Thursday, September 07, 2006

Alchemy (Glossary)

The alchemy referred to here is that centered around the use of sulfur and mercury, and their compound, cinnabar, or mercury sulfide, to transmute base metals into gold, and to extend human life.

Many believe this form of alchemy has its basis in earlier spiritual alchemy and cosmology. Some suggest that the concept of "signatures" and cinnabar's similarity in color to human blood, the fluid of life, drives the philosophy of alchemy.

Humans have used red colored materials like red ochre since prehistoric times. The presence of ochre in burials may have had some link with concepts of immortality. In ancient Egypt, the practice of painting men in red color, and women in yellow color, when in the presence of deities, may have some ancient relationship to the contrasts of red and yellow ochre.

In ancient China, cinnabar appears as a burial item at least by the late Neolithic and possibly as early as the Yangshao period. In latter times, cinnabar was used to preserve the body of the dead. In Southeast Asia, the use of red ochre to cover bodies during burial dates back to the Mesolithic Hoabinhian culture. Oppenheimer states:

The main areas with the story of man made from red earth are Southeast Asia, Oceania and some Mundaic tribes in India. All these areas, except eastern Polyneisa, have abundant red and laterite soils.

Oppenheimer also notes the distribution of myths attributing the redness of the clay to tempering with divine blood and its close approximation with red clay-first man myths, and suggests that the red clays here were used as a surrogate for blood. In China, both red ochre and cinnabar could be used as substitutes for blood in rituals.

Also, in Southeast Asia, red clay was eaten during pregnancy and for health purposes. This may relate to the practice that arose in China of consuming collodial cinnabar.

The Elixir

Needham has accumulated evidence suggesting that by the Zhou (Chou) dynasty, the concept of cinnabar and mercury as contributing to immortality had become established. Also it was in this period that mercury was distilled from cinnabar, a process releasing the sulfur as gaseous sulfur dioxide (SO2).

In the Shiji, the Qin Emperor is advised to make gold from cinnabar which can be used in turn to make drinking and eating vessels to prolong life:

Li Shaojun then advised the emperor, "If you sacrifice to the fireplace you can call the spirits to you, and if the spirits come you can transform cinnabar into gold. Using this gold, you may make driking and eating vessels, which will prolong the years of your life. With prolonged life you may visit the immortals who live on the island of Penglai in the middle of the sea. If you visit them and perform the Feng and Shan sacrifices, you will never die."

The "gold" here was interpreted by later alchemists as an amalgam of gold with cinnabar. However, "gold" in this instance might also be a metaphor for something like the Philosopher's Stone in European alchemy. It was used to create vessels that prolonged life.

The mention of Penglai is also important. In the older Daoist cosmologies, the central mountain of Penglai was viewed as rising out of the sea. The summit, or "navel," of this mountain is hollow, and extends to the deepest parts of the ocean, where lies the "Cinnabar Field," the source of all living beings. This scene is depicted on the famed Boshanlu censers.

On Penglai, also are the mushrooms of immortality, that grow over deposits of cinnabar and gold. The Chinese recognized that gold often lies above cinnabar deposits in mountains, and believed that gold was naturally transmuted from cinnabar.

Tang dynasty bonshanlu depicting Penglai. The mushroom at the top represented the mushroom of immortality, or the central mountain. Quite easily it might also stand for the "tree of life," the mushroom cloud of an erupting volcano. Source:

Undated bronze boshanlu. Source:

Boshanlu from Western Han dynasty. Notice depiction of waves lapping on shores of Penglai. Source:

The divine mushroom was seen as a product of the sublimation of gold and cinnabar that grew over these mineral deposits. The mushroom even glowed in the dark allowing the immortals to find the sought-after lodes of minerals in addition to the fungi. Here also in Penglai were cinnabar caves inhabited by the Phoenix of the South, which the Shanhaijing describes as looking like a cinnabar-red rooster, and probably where would one would also find the auspicious giant bats of Penglai.

Later, possibly under Buddhist influence, these aspects were partly transferred to, or mirrored in, Mount Kun-lun to the west of China.

Volcanic images

Chinese texts describe the hollow summit of Mount Penglai as reaching down into the subterranean or submarine depths matching common imagery of the volcano in many cultures.

Sources of cinnabar, and its separate elements, sulfur and mercury, are nearly always located near volcanoes, hot springs or fumaroles.

Mention of the Cinnabar Field under the hollow mountain of Penglai appears to express this reality. In latter European alchemy, volcanoes were seen as natural laboratories that produced all the base metals from differing combinations of sulfur and mercury, to which they added from Arabian alchemical influence, the neutralizing element of salt.

The "Philosopher's Stone" was described as a red, glassy powder that could transmute base metals to gold, improve health and extend the life of the aged. In the sense that it could convert other metals it stood as a synthetic agent by which the natural processes of the volcano could be reproduced.

Li Shaojun's statement above indicates that in the time of the Qin Emperor certain food and drink vessels existed that were thought capable of extending life.

These vessels may have had some component of cinnabar and/or gold, or possibly the term "gold" here was a symbolic one as often used in the art of alchemy.

If such vessels were made of clay with some degree of cinnabar, it would have impressed the Chinese for at least a few reasons. Firstly, cinnabar as mentioned above, appears to have mostly taken the place of red ochre as a substitute for life-giving blood. They used it in burials, rituals and as a pigment in divination and other sacred writing.

Secondly, cinnabar contains mercury and is considered by many to be toxic, although others feel that it is not so harmful when bound in a stable fashion with other metals. Vessels containing cinnabar which did not have the normal toxic properties but instead had tonic and therapeutic qualities would have deeply impressed the Chinese who had high cultural regard for cinnabar. Also, as cinnabar contained the two base ingredients believed mutable into any other base metal, a vessel containing cinnabar without the normal harmful effects would appear as quite a coup.

Thus, alchemy may have started as an attempt to synthetically produce the material of the life-extending food and drink vessels using cinnabar as a key ingredient.

In Southeast Asia, cinnabar, mercury and sulfur only appear to became important in most areas at a late period. The Dian kingdom of Yunnan probably used an amalgam of gold and mercury in gilding burial good objects dated from 600 BCE to 300 BCE. However, generally Southeast Asians used red clay as a substitute and significator of blood.

Some of the red clays though did contain natural cinnabar. For example, red clay tested at a cave near the Tubuoy River in Pangasinan, Philippines during 1913 contained 1 percent mercury that was believed to be present in cinnabar native to the clay. The cinnabar may contribute to the red color along with iron, and this clay tends to darken with exposure to the Sun and through oxidation.

Theorectically, cinnabar present in vessels made at least partly of volcanic clay would leak little if any mercury present in the sulfide because of the strong binding properties of montmorillonite and similar minerals.

Yin and Yang, Sulfur and Mercury

The Daoists and Tantrics classified sulfur as female and mercury as male. The Arabs and Europeans reversed this classification. Paracelsus and others used the "sulfurous" and "mercurial" categories to classify all things in nature.

A key Tantric text of the Western Transmission likens the Muladhara Cakra, representing the earth and the acting as the seat of the Kundalini as the body's equivalent of the Vadavanala, the latter's description matching that of a submarine volcano.

The uterine blood of the Goddess in Tantric practice is equated to sulfur which resides in the lower parts of the body dominated by that element.

Around the middle of the 7th century CE, Chinese alchemists began moving more toward the idea of liquid elixir rather than the elixir-based vessels mentioned in the Shiji. Using the principle of "like produces like," the alchemists believed that consuming minerals like gold and cinnabar would create in the body properties similar to those in the metals.

Some of these "elixirs" proved deadly as they contained pure mercury, and other toxic minerals like lead and arsenic.

Even centuries later though, an enlightened alchemist like Isaac Newton, would still write of how he regularly consumed such potions that appear to have adversely effected his health, and traces of which have been revealed through modern testing.

In Southeast Asia, the practice of drinking toxic tonics also caught on eventually. Pigafetta states upon encountering the Prince of Luzon in Brunei: "Those Moros go naked as do the other peoples. They drink quick-silver -- the sick man drinks it to cleanse himself, and the well man to preserve his health."

While the use of toxic metals eventually fell out of fashion in most places, spiritual alchemy, which evolved in parallel with the chemical variety, continues in many forms strongly to the present with practices like Kundalini Yoga and Daoist meditation.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Mahdihassan, S. "History of Cinnabar as Drug, the Natural Substance and the Synthetic Product," Indian Journal of History of Sciences 22(1): 63-70. 1987.

Schipper, Kristofer. The Taoist Body, University of California Press, 1994.