In alchemical works we often see the period for an alchemical operation being forty days.
Probably this was originally drawn from the Noatic forty days and nights, the alchemical transformation being seen as bringing about changes in the material similar to what the Flood did for the Earth itself.
As so many writers take up this idea, I wonder what was the earliest use of this period of forty days in alchemical literature. It must have become established as a convention quite early on.
It may have come out of the Greek scientific tradition, e.g. Aristotle said ensoulment of the male foetus took place at 40 days (female at 80 days), and Hippocrates is full of 40-day periods, e.g. he says a broken arm takes 40 days to consolidate.
From Dr. Brewer:
Forty: A superstitious number, arising from the Scripture use. Thus Moses was forty days in the mount; Elijah was forty days fed by ravens; the rain of the flood fell forty days, and another forty days expired before Noah opened the window of the ark; forty days was the period of embalming; Nineveh had forty days to repent; our Lord fasted forty days; He was seen forty days after His resurrection; etc.
St. Swithin betokens forty days' rain or dry weather; a quarantine extends to forty days; forty days, in the Old English law, was the limit for the payment of the fine for manslaughter; the privilege of sanctuary was for forty days; the widow was allowed to remain in her husband's house for forty days after his decease; a knight enjoined forty days' service of his tenant; a stranger, at the expiration of forty days was compelled to be enrolled in some tithing; members of Parliament were protected from arrest forty days after the prorogation of the House, and forty days before the House was convened; a new-made burgess had to forfeit forty pence unless he built a house within forty days; etc., etc.
The ancient physicians ascribe many strange changes to the period of forty; the alchemists looked on forty days as the charmed period when the philosopher's stone and elixir of life were to appear.
And from 'The Epidemics of the Middle Ages' by Dr. Hecker, translated by Dr. Babington, 1859:
'The appointment of a forty days' detention, whence quarantines derive their name, was not dictated by caprice, but probably had a medical origin, which is derivable in part from the notion of critical days; for the fortieth day, according to the most ancient notions, has been always regarded as the last of ardent diseases, and the limit of separation between these and those that are regarded as chronic. It was the custom to subject lying-in women for forty days to a more exact superintendence. There was a good deal also said in medical works of the forty day epochs in the formation of the foetus, not to mention that the alchymists expected more durable revolutions in forty days, which period they called the philosophical month.'
Or perhaps it was just a lunar month plus a nice round number as a margin of safety...
Don't know if this is any use, but according to the 16th century Jewish mystic (and alchemist?) Rabbi Loew, Maharal of Prague and the creator of the Golem, the number forty has the power to raise up something's spiritual state.
Last edited on Wed May 21st, 2008 09:31 am by alchemyd
Would the earliest alchemical text that mentions the importance of 40 days come from Maryanus the Philosopher who gave it to Khalid ibn Yazid (died 704CE)? His Secreta Alchymiae mentions 40 Days lots of times – or is this text wrongly attributed to him?