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John Reid's Course on Practical Alchemy - I. Chapter 2.

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Chapter 2.
The Three Essentials

All substances created and existent within the universe, regardless of their degree of mental subtlety or material density, are composed of the three essentials of the alchemist. With a correct knowledge of the art, one can open the matter-up, so that the three essential are expressed in material form.

A lot has been written about the three essentials of the alchemist. Yet, it seems to me that the opaque mist that envelops these three essentials is just as thick today as it ever has been. Undoubtedly this is partly due to many alchemists (myself included as, you will see) describing the three by use of symbolism and allegory. It is a very difficult thing to try and explain that which transcends words and is known to one more by feeling than thought. Also one must not let oneself become seduced with the apparent ease of being told that the three are this or that one thing. This above all seems to me to lock or trap the mind into a certain mode of thinking, which is why I suppose the old ones wrote in such vague terms. By the former method the mind was forced to concentrate upon the symbols until the psychic seed sprouted and bore the fruit of realization.

It is without exaggeration extremely difficult for the beginning alchemist to form a concrete, plastic picture of these three forces in the mind. I can only hope that my presentation will aid the aspiring alchemist and not throw him or her into utter confusion. Therefore, let me state in the beginning that my presentation of the three essentials varies markedly from other modern writers on plant alchemy. Many modern students will wonder what has happened to their familiar, if not beloved, ethyl alcohol, volatile essential oil, and water-soluble salts. Rest assured that they are most definitely used in plant alchemy. I merely have placed them into what I believe to be their true and proper role. The ethyl alcohol, volatile essential oils, and water-soluble salts obtained from plants are really just vehicles of the three essentials. In fact these substances belong more appropriately in the realm of the four elements rather than the three essentials.

In alchemy the names given to the three essentials are Body, Soul, and Spirit, or respectively, Salt, Sulfur, and Mercury. It probably goes without saying to most reasonably thinking people that quicksilver, table salt, and brimstone are not the basic building blocks of life or the precursors of gold. Instead one should look to the use of analogy to fathom the secrets one wishes to unlock. By examining the physical, mythological, and even the symbols used to represent the three, much insight into their meanings can be obtained.


The symbol of Mercury is the cosmic womb being incubated by the cross of the four elements of creation. Rising up out of the womb is a partial form whose features are not yet determined.

For alchemists the world over this substance is the liquid in the holy grail. It is said that without this substance no alchemical work can begin or be brought to its perfect end. Generally this statement is thought to concern only the works in the mineral world. Yet experience has taught that this statement holds true for the works on plants and animals. Anyone who has done some reading in alchemy will realize that exact instructions on how to acquire or prepare the Philosopher's Mercury is never given. The best one can hope for is to be able to string together the bits of clues left to us by erstwhile adepts. Adding to the puzzle is the fact that the alchemists have described their mercury using all manner of names and physical characteristics.

In the Lexicon of Alchemy by Martinus Rulandus one can find legions of names to describe the Philosopher's Mercury. Some of these are; Celestial Water, Aqua Vitae, Water of Chaos, Water of the Wise, Dew of May, Alkahest, Honey, Vinegar and Azoth.

In Triumphal Chariot of Antimony Basil Valentine says of the Mercury, "... This first principle is a mere vapor extracted from the elementary earth through the heavenly planets, and, as it were, divided by the sidereal distillation of the macrocosmos. This sidereal hot infusion, descends from on high into things which are below..."

In Collectanea Chemica Eirenaeus Philalethes says "The Philosophers frequently describe this matter. Sendivogius calls it heavenly water, not vulgar, but almost like rain water. When Hermes calls it a bird without wings, figuring thereby its vaporous nature, it is well described. When he calls the sun its father and the moon its mother, he signifies that it is produced by the action of heat upon moisture. When he says the wind carries it in its belly, he only means that the air is its receptacle. When he affirms that which is inferior is like that which is superior, he teaches that the same vapor on the surface of the earth furnishes the matter of rain and dew, wherewith all things are nourished in the vegetable, animal and mineral kingdoms. This now is what the Philosophers call their Mercury and affirm it to be found in all things, as it is in fact."

Yet just where are we to begin our search for a tangible physical source of this special water. We will, as a good friend and alchemist once told me, have to start at the beginning. The thread that constantly runs through all of these descriptions is the fact that the Mercury is born of a heavenly source. In fact this source is aptly named chaos because everything has its creation, destruction, moves, breathes, and exists simultaneously in this chaos. The chaos of the alchemist is not the chaos of the uninitiated person. There is no mass confusion of thought and form in this dimension. Instead there is actually a stasis within it. We only call it chaos because all things are inherent, not manifested, within it. In this regards, the chaos of the alchemist is a definite physical substance. But its subtlety is so profound that the human mind can not perceive it in its true light. From its center radiates out rays of energy that carry within themselves the seeds of all creation. Thus the chaos of the alchemist is the power or more aptly put, the being of God.

In the beginning the universe was formed either by a great explosion, or a word which brought forth light. In my mind it makes no difference which scenario one accepts to be the truth. In the end energy is seen as the first form of all manifestation. Everything else that we perceive as tangible matter, be it rocks, trees, animals, fish man, planets, galaxies etc is nothing more than congealed star stuff or as the alchemist would say condensed spirit. For our immediate purposes then we will consider the energy of the sun and stars as the power outlets of God.

In its most universal form the Philosopher's Mercury is pure energy, it is cold omnipresent and still. Hence in this form it is also neutral. The fact that the Mercury is capable of and indeed does progress from a gender-neutral expression to a polar and gender specific relationship is not much talked about in alchemy. Yet if we are to take the former alchemist at their word and believe that all things proceed from the One, then this evolutionary migration of expression must be a fact.

We can no more see or perceive the Philosopher's Mercury when it is in its most elementary state than we can the mysterious substance called life, or the photon which produces light. Our Mercury is the numina behind the phenomena of all creation, from its subtlest intimation to its densest manifestation. This force is unitary in existence. It knows not duality, time or even space. It has no height, width, length, or weight in itself. It is incomprehensible and unknowable to the human mind in its normal mode of consciousness. Yet this thing is, just as the energy of the sun is. It is that force that has been present since the ancient of days, that which existed before the universe or even the word.

All things being equal, it seems that we are still in an inescapable quandary. We know that the light-energy of the sun is the source all life and thus the universal Mercury. But how is one supposed to be able to capture, store, and use the energy of the sun. Also, the Mercury is described as a water here on earth. How are we going to rejoin this dichotomy of expression? Let us always remember that in nature, energy is transferable from one source to another.


The symbol of Sulfur shows us the a triangle representing the flame or essence of the spirit connected to and inherent within the four states of matter.

The philosophers claim that Sulfur, though different from their Mercury, non the less is related to it and proceeds from the same place.

Fulcanelli says of the two: "In mythology it is called Libethra and is said to have been a fountain of Magnesia. Near it was another spring, called the Rock. Both of them issued from a large rock, shaped like a woman's bosom, the water seeming to flow like milk from her two breasts. Now, we know that the ancient authors called the matter of the work our Magnesia and that the liquid extracted from this magnesia is called our Virgin's Milk."

Basil Valentine writes: "This water has been extracted from the elementary earth by the stars and the fire which is contained in the air. Through coagulation it has then become a tangible essence. This tangible essence encloses a large quantity of predominating sulphur."

Sulfur represents the universal Mercury in its male aspect. It is expansive and penetrating. It is the seed that is implanted into the womb to fertilize the ovum. Sulfur is looked on as representing soul, consciousness, and illumination. It is through the action of Sulfur that all the terrestrial identifiers are given birth. Things like a substance's virtues, colors, smells, and taste are made by the action of Sulfur. But were are we to find this solar Sulfur?

Imagine if you will that you are standing on a bluff that stretches out over the water of a lake. You have been coming to this one spot everyday throughout the long cold winter. You have stood in the freezing rain and fog to watch the forces of nature. Cold winds have passed right through you as if they were malevolent spirits trying to discourage your return but every day you come back. You have been there on the days when snow fell lightly and there was a peculiar warmth in the air. You have stood on this stony bluff when the winds wailed and snow fell during blizzards that cut deep into your skin like fiery darts. Through it all you have maintained your conviction and visited this spot to see nature at work. The long cold winter is over now, but the area does not look all that different; the trees are still bare and only moss, dead leaves and brown grass are on the ground. Beneath you is the water of the lake, above the blue sky. But somehow there is a difference in this day. It is the first day of spring. There is a light coolness in the air. The sun's rays fall gently on your shoulders and massage out the stiffness of the winter. You look up into the cloudless sky again and realize just how invigorated you feel. It is now that you realize that you are immersed in the solar Sulfur. The very light that allows you to perceive the beautiful azure sky, and the empty landscape's shadows that seem to shimmer with the promise of life is Sulfur. On beautiful days like this one you can actually feel this fire of life coursing through one's being.

The energy carried within the rays of sunlight that reaches our planet is loaded with universal Sulfur. The gases and subtle water vapors in our atmosphere interact with this energy and delicately condense it into a somewhat tangible form. This is the "sidereal distillation of the macrocosmos" that brother Basil speaks of. It is these vapors that are the "sidereal hot infusion descending from on high into things which are below, with the aero-sulphureous property, that engrafts on them in a spiritual and invisible manner a certain strength and virtue."

One might think that the best time for collecting this energy is in the middle of the day when the sun's rays are at their most intense. You would be right except for the fact that it is extremely hard to get the energy to concentrate at this time. There are methods of doing this collecting but they require a great deal of laboratory skill. In addition, the substances used in this method of the work are quite dangerous and can cause death if not handled properly. Therefore, most philosophers advise us to acquire our celestial water at night. The sky should be cloudless, allowing for the clear transmittal of the starlight. The matter used for attracting this water is of the greatest importance because it will determine the Sulfur to one of the three kingdoms of nature. Also one should be careful that the magnet and water do not come in contact with the ground least it lose the very fiery charge you seek to acquire.

Of the search for this mystical water Fulcanelli says in Le Mystere Des Cathedrales "The artist has come a long way; he has taken false turnings and wandered on doubtful paths; but finally his joy burst forth! The stream of living water flows at his feet; it gushes out bubbling from the old hollow oak. In another section Fulcanelli tells us "... It is not like the water from the clouds although it has the same appearance." Still further on he tells us that the matter of the work "is a veritable magnet, which attracts to itself all the influences of the sky, the sun, the moon and the stars, in order to transmit them to the earth."


The symbol of Salt is the cosmic egg showing the completed act of creation. Here the spiritual is made manifest by being given a physical garment. Here, finally, we can see the outcome of the circulatory action of "as above, so below." In this substance we find a separation of the waters of the firmament and their fixation.

The Philosophers speak of two waters that are the primary cause of creation. Both of these waters are said to be produced or issue forth from the chaos of the sun. Or as Hermes has taught, the water is produced by the action of heat upon moisture. Both of these waters can be termed Mercury, though one of them is generally called Sulfur to denote its masculine qualities and the atmospheric conditions necessary for its proper collection. We have already seen that one of these waters is indeed the condensed starlight of the heavens that contains the sulfurous fire. The other water then must be the universal substance in its feminine aspect.

The symbol of salt is generally thought of as being neutral, neither positive nor negative. Yet when dealing with universal qualities one will find that polarities and the meaning of substance's are changed around. It's sort of like the difference between quantum mechanics and mundane physics. The laws of what is termed the macrocosmic world do not apply to the particles of energy dealt with in quantum mechanics. Anyone who is familiar with the Qabalah will realize that this assignation of neutrality and polarity fits perfectly with the supernal triangle.

Again we will let nature be our guide in our quest for understanding the One that is many. We have continued with our visits to the lake unbroken for the last few days. Today when looking up into the sky we see a familiar appearance in a whole new light. The soft white clouds we see suspended in the air are indeed beautiful. Slowly we begin to realize that these clouds were born by the interaction of the solar Sulfur and the earth's atmosphere. Here for the first time the intangible, unseen energy of the sun is clothed in a material albeit diaphanous garment. As more and more clouds appear we realize that the nature of the fire has changed. It can no longer be considered an expansive radiant force caught up in those clouds. Instead we feel the confinement and constriction of the solar Sulfur as the clouds fill the sky.

We can well imagine that in the days preceding this one a very subtle type of alchemical circulation was going on. The sun's rays enter the earth's atmosphere and react with it. Heat begins to build up causing the condensed water on the planet's surface to be evaporated. More water vapor rises into the sky to intermingle with cosmic rays. As the cooling effect of night comes, the most subtle and ethereal parts of this vapor remain airborne and its denser parts are drawn into the earth to later be exhaled as dew. If the temperature conditions stay just right the firmament becomes saturated with this impregnated vapor and thick rain clouds fill the sky. It is at this point that we are reminded of the symbol of the universal Salt. Here we find the invisible fire of the sun clothed in ethereal garments. As we stand on the dry land at the foot of a terrestrial sea, we realize that there is another more subtle ocean above our heads.

The water that falls during a thunderstorm is much more feminine in quality than the fiery water collected by the condensation of starlight. This water also carries within it a flame or spark of life just as the ovum in a woman does. Because this water needs no magnet to draw it from the sky it is not determined to any of the kingdoms of nature. For this reason it is best looked at as a feminine entity. It determination is dependent on which one of the three kingdoms it comes into contact with first. In practical laboratory plant alchemy we do not want this water to be determined by the whims of nature. Like its counterpart it must be collected without its coming into contact with the ground. In fact it is best collected in glass or plastic containers thereby insuring it retains its fertility. Also, this water must be collected so that it falls from the sky directly into the container. Run off from plants, rocks, etc. is undesirable. Our woman must stay fertile and a virgin.

In the case of Sulfur we were not concerned with the quantity of the water obtained as much as we were its quality. Our Sulfur is used for determining our universal body given in abundance by the rain.

When the alchemist knows how to collect, combine, and prepare these two waters he is in possession of the one substance from which all other forms arise by adaptation. It is from this one water that we derive the four expressions of creation known as the alchemical elements of fire, water, air, and earth.

Let me state again that my presentation of the three essentials differs greatly from that of other modern writers on plant alchemy. In many writings the three essentials are listed as ethyl alcohol for the Mercury, volatile essential oils for Sulfur, and the mineral salts of a plant for the essential of Salt. Their representation of the three is indeed correct when dealing with the spagyric equivalents of the alchemical aspects of the essentials. Yet starting at this point when trying to achieve alchemical results caused me many years of unnecessary labor. My mind had become fixed on the separation of these three substances instead of their generation by art.

There is a wide gulf between making a spagyric product and making an alchemical one. In the spagyric art one need not necessarily deal with acquiring the spark of life to accomplish the task. The separation, purification, and recombination of the vehicles of the three essentials that nature has outwardly manifested in the individual plant is more than enough. You will end up with an exalted medicine but not a living one. In alchemy the artist must at some point in his operation capture this spark or flame of life for use in his work. For this reason I have concentrated my description of the three essentials around this spark's first manifested form, the alchemist's celestial water. In this way the aspiring student can use the water to produce all other manifestations of the matter that are required. True, once one knows what one is doing this spark can be added to store-bought products. But before one begins to take such artistic license it is probably best to start at the beginning. In this way the alchemist learns to understand his art. He is then able to achieve in a short time a more philosophic manipulation of the elements. By doing this the alchemist is able to give birth to a more perfect expression of the three essentials than what nature could hope to outwardly manifest, even if she had worked on the matter for aeons.

In closing this chapter I wish to point out again that one is dealing with universal qualities and not mundane ones. Hence, the polarities and physical manifestations of the three are vastly different from what is normally pictured. We must remember that just as there are varying degrees of density in the material world. So, too are there varying degrees of subtlety in the spiritual. In the end all things are generated from spirit and return unto it. The aspiring alchemist should realize that nature is continually stepping down the energy of the spirit so that it can take on material attributes. Therefore at different phases of the evolution of matter the three will have markedly different polarities and forms.