The Emerald Tablet of Hermes is the single most famous artifact of the entire Hermetic Tradition, though only translations are available to us today. Unfortunately, we cannot go to a museum to see the original unless it is once again found.
The Emerald Tablet is the core foundation of Hermetic Philosophy and instructs in the art of practical alchemy and confection of the Philosopher's Stone.
The legends around the Tablet and its authenticity are great and longstanding due to the distilled Wisdom it contains. Because of Hermes (Greek) being associated with alchemy, magic, and spiritual knowledge, this archetypal stream has in some circles become synonymous with Thoth (Egyptian).
Over time legends have a way of expanding, and the singular "tablet" has been expanded to "tablets" even though there was only one. Thoth's origin, being obviously advanced, has often been cited as Atlantean; thus many references can be found to the Emerald Tablets of Thoth (the Atlantean), though that is a modern naming convention with no precedent of historical usage. The tablet has always been referred to as originating from Hermes Trismegistus regardless of the language of translation. It has also been referred to as the Smaragdine Tablet.
Tradition holds that Alexander the Great found it in the tomb of Hermes Trismegistus during his conquests. There are a few references that state that Alexander put the Tablet on public display in one of his cities, probably Alexandria in Egypt. It was made of a thick solid green, gem-like material and the lettering on it was raised, in bas relief, so that it had to have been poured as liquid and cast from a carved mold. No craftsmen of the day then, nor even now, could have hand carved it.
The original language of the Emerald Tablet was said to be Phoenician, but the only surviving translations come down to us through Arabic into Latin.
The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus
In truth, without deceit, certain, and most veritable.
That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracles of the One Thing. And just as all things have come from this One Thing, through the meditation of One Mind, so do all created things originate from this One Thing, through Transformation.
Its father is the Sun; its mother the Moon. The Wind carries it in its belly; its nurse is the Earth. It is the origin of All, the consecration of the Universe; its inherent Strength is perfected, if it is turned into Earth.
Separate the Earth from Fire, the Subtle from the Gross, gently and with great Ingenuity. It rises from Earth to Heaven and descends again to Earth, thereby combining within Itself the powers of both the Above and the Below.
Thus you will obtain the Glory of the Whole Universe. All Obscurity will be clear to you. This is the greatest Force of all powers, because it overcomes every Subtle thing and penetrates every Solid thing.
In this way was the Universe created. From this comes many wondrous Applications, because this is the Pattern.
Therefore am I called Thrice Greatest Hermes, having all three parts of the wisdom of the Whole Universe. Herein have I completely explained the Operation of the Sun.
Verum, sine Mendacio, certum et verissimum.
Quod est Inferius est sicut quod est Superius, et quod est Superius est sicut quod est Inferius, ad perpetranda Miracula Rei Unius. Et sicut res omnes fuerunt ab Uno, meditatione unius, sic Omnes Res natae ab hac una Re, adaptatione.
Pater eius est Sol. Mater eius est Luna. Portavit illud Ventus in Ventre suo. Nutrix eius Terra est. Pater omnis Telesmi totius Mundi est hic. Virtus eius integra est si versa fuerit in Terram.
Separabis Terram ab Igne, subtile ab spisso, suaviter, magno cum ingenio. Ascendit a Terra in Coelum, iterumque descendit in Terram, et recipit Vim superiorum et inferiorum.
Sic habebis Gloriam totius Mundi. Ideo fugiet a te omnis Obscuritas. Haec est totius Fortitudinis Fortitudo fortis, quia vincet Omnem rem subtilem, Omnemque Solidam penetrabit.
Sic Mundus creatus est. Hinc erunt Adaptationes Mirabiles, quarum Modus est hic.
Itaque vocatus sum Hermes Trismegistus, habens tres partes Philosophiae totius Mundi. Completum est quod dixi de Operatione Solis.
(Note: My Latin is far from perfect, so I did not translate the English version myself, though I can read along and follow it. I had this Latin version saved in my notes, though I am not certain the of origin of this particular translation.)
Now this can seem like quite a story, particularly if one has no direct experience of real alchemy (or magic); however, proper instruction in practical laboratory alchemy proves the content of the Tablet to be correct. It is not necessary to 'believe' anything, one can learn exactly what this means through , then do the work and prove it to oneself, at least on one level.
If one has not made at least some progress in doing this work (not just reading about it) on a practical level, there is no way one can Understand real alchemy, and by extension, initiatory magic. Notions to the contrary are nothing more than self-delusion. Once that REAL knowledge has been obtained on a practical, absolute level of direct experience, THEN one can begin to make progress in other applications of the Hermetic Art.
That being said, if one has been exposed to enough to have seen the cooled vitreous material that can easily be made from the Green Lion of metallic alchemy, which is a beautiful soft emerald color, then one can see that the material of which the Emerald Tablet was made was most likely not emerald, or any green stone, but the Green Lion itself hiding in plain sight. That seems far more like the thinking of an adept to me.
What is the Emerald Tablet Really Teaching Us?
Hermes wrote the Emerald Tablet as a complete set of instruction, albeit very concise. It is a very short document, and yet it contains every kernel of truth within it regarding a certain mechanism that exists in nature, underlying all things, in terms of what everything is composed of within the matrix of existence, acknowledging the physical and nonphysical binary nature of all things. Understanding this mechanism is what allows alchemists to create quintessences, true psychospiritual sacraments that expand consciousness and lead seekers to deeper levels of illumination and true Initiation.
The entire point of operative (laboratory) alchemy as outlined by Hermes Trismegistus in his "Operation of the Sun" is to create quintessences, which can be obtained from all kingdoms: plant, animal, and mineral/metallic. Each kind of quintessence does something on a psychospiritual level that integrates specific archetypal qualities into the psyche of those who ingest them over a period of time.
Before one can comprehend what it means to become a Son or Daughter of the Art, it is necessary to understand that while the idea of the classical philosophical Elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) have all kinds of associations on many different levels, and have been expounded upon at great lengths according to many different teachings and hypotheses for millenia, as far as is concerned, those Elements are very specific things... things which only certain alchemical processes allow one to identify.
While the Emerald Tablet gives us all the working parts of overall alchemical process which can be applied practically in many different ways, it is also fairly explicit in one particular type of process where one can obtain the specific philosophical Elements. Through a that was taught by particular adepts, principally Raymond Lully and Isaac Hollandus, though I have found obvious references within Merlinic tradition that predate Lully's writings by five or six centuries, knowledge of a process generally referred to as the 'acetate' path has been preserved. It is called 'acetate' in modern terms because the use of acetic acid (vinegar) as a menstruum is a main component of the process, though the medieval adepts did not refer to their path as 'acetate' themselves.
It must be stated, that even though Hermes put everything in the Emerald Tablet with nothing left out, it does not read like an obvious instruction manual. The Art of Alchemy has been a hidden art for thousands of years for precisely this reason. Without actual instruction in by someone trained by a master or an adept, this is very little likelihood that the uninitiated are going to make progress in unraveling what has been safely and adeptly hidden for thousands of years.
Though the information is out there, part of what adepts have always known is that the true information will not be found until one's Higher Genius is ready for it to be found, that the seeker has reached some level of spiritual consciousness to even begin to discern the false from the true regarding alchemy, to light the way to the royal art. Many texts refer to needing the Prima Materia before one can commence with true alchemical work. While this is true, it is adept misdirection to keep those who do not know what the Prima Materia is from gaining entry to the Great Work.
In order to gain entry into the Great Work, adepts have always instructed the Sons of Art to study and observe nature. However, as usual, they did not give explicit instructions as to 'how' they meant for the study to be done. This has led to many saying to sit outside and observe nature, contemplate the processes, meditate on the processes, etc. While some of that has value, the adepts were not saying to study nature from the outside, they were saying to observe nature from the inside. That is why so few understand that while the macro level of existence does reflect the micro level (As Above, So Below), that observing the exterior process for either results in little illumination. A fact of which they were clearly aware.
Observing nature from the inside has to do with a process whereby any substance can be taken and retrograded back into its philosophical Elements, a substance called the 'Chaos of the Elements' from which each of the philosophical Elements can then be separated and purified to work with in alchemical operations.
From this first stage, the alchemist obtains the philosophical Elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. When each of these has been appropriately purified, they can then begin to be put back together in different ways to obtain different spiritual substances, generally quintessences. The word quintessence means 'fifth element' and refers to the elements when combined into one completely new homogeneous substance that did not previously exist ("to accomplish the miracles of the One Thing") and can only be confected by the alchemist's artifice. The chief of these substances is called the Philosopher's Stone, which is the most renowned quintessence in the Art of Alchemy obtained from the metallic kingdom.
Before one can achieve the Stone, one needs Philosophical Mercury (referred to as "the Glory of the Whole Universe" in the text), also derived from the same four classical philosophical Elements, but combined in a different way. Saint Germain knew how to create this material. He referred to his Philosophical Mercury as 'Athoeter'. His possession of it was why he was able to do all the alchemical works for which he is renowned.
However, before one can commence directly on the metallic work towards the Philosopher's Stone, which requires the unlocking of many secrets of nature, aspirants are first taught to work within the plant kingdom, most often called the prima work. Successfully working through all the processes in this work then prepares the student of the Art to commence work in the mineral kingdom and the quintessences become significantly more powerful on an archetypal level.
Aside from obtaining true alchemical quintessences which shift and expand consciousness, one of the most important reasons for doing alchemy work is to learn the underlying mechanism that exists within all things, including ourselves. In addition to the directive to study nature, the ancients also instructed seekers to 'Know Thyself'. In ancient Mystery traditions this statement was placed over the entrance doors into the sacred temples. This admonishment, to know oneself, is referring to knowing oneself in the same way that practical alchemy allows one to seek what is inside a substance when it is reverted back into the Chaos of the Elements. This is the kind of knowing oneself that the ancients were talking about, not the particular quirks of personality that everyone has, but the underlying mechanism of what a human being actually is and what it has the capacity to become.
If one has done the practical laboratory alchemy work to get to the Chaos of the Elements and done the purifications, then one knows of what all natural things are thus composed, including oneself. On each level of existence, the physical and the nonphysical, the mechanism is the same. As Above, So Below. Thus, however the mechanism functions on the physical level is also how it functions on a nonphysical (mental) level. Grasping this truth, one can then begin to embark on the Great Work within oneself on a psychospiritual level and learn to manipulate the philosophical Elements within in order to achieve the accelerated evolution that is the result of true alchemy work.
When exploring the inner alchemy mechanism, one begins to correlate , which leads to increased understanding of the nature of oneself and the matrix in which all things exist. Coupled with the power of quintessences which act on all levels of the psyche and physicality, one who is can dramatically expand the field of consciousness (also called the Hermes Field) and accelerate spiritual evolution beyond a level that most people can comprehend, much less experience directly.
These are the substantive truths upon which all magical and alchemical legends are based, and which can be attained and explored by those who are truly embarked upon the Great Work.