John Reid's Course on Practical Alchemy - I. Chapter 3.
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The Four Alchemical Elements
".... so also this One Thing is an indestructible essence..."
".... It is neither hot and dry like fire, nor cold and moist like water, nor warm and moist like air, nor dry and cold like earth. But it is a skillful perfect equation of all the elements."
From the book of "The Revelation of Hermes" Interpreted by Paracelsus.
Now let us get onto the business of the four alchemical elements of the philosophers. The alchemists say that the three essentials are manifested through the four elements. These four elements are symbolic representations of the four fundamental qualities of matter. These four states of matter acted upon by the three essentials are blended in various proportions to create all physical manifestations of substance.
Let me say here there is no set substance that is one or another of the elements. From day to day the work in the laboratory changes and so too does the relation of one element to another. In one instance, regular water could be considered the water element and in the next it may be the fire element. One must always look at what they are working with in relation to the other ingredients used. As the substance evolves in the laboratory so too do the elements transmute one into another.
In the last chapter, I described the Mercury of the Philosophers as being a universal substance with a dualistic nature, i.e., volatile and fixed.
Our first element to discuss is Fire. It is represented by the symbol of the triangle shown above. Let us for a moment look at this triangle. It tells us two facts immediately:- (1) its three points tell us that the substance represented by it is composed of the three essentials:- ( 2) its upward-pointing apex tells us that it is volatile and not fixed.
The Fire element is said to be the first element born during the creation of the universe. In the Bible we read "Let there be light," and the Big Bang theory tells us that an explosion followed by blinding light was the first physical manifestation in the universe. The Fire element is described as expansive, radiant, and electric. It is also said to be of a hot and dry nature. In its positive polarity, it is nurturing, warming, and life-giving. In its negative polarity, it is destructive, drying, and debilitating.
When we work in the laboratory there are three kingdoms we can work with, namely, the plant, animal, and mineral kingdoms. No matter what kingdom we are working in, there is one of two universal substances found throughout that kingdom that correlates to the Fire element. In the laboratory, the Fire element is the substance that is the most volatile. Thus, it boils with a heat less than that required to make any of the other three elements boil. Conversely, it also takes a much lower temperature to fix or freeze this substance than it would take any of the other alchemical elements.
The second element born from the act of creation is Water. The Water element is described as contracting, cold, dry ,and magnetic. In the positive polarity of the Water element, it is said to influence the building-up activity of all organisms, i.e., metabolism. In its negative polarity it will produce a disintegrating, dissolving activity known as catabolism.
This element is represented by a downward-pointing triangle. The two facts we see right away about the symbolism of this triangle are: (1) it is composed of the three essentials; (2) because its apex is pointing down, it is considered less volatile and therefore fixed when compared to the Fire element. This element, though, does have a fluidity about its motion. The unobstructed triangle (when compared to that of Earth's) though pointing down does convey this message.
In the laboratory, the Water element is the second of the universal substances found throughout the three kingdoms. In fact, the Water element is hidden within the belly of the Fire element. By a process known as oxidation, our Water element can be formed from our Fire element. This new substance born of the death of its sibling is diametric in its qualities to the original substance.
I find it quite interesting that from the death of one element another is born. Yet alchemy has always taught this. We are told the elements are not stagnant but transmute constantly one into another, as the decay of winter transmutes itself into the life of spring and the withered vine that puts forth new leaves and produces fruit for the fall harvest.
Hence, we have the two energetic forms or principles of Our Mercury, the volatile and the fixed. We will see later on how these two substances help to form the two Mercuries known as the Red Mercury and the White Mercury.
Our next element is the Air element. Hermetic lore states the Air element is not a true element in and of itself. It is born, we are told, by the commingling of the Fire and Water elements. In this regard, the Air element is composed of a dominant quality taken from the Fire and Water elements, i.e., heat and moisture.
If we look at the symbol for the element Air four facts are shown to us by its symbolism:, (1) the element of course is made up of the three essentials: (2) it is of a semi-volatile nature: (3) the horizontal line across the top third of the triangle tells us that this element comes in two forms, volatile and fixed, which it got from fire and water: (4) the placement of the horizontal line in the top third of the triangle instead of its midpoint, tells us that the volatile substance is of a much lesser quantity than that of the fixed.
In the laboratory, the Air element is also considered to be made up of the dominant qualities of the two primordial elements. In truth, the task of the Air element lies in controlling the electric fluid and the magnetic fluid of the Fire and Water elements. For this reason it is said to be the true essence or consciousness of the matter with which we are working. No matter which of the three kingdoms one is working with, one can, by a correct understanding of the art, extract this double soul or consciousness from the matter being worked on.
We come now to our last element, that of the Earth. Hermetic lore also states this element, like the Air element, is not an element proper. It is in fact made up of the dominant qualities of dryness and coldness taken from the two primordial elements.
If one considers what has been said about the preceding three elements, as well as what was written about the three essentials, one will come to an inescapable conclusion: that the earth element is actually tetrapolar in nature. This is because it is made up of the action of the three preceding elements. Because of its specific quality of solidification, the other three elements have been given form. This emanation, though, is limited because with the birth of the earth element space, measure, weight, and time have been born.
Let us for a moment look at the symbol of the Earth element. This symbol also tells us four facts right away: (1) it is made up of the three essentials; (2) it is fixed because its apex points downward; (3) the horizontal line in its bottom third tell us that it comes in the two forms of volatile and fixed; (4) the placement of the horizontal line tells us that the quantity of the volatile substance is in a smaller proportion than that of the fixed.
In the laboratory this earthly substance can be obtained from any of the three kingdoms. The proper manipulations of this substance, after the other three have been placed into it, is the beginning of the Great and the Small works.