In alchemy, the three essentials are a central concept. Also known as the Tria Prima, they are three energetic principles which all living things in the animal, mineral and vegetable realms comprise of. A simple way to think of this, is to imagine that we take a plant, animal, mineral or metal, and divide it up through distillation into it’s constituent parts. There will always be present a volatile portion, a fixed portion and something in between.
When we practice alchemy in the lab, we are attempting to separate, purify and reunite the three essentials…or, as the age old alchemical saying goes, Solve et Coagula (dissolve and coagulate). After the three essentials in our First Matter are separated, purified and recombined, we are left with a product that is elevated, reborn if you will, on a completely new octave of creation. “Alchemy is the art of separating souls from bodies”, said Stephen of Alexandria (610-641). We will come to see why by the end of this article.
Spirit is represented by the cipher for Mercury. It is also a picture of the staff of Hermes, itself a combination of two serpents – one white and one red. Mercury (Hermes) is a great symbol for spirit. As messenger of the Gods, he has the ability to travel between the realms of Gods and people. He can ascend to the highest heights, and descend to the lowest lows. This is very appropriate because in alchemy the Spirit of each realm is the most volatile substance which unites all things within that realm. In the herbal realm, for example, alcohol (specifically grape alcohol) is the carrier of universal energy. We actually get the term alcoholic “spirits” from alchemy, because spirits are created in fermentation, after they have ‘given up the ghost’. When we drink alcohol we become “Spirited”. In alchemy we allow a substance to ferment before repeatedly distilling it so that it can be as pure as possible.
The next important portion is the Soul. It is here represented by two glyphs joined together – one glyph for fire, represented by the upward facing triangle. The other is the cross, representing earth. The symbol for fire is above that of earth, so this mean that soul is something which is attempting to rise above earth, yet is at the same time joined to it. The soul of anything in the vegetable, animal, mineral or metallic realm will depend on the matter being worked with. All things have unique chemical profiles, and it is their uniqueness which determines their soul. Soul refers to personality or consciousness, but in alchemy this portion is often referred to as the oil. It can be a literal oil (like the essential oil in the herbal kingdom), however metals will, if put under alchemical processes, produce something which looks and feels like an oil. The soul is that part of something which has the intelligence to direct energy (spirit) to a specific part of us. For example, the herb chamomile has an innate personality or medicinal profile which can be directed within a person’s being to relax them, calm digestion, assist with hay fever, inflammation etc. So in the herbal kingdom, as an example, we separate the essential oil and just like we did with the spirit portion, we may distil it until it is free of impurities.
The final part of the three essentials is the principle of Salt. The salt principle is that mineral portion of thing which gives it body and form. As my teacher, Robert Bartlett once said, “we are walking popsicles of salt!” The body is an often overlooked part of a medicine. In naturopathy, when a herbal tincture is made, the salt portion which is the herb body is discarded after the herbal extraction is finished. In alchemy we throw nothing away; we take the herb and purify it through alchemical processes. When it is pure we then recombine it with it’s other two essentials.
What sets alchemical medicines apart from others? In a basic sense, they must have all three essential components present. When all three parts of our starting material are purified, what do we do? We combine them together again. Thus, the matter at hand is born anew, “resurrected” if you will, into a state of being that is more refined, more powerful and more pure. Medicines of this order have the capacity to initiate healing on all three levels within us too – body, soul and spirit, depending on the characteristics of the soul correspondence of the medicine. For example, things ruled by the archetype of the sun are said to be triumphant, radiant, persistent and associated with the heart among other things. So taking an alchemical medicine ruled by the sun (for example a herb like chamomile or the metal gold) will effect this change in a person’s life on all three levels.
Some images here following are a process for the creation of the oil of gold. This is a highly initiatic tincture because, as a true alchemical medicine, it contains no actual gold in it, only the oil/soul/consciousness of the metal. Sol invictus!