185) the philosopher, in his work Hayy b. Yaqzan mentions the unobtainable red sulphur, one of the names for the elixir.
In closing, a brief note on recipes: unlike the descriptions of equipment occasionally found throughout alchemical texts, sometimes detailed in drawings and which can be reproduced, recipes are often difficult to decipher: although a few are quite clear, such as the recipes for purifying the lazaward (lapis lazuli! natural ultramarine), or the instructions for coloring different materials (papers, precious woods, etc.), most of the recipes concerning the Great Work use terms and expressions drawn from allegory; the difficulty in interpreting them joins the already hard task set by other scientific texts, non-encrypted recipes, and pharmacopoeias, due to the difficulty in identifying minerals, plants, and various substances. Prudence in interpreting them is required, as hurried interpretations have often been detrimental; the challenge, however, is irresistible.