The earliest works of Alexandrian Alchemy, such as those of the Pseudo-Demikristo and Comarius, mix practical Egyptian Alchemy with Hellenic Mystery teachings and Magic, while later works, such as those of Zosimus of Panopolis, and the legendary Hermes Trismegistus, are almost entirely allegorical. This change may have been due to disappointment with the practical Alchemy of turning lead into gold, and a search for a new use of texts that had accrued a 'magical reputation', as well being a useful 'veil' for secret teachings. However practical Alchemy continued alongside this development.
The teachings that influenced these esoteric Alchemists were a mixture of magical techniques from the Greek Magical Papyri, and the beliefs of Sethian Gnosticism and Hermeticism. The basic Hermetic idea was that all things are one and so apparently separate systems really operate in parallel. Thus the configuration of the stars in Astrology will parallel the configuration of the human psyche, and the configuration of events experienced by those psyches, when the systems become entangled (such as at birth or moments of creation when the system comes into being). Thus in Alchemy the practitioner's psyche is entangled with the chemical process, and so the 'perfection of metals' becomes the 'perfection of the psyche'. The Gnostic aspect added the belief that mankind were spirits, trapped in and corrupted by matter, and so perfection consisted of liberating pure spirit from matter, thus making Alchemy the ideal Hermetic method.
The Book of Comarius
The Book of Comarius is full of impenetrable Alchemical metaphors, but also has some interesting sections. It is here we first hear of the four stages of Alchemy, Black, White, Yellow and Purple (a more detailed if mysterious sequence gives: Separation, Blackening (sevenfold burning), Washing, Whitening (sevenfold burning), Dualising the Composition for Casting of Gold, Yellowing (one half of the substance is mixed with a yellowing tincture), Fusion, Washing, Gilding, Purpling (refinement)). Later a more chemical version is given:
"Climb to the top of the ladder, up the mountain covered with trees, and find the stone (earlier described as the source of the Spirit of Alum). Take the Arsenic from the stone and use it for whitening. And see in the middle of the mountain, underneath the Arsenic, there is its bride (the Yellow Arsenic, Arsenic Trisulphide) with whom it unites...Descend to the Egyptian Sea and bring back from the sand, from the source, the so-called Natron (Salt, Sodium Carbonate). Unite it with these substances and you have the All-Colouring Beauty....."
And a little later, after an obscure, metaphor rich description of the rain cycle, a reiteration?:
"Now listen and understand. Take from the four elements the High Arsenic and the Low Arsenic, the White (Natron?) and the Red (Alum? Iron Sulphide, the substance Pliny claimed 'blackened' when mixed with Pomegranate juice) equal in weight, male and female, so they are joined with each other....watering it in the divine waters and warming it in the sun and in burned places, and you must roast it gently in the flame with the Virgin's Milk (here perhaps Mercury?)... And enclose it in Hades and move it in safety until its structure becomes more solid and does not run from the fire (a property of liquid Mercury). Then you take it out, and when the soul and spirit have joined each other and become one, you must throw it on the solid Silver (the body?) and you have Gold..."
Immediately after this this physical sounding process is given a religious spin with:
"Here you have the Mystery of the Philosophers. Our fathers made us never to reveal it or divulge it, since it has divine power. For divine is that united with the Godhead and accomplishes divine substance, in which the spirit is embodied and the mortal elements animated. Just like the dark spirit (Persian influence?) which is full of vanity and despondency, the one which has power over bodies and prevents them from becoming white and receiving the colour in which they were once clothed by the Creator... for body, spirit and soul are weak because of the darkness which stretches over them. But once the dark evil spelling spirit has been disposed of...then the body is illuminated. The soul calls out to the illuminated body: Wake up from Hades! Resurrect from the tomb! Come out alive from the darkness!"
The physical process appears to combine a carefully produced colouring agent (the yellowish Sulphur and reddish Iron containing elements) with Mercury to create an amalgam that can gild Silver into Gold. But the process is obviously being used as a metaphor.
A later Greek Alchemist Zosimos defines Alchemy as "the study of the composition of waters, movement, growth, embodying and disembodying, drawing the spirits from bodies and bonding the spirits within bodies". But his writing is purely allegorical. In his most well known work he dreams he is slain by Ion (a reflection of himself, as Set is of Horus/Osiris), who dismembers and burns him up on the altar so he becomes pure spirit. At which point Ion melts and becomes something else. Zosimos wakes and experiences the transformation before falling asleep again and seeing various other characters tortured, burnt or boiled (sometimes in a Crater) and transformed into metallic beings. The whole process being a cycle of sacrificial transformations on a Gnostic Christian model.
In other writing he describes a Crater (a proto Grail) as a baptismal font in which the subject is purified by hot streams of Sulphur and Mercury.
Zosimos maintained that Alchemy was originally part of the Mysteries of Metal taught by the fallen Enochian Angels, and contained the secrets of salvation.
The development of these ideas culminate with the legendary Hermes Trismegistus (based on the mythic Hermes / Thoth incarnate, rather than Osiris this time) who acted as a wise intermediary and Keeper of the Mysteries. The basic Alchemical teachings of Hermes were recorded on a mysterious Emerald Tablet revealed only to initiates. There is a hint in the Hermetic texts of prior initiations, with the Alchemical work a subsequent ritual of sacrifice bringing on the initiatory transformation. Later Alchemical and Magical texts of a similar style were attributed to Hermes and collected in the Hermetic Corpus.
A short version of the Emerald Tablet was known in Alexandrian times, but a fuller version later appeared as an appendix in various Arabian texts. From were it was incorporated into the Medieval text Secretum Secretorum, a bible of early Medieval Alchemy.
The oldest documentable source for the text is the Kitab Sirr al-Asrar, a compendium of advice for rulers in Arabic which purports to be a letter from Aristotle to Alexander the Great. This work was translated into Latin as Secretum Secretorum (the Secret of Secrets) by Johannes "Hispalensis" or Hispaniensis (John of Seville) ca. 1140 and by Philip of Tripoli c. 1243.
The Hermetic Corpus is believed to have been lost to Europe until its rediscovery in the Renaissance. Though unsubstantiated claims sometimes allude to its earlier secret presence. The Hermetic writings are unique for their 'pagan style' allegory, free of Christian interpretation.
The Emerald Tablet
1. True, without error, certain and most true
2. That which is below is as that which is above, and that which is above is as that which is below, to perform the miracles of the one thing.
3. And as all things were from [the] one, by [means of] the meditation of [the] one, thus all things of the daughter from [the] one, by [means of] adaptation.
4. Its father is the sun, its mother[,]the moon, the wind carried it in its belly, its nurse is the earth.
5. The father of all the initiates of the whole world is here.
6. Its power is integrating if it be turned into earth.
7. Separate the earth from the fire, the fine from the dense, delicately, by [means of/to] the great [together] with capacity.
8. It ascends by [means of] earth into heaven and again it descends into the earth, and retakes the power of the superior[s] and of the inferior[s].
9. Thus[,] you have the glory of the whole world.
10. Therefore[,] may it drive-out by [means of] you of all the obscurity.
11. This is the whole of the strength of the strong force, because it overcomes all fine things, and penetrates all the complete.
12. Thus[,] the world has been created.
13. Hence they were wonderful adaptations, of which this is the manner.
14. Therefore[,] I am Hermes the Thrice Great, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world.
15. What I have said concerning the operation of the Sun has been completed.