Who was Ali Puli? 8


It is now thirty years ago that I saw him for the first time, talking to Hayy Ibn Yaqzan.

The two philosophers were discussing the Sal Naturae Concentratum, one of the many names for the Philosopher’s Stone. The philosophical talks were created by Willem van Swaanenburg (1679-1728), a journalist with an inclination for spiritualism who advocated a return to ancient traditions in his weekly periodical De Herbooren Oudheid (Antiquity Reborn) (1724).

Swaanenburg, who at the time lived in a house on Oude Looierstraat in Amsterdam, reflected on spiritualist principles operating in nature and in himself to grasp a glimpse of the divine in a moment of grace. He really identified with Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, the ‘philosophus autodidactus’ who had attained knowledge of God without recourse to doctrine or assistance from others.

But who was the other philosopher he was talking to?

In the card index of the Amsterdam University Library I found the text which had inspired Swaanenburg:

Centrum Naturae Concentratum. Of een tractaet van het wedergeboorne sout der nature; in’t gemeen, oneygentlick genaemt, den Steen der Wysen; in het Arabisch beschreven door Ali Puli, een Asiatische Moor.

The treatise was published at the expense of “N.F.G.B.” in 1694 and could be bought from Jacob van de Velde, a small publisher of medical and alchemical texts on Zeedijk in Amsterdam who also sold iatrochemical medicines in his bookshop.

I was unable to identify the author hiding behind the initials N.F.G.B., but the preface was signed ‘Numine Favente, Nil Desperandum’ (Do not Despair when Divine Grace is with You).

Would the initials “G.B.” perhaps be able to provide a clue?

Centrum Naturae Concentratum, London 1696

I could not find any other editions of the work in Dutch libraries until I visited the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in the 1980s. On the shelves of this library, which had only recently opened to the public, were several German, Dutch and English editions of this treatise, as well as a Dutch manuscript made in 1735, which contained the text by Ali Puli, together with two other treatises and a letter. The text of the manuscript was preceded by a portrait of a man within a laurel wreath. The caption in the tablet underneath read: ALI PULI. een Asiatische Moor (ALI PULI, an Asian Moor).

Portrait of ‘Ali Puli, an Asian Moor’ in a manuscript by Burghard de Groot, 1735

The manuscript came from the library of John W. Hamilton-Jones, an English freemason, theosopher and member of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, who provided a painfully awkward English translation under the title The Epistles of Ali Puli in 1951.

The Epistles of Ali Puli, transl. J.W. Hamilton-Jones, 1951

Ali Puli was not altogether unknown in circles of English esoteric thinkers: Ethan Allan Hitchcock had already referred to him in his Alchemy and the Alchemists (1857), Arthur Edward Waite had discussed him in an issue of the Journal of the Alchemical Society of 1914, calling him ‘Alipili’. Fairly soon after the above-mentioned Dutch edition came out, an English translation was published in 1696 which was immediately bought by Sir Isaac Newton. Newton’s purchase can easily be found on the internet using Google Books. The English edition of 1696 has been digitized and is accessible online.


The Digital Ali Puli

Not so long ago I saw him again, on a computer screen: Ali Puli has a modest entry in Wikipedia.

The wikipage features the portrait which is to be found in the 18th-century manuscript I saw in The Ritman Library. The coloured drawing, definitely not the product of a professional artist, is based on an engraving which shows the portrait of Johann Otto Hellwig (1654-1698), a German tropical doctor and alchemist. The engraving is included in his posthumous Arcana Majora (1712), a vast collection of recipes, chemical processes and secrets of nature.

Engraved portrait of J.O. Hellwig in Arcana Majora, 1712

Already when he was young, Hellwig was a keen alchemist and natural philosopher. In 1681 one of Leibniz’s correspondents somewhat mischievously described him as a ‘semi adeptus’, a young man ‘with a lively imagination, who loses himself in conversation’. In 1683 Hellwig, the semi adept, noted in his Judicium de Duum-Viris Hermeticis Foederatis that he had published his Centrum Naturae Concentratum in German at the time of the last Frankfurt Book Fair. The treatise had duly appeared in 1682 under the title:
Centrum Naturae Concentratum. Oder: ein Tractat, von dem Wiedergebohrnen Saltz. Insgemein und eigentlich genandt: Der Weisen Stein, in Arabischen geschrieben von Ali Puli, einem Asiatischen Mohren, darnach in Portugisischen Sprache durch H.L.V.A.H. Und ins Hochteutsche versetzt, und herausgegeben von Johann Otto Helbig Rittern.

Centrum Naturae Concentratum, 1682

This, then, was the first edition of the Centrum Naturae Concentratum, published 12 years before the Dutch translation and allegedly translated from the Arabic into Portuguese and then into German. For anyone familiar with literary mystifications it was immediately obvious that the author had to be Hellwig.


Incipit enigma

This is where the riddle begins. The 18th-century manuscript which The Ritman Library acquired from the collection of Hamilton-Jones includes a letter signed by “Ali Puli, die nog Bloeyd Door Genade in Museo Meo 1735” (Ali Puli, he who still Blossoms through Grace, in my Study 1735). The motto ‘Bloeyt Door Genade’, Blossoms through Grace, incorporates the initials of the author of the manuscript: Burghard De Groot, an Amsterdam physician who upon his death in 1744 left a number of manuscripts filled with illustrated translations of alchemical texts, recipes, processes and other secrets of nature which he had recorded on his travels.

After one of these peregrinations, the banns were published in Amsterdam for the marriage of Burghard de Groot and Geertruyt Kamen, on 24 October 1687. At the time Burghard was 25 years old and a schoolmaster by profession. The couple went to live on Kattegat, now the site of the Sonesta hotel, in a house called ‘Grootenburg’ or ‘Great Burgh’, presumably after its owner, Burghard de Groot. A tablet on the building showed a castle tower.

Burghard’s wife Geertruyt died in the autumn of 1724. Around this time Ali Puli is discussing the reborn salt with Hayy Ibn Yaqzan in Swaanenburg’s Herbooren Oudheid. Burghard continues to work on his manuscripts, thereby fathoming nature and himself. In 1735 he completed the Ali Puli manuscript, which is preceded by a laudatory poem written by a friend, Johannes Christophorus Colerus, a Lutheran minister in Zaandam who had died in 1720.

Lof Digt, Ter Eeren van den soogenaamden Ali Puli, die nog Bloeyd Door Genade.

Ali Puli Puijk der Mooren,
Die in Holland sijn Gebooren!
Groote Priester der Natuur.
Meester van t’onzichtbre Vuur,
’T welk de Suijverste Metallen
In haar eerste Stof doet vallen!

(A Poem in Praise of Ali Puli so called, who stills Blossoms through Grace)

Ali Puli, First among Moors,
who is born on Holland’s shores!
High Priest of Nature,
Master of th’invisible Fire,
which reduces the purest of metals
to its first matter!


Was Ali Puli born in Holland as Burghard de Groot?

In that case, Burghard wrote Centrum Naturae Concentratum around the age of twenty and Hellwig is a thief. But then why put the portrait of the plagiarizing semi adept on the first leaf of the manuscript?
The laudatory poem is followed by Ali Puli’s letter to the ‘friends and fellow members’ of the Academia Naturae Curiosorum, an Academy of Sciences founded in Schweinfurt in 1652. Hellwig, too, was familiar with this academy, some of whose members wrote under Arabic pseudonyms.

The author of the letter announces three brief treatises which he intends to send to the Academy, including Sal Naturae Concentratum,

“which I once wrote, as is not unknown to you, under the name of an Asian Moor called Ali Puli. I am making so bold as to send you this work which I first wrote in Dutch, but which has now appeared in German in a thoroughly lame translation and published under someone else’s name, and what is more, allegedly translated from the Portuguese”.

For the first time in Dutch, and “now” – i.e. 1682 – in German. Apparently, Hellwig stole another man’s work.

Is it Burghard de Groot who is hiding behind the initials N.F.G.B. in the Dutch translation that was published in 1694?

‘Numine Favente, Grotius Burghardus’, ‘with Divine Grace, G.B.’ is not all that far removed from ‘Bloeyt Door Genade’ (Blossoms through Grace).

We need to go in search of the Academia Naturae Curiosorum, its members, and the original letter by Ali Puli in Latin or in German to find out whether Willem van Swaanenburg and Ali Puli were engaged in a philosophical conversation in 1724: Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, the ‘philosophus autodidactus’ on Oude Looiersstraat, and Ali Puli, the alchemist on Kattegat, who lived only a few canals away from each other.

Amsterdam, Kattengat and Oude Looiersstraat

To be continued….

Frank van Lamoen

Leave a comment

8 thoughts on “Who was Ali Puli?

  • Henry Joel Blue

    Dear Sir; I am a longtime follower of the work and papers of the BPH and have found insights and information , encouragement and enlightenment in many areas that the BPH sponsors. It certainly has changed in its growth and range of activities, in a laudable faishon.
    In regards to your Blog , I felt it could be pointed out that Ethan Allen Hitchcock was not English but was a very interesting part of the American Freemasonry History and a very flamboyant figure. As a General carried his library with him in the field of war. This collection I believe I made known to the BPH as it contains items which I felt they would like to know of. This was years back.
    If anything is to be said that he was English , it would be that he was English speaking. His great grandfather was a major part of the American Revolution against English rule. He loved music and did collect compositions , as philosophy, from world sources. He opened the way for Jung and the psycho analysts to see the hidden spiritual meanings of esoteria, hermetica, especially Sillberer.
    I am always interested in all your writings, and hope this is seen as a clarification, for much of American Esoteric History is unknown or yet to be given a positive light, due to its being sequestered among rivals.
    All the Best!
    Joel Blue

  • Doshin

    Dear Sir,

    Thanks for your interesting article on Ali Puli. I searched for an online version of Centrum Naturae Concentratum and The Epistles of Ali Puli. But I am not able to see an online version with free access. I could see only Library listings which need member access. Kindly post on the site/mail me the links/pdf if it is available with you. That will be useful for many.

    Thanks and regards,

  • David Sterkenburg

    The author seems to be working under the mistaken assumption that the Dutch 1694 edition of the Centrum Naturae Concentratum was the first edition of this work. This was actually a reprint. The original work was published in German in 1682 by Johann Otto von Hellwig. A Latin edition was published a year later, in 1683. As such, if Burghard de Groot was involved in this edition, it was only as a publisher an not as the author of the work. The author was in all probability von Hellwig, as most of the ideas expressed in the Centrum Naturae Concentratum can already be found in earlier works by von Hellwig. The german edition also mentions the term ‘Tessa’ on p.84, which is a word that von Hellwig made up before the Centrum Naturae was published.

  • David Sterkenburg

    Interesting article, but sadly it contains a number of inaccuracies. Whereas the author seems to assume that the Dutch 1694 edition of the Centrum Naturae Concentratum is the first edition of the work, it is actually a reprint. The original was published in German in 1682 by Johann Otto von Hellwig, which was followed by a Latin edition a year later. Consequently, if De Groot was involved with the Dutch edition, it was as publisher, not as the author. The author was almost certainly von Hellwig. Virtually all of the ideas presented in Centrum Naturae Concentratum can be found in von Hellwig’s works, and the German edition mentions the term ‘Tessa’ on p.84, which is a word that von Hellwig made up.

    • BPH Post author

      Thank you for your comments. Perhaps I may refer you once again to the
      article, where the first edition of 1682 is actually mentioned, along with a
      reproduction of the title-page. The issue about the author’s identity
      remains an interesting one; the point of the article was that it is odd to
      find Burghard de Groot claiming to have written “Ali Puli”, even though the
      authorship is generally attributed to Hellwig.
      Best wishes, Frank van Lamoen

  • David

    Yeah, I got confused due to some browser issues so the article didn’t load completely every time. My bad. I’ll be going to the Hague soon though, where the manuscript you mentioned is currently held if I’m not mistaken, so I’ll have a look at it. From my readings so far I really can’t imagine that von Hellwig is not the author. The ‘Centrum Naturae’ has so many parallels with his other works, even in the minutest details. The mention of his ‘Tessa’ is only one of many peculiar phrasings that can be found in both the ‘Centrum Naturae’ and Hellwig’s other works. Really strange to find someone else claiming authorship. Regards, David

  • David

    I finally managed to have a look at the manuscript. Very interesting. It starts off with the ‘lofdicht’ by Colerus that you quoted, then you get the introductory letter by Ali Puli and then the three works that he mentions in the letter. The first of these, nosce te ipsum, seems to be the ‘Nosce Te Ipsum Physico-Medicum’, by Ernst Reger. The second, the ‘ongehoorde physica curiosa’ is in fact the ‘Curiosa Physica’ by Hellwig. Both of these works were published in 1705. Then there’s the ‘Centrum Naturae Concentratum’. It seems rather strange to include a work of the very person that you claim stole your work, without even referring to it in the introductory letter. It’s unclear from the letter if he claims authorship of all three works, but if so, why not mention the fact that the curiosa physica was published as well by Hellwig?

    Reading the article again after seeing the manuscript also raises a few questions. First off, I know the catalogue lists the manuscript as by De Groot, but do we actually know of this is true? I haven’t found any internal evidence for it in the manuscript. Second, there’s the date of 1735. The way I read it it’s actually the date of Ali Puli’s letter, rather than the date of the manuscript (if these are in fact two separate things). Which is strange, because it seems to refer to the publishing of the centrum naturae as a recent event. Even if he was referring to the 1705 edition, that’s still 30 years later.
    Finally, you talk about an ‘original’ latin or german letter. Do you have any reason for assuming that the manuscript as we have it was copied from a latin or german version and is not simply the original? The letter refers directly to the works that follow and we know that at least one of these was supposed to be in Dutch?