Paracelsus identified three primes (tria prima) of alchemy. The Primes are related to the Law of the Triangle, in which two components come together to produce the third. In modern chemistry, you can't combine the element sulfur and mercury to produce the compound table salt, yet alchemy recognized substances reacted to yield new products.
Tria Prima, the Three Alchemy Primes
- Sulfur - The fluid connecting the High and the Low. Sulfur was used to denote the expansive force, evaporation, and dissolution.
- Mercury - The omnipresent spirit of life. Mercury was believed to transcend the liquid and solid states. The belief carried over into other areas, as mercury was thought to transcend life/death and heaven/earth.
- Salt - Base matter. Salt represented the contractive force, condensation, and crystallization.
Metaphorical Meanings of the Three Primes
Aspect of Matter
Aspect of Psyche
Paracelsus devised the three primes from the alchemist's Sulfur-Mercury Ratio, which was the belief that each metal was made from a specific ratio of sulfur and mercury and that a metal could be converted into any other metal by adding or removing sulfur. So, if one believed this to be true, it made sense lead could be converted into gold if the correct protocol could be found for adjusting the amount of sulfur.
Alchemists would work with the three primes using a process called Solve Et Coagula, which translates to mean dissolving and coagulating. Breaking apart materials so they could recombine was considered a method of purification. In modern chemistry, a similar process is used to purify elements and compounds through crystallization. Matter is either melted or else dissolved and then allowed to recombine to yield a product of higher purity than the source material.
Paracelsus also held the belief that all life consisted of three parts, which could be represented by the Primes, either literally or figuratively (modern alchemy). The three-fold nature is discussed in both Eastern and Western religious traditions. The concept of two joining together to become one is also related. Opposing masculine sulfur and feminine mercury would join to produce salt or the body.