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Dr. Olivier Dufault

Focus Area: Constructions of Norms
Postdoctoral Fellow: November 2014 - Oktober 2017


Greek Alchemical Inquiry and Late Antiquity

Ancient Greek alchemy can be defined as a set of recipes on the counterfeiting of gold, silver, gems and textile dyes as well as a series of commentaries taking alchemical recipes as allegorical writings on the transformation of human beings into more valuable and durable substances. My research deals with the beginnings of this tradition and its relationship with the development of related discourses in the eastern part of the later Roman Empire.

Thanks to the late twentieth-century reinterpretation of the conception of asceticism and of the human body in late antiquity, debates on late antique views of the body and of its place in the universe have shifted away from the notion that late antique thought was marked by a hatred of the body and of materiality. More recently, some scholars have argued for a complete reversal of the earlier hypothesis: rather than negating the corporeality and urges of the body or simply attempting to keep it in check, early Christian literature would have shown a renewed interest in giving a positive place to the body in the world as well as in the afterlife. These theories went beyond the study of late antiquity and have informed more ambitious narratives about the development of the notion of the person in Modern Europe (e.g. Charles Taylor, The Sources of the Self, 1989).

It is however clear that there is shared ground in the way soteriological inquiry is framed in Greek alchemical inquiry, in early Christian discussions of the human body and in the philosophical criticism of traditional cults. Even if late antique scholars did not agree on the role played by matter in their soteriologies, it is significant that they agreed to disagree on a topic that was unproblematic before, i.e. the role that matter should play in soteriology. Consequently, if it is true that late antique scholars interacted more closely with each other than with their respective schoolmasters as far as the discussion of materiality was concerned, it is more likely that the new salience of the materiality of the body in soteriology originated from a social, cultural and economic conjuncture common to all rather than from one single cultural or cultural construct like paganism, Christianity or Judaism. My research project makes the hypothesis that the socio-economic conjuncture which spurred so many scholars to write and argue about the role of matter for the afterlife was not caused by the diffusion of ideas from one cultural construct to the other but that it was created by interactions between scholars and by the socio-economic environments which made these interactions possible.

The project concentrates on the work of Zosimus of Panopolis (present day Akhmim, Egypt), one of the most easily datable authors of alchemical texts. The project fulfills two goals:

1- Help quicken the study of the Greek alchemical corpus, a large and untapped source of material which integration into larger historical questions would be profitable to scholars of late antiquity in general. More particularly, my project aims at showing how the emergence Greek alchemical inquiry participated in the typically late antique tendency to question the ontological and eschatological status of matter and of the human body.

2- Provide scholars of different disciplines with material for the study of changes in the problematization of widespread questions. I see a potential avenue for research and cooperation with other members of the Distant Worlds Graduate school in comparing the socio-economic setting of Greek alchemical inquiry with the setting in which the Chinese “adept,” or “true man” (zhenren) and the Indian “rasa sages” (rasa siddha) combined interests for immortality and ersatz luxury goods by inquiring into and allegorizing counterfeiting recipes.