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A legendary object that contains cryptic inscriptions, the Emerald Tablet of Thoth orTabula Smaragdina is believed to contain the secrets of the world. It was a highly influential text during the medieval and Renaissance times and remains the subject of many works of fiction, from novels to legends and films.
Whether you’re on a quest to find the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, or simply want to uncover its mystery, keep on reading for the origin and history of the Emerald Tablet of Toth.
Thoth—the Egyptian God of Writing
One of the most important gods of ancient Egypt, Thoth was worshiped as early as the Pre-Dynastic Period around 5,000 BCE, and during the Hellenistic Period (332-30 BCE) the Greeks equated him with Hermes. They called him Hermes trismegistos, or ‘thrice greatest’. Commonly represented in human form with the head of an ibis water bird, he’s also known by the name Djehuty, which means ‘he who’s like the ibis’.
In some illustrations, he’s depicted as a baboon and takes the form of A’ani, who presided over the judgment of the dead with Osiris. Some legends say that he created himself through the power of language. In other stories, he was born from the forehead of Seth, the Egyptian god of chaos, war and storms, as well as from the lips of Ra.
As a god of writing and knowledge, Thoth is believed to have invented hieroglyphics and written magical treatises about the Afterlife, the heavens and the earth. He’s also considered to be the scribe of the gods and the patron of all the arts. The Emerald Tablet is attributed to him too. It is thought to contain the secrets of the world, hidden away for centuries only to be only found by initiates of later generations.
Origin of the Emerald Tablet
It is widely believed that the Emerald Tablet was carved into green stone or even emerald, but the actual tablet has never been found. A legend says that it was placed in a caved tomb under the statue of Hermes in Tyana, Turkey at some point around 500 to 700 CE. Another myth says that it was discovered and then reburied by Alexander the Great. However, its earliest version came from a treatise on natural philosophy known as The Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature.
Historical records show that both scholars and translators have worked with alleged transcripts of the tablet, instead of the actual tablet itself. For that reason, many believe that the Emerald Tablet is merely a legend and may have never existed at all.
The Art of Nature was falsely attributed to the Greek philosopher Apollonius of Tyana, but many believe it was written during the reign of Caliph al-Maʾmūn around 813 to 833 CE. The history of the tablet may be confusing and disputed, but the influence of the text is not. Later scholars translated the Arabic manuscripts into Latin, English and other languages, and numerous commentaries have been written regarding its contents.
Hermes Trismegistus and the Emerald Tablet
The Greeks identified the Egyptian god Thoth with their messenger god, Hermes, who they believed to be the divine author of the Emerald Tablet. The name Hermes Trismegistus, or the Thrice-Greatest stemmed from the belief that he came to the world three times: as Egyptian god Thoth, as Greek god Hermes, and then as Hermes the man scribe who lived thousands of years in the past.
The claim regarding the authorship was first made around 150 to 215 CE by the church father Clement of Alexandria. For this reason, the Emerald Tablet of Thoth is also known as the Emerald Tablet of Hermes throughout history.
The tablet has also long been linked to Hermeticism, a philosophical and religious movement founded in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. It is said that the Emerald Tablet was part of a group of philosophical texts known as Hermetica and reveals the wisdom of the universe. By the 19th and 20th century, it became associated with esotericists and occultists.
What Was Written on the Emerald Tablet?
The tablet is a piece of esoteric text, but many interpretations suggest that it may hint to a way to make gold, making it significant in Western alchemy. In the past, there have been attempts to transform base metals into precious ones, particularly gold and silver. It is said that the text in the tablet describes the different stages of alchemical transformation, which promise to transmute certain substances into other ones.
Also, the Emerald Tablet is thought to reveal how to make a Philosopher’s Stone—the ultimate ingredient needed to change any metal into golden treasure. It was a tincture or powder sought by alchemists for thousands of years, and many believe an elixir of life could also be derived from it. It’s thought to cure diseases, bring spiritual change, prolong life and even grant immortality.
“As above, So below”
Some texts in the tablet are incorporated into various beliefs and philosophies, such as the words “As Above, So Below”. There are many interpretations of the phrase, but it generally reflects the idea that the universe consists of multiple realms—the physical and the spiritual—and things that happen in one also happen on the other. According to this doctrine, the human body is structured in the same way as the universe, thus understanding the former (the Microcosm) one could potentially gain insight into the latter (the Macrocosm).
In philosophy, it suggests that in order to understand the universe, one should know oneself first. Some scholars also associate the tablet with the concept of correspondence, as well as the so-called microcosm and macrocosm, where by understanding smaller systems, you’ll be able to understand the larger, and vice versa.
Isaac Newton and the Emerald Tablet
The tablet also captured the attention of English scientist and alchemist Isaac Newton, to the point where he even made his own translation of the text. Many believe that the Emerald Tablet could have had an influence on his principles of modern physics, including the laws of motion and the theory of universal gravity.
Many scholars noted that his principles of gravity are similar to the text found in the tablet, where it says that the force is above all force, and that it penetrates every solid thing. It’s said that Newton even spent 30 years to uncover the formula for the Philosopher’s Stone, as evidenced by his papers. Interestingly, only very recently were scientists able to look at the papers of Sir Isaac Newton, as they had been purchased and kept in a vault by the famed economist John Maynard Keynes.
The Emerald Tablet in Modern Times
Today, various interpretations on the legendary Emerald Tablet can be seen in works of fiction from novels to films and television series.
Many believe that the Emerald Tablet is the key to complex science concepts. In the past, alchemists developed sophisticated theories in the hope of creating the so-called Philosopher’s stone, and some of their experiments contributed to the science that we know today as chemistry. In other words, some of the alchemical teachings from the tablet was able to contribute to the advancement of science.
There are many literary fiction books that feature the Emerald Tablet in the plot. The famous novel The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is probably the most popular. The story goes that the main character Santiago is on a quest to find his treasure and becomes interested in alchemy. In a book he reads, he discoversthat the most important insights about alchemy had been inscribed on the surface of an emerald.
In Pop Culture
In 1974, Brazilian musician Jorge Ben Jor recorded an album named A Tabua De Esmeralda that translates as The Emerald Tablet. In his several songs, he quoted some texts from the tablet and referenced alchemy and Hermes Trismegistus. His album was defined as an exercise in musical alchemy and became his greatest achievement. In the lyrics of Heavy Seas of Love, British musician Damon Albarn has included the words ‘As above so below’, referring to the Emerald Tablet.
In the time travel television series Dark, the Emerald Tablet remains the foundation for the work of medieval alchemists. A painting of the tablet, with a triquetra symbol added on the bottom, is featured many times throughout the series. It’s also depicted as a tattoo on one of the characters in the story, as well as on the metal door in the caves, which is significant to the plot.
Because of the cultural influences between Egypt and Greece following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, Thoth was adopted by the Greeks as their god Hermes, hence the Emerald Tablet of Hermes. In Europe, the Emerald Tablet of Thoth became influential in philosophical, religious and occult beliefs throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—and will likely continue to capture the imagination of many creatives in our modern times.