The Alchemy web site on Levity.com
R.W. Councell Apollogia Alchymiae
Section IV. The Mercury of the Philosophers
Transcribed by Mark House.
Back to 'Apollogia Alchymiae' page.
The identification of the Philosophic Mercury is of prime importance. It is, therefore, necessary to get a definite idea of the difference existing between the common mercury (hydrargyrum) and that of the Philosophers. It is vital to notice the dissimilarity in the manner in which each acts on, or is acted upon by, other bodies. The principle points of agreement or likeness are volatility, and some resemblance in appearance.
The Mercury of the Philosophers.
Common Mercury is silvery and opaque, that of the philosophers is clear at first, :as clear as the tears of the eye" (Bernard Trevisan, etc.), but when its salt is dissolved in it, it is milky and opaque. "The Clear and Diaphanous Menstruum, Philosophical Vinegar is by reason of the Spirit of Philosophical Wine Diaphanous, not of a Milky Colour, but in the distillation of a Menstruum it is made Milky, because the Acidity of the said Vinegar is debilitated by the Aridity of the Body dissolved (in it)." Secrets of the Adepts". Weidenfeld. Common mercury only becomes clear and transparent by being dissolved in an acid. The two things are exactly opposite.
Paracelsus says : "Whatever is volatile is of the nature of mercury." "The name of mercury doth only properly agree with that which is volatile. . ." Hermetic Arcanum". The hypothesis of the sages is that everybody in the mineral, vegetable and animal realms contains mercury, sulphur and salt. The philosopher's mercury is an unctuous vapour, the vehicle of the essential seed. "Now whilst the sperm is yet in the center, there may as easily be brought forth a tree as a metal from the sperm, as soon an herb as a stone. . ." New Light of Alchemy.
This sperm or mercury is therefore in common mercury, but the latter is a compound body differentiated, and specificated, or determined, into a metal. The mercury of the sages is apparently undifferentiated or undetermined, and is a simple, not a compound substance, from their point of view. The alleged universal diffusion of their mercury makes one at first think of water, as fluid or vapour. Eugenius Philalethes says : "For this thing is not water otherwise than to sight." Euphrates. Again : "They (the sages) mean not water of the well, nor dew. . ." Coelum Terrae. Neither can we imagine water to be in the solid metals. Eugenius in his remarkable Euphrates, writes : "Whosoever seeks the philosopher's mercury in metals, of what kind soever they be, is already out of the way. . .in metal, water there is none." This dictum he further emphasis when speaking of antimony and vulgar mercury. But as the philosophic mercury is built up into the substance of all metals it is evident that it is still there, even if altered and combined, or compounded.
The stricture of Eugenius quoted above as regards metals, does not apply to the use of gold or silver as a "ferment" or determining principle. Other alchemists agree with Eugenius so far as to say that the extraction of philosophic mercury from metals is very difficult. They concur in stating that there is a despised and common substance, from which, with little trouble and expense,,may be obtained not only the mercury, but also the sulphur and salt, identical with that in silver and gold. This substance is, of course, not named in their practical working, as a recipe; they do not say: "Take so and so." They say: "Take antimony, or cinnabar, etc. "Some writers, in speaking of the philosophic mercury, define it as "Our," "Their," "The," "the mercury of metals" -but a large number of writers make no distinction. It is necessary, in the latter, to judge by reactions and other properties of the subject under discussion.
Bernard Trevisan says: "Mercury is the substance of all metals; it is as a water by reason of the homogeneity which it possesses with vegetables and animals and it receives the virtues of those things which adhere to it in decoction." Hydrargyrum (and its salts) has no affinity to vegetables and animals, quite the contrary. Kelly writes :"Those persons make a great mistake who suppose that that viscous substance which is extracted from sublimed mercury can in any case be the first substance of metals. Those who destroy the natural composition of mercury, in order to resolve it into a thick or limpid water, which they call the first matter of metals, fight against Nature in the dark, like blinded gladiators. As soon as mercury loses its specific form, it becomes something else, which cannot thenceforth mingle with metals in their smallest parts, and is made void for the work of the philosophers. Whoever is taken up with such childish experiments should listen to the sage of Trevisan in his Transmutation of Metals : "Who can find truth that destroys the humid nature of mercury? Some foolish persons change its specific metallic arrangement, corrupt its natural humidity by dissolution, and disproportionate quicksilver from its original mineral quality, which wanted nothing but purification and simple digestion. By means of salts, vitriol, and alum they destroy the seed which Nature has been at pains to develope. For seed in human and sensitive things is formed by Nature and not by Art., but by Art it is united and mixed.Seed needs no addition, and brooks no diminution. If it is to produce a new thing of the same genus, it must remain the very same thing that was formed by Nature. All teaching that changes mercury is false and vain, for this is the original sperm of metals, and its moisture must not be dried up, for otherwise it will not dissolve. No water can naturally dissolve metals except that which abides with them in substance and form, which also the dissolved metals can again congeal. Only that water can rightly dissolve metals which is inseparable from them in fixation, and such a water is mercury." See The Answer Of Bernard of Trevisan to Thomas of Bononia.
This extract endorses the saying that common mercury is a sperm of metals, and it contains the seed: so also do the other metals. Other writers say it is more than a sperm, it is a body, and that no new body of the same genus is formed by Nature, of, or out of a destroyed body. The last sentences quoted show that Bernard is describing the action of philosophic mercury; for common mercury does not abide with metals in fixation, or fusion. "Mercury is cold and humid, and of it, or with it, God has created all metals. It is aerial, etc." Avicenna. These are the attributes of philosophic mercury, which is their feminine subject, or wife.
"It is a mistake to suppose that you can work miracles with a clear limpid water extracted from mercury. Even if we could get such a water, it would be of no use, either as to form, or proportion, nor could it restore or build up a perfect metallic species." Bernard Trevisan.
"The water of the sages adheres to nothing except homogeneous substances. It does not wet your hands if you touch it, but scorches your skin, and frets and corrodes every substance with which it comes in contact, except gold and silver - it would not affect these until they have been dissipated and dissolved by spirits in strong waters - and with these it combines most intimately." Kelly. With the exception of "does not wet your hands," all these attributes are different from those of mercury vulgar and its salts. It cannot be said to wet your hand if it burns it; but it is not necessary to urge this sophistry.
The principle writers say "Our mercury which wets not the hands," but they do not add Kellys' gratuitous addition of "if you touch it." Artephius says: "Wash away the blackness from the Laten not with your hands, but with the stone,"i.e., with our mercury, or mercurial water. Also:"This separation of the pure from the impure is not done with the hands." "This Composition is not a work of the hands." It is in fact, done or carried out in a sealed glass, and therefore does not, because it cannot and should not, wet the hands. (Vide Artephius, Book III.,Chap.XVIII.,sect.IX.,etc .,and Chap.XIX.,sect.V.,VI.,VII.)
"We cannot with our own proper hands work on mercury, but with ten species which we call our hands in this work, i.e., nine parts of water, and the tenth of earth." Massa Solis et Lunae. ". . .our one Image out of which springs white and red (not bare Sol and Luna as will spring out of our mercury which was prepared with our own hands, but) the white and red elixirs, which show that this Mercury which Nature hath made in the glass, without our help, is far beyond that mercury which we prepared with a laborious toil." "For all they (the sophisters) dream of, is such operations which are to be performed by hand, etc." Ripley Revived.
Other extracts of the same purport could be given, but these should suffice to show that the description of a fluid mercury which "does not wet the hands," is not necessarily and inevitably pointing to ordinary quicksilver. "In the first place, you must note that common mercury doth not avail here; but our mercury is made of the best of metals, by the spagyric art, as pure, subtle, clear as any well water, of a crystalline transparency, without any impurity, etc." "You must have the female or wife, which is the mercury of the philosophers, or the materia prima lapidis. . .there is a salt made of prima materia (this salt is called the philosopher's mercury, which is coagulated in the belly of the earth). When this matter is brought to light, it is not dear, and is found everywhere, children play with it: it is ponderous, and hath a scent of dead men's bones, for two gilders you may buy this a matter for the work." Basil Valentine.
There is no indication here of common mercury, or its salts; further, being, a metal, hydrargyrum is male, and positive. "By the name of Luna, philosophers understand not the vulgar moon, which also may be positive, in its operation, and in combining acts a positive part. Let none, therefore, presume to try the unnatural combination of two positives, neither let him conceive any hope of issue from such association" Hermetic Arcanum. This Luna is the philosophers' mercury, or lune, or argent vive. "Our gold and silver, sun and moon, active and passive principles, are not hose which you can hold in your hand, but a certain silver and golden hermaphroditic water, etc." Kelly.
When we speak of common mercury, we mean one thing only, but when the philosophers speak of mercury, they may mean one of many manifestations of their mercury. So we might speak of sugar, and use the same word when we really meaning the cane in which it exists, i.e., its "ore" or "mine"; or in its other manifestations of dark brown, light brown, white moist, crystalline, or even of treacle or syrup.
As is mentioned in another section, our two luminaries, the sun and moon, were anciently considered as "he" and "she." masculine and feminine; husband and wife; father and mother; dry heat and cold moisture. These names being allotted to metals became synonyms of gold and silver; and here comes in confusion, for silver is not feminine, or wife, or mother. Mercury looks like molten silver; is called quicksilver, argent vive, luna vive. But "Mercury is a metal"; the philosophers' mercury is not a metal; yet as they call it "mercury," therefore they appropriate all the other names by which common mercury is known, even to corrosive and other sublimated forms, and to cinnabar. Working on these lines of associated ideas, they get to luna or lune, which rarely means silver.
The term "white wife" does not mean silver, though the "red man" means gold. "The White Wife, otherwise called the moon, is a female; it is a coagulated mercury, but not fixed, etc." Eirenaeus. Thus writing on "mercury" it is necessary to consider all those passages in which luna, lune, luna vive, argent vive, and wife occur. Some few of them refer to silver, the rest refer to feminine and passive qualities, and to their mercury, in one or the other of its chameleon disguises.
It will be noticed from what has been quoted, that the philosophers' clear fluid mercury is a distilled liquid. It is, therefore, a separation from something. Any clear solution of common mercury must be mercury, plus the solvent. The latter is, therefore an addition, or synthesis, and not an analysis. "It is a water that is very spirituous and volatile, therefore within a month after it is distilled, it ought to be put upon its calx, it will, without any external heat, boil if the vessel be closely shut; and it will not cease to ferment or work, till it be all dried up into the calx." Medulla Alchymiae.
"The sages agree that the stone is nothing but animated argent vive. But if your argent vive has no life, it is not what they mean. For this water - to be more frank than discreet - is a viscous water, extracted from the bowels of Jupiter, i.e., from white lead; it is moist and wets the finger. If proper quantity of the sun be added to it, it is coagulated and becomes brilliant - the sun is dissolved into exceedingly limpid mineral water. For the water dissolves the sun at the very same moment that itself is congealed, and thus the solution of the one is the coagulation of the other, at the very same instant. This compound is living mercury; from which alone spring all colours. To regulate the fire is mere child's play. After the conjunction it looks just like common limpid mercury and does not moisten the finger, but is viscous and living." Kelly.
"The sages have indeed purposely concealed their meaning under a veil of obscure words, but it is sufficiently clear from their writings that the substance of which they speak is not of a special, but of a general kind, and is therefore contained in animals, vegetables and minerals. It would, however, be unwise to take a round about road where there is a short cut, and they say that whereas the substance can be found in the animal and vegetable kingdoms only with great difficulty, and at the cost of enormous labour, in the bowels of the earth it lies ready to our hands. It is the matter which sages have agreed to call mercury or quicksilver.
Our quicksilver, indeed, is truly a living substance, so called not because it is extracted from cinnabar, but because it is derived from the metals themselves. If common mercury be fixed by fixation from its crude, volatile and watery superfluities, it may, with the aid of our art, attain to the purity and virtue of the substance of which we speak. And as this mercury is the metallic basis and first substance, it may be found in all metals whatsoever. Nothing contributes so much to a ready apprehension of our secret as a knowledge of our first substance, and after that of the distinctive species of minera which is the subject of investigation of the philosophers>" Ibid. "The matter of our stone, mercury, is a commonly diffused subject, and though it is found with greater ease in some minerals, it may be discovered everywhere." Ibid.
Jean D'Espagnet writes in Hermetic Arcanum : "Now these bodies must be taken, which are of an unspotted and incorrupt virginity; such as have life and spirit in them ; not extinct as those which are handled by the vulgar; for who can expect life from dead things; and those are called impure which have suffered combination; those dead and extinct which - by the enforcement of the chief Tyrant of the world - have poured out their soul with their blood by martyrdom," etc. This has been interpreted as meaning that the materials should be quite pure and unadulterated. This explanation is insufficient; that alchemists commonly took impure and adulterated materials, and purified and separated them. "Unspotted and incorrupt virginity" means not combined with another substance,e.g., not mercury combined with silver, or antimony; it does not exclude a substance masked and covered over with impurities. A virgin may be covered in filthy clothing. See Golden Age Restored.
Also fire is masculine, therefore a substance which is in the metallic state, and has undergone fusion by fire, has endured its fiercest embrace, and cannot therefore be called either virgin, or living. "The metals - especially the gold of the vulgar - are dead, but ours are living, full of spirit, and these wholly must be taken: for know, that the life of metals is fire, whilst they are yet in their mines; and their death is the fire, viz., of melting. Now the first matter of metals is a certain humidity mixed with warm air, and it resembles fat water, sticking to everything pure or impure." Sendivogius. These are not properties of common mercury, or its salts.
"The first and principle matter of metals is the humidity of air, mixed with heat, and this the philosophers called mercury. And although the body of metals be procreated of mercury (which is to be understood of the mercury of philosophers), yet they are not to be harkened unto, that think the vulgar mercury is the seed of metals, and so take the body instead of the seed, not considering that the vulgar mercury spoken of, hath its own seed in itself. They dissolve metallic bodies, whether it be mercury, or gold, or lead, or silver, and corrode them with sharp waters, and other heterogeneous things, not requisite to the true art, and afterwards join them together again, not knowing that a man is not generated of a man's body cut to pieces." Ibid.
We cannot find any unmistakable indications in writers of repute for using mercury or its salts; except for the purpose of breaking down the gold which has to be added as a ferment to the red stone. This is after the work has been virtually accomplished. The mercury thus employed has to be fumed away, and in other ways got rid of entirely, before making the ferment.
The philosophers' mercury is simple at first, and is afterwards compound. "It is a stone, and no stone, Spirit, Soul, and Body. . .it is volatile or flying, and clear as a tear, afterwards it is made citrine, then saltish. . .it is but one thing to which nothing extraneous may be added." Arnold Villanova.
"The third principle is a clear compounded water, and it is the next substance in complexion to quicksilver, it is found running and flowing upon the earth." Lully. As mercury is used to dissolve gold, so the sages use their mercury to dissolve their unripe gold, i.e., the pure but imperfect (or immature) mineral base. "Our mercury, indeed, is cold and unmatured in comparison with gold; but it is pure, hot, and well digested in respect of common mercury, which resembles it only in whiteness and fluxibility. Our mercury is, in fact, a pure water, clean, clear, bright and resplendent, worthy of all admiration. . .it is living, fluxible, clear, nitid, as white as snow, hot, humid, airy, vaporous and digestive, and gold melts in it like ice in warm water." Eirenaeus.
This solution of gold being done by their mercury, they sometimes call an amalgamation; and because the gold dissolved, or philosophically melted, they call the water of mercury their fire, a furnace, a calcining fire, etc." This agent is sought by many but found by few. It is a precious liquid which does not tender its services to the multitude, but is the handmaiden of the sages. Some think it is common mercury exposed to violent heat in a glass vessel, and rarefied. But all these persons are ignorant philophasters. Raymond, indeed, describes a similar process, but he means something quite different. viz.: That our mercury is to be purified in a brilliant vessel, not to elicit water from it, but to free it by fire from its crudity, and to make it more readily soluble. Neither in one way nor the other can our water be elicited from common mercury, nor the mysteries of our magistery be unlocked. There is no menstruum which can dissolve this mercury that it shall retain its form; yet that is what our art requires." Kelly.
Eirenaeus writes : "It is a fact that the mercury which is generated in the bowels of the earth is the common substance of all metals - since this mercury will enter into combination with every kind of metal - etc." If these remarks were true as regards common mercury or its salts, there would be no necessity to style it "the" mercury, and "this" mercury : this extract shows that "their" mercury is not vulgar mercury. Again, Eirenaeus in the Metamorphosis of Metals, says : "The mercury gained from any metallic or mineral body. possesses the property of assimilating common mercury to its own nature." So the two mercuries are quite distinct from one another, but akin : and according to this, if you get the "mercury of gold," it could change common mercury into the "mercury" of gold.
The philosophers in the analysis if their unnamed "mineral" substance, produce a "viscous humidity" which is akin to all metals; they, therefore, boldly assert the theory that this is the substance which Nature first forms in the earth, and from which she evolves all metals; gold being the last and best. This is their chaos, containing the male and female principles, the seed and the menstruum, the mercury, sulphur, and salt; their hermaphrodite. The sulphur of gold or silver is added to it to specificate and expedite evolution in the required direction.
Although this chaos will evolve gold, yet according to Basil Valentine you cannot get this chaos out of gold; you must first have their solvent, or mercury. He says : "Without the spirit of mercury, the Universal of the World to be gotten merely from the body of Sol, is impossible." And : "In gold there is no waterish humidity at all, unless it were reduced again into vitriol, which would be but an useless and unprofitable work, and would require huge expenses.
. . .but what countries, goods, lands, have been dilapidated this way, I waive to discourse of. . .nature having left a nearer way to keep, and to imitate that, that they also might take heed to fall into such extreme and inextricable poverties."
Their theory being that gold is evolved out of lower forms, it would seem to be fairly obvious that the intermediate and not the ultimate form should be wrought on. He further says : "The solar mercury, sol, being never brought so far unto destruction, neither did the ancient philosophers ever make use of that way, as being a thing clean contrary unto Nature, containing indeed a humidity, but it is a mere elemental waterish humidity, after its dissolution, and good for nothing, etc."
Eirenaeus says that the work can be done out of common gold; but what may be possible to a master may be impossible to a tyro. In The Celestial Ruby, he says "In order to elicit our gold from common gold, the latter must be dissolved in our mineral water, which does not wet the hands; this water is mercury extracted from the red servant, and it is capable of accomplishing our work without any further trouble to the artist. The chief object of your perseverant efforts should be the discovery of this mercury, or the albification of our red laton."
I understand that though Nature is said to make this viscous humidity from which metals are evolved, yet that man cannot find it in that condition. Apparently, he has to make it, or rather educe it from metals or minerals, or from the chosen unnamed subject, alluded to by the sages. Eirenaeus definitely asserts : "Our homogeneous agent, our mercurial ponticum, which is pure, crystalline without transparency, liquid without humectation, and in short the true divine water, which is not found above ground, but is prepared by the hand of the sage."
On considering the point, it seems evident that a solvent is required; as it is evident that powdered or finely divided metals, or the oxides of the metals could yield no moisture or fluid on distillation. The same applies to minerals, but not to the salts, or so-called vitriols. "Let the practitioners of alchemy understand that the kinds of metals be not transmuted except they be brought into their first matter." Arnold.
Such a solution would contain two things, the solvent and the dissolved substance, hence the name Rebis. This solvent is apparently called mercury unactuated or simplex, crude mercury, etc. Ripley says in the Concordance : "When I speak of mercury, understand mercury more common than common"; meaning, I presume, more common than ordinary quicksilver.
This dissolution is mentioned by most writers; but its consideration does not come under this section, which treats only of the mercury itself, and its source of origin, etc. "Our water is the life of all things, and if you can by much toil obtain it, you will have both silver and gold. It is the water of saltpetre, and outwardly resembles mercury, while inwardly at its heart there burns purest infernal fire. Do not be deceived by common quicksilver, but gather that mercury, which the returning sun, in the month of March, diffuses everywhere, till the month of October, when it is ripe." Fount of Chemical Truth.
This month of March, or Aries, is mentioned by Eugenius, Combachius, Sendivogius, Basil Valentine, D'Espagnet, and others. "No philosopher has ever openly revealed this secret fire, and this powerful agent, which works all the wonders of the art. . ." Eudoxus. "Artephius, Trevisan, Flammel have passed in silence the preparation of our mercury." Ibid. Yet this "preparation" is precisely that which the student needs to know: this preparation of the solvent, and the preparation of the "mineral" base which has to be dissolved, or as they put it "calcined by our fire into a redness," are of the first work. This work nearly all writers are absolutely silent about.
They generally start with the second work (which they call the first), namely, the separation of the "rebis" into distilled fluid in the receiver and calx in the retort. "Again, in the second preparation, that which by authors is styled the FIRST (because they omit the first)." Hermetic Arcanum. As a "mercury" is used at the beginning, middle, and end of the work, it will perhaps be pertinent to give a few extracts from authors, asserting that common mercury is not employed; at any rate until after the work is accomplished. "Common Mercury and Gold we none occupy Till we perfectly have made our Stone, Then with them two our Medicine we multiply." "In common Mercury thou dost me seek; In Alkali and in Alembroth, In common Sulphur and Arsenic eke Which makes many a man to dote, Common Mercury is not good." "Gold with Mercury stands us in stead Our Medicine for to multiply After our Physic's Stone be red." "I councell thee this lesson learn, Our Mercury is but of one thing In our vessel thin and clear. Common Mercury in him is none Neither Gold nor Silver in him none is : Of Metals we make not our Stone By proportion more or less. All manner of Metals we deny Until the time our Stone be wrought." Theatrum Chemicum Brit.
Pages might be filled with quotations from the alchemic treatises, all stating in plain language that ordinary mercury is useless, and worse that useless. The same remark applies to its salts. J.S. Weidenfeld, in Secrets of the Adepts, gives a list of seven "mercuries," mentioned by philosophers; this seems to be an over-elaboration; for, as he includes animal and vegetables "mercuries," few of those he recites belong to this work. Jean d'Espagnet mentions three, but all are but elaborations of the first.
Hear what Eirenaeus Philalethes says in his Exposition upon Sir G. Ripley's Fourth Gate : "From what hath been said may appear the strong passive delusion that hath taken many men of our age, and formerly, who with the chemist in Sendivogius, cannot dream of any Mercury, than that Mercury which is to be bought at druggists, which they take and sublime variously to make it clean, and then with Hogheland mix it with Gold, applying all the words and sayings of philosophers to this their mixture."
If you have problems understanding these alchemical texts, Adam McLean now provides a study course entitled How to read alchemical texts : a guide for the perplexed.
Works of Nicolas Flamel
Works of George Ripley
Works of Sendivogius
Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum
Emerald tablet of Hermes
Texts from Musaeum Hermeticum
Spanish alchemical texts
German alchemical texts
French alchemical texts
Russian alchemical texts
Italian alchemical texts