Four illustrations appearing in E. J. Holmyard’s 1957 Alchemy, a historical account of exoteric alchemy.

First, a diagram (p22) of the Greek conception of the four elements — fire, air, water, and earth — in relation to their qualities — wet (fluid, moist), dry, hot, and cold.

Four elements and four qualities

Each element is described, unequally, by its two adjacent properties; thus fire is primarily hot and secondarily dry, air wet and hot, water cold and wet, and earth dry and cold. “None of the four elements is unchangeable; they may pass into one another through the medium of that quality which they possess in common; thus fire fire can become air through the medium of heat, air can become water through the medium of fluidity; and so on” (p22).

This system (with earlier roots, and similarly present in other cultures) was conceptualized by Aristotle (384 BC — 322 BC), who “argues that each and every other substance is composed of each and every ‘element’, the difference between one substance and another depending on the proportions in which the elements are present… It follows that any kind of substance can be transformed into any other kind by so treating it that the proportions of its elements are changed to accord with the proportions of the elements in the other substance. This may be done by change of the elements originally existing in the first substance, or by adding some substance consisting of such proportions of the elements that when the substances are mixed or combined the desired final proportions are attained” (p23).

“Here we have the germ of all theories of metallic transmutation and the basic philosophical justification of all the laborious days spent by alchemists over their furnaces” (p23) — a point well-illustrated (plate 18) in Mylius’ 1622 Philosophia Reformata (see also earlier post on Mylius):

Four elements and the Work

The spherical fundaments display the alchemical symbols of the four elements (earth, water, air, fire, from left-to-right), while the flaming flasks atop represent so-supported stages of the Work, blackening, whitening, yellowing, reddening, which color changes describe successive objectives of the various alchemical operations: calcination, sublimation, fusion, crystallization, distillation, and putrefaction, among other processes.

Arab alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (a.k.a. Geber, 721 — 815) theorized that all metals were formed in the earth by the union of sulphur (that is, philosophical sulphur, dry and hot) and mercury (also philosophical, cold and wet), and that therefore the art of alchemy is the balancing of these two natures (later, salt made three, the tria prima) to produce other metals (e.g., gold). This was the start of a “chemical marriage” that would influence all of European alchemy during its entire extent, as seen (plate 19), for example, in Barchusen’s Elementa Chemia one thousand years later (1718):

Mercury and sulphur

Wherein is shown the opposing principles of sun and moon, drawing near over receding waters, with the symbols for sulphur and mercury in close association — thence, if the alchemist is successful, to finally unite, the fusion of oppositions, of male and female, represented by the philosophical androgyne:

Grand Hermetic Androgyne

“The Grand Hermetic Androgyne trampling underfoot the four elements of the prima materia. From the Codex Germanicus 598″ (plate 34).

Whose imprint can still be seen today:

Babar in St. Michael and the Dragon

A Laurent de Brunhoff adaptation of Raffaello Sanzio‘s Saint Michael and the Dragon from Babar’s Museum of Art, 2003 (p15).

8 Responses to “The Four Elements and Metallic Transmutation”

  1. Mirco Says:

    A couple of notes -en passant-:

    1) the four elements are united in the FIFTH, or quinta essentia (see wiki, which is the CENTER of the square.

    2) the seasoned taiji practictioner will not fail to recognize a familiar picture: the BA MEN, or eight gates, the eight directions of power. Just like the eight gates are a DYNAMIC diagram, so are the 4 elements + the 4 qualities: they ROTATE forming a circle aound the central axis.


  2. Greg Pass Says:

    Thanks for your mucronated notes, Mirco.

    The square in the circle, the circle in the square, as it is said in that practice. Also the polyhedron we’ve discussed is composed of triangular faces (see Zheng’s chapter on the triangle in the circle).

    As the non-terrestrial, unchangeable fifth element was little employed by “practical” alchemists, I left it out of this one. But “from whence is this & that, if not out of the Center”?

  3. Mirco Says:


    1) indeed: the piramid and the counter-piramid of the previous postings are precisely generated by the rotation of the square around the central axis, where the fifth essence hides.

    The elements are restless…

    2) the quinta essentia is EXTRACTED by the practical alchemists, as a result of manipulating the other more tangible four:

    the elements do come FROM the center, and go back TO the center.

    In the preface of the First Book of Pantagruel, Francois Rabelais states:

    Written Many Years Ago by
    Maitre Alcofribas
    Extractor of the Fifth,
    or Celestial, Essence

    Talking of practical alchemy, there is a good ref online here (only for the Lesser Circulation, aka the Work on Plants):

  4. Greg Pass Says:

    From Milton’s Paradise Lost (b5, l180-185):

    Air, and ye elements the eldest birth
    Of nature’s womb, that in quaternion run
    Perpetual circle, multiform; and mix
    And nourish all things, let your ceaseless change
    Vary to our great maker still new praise.

  5. Ellie Says:

    Hello! I was wondering if you owned the circular image of the sun/moon/mercury or if you know the source and whether I could use it on a small website?

    Thanks a lot,


  6. Ellie Says:

    I think I may not have filled in my email…please get back to me when you get a chance!


  7. Ismael Duá Says:


    this is an intersting thread i just discovered because of the image with the four personas on globes carrying a flask on their head. what, please, are the symbols on the flasks?

    thank you and all the best from berlin, ismael

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