Tria prima

three elements of the alchemists

The Tria prima were the three elements of the alchemists, their salt, sulphur, and mercury: the first of which appears to have denoted whatever remained fixed in the fire; the second, whatever was inflammable; and the third, whatever was neither fixed nor inflammable, but rose in vapour without being burned.


  • Van Helmont adds a... criticism to the Paracelsian theory. The tria prima play no role in disease, as they cannot be isolated from the living body. Paracelsus, he believes, was mistaken in assuming that the salt in urine was one of the tria prima, when in fact it is only salt water that has not yet been separated into its components. In fact, the tria prima cannot be obtained from living things at all; only by the destruction of the living principle... Hence diseases cannot be caused by the three principles... Surprisingly... he employs the tria prima in his theory... Van Helmont first postulates that water presents itself in four distinct states: ice, water, vapour and Gas... [and] contends that water is formed of 'atoms', which in turn are made up of the three principles (mercury, salt, and sulphur) in different spatial arrangements within the atom. These... give water both its resiliance and diversity of character.
    • Georgiana D. Hedesan, An Alchemical Quest for Universal Knowledge: The ‘Christian Philosophy’ of Jan Baptist Van Helmont (1579-1644) (2016) pp. 101-102.
  • Tria Prima. The three elements of the alchemists, their salt, sulphur, and mercury: the first of which appears to have denoted whatever remained fixed in the fire; the second, whatever was inflammable; and the third, whatever was neither fixed nor inflammable, but rose in vapour without being burned.
  • Alchemical theory was essentially static throughout the medieval period. ...Paracelsus was the herald of a new era, an era of iatrochemistry. His contribution to alchemical theory lay in the addition to sulphur and mercury of a third principle, which he called 'salt.' Materially this was recognised as the principle of uninflammability and fixidity. ...[T]he tria prima, or three 'hypostatical principles' could be interpreted in either a material or a spiritual sense. In the words of Paracelsus himself: 'Know, then, that all the seven metals are born from a threefold matter... Mercury is the spirit, Sulphur is the soul, and Salt is the body... the soul... unites those two contraries, the body and spirit, and changes them into essence.' ...similar to the material effect of the liquid menstruum, or Hermetic Stream, in uniting sophic sulphur and sophic mercury to produce the Philospher's Stone.
    • John Read, From Alchemy to Chemistry (1957) p. 24.

Of the Imperfection of The Chymist's Doctrine of Qualities (1675)Edit

by Robert Boyle, a source.
  • Since a great part of those Learned Men, especially Physicians who have discerned the defects of the vulgar Philosophy, but are not yet come to understand and relish the Corpuscularian, have slid into the Doctrine of the Chymists; and since the Spagyrists are wont to pretend to make out all the Qualities of bodies from the Predominancy of some one of their three Hypostatical Principles, I suppose it may both keep my opinion from appearing too presumptuous, and (which is far more considerable) may make way for the fairer Reception of the Mechanical Hypothesis about Qualities, if I here intimate (though but briefly and in general) some of those defects, that I have observed in Chymists Explications of Qualities.
  • Now a man need not be very conversant in the writings of Chymists to observe, in how Laxe, Indefinite, and almost Arbitrary Senses they employ the Terms of Salt, Sulphur and Mercury; of which I could never find that they were agreed upon any certain Definitions or setled Notions; not onely differing Authors, but not unfrequently one and the same, and perhaps in the same Book, employing them in very differing senses.
  • And first the Doctrine that all their Theory is grounded on, seems to me Inevident and undemonstrated, not to say precarious.
  • It is somewhat strange to me, that neither the Spagyrists themselves, nor yet their Adversaries, should have taken notice that Chymists have rather supposed than evinced, that the Analysis of bodies by fire, or even that at least some Analysis is the onely instrument of investigating what Ingredients mixt bodies are made up of, since in divers cases That may be discovered by Composition as well as by Resolution; as it may appear, that Vitriol consists of metalline parts (whether Martial, or Venereal, or both) associated by Coagulation with acid ones, one may, I say, discover this as well by making true Vitriol with Spirit (improperly called Oil) of Sulphur, or that of Salt, as by distilling or Resolving Vitriol by the fire.
  • But I will not... trouble you with what I have largely discoursed in the Sceptical Chymist, to call in question the grounds on which Chymists assert, that all mixt bodies are compounded of Salt, Sulphur, and Mercury. For it may suffice me now to tell you that, whatsoever they may be able to obtain from other bodies, it does not appear by Experience, which is the grand, if not the onely, Argument they rely on, that all mixt bodies that have Qualities consist of their tria prima, since they have not been able, that we know, truly, and without new Compositions, to resolve into those three, either Gold, or Silver, or Crystal, or Venetian Talck, or some other bodies, that I elsewhere name; & yet these bodies are endowed with divers Qualities, as the two former with Fusibleness and Malleability, and all of them with Weight and Fixity; so that in these and the like bodies, whence Chymisats have not made it yet appear, that their Salt, Sulphur and Mercury, can be truly and adequately separated, 'twill scarce be other than precarious to derive the malleableness, colour, and other Qualities of such bodies from those Principles.

A General Dictionary of Chemistry (1805)Edit

, Containing the Leading Principles of Science, in regard to Facts, Experiments, and Nomenclature, for the Use of Students by William Nisbet, pp. 257-258.
  • The doctrine of the four elements seems to have continued undisputed till the time of the alchemists. These men, better acquainted than the ancient philosophers with the analysis of bodies, became convinced of the inadequacy of that doctrine to explain all the phenomena which were presented to their view. Hence they substituted in its stead a theory of their own; namely, that all bodies are composed of three elements, salt, sulphur, and mercury, which they distinguished by the appellation of the tria prima. To these principles, which were embraced by succeeding writers, Paracelsus added two more, phlegm and caput mortuum.
  • The alchemists seem to have attached only a very indefinite meaning to the terms salt, sulphur, and mercury: since by salt they appear to have designated every thing which is fixed in the fire; all inflammable substances they denominated sulphur; and every substance which flies off without burning, mercury.
  • In conformity with this theory they maintained, that all bodies may be decomposed by means of fire into these three principles; the salt remains behind fixed, the sulphur takes fire, and the mercury flies off in the form of smoke. The phlegm and caput mortuum of Paracelsus were the water and earth of the ancient philosophers.
  • Boyle attacked this hypothesis in his Sceptical Chemist, and several of his other publications: proving that under each of the terms salt, sulphur, mercury, phlegm, and earth are comprehended substances of very different properties; that all bodies are not composed of these principles; and that the principles themselves are not elements, but compounds.
  • From this epocha the hypothesis of the tria prima seems wholly to have been abandoned: whilst a very different doctrine was proposed by Beccher in his Physica Subterranea [1669], and to which we are perhaps indebted for the present advanced state of chemical science; since he was the first to point out chemical analysis as the only true method of ascertaining the elements of bodies. According to his doctrine, all terrestrial bodies are composed of water, air, and three earths; viz. the fusible, the inflammable or sulphureous, and the mercurial. The three earths, combined in nearly equal proportions, compose the metals: when the proportion of mercurial earth is very small, they compose stones; when the fusible predominates, the resulting compounds are the precious stones; when the sulphureous predominates, and the fusible is deficient, the compounds are the calorific earths: fusible earth and water compose an universal acid, very much resembling sulphuric acid, from which all other acids derive their acidity; water, fusible earth, and mercurial earth, constitute common salt; sulphureous earth and the universal acid form sulphur.
    Such was the theory of Beccher, which was afterward considerably modified by Stahl.

History of Chemistry (1909)Edit

Vol. 1 by Sir Thomas Edward Thorpe

  • The "Chemico-physical Doubts and Paradoxes" raised by Boyle "touching the experiments whereby vulgar Spagyrists are wont to endeavour to evince their Salt, Sulphur, and Mercury to be the true Principles of Things," eventually sealed the fate of the doctrine of the tria prima, and of the tenets of the school of Paracelsus.
  • In this treatise Boyle sets out to prove that the number of the peripatetic elements or principles hitherto assumed by chemists is, to say the least, doubtful.
  • The words "element" and "principle" are used by him as equivalent terms, and signify those primitive and simple bodies of which compounds may be said to be composed, and into which these compounds are ultimately resolvable.
  • He concludes... that the Paracelsian elements—their "salt," "sulphur," and "mercury"—are not the first and most simple principles of bodies; but that these consist, at most, of concretions of corpuscles or particles more simple than they, and possessing the radical and universal properties of volume, shape, and motion.

A History of Chemistry from the Earliest Times (1913)Edit

by James Campbell Brown

  • [Paracelsus] arranged the several parts of man, his own universal elements, and the Aristotelian elements in triplets, thus :—
Soul Spirit Body
Mercury Sulphur Salt
Water Air Earth
  • [T]he writings and labours of the alchemists were both extensive and important. ...[T]heir studies, although misdirected, were not... haphazard. The alchemists had a definite, and... logical, system of philosophy... [T]hey recognised—(1) the unity of matter; (2) the three principles—philosophical mercury, sulphur, and salt; (3) the four elementsfire, air, water, and earth; and (4) the seven metals—gold, silver, mercury, copper, iron, tin, and lead.
  • The original matter, or prima materia, was called by various names—universal substance, seed, chaos. Although matter changes its form, it cannot be destroyed. ...In its nature the prima materia was assumed to be a liquid, containing everything in posse, but nothing in esse.
  • All metals and minerals consist of certain principles. These were at first called "mercury" and "sulphur," not the ordinary substances... but a philosophical mercury and a philosophical sulphur. ...At a later period the alchemists added a philosophical salt, or a philosophical arsenic, but they never ascribed to these the importance they attached to the other two principles.
  • Traces of these ancient conceptions are still to be recognised in the word "quick-silver," that is living silver, a literal translation of argentum vivum. A term "quick-sulphur" (sulphur vivum) was also in use, but it has long since disappeared.
  • The mercury of a metal... represented its lustre, volatility, fusibility, and malleability; the sulphur of the metal, its colour, combustibility, affinity, and hardness.
  • The salt of the metal was merely a means of union between the mercury and the sulphur, just as the vital spirit in man unites soul and body. It was doubtless devised to impart a triple form to the idea, in conformity with the method of the theological schoolmen.
  • Mercury, sulphur, and salt were not three matters, but one, derived from the prima materia.
  • [W]hen an alchemist converted a metal into its oxide, or, as they expressed it, "made a calx" of it, he thought he had volatilised its mercury and fixed its sulphur. When he distilled ordinary mercury and found a solid residue in the alembic, he called it the "sulphur" of mercury; when he found a sublimed product in the receiver (mercury bichloride), he termed it the "mercury" of mercury or "corrosive sublimate."
  • The more logical mind of Artephius Longaevus introduced a modification of this theory. He distinguished two properties in a metal—the visible and the occult. The former, comprehending its colour, lustre, extension, and other properties visible to the eye, he called its "sulphur"; the latter, comprehending its fusibility, malleability, volatility, and other properties not visible until after... special treatment, he called its "mercury."
  • Practically... there was little difference in the application of these diverse theories regarding the three principles.
  • At a still later date [post-16th century] it was argued that exact and natural sciences proceed by induction and deduction, and occult and spiritual sciences by analogy. Following out this line of thought the alchemists produced the following remarkable trilogy:—
Material world Sulphur Mercury Salt
Human world Body Soul Spirit
Divine world Father Son Holy Ghost
  • Each of these was a trinity in unity, and a unity in trinity. In each world was a distinct design,—in the material, the perfection of the metals; in the human, the perfection of the soul; in the divine, the contemplation of the Deity in His splendour.
  • These mystic alchemists interpreted the three principles in their own fashion. Mercury, the passive and female principle, was matter; sulphur, the active and male principle, was force; and salt, the middle term in the proposition, was movement, which applied force to matter. Or, expressed in another shape, mercury was the subject: sulphur, the cause; and salt, the effect. Symbolically, the theory was represented by an equilateral triangle, in one angle of which was the sign of sulphur or force; in the second, the sign of mercury or matter; and in the third, the sign of salt or movement.

The History of Chemistry (2017)Edit

by John Hudson
  • Aristotle had considered metals to be formed by the combination of moist and dry exhalations, and in the Jabirian works these... are... vapours of mercury and sulphur. The cause of the different metals was the... quality of the sulphur... The term sulphur a component of metals probably referred to a volatile combustible material to which no... substance corresponded exactly. Likewise mercury... may... have been... an approximation to the other volatile liquid component of metals. ...The notion that metals contained a combustible principle persisted, and... provided the inspiration for the phlogiston theory.
  • The Jabirian alchemists... believed that metals were ultimately composed of the four Aristotelian elements earth, water, air and fire... A base metal had to be treated with a medicine or elixir to adjust... qualities... with the proportions of gold. ...[Q]ualities of heat, cold, moisture and dryness could each be separated in pure form. ...First they subjected various organic materials to dry distillation... which often resulted in... a volatile combustible... (air), a liquid (water), a combustible tarry material (fire) and a dry residue (ash). [Each of] [t]hese elements were supposed... composed of two qualities, and... could be isolated by... purification. Thus water... could be converted into pure cold by repeated distillation... and further [distillations] in the presence of a drying agent. The resulting pure cold... a brilliant white solid.
  • Paracelsus made an important contribution to chemical theory. He extended the sulphur-mercury theory of the Islamic chemists by adding a third principle... salt. Thus, when wood burned, the combustible component was identified with sulphur, the volatile component with mercury and the ashes... with salt. The composition of all substances could be expressed in terms of these three principles, or tria prima. As in previous theories... [these] were not... common materials... but rather... essential qualities.

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