Alchemy had a unique and beneficial perspective in understanding the nature of reality. One that is of great value to us today. Especially in regards to our evolution - individually and collectively.
Incorporating a theory of what was known as the 3 principles was fundamental in creating a foundation for the pursuit of alchemical works. This theory split all forms of matter into a trinity so that everything consisted of these three essentials. They were known as the soul, spirit, and body - or in alchemical terms the sulfur, mercury, and salt. We have these divisions with us today, and many people recognize themselves as having a spirit or a soul. But ask someone to define what these immaterial substances are and they will most likely fumble with their words.
In looking to help myself define these words so as to be resolved in my answer - if ever asked - I discovered some rather interesting information that helped to shed light on my understanding of nature, reality, and alchemical works. Practicality and application of alchemy and it's constituent theories and understandings became apparent as I explored the answers to these questions. With integration of this new found knowledge my world was truly transformed by the art of alchemy, which in essence can be seen as the transmutative flow of life itself.
It's easy for a person, with their mind and intelligence, to recognize that there is an immaterial backing to their being. This we might call our spirit, or our soul. In alchemical view, it was also crucial to recognize that not only moving, thinking, animate life was composed of an immaterial counter part, but that the inanimate rocks and plants also contained these substances of soul and spirit. Many of the alchemical works have made this knowing tangible through experimentation. The alchemist could separate any substance, plant or stone, to reveal three basic materials, which came to be labeled the salt, sulfur, or mercury of that material in use. The separation of these principles helped the alchemists of old to conceptualize this understanding - that all matter originated from one source and was comprised of the same basic building blocks. The source was the Prima Materia, the first matter of all. The building blocks were the 3 principles, and the four elements which won't be elaborated on in this article.
To understand the alchemical sulfur, mercury, and salt you must first understand what a soul, a spirit, and a body really are. The terms sulfur, mercury, and salt are just code words used to describe the body, soul, and spirit any given substance. In the past, alchemy and it's practitioners were seen to have gone through their fair share of persecution and discrimination. Many ancient manuscripts used coded language to hide the true meanings of valuable information. Information that might be used to condemn a practicing alchemist or grant power to the greedy. For now, this is history, and what matters most, here and now, is defining and resolving our understandings of the spirit, the soul, and the body.
First it is best to explore the body and define it so a foundation can be built to help grasp the spirit and the soul and their relationship to the body. The body was known in alchemy as the Salt - but let's stick with the word body and explore it's definition.
(Please read the following carefully and slowly.)
Salt: The Body
We all have a body. We can see it, touch it, feel it; Our body is our material vessel. It is the tool we utilize to interact with our world. The houser of our mind, our thoughts, emotions, and memories. We all know the body. It's simple for us to intellectually grasp an understanding of the body. Not only our own, but the bodies of other life forms or objects. We all seem to known it, but I wondered what was the best way to define it. I then did what any other person would do to get a definition of a word - I looked it up in the dictionary. Here is how our dictionary defines the word Body:
A material structure that embodies or gives concrete reality to something abstract.
That definition seems straight forward, but it actually threw me off. Especially the second half that states: "gives concrete reality to something abstract."
I then decided to dissect this definition of it's larger words to simplify the message at hand. I started by splitting the definition into two halves
First half: "a material structure that embodies or...."
Second half: "gives concrete reality to something abstract."
Starting with the second half I defined the larger words.
Reality: The state of things as they actually exist.
Abstract: Existing in thought or as an idea, but not having a physical or concrete existence.
This intrigued me. By picking apart the definition I began to see what was hiding behind these words. The second half of the original definition for Body was telling me that the body "gives a concrete reality to something that has no 'physical or concrete existence.'" The definition was essentially telling me a lie by stating that something that doesn't exist (abstract) actually exists (reality). A lie is defined as: "an intentional untruth", and that is exactly what we have here. My own dictionary was telling me the body was a lie. But let's explore the first half of the definition to further illuminate what a body might actually be.
The major words of the first half of the definition for Body are:
Material: The matter from which a thing is or can be created.
Structure: construct or arrange according to a plan; give a pattern or organization to.
Embodies: To give visible form to an idea, quality, or feeling.
These words shed substantial amounts of light on to the true nature of the body. These definitions are telling us that the body organizes (structure) something (material) to make an idea visible (embodies). What is the matter being structured to achieve this illusion - one of making something appear to exist that actually has 'no concrete reality?' The definition of embodies spells it out clearly: "To give visible form to an idea..." What is an idea? Many dictionaries use a simple definition of 'a thought' - so an idea is a thought.
With that in mind, we can see then that the body is actually an organization of thought to give a concrete reality to something that does not actually exist.
That is our true definition for Body - hiding behind our own English words the entire time.
Since the alchemical term Salt and body are synonymous we can then also apply our new definition of the body to the alchemical salt. The salt associated to the 3 principles of all matter.
The body, which basically defines the existence of all forms of matter, and the majority of objective reality is being painted as an illusion with use of that definition. Physicality is an illusion - That sounds a lot like eastern philosophy, and can even correlate to certain understandings in quantum theory.
Our definition for Body gains ground as authentic as the definitions of spirit and soul are also dissected.
Mercury: The Spirit
In alchemical works the spirit of a given material was known as the Mercury. Staying with our theme of using common language instead of alchemical code let's define spirit.
Spirit: The nonphysical part of a person that is the seat of emotions and character; the mind and ego.
The second half of this definition says it most plainly, telling us that the spirit is the mind and the ego. The first half helps us to build a more holistic image to understand the mind and the ego. The most interesting word to me in the first half of the definition of spirit was character, so I looked it up to define it.
Character: the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.
With previous understanding of the ego, I found similarities to its definition with the definition of character, so I also looked to define ego and make those similarities more apparent.
Ego: the individual self of a person; a person as thinking, feeling, willing, and distinguishing itself from the selves of others and from objects of its thought.
- that which identifies with thought, feelings, and desires as self.
Essentially, identification with thoughts and feelings gives rise to individuality or character. The mechanics of this function are found within the mind, which the spirit was defined as. Getting to the bottom of spirit is also then getting to the bottom of mind. To define mind...
Mind: the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, thoughts, and feelings; the faculty of consciousness.
If spirit is our mind, and our mind is what enables us to experience the world and ourselves, what then are we? What is the self that the mind is helping us experience? Are we our thoughts? No. We are not our feelings either. The mind is not our source, and the definition of mind is telling us this.
We identify with our thoughts, which also hold our memories, and this identification gives rise to character or individuality. It makes us believe an untruth - that we are our thoughts and emotions, that we are the part that thinks. But we are not our thoughts, or our emotions, we are not our individual selves that we thought - at least not entirely.
The first half of the definition of mind is telling us that the mind is just an element that enables us to be aware of our world and thoughts. But the mind itself is plainly defined as a "faculty of consciousness." What does it mean to be a faculty of consciousness?
Faculty is defined as:
An inherent mental or physical power
Spirit is the mind and
The mind is an inherent power of consciousness.
Consciousness inherently has the power to think. Consciousness is responsible for the mind. The mind is then responsible for the creation of thought. The mind identifies with that thought, organizes it, and embodies it's ideas to create conceptually a concrete reality, even though those realities don't actually exist (other than in the mind).
Sulfur: The Soul
This leaves us to define our final word that we set out to understand. Soul. The alchemical sulfur was the soul of any given material. (Read more on the alchemical sulfur.)
What is the soul?
The Soul is: The actuating cause of an individual life.
In the previous study of the definition for spirit, the answer to what the actuating cause was is presented to us.
- Consciousness -
The mind is an inherent power of consciousness. Consciousness is the actuating cause for an individual life. That answer holds true for all individual lives and for all forms of existence. All matter was known to be composed of these 3 basic principles -soul, spirit, and body- so all of existence knows consciousness as the actuating cause of its individual life. Every rock, plant, animal, star, atom, galaxy, etc.
Consciousness is the true Prima Materia of the alchemists. The seed from which all forms grow and are rooted in. It is the spark of life.
Life can be defined as: a corresponding state, existence, or principle of existence conceived of as belonging to the soul.
Life and existence belong to the soul, and the soul is consciousness.
Consciousness is life, and in all life is consciousness.
Consciousness is the Key.
This is the fundamental truth that alchemy was built upon. Any subsequent experimentation is merely just an exploration of this singular truth, or validation of that truth through any physical or spiritual alchemical practice. The understanding of this fact automatically granted the understanding of the truth of all things and gave true alchemists a fantastic power - The power to be - living freely as and in eternity.
Standardization of definition
In looking to explore and understand the 3 principles of alchemy, I read through many alchemical texts - ancient and modern. The majority of the texts seem to agree that Sulfur is the Soul, Mercury is the Spirit, and Salt is the Body. These texts seemed to be written as if to assume that the student reading them already had prior knowledge of what a soul, spirit, and body are. Feeling that it is never safe to assume, it felt appropriate to seek out fully defining these terms.
To summarize and define the body, soul, and spirit:
Body: Organization of thought to give a concrete reality to something that does not actually exist.
Spirit: The mind - an inherent power of consciousness
Soul: Consciousness - the actuating cause of life
I encourage others to contemplate on the implications this presumes on the nature of reality.
To end here and to honor an old tradition that many alchemists followed of starting or finishing their writings with a prayer, I quote St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
Avery is the lead Alchemist at Kymia Arts and routinely shares information on general alchemy topics as well as our methods and products.