Alchemy Symbols and Meanings

common alchemy symbols illustrations

ThoughtCo / Vin Ganapathy

The word "alchemy" comes from the Arabian al-kimia, referring to the preparation of elixir by the Egyptians. The Arabic kimia, in turn, comes from the Coptic khem, which refers to the fertile black Nile delta soil as well as the dark mystery of the primordial First Matter (the Khem). This is also the origin of the word "chemistry."

Overview of Alchemy Symbols

Alchemists used secret symbols because they were often persecuted. As a result, there are multiple symbols and overlap between them.
Alchemists used secret symbols because they were often persecuted. As a result, there are multiple symbols and overlap between them. caracterdesign / Getty Images

In alchemy, symbols were created to represent different elements. For a time, the astronomical symbols of the planets were used. However, as alchemists were persecuted—particularly in medieval times—secret symbols were invented. This led to a great deal of confusion, as there are often many symbols for a single element as well as some overlap of symbols.

The symbols were in common use through the 17th century, and some are still in use today.

Earth Alchemy Symbol

Alchemy Symbol for Earth
Alchemy Symbol for Earth. Stephanie Dalton Cowan / Getty Images

Unlike those of the chemical elements, the alchemy symbols for earth, wind, fire, and water were fairly consistent. They were used for the natural elements into the 18th century, when alchemy gave way to chemistry and scientists learned more about the nature of matter.

Earth was indicated by a downward-pointing triangle with a horizontal bar running through it. The symbol could also be used to stand for the colors green or brown. Additionally, the Greek philosopher Plato associated the qualities of dry and cold with the earth symbol.

Air Alchemy Symbol

Alchemy Symbol for Air
Alchemy Symbol for Air. Stephanie Dalton Cowan / Getty Images

The alchemy symbol for air or wind is an upright triangle with a horizontal bar. It was associated with the colors blue, white, sometimes gray. Plato connected the qualities of wet and hot to this symbol.

Fire Alchemy Symbol

Alchemy Symbol for Fire
Alchemy Symbol for Fire. Stephanie Dalton Cowan / Getty Images

The alchemy symbol for fire looks like a flame or campfire—it's a simple triangle. It's associated with the colors red and orange and was considered to be male or masculine. According to Plato, the fire alchemy symbol also stands for hot and dry.

Water Alchemy Symbol

Alchemy Symbol for Water
Alchemy Symbol for Water. Stephanie Dalton Cowan / Getty Images

Appropriately, the symbol for water is the opposite of the one for fire. It's an inverted triangle, which also resembles a cup or glass. The symbol was often drawn in blue or at least referred to that color, and it was considered female or feminine. Plato associated the water alchemy symbol with the qualities wet and cold.

In addition to earth, air, fire, and water, many cultures also had a fifth element. This could be aether, metal, wood, or something else. Because the incorporation of a fifth element varied from one place to another, there was no standard symbol.

Philosopher's Stone Alchemy Symbol

The squared circle is a 17th century alchemical symbol for the creation of the Philosopher's Stone.
The 'squared circle' or 'squaring the circle' is a 17th century alchemical glyph or symbol for the creation of the Philosopher's Stone. The Philosopher's Stone was supposed to be able to transmute base metals into gold and perhaps be an elixir of life. Frater5, Wikipedia Commons

The Philosopher's Stone was represented by the squared circle. There are multiple ways to draw this glyph.

Sulfur Alchemy Symbol

Sulfur Alchemy Symbol
Sulfur Alchemy Symbol. Todd Helmenstine

The symbol for sulfur stood for more than just the chemical element. Together with mercury and salt, the trio made up the Three Primes, or Tria Prima, of alchemy. The three primes could be thought of as points of a triangle. In it, sulfur represented evaporation and dissolution; it was the middle ground between the high and low or the fluid that connected them.

Mercury Alchemy Symbol

Mercury Alchemy Symbol
Mercury Alchemy Symbol. Todd Helmenstine, sciencenotes.org

The symbol for mercury stood for the chemical element, which was also known as quicksilver or hydrargyrum. It was also used to represent the swiftly moving planet Mercury. As one of the three primes, mercury reflected both the omnipresent life force and a state that could transcend death or Earth.

Salt Alchemy Symbol

Salt Alchemy Symbol
Salt Alchemy Symbol.

Modern scientists recognize salt as a chemical compound, not an element, but early alchemists did not know how to separate the substance into its components to come to this conclusion. Simply, salt was worth its own symbol because it is essential for life. In the Tria Prima, salt stands for condensation, crystallization, and the underlying essence of a body.

Copper Alchemy Symbol

This is one of the alchemy symbols for the metal copper.
This is one of the alchemy symbols for the metal copper.

There were several possible element symbols for the metal copper. The alchemists associated copper with the planet Venus, so sometimes, the symbol for "woman" was used to indicate the element.

Silver Alchemy Symbol

A common way to indicate silver was to draw a crescent moon.
A common way to indicate silver was to draw a crescent moon. Todd Helmenstine, sciencenotes.org

The crescent moon was a common alchemy symbol for the metal silver. Of course, it could also represent the actual moon, so context was important. 

Gold Alchemy Symbol

Gold Alchemy Symbol
Gold Alchemy Symbol. Todd Helmenstine

The alchemy symbol for the element gold is a stylized sun, usually involving a circle with rays. Gold was associated with physical, mental, and spiritual perfection. The symbol can also stand for the sun. 

Tin Alchemy Symbol

Tin Alchemy Symbol
Tin Alchemy Symbol. Todd Helmenstine

The alchemy symbol for tin is more ambiguous than others, probably because tin is a common silver-colored metal. The symbol looks like the number four, or sometimes like a seven or letter "Z" crossed with a horizontal line.

Antimony Alchemy Symbol

Antimony Alchemy Symbol
Antimony Alchemy Symbol.

The alchemy symbol for the metal antimony is a circle with a cross above it. Another version seen in texts is a square placed on edge, like a diamond.

Antimony was also sometimes symbolized by the wolf—the metal represents man's free spirit or animal nature.

Arsenic Alchemy Symbol

Arsenic Alchemy Symbol
Arsenic Alchemy Symbol. Heron

A wide variety of seemingly unrelated symbols were used to represent the element arsenic. Several forms of the glyph involved a cross and two circles or an "S" shape. A stylized picture of a swan was also used to represent the element.

Arsenic was a well-known poison during this time, so the swan symbol might not make much sense—until you recall that the element is a metalloid. Like other elements in the group, arsenic can transform from one physical appearance to another; these allotropes display different properties from each other. Cygnets turn into swans; arsenic, too, transforms itself.

Platinum Alchemy Symbol

Platinum Alchemy Symbol
Platinum Alchemy Symbol. Todd Helmenstine

The alchemy symbol for platinum combines the crescent symbol of the moon with the circular symbol of the sun. This is because alchemists thought platinum was an amalgam of silver (moon) and gold (sun).

Phosphorus Alchemy Symbol

Phosphorus Alchemy Symbol
Phosphorus Alchemy Symbol. Todd Helmenstine, sciencenotes.org

Alchemists were fascinated by phosphorus because it seemed capable of holding light—the white form of the element oxidizes in air, appearing to glow green in the dark. Another interesting property of phosphorus is its ability to burn in air.

Although copper was commonly associated with Venus, the planet was called Phosphorus when it glowed brightly at dawn.

Lead Alchemy Symbol

Lead Alchemy Symbol
Lead Alchemy Symbol. Todd Helmenstine, sciencenotes.org

Lead was one of the seven classical metals known to the alchemists. Back then, it was called plumbum, which is the origin of the element's symbol (Pb). The symbol for the element varied, but since the metal was associated with the planet Saturn, the two sometimes shared the same symbol.

Iron Alchemy Symbol

Iron Alchemy Symbol
Iron Alchemy Symbol. Todd Helmenstine, sciencenotes.org

There were two common and related alchemy symbols used to represent the metal iron. One was a stylized arrow, drawn pointing up or to the right. The other common symbol is the same as what is used to represent the planet Mars or "male."

Bismuth Alchemy Symbol

Bismuth Alchemy Symbol
Bismuth Alchemy Symbol. Todd Helmenstine, sciencenotes.org

Not a lot is known about the use of bismuth in alchemy. Its symbol appears in texts, typically as a circle topped by a semicircle or a figure eight that is open at the top.

Potassium Alchemy Symbol

Potassium Alchemy Symbol
Potassium Alchemy Symbol. Todd Helmenstine, sciencenotes.org

The alchemy symbol for potassium typically features a rectangle or open box ("goalpost" shape). Potassium is not found as a free element, so alchemists used it in the form of potash, which is potassium carbonate.

Magnesium Alchemy Symbol

Magnesium Alchemy Symbol
Magnesium Alchemy Symbol. Todd Helmenstine, sciencenotes.org

There were several different symbols for the metal magnesium. The element itself is not found in pure or native form; rather, the alchemists used it in the form of "magnesia alba," which was magnesium carbonate (MgCO3).

Zinc Alchemy Symbol

Zinc Alchemy Symbol
Zinc Alchemy Symbol. Todd Helmenstine, sciencenotes.org

"Philosopher's wool" was zinc oxide, sometimes called nix alba (white snow). There were different alchemy symbols for the metal zinc; some of them resembled the letter "Z."

Ancient Egyptian Alchemy Symbols

These are the Egyptian alchemical symbols for the metals.
These are the Egyptian alchemical symbols for the metals. From Lepsius, Metals in Egyptian Inscriptions, 1860.

Although alchemists in different parts of the world worked with many of the same elements, they didn't all use the same symbols. For example, the Egyptian symbols are hieroglyphs.

Scheele's Alchemy Symbols

These are some of the alchemical symbols used by Carl Wilhelm Scheele.
These are some of the alchemical symbols used by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a German-Swedish chemist who discovered several elements and other chemical substances. H.T. Scheffer, Chemiske forelasningar, Upsalla, 1775.

One alchemist, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, used his own code. Here's Scheele's "key" for the meanings of the symbols used in his work.