Wilhelm Christoph Kriegsmann and the Secrets of Alchemical Symbolism

The eagerly expected second issue of the young, open-access journal Correspondences was released this past Saturday. Yours truly also contributed a substantial article on Wilhelm Christoph Kriegsmann (1635–79). Even so, there are several things that had to be cut out. For instance, while I devote a fair amount of attention to his philological reconstruction of the Tabula Smaragdina (1657) and his Epistola (1669) arguing that Plato was a noteworthy chymist and, moreover, taught much that agrees with the Gospel of John, Taaut (1665) received short shrift. As this work on ‘the interpretation of the chymical signs’ (Fig. 1) was actually the one due to which I first became interested in Kriegsmann, I thought I’d share some outtakes, as it were, with my readers.

As Kriegsmann had earlier identified Hermes Trismegistus as Phoenician (instead of Egyptian, as common early-modern lore had it), he chose the original, Phoenician name of Hermes as his title. The Egyptian—pardon, Phoenician—sage was commonly credited with the invention of writing in general and alchemical symbols in particular. It was the latter that Kriegsmann intended to interpret philologically, armchair alchemist that he was. Kriegsmann argued that these signs conveyed knowledge regarding the hidden properties of alchemical substances. He took for granted that Hermes Trismegistus had encoded his profound knowledge in the alchemical symbols. Therefore it would be quite mistaken to assume that they were arbitrary: every dot and line used to form a given character had to convey knowledge about the hidden qualities of the alchemical substance it designated.[1]

Based on this assumption, Kriegsmann was fairly confident that it was also possible to investigate substances by solely analyzing their signs—instead of analyzing their behaviour in the alchemist’s furnace. As a lot of time had since gone by, however, Kriegsmann suspected that many of the signs in use were actually corrupted. Regarding other signs he was more confident: ‘But our signs show the characters of the principles [salt, sulphur] and [mercury] so clearly that there is no doubt about them being the correct, old ones that correspond to the nature of the designated things.’[2] With this statement, Kriegsmann showed himself blissfully unaware that many of the signs used in alchemy were far from ancient and that the three principles, in particular, had only been introduced a bit more than a century ago, as an innovation by Paracelsus who had added salt to sulphur and mercury, the two principles on which the medieval, Arab alchemist known to the Latin west as Geber had based his alchemical theory.

Yet out of the traditional signs for the four elements, Kriegsmann only retained the sign for fire and replaced the others (Fig. 2). He assumed the inverted triangle for water to have been a misinterpretation of what was intended to be a circle, while the signs for earth and air were simply ‘incorrect and composed in this or that mind without much careful attention’.[3]

Almost in passing, Kriegsmann proposed an intriguing solution to a vexing problem of Paracelsian matter theory—the relation between the four elements and the three hypostatical principles. According to him, each element corresponded to a basic quality, warmth, cold, moisture and dryness, and it was simply their combinations that gave rise to the three principles (Fig. 3). Kriegsmann argued all of this based merely on his analysis of the signs. Accordingly, he characterized sulphur as ‘a moist warmth’, mercury as ‘a cold moistness’, and salt as ‘a dry coldness’.[4]

Regarding the metals, Kriegsmann stated that the matrix of the metals and minerals is water, the sign of which is most dominant in gold. The dot represents the primordial matter known as chaos or the quintessence. Thus, the sign for gold is composed of a circle and a central dot, marking it as the most perfect metal and hinting at its connection to the materia prima. Whereas this is the standard sign for gold and the sun, Kriegsmann’s reinterpretation of the sign for silver is interesting: rather than a crescent moon, he understood it to be a dot and a half–circle. And since the sun and the moon are the brightest lights of the heavens from which the other planets derive their light, the same holds true within the terrestrial astronomy of the metals.This argument hinges on the fact that the very same signs were used for the seven planets in astrology as for the seven metals in alchemy.

Now, according to Kriegsmann some metals reflect gold rather than silver, and vice versa. Which metals fell into which category could be read from their very signs: the ones containing full circles represent golden-natured metals, the ones containing half-circles represent silvery metals (Fig. 4). Therefore, copper, iron and antimony are golden-natured, whereas tin and lead are silvery.[5] As Sol and Luna, gold and silver, were traditionally identified as king and queen, male and female, the designation of some metals as golden and others silvery also had implications for their gendering.

Kriegsmann noted that there were two different signs for mercury, one of which represented quicksilver, and the other the Paracelsian principle of Mercury. As is especially apparent in the latter, mercury is a hermaphrodite that contains both the natures of gold and silver. However, in the case of copper, traditionally identified with Venus and thus female, Kriegsmann’s approach seems to render copper a male metal. Here as elsewhere, his expositions on the alchemical characters tie in with commonly accepted lore only uneasily, even though Kriegsmann did not address these conflicts explicitly.

So, if you’re eager to learn more about Kriegsmann, you’re very welcome to download and read my Correspondences paper. Finally, another thing that I wasn’t able to delve into was Kriegsmann’s take on the kabbalah, which he presented as a curious mix of astrology and angel magic in a treatise that was only published almost one-hundred years after his death. If at some point in the future I should manage to identify some of his sources, that might also be worth another blog post.


[1] Wilhelm Christoph Kriegsmann, Taaut Oder Außlegung der Chymischen Zeichen (Frankfurt a.M.: Bey Thoma Matthia Götzen, 1665), 4–8.

[2] Kriegsmann, Taaut, 25.

[3] Kriegsmann, Taaut, 25.

[4] Kriegsmann, Taaut, 29.

[5] Kriegsmann, Taaut, 55–58.


4 responses to “Wilhelm Christoph Kriegsmann and the Secrets of Alchemical Symbolism

  • Mats David Ranaxe

    A very interesting blog this. It made me curious about this man. Thank you!

  • bryantfraser

    How would you say the hard metals be used as an analogy for Sexual Alchemy between the Male and Female…is there any underlying basis for this understanding?

    • Mike A. Zuber

      I would say that the underlying basis for gendered metals was provided by mythology. The seven metals of the alchemists could be correlated to classical deities via the seven planets of the geocentric world system. Hence, Venus (the goddess of beauty, and copper in alchemical contexts) and Luna (the moon goddess, also Diana; silver in alchemy) were female. Saturn, Jupiter and Mars were clearly male, while Mercury could be construed as intergender, likely by the mythological association with Hermaphroditus, which is where we get our term ‘hermaphrodite’.
      Another seventeenth-century alchemist, Johann Joachim Becher, played on the adulterous relationship between Mars and Venus, who was actually married to Vulcan, the smith of the gods. Though one doesn’t have to be a classicist to arrive at the same conclusion, the mythological precedent indicated to Becher that iron and copper go together well when joined in the fire, alluding to the fact that Vulcan literally caught them in the act.
      As Lawrence M. Principe points out in an excellent paper on this subject, mythology could also provide templates for all sorts of other sexual couplings and forms of procreation that alchemists used to at once reveal and conceal their laboratory processes: ‘Revealing Analogies: The Descriptive and Deceptive Roles of Sexuality and Gender in Latin Alchemy.’ In Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism, edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff and Jeffrey J. Kripal. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011. Pp. 209-229.

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