Like Her fellow Magician God, Hermes Trismegistos (aka Thoth), the Goddess Isis is associated with early alchemy. In an alchemical text with the lengthy title The True Book of Sophe the Egyptian and of the God of the Hebrews, Lord of the Powers, Sabaoth, we learn of a particular alchemical method called the Tincture of Isis. Why are Isis and Her tincture mentioned in a book “of the God of the Hebrews”?
Perhaps it has to do with another famous alchemical text in which Isis plays the leading role and which seems to have a particularly Old Testament ring to it. The text is called Isis the Prophetess to Her Son Horos. We have only two fragmentary versions of the text. One comes from the 11th-century-CE Codex Marcianus, which was a collection of ancient texts and bits of texts. See if this story doesn’t sound a bit familiar…
The story of Isis the Prophetess
Horus sets out to battle Typhon and Isis goes to the city of Hormanouthi (“Place of Horus;” probably Edfu) “where the Sacred Art of Egypt is practiced in secret.” She stays there a while, but as She is leaving, an angel catches sight of Her and wants to have sex with Her.
“Not until you tell me of the preparation of gold and silver,” says canny Isis.
Highly disappointed, the angel says he can’t reveal that information as it is such a Great Mystery, but that a higher angel, Amnael, would come the next day and be able to answer the question.
Next day, Amnael comes. He showed Isis a “certain sign” he had on his head as well as a vase not coated with pitch and filled with transparent water that he held in his hands, but he wouldn’t give Her the secret.
Apparently, Amnael, “first prophet and angel among them,” is also taken with lust for the Goddess and the two go back and forth on that topic for a couple of days until Amnael can’t stand it anymore and agrees to reveal the alchemical secrets to Isis.
First He has Her swear a mighty oath by “fire and water, light and darkness, by fire, water, air, and earth,” and by a variety of Greek and Egyptian Deities. She so swears and promises that She would not reveal the secrets to anyone but Horus.
And here is the great secret. Ready? “So go then, my child, to a certain laborer named Achaab, and ask him what he has sown and what he has harvested, and you will learn from him that the man who sows wheat also harvests wheat, and the man who sows barley also harvests barley.” “For a nature rejoices another nature, and a nature conquers another nature.”
So now you know the Mystery. (Not too exciting on the face of it, is it?) What we don’t know from the fragments left to us is whether Isis ever actually had to give it up for this information or whether She just wore the angel down with Her consistent refusals and constant questions. Perhaps after all that revelation of mysteries, the angel was no longer in the mood.
You might have recognized in this tale echoes of the old “randy angels” story of Enoch. The sons of heaven desired the daughters of men. After they mated with them, the angels taught the women all the crafts, which was “forbidden,” though very useful, knowledge. It’s another damned Eve story. Sigh. Woman does what she has to in order to get the information everybody needs—knowledge of good and evil; knowledge of crafts—but then she gets reviled for it. Happily, we don’t see that happen in the Isis the Prophetess story. Apparently, Isis passes this vital alchemical secret down to Horus, and to Her other alchemical sons and daughters (yes, women were alchemists, too). This story should also remind us of the story of Isis & Re in which Isis uses a trick to gain vital knowledge from the Sun God—the knowledge of His powerful, magical name—and which She again passes to Her child.
Umm, the Tincture of Isis?
So the story gives us the connection between Isis and Hebrew tradition, but what is the Tincture of Isis? The great Mystery revealed by the angel means something like “you reap what you sow” or “you’ve got to spend money to make money.” It refers to the method of alloying a small amount of gold with another metal to make a greater amount of gold. We still do this. 24-karat gold is 99.9% gold. But 14-karat gold is only slightly over half gold. 14 karat and even 10 karat are common for jewelry. The Tincture of Isis was this secret….that you can alloy gold with other metals and still produce perfectly serviceable gold.
This story about Isis the Prophetess is attributed to Zosimos, a famous Egyptian alchemist of the 3rd century CE. He wrote that in Egypt, the methods of working metal and alchemy were a carefully guarded royal and priestly secret and that it was illegal to publish anything on the subject. This could mean that there truly was an ancient and secret Egyptian tradition of the transmutation of metals. Zosimos also tells us that Isis’ temple at Memphis had alchemical inscriptions. He writes, “At the eastern entry of Isis’ temple, you’ll see characters dealing with the white substance [silver]; at the western entry, you’ll find the yellow mineral [gold] near the orifice of the Three Springs.”
Isis’ connection with alchemy only grew with time. As we follow Her into the world of Renaissance and post-Renaissance Europe, Isis, the Lady of Many Names, appears to us under a variety of guises appropriate for a Goddess of Alchemy. She is the Virgin of the World Who bears the alchemical Child of the Sun and the Moon. She is understood as Luna, the Moon and the Ruler of its Powers. She is Nature, or Physis Whose ways the alchemists strive to emulate. She is the alchemical Queen and Bride Who weds the Solar King. She is the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World, the spirit of life itself. She is Sophia, the Lady of Wisdom both Divine and Natural. And She is the Lady Venus, the Veiled Goddess of the Rosicrucians, Who is revealed only to true initiates.
For alchemists, the myth of Isis and Osiris was a myth of the alchemical process. The theme of dismemberment and reassembly was a mythic statement of the alchemical motto: solve et coagula— dissolve and re-join; while the birth of the Divine Child from parents identified with the Moon and Sun, as Isis and Osiris had long been, could not have been more alchemical.