| Fire! Earth! Wind! Water!
No, this isn't another bad episode of Captain Planet.
These four forces of nature from the Greek were once connected in a system of beliefs and rituals known as alchemy. When you think of alchemy, you most likely think of old, long-bearded Nostradamus-like men mixing potions and elixirs. Well, it's partially true.
Alchemy was a philosophy that investigated the mysteries of life, specifically inanimate objects of nature. Most likely you have heard the story of ancient alchemists attempting to turn lead into gold. However, alchemy was not restricted to physical entities only. It was strongly linked with mysticism and ancient religions. They believed that nature, over time, would transmute matter into purified forms. This lead them to belive that they should not only purify their own souls, but to also attempt the transmutation of metals into nature's finest - gold. Alchemy was a multi-faceted view of life which incorporated symbolism, religion, and science.
The substance they believed that would transmute lead into gold was known as The Philosopher's Stone. And no, this isn't the same Stone from J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter." This stone was also known as the elixir of life, a substance that would make any man immortal. One such composition of the elixir was described as, "After cooking for thirty days, a mixture of Chin 1 (Gold fluid) and quicksilver is placed in a yellow earthen jar, which is then sealed with Six-One Mud and strongly heated for sixty hours. Thereupon the medicine is obtained. The swallowing of a pea-sized quantity of the medicine is enough to make a hsien (immortal) out of any person." 1
There were also connections between days of the week, planets, and metals, as follows,
The days of the week were named after the planets: Sunday for the Sun, Monday for "mooneday" (old English), Tuesday for Tyr (Mars), Wednesday for Woden (or Odin, Mercury), Thursday for Thor (Jupiter), Friday for Frigga (wife of Mercury), and Saturday for Saturn.
Accordingly, different chemicals processes were associated with the 12 signs of the zodiac,
Alchemists also used images of serpents. The Three Principles from the Arabs were Mercury, Sulphur, and Salt. They were each represented by a serpent, as well as their alchemical symbols,
A three-headed serpent represented the Philosopher's Stone. The serpent represents the Three Essences of Spirit, Soul, and Body as embodied in the Three Principles, proceeding from a common source - the prima materia. It is single in essence, but triple in form. 1
Winged Serpents represented volatile principles, and Wingless Serpents represented fixed principles. A Serpent nailed to a Cross represented the fixation of the volatile.
A famous French alchemist from the 14th century was Nicolas Flamel (left). He and his wife, Purnelle, claimed to have discovered the Philosopher's Stone from the book "The Book of Abraham the Jew."
Flamel was a very generous man and spent years of his life dedicating himself to helping others. He built many hospitals and gave money to the blind and the poor. He himself had become rich by his translation of "The Book of Abraham the Jew" and although he and his wife had discovered the Philosopher's Stone, he was only said to have made gold 3 times in his life, and never for selfish purposes. 2
With the onset of the 17th century, interest in alchemy began to focus on medicinal purposes, and eventually this field of science became known as chemistry.
For Further Reading:
Alchemical substances: http://www.levity.com/alchemy/substanc.html
Alchemical processes: http://www.levity.com/alchemy/alch-pro.html
Alchemical symbols: http://www.levity.com/alchemy/symbols.html