In ancient times, the quest to create the magical Philosopher's Stone - the divine elixir which was believed to have the power to change anything to gold and that carried magical properties of imparting immortality to humans, escalated the alchemist activities and the study of alchemy.
Alchemy is defined as "A medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life." In alchemy, it was mandatory to use symbols to represent an idea, and individual alchemists used different symbols to depict one idea. Symbols were seen as part of a whole emblem and an emblem was the core of a complex process. Mostly symbols of planets, elements and animals were used to mention or create a new idea. Following are some of the important symbols in terms of alchemy.
Ancient Alchemy Symbols
The need to give symbolism in alchemy was that it was considered as a forbidden craft, practicing which could land the alchemist in a death trap. The church popularized it as heresy and an offense punishable through death sentence. In 1403, Henry IV of England banned the practice of using multiple metals to create the base metal gold as it had proved to be an unfruitful discovery. Hence the need to encrypt the hidden meanings and inventions through various mystic symbolism was created. Given below are some of the important ancient symbols used in the craft.
The first ever mention of the Hebrew word Abracadabra is in the book called Liber Medicinalis (also known as De Medicina Praecepta Saluberrima) by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, physician to the Roman emperor Caracalla in the 2nd century CE. He had prescribed the word as a healing for malaria which was written on a parchment and to be worn by the patient around his neck in a triangular form, it was believed that the word imbibed healing qualities and diminished the spirit of illness from attacking the patient further. During the Gnostic period, a sect called Basilides used this word to conjure helpful spirits to protect against diseases and misfortune. In the modern world, it is used by stage magicians as a magical incantation.
It is believed that every Hebrew alphabet has a unique meaning and identity and each is symbolic of a number, the Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and its numerical value is connected with the divinity of the trinity. The alphabet adds up to 111 which is spiritual and is highly revered in Kabbalah. This also stands for the element air or wind and hence is believed to be the symbol of 'Breath of Life' by God or the 'Air we Breathe'. In Hebrew beliefs, it accounts for the unfathomable mysteries related with oneness of God. The alchemists strongly used this symbol as there was seeming similarity between Kabbalah and alchemy.
The Caduceus is associated to Asclepius the Greek god of healing. In alchemy, it is a symbolic amalgamation of sulfur (male) and quicksilver (female) which denotes the unity of the polar opposites. The dual snakes symbolize balance and amicability of the opposite, the rod denotes the connection between the spiritual and earthly world, the wings are symbolic of awareness of the divine and travel into the cosmic world. In ancient world, it meant the Herald's Staff of Office in Greek, also the center rod symbolically meant Hermes who was the messenger of gods. It became a symbol of healing in the professional medical world after Dr. Carl Jung felt it was an appropriate attribute to homeopathy.
The Cube denotes the number four and is symbolic for the body, the earth element, matter, stability, solidity, and truth, it is also one of the five perfect solids of Pythagoras. In alchemy, it was believed that the cube had magical properties and limitless supernatural strength hence one can observe that the Pharaoh of Egypt were depicted sitting on a cube-shaped throne and many Indian gods have been depicted standing with one foot on the cube. The cube also symbolized the earth and it was believed by the alchemists that one could attain spiritual content within the realms of the earth by using earthly elements.
The Ergon was generally adopted from the ancient Egyptian symbol Eye of Ra by the alchemists and refashioned into the right eye of the soul which was believed to keep an eye on the human souls and guide their abilities into attaining higher spiritual purposes. Many hermetic philosophies consider the eye as the channel between the earthly and spiritual dimension, and believe one can obtain prophetic messages and visions through it for predicting the future.
In alchemy, Fire is symbolized as a triangle meaning rising energy, the alchemists insist that fire comes from the womb of the earth and is very essential to the science of metallurgy as metals are transformed in fire in the womb of the earth. It also represents purification and divine energy.
Traditionally, the Moon denotes silver in alchemy and is symbolized by the astrological glyph of the moon, it was believed that silver is the purest metal after gold and was used to make weapons and silver objects to ward off evil spirits, witches, vampires, and demons. In Hermetic science, moon is feminine property that is connected to the highest spiritual attainment, the alchemist thought to amalgamate it with the sun to attain balance.
To the alchemist, the Peacock's Tail symbolized the completion of their goal, it could mean a layer of oil on the watery mass or oxidation reaction on the liquid metal. But it does not mean that the metal has attained its final transformation. It merely means that the process of obtaining something unique out of it is possible.
Alchemist revered the Pentacle symbol and used it for the protection of knowledge by pressing the symbol on their hermetic books. The Pythagorean's accepted it as a sign of union between heaven and earth and as a symbol of health. Contrary to its negative use in the modern world, the pentacle is seen as a positive emblem of balance in alchemy.
The Quincunx is considered to be the most important emblem in alchemy as it represents the transformation of base metals into gold which is the eventual ambition of alchemy. It denotes the atomic structure of the metals in their formation period. Spiritually it means attaining the highest level of enlightenment and being god-like.
The Rose Windows symbolize the fifth element of spiritual attainment for the alchemists, they viewed it as the connection to the divine. It was designed by master craftsman Chartres using a cryptic method of antimony. It was believed looking at it one could attain altered state of perception.
Revered since the Egyptian times, The Sun is believed to be the emblem of gold. The alchemists viewed it as a perfection of creation and attempted to gain a state of completion like the sun in their creations. It also represents the peak of spiritual and human achievement.
Elemental Alchemy Symbols
There are numerous elements used in the craft of alchemy to create the base element gold, these elements had both physical and philosophical representation for the alchemists. Some elements like Magnesium were considered as slow ignitors and extinguishers. This element was mainly considered to symbolize eternity, eternal flame, and ascension. Phosphorus was considered as colorless and transparent and has rapid ignition properties, this element symbolized spiritual enlightenment. Platinum has rust-resistant, malleable and ductile properties, it's considered as an endurable alchemy element. Tin was considered to represent the planet Jupiter and was associated with breathing in alchemy. Zinc was used to make Philosopher's wool or also known as nix alba (white snow) by burning zinc in air. Given below are the popular elements used in the craft.
This element is from the metalloid group of elements, the name is derived from the Greek words anti and monos which means a metal not found alone. It's a lustrous, silvery gray metal and a poor conductor of heat and electricity. This rare element does not react chemically as a metal, spiritually it symbolizes wild nature like that of an animal found in each of us which is waiting to be unleashed.
The element derives its name from the Syriac word (al) zarniqa and Persian word zarnikh which means yellow, it's a dangerously poisonous metalloid with three arsenic allotropes which are metallic gray, yellow and black arsenic, with gray being the most common. It is used in pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides and also for strengthening various alloys. In alchemy, it was used for magical and medicinal cures and to induce trance-like effect during rituals for enlightenment.
The element looks incandescent like the sun and is hence considered as the solar emblem, apart from gold it's the only metal that is not naturally silver or gray. The shiny red metal was the oldest to be found in various civilizations from time immemorial. The Egyptians used copper alloy to make jewelry, this metal conducts heat and electricity well. In alchemy, the element shares its symbol of Venus and is associated with goddess Aphrodite because of its luminescent beauty, it symbolizes love, balance and harmony.
The element derives its name from Latin word aurum meaning shining dawn or glow of sunrise. It is a known pure element from the ancient times and is the only metal that has a yellow/golden color. It is extremely malleable, ductile and non-toxic, besides being of monetary and noble value, it's also used in electronics, dentistry and medicine. Spiritually, it symbolizes perfection of mind and body. In alchemy, it was believed to have secrets of immortality which made it a very precious element.
The element derives its name from Anglo-Saxon word iron, it is the most abundantly found metal on earth comprising 5.6% of the earth's crust. It's a transition metal and not magnetic and is mainly used to make steel. In alchemy, the element is representative of the planet mars and hence connotes physical strength and male energy.
The element derives its name from Anglo-Saxon word seolfor, it is one of the first five metals to be discovered and was valued highly than gold in the ancient times. Because of its shiny and reflective property, it is used in mirrors, telescopes, and solar cells. It is relatively less ductile than gold and is a good of electricity. Also it's not toxic and is used as food decoration. In alchemy, it's representative of the moon and denotes feminine properties, it's also one of the three base metals used during the initiation of work.
The element derives its name from Arabic word sufra meaning yellow, it is also known as brimstone and is found in the elemental state near volcanic vents. It's an abundant, tasteless, and odorless non-metal. In alchemy, it's considered as transcendent symbol and representative of the trinity. It's one of the three heavenly elements of alchemy and symbolizes the higher dimension.
Animal Alchemy Symbols
Animals are considered as totems and spiritual guides from the ancient times; and alchemy sure used the symbolism of animals to depict the various mysteries they stood for. Given below are some of the popular and traditional animal symbols used in the craft.
From ancient times fox has been the symbol of the after-life. According to Chinese folklore, the sighting of a fox was associated with the spirits of the deceased. In Japanese and Celtic culture they are the symbols of intelligence, wisdom, and spirit guides. In alchemy, it was believed that they are the keepers of Elixir of Life and that they assume human form at night to visit the elderly sick people to administer them this precious Elixir. They also symbolize fire.
In alchemy, great reverence is paid to the moon and the Ibis is associated as the symbol of moon representing its lunar movements, functions, and cycles. It also refers to the Thoth the ibis-headed god of Egypt, ibis was sacred to the Egyptians and its traits are imbibed in the god Thoth. Thoth was later called Hermes by the Greeks and he is the deity who bestowed arts and sciences to mankind. He is greatly honored and revered by the alchemists for being a great magician. The bird Ibis while wading in water has its head above the water and feet firmly on ground inside the water which spiritually symbolizes that one can be rooted in earthly matters and be in connected to spiritual planes above.
In alchemy, the Lion was regarded as the keeper of all alchemic secrets and the representative of the underworld so much so that it has the highest place of reverence in the alchemist circles. It was also associated to gold and sun and said to be the depiction of enlightenment and ascension due to its strength and courage.
In alchemy, the Phoenix is highly regarded as a symbol of regeneration, it is associated with the sulfuric process of cleansing and transformation into fire. It's important as representation of the alchemic process of death and rebirth of the elements.
In alchemy, the Raven is considered as the taboo bird. It was believed that the raven had the power to decay everything that came in its path. It is associated with the darker spiritual realm and said to be the harbinger of death. It was believed that decay of one's body is necessary in order to join with the soul in the after-life and the raven symbolized this.
In alchemy, the Uroboros undisputably stands for the infinity. The serpent swallowing its own tail represents the cycle of life from the birth to the death. The concept of 'one in all' was highly regarded among the alchemists and the serpent represented eternal death, rebirth and regeneration.
Alchemy Planet Symbols
Planets and stars were looked upon as celestial wonders and were used to predict the future and determine the course of human destinations. The alchemists never took any decisions without considering the planetary positions. The study of astrology played an important role in shaping the craft. According to the alchemists, the planets symbolized the chakras of the human body and the major elements. Given below are the traditional planetary symbols used in the craft.
In alchemy, Jupiter represents the metal Tin. The planet gets its name from mythological Roman King of Gods. The astronomical symbol looks like the Greek letter - zeta which has numerical value of seven that represents perfection. Alchemists believed its symbolic to the balance and harmony between hot and cold elements. Spiritually, it represents growth, renewal and transition.
In alchemy, Mars represents the metal iron which is known for its endurance and strength. The planet gets its name from the Roman God of War and represents his spear and shield. In metallurgy, iron was used to make war weapons and hence was considered very important. Spiritually, Mars represents the divine cycle of life and death.
In alchemy, Mercury represents one of the Earth's three principal substances. The alchemist believed that mercury was the core of all the metals and that the correct combination of mercury with the other metals would lead to the creation of gold. In regard to its property of mobility, it is also known as quicksilver. The Roman God, Mercury shares the name with the planet as he is associated with speed and was the messenger of Gods. Spiritually, it's associated to new ideas and intelligence.
In alchemy, Saturn represents the metal lead, the glyph imitates the scythe of Saturn, the god of the harvest and time. Alchemists believed that lead was the prima matera which represented the putrid factor essential for a new life. Spiritually, it symbolizes order in chaos.
Symbolism can be a double-edged sword, on one hand it might be easy to interpret, but on the other it can be just a spec of clue to the greater design in the alchemist's mind, which can be frustrating to analyze. To an alchemist, every symbol is their own fragment of imagination and importance in creating a new element.