back to Alchemy table of contents

3. The Ingredients

3.1 Sulfur

If you direct your heart
onto one point,
nothing will be impossible.

Man is a thinker.
He is that what he thinks.
When he thinks fire
he is fire.
When he thinks war,
he will create war.
Everything depends
if his entire imagination
will be an entire sun,
that is, that he will imagine himself completely
that what he wants.

spiritus sulphur

(Spiritus Sulphur, Quinta Essentia, second book)

Inside gold is the alchemical Sun. Inside the Sun is an active substance, sulfur. Sometimes alchemists equal sulfur with the Sun. Sulfur is the spirit of life. Sulfur is of a twofold nature: white and red sulfur. White sulfur is the substance of the Great Work at the phase of Whiteness, and red sulfur at the stage of redness.
In general sulfur is the symbol for the active principle in the Great Work.

Sulphur, the fiery spirit that vivifies everything. The wings on his head and feet are the traditional representations of the god Mercury.
But that (the fire) which comes from the sun,
which fire maintains
every bodily thing
for as far as it is natural.
Nicholas Flamel (14th-15th century)


3.2 Mercury

Every child is an artist.
The difficulty is to remain one
when you grow up.
Hermes is the Primal Source.
After so many injuries
have been done to the human race,
I flow forth,
by divine decree
and assisted by the Art,
as a healing giving medicine.
He who is able to, drink out of me.
He who wants, purify himself in me.
He who dares, jump into my depths.
Drink, brother, and live.
Chymische Hochzeit, Christiani Rosencreutz

No alchemical symbol is so confusing as Mercury. Here are some explanations of this mysterious substance. As sulfur is the symbol for the active principle, mercury is the symbol of the passive principle. Mercury is a term used for almost everything. It is the highest divinity, but also a devil. It is used to symbolize certain aspects of the alchemical work, but at the same time it is them all. It is ambiguous with many names and functions. The alchemists often speak about mercury in the form of the god Mercury, whom we encounter in their engravings and paintings. As the god Mercury he is often seen as having qualities that belong both to mercury and to sulfur.

Anima Mercurii
(Anima Mercurii, Quinta Essentia, second book)
Mercury is symbolized here in its female form of the quicksilvery soul, a reference to the soul of Nature.

Usually mercury is used in its chemical form, quicksilver. Symbolic of course, it indicates volatility or fluidity, by which it is also named ‘water of life’ or ‘root humidity’.
In his aspect of fire, Mercury is the sole fire in the entire process. He is the working force in the Great Work. He is an ‘invisible, secretly working fire’. He is the fire of hell, the infernal fire in the earth. Mercury is the spirit of man that works in the lower aspects of being, and thus is looked upon as an infernal fire.
In his air aspect, he is the spirit, the air, the wind that is present everywhere in Nature and vivifies everything. He is ‘the spirit of truth hidden in the earth’.
As hermaphrodite he unifies the sexes within himself. He is both the helper and trickster, Lucifer and Christ. When depicted as a dragon, he is flying and without wings. He is bride and groom. It is obvious that Mercury contains and unifies duality. He is Ouroboros, the serpent-dragon that bites in his own tail, representing the circle and unity, eternity, where the beginning and the end coincide. He is the alpha and omega.
He is called the ‘prima materia’, the chaos, the rough stone at the beginning of the Great Work. As Saturn he initiates putrefaction, but also gives immortality. At the same time he is the goal of the Great Work, the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life, the philosophical gold. Mercury is the process of transmutation.
In alchemical images Mercury is depicted both as a young man and an old man. As an old man he is usually in the form of Saturn, the common man, fixed in matter with his habits, prejudices, and other material chains. As a young boy, he comes forth from the ‘coniunctio’, the joining of the King and Queen, representing rebirth, and eternal youth.
Mercury is also called ‘quadratus’ because he contains the four elements, thus he is the quintessence. Another name for him is ‘azoth’ a word formed from the Latin letters A and Z, the Greek words Alpha and Omega, and the Hebrew words Aleph and Thau, all meaning the beginning and the end.
Here is a text from the Aurelia Occulta from the Theatrum Chemicum (1613), in which Mercury is talking about himself:
I am the poison-dripping dragon,
who is everywhere and can be cheaply had.
That upon which I rest, and that which rest upon me,
will be found within me by those who pursue their investigations in accordance with the rules of the Art.
My water and fire destroy and put together;
from my body you may extract the green lion and the red.
But if you do not have exact knowledge of me,
you will destroy your five senses with my fire.
By the philosophers I am named Mercurius.
My spouse is the gold;
I am the old dragon found everywhere on the globe of the earth,
father and mother, young and old, very strong and very weak,
death and resurrection, visible and invisible, hard and soft;
I descend into the Earth and ascend into the Heavens,
I am the highest and the lowest, the lightest and the heaviest.
I am dark and light.
Often the order of nature is reversed in me.
I am known yet do not exist at all.
I am the carbuncle of the sun, the most noble purified earth,
through which you may change copper, iron, tin and lead into gold.
A waxing poison comes from my nose,
having brought to death many people.
Therefore, with the art,
you have to separate the course from the fine,
if you don’t wan to delight in poverty.
I give you the power
of the male and the female,
even that of heaven and earth.
With bravery and broadness of understanding,
the mysteries of my art are to be done,
if you want to conquer me with the power of the fire.
From which many have suffered in their potential and work.
I am the egg of nature,
that only the wise man knows,
who by piety and modesty
let the microcosm arise out of me,
what is destined to people by the most high God,
but what is given only to a few,
while most long for it in vain:
that they do well to those in poverty from my treasury
and that their soul will not cling to the transitory gold.
I am called Mercurius by the Philosphers;
my mate is the philosophical gold;
I am the old dragon, present everywhere on earth,
father and mother, young man and old man,
very powerful and very weak,
death and rebirth, hard and soft;
I descend into the earth and ascend into heaven’
I am the highest and the lowest,
the heaviest and the lightest;
often the order of nature in color, number , weight and measure
is being reversed in me,
I contain the light of nature (lumen naturale);
I am the dark and the light,
I come forth from heaven and earth;
I am known but do not exist;
all colors radiate in me
and all metals by the sun’s rays.
I am the solar carbuncle,
the most refined, glorified earth,
by which you can change
copper, iron, tin and lead
into gold.

3.3 Salt

He who wants to get insight and enlightenment in all truth,
think of God’s birth in himself,
in the depth of his soul.
As soon as he will open himself for that,
all energies of the soul come to life,
and in one instant
he receives more wisdom
than anybody can teach him.
Meister Eckehart

star as symbol for salt

Salt is the third element in the trinity of the alchemical substances in the Great Work. As mercury is the water aspect, sulfur is the fiery aspect, so is salt the form aspect (salt is a crystalline form, or crystallized energy). So it is also a name for the ‘prima materia’, for the stone of the philosophers. The alchemists say that in its lower aspect salt is ‘bitter’. Here salt is symbol for knowledge and wisdom. Self-knowledge is bitter, painful. Sometimes they speak of the bitter ‘sea water’. As water or the sea stands for the soul, it is a reference to the same self-knowledge.

Salt is also seen as a symbol for the second phase of the Great Work, albedo, or whiteness, because here light breaks through, and thus also wisdom. Christ is called ‘Sal sapientiae’, the Salt of Wisdom’.
In the beginning of the Great Work, the salt is called impure. Here it equals the earth, the body, our every day consciousness or being. The impure salt has to be dissolved (‘solutio’) into the divine water (quicksilver, or ‘prima materia’), by which it is purified. In albedo salt arises as a pure form and fixated, that is crystallized into a pure salt.
As symbol for wisdom, salt is the breath of the divine energy. This wisdom vivifies the invisible fire that energizes entire Nature. This fire controls life, movement, energy, the heavens, the planets. Paracelsus called this fire ‘the light of Nature’ a reference to the ‘anima mundi', the soul of the world.