Cloaked by the dust of centuries and entwined in the complex mythological traditions of the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, and Greeks, the mythological tradition of the Emerald Tablet of Thoth is not only obscure, but open to question: did such an artifact actually exist and if so, who created it? Since the Tablet serves as the spine of the plot of my thriller novel Emerald, it’s worth a short investigation into its fabled history.
Also known as the “Smaragdine Tablet” (Tabula Smaragdina in Latin), the Emerald Tablet is said to have been a rectangular plaque carved out of emerald or green crystal, etched with mystical writings (the sum of all knowledge) in bas-relief letters in an alphabet resembling the Phoenician, Syriac, or Chaldean. Legends about its authorship abound: some ancient commentators maintained that Thoth, a priest-king of Atlantis who had fled to Egypt when the doomed city sank beneath the waves, carved and inscribed the Tablet, eventually hiding two copies inside the pillars of the temples at Khum (Hermopolis) and Wase (Thebes); Jewish mystics believed that Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve (perhaps misidentified with the Egyptian god Set/Seth), wrote the Tablet, while others, syncretizing Thoth with the Greek god Hermes (Hermes Trismegistus), had Hermes giving the Tablet to Miriam, the sister of Moses, who cached it in the Ark of the Covenant; and still another legend held that Thoth/Hermes was a fifth-century BCE philosopher who found the Tablet in a cave in Ceylon.
The name Thoth is the Greek transcription of the Egyptian Djehuty (from the root dhw, meaning “ibis”), one of the most ancient and principal deities of the Egyptian pantheon, a son of Ra and a lunar god who invented writing and the alphabet, created magic, taught wisdom to mankind, and, like his Greek counterpart, Hermes, acted as the messenger of the gods. The Egyptians credited him with the authorship of all works of science, religion, philosophy, and magic. As a lunar deity he was represented fully as a baboon, but most depictions portray him as a man with the head of an ibis (a wading bird with a long, curved beak).
Following the campaigns of Alexander the Great (and particularly after his death in 323 BCE), the spread of Hellenism into Egypt served to conflate Thoth with the Greek Hermes, himself a god of writing and magic, to create the new archetypal figure Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice-Great Hermes), a god worshipped in the Temple of Thoth at Hermopolis. Eventually he came to be imagined not as a divine being but to have been an historical human prophet or philosopher and the author of the Corpus Hermeticum, a series of short texts in Greek for the teaching of alchemy, astrology, theurgy, and magical spells (in his Stromata, the third-century CE Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria specifies the number of books as forty-two). The origin of the epithet “Trismegistus” is unclear, but seems to date from the first century CE (its earliest mention is in the works of the Phoenician grammarian and historian Philo of Byblos [circa 64-141 CE]), even though Hermes Trismegistus was credited with the authorship of thousands of works of great antiquity. That Hermetic writings—by multiple authors—did exist in the early centuries of the Christian era is entirely clear, as evidenced by references to them in the works of Plutarch, Tertullian, Iamblichus, and Porphyry. Since the early Church fathers believed that Hermes Trismegistus had been a contemporary of Moses, Abraham, Enoch, or Noah and had predicted the coming of Christianity (Augustine dedicated chapters of The City of God to him), during the first few centuries of the Christian era Hermetic works enjoyed great popularity as evidence of the prisca theologia, the doctrine that God had bestowed a single, true theology on humans in the remote past. However, most of the extant Hermetic writings were destroyed by the Church during its purge of non-Christian literature starting in the fourth century (as late as 1600, the Italian friar, philosopher, and astronomer Giordano Bruno was tried by the Inquisition and burned at the stake for espousing Hermeticism, among other presumed heresies).
Notwithstanding, the rise of neo-Platonic humanism in Renaissance Europe (spurred in large part by Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin in the late 1400’s, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia libri tres [a compendium of occult and Hermetic philosophy published in 1531], and John Everard’s The Divine Pymander in XVII Books of 1650 [an English translation of Ficino’s work] ushered in a resurgent interest in mysticism and occultism: alchemy, astrology, numerology, and ceremonial magic (spells to protect boxes or similar objects resulted in the modern expression “hermetically sealed”).
Into this arena entered the esoteric teachings of the Emerald Tablet, imagined to subsume the secret of the prima materia, the raw material required for the alchemical process and the creation of the philosopher’s stone which could change base metals into gold. The Tablet’s text (whose author is identified as Hermes Trismegistus) circulated freely among medieval and Renaissance alchemists. But did an actual ancient tablet carved out of emerald exist? According to legend, the Tablet (or two copies of it), along with thousands of scrolls written by Thoth (the ancient Egyptian historian/priest Manetho gives the figure of 36,525), were hidden inside twin pillars, one at Heliopolis and one at Thebes. The Athenian statesman Solon (circa 638-558 BCE) claimed to have inspected them and the Greek historian Herodotus described them in 400 BCE as one made of pure gold and the other of brilliant emerald. The pillars were later moved to the temple of Amun at Siwa in the Libyan desert, where they were found by Alexander the Great and put on public display at the Temple at Heliopolis. In 331 BCE Alexander left Egypt, allegedly taking with him the treasures stored in the pillars and secreting them in an underground cavern in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey). Here, it is claimed, in 32 CE a youth named Balinas (later to be known as Apollonius of Tyana) found them.
These tales, however, are doubtful, since the earliest known appearance of the text ascribed to the Emerald Tablet dates from an Arabic work written sometime between the sixth and the eighth centuries CE. The oldest surviving source of the text is the eighth-century CE Kitāb sirr al-alīqa (Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature), attributed to Balinas. Another Arabic text, Kitab Ustuqus al-Uss al-Thani (Second Book of the Elements of Foundation) attributed to the alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan around 800 CE, contains a copy of the Emerald Tablet that also cites Balinas as the source. In the West, the text first appeared in the pseudo-Aristolean Secretum Secretorum (Secret of Secrets), a Latin translation of the Arabic Kitab Sirr al-Asar (Book of Advice to Kings), in the thirteen century.