Common Misunderstood Language and Symbols in Alchemy


Common Misunderstood Language and Symbols in Alchemy

 “Do your products really have Sulphur in them? Mercury?! Oil from metal?”

These are all questions or comments that I have received on multiple occasions.

 Alchemy is a highly misunderstood practice to those that do not practice it. It is a science? A pseudo-science? A branch off philosophy? A religion?

Alchemy can perhaps be best summed up as “transmutation”. Ultimately, Alchemical results/formulas/products focus on the greater human goods; longevity, wealth, and immortality.

Interests in Alchemy and the Occult have made a comeback (did they ever really leave?). While Alchemists still aren’t turning lead into gold and we haven’t created the elixir of immortality, we have gained more respect and recognition from the scholarly writers of technology and the history of science. Alchemy is no longer lumped in with witchcraft as a pseudo-science. These scholars now acknowledge Alchemy as a precursor to modern chemistry. This is forward movement.

*Did you know that both Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were avid Alchemy practitioners?* 

Alchemy was practiced in Asia, Europe, and Africa in the early centuries AD, and spread throughout China, India, and England by the 12th century. Its origins lie within Greece, Rome, and Egypt. The flourishing tradition of Latin Alchemy of this time would play a substantial role in the advancement of early contemporary science, especially medicine and chemistry.

Originally, Alchemy had three main goals:

  • The creation of an elixir that offered eternal health and youth (Elixir of Immortality, thought to be a panacea)
  • To convert base metals (i.e. lead) into noble metals (i.e. gold)
  • The creation of The Philosopher’s Stone (thought to have the ability to transform lead into gold, offering the creator eternal life; the perfection of the soul and human body)

 As early as the 18th and 19th centuries, as more modern science taught that many of alchemy’s original goals were not attainable, the popularity of Alchemy dwindled – to some. To others, the modern-day Alchemists and those of us that walk and study the poison path, the practice of and belief in Alchemy is still very much a part of our daily path.

Early Alchemists invented symbols (cyphers and cryptic symbolism) for each element they worked with. Sometimes the symbol would include hints of the characteristics they believed the element encompassed, as well as the element’s history. As these early Alchemists gathered much of their information from astrology, the symbols were oftentimes tied to celestial bodies and planets. The use of symbols was a sort of code, allowing Alchemists to safeguard their work, keeping it secret from non-alchemists. Though these symbols were used through the 18th century, they slowly became more standardized.

Today, non-Alchemists enjoy ancient Alchemical symbols shapes, history, and the connection they offer, to a different way of pondering the world. However, modern day Alchemists have studied and understand the symbols of our ancestors, and we still use them in our practices. Unfortunately, this can cause some confusion and even some unwarranted concern over Alchemical solutions and creations.

Using Spagyric formulas as an example, people ask me if there is really “Mercury” or “Sulphur” in these formulations.

As a rudimentary rule, it was recognized that all bodies are composed of the 3 chemical elements: salt, sulfur, and mercury. The names which were meant to only be observed as symbols, and which represent something quite different, would equate with the following in today’s terminology:

  • Mercury = Hydrogen; both volatility and stability (the mind, a state that could transcend death, the principle of life)
  • Sulphur = Carbon; flammability (the soul; thought to connect salt {oxygen} and mercury {the mind})
  • Salt = Oxygen; solidity (the body; the vehicle, physical matter, condensation, and crystallization)


Mercury is connected to the element of water, and Air, and is the balancing point between body, and spirit. It is the connection point that brings the spiritual, and the physical together, and allows them to communicate. Mercury is also greatly connected to the mind, intellect, knowledge, and wisdom. Mercury possesses the qualities of cold, and moist, and is connected to the feminine energetic aspects.


Sulfur represents an expanding force, the essence, spirit, and transcendence. Sulfur is connected to the element of fire, and air. It is seen to be what gives motion, and is firing, and combustible, and represents the inner ambitions, and nature of the spirit that is within constructs, and entities. It is also connected to the masculine energetic aspects, and is associated with the sun, and the qualities hot, and dry. Sulfur is desire, ambition, and the fiery nature of the spirit.


Salt is connected to earth, and water, and it represented the physical world. It would seem to be the exact opposite of sulfur and is the more constricting force. Salt has the qualities of cold, and dry. Salt is the fixed principle, and is a balance, and Union between masculine, and feminine, and is sometimes seen to represent the child. *(wolf of antimony)

A Swiss philosopher, Paracelsus, believed the three primes, or tria prima, covered all poisons capable of causing disease. His belief was that the cure for these diseases could be found by the Alchemists that studied them. He was also responsible for assigning an element to coordinating parts of the human identity.

Ancient Greek believed that earth, air, water, and fire composed all matter in the world. These four are known as The Classical Elements. You will not find these on the periodic table, though Alchemists believed them to have considerable powers and the capability to generate new elements.

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates connected each of these four to one of the four humours of the human body (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm), while Aristotle connected each to a principle of heat/cold and dryness/moisture.

There are seven planetary metals, each of which are connected to a day of the week, a celestial object, and an organ in the body. In ancient times, Alchemists believed that each planet ruled over its associated metal, and that the planet’s position affected the metal’s properties.      

  • Tin – Jupiter
  • Iron – Mars
  • Gold – Sun
  • Copper – Venus
  • Mercury – Mercury
  • Silver – Moon
  • Lead - Saturn

 "...True alchemy never regarded earth, air, water, and fire as corporeal or chemical substances in the present-day sense of the word. The four elements are simply the primary, and most general, qualities by means of which the amorphous and purely quantitative substance of all bodies first reveals itself in differentiated form." (Burckhardt)

Alchemists later broadly established the mystical facets of this concept. By mid-7th Century, Alchemy was nearly a wholly mystical mastery. The facilitation of translation and preservation of Greek Alchemical Texts was ignited by its journey from Alexandria to the Islamic world in the 8th and 9th centuries. Unfortunately, many writings were lost when the emperor Diocletian ordered the burning of alchemical books, after suppressing a revolt in Alexandria in AD 292. 

In the eyes of a variety of modern esoteric and Neo-Hermeticism practitioners, alchemy is fundamentally spiritual. In this interpretation, transmutation of lead into gold is presented as an analogy for personal transmutation, purification, and perfection (Faivre and Voss).

According to this view, early alchemists such as Zosimos of Panopolis (c. AD 300) highlighted the spiritual nature of the alchemical quest, symbolic of a religious regeneration of the human soul (Debus).

The belief and practice of Alchemy is certainly not for everyone. For those who are wedded to scientific chemistry, Alchemy can have no further interest. However, for those who seek the wider goal, which was also that of the natural philosopher before the advent of “mechanical,” “Newtonian,” or “modern” science, the search is still on.







  • River

    This puts many unanswered questions around the art and science of ancient alchemy into better perspective. Thank you for your modern approach to help us prosper with plant medicine you make. It does go far beyond the physical too!

  • Lindsey

    This is so fascinating! I love how much you were able to efficiently cover. Lots of food for thought here…

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