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Mercury pt.2- the Alchemy of Mercury

April 12, 2010

Introduction to Alchemy
Alchemy is the art of transmutation, the ability to turn one thing into another. Alchemy is the mother of chemistry, and despite its bad reputation, alchemy has done a great deal for science. Alchemists have discovered many interesting acids and compounds (Aqua Regia is one example), and invented many devices, which are still used today in the lab, and in the kitchen (Bain Marie and some distillation apparatus are great examples).
The main difference between chemistry today and alchemy is the belief in the duality of matter.
For chemists, a lump of metal is just a lump of metal. For alchemists, metal is the son or daughter of a heavenly body, which in itself is a deity.
But I’m getting a head of myself, that was the ancient Greek belief. Alchemy started long before the Greeks and the Romans came to power.
The word ‘alchemy’ comes from the term ‘al Chem’, from Chem, were Chem is the old name for Egypt. The modern European alchemy came from Egypt and the Middle East, but actually began much earlier than that, in China.

Chinese Alchemy
The first person to write about his alchemical experimentations was Wei Po-yang, in the first century AD. In his writing he refers to earlier alchemists, which lead researchers to believe that alchemy probably began around 400BC in china.
The Chinese alchemy is based on Daoism, the Chinese philosophy, and therefore includes the principal of duality, that the integration of two opposites in one entity, Ying and Yang, is the way to perfection. They believed that every solid object in this world also has a spiritual aspect, a magical force.
The Chinese believed that there are five elements: fire, water, earth, metal and wood, and these elements also represented various traits in a person, the tendency of an object to do one thing or another, and many things that we now consider metaphorical.
Chinese alchemists focused mainly on manufacturing potions of eternal life, and many of these potions contained cinnabar or mercury, plus various herbs. Mercury pills were also very common medications.
A very famous story involving mercury is the death of the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang, in the third century BC.
He was the first person to unify China, build the Great Wall and much more, but as he aged, he became more and more obsessed with his own mortality and searched for a way to cheat death. Doctors would prepare mercury pills and potions for him, and eventually he died of mercury poisoning.
According to legend, the emperor was buried in a magnificent tomb, which includes, among other things, a hundred rivers of mercury. His tomb is sealed to this very day, so it is difficult to tell how much of the legend is true. However, modern archaeologists sent in probes, which indicated that the amount of mercury found in the tomb is a hundred times the amount of mercury found naturally in the area.

Transmutation of metals probably also started with the Chinese alchemists. They believed that after roasting, the metals would gain spiritual qualities. Therefore it was important for gold or cinnabar to go through this process if they were to be used as medications, or give eternal life to those who ate them.
Gold was not very common in China, but mercury and cinnabar were more prevalent, so Chinese alchemy focused more on mercury, as opposed to European alchemy.
The red color of the cinnabar, which resembled the sun, also represented fire, energy and nobility.
Mercury was so important do the Chinese alchemists that the word for mercury (‘dan’) is a part of the term for alchemy (‘waidan’).
The Daoism in alchemy is evident in the fact that the alchemists regarded mercury and cinnabar as opposites. The mercury, due to its white color, symbolized the moon, and the cinnabar, with its red color, symbolized the sun.
Sulfur (yellow) also symbolized the sun, and since sulfur, together with mercury, created cinnabar, sulfur was also considered the opposite of mercury.
Mercury was considered an active substance, and the sulfur was considered passive. Notice that they have personality traits, as if they were living creatures.

In the 4th century AD, there lived the alchemist Ko Hung, who believed that man is what he eats, meaning that a man who eats gold will reach perfection (gold is perfect because it doesn’t react with anything, it doesn’t need anything to complete it. it’s a noble metal). The trouble was that a true believer will be a poor person, and will not be able to afford gold. Therefore, gold had to be substituted with gold that was produced from cinnabar. The process would require roasting and other methods, which will imbue even more spiritual qualities to the gold, so it will be even more magical.
Ko Hung found other uses for cinnabar. For example, one could rub his feet with cinnabar, which would allow him to walk on water. A little cinnabar over the threshold of a house will repel thieves. If an old man would mix cinnabar with raspberry juice and drink it, he would be able to produce offsprings. Ko Hung found many more interesting and exiting ways to get mercury poisoning, and it’s a wonder he didn’t die of it himself.
(This is me, reminding you that mercury, cinnabar, and anything else alchemists thought would lead to eternal life, is extremely toxic and should not be ingested, inhaled, topically applied, or anything else. Just stay away from it.)

European Alchemy
The Chinese alchemy slowly spread out to Europe, and the alchemy of Empedocles and Aristotle developed around 300 years BC. Just like the Chinese alchemy, it consisted of 5 elements, with slight alterations: fire, water, earth, air and ether. Ether was an intangible element, which gave every substance and every object its essence, its ‘soul’.
European alchemists believed that all the materials in the world can be created using a combination of these elements, and that the elements are the womb in which various materials were created. The earth, for example is the womb in which metals grow. The planets (or rather, the gods that were represented by those planets) are the ones who impregnate the earth. Each planet (each deity) would produce a different metal. The god Mercury (the messenger of the gods, the fastest runner) was represented by the planet mercury (nearest to the sun, with the fastest orbit around the sun), and produced the metal Argentum Vivum (mercury, of course).
The European alchemical symbol for mercury is the staff of Mercury:

alchemical symbol for mercury

The circle and the cross together form the sign of a female. Originally this was supposed to be a hand held mirror, and since women used mirrors, this became the sign of a female in general, or more specifically Venus. As the symbol for mercury, it reverts back to the sign of a mirror, because mercury is so shiny and reflective.
The horns on top of the mirror represent the crescent of the moon, which was symbolized by silver, which was considered to be related to mercury.
The cross may also represents the link between matter and spirituality, and the circle represents perfection (which the alchemists tried to achieve).
Mercury is the only element in the periodic table that kept its alchemical name.

Arab Alchemy
From Europe, alchemy seeped to the middle east, where in the 4th century AD, the famous alchemist Jābir (Abu Musa ibn Jābir Hayyān) expanded the European system of alchemical elements to add mercury, sulfur and salt.
Jābir believed that a metal consists of four of the Greek elements. The difference between each metal was the different ratios between those elements. Therefore, in order to transform one metal to another, you had to change the ratios.
The object that would cause the transmutation is the Philosopher’s Stone – a mythical object with the ability to grant eternal life and to transform lower metals into gold. The Philosopher’s Stone consists of mercury, sulfur, salt and time. Mercury represents a change (just like in the Chinese alchemy), sulfur symbolizes the purification by fire, salt symbolizes the resistance to fire, and time symbolizes the dedication of the alchemist needed to create the Philosopher’s Stone.
The Philosopher’s stone has the duality of matter and spirit: mercury and sulfur are both solid materials, and at the same time they are the symbols of change and purification by fire. Mercury rests at the center of this belief, as an ideal matter which encourages change, and from it, all other metals can be produced, with the addition of sulfur in different ratios. Gold, for example, would require more sulfur than mercury, since both gold and sulfur are yellow. Silver however, contains more mercury than sulfur, since both silver and mercury are white.
Jābir’s belief may be based on the distillation of mercury from amalgams with gold or silver, which must have looked like mercury was producing gold and silver as it evaporated.
Despite his belief in the mystical, Jabir was also a distinguished chemist, who discovered, among other things, mercury oxide (which in the future will be used to demonstration Lavoisier’s theory of combustion), and mercury chloride (the compound HgCl2, also known as ‘corrosive sublimate’, which was widely used in photography.).

‘Modern’ Alchemy
From the Arab world, alchemy returned to Europe during the middle ages and more modern times, in the form of superstitions and strange medicines. Medicinal alchemy was known as Iatrochemistry, and I’ll tell you all about it next time.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one strange superstition:
In the 19th century people believed that a loaf of bread, filled with mercury and thrown in a river or a lake, would drift next to a corps, to reveal its location. This popular superstition is documented in the press, as well as in fiction, as a valid method for discovering dead bodies. In “the adventures of Huckleberry Fin” by Mark Twain, when Huck reaches Jackson Island, his friends believe he drowned, so they float some bread full of mercury in the hope of finding his body. When the loves drift to Jackson Island, Huck picks them up, shakes out the mercury drops and eats the bread. Not the smartest idea, but safer to eat mercury than to breath it.
All on the wonderful ways to die of mercury poisoning in Mercury pt.3.

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