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Someone I know mentioned the importance of bile, i.e. the fluid produced by your liver and stored in your gall bladder, for digesting food, more specifically fats apparently. It’s some sort of mixture of organic acids and stuff. (I am not a physician or organic chemist)

I recalled that I had read an alchemical recipe that mentioned it, and wondered if the acids in it could help breakdown various organic things in said recipes and perhaps also attack the metals, thus making it all work better.

Therefore I started searching. The first find was of course in the four books of Pseudo-Democritus, also known as The Physika et Mystika. Recipe 10, (on page 91 of Martelli’s translation) says,

“Whiten Cyprian Cadmia as is customary; I mean the cadmia that has been forced out of its ores. Then make it yellow; you shall yellow it with the bile of a calf, or terebinth resin, or castor oil, or egg yolks, which substances can make it yellow. Then lay it on silver; it will be gold by means of the gold and of the ferment [lit. wash/ sauce] of gold. For nature conquers nature.”

So you take most likely oxides of zinc and related stuff that has been burnt, add yellow stuff, and place it on silver and make it gold. I really should try this some time. The difficult question is whether you add heat, or whether this is merely a kind of yellow resinous coating that you give it.

Anyway, I thought that was a good start. Bile was recognised as being yellow and having goldening effects.

I searched further, but couldn’t find mention of bile in Zosimos’ authentic memoirs, or some other texts. About the only mention I could find of it again is in the Stockholm papyrus, where bile is used to make sunstone, along with sulphur and vinegar. How odd, I thought. At least that indicates that it was used in a variety of craftsmen’s recipes of 2k years ago Egypt, since that is where the pseudo-Democritean recipes come from.

But nothing else. Anywhere that I could find. Strangely the notes at the back of Martelli reference a work/ translation of the Leyden papyrus by Halleaux for use of bile, but my English translation doesn’t seem to mention it.

Anyway, I carried on forwards through the centuries, expecting to find some more mentions of it. Nothing in the Book of Crates. Oh, maybe it is mentioned in the Mappae Clavicula, I thought, which is a collection of workshop recipes with a passing similarity to the Leyden and Stockholm papyrus ones. Nope.

The book of the Treasury of Alexander, a book of magic and alchemy which uses various animal fluids, milk, blood and urine. Nope.

In fact looking through what papers, translations and even a scan of a Latin version of De Chemia of Idbn-Umail, and various European works on alchemy, found me only one mention.

That is in the Kitab al-asrar of Rhasis. What is most fun about it is that there seems to be two slightly different versions. One, from an American thesis by Gail Taylor that is a translation of it from the German version done by Ruska, says, on page 281, in The chapter of Animal Matter:

“We have said, in that which has gone before, that there are ten stones, and indeed hair, skull, brain, egg, gall, blood, milk, urine, mussel, and horn (L G The best of these is hair, then brain, then egg, then the skull, then blood, then horn).“

But when I turn to Stapleton, Azo and Husein’s Chemistry in Iraq and Persia in the tenth century ad, page 378, I find,

“They are ten stones 1) hair, 2) skull, 3) brain, 4) bile, 5) blood, 6) milk, 7) urine, 8) egg, 9) mother of pearl, and 10) horn. The best of them is hair, then brain, then bile, then egg, then skull, and then blood.”

It seems that they used slightly different versions originally to translate from. The latter appear to have used several different sources for their translation whereas Ruska relied on just one.

And that’s about it. A very elusive fluid. It hardly crops up at all, despite many references in these works to the use of blood, eggs, urine and milk from animals. You might almost think that most such references were cover words….

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