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Egyptian Temple Culture and the Origins of Alchemy


Zosimos of Panopolis as a Priest of the House of Life

By Shannon Grimes, PhD

Egyptian priests performing a ritual to Isis, Roman period. Wall painting from the Herculaneum, first century CE.

EGYPT HAS LONG BEEN ROMANTICIZED as a land of mystery and profound wisdom, and idealized views of Egypt (and the Near East) have been consequential for studies of alchemy. Some have embraced alchemy as a font of esoteric wisdom that originated in Egypt, others have dismissed the Egyptian references in alchemical texts as romantic fictions; many have circumvented the Egyptian context altogether. It is true that familiar Egyptian tropes, which are frequently the stuff of legend, can be found in the Greco-Egyptian corpus. Physika kai Mystika (On Natural and Mystical Things) for example, a first century Pseudo-Democritean text, includes a story about Democritus and his fellow initiates whose master, a famous Persian mage named Ostanes, had died before teaching them a certain alchemical procedure called “harmonizing natures”.[1] But one day, when the students were gathered in the temple for a banquet, a column in the sancta sanctorum suddenly split open to reveal the mystery—a text containing the formula: “Nature delights in nature, nature conquers nature, nature masters nature”.[2]

By contrast, Zosimos’s accounts of the priesthood seem more realistic. He gives pedestrian details that suggest actual work experience in a temple environment, including his instructions for making religious statues. Zosimos, a native Egyptian, is writing for other craft specialists, and many of them were probably artisan-priests, but not all; these professional contexts need to be examined more closely. This article fleshes out some of the socio-cultural contexts of Roman Egypt, and Panopolis in particular, in order to gain more insight into the working lives of Zosimos and other Upper Egyptian metalsmiths at the turn of the fourth century.

Priests performed ritual re-enactments of cosmic creation, along with daily devotions to the gods, as a means of invoking the divine presence in the world and upholding the cosmic order (maat).

Priests of the house of life 

Egyptian temples were dwelling places for the divine, designed as microcosmic images of the world. Byron Shafer explains:

The enclosure wall and sacred lake were Nun [the watery chaos], the sanctuary was the place of the First Creation, the hypostyle hall and the bases of the walls were the liminal swamp, the columns were plants, the ceilings were sky, the floors were earth, the vaults were netherworld, the pylon was the mountains of the eastern horizon, and the axial way was the path of the sun [...]. To be in the temple—whether through priestly service or limited “public” access—was to experience the body of god, to commune with god physically and sacramentally.[3]

The priests performed ritual re-enactments of cosmic creation, along with daily devotions to the gods, as a means of invoking the divine presence in the world and upholding the cosmic order (maat).[4] Much of the work of the temple took place in interior spaces that could only be entered by initiated priests, but there were courtyard shrines, chapels, and occasionally some interior temple rooms that were open to the public for worship.[5]

Priests of different ranks handled various temple duties, which included things like performing cult rituals, healings, and dream interpretations; singing and playing music; and chiseling hieroglyphs and divine images into temple walls. Other kinds of priestly work extended beyond the temple buildings themselves. Funerary practices, such as embalming and mummification of both humans and animals, were handled by mortuary priests and specialists, and priests were hired by families to perform liturgies at the tombs. Administrators of various kinds were also needed to handle temple finances and oversee its landholdings and its many contract employees, such as farmers, bakers, beekeepers, weavers, construction workers, and artisans; some of these administrators were priests, others were government officials.[6] Both the temple and mortuary cults played a major role in the Egyptian economy. Priests were typically well-paid, and the office was hereditary, passed down from the father’s side.[7] Historically, the temples were under royal control, so people could also be appointed to priestly office at the discretion of the king.[8]

Higher ranking priests were literate, and some of the larger temples had an institution called the House of Life, which was devoted to priestly knowledge and craftsmanship and played a role in temple administration.[9] The priests of the House of Life were scholar-scribes who worked in annexes that housed temple libraries and scriptoriums. Ragnhild Bjerre Finnestad outlines the various subjects that they studied:

In these centers of learning, a variety of disciplines were pursued: mythology, liturgy, iconography, arithmetic, geometry, law, medicine, astronomy, the interpretation of dreams, the study of the Nile and its inundation, and all other sciences pertaining to Egypt: geography, topography, history, and philology (the language of the hieroglyphic texts was dead).[10]

Artisans and craftsmen were under the supervision of the House of Life; some of the artisans who worked for the temple were priests of varying ranks, but others were contract hires, commissioned for specific jobs.[11] Zosimos’s writings indicate that he was intimately familiar with the workings of the House of Life. He mentions that priests are the keepers of the ancient books of the sacred art (alchemy), and that access to these books is restricted; copies of these texts can only be read in the sanctuary of the temple.[12] Zosimos refers to several of these books by name, and in some cases there is evidence that he is directly quoting from the works of older alchemists, namely Ps.-Democritus and Maria the Jewess; as Michèle Mertens says, he “had their works under his eyes”.[13] He is clearly involved in the interpretation of ancient metallurgical recipes, which were apparently difficult to decipher. Hieroglyphs were still in use by priests in the Roman period, though they were not as common as hieratic (priestly) or demotic (popular) cursive scripts. These writing systems are notoriously difficult to translate, and this was the case even for ancient scribes.[14] Also, the Greco-Egyptian alchemical corpus makes use of symbolic notation systems for different substances—metals are designated by planetary symbols, for example—but the symbolic representations show inconsistency and signs of change over time, which further complicates the work of translation.[15] According to Zosimos, those who could interpret and translate the texts achieved some renown: “the diverse symbols of the priests were explicated by the former masters and the different prophets [high-ranking Egyptian priests], whose names became celebrated, and who prevailed with all the power of science”.[16] Even though Zosimos is engaged in this work, he claims that he does not seek fame like the others.[17] Jan Assmann explains that in the Greco-Roman period, hieroglyphs were stylized as a form of cryptography, and it was a mark of priestly elitism to be able to read and interpret the signs (only priests could read hieroglyphics and hieratic script).[18] He writes: “Cryptographic principles invaded the whole system of hieroglyphic writing […] Almost every religious center developed its own script system. The difficulty of deciphering script grew proportionately, and there is little doubt that the Egyptians themselves considered it a secret code accessible only to the initiated”.[19] Whether or not Zosimos is interpreting hieroglyphs, this mystique surrounding Egyptian priestly writing is not simply a romantic fiction, but firmly embedded in the temple scribal culture of Zosimos’s day.

Scribes must be acquainted with what are called hieroglyphics, and know about cosmography and geography, the position of the sun and moon, and about the five planets
— Clement of Alexandria —

The scribal priests of the House of Life are the keepers of ancient libraries; they research and recopy old, decaying papyrus scrolls, and they also produce new creative works. They are scholars who translate wisdom across the ages and across different modes of language, culture, and expression. Zosimos’s work as an alchemical hermeneut suggests that he was a scribal priest. The patron deity of the House of Life is Thoth, the god of writing and magic. In the Greco-Roman period, Thoth was equated with the Greek god, Hermes, and these names are mentioned in the Greco-Egyptian alchemical corpus, both as alchemical authors and as gods.[20] Zosimos is a devotee of Thoth and well-versed in Hermetic literature.[21] Another indication that Zosimos was associated with the House of Life is his emphasis on astrological timing for the preparations of tinctures. Astronomer-priests, the hōroskopoi and hōrologoi, were important members of the House of Life; they observed and kept records of the movements of the heavenly bodies, and were consulted regarding propitious moments for both religious and non-cultic acts.[22] Zosimos claims that favorable timing is important in metallurgy, and he criticizes others for not adhering to this tradition.[23] According to Clement of Alexandria, who gives a stylized description of Egyptian priests carrying the forty-two essential books of the temple library, the scribal priests come after the astronomers in the procession (and perhaps also in rank), but they, too, will have mastered some knowledge of astronomy:

[the scribes] must be acquainted with what are called hieroglyphics, and know about cosmography and geography, the position of the sun and moon, and about the five planets; also the description of Egypt, and the chart of the Nile; and the description of the equipment of the priests and of the places consecrated to them, and about the measures and the things in use in the sacred rites.[24] 

In order to have priestly rank as an artisan, one had to be a senior artisan, and Zosimos appears to have been a master craftsman, a teacher of teachers.[25] Zosimos describes other master craftsmen as “prophets”, a high-ranking class of priests who had administrative roles in the temple, but it isn’t clear whether Zosimos had this status. As we have seen, temple administration, including the overseeing of artisans and builders, was one of the functions of priests in the House of Life. Zosimos served as an advisor to his colleague, Theosebeia, who taught the alchemical arts to groups of disciples; his advisory role to her suggests that he was of a higher rank.[26] Some of the frustration Zosimos expresses with regards to his colleagues—his frequent complaints that they are mistranslating, misinterpreting, or failing to follow the ancient recipes—also implies some administrative and didactic responsibility on his part. Even if he didn’t have the rank of prophet, he seems to have been in the role of a supervisor or overseer, and he clearly achieved some distinction in his work, since his writings were admired and found worthy of preservation by later alchemists.

Even though each Egyptian temple was constructed as a cosmos in miniature and had certain features in common, each temple also had unique local and regional features. We don’t have specific information about which temple(s) Zosimos was affiliated with, but I will turn now to a discussion of Panopolis and the Thebaid region, where Zosimos allegedly lived and worked, in order to add some local perspective.[27]

Temple culture in the Panopolis region

There were several temples and shrines in Panopolis, but the main temple and largest structure in the city was the Temple of Min.[28] Min is an ithyphallic fertility god whom the Greeks associated with Pan. Egyptian cities were often named after their patron deities, which is why the town was known as Panopolis; before the Ptolemaic period, the city was known as Khent-Min.[29] According to ancient descriptions, the Temple of Min was one of the grandest in Egypt, perhaps comparable to the magnificent Thebaid temples of Dendera, Edfu, or Philae, which are still standing today.[30] Unfortunately, the temple was dismantled in the fourteenth century. Early travelers report a famous stone monument in Panopolis with a zodiac on one side, and a Greek inscription commemorating work on the Temple of Min in the twelfth year of Hadrian (108 CE) on the other.[31] Medieval Arab writers describe the temple as being painted blue and beautifully decorated with images of gods, humans, animals, and birds, as well as “dreadful, inhuman forms that terrify the beholder and fill him with wonder and amazement”.[32] Symbols of priestly sciences like medicine, alchemy, and astronomy also featured prominently on the walls, and medieval Muslim scholars are reported to have lived for a time in the temple in Panopolis/Akhmim (as well as other Egyptian temples) in order to study these sciences by deciphering the symbols.[33] Akhmim was known to Arab scholars throughout the medieval period as a center for the study of alchemy.[34]

Astronomy and astrology, which were virtually inseparable in the Greco-Roman period, also seem to have been an emphasis; more zodiacs have been found and attested to in Panopolis than anywhere else in Egypt.

The Temple of Min had a House of Life that was active well into the Roman period, and its priests were devoted to the god Thoth; an epithet for these scribal priests was “those who know the forms of the ancestors”.[35] Given the large number of demotic papyri that have been found in the region, it appears to have been an important production center for demotic translations of wisdom literature and funerary texts, including a unique Book of the Dead tradition.[36] Astronomy and astrology, which were virtually inseparable in the Greco-Roman period, also seem to have been an emphasis; more zodiacs have been found and attested to in Panopolis than anywhere else in Egypt.[37] Medieval Arab travelers have described a ceiling zodiac and architraves adorned with celestial images that they saw at the Temple of Min.[38] Several zodiacs have also been found in tombs in the area, as well as ostraca painted with astral iconography.[39] Zosimos indicates that there are debates over different approaches to astronomy/astrology as it pertains to alchemy, particularly the art of propitious timing, which is an ancient craft tradition, yet appears to be in danger of being superseded by newer theories.[40] This shows that astronomy/astrology was being discussed, debated, and theorized, and was a topic of some importance in this particular House of Life.

Culturally speaking, Panopolis was a very Hellenized city. Herodotus claims that in the fifth century BCE, the town of Chemmis (Khent-Min) had a statue of Perseus in their temple and that they celebrated Greek-style games in the hero’s honor.[41] This is an exaggerated interpretation on Herodotus’s part, but it is true that a couple of centuries later, during the period of Ptolemaic rule, there was an influx of Greeks migrating to Egypt. The first Greek pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy I Soter, established a new southern capital, Ptolemais, about twenty kilometers from Panopolis. Karolien Geens notes that Ptolemais was a Greek city, and that it had cultural tensions with Panopolis, yet also exerted cultural influence:

Perhaps due to its location opposite this Greek centre, Panopolis came to the front in the revolts against the Ptolemies in the second century BC. On the other hand, thanks to the vicinity of Ptolemais, Greek culture was more easily accessible in Panopolis than in other cities of the Thebaid. Already in the late Ptolemaic and early Roman period, Egyptian culture apparently became influenced by Greek culture, and from the fourth century onwards, Panopolis became a stronghold of Greek literary culture.[42]

Under Greek rule, Hellenism became a mark of social status throughout the empire and continued to have cultural cachet throughout the Roman period. Greek remained the lingua franca, and in Panopolis the use of Hellenized names, like Zosimos, was on the rise.[43] The city had temples dedicated to Greek deities, such as Hermes, Persephone, Asclepius, as well as Egyptian gods.[44] Several bilingual mummy tags from the third century, written in demotic on one side and Greek on the other, have also been found in Panopolis.[45] Under Roman rule, intermarriage between Greeks and Egyptians was common; Greeks living in Egypt were legally classified as Egyptians, and “Greek” became more of a cultural identity than an ethnic one.[46] But Greek heritage and a Greek education were still markers of the elite class.

Some perspective on the elite Hellenized culture of Panopolis comes from a set of documents dating from the mid-to-late fourth century that were written by a scholastikos (lawyer) named Ammon, who comes from an elite priestly family and may have been a priest himself at one time.[47] He is writing a bit later than Zosimos, but it is likely that Ammon’s father or older brother were high priests at the Temple of Min in Zosimos’s day.[48] Peter van Minnen notes that Ammon’s manuscripts, particularly a letter to his mother, are elegantly written by hand in a highly polished Greek prose, and bear the mark of an excellent Greek education.[49] Ammon’s religious ideas focus on the role of Fate and divine providence, which is also emphasized in Zosimos’s text On Apparatus and Furnaces (Letter Omega). Van Minnen thinks that Ammon’s discussions of the cycles of Fate might be inspired by the zodiacs and astronomical traditions that flourished in Panopolis.[50] That could certainly be, but astral religion and ideas about Fate and Fortune were also quite popular throughout the Roman Empire. Fortune was personified as a goddess and was often merged with other goddesses, including Isis; temples and divine statues of Fortune can still be seen all over the Mediterranean. Zosimos talks about manufacturing statues of Fortune and Destiny, presumably for the local temples or to sell to private buyers.[51] Therefore, Ammon’s emphasis on the cycles of Fate could also be a sign of his Hellenism. His religious ideas are expressed in a rather generic Hellenized fashion; as van Minnen notes, he frequently refers to the gods, but he only mentions one by name—Agathos Daimon, who was a Hellenized version of the Egyptian god, Shai.[52]  We also see these tendencies toward a generic Hellenism in Zosimos’s writings, though to a lesser degree.[53] This is probably due, in part, to his Hellenistic education and background, as well to long-standing social and economic pressures to assimilate to the higher status Greek culture. But Zosimos’s writings also show signs of a conscious attempt to blend the teachings of different cultures in order to present them in a unified, more universal form.[54]

In the Roman period, temple scribes were interested in synthesizing different native theologies and myths in order to present a more universal account of Egyptian religion that transcended local and regional differences.[55] This universalism was not limited to Egyptian thought; the scribes were reading and translating texts from all over the Mediterranean and Near East and harmonizing ideas, expressing them in Greek, the lingua franca of their day. As David Frankfurter observes:

The enterprise of interpreting old traditions was at the same time archaistic, in the sense of continually reinforcing the paradigmatic significance of ancient legends and their characters, and synthetic, in the sense of articulating the archaic models as contemporary propaganda of immediate historical relevance. This fundamental drive to synthesize was largely responsible for Egyptian priestly culture’s tremendous capacity to assimilate foreign words, gods, and ritual methods like astrology, and ultimately to transform “Hellenism”, its language, ideas, and mythologies, into a thoroughly Egyptian discourse.[56]

The Hermetic literature that dates from the beginning of Roman rule is a good example of this synthetic tendency, blending Egyptian traditions with Greek and Jewish influences.[57] Zosimos, who was well versed in the Hermetic tradition, also exhibits this synthesis and universalism, at times intentionally trying to harmonize Greek, Hebrew, and Egyptian approaches to metallurgy and metaphysics.[58] His Hellenistic mode of expression can occasionally mask the Egyptian traditions that undergird his work, but it has the advantage of making his ideas more accessible to a broader audience, as well as bearing the marks of higher education, status, and prestige.

Egyptian language, customs, and religious traditions were still very much alive in Roman Egypt, particularly in the temples. One of the striking features of Egyptian temples is that they function like texts. The walls are covered with reliefs and hieroglyphic engravings—ritual instructions and prayers; names and gods and descriptions of their journeys through the worlds; lists of priests, kings, and notable citizens; lists of library holdings—these things and more are inscribed onto the temple walls and help preserve cultural memory, a need that became more acute with the ever-increasing multiculturalism in Roman Egypt.[59]

The scribe goddess Seshat, who like her consort Thoth, embodies wisdom, knowledge, and all the disciplines of priestly learning. Depicted on the seated statue of Ramese II, Temple of Amum, Luxor, circa 1250 BCE.

Phillipe Derchain coined the phrase “temple grammar” to refer to the integration of text, architecture, and iconography that went into the building and decoration of the temples; the temple grammar is unique to different temples, making each temple a world of its own.[60] Unfortunately, we know little to nothing of the temple grammar of the Temple of Min in Panopolis, but Derchain’s work on the House of Gold at the Temple of Dendera (roughly 130 kilometers to the south) is pertinent to studies of alchemy.[61] The temple has ascending and descending staircases that lead to the roof of the temple, where New Year ceremonies and Osiris rituals were performed.[62] The ascending staircase is in the west, and a poem to the setting sun is inscribed on the wall. The poem is strategically positioned near a window so that the words become illuminated by sun’s rays once it begins to set—a beautiful example of propitious timing and working in harmony with nature, which is important to Egyptian rituals and to Zosimean alchemy.[63]

The entrance to a goldsmith’s atelier, called the “House of Gold”, is located on a landing off this stairway. Lower ranking artisans were forbidden to enter this room, where initiated priests finished making the cult statues and performed the “opening of the mouth” ceremonies that rendered the statues capable of receiving divine presence.[64] The deities that preside over this House of Gold are Thoth and his consort, Seshat; their images, along with other gods and depictions of the mystery of the birth of statues, are among the many engravings on the chamber walls.[65] As an artisan-priest, Zosimos would have been involved in these god-making rituals and immersed in this kind of temple grammar, which he had a role in interpreting. Derchain thinks that the origins of alchemy lie in these practices of making and consecrating divine statues, and I couldn’t agree more.[66] Zosimos’s religious approach to alchemy, in particular, seems to derive from (and elaborate on) the temple mysteries of god-making.

The Opening of the Mouth Ceremony was an ancient Egyptian rite for animating statues that not only gave them life, but enabled them to speak, receive food offerings, and ultimately to become vehicles for divine presence.

Temples were dependent on imperial funding, and during Ptolemaic and Roman rule, there was a significant amount of spending on temples in the Thebaid region.  Funding for these building and renovation projects may have originally been done to quell rebellion and promote royal propaganda in the area; the Thebaid was notorious for rebelling against both Greece and Rome—Panopolis being one of the centers of these rebellions in the second century BCE.[67] Another reason is that Upper Egypt is home to most of the country’s gold mines, and imperial rulers would have an interest in protecting that wealth. In addition to gold, the mountains of the Eastern Desert were a major mining center for precious metals and gemstones, and limestone used for building.

Panopolis, the capital city of the ninth nome of Egypt, was one of the gateways to the Eastern Desert, and in antiquity it was known for its craftsmanship in weaving, stonemasonry, and metalwork, particularly goldsmithing.[68] Its patron deity, Min, was known as the “Lord of the Eastern Desert” and was worshiped by miners and quarrymen.[69] Min was also the main deity of the city of Coptos, located at the same bend of the Nile River as Dendera, about 125 kilometers south of Panopolis. Shrines to Min, as god of the mines and quarries, have been found all throughout the Eastern Desert, along with shrines to Hathor, patron goddess of Dendera, who was worshiped as a goddess of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and turquoise.[70] These two gods were the principal metallurgical deities in the Thebaid.[71] As an ithyphallic fertility god, Min would protect those who enter the mines and plumb the insides of the earth, whereas Hathor, a fertility goddess, was embodied in the subterranean passageways and beautiful treasures found therein.

Precious metals, of course, have great value as a source of material wealth, used since ancient times as a form of monetary currency, but Egyptians—particularly Upper Egyptian mining communities—also accorded them great spiritual value. Sydney Aufrère argues that theologies of the mineral world (which had local variations) are important sources for understanding alchemical traditions.[72] The temple grammar of the theological and ritual use of metals at the Temple of Min at Panopolis is lost, but we can get a sense of its themes by looking more closely at the worship of Min. In addition to being a god of the mines, Min is also a patron deity of goldsmiths.[73] Therefore, gold likely had a theological place of prominence at Panopolis. Egyptians considered all precious metals and stones to be emanations of the divine, and gold, silver, electrum, copper, turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian, and jasper were often presented to the gods as ceremonial offerings.[74] Silver ore is rare in Egypt, occurring mostly in natural alloys of silver and gold (“aurian silver”), so much of it was imported.[75] Even though silver had a high market value—at times even higher than gold—Aufrère argues that gold was considered theologically superior because it was native to the sacred land of Egypt.[76] This idea may have been especially promoted in Upper Egypt, where the majority of gold mines were located.

It is you who break the seal in the heavens and spread gold dust over the earth, who come to life in the east and vanish in the west and sleep in your temple each day
— Hymn to the Sun —

Astral metaphors were often used to describe gold; gold was compared with the sun and moon and the brilliance of the stars.[77] The morning hymn to the gods sung in most temples each day associates sunlight with gold: “Wake peacefully, wake beautifully, in peace! Wake to life, oh (god of this city)! [...] It is you who break the seal in the heavens and spread gold dust over the earth, who come to life in the east and vanish in the west and sleep in (your temple) each day”.[78] This hymn includes the refrain, repeated at least forty-five times, “May you wake peacefully [...] and spread gold dust over the earth”. [79] Because gold was associated with the sun and the solar deity (the primary creator god, Re) who descends each night into the Duat (underworld), gold was also associated with the mysteries of Osiris, god of the underworld.[80]

As the cult of Isis and Osiris spread and rose to prominence throughout Egypt, the god Min became increasingly assimilated with Osiris. At Panopolis, Min was worshiped in a triad with Isis (wife of Osiris) and Horus (their son), who were, in turn, assimilated with other prominent Panopolite deities: the fertility goddess Triphis, and the child god Kolanthis.[81] The cult of Osiris, which revolves around the death and resurrection of the god, undoubtedly influenced the metalwork practiced in the Temple of Min; it is certainly evident in Zosimos’s writings, particularly his alchemical allegory, On Excellence, which includes a vivid, elaborate account of the death and resurrection of the metals in the underworld.[82]

This article is reproduced from chapter two of

Becoming Gold:
Zosimos of Panopolis and the Alchemical Arts in Roman Egypt

By Shannon Grimes, PhD

Panopolis Series Volume One
(Series Editor Aaron Cheak, PhD)

Rubedo Press 2018
6 x 9 | illustrated | colour | 290 pages

Notes and References

[1]         This story is thought to be either an interpolation, or an epitomization of content from another Ps.-Democritean text by a later compiler. See Jackson Hershbell, “Democritus and the Beginnings of Greek Alchemy”, 11; and Matteo Martelli, The Four Books of Pseudo-Democritus, 18–19.

[2]         Physika kai Mystika, Martelli’s translation, ibid, 83–85.

[3]         See Byron Shafer, “Temples, Priests, and Rituals: An Overview”, in B. Shafer, ed., Temples of Ancient Egypt (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 8.

[4]         Ibid. See also Siegfried Morenz, Egyptian Religion, 88.

[5]         Emily Teeter, Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 77–84.

[6]         Serge Sauneron, The Priests of Ancient Egypt, trans. D. Lorton (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), 56–57.

[7]         On priests making a good salary, see Teeter, Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt, 36–38; and Françoise Dunand, “Book II: Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt”, in F. Dunand and C. Zivie-Coche, Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 bce to 395 ce, trans. D. Lorton (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 212.

[8]         Sauneron, 45–47. For information on government/clergy relations in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, see Dunand, 206–213. 

[9]         See Finnestad, “Temples of the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods”, 228. On page 191 of this work, Finnestad indicates that under Ptolemaic and Roman rule, the scholarly activity of the temples took on a special significance because they had become “the chief official repositories of Egyptian learning”. On this point, see also Alan H. Gardiner, “The House of Life”, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 24.2 (1938): 159; and Sauneron, 133–134.

[10]        Finnestad, 228.

[11]        Sauneron, 134.

[12]        CMA, Syr. II.6.19. Compare with similar statements about secret knowledge of the House of Life in Papyrus Salt 825, which dates from the Ptolemaic period.

[13]        Michèle Mertens, “Alchemy, Hermetism, and Gnosticism at Panopolis c. 300 A.D.: The Evidence of Zosimus”, in A. Egberts et al., eds., Perspectives on Panopolis: An Egyptian Town from Alexander the Great to the Arab Conquest (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 169. Evidence of his direct quotes can be seen in Auth. Mem., VII, 1, 3–4 (Maria) and Auth. Mem., I, 1.195–197; and CAAG II.53, 1.14–15 (Democritus).

[14]        On the difficulties of translation of these writings, see Richard Jasnow and Karl-Theodor Zauzich, Conversations in the House of Life: A New Translation of the Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2014), 3–10; and Leonard Lesko, “Ancient Egyptian Cosmogonies and Cosmology”, in Byron Shafer, ed., Religion in Ancient Egypt (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1991), 88–89.

[15]        F. Sherwood Taylor, The Alchemists, 51–54.

[16]        CMA, Syr. II.6.4. My translation of Duval’s French: « Ainsi que nous l’avons dit, les divers symboles des prêtres ont été expliqués par les anciens maîtres et les différents prophètes, dont le nom est devenu célèbre, et qui ont prévalu avec toute la puissance de la science ».

[17]        Ibid.

[18]        Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs, trans. A. Jenkins (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002), 414–415.

[19]        Ibid, 417–418.

[20]        See, for example, the Zosimean text Auth. Mem. I: On Apparatus and Furnaces (Letter Omega), where the alchemical author, Hermes, and the divine entity, Thoth, are mentioned several times.

[21]        For example, Auth. Mem. I (ibid) and X-XII (his allegory, On Excellence) contain numerous allusions to philosophical works in the Corpus Hermeticum. I discuss these Hermetic connections more fully in chapters 3, 4, and 5.

[22]        Finnestad, “Temples of the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods”, 228. See also Sauneron, The Priests of Ancient Egypt, 64–65.

[23]        See, for example, Auth. Mem. I.2–4.

[24]        Clement of Alexandria, Stromata VI.4; cf. Frankfurter, Religion in Roman Egypt, 239; see also Assmann, The Mind of Egypt, 412–413; and Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes, 58–59.

[25]        On senior artisans having priestly status, see J. F. Quack, “Religious Personnel: Egypt”, 290.

[26]        On Theosebeia and her disciples, see CMA, Syr. II.8.1; Theosebeia may have been a priestess, but evidence is shaky. She is referred to as a priestess in CMA, Syr. VII.19, but this does not appear to be an authentic Zosimean text. 

[27]        Most ancient sources call Zosimos a Panopolite; Photius calls him a Theban from Panopolis, but this probably refers to the Thebaid region and not the city of Thebes. In one source, the Suda, he is called an Alexandrian, and many historians of alchemy have gone on to claim that Zosimos was an Alexandrian. I agree with Michele Mertens that there is no reason to doubt the majority of sources that claim he was from Panopolis and probably spent at least part of his life there. See Mertens’s discussion in “Alchemy, Hermetism, and Gnosticism at Panopolis”, 165–166.

[28]        Robert Alston says there were about eight temples in Panopolis in the late Roman period. This figure is based on P.Berl.Bork, an early fourth century list of houses and buildings in Panopolis, which is incomplete. Some of the temples/shrines in this list are dedicated to Greek deities, and one appears to be a Christian church. See Alston, The City in Roman and Byzantine Egypt (London: Routledge, 2002), 156. There is no reference to the largest temple in the city, the Temple of Min. See also Zbigniew Borkowski’s critical edition of P.Berl.Bork, Une description topographique des immeubles à Panopolis (Warsaw: Panstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1975).

[29]        Karolien Geens, “Panopolis, a Nome Capital in Egypt in the Roman and Byzantine Period”, PhD diss., Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (2007), 1, 110.

[30]        Ibid, 134.

[31]        Mark Smith, “Aspects of the Preservation and Transmission of Indigenous Religious Traditions in Akhmim and its Environs During the Græco-Roman Period”, in Perspectives on Panopolis: An Egyptian Town from Alexander the Great to the Arab Conquest, 239.

[32]        Quotation from Ibn Jubayr, who visited the temple in May, 1183. Cf. Okasha El-Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium: Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings (London: UCL Press, 2005), 52. See also Geens, “Panopolis, a Nome Capital in Egypt”, 325. A full treatment of Arabic descriptions can be found in K. Kuhlmann, Materialien zur Archäologie und Geschichte des Raumes von Achmim (Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, 1983).

[33]        El-Daly, 51; Geens, 325.

[34]        El-Daly, 163.

[35]        Smith, 242.

[36]        Ibid, 237–238; see also Malcolm Mosher, Jr., “The Book of the Dead Tradition at Akhmim During the Late Period”, in Perspectives on Panopolis, op. cit., 201–209.

[37]        Smith, 242–243.

[38]        Geens, 324–325.

[39]        Smith, 242–243.

[40]        Some of the earliest records of propitious timing come from Mesopotamian glass-making recipes dating from 1300–1100 BCE, which contain instructions for the astronomical timing of various procedures. See Pamela O. Long, Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 79–81. For Zosimos’s criticisms of different forms of propitious timing, see Auth. Mem. I: On Apparatus and Furnaces (Letter Omega).

[41]        Herodotus, Histories II.91.

[42]        Karolien Geens, “Hellenism as a Vehicle for Local Traditions in Third Century Egypt: The Evidence from Panopolis”, in Peter Van Nuffelen, ed., Faces of Hellenism: Studies in the History of the Eastern Mediterranean, 4th Century bc to 5th Century ad (Leuven: Peeters, 2009), 290.

[43]        Ibid, 307.

[44]        Geens, “Panopolis, a Nome Capital in Egypt”, 133.

[45]        Ibid, 86.

[46]        Christina Riggs, The Beautiful Burial in Roman Egypt: Art, Identity, and Funerary Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 23.

[47]        See Peter van Minnen, “The Letter (and Other Papers) of Ammon: Panopolis in the Fourth Century AD”, in Perspectives on Panopolis: An Egyptian Town from Alexander the Great to the Arab Conquest (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 182, 184. Ammon’s brother was an archiprophētes, which is the highest-ranking priest that oversees all of the temples in a nome, equivalent to a bishop or archbishop. On this see Willis and Maresch, eds., The Archive of Ammon Scholasticus of Panopolis, vol. 1, The Legacy of Harpocration (Weisbaden: Springer Fachmedien, 1997), 1–2.

[48]        His brother, Horion I, was archiprophetes in 299 CE. See van Minnen, ibid, 187.

[49]        Ibid, 188-189.

[50]        Ibid, 189-190.

[51]        CMA, Syr. II.6.31

[52]        van Minnen, 182. On Agathos Daimon and Shai, see also Dunand, “Book II: Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt”, in Dunand and Zivie-Coche, Gods and Men in Egypt, 244.

[53]        Another example of this generic Hellenism can also found in the writings of the Christian monk, Shenoute (late 4th-early 5th c.), who was from the Panopolis region and wrote diatribes against “pagan” religions and rival forms of Christianity. Scholars have noted that Shenoute’s writings, with a few exceptions, are lacking in detail about any Egyptian indigenous religions; instead, he writes about Greek myths and refers to gods by their Greek names instead of their Egyptian ones (Pan instead of Min, for example). As Mark Smith has noted, when Shenoute is not specifically describing religion in Greek terms, the paganism that Shenoute presents is the sort of “bland, generic variety which might have been encountered almost anywhere”. Smith, “Aspects of the Preservation and Transmission of Indigenous Religious Traditions in Akhmim and its Environs During the Graeco-Roman Period”, 242–245 (quotation from 244). Shenoute wrote in Coptic, but he was very well-versed in Greek and was most likely educated in Panopolis. See David Brakke and Andrew Crislip’s introduction to Selected Discourses of Shenoute the Great: Community, Theology, and Social Conflict in Late Antique Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[54]        Photius, a ninth-century Patriarch of Constantinople, mentions Zosimos in his Bibliotecha, which is a digest of the books he had personally read. His name appears in a summary of a book by an unknown author, called Precursors to Christianity, who sought to harmonize Greek, Persian, Thracian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Chaldean, and Roman views that announce and support Christian doctrine. Zosimos appears to have been recognized by this author for his efforts to harmonize ancient teachings. Photius thinks that the inclusion of Zosimos is unusual enough to single him out for mention: “[H]e has not failed in taking even some from the alchemical writings of Zosimus (the latter was a Theban from Panopolis) to demonstrate the same propositions”. See Photius, Bibliotecha, 170, trans. J. H. Freese (London: SPCK, 1920); via

[55]        Dunand, op. cit., 234–235.

[56]        Frankfurter, Religion in Roman Egypt, 244.

[57]        See Garth Fowden’s discussion in The Egyptian Hermes, 27, 36–37.

[58]        Auth.Mem. I.12–16.

[59]        Martina Minas-Nerpel, “Egyptian Temples”, in C. Riggs, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 374.

[60]        Ibid, 364.

[61]        Phillipe Derchain, “L’Atelier des Orfevres à Dendara et les origins de l’Alchimie”, Chronique d’Egypte LXV (1990): 219–242. In 1981, two colossal royal statues were uncovered in Akhmim, which allowed archaeologists to determine the location of the entrance to the Temple of Min, but whatever remains of the grand temple lies buried beneath the modern city, making the temple grammar impossible to reconstruct. For a brief account of archaeological discoveries at Akhmim, see Jonathan Elias, “Akhmim”, in Encyclopedia of Ancient History, ed. R. Bagnall, et al. (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), p. 263.

[62]        Miroslav Verner, Temple of the World: Sanctuaries, Cults, and Mysteries of Ancient Egypt (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2013), 451.

[63]        Derchain, “L’Atelier des Orfevres à Dendara et les origins de l’Alchimie”, 219.

[64]        Ibid, 220–223.

[65]        Ibid, 222–223; see also Verner, Temple of the World, 453–454.

[66]        Derchain, 224.

[67]        See Dunand, “Book II: Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt”, 206–213; J. Assmann and D. Frankfurter, “Egypt”, in Ancient Religions, ed. S.I. Johnston (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 159; and Geens, “Hellenism as a Vehicle for Local Traditions in Third Century Egypt: The Evidence from Panopolis”, 290.

[68]        See Geens, “Panopolis, a Nome Capital in Egypt in the Roman and Byzantine Period”, 301–302; and Willis and Maresch, The Archive of Ammon Scholasticus of Panopolis, 5.

[69]        Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses and Traditions of Ancient Egypt, 164–165; see also Geens, ibid, 301–303; and Sydney Aufrère, L’Univers Minéral Dans La Pensée Égyptienne, Vol. 1, 137–139.

[70]        Aufrère, ibid, 133–136 (Hathor), 137–139 (Min).

[71]        Ibid, 133.

[72]        Aufrère, L’Univers Minéral Dans La Pensée Égyptienne, Vol. 2, 803–804.

[73]        Ibid, 363, 366.

[74]        Aufrère gives examples from the New Year ceremonies at the temples of Dendera and Edfu in L’Univers Minéral Dans La Pensée Égyptienne, Vol. 1, 161-169.

[75]        See Alfred Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, 245–248; and Jack Ogden, “Metals”, in Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, P. Nicholson and I. Shaw, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 170.

[76]        Aufrère, Vol. 2, 423, 449. On silver having a higher market than gold up until the end of the Middle Kingdom (roughly 1600 BCE), see Lucas, 247.

[77]        Aufrère, 367.

[78]        Sauneron, The Priests of Ancient Egypt, 79

[79]        Ibid.

[80]        Aufrère, Vol. 2, 372–73; 389–390; 803.

[81]        Geens, “Panopolis, a Nome Capital in Egypt in the Roman and Byzantine Period”, 308–313.

[82]        See Zosimos, Auth. Mem. X-XII.

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