Alchemy is the philosophy and natural science that predates the modern science of chemistry. The word “alchemy” comes from the Arabic word al-kimia. Al kimia is the name of the ancient Egyptian process used to make the Philospher’s Stone or Elixir. Originally, kimia came from the Coptic work khem, which could either refer to the mystery of the first matter in the Universe or to the fertile black soil of the Nile delta.
Alchemy predates understanding of atoms and elements, but alchemists knew different substances had unique properties. In the 17th century, alchemists devised symbols to identify various materials. These symbols had to be secret because alchemists were persecuted. So, there are multiple symbols for each “element.” Most of the symbols in use today are those devised by prominent alchemists of the time.
Alchemy elements include chemical elements as we know them today, such as gold, silver, and iron. They also included other substances, such as earth, air, fire, and water. In Eastern cultures, metal and wood were also elements.
Here are some of the most common alchemy symbols and their meanings:
Earth Alchemy Symbol
The symbols for earth, air, fire, and water were fairly consistent among alchemists. Each symbol is a triangle. Earth is indicated by a downward-pointing triangle crossed by a horizontal bar.
The qualities ascribed to “earth” include the colors green or brown. The Greek philosopher Plato also associated the characteristics “cold” and “dry” to earth.
Air Alchemy Symbol
The symbol for air or wind is an upright triangle crossed by a horizontal bar.
The air symbol was associated with the colors blue, white, or gray (usually white). Plato believed air had the qualities of “hot” and “wet,” making air the opposite of earth.
Fire Alchemy Symbol
Fire is one of the easiest alchemy symbols to remember because the upright triangle resembles a campfire or flame.
The fire symbol represents the colors red and orange. It also symbolizes the male or masculine nature. Plate associated fire with the properties of “dry” and “hot.”
Water Alchemy Symbol
In alchemy, the opposite of fire is water. The inverted triangle symbol is easy to remember because it resembles a glass or cup.
Naturally, the water symbol is associated with the color blue. The symbol stands for female or feminine nature. Plato associated the water symbol with “wet” and “cold” qualities.
The Fifth Element
Earth, air, fire, and water standard elements, but many alchemists also used a fifth element. This element varied, but might include metal, wood, or aether.
For example, in the Chinese Wu Xing philosophy, wood stands for spring, east, the color green, and the planet Jupiter.
Philosopher’s Stone Alchemy Symbol
Alchemists sought to transmute one element into another, such as lead into gold. The philosopher’s stone was said to change base metals into precious metals. It was also called the elixir of life and was believed capable of yielding immortality.
The symbol for the philosopher’s stone was the squared circle. The symbol indicates the method of preparing the stone involved incorporating the four primary elements in just the right way.
Salt Alchemy Symbol
Salt (NaCl) is a compound and not a chemical element, but the alchemists had no way of knowing that. Salt, sulfur, and mercury formed the Tria Prima or Three Primes of Alchemy. The Three Primes could be represented as points of a triangle. Salt represented the essence of a substance, as early researchers recognized it as an essential nutrient for live. The symbol for salt also stood for the processes of condensation or crystallization.
Sulfur Alchemy Symbol
The sulfur symbol stood for the element, which occurred in its pure form. In the Tria Prima, sulfur represented the fluid connecting salt and mercury or a middle state between “high” and “low.” It also stood for the processes of dissolution and evaporation.
Mercury Alchemy Symbol
Mercury’s symbol stood for the liquid metallic element, which was called quicksilver or hydrargyrum (the origin of the modern symbol Hg). Many alchemy symbols for elements were also associated with heavenly bodies. The symbol for the element also stands for the swift-moving planet, Mercury.
In the Tria Prima, mercury represented the life force. It symbolized a state transcending death or the earthly realm.
Copper Alchemy Symbol
The reddish metallic element copper went by many symbols. Alchemists associated copper with the planet Venus. The symbol for “woman” was one common symbol for the element and planet.
Silver Alchemy Symbol
The most common alchemy symbol for silver is the crescent moon. The symbol was also used to refer to the actual Moon. However, many other symbols were used. Silver was associated with purity.
Gold Alchemy Symbol
Silver represented the moon, while gold was associated with the sun. Most versions of the gold alchemy symbol depict a round sun, often surrounded by a circle of rays.
In alchemy, gold stood for the yellow metals and also for mental, physical, and spiritual perfection.
Iron Alchemy Symbol
The metal iron was associated with the planet Mars and the masculine side of nature. While one common iron symbol is an arrow pointing to the right or up, the other common symbol includes a circle. This figure survives to the present day as the symbol for “male.”
Tin Alchemy Symbol
Tin was a common silver-colored metal and likely confused with other non-precious metals. Its symbol took many forms, including the numerals 4 and 7 and the letter Z.
Arsenic Alchemy Symbol
Arsenic was known as a poison, even in the alchemist’s time. One symbol for the element is an “S” or stylized swan. Cygnets dramatically change form to become elegant white birds. As a metalloid, arsenic also changes forms or allotropes.
Other symbols for arsenic include interlocking triangles and a cross connected to two circles.
Antimony Alchemy Symbol
There are two common symbols for antimony. One is a circle topped with a cross. The other is a square on edge, like a diamond.
Antimony represented mankind’s animal nature or free spirit, so it was sometimes indicated by a stylized picture of a wolf.
Platinum Alchemy Symbol
The precious metal platinum was believed to be an alloy of silver (moon) and gold (sun). So, most symbols for the element combine the crescent moon with the solar circle.
Lead Alchemy Symbol
The metal lead was known as plumbum, which is the origin of the element symbol Pb. Multiple symbols were used for lead. Lead was associated with the planet Saturn, so sometimes the element and the planet share a common symbol.
Phosphorus Alchemy Symbol
Phosphorus is an element the oxidizes in air to glow green in the dark. Naturally, the alchemists wondered how the substance could produce light. Phosphorus further fascinated early experimenters by is capacity to burn in air.
While the planet Venus was often associated with copper, when the body glowed bright just before dawn, it was called Phosphorus.
There are multiple symbols for the element. Some include a triangle, while others are simple arcs.
Bismuth Alchemy Symbol
Not all alchemists worked with bismuth. Few examples of its symbol appear in texts. It is depicted as an open figure eight or as a circle topped with a semicircle.
Potassium Alchemy Symbol
Alchemists used potassium as potash, which is the compound potassium carbonate. A typical symbol included a rectangle or an open box, resembling a goalpost.
Zinc Alchemy Symbol
Zinc was known to alchemists in the form of “philosopher’s wool” or nix alba (white snow). This was the compound zinc oxide. While there are a few different symbols for zinc, many of them resemble the letter “Z.”
Magnesium Alchemy Symbol
Like zinc, the metal magnesium occurred in compounds rather than as a pure element. Alchemists used “magnesia alba” which was magnesium carbonate (MgCO3).
Ancient Egyptian Alchemy Symbols
While the European alchemical symbols are most familiar, alchemy was studied in other parts of the world. These alchemists used different symbols. For example, the Egyptian symbols are hieroglyphics rather than letters.
- Franklyn, Julian and Frederick E. Budd (2001). A Survey of the Occult. Electric Book Company. p. 28-30. ISBN 1-84327-087-0.
- Holmyard, Eric John (1995). Alchemy. Dover Publications. ISBN:978-0486262987.
- Lau, Theodora (2005). The Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes. Souvenir Press, London.