Alchemy and the Virtues of Stones in Muscovy

  • William F. Ryan
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales D’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 140)


There are only two modern book-length studies of alchemy in Russian; they are by the same author and are concerned with alchemy as a cultural phenomenon without reference to alchemy in Russia.1 Modern general histories of Russian science which include some history of chemistry have for the most part, until recently, avoided alchemy as a “pseudo-science”, more to be condemned as a western aberration than examined historically.2 Rainov’s standard history of science in Russia up to the seventeenth century3 has no entry in the index for alchemy at all, although he does not ignore the subject entirely; the Academy of Sciences’ standard history of Russian science4 denies, probably correctly, that Russian craftsmen ever engaged in alchemy or that there is any evidence for the existence of alchemy in Russia before the fifteenth century; and Kuzakov in a recent work5 correctly notes that some non-alchemical works of what he calls, without further comment, the “West European alchemists—Albertus Magnus, Ramon Lull and Michael Scot”6 were known in seventeenth-century Russia but incorrectly states, as we shall see, that not a single alchemical treatise in Russian is known.


Seventeenth Century Precious Stone Cult Stone Russian Text Grand Duchy 
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  1. 6.
    All three appear to have had some knowledge of alchemy but the many alchemical works ascribed to them are supposititious. The works known in Russian translation are: pseudo-Albertus, De secretis mulierum, item de virtutibus herbarum, lapidum et animalium and pseudo-Michael Scott, De secretis naturae, published together in Amsterdam in 1648 and translated in 1670 (see A.I. Sobolevskii, Perevodnaia literatura Moskovskoi Rusi XVI-XVII vv. (St Petersburg, 1903), p. 157, who characterizes the language as “bad Church Slavonic with Polonisms”); on Lullian literature in late seventeenth-century Russian (a translation of the Ars brevis and compilations based on the Ars magna and later Lullian commentators such as Agrippa, all by the poet and diplomatic interpreter Andrei Belobotskii, with an abbreviated version of Belobotskii’s Ars magna by the Old Believer leader Andrei Denisov), see A. Kh. Gorfunkel, “Andrei Belobotskii—poet i filosof kontsa XVII—nachala XVIII v.”, Trudy Otdela drevnerusskoi litteratury, 18 (1962), pp. 188–213 and idem, “«Velikaia nauka Raimunda Liulliia» i ee chitateli”, XVII vek, 5 (1962), pp. 336-48, alsoGoogle Scholar
  2. V.P. Zubov, “Quelques notices sur les versions russes des é;crits et commentaires lulliens”, Estudios llulianos, III, 1, pp. 63–66.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    N.A. Figurovski, “The Alchemist and Physician Arthur Dee”, Ambix, 13 (1965), pp. 33–51.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    See E.E. Granstrem, “O proiskhozhdenii glagolicheskoi azbuki”, Trudy Otdela drevnerusskoi literatury, 11 (1955), pp. 427–42.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    For a good survey of this literature see Rainov, note 3 above; M. D. Grmek, Les Sciences dans les manuscrits slaves orientaux du moyen âge, Conférences du Palais de la Découverte, série D, no. 66 (Paris, 1959); Ihor Sevfčenko, “Remarks on the Diffusion of Byzantine Scientific and Pseudo-Scientific Literature among the Orthodox Slavs”, Slavonic and East European Review, LIX, 3 (1981), pp. 321–45, and more recently, on the Bulgarian dimension, Mincho Georgiev, “Osnovni cherti mediko-biologichno poznanie (IX-XIV v.)”, Istoricheski pregled, 1988, kn. 7, pp. 50-62. For texts see Tsv. Kristanov and Iv. Duichev, Estestvoznanieto v srednovekovna Bülgariia (Sofia, 1954).Google Scholar
  6. 14.
    On the symbolic interpretation of the stones in this work see O. F. Konovalova, “Sravnenie kak literaturnyi priem v Zhitii Stefana Permskogo”, Sbornik statei po metodike prepodavaniia inostrannykh iazykov ifiliologii (Leningradskii tekhnologicheskii institut kholodil’noi promyshlennosti), I (Leningrad, 1963), pp. 117–38 (131).Google Scholar
  7. 18.
    I use Manzalaoui’s terminology: see M.A. Manzalaoui, “The Pseudo-Aristotelian Kitāb Sirr al-Asrār. Facts and Problems”, Oriens, 23-24 (1970–71), pp. 147–257.Google Scholar
  8. 20.
    See W. F. Ryan, “Maimonides in Muscovy: Medical Texts and Terminology”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 51 (1989), pp. 43–65. Maimonides’s medicine is distinctly practical and non-magical.Google Scholar
  9. 22.
    M. Gaster in his edition and translation of he text “The Hebrew Version of the Secretum Secretorum. A Medieval Treatise ascribed to Aristotle”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, October 1907, pp. 879-912 and January and October 1908, pp. 111-62, 1065-84. A comparison of Gaster’s text with the Russian text is given in W. F. Ryan, “The Old Russian Version of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum secretorum”, The Slavonic and East European Review, 56, 2 (1978). pp. 242–60.Google Scholar
  10. 26.
    The complete text, translated and with notes, is given in W. F. Ryan, “Alchemy, Magic, Poisons and the Virtues of Stones in the Old Russian Secretum Secretorum”, Ambix, 37 (1990), pp. 46–54.Google Scholar
  11. 27.
    See David Pingree, ed., Picatrix. The Latin Version of the “Ghāyat Al-Hakīm”, Warburg Institute Studies 39 (London, 1986), pp. 240 and 84 respectively.Google Scholar
  12. 28.
    Research on this in Russian has been inadequate but see most recently I. L. Anikin, “K proiskhozhdeniiu pamiatnikov vrachebnoi pis’ mennosti”, Sovetskoe zdravookhranenie, 1986, 5, pp. 67–9. In western bibliography and library catalogues also there has been great confusion over the names and identities of incunable “Gardens of Health”—for a recent summary of the extensive literature on the subject seeGoogle Scholar
  13. G. Keil in Die deutsche Literatur des Mittelalters. Verfasserlexikon, IV, 1, 1983, s.v. Hortus sanitatis and longer articles by the same author: “Gart”, “Herbarius”, “Hortus”. Anmerkungen zu den ältsten Kraüterbuch-Inkunabeln’, in‘Gelêrter der arzenîe, ouch apotêkef. Beiträge zur Wissenschaftgeschichte. Festschrift für Willem F. Daems (Würzburger medizinhistorische Forschungen, XXIV), 1982, pp. 589-635, and “Hortus Sanitatis, Gart der Gesundheit, Gaerde der Sunthede” in Medieval Gardens (Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture, IX) (Washington, 1986), pp. 55-68. On Ghotan and Bülow see alsoGoogle Scholar
  14. David B. Miller, “The Lübeckers Bartholomäus Ghotan and Nicolaus Bülow in Novgorod and Moscow and the Problem of Early Western Influences on Russian Culture”, Viator, 79 (1978), pp. 395–412.Google Scholar
  15. 39.
    For further detail and bibliography see Figurovski, note 7 aboveGoogle Scholar
  16. J.H. Appleby, “Arthur Dee and Johannes Bánfi Hunyades: Further Information on their Alchemical and Professional Activities”, Ambix, 24, 2 (1977), pp. 96–109 and idem, “Some of Arthur Dee’s Associations before Visiting Russia Clarified, including Two Letters from Sir John Mayeme”, Ambix, 26, 1 (1979), pp. 1-15.Google Scholar
  17. 40.
    Norman Evans, “Doctor Timothy Willis and his Mission to Russia, 1599”, Oxford Slavonic Papers, n.s. 2 (1969), pp. 40–61 (61).Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1994

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  • William F. Ryan

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