Weiser Concise Guide to Alchemy

Weiser Concise Guide to Alchemy

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by Brian Cotnoir

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The Weiser Concise Guide Series: ALCHEMY

By Brian Cotnoir, James Wasserman

Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 2006 Brian Cotnoir
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60925-178-9


The Aspects of Alchemy

Empedocles says: "Nothing that is has a nature, but only mixing and parting of the mixed, and nature is but a name given them by men."


Before beginning any action one should have a clear mental picture of it, the intent behind it, and how it will flow. This is what is meant by theory. The word theory comes from the Greek theoria, meaning "contemplation," or more exactly, "divine vision." Theory is a mental laying-out of the view and process. This is how theory should be approached—that is, the world (or practice) described by the theory should be built up mentally and visualized. Alchemical theory is actually a cosmology, a system for understanding how elements, events, and phenomena evolve, interact, and dissolve—in short, how our universe works. The cosmos or universe depicted by alchemical theory is a rich one, with all aspects of creation interlinked. All cosmology hinges on the level of focus and resolution. It is a question of how much detail and precision we use to describe whatever it is we are attempting to understand.

For example, say our universe is an island and we wish to measure its circumference. Are we measuring the coastline in meters or centimeters, yards or inches? What exactly do the numbers mean? A coastline measured by centimeter is longer than the same coastline measured by meter. How can this be? Well, the centimeter can measure more of the coastline detail than can a meter. So when the meter measurement is converted to centimeters, the measurement made by the centimeter is longer. Same coastline, different numbers, but both are correct, within their own context. In understanding a theory of how the world works, it is important to keep the context in which the theory is operating clearly in mind.

Historical alchemists were trying to resolve the question of how our universe operates through a variety of worldviews, from Islamic mysticism to the supremacy of reason in Enlightenment Europe. Alchemists / philosophers, in their contemplation of the world of form, looked to the idea of elements—basic units from which the rest of the world was composed and built. Understanding what these elements are, how they behave, and how they can be manipulated, shifted, rotated, and changed, has been the driving force behind much of alchemy through the ages. These questions are still the basis of much of what we see in contemporary physics. It is all a question of framework and resolution and the questions we ask. As Werner Heisenberg, one of the developers of quantum theory, noted: "What we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning."

The Elements

Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), in his Metaphysics, Book V, defined an element as "that out of which a thing is primarily composed, which is immanent in the thing and which is indivisible according to form." He initially held that there were four elements: Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. Plato (427–347 B.C.) in reference to the fifth geometric solid, the dodecahedron, "... the god used for arranging the constellations on the whole heaven," suggested a fifth element. Aristotle also elaborated upon a fifth element—aither, (aether in Latin). In English it is "ether," or "quintessence," and represents space. Most commonly, even the five elements are referred to in discussions as the Four Elements.

It was not only the Greeks who used this idea of four or five elements. As early as 1500 B.C. we see the idea of four elements in India. We also see the five elements in India, Tibet, and China, but with some variations. In India and Tibet there are fire, air, earth, water, and space. In China there are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. In some philosophies in the East, the concept of space is seen as a "material" thing, a particle like the other four, as indicated in the Kalachakra tantra. In Western thought, Aristotle conceives of space as more a place in which something can occur.

Aristotle's Four Element theory was dominant throughout most of the history of alchemy. His On the Heavens, Metaphysics, Physics, and On Generation and Corruption and the thirteenth-century explication of these works by scholastics such as St. Thomas Aquinas were particularly important in forging the views of the philosophers.

Aristotle and the scholastics were eventually put aside in a favor of a philosophy that looked to direct experience for answers rather than the statements of ancient authorities and their commentators.

An expression of this movement can be seen in the sixteenth century with the shift away from the Four Elements theory to one developed by the Swiss-German alchemist Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, more commonly known as Paracelsus, who placed greater emphasis on what he termed the Three Principles, rather than the Aristotelian elements.

However, let us start at the beginning with the Great Elements, since this was the underlying dominant framework and mindset within which the alchemists, physicians, and philosophers all operated from 500 B.C.–1700 A.D. The following are definitions and associations of the Four Elements drawn from classical sources.

Fire (First posited by Heraclitus). Empedocles—Hades (Typhon). Red. Feeling. Aquinas defines Fire as a simple, that is, indivisible, body. It is hot and dry. Avicenna (Ibn Sina). Its natural position is above all the other elements and is located in the region of the sublunary world—all that is beneath the Moon, in other words, our world.

It matures, rarefies, refines, and intermingles with all things. Its penetrative power enables it to traverse Air; with this power it subsumes the two heavy cold elements; by this power it keeps the elementary properties in harmony.

It is that which expands, rises, and moves toward limits.

Any substance that is highly reactive or catalytic in nature is predominantly fire.

The Platonic solid is the tetrahedron.

Air (First posited by Anaximenes). Empedocles—Zeus (Osiris). Yellow. Thinking. Aquinas defines Air as a simple body. It is wet and hot.

Avicenna (Ibn Sina). Air lies above Water and beneath Fire. It rarefies, renders things finer, lighter, more delicate, softer, and consequently better able to move to a higher sphere.

It is that which stretches and contracts, expands and rises, moving toward the limits.

Any substance that is a gas under normal conditions is predominantly Air.

The Platonic solid is the octahedron.

Water (First posited by Thales). Empedocles—Persephone (Nephthys). Blue. Intuition.

Aquinas defines Water as a simple body. It is cold and wet.

Avicenna (Ibn Sina). Water surrounds Earth and is surrounded by Air. It allows things to be molded and spread out and attempered in their construction; it easily parts with an old shape and readily accepts a new one.

It is that which contracts and falls.

It forms more toward the center.

Anything liquid is predominantly Water.

The Platonic solid is the icosahedron.

Earth (First posited by Xenophanes). Empedocles—Hera (Isis). Green. Solidity, Persistence.

Aquinas defines Earth as a simple body. It is dry and cold.

Avicenna (Ibn Sina). Earth is the center of existence. It is stationary but returns to position if it is moved. It is by means of Earth that the parts of our body are fixed and held together into a compact form. This is how outward form is maintained.

It is that which contracts and falls.

It forms more towards the center.

Anything solid under normal conditions is predominantly Earth.

The Platonic solid is the cube.

Quintessence, also called the Ether, This the fifth element. It has no qualities and is the field, that is the source, of all matter and the space in which it exists.

The Platonic solid is the dodecahedron, the sphere of the twelve pentagons.

The Two Qualities

Aristotle described the formation of the Four Elements as the interplay between two qualities—active and passive. He described the active as "hot-cold" which causes bodies to coalesce. The passive is "dry-moist" which causes bodies to dissolve. The interplay of these two binaries gives rise to the Four Elements. In this system Fire is hot and dry; Air is hot and wet; Water is cold and wet; and Earth is cold and dry.

Of the elemental qualities, two are found in each element. However, in each element, one quality is primary and one quality is secondary.


Hot—primary. This is the higher of the active qualities or principles.

Dry—secondary. All moisture is consumed by the heat.


Wet—primary. This is the higher of the passive qualities.

Hot—secondary. This is due to its closeness to Fire.


Cold—primary. This is the second of the active qualities.

Wet—secondary. This is due to its closeness to Air.


Dry—primary. It is as though it had not been resolved into humidity because of its great distance from Fire. It is most dense.

Cold—secondary. This is due to its closeness to Water.

Rotation of Elements

We can clearly see how the elements are interlinked through a sharing of one of the two qualities that make up the element. The rotation of the elements is the change of one into another. Changing one of the qualities causes the rotation. More poetically expressed by Heraclitus (sixth century B.C.), "Fire lives the death of earth, and air lives the death of fire, water lives the death of air, earth that of water." Take for example, actual water—cold and wet. If we add heat we change the cold to hot, thereby actually transforming Water into Air—hot and wet, from water to steam. This is the principle, according to Aristotle, that allows the elements in nature to change, and it is heat that drives the rotation of elements in nature.

We make use of the rotation of the elements in the practice of alchemy. We see Earth to Water in the melting of solids or their dissolution in water; Water to Air in the boiling of water or other solutions; Air to Water in distillation; Air to Fire in combustion or calcinations and so on.

The Exhalations

In looking at concrete examples of metals and minerals, Aristotle used the idea of two "exhalations"—that is, particular formations of the Elements in transition—to explain their creation. There is a dry "earthy smoke" made of small particles of Earth on their way to becoming Fire and a second wet "watery vapor" made up of small particles of Water on their way to becoming Air. Stones, minerals, and metals are formed when the exhalations are trapped in the earth. When the dry "earthy smoke" dominates, stones and minerals are formed, and when the wet "watery vapor" dominates, metals are formed.

The Two Principles

The Sufi alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan developed this theory further. He states that the two exhalations are not changed directly into metals or minerals but go through an intermediary stage. The "earthy smoke" is first converted into Sulphur and the "watery vapor" is converted into Mercury. It is the combination of Sulphur and Mercury in various proportions and purity, as well as the duration of gestation or coction in the earth, that gives rise to the varieties of metals and minerals. When they are pure and in equilibrium, gold is formed; when impure and imbalanced, lead, iron, copper, tin, silver, and so on are formed. We see here a theoretical basis for transmutation that can be put into practice. Since all metals are composed of the same materials, it is only a question of purifying and balancing the Sulphur and Mercury within the metal to transform it to its highest state, i.e., gold. The terms "Mercury" and "Sulphur" used here are to be considered in the abstract; they are not the actual element mercury (Hg) or the actual element sulphur (S).

But let's continue with the Mercury Sulphur theory as it became established in Europe. Here it is further explained by the Dominican scholar St. Albertus Magnus in his Libellus de alchimia:

When pure red sulphur comes into contact with quicksilver in the earth, gold is made in a short or long time, either through the persistence (of the contact) or through decoction of the nature subservient to them. When pure and white sulphur comes into contact with quicksilver in pure earth, then silver is made, which differs from gold in this, that sulphur in gold will be red, whereas in silver it will be white. When, on the other hand, red sulphur, corrupt and burning, comes into contact with quicksilver in the earth, then copper is made ... When white sulphur, corrupt and burning, comes into contact with quicksilver in the earth, tin is made, ... When white sulphur, corrupt and burning, comes into contact with quicksilver, in foetid earth, iron is made. When sulphur, black and corrupt, comes into contact with quicksilver, lead is made.

From this we see the role that sulphur and mercury (quicksilver) play. Quicksilver is unchanging, regardless of what is formed, while the Sulphur tinges and gives form or character to the mix. We also see from this text the role that earth plays. Rather than being just a neutral matrix within which the Sulphur and Mercury can react, we see that the quality of the earth has a part to play in determining what metal will form. As you can see, we start with pure earth, go to earth, and then finally to foetid earth, and with each step, we move further from gold. This question of earth, or the body, or salt, was addressed here and there by individual alchemists, but it really wasn't "codified" into alchemical theory until the early sixteenth century by the Swiss-German physician and surgeon Paracelsus.

The Three Principles

Paracelsus added Salt to the two principles of Sulphur and Mercury to achieve the Three Principles, representing Body, Soul, and Spirit. This theory had a major impact on alchemy, with much of the subsequent work and writing of the alchemists speaking in terms of the Three Principles rather than the Four Elements.

In Paracelsus' theory of Three Principles, Mercury signifies the quality of volatility, Sulphur signifies the quality of unctuousness, and Salt, the new addition, signifies solidity. Paracelsus defines the "Three prime Essences": Sulphur, he says, is whatever boils, an oil; Mercury is whatever rises as fumes, a liquor; and Salt is what remains in the ashes, an alkali. The terms indicate actual materials that make up a thing. Each thing can be broken down into its Mercury, Sulphur, and Salt, and this holds not just for the realm of metals and minerals but for all flora and fauna. As Paracelsus noted, "there are as many sulphurs, salts and mercuries as there are objects." We will see this more specifically when we begin the actual work.

The Three Principles also resonated with Christian symbolism, primarily with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The two gnostic traditions of alchemy and Christian mysticism were used to interpret each other in light of the newest development in alchemical theory. For example, the Philosopher's Stone and the way to it are a metaphor for Christ and the way to Christ. We see this in the writings of Jacob Boehme and in the early Rosicrucian texts. So the theory of the Three Principles, bolstered inwardly and outwardly, gained ascendancy among the alchemists from Paracelsus onward and informs much of the alchemical practice.

All the above theories—the theory of elements; and of qualities; the theory of two principles or three principles—recognize that all come from one. The Materia Prima—The First Matter.

Materia Prima

The theory of materia prima and forma substantia—prime matter and substantial form, developed by Aristotle, states that it is from the interplay of prime matter and form that the elements, or principles, and subsequently, the whole of the material world, arise.

Materia prima is the "matter" that precedes actual substantial existence; it is formless "matter." It is pure potentiality of being. It is also called "hyle." Forma substantia is substantial form; it is that which gives existence to matter. Prime matter is pure potentiality and so it is dimensionless. It remains so until substantial form, also dimensionless, joins with it (prime matter); and from this union of the dimensionless rises the three dimensions and the beginnings of matter as we sense it. It then expands into three dimensions.

Excerpted from The Weiser Concise Guide Series: ALCHEMY by Brian Cotnoir, James Wasserman. Copyright © 2006 Brian Cotnoir. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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Weiser Concise Guide to Alchemy 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Weiser Concise Guide to Alchemy is an excellent book that though concise is comprehensive in its explanation of the philosophy and techniques of alchemy. Brian Cotnoir presents his vast knowledge in a way that is clear, well-organized and handy for reference. Newcomers to the alchemical tradition as well as those who've long been fascinated by alchemy will find valuable information and insights in this book. If you really want to know what was going on in the alchemist's lab, this is the book for you!
Guest More than 1 year ago
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