Alchemy Symbols and Meanings

The word alchemy comes from the Arabian al-kimia, referring to the preparation of 'Elixir' or the 'Stone' by the Egyptians. The Arabic kimia, in turn, comes from the Coptic khem, which referred to the fertile black Nile delta soil and also to the dark mystery of the primordial First Matter (the Khem). This is the origin of the word 'chemistry'.

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

There were often many symbols for an element. For a time, the astronomical symbols of the planets were used to denote the elements. However, as alchemists were persecuted, particularly in medieval times, secret symbols were invented. This led to a great deal of confusion, so you will find some overlap of symbols. The symbols were in common use through the 17th century; some are still in use today.

Earth Alchemy Symbol

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

The alchemy symbols for earth, wind, fire, and water were fairly consistent (unlike those of the chemical elements). These symbols were used for "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 Greek philosopher Plato also associated the qualities of dry and cold to the Earth symbol. The symbol could be used to stand for the colors green or brown, too.

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. Plato also connected the qualities of wet and hot to the Air symbol. The symbol was associated with the colors blue or white or sometimes gray.

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. According to Plato, the symbol also stands for hot and dry. It's associated with the colors red and orange. Fire was considered male or masculine.

Water Alchemy Symbol

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

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

In addition to Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, many cultures also had a fifth element. This varied from one place to another, so there was no standard symbol. The fifth element could be aether, metal, wood, or something different.

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 could be represented by the squared circle. There are multiple ways to draw the glyph.

Sulfur Alchemy Symbol

Sulfur Alchemy Symbol
Sulfur Alchemy Symbol. Todd Helmenstine

The symbol for sulfur stood for the element, but also something more. Sulfur, together with mercury and salt, made up the Three Primes or Tria Prima of alchemy. The three primes could be thought of as points of a triangle. Sulfur represented evaporation and dissolution. It was the middle ground between the high and the 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 element, which was also known as quicksilver or hydrargyrum. The symbol was also used for the swiftly-moving planet, Mercury. As one of the three primes, the symbol represented the life force or a state that could transcend death or the Earth.

Salt Alchemy Symbol

Salt Alchemy Symbol
Salt Alchemy Symbol.

Modern scientists recognize salt is a chemical compound, not an element, but early alchemists did not know how to separate the substance into its components. Salt is essential for life, so it was worth its own symbol. In the Tria Prima, salt stands for condensation, crystallization, and the essence of a thing.

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 some, probably because tin is a common silver-colored metal. The symbol looks like the number 4 or sometimes a 7 or letter "Z" crossed with a horizontal line.

Antimony Alchemy Symbol

Antimony Alchemy Symbol
Antimony Alchemy Symbol.

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

Antimony was sometimes symbolized by the wolf. The metal antimony 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 involved a cross and then two circles or an "S" shape. A stylized picture of a swan could be 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 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 phosphorus oxidizes in air, appearing to glow green in the dark. Another interesting property of phosphorus was its ability to burn in air.

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

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. The element was associated with the planet Saturn, so sometimes they share 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 symbol 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 as a figure 8 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 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 a few 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 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.

An alchemist used his own code. Here's Scheele's "key" for the meanings of the symbols used in his work.