Exploring Alchemical Symbols

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Symbols and allegories were common parlance during the “golden age” of alchemy — the 17th and 18th centuries. An example is the 17th Century British folk song, “John Barleycorn,” which tells the harrowing story of poor John Barleycorn, subjected to torture, abuse, death, and ultimately, triumph.

“They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in

Throwed clods upon his head,

Til these three men were satisfied

John Barleycorn was dead.”

Other verses describe John Barleycorn being cut off at the knees, tied around the waist, stabbed in the heart with forks, having his skin split from the bone and ground between two stones, and being drowned. The final verses are:

“There’s beer all in the barrel and brandy in the glass

But little Sir John, with his nut-brown bowl, proved the strongest man at last.

And the huntsman he can’t hunt the fox nor loudly blow his horn

And the tinker he can’t mend his pots without a little barleycorn.”

In John Barleycorn’s final incarnation, as distilled whiskey, he can lay low (intoxicate) any man who challenges him; others depend on him to ease their existence. The abuses our hero endures correspond to the stages of planting, growing, harvesting, and milling barley and distilling whiskey.

John Barleycorn’s trials are an allegory of distillation disguised in a tale of death and triumph. And so it is with alchemy — texts, treatises, and instructions are mazes of allegorical symbols and metaphor — all designed to hide true meaning from prying eyes.

Whether allegory, literary metaphor, spiritual discipline, or literal craft, alchemy is the art and science of transforming one substance to another — just as in the case of distilling spirits from grains. Western alchemical traditions come to us from ancient Egypt, and were carried to Europe in medieval times.

Other alchemical schools flourished throughout the Middle East, entering Europe through Moorish Spain. In Asia, sophisticated alchemical practices evolved — both physical and esoteric. The complex system of alchemical symbols and riddles was sometimes called “the language of birds.” In Western hermetic alchemy, riddle-like instructions applied to both mundane and spiritual processes. In fact, alchemical symbols, operations, and results are metaphors for the spiritual transformation of the soul, reflecting the words of the original alchemist, Hermes Trismegistus: “As above, so below — as within, so without.”

The alchemical quest of transmuting lead to gold was, in the highest sense, a metaphor for transmuting the “lead” or “dross” of the unevolved human spirit to the “gold” of realization, represented by the philosopher’s stone. In an exhibit at the Brown University Library, “Alchemical Symbols as a Secret Code,” a manuscript descriptions reads, “For centuries, mysticism and the occult were an integral part of alchemy and its secrets. The symbols were rendered into allegorical writings and magical invocations which obscured the recipes that led to perfection, the Philosopher’s Stone.”

Materia Prima

Also known as “The First Thing,” as per the renegade pharaoh Akhenaten, the concept comes down from Egyptian, then Hermetic alchemical traditions. This mysterious, fundamental “dark matter” of the universe was considered the driving force of totality. It has been called “unorganized proto-matter,” and “The Cornerstone the Builders Forgot,” found on the threshold between manifest and unmanifest. Some believe it is Wilhelm Reich’sorgone” energy; others call it “chi,” or “prana.”

The materia prima is the prime matter from which the elements emerge. Werner Heisenberg, a 20th century nobel-prize winning theoretical physicist, said that quantum particles, the “materia prima” of quantum theory, “Are not as real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.” If captured by one who knew how to use it, the materia prima made visions and dreams manifest, fulfilling all wishes.

The Principles and Elements of Alchemy

To the alchemist, everything on every plane, from the earthly to the subtle, is composed of the four elements — air, fire, earth, and water. At first glance this seems simplistic, but considered in combinations and quantities, the possibilities become staggering. And when you consider the elements under the influence of the principles of heat, cold, expansion, contraction, dampness, and dry, the complexities and combinations become almost infinite.

Alchemists put long, hard work into identifying the elemental constructs of everything in the natural world — from plants and minerals to human temperament and characteristics. For example, while an ordinary rock would seem to fall within the earth element, on closer inspection it may take on other characteristics under the influence of catalysts such as heat. It may melt (water), vaporize (air), burn (fire), or decompose. Note that these descriptions are based on alchemical definitions, and do not reflect the elements in other disciplines or traditions.

Air: The air element is constantly in motion, and can be intelligence or “spaciness.” The mind’s power is derived from the air element, and all communication falls within air’s domain. Air is also carrier for fire and heat, water as vapor (clouds), and earth as dust or sand. Breath, as air, is related to spirit, and the air elemental is the sylph.

Fire: Flames and heat correspond to energy itself for the alchemist, and fire acts upon all other substances as a catalyst — either forcing a change state or reduction to ash. Fire is often represented as a salamander, considered an elemental fire spirit. Its symbol, the upward pointing triangle, symbolizes the rising, radiative energy of heat and fire.

Water: Water, with cold and moist properties, is a downward pointing triangle representing the flowing search for the lowest resting point. Water is related to intuition and the feminine, and is a carrier, like air, for other elements and substances. Water’s elemental spirit is the undine.

Earth: Cold and dry, earth relates to the physical body as well as the stuff on the ground. Earth also relates to physical sensation. The gnome is the earth’s elemental, and residue left after something burns, such as ash, corresponds to earth.

The Three Essential Principles

For the alchemist, everything begins and ends with the three essential principles: salt, mercury and sulphur. Salt represents earth and the physical body — the salt also relates to the mineral aspect of all life, and is considered the densest of the essential substances. The entire mineral kingdom, filled with crystalline structures, is represented by salt.

Sulphur includes the elements of air and fire, and on the subtle level is the symbol for the soul. In the animal kingdom that includes humans, sulfur relates to the essential life force, representing “the flame of consciousness.” In the plant kingdom, sulphur relates to essential oils extracted from plants — volatile when heated and dispersed by air. In fact the entire vegetable kingdom falls under the rulership of sulphur.

Mercury, composed of water and air elements, is the intermediary between those elements. Named for the messenger of the gods, Mercury is in constant motion between heaven and earth, and corresponds to the human spirit. Physical mercury is solid and liquid at the same time, and is easily vaporized by fire. The animal kingdom, in eternal motion, is under the rulership of mercury.

The Philosopher’s Stone

The aim of classical Hermetic alchemy, called the “Magnum Opus,” or “Great Work,” is to follow seven steps to produce the “Philosopher’s Stone.” The holy grail of mundane alchemy is to turn base metals like lead into gold — the Philosopher’s Stone is essential to that operation. It is also said to provide immortality, and on esoteric, subtle levels, the Philosopher’s Stone represents the fulfillment of the soul’s potential — illumination, enlightenment and bliss.

Chinese dragons with the flaming alchemical Pearl of Great Price

The same is true in Eastern alchemical traditions — Taoist alchemists called the stone “The Pearl of Great Price,” only obtainable by snatching it from a jealous dragon. In tantric traditions, the stone was called the the “Jiva Ratna,” translating to the ”jewel of life,” and the “Chintamani,” or “wish-fulfilling jewel,” kept for safekeeping by the Nagas, a species of watery dragon-snake beings.

The stone is represented, in Hermetic traditions, by the “Squared Circle,” a circle enclosed by a square within a triangle enclosed by another circle. The ancients wrestled with the problem of creating a square and a circle with the same area, a Euclidean geometry axiom what was proven impossible by the Lindemann-Weierstrass theorem of 1882. For the alchemists,  squared circle stood as a metaphor and symbol for attempting the impossible, i.e. the magnum opus.

The Squared Circle


Explorations of vivid, fantastical alchemical art, engravings, and symbols bring the history of the Great Work to life. Gaining insight into what was, for centuries, the ultimate quest, on both gross and subtle levels, is a journey into the history of the human imagination — and some believe it is that imagination that is the true philosopher’s stone.

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Freemason Secrets: Ancient Masonic Rites, Rituals, and Myths

My father, uncle, and grandfather were Freemasons. My grandfather held the title of Worshipful Master (akin to a president) at a New York City lodge near the turn of the century and had some fascinating clothing and accessories — his ring was beyond cool.

I remember asking Pop about his lodge when I was in kindergarten. Replying in his thick German accent, he said, “There is nothing for you to know at this time, boy.” I love that answer.

“George Washington was a Mason, along with 13 other presidents and numerous Supreme Court Justices. Benjamin Franklin published a book about Freemasonry on his own printing press. Nine signers of the Declaration of Independence were Freemasons, including the man with the biggest signature: John Hancock.”

  —  “Secrets of ‘The Lost Symbol,” MSNBC 10/27/09

The History of Masonry

The Masons most likely grew as extensions of the membership rules of Scotsman William Schaw’s stonemasonry tribe and The Knights Templar — a secretive group of Christian warrior-monks that protected the aspirants who traveled along the pathways to the Holy Land.

At the turn of the 16th Century, William Schaw developed his own club-like culture, housed within a lodge, and infused with a set of rules for sworn members, including, “They shall be true to one another and live charitably together as becometh sworn brethren and companions of the Craft.”

When diplomats and politicians joined the organization in the mid-1600s, the stonemason lodge movement began its climb as a stealthy phenomenon. If you were politically active and wanted to connect with the power structures of the times, you would do just about anything to become a member of The Masons.

In 1717, Masonry created a formal organization in London, when four lodges united to form the first Grand Lodge. This gave the organization credibility and added to its membership’s mystical allure. Men flocked, begged, coerced, and maneuvered to become members. Everybody wanted in.

The Freemasons of The United States

The United States Masons, otherwise known as The Freemasons, were a highly political society in the 1700s. The first US lodge was opened in 1730 in New Jersey, where they initiated early plans and strategies used to fight the British. With its growing vault of secrets, expanding political influence, and stealth missions, it was an exciting time to be a Freemason.

Initially, the Freemason creed declared anti-Catholic, anti-Royalty, and Republican virtues, including self-government, personal freedom, and free enterprise. The basic tenet was that no person or organization should be controlled or oppressed by a government or religion, or their respective laws and doctrines. At their start, and for centuries, The Freemasons were a feisty, calculating, and powerful coalition.

Much to the chagrin of the Catholic Church, the early Masonic organization’s philosophy evolved from Deist ideology, which believes God does not interfere with creation, as it runs itself according to the laws of nature.

If you were a Mason in Europe in the 1700s, you stood against the notion of natural selection as it pertained to royalty. As Masonry developed and grew, you rooted for the wild, unruly kids across the pond – the Americans.

In 1870, The Shriners, a group of elite Freemasons, created their first rituals, emblems, and costumes based on Middle Eastern themes, when 11 Master Masons were initiated into the organization.

And while it seems they were rigorously involved in politics, Freemasonry describes itself as a “beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.”

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