The vagueness of the general conceptions of alchemy, and the attribution of ethical qualities to material things by the alchemists, necessarily led to the employment of a language which is inexact, undescriptive, and unsuggestive to modern ears. The same name was given to different things, and the same thing went under many names. In Chapter IV. I endeavoured to analyse two terms which were constantly used by the alchemists to convey ideas of great importance, the terms Element and Principle. That attempt sufficed, at any rate, to show the vagueness of the ideas which these terms were intended to express, and to make evident the inconsistencies between the meanings given to the words by different alchemical writers. The story quoted in Chapter III., from Michael Sendivogius, illustrates the difficulty which the alchemists themselves had in understanding what they meant by the term Mercury; yet there is perhaps no word more often used by them than that. Some of them evidently took it to mean the substance then, and now, called mercury; the results of this literal interpretation were disastrous; others thought of mercury as a substance which could be obtained, or, at any rate, might be obtained, by repeatedly distilling ordinary mercury, both alone and when mixed with other substances; others used the word to mean a hypothetical something which was liquid but did not wet things, limpid yet capable of becoming solid, volatile yet able to prevent the volatilisation of other things, and white, yet ready to cause other white things to change their colour; they thought of this something, this soul of mercury, as having properties without itself being tangible, as at once a substance and not a substance, at once a bodily spirit and a spiritual body.

It was impossible to express the alchemical ideas in any language save that of far-fetched allegory. The alchemical writings abound in such allegories. Here are two of them.

The first allegory is taken from The Twelve Keys, of Basilius Valentinus, the Benedictine: -

  "The eleventh key to the knowledge of the augmentation of our 
  Stone I will put before you in the form of a parable.

  "There lived in the East a gilded knight, named Orpheus, who was 
  possessed of immense wealth, and had everything that heart can 
  wish. He had taken to wife his own sister, Euridice, who did not, 
  however, bear him any children. This he regarded as the punishment 
  of his sin in having wedded his own sister, and was instant in 
  prayer to God both by day and by night, that the curse might be 
  taken from him. One night when he was buried in a deep sleep, 
  there came to him a certain winged messenger, named Phoebus, who 
  touched his feet, which were very hot, and said: 'Thou noble 
  knight, since thou hast wandered through many cities and kingdoms 
  and suffered many things at sea, in battle, and in the lists, the 
  heavenly Father has bidden me make known to thee the following 
  means of obtaining thy prayer: Take blood from thy right side, and 
  from the left side of thy spouse. For this blood is the heart's 
  blood of your parents, and though it may seem to be of two kinds, 
  yet, in reality, it is only one. Mix the two kinds of blood, and 
  keep the mixture tightly enclosed in the globe of the seven wise 
  Masters. Then that which is generated will be nourished with its 
  own flesh and blood, and will complete its course of development 
  when the Moon has changed for the eighth time. If thou repeat this 
  process again and again, thou shalt see children's children, and 
  the offspring of thy body shall fill the world.' When Phoebus 
  had thus spoken, he winged his flight heavenward. In the morning 
  the knight arose and did the bidding of the celestial messenger, 
  and God gave to him and to his wife many children, who inherited 
  their father's glory, wealth, and knightly honours from generation 
  to generation."

In the "Dedicatory Epistle" to his Triumphal Chariot of Antimony, Basil Valentine addresses his brother alchemists as follows: -

  "Mercury appeared to me in a dream, and brought me back from my 
  devious courses to the one way. 'Behold me clad not in the garb of 
  the vulgar, but in the philosopher's mantle.' So he said, and 
  straightway began to leap along the road in headlong bounds. Then, 
  when he was tired, he sat down, and, turning to me, who had 
  followed him in the spirit, bade me mark that he no longer 
  possessed that youthful vigour with which he would at the first 
  have overcome every obstacle, if he had not been allowed a free 
  course. Encouraged by his friendly salutation, I addressed him in 
  the following terms: 'Mercury, eloquent scion of Atlas, and father 
  of all Alchemists, since thou hast guided me hitherto, shew me, I 
  pray thee, the way to those Blessed Isles, which thou hast 
  promised to reveal to all thine elect children. 'Dost thou 
  remember,' he replied, that when I quitted thy laboratory, I left 
  behind me a garment so thoroughly saturated with my own blood, 
  that neither the wind could efface it, nor all-devouring time 
  destroy its indelible essence? Fetch it hither to me, that I may 
  not catch a chill from the state of perspiration in which I now 
  am; but let me clothe myself warmly in it, and be closely incited 
  thereto, so that I may safely reach my bride, who is sick with 
  love. She has meekly borne many wrongs, being driven through water 
  and fire, and compelled to ascend and descend times without 
  number - yet has she been carried through it all by the hope of 
  entering with me the bridal chamber, wherein we expect to beget a 
  son adorned from his birth with the royal crown which he may not 
  share with others. Yet may he bring his friends to the palace, 
  where sits enthroned the King of Kings, who communicates his 
  dignity readily and liberally to all that approach him.'

  "I brought him the garment, and it fitted him so closely, that it 
  looked like an iron skin securing him against all the assaults of 
  Vulcan. 'Let us proceed,' he then said, and straightway sped 
  across the open field, while I boldly strove to keep up with my 

  "Thus we reached his bride, whose virtue and constancy were equal 
  to his own. There I beheld their marvellous conjugal union and 
  nuptial consummation, whence was born the son crowned with the 
  royal diadem. When I was about to salute him as King of Kings and 
  Lord of Lords, my Genius stood by me and warned me not to be 
  deceived, since this was only the King's forerunner, but not the 
  King himself whom I sought.

  "When I heard the admonition, I did not know whether to be sad or 
  joyful. 'Depart,' then said Mercury, 'with this bridal gift, and 
  when you come to those disciples who have seen the Lord himself, 
  show them this sign.' And therewith he gave me a gold ring from 
  his son's finger. 'They know the golden branch which must be 
  consecrated to Proserpina before you can enter the palace of 
  Pluto. When he sees this ring, perhaps one will open to you with a 
  word the door of that chamber, where sits enthroned in his 
  magnificence the Desire of all Nations, who is known only to the 

  "When he had thus spoken, the vision vanished, but the bridal gift 
  which I still held in my hand shewed me that it had not been a 
  mere dream. It was of gold, but to me more precious than the most 
  prized of all metals. Unto you I will shew it when I am permitted 
  to see your faces, and to converse with you freely. Till that 
  earnestly wished-for time, I bid you farewell."

One result of the alchemical modes of expression was, that he who tried to follow the directions given in alchemical books got into dire confusion. He did not know what substances to use in his operations; for when he was told to employ "the homogeneous water of gold," for example, the expression might mean anything, and in despair he distilled, and calcined, and cohobated, and tried to decompose everything he could lay hands on. Those who pretended to know abused and vilified those who differed from them.

In A Demonstration of Nature, by John A. Mehung (17th century), Nature addresses the alchemical worker in the following words: -

  "You break vials, and consume coals, only to soften your brains 
  still more with the vapours. You also digest alum, salt, orpiment, 
  and altrament; you melt metals, build small and large furnaces, 
  and use many vessels; nevertheless I am sick of your folly, and 
  you suffocate me with your sulphurous smoke.... You would do 
  better to mind your own business, than to dissolve and distil so 
  many absurd substances, and then to pass them through alembics, 
  cucurbits, stills, and pelicans."

Henry Madathanas, writing in 1622, says: -

  "Then I understood that their purgations, sublimations, 
  cementations, distillations, rectifications, circulations, 
  putrefactions, conjunctions, calcinations, incinerations, 
  mortifications, revivifications, as also their tripods, athanors, 
  reverberatory alembics, excrements of horses, ashes, sand, stills, 
  pelican-viols, retorts, fixations, etc., are mere plausible 
  impostures and frauds."

The author of The Only Way (1677) says:

  "Surely every true Artist must look on this elaborate tissue of 
  baseless operations as the merest folly, and can only wonder that 
  the eyes of those silly dupes are not at last opened, that they 
  may see something besides such absurd sophisms, and read something 
  besides those stupid and deceitful books.... I can speak from 
  bitter experience, for I, too, toiled for many years ... and 
  endeavoured to reach the coveted goal by sublimation, 
  distillation, calcination, circulation, and so forth, and to 
  fashion the Stone out of substances such as urine, salt, atrament, 
  alum, etc. I have tried hard to evolve it out of hairs, wine, 
  eggs, bones, and all manner of herbs; out of arsenic, mercury, and 
  sulphur, and all the minerals and metals.... I have spent nights 
  and days in dissolving, coagulating, amalgamating, and 
  precipitating. Yet from all these things I derived neither profit 
  nor joy."

Another writer speaks of many would-be alchemists as "floundering about in a sea of specious book-learning."

If alchemists could speak of their own processes and materials as those authors spoke whom I have quoted, we must expect that the alchemical language would appear mere jargon to the uninitiated. In Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist, Surley, who is the sceptic of the piece, says to Subtle, who is the alchemist -

      ... Alchemy is a pretty kind of game, 
      Somewhat like tricks o' the cards, to cheat a man 
      With charming ... 
      What else are all your terms, 
      Whereon no one of your writers 'grees with other? 
      Of your elixir, your lac virginis, 
      Your stone, your med'cine, and your chrysosperme, 
      Your sal, your sulphur, and your mercury, 
      Your oil of height, your tree of life, your blood, 
      Your marchesite, your tutie, your magnesia, 
      Your toad, your crow, your dragon, and your panther; 
      Your sun, your moon, your firmament, your adrop, 
      Your lato, azoch, zernich, chibrit, heutarit, 
      And then your red man, and your white woman, 
      With all your broths, your menstrues, and materials, 
      Of lye and egg-shells, women's terms, man's blood, 
      Hair o' the head, burnt clout, chalk, merds, and clay, 
      Powder of bones, scalings of iron, glass, 
      And moulds of other strange ingredients, 
      Would burst a man to name?

To which Subtle answers,

                And all these named 
      Intending but one thing; which art our writers 
      Used to obscure their art. 
      Was not all the knowledge 
      Of the Egyptians writ in mystic symbols? 
      Speak not the Scriptures oft in parables? 
      Are not the choicest fables of the poets, 
      That were the fountains and first springs of wisdom, 
      Wrapp'd in perplexed allegories?

The alchemists were very fond of using the names of animals as symbols of certain mineral substances, and of representing operations in the laboratory by what may be called animal allegories. The yellow lionwas the alchemical symbol of yellow sulphides, the red lion was synonymous with cinnabar, and the green lion meant salts of iron and of copper. Black sulphides were called eagles, and sometimes crows. When black sulphide of mercury is strongly heated, a red sublimate is obtained, which has the same composition as the black compound; if the temperature is not kept very high, but little of the red sulphide is produced; the alchemists directed to urge the fire, "else the black crows will go back to the nest."

The salamander was called the king of animals, because it was supposed that he lived and delighted in fire; keeping a strong fire alight under a salamander was sometimes compared to the purification of gold by heating it.

Fig. XV., reduced from The Book of Lambspring represents this process.

The alchemists employed many signs, or shorthand expressions, in place of writing the names of substances. The following are a few of the signs which were used frequently.

[Symbol: Saturn] Saturn, also lead; [Symbol: Jupiter] Jupiter, also tin; [Symbol: Mars-1] and [Symbol: Mars-2] Mars, also iron; [Symbol: Sun] Sol, also gold; [Symbol: Venus] Venus, also copper; [Symbol: Mercury-1], [Symbol: Mercury-2] and [Symbol: Mercury-3] Mercury; [Symbol: Moon] Luna, also silver; [Symbol: Sulphur] Sulphur; [Symbol: Vitriol] Vitriol; [Symbol: Fire] fire; [Symbol: Air] air; [Symbol: Water] and [Symbol: Aquarius] water; [Symbol: Earth] earth; [Symbol: Aqua Fortis] aqua fortis; [Symbol: Aqua Regis] aqua regis; [Symbol: Aqua Vitae] aqua vitae; [Symbol: Day] day; [Symbol: Night] night; [Symbol: Amalgam] Amalgam; [Symbol: Alembic] Alembic.