There’s a famous alchemical work called the Rosary of the Philosopher’s, or Rosarium Philosophorum, which features 20 woodcut illustrations. They are very famous, having been printed and reprinted a number of times.
An English translation of the version printed in 1550 can be found here:
It contains a number of quotes, real and otherwise, from earlier alchemists such as Geber, (pseudo-) Arnald of Villanova, Senior etc.
One of the illustrations is of a green lion eating the sun, which could be taken as meaning it is a substance which absorbs gold, indeed the translation says as much,
“Of Our Mercury which is the Green Lion Devouring the Sun”
There is also the text:
“I am the true green and Golden Lion without cares,
In me all the secrets of the Philosophers are hidden.”
associated with the picture.
Now, this text is often taken as being one about spiritual alchemy. The problem with that is that that general approach (espeically with regards to claims by Jung and other esotericists) has been discredited as regarding the actual position of alchemy in Europe in the16th century and earlier.
Which leaves us with an interesting question – how can the green lion eat gold?
And one obvious assumption – that the text maps onto physical operations. I should point out straight away that a lot of medieval alchemy is simply the author re-writing previous authors, changing the emphasis of the words and concepts used and inventing or bringing to prominence different names which may or may not cover the same substance or concept. Which makes finding the way through the texts rather difficult.
In some medieval alchemical texts, gold is certainly consumed by mercury to form an amalgam on which further work is carried out. So if the green lion is a mercury compound then it can surely consume gold. If it is sulphuric acid, it cannot, but what it could do is react with other metals present and form strange compounds. And if the sun referred to is not specifically gold, but sulphur or suchlike, then you can still get some odd reactions taking place.
o, lets look at some other alchemical mentions of the Green Lion.
The Book of the Composition of Alchemy says at the end, in the exposition of kinds, that “The green lion is glass”, which is probably an error transposing Vitriol into Vitrum. I suspect that this is a later addition than the body of the text, which has probably undergone a lot of changes over the years. The core is an Arabic work, but I don’t know how far back the symbolism of the green lion goes; 9th century recipes attributed to Rhazi include the distillation of green vitriol to produce an acidic water.
By the early 14th century, in the Testamentum of pseudo-Lull, a water from green vitriol is to be joined to a metal. That and other mentions in that century prove that distillation of sulphuric acid was practised; the difficult bit is understanding what part it might have played in the alchemical recipes. There are other recipes from that century which include vitriol, saltpetre and mercury, the practise of which most likely gives some odd mercuric compounds with acids, such as the white mercury sulphide, or if salt is present as suggested by some, mercuric chloride, which is also white. I can’t think of any obvious way in which it could be tainted green, nor do the old chemistry textbooks help.
So that’s another set of experiments that I would like to do.
But by the 15th century in England, the green lion is, according to George Ripley, not actually vitriol, although fools think it is:
XVI. But of the Green Lyon of Fools, this we say, that from it with a strong fire is drawn Aquafortis, in the which, the aforesaid Philosophers’ Lyon of the Mineral Stone, ought to be Elixirated, and assumes its Name. Raymundus saith, it were better, or safer, to eat the Eyes of a Basilisk, than that Gold, which is made with the Fire against Nature.
XVII. And I say also, that the things from whence the same Aquafortis is drawn is green Vitriol and Azoth: i.e., Vitriol Natural, not Artificial, viz. the droppings of Copper, called also Roman Vitriol, Roman Gold, by many of the Philosophers, from the abundance of its noble Tincture, the which Tincture must be fermented with common Gold.
Leaving aside the question of what Ripley’s green lion might be, the problem is that distillation of vitriol produces sulphuric acid, a mineral acid not hitherto known for it’s effect upon gold. To dissolve gold need aqua regia, a mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acids.
Now some alchemical recipes will produce a mixture of nitric and sulphuric acid, and the Compound of Compounds, or at least the late/ post medieval version of it, has a recipe that produces sulphuric and nitric acid mixture and then you add Ammonium Chloride to give Chlorine ions in solution, which will certainly dissolve gold. But as with some other similar recipes, it doesn’t mention the green lion, which suggests that there are two paths, one calling green vitriol the green lion, the other not.
What may help clarify things is the question of the green lion is when this version of the Rosarium was written. There is a Rosarius attributed to Arnald of Villanova, and then there are other texts that are also tited “Rosarius” or similar. However the Arnaldian one is not the same as the 1550 one we are concerned with, according to this review by Michela Pereira:
I note that mention of the Green lion is made in a section headed “The table of the Greater Science” and one attributed to “Morienus”, and the later section headed “Of our Mercury which is the Green lion devouring the sun”.
The problem is simply finding decent information about the Rosarius and similar texts, given how many there were and how alchemists did not hesitate to steal texts and re-write them. Thorndike’s History of Magic and experimental science, volume 3, page 55, mentions an anonymous Rosary from the 15th century and another that isn’t from the 14th. The list of alleged quotes from alchemists in this 1550 Rosarius is comprehensive, but does not seem to be newer than the early 14th century, but does include the likes of St Thomas Aquinas, who as far as I am aware didn’t really have his name attached to alchemical works until the Aurora Consurgens in the 15th century.
So if the text is really from the first half of the 16th century, that does happen to overlap when the Compound of Compounds was re-written to use acid to dissolve mercuric chloride. Having written that, it seems I’m a bit wrong – reading Principe “The secrets of Alchemy”, it seems that the 1550 version is based on the original later 14th century text, which acceptable enough given that was when the use of vitriol for acid manufacture was commonplace, and it’s use with mercury and the like.
In fact the more I think about it the more I wonder if the importance of the green lion has been overstated, based on the use of green vitriol in manufacturing mercural compounds. You mix some white stuff, green stuff, and mercury, and get a whitish substance
Of course one can rarely be certain about reproducing alchemical practises from texts and possible recipes, which is irritating. It might be that there is no practical intention in the text at all. But then why the lion of green? After all, lions are important in medieval heraldry and bestiaries, as the king of beasts a lion would be a sensible choice to eat the king of the metals.
Maybe I don’t have the right kind of brain, but I read extracts from bestiaries such as this:
and can’t see why the lion is so useful in alchemical symbolism.
As a conclusion, all I can say is that this requires further study.