The Three Philosophical Principles of Alchemy

The three philosophical principles of alchemy are considered the working units of this system. It is the holy trinity of the universe. They are primary organic functions that exist within all of manifest creation- be it material or non-material. Understanding these principles assist in understanding the underlying patterns behind all things. Our minds are under their influence, as well as our physical bodies and emotional states. The planets. The plants. The minerals. The animals. Spirits and non-physical beings are composed of the principles. The fact that all of existence contains these primary organic functions is what makes them universal.

All things contain various concentrations of each of the principles. While there are many energetic factors going into all manifestations (elements, planets, astrological archetypes etc.), the three principles are the easiest to recognize as they are simple, non-specific, and observable. They are non-specific in the sense that there are only three to observe, and determine which is the most prominent, as compared to a planetary perspective where there are 7 (or 10) to decipher.

Majority of traditional cultures, cosmologies, and systems of medicines contain some form of the three principles. In the Ayurvedic tradition it is vata, pitta, and kapha. In astrology, it is mutable, cardinal, and fixed. In the western alchemical tradition, it is mercury, sulfur, and salt. In molecular science it is the proton, neutron, and electron. These are all the exact same things, just seen though different cultural perspectives and expressed in different languages.

When one begins to see and experience these three principles, the entire world begins to transform. Seeing the inter-relatedness of all things unfolds, and patterns begin to emerge from the previously chaotic and random sequences of events and experiences. A certain magic is reinstated onto the world. The three principles are a universal language that nature speaks to us and relays qualitative information. We are able to tap into a higher order of the way things truly are.

When studying the three universal principles from the western alchemical tradition, it is important to remember that what is being spoken of is not chemical mercury, sulfur, and salt, but philosophical mercury, sulfur and salt. While these principles have their reflections in the chemicals they are named after, they have much broader application than mere chemistry.

They are most useful in the study of botanical anatomy, that is, the inherent qualities and characteristics of a plant, as well as our own anatomy.

Another way to perceive these principles is through their elemental mothers. Each principle is a harmony of two elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water). By understanding their elemental parents, their qualities of their being is able to be understood on a deeper level.

To get the most holistic understanding of the three universal principles, it is helpful to study their nature from the different systems that use them. In the Organic Unity paradigm, we work mostly with the western alchemical tradition, Ayurveda, and Astrology. Each system allows insights into the principles that the others may fail to notice and thus broadens the perspective.


Sulfur is a harmony of the Air and Fire elements. In that way, it is moveable, penetrating, hot, and diffusive. Within the human body, the Sulfur principle is reflected as our soul. The soul under this definition is our own unique expression of the life force. It is our individuality, our true essential nature, our essence. It is the flame of our awareness. The correlation with Air is that our soul is not limited to our body, it has the ability to leave the body through astral projection, dream travel, and visionary journeying.

This can be better understood when looking at the Sulfur principle within plants, which is reflected in its volatile (essential) oils. The essential oil of a plant is a reflection of its essence. It is that plant’s unique flavor. When one smells an essential oil of Frankincense for example, you are connecting with that plant’s unique identity; there is no other smell on the face of the planet that smells like it. It is the dynamic expression of the life force within that particular plant. Like Fire and Air, the essential oils of a plant volatilize very easily (they disperse through the air) and they are often very heating and intense.

Chemical Sulfur, as most people know, smells very strong and tends to permeate the surrounding space and penetrate sharply (think rotten eggs). It ignites very easily, and puts out a very hot, bright flame.


The Mercury principle is composed of the Water and Air elements, and as such, is a mediator between the volatile or etheric elements, and the fixed elements. In traditional Greek mythology, Mercury was the messenger of the gods, and was in constant movement between the above and the below. Within the human body, Mercury is the spirit, or the animating life force.

Whereas Sulfur is the soul, or the consciousness of the individual, Mercury is the life force that move through the soul and gives it life. As the mediator, it is the vehicle that brings the soul down into the physical world.

Within the botanical kingdom, Mercury is reflected in the alcohol and water-soluble constituents of the plant, called secondary metabolites in pharmacognosy. If you take any plant on the face of the planet and ferment it, which in alchemy is considered a death (it putrefies or rots), you yield ethyl alcohol. You put a plant through a sort of death experience, and what is released is alcohol, which is the same in every plant. The spirit is released. This is why alcohol is commonly called spirits. So, the spirit of the plant is the alcohol and water components of the plant. This is highly Mercurial in nature because alcohol tends to extract more volatile (Air) constituents (resins, essential oils) and water tends to extract more fixed (Water) constituents (polysaccharides, glycosides, alkaloids). Thus, the spirit, or Mercury of a plant brings together or harmonizes the two sides of the spectrum of botanical constituents.

Chemical Mercury is an interesting substance. It is the only liquid metal and is highly moveable, changeable, and volatile- turns to vapor (Air) very quickly. It is somehow solid, yet liquid at the same time, and also moves into a gas.


So, we have the soul (Sulfur) and the spirit (Mercury), and finally we come to salt- the crystallization, the manifestation, the vehicle through which the subtler principles work through. Each principle progressed through various levels of density, with salt being the densest. It is composed of the Water and Earth elements.

Salt in the human is reflected as the physical body, and is thus very, very complex. Infinitely complex. Millions of chemical reactions occurring each second, most of which we know nothing about. The human body is one of the most beautiful mysteries we may ever come to know, a microcosm of the universe. It is the anchor for our soul and spirit, the temple in which they reside.

In botanical kingdom, the Salt principle is reflected in the mineral matrix of the plant. These are obtained through certain extraction methods using the Fire and Water elements to crystallize pure mineral salts. As with the human, these minerals are the vehicle through which the Sulfur (essential oil) and the Mercury (alcohol/water solubles) principles work through.

As far as botanical extracts go, it is these three principles that are primarily worked with their preparation. Each principle of a plant is separated and purified, and then the three are reunited. This is the principle behind spagyrics- to separate and recombine.

Most conventional herbal tinctures contain only the Mercury and Sulfur components of a plant. They macerate the herb in an alcohol and water menstruum for a period of time, filter the liquid material out and compost or throw away the solid plant material. Thus, majority of tinctures are missing 1/3 of a plant’s constituents, the mineral body through which the other constituents work through. It is disembodied medicine.

This is not to say that herbal tinctures do not work, they absolutely work and have provided an amazing service to the world by providing a natural means to palliate symptoms and heal their bodies. But in a sense, they are not able to work as well on our physical bodies as they could because they themselves are missing their physical bodies. The addition of the Salt principle to a tincture greatly enhances its effectiveness and potency and thus lower doses are often needed.

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Replies to This Discussion

Yes, indeed, very well explained!

Yes, Savlove, I was once a Rosicrucian, and you are right. 


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