Central to the overarching philosophy of the alchemical and spagyric tradition is the tria prima, or what are known as the Three Philosophical Principles. This grand trinity pattern forms the basis of the alchemical perspective of nature, people, plants, and ultimately life as a whole. These principles are known as Sulfur, Mercury and Salt.
One of the beautiful things of the alchemical tradition is the synergy between the science and spirit of life. Indeed the tradition was developed before the breaking away of science from the esoteric and its degradation into a strictly intellectual, rational, reductionistic view of the world. Thus, while these Three Principles are named after specific chemical substances, it’s important to understand that the chemicals are mere physical manifestations of a greater archetypal force of nature that is present within all things. We can learn a lot about these archetypal forces through studying these chemicals and visa versa.
In short, Sulfur, Mercury and Salt are said to be the soul, spirit, and body of any living thing—and in alchemy, everything in nature is seen as being alive, even stones, minerals and metals. Another way of seeing it is that each being has consciousness (Sulfur), intelligence (Mercury), and a physical form (Salt).
These philosophical principles also manifest in physical forms within each being. According to spagyric philosophy, within plants they are represented in the essential oils (Sulfur), the alcohol (Mercury), and the alkali minerals (Salt). This is likely one of the most important teachings, as these are the primary substances that are worked with in spagyrics, which are separated, purified, and recombined to craft various forms of spagyric medicines.
As both a medical art and spiritual practice, alchemy is concerned with life: restoring it, healing it, understanding it. In this way it considers the beginnings of life on Earth, how creation occurred (and continues to occur), and how this can inform our art. The study of cosmology thus is central in alchemical discussions, for both philosophical and practical reasons.
In light of the Three Principles, we turn to the 4 Elements to understand their own unique cosmology. In the process of creation, the 4 Elements of Fire, Air, Water, and Earth were born out of the splitting of the primal duality of life- referred to in alchemy as Celestial Niter and Celestial Salt, which emerged out of the primordial void or Prima Materia at the beginning of creation.
These four elemental forces then recombined in unique ways to form the Three Principles, which ultimately bound and shaped the cosmic forces into matter and created the diversity of life on Earth as we know it. Understanding the elemental qualities of each principle lends great insight and perspective into its qualities and characteristics so that you can learn to see them in life.
Fire and Air recombined to form Sulfur, Water and Air to form Mercury, and Earth and Water to form Salt. Thus we can see that Sulfur, the soul, is the most volatile, lightweight, and “heavenly” of the Principles, while Salt is the most fixed, solid, and physical of them. Mercury is unique as the bridge between heaven and earth, combining Air and Water (a volatile and fixed element). These characteristics are central in spagyric practice, for it guides us into how to properly extract, purify, and preserve these principles within plants. It also allows us to see their qualities in people and see which ones tend to be more dominant or recessive, thus forming our constitution and temperament.
Correspondences to the Three Principles
When studying various medical systems from around the world, one can start to see many patterns and similarities amongst them. The Elements alone have shown up in countless medical and spiritual traditions worldwide, many of which were not necessarily in contact with one another—yet they came to the same conclusions. This reveals that there are indeed universal truths, a perennial philosophy of nature that exists on Earth regardless of culture, place, or even time, as people the world over throughout time have come to the same revelations.
This certainly applies to Sulfur, Mercury, and Salt, as there are a handful of triune patterns that essentially describe the same energetic qualities, though with their own unique focuses and nuances. Yet they point to the same fundamental trinity. One of the best examples of this is the tri-dosha of Ayurveda. While they have slightly different elemental compositions (as Ayurveda includes the 5th element of Ether in their cosmology, when one observes the qualities and characteristics of vata, pitta and kapha, and compares them to Mercury, Sulfur, and Salt, we see many more similarities than differences.
This also applies to the three modes of astrology: cardinal, mutable and fixed, as well as a more modern constitutional system developed (or revealed to) Rupert Sheldon: ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph. One can also see correlations to the three treasures of Chinese Medicine: chi, jing, and shen. I have found these correspondences to be the most insightful in terms of medical alchemy and spagyrics, for they have practical applications, but other branches of Hermetic and esoteric philosophy draws correlations to these three principles and various pantheons, mythologies, stories, and religions.
An important note on this dynamic of seeing relationships and correspondences amongst traditions. This is in no way to devalue or water down a tradition, or to just say “the three doshas are the three principles.” Indeed, the way I have come to understand it, is that there are various archetypal patterns in nature— in this case, a three-fold pattern— that cultures and traditions directly perceived, named, and worked with in their own unique way. Each one seeing it from a slightly different perspective. To gain a more holistic understanding of these archetypal patterns, when we study and work with different cultural perspectives of them we have a more well-rounded, holistic understanding of them.
This introduces the topic of the Three Philosophical Principles of Alchemy in general, to learn more about each one in detail, read their standalone articles here: