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Alchemical Symbols and Allegories

Alchemists cloaked themselves in mystery to hide their secrets from the uninitiated. In order to pass their knowledge along to their chosen disciples, they wrote many books rich in allegorical and symbolical illustrations. A base metal was often symbolized by a toad, a dragon or a human being and the essence of the metal was often depicted as a white bird. Alchemists believed that chemical change could be shown in terms of human change; that a union of two chemicals was like a human marriage; that turning base metals into gold was in some way related to turning man's nature into something pure, noble and shining. The alchemists' search for the elixir of life also had other meanings: at one level it meant a quest for a perfect medicine; at another, it symbolized a desire for the realization of the whole man -- man's attempt to perfect himself.

The drawings below are from The Crowne of Nature. The top flask illustrates the belief that when a metal is heated its spirit, symbolized by a dove, erupts from the charred body (left). Put into solution, the blackened metal is symbolized by a toad (middle). The dove going back into solution (right) heralds the birth of a nobler substance, hopefully gold.

flight of a dove

In the illustration below, from the famed "Ripley Scrowle," an account of the work of English alchemist George Ripley, the red object in the center is the Philosopher's Stone. Ripley claimed that this Stone could be made, in seven steps, from the substance represented by the tiny human in the flask: "First Calcine, and after that Putrefye, Dyssolve, Dystill, Sublyme, Descende, and Fyxe... ." Although his claims were probably greatly exaggerated, they reportedly earned him enough to make him a 100,000-a-year donor to the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem.

wealth in a flask

The painting below, from an English manuscript of 1582, depicts the metal mercury as a king who is being boiled alive to produce his vapor, or soul, symbolized by the white bird about to fly from the king's head. An accompanying written parable implies that rejuvenation comes from being cut in pieces and boiled down, thereby engendering a renewal of strength and life.

the plight of a king

Ralph E. Lapp Life Science Library: Matter New York:Time Incorporated, 1965


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This page was last updated on 10/28/2017.