July 9th, 2007
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.
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):
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):
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:
“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: