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I have noticed this before, but it bears repeating – that scholarly editions are much more than their text. I’ve often found the introductions and notes at the back much more useful than the text itself, the reason being that they show the context and explain words and concepts which are usually very unclear in the text itself. Of course some of the explication might be wrong, but it is usually at least a good starting point for further explorations. The notes often bring to light things which earlier translators simply didn’t know, but now thanks to decades more work things are better known.

For instance, in the current hot off the presses book, “The four books of Pseudo-Democritus” by Matteo Martelli, published by the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, as part of their Sources of Alchemy and Chemistry series, we find a number of explanations on substances and their uses in the 4 books which have not, as far as I am aware, been made so clearly and in such depth before, at least in English.

On page S221, we find discussion of the word kadmia, which from Pliny means both zinc ores and the substances scraped from chimneys of furnaces in which such ores have been roasted. On the next page is the next note which discusses the use of such kadmia, and its dissolution in various yellow liquids, including calfs bile, and other oils. The texts referred to include the Papyrus of Ledyen and Holmiensis, as well as some of the Syriac alchemical manuscripts and a work by Zosimos.
The next note discusses the term Androdamas which is probably a form of iron pyrite with cubic crystals, and Martelli mentions a number of texts and sources of information, and ties the term in with the actual recipe.

If however you rely on the older English translation by Steele, you would think that Androdamas is a form of arsenical pyrites. He gives no source for this. The waters are further muddied by Martelli mentioning that the “Lexicon on the making of gold” “idnetifies androdamas with pyurite and orpiment”. It can’t be both iron pyrites and orpiment, or rather two different people might have had different names for it 2,000 years ago, so now we have a more complex and complete understanding of the word as used in the period, which simply was’t available back in the 1920’s, or at least not unless you’d carried out several years of research of your own. But now modern researchers can build on this work and the translations and concepts contained within it.

The Steele translation can be found at Adam Macleans website:
http://www.alchemywebsite.com/steele_democritus.html

There are noticeable differences between it and the Martelli translation.
For instance, recipe one of Steele says:

“Taking mercury, thrust it into the body[3] of magnesia, or into the body of Italian antimony, or of unfired sulphur, or of silver spume, or of quick lime, or to alum from Melos, or to arsenic, or as thou knowest, and throw in white earth of Venus,[4] and thou shalt have clear Venus; then throw in yellow Luna, and thou shalt have gold, and it will be chrysocoral reduced into a body.”

But Martelli says:
“Take Mercury and make it solid with the body of magnesia, or with the body of Italian stibnite, or with unburnt sulphur, or with moon foam, or with roasted lime, or with alum from Milos, or with orpiment or according to your knowledge. If it (i.e. mercury) turns white, lay it on copper, and you will have shadowless copper, (if the mercury turns) yellow, lay it on silver and you will have gold, on gold and it will be solid gold coral.”

Some of those differences are quite important, and ultimately the Steele version feels odd, whereas the Martelli one fits the language and form of the other translations of similar recipes from the same era.
The reason for this is of course the fact that Steele translated from a 16th century Latin translation of the original Greek, whereas Martelli has used the oldest surviving Greek copies, compared them to the Syriac and collated together a text that is much more accurate than the Latin one or the English translation thereof.
And the notes have a most interesting discussion of the substance ‘moon foam’, which Steele thinks is argentiferous litharge, but according to the discussion is nothing of the sort.

There are more translations to come, I’ll just have to bear the wait. They are being made possible by the generosity of Robert Temple who has sponsored this and other volumes to come.

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