Mercury is heavy, dark and full of secrets, hiding many faces. Where tin is a very friendly and light metal, that seems to sympathize with humanity, absorbing its sorrows and pains, wanting to become human from the outside, mercury’s spirit penetrates more deeply into the body and soul of everything it touches, operating as the great transformer. It is for this reason that mercury plays such an important role in alchemy, a dimension that I have tried to honor in this compilation. Mercury can designate (Egyptian) Toth, (Greek) Hermes or (Roman) Mercury, the messenger of the ancient mythological Gods; it is also the name of the planet closest to the sun (and hence considered as messenger of the sun); and it is the name of the silvery liquid metal mercury (Hg), also known as quicksilver. Mercury is obtained from an orange rock cinnabar, which turns into an orange-red powder when grounded and which releases liquid mercury when heated. What is very special is that when mercury is synthesized again with sulpher, an artificial red powder, called vermillion, re-appears. Natural cinnabar and artificial vermillion have been known since ancient times for their use as pigment, mercury has been and still is used as a “magnet for gold” in gold mining. However, mercury is very poisonous; it attacks the nervous system (and many other bodily functions) directly, and makes you go insane.
While making this video compilation, I discovered so many dimensions of mercury that it is hard to summarize the motivation for my choices of excerpts in just a few paragraphs. Since cinnabar is often considered as the (access to the) philosopher’s stone, and the stone itself contains both the mercury and the red powder, I open with an image of a piece of cinnabar rock from the Spanish Almaden mines, one of the early known mercury mines. The double images of the liquid metal and the red powder reflect the double sides of mercury. In Roman mythology, Mercury is the son of Jupiter and Maia and is considered the god of commerce, communication and negotiation and the protector of travelers but also symbol of trickery and manipulation. He is usually depicted with wings (as messenger of the gods) and with the caduceus (two snakes winding around a winged staff), indicating mercury’s balancing powers. Mercury is connected to sexual energy and also guides souls to the underworld. In alchemy Mercury is related to Hermes Trismegistes and often symbolized as hermaphrodite, containing both male and female principles, both necessary for the transmutation process and the finding of the “philosopher’s stone”. Mercury (spirit, eater & air) and sulpher (soul, sun, fire, male), in combination with salt (body, moon, earth, female) are the prima materia of alchmemy, the trinity of alchemical substances in the Great Work finding the “philosopher’s stone”. Everything can be transmuted from this basis.
As ancient wisdom, alchemy traveled to Europe where it was often practiced in secret running against doctrines of official religion (because of the use of sulpher in combination with mercury, the sulpher (brimstone) smell was connected to the devil); and later against the doctrines of modern science. Nevertheless, scientists have also (secretly) been interested in alchemy. Most famously perhaps Isaac Newton (1643-1727), who wrote thousands of pages on his alchemical experiments and who also was one of the many famous persons afflicted by mercury poisoning that rendered him (temporarily) mad. Another famous mercury poisoning case that of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang Di, who drank mercury, assuming it would give him eternal life. Instead it killed him.
Yet many important discoveries are made because of alchemist’s experiments. One particular example is the work of Austrian alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541), who introduced alchemy into medicine, and even claimed that he had been able to create a human being from mercury (a homunculus). He also introduced mercury to treat syphilis. Mozart suffered from madness because of such treatment. Beethoven, Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln also has toxic levels of mercury in their blood (Lincoln took mercury-honey pills against depression). Mercury was also frequently used in make-up products used for instance in Venitian circles in the 16th century and countless women from the Edwardian period onward in Europe: whitening powders with mercury (and lead and arsenic) cracked the skin, mercury on the eyelids and eye lashes could lead to blindness (especially in combination with a few drops of Belladonna), and red cheeks and lips of vermillion also contributed to mercury poisoning.
In the 19th century mercury was used by felt hat workers, who used mercury to prepare the felt, separating fur from the skin of small animals in a process called carroting. Many hatters suffered from “mercurial disease” that included symptoms such as tremors, irritability and mental instability. The character of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland has a source in historic reality. I quote from Melanie Martinez’s Mad Hatter video to make this reference to mercury explicit. Obviously, also for mine workers cinnabar and quicksilver mining was hazardous. The Spanish send their convicts often to the Almaden cinnabar mines, which was similar to a deat sentence. Cinnabar is also found in Peru, China, and in the United States, where is most commonly was used in gold mining. In the San Francisco Bay area the water still contains mercury pollution from the Gold Rush. And in Peru in (among others) the Madre de Dios region of the Amazon, illegal gold mining is still involves heavy mercury pollution.
As red pigment, vermillion powder, known as sindor, has been used for ages in India. In Hinduisms sindor along the parting of the hair is worn by married women, not only indicating the marriage bond. It is also a symbol of female energy and devotion to the goddess Shakthi, goddess of cosmic power and feminine creativity. It also induces concentration, and relieves blood pressure. Vermillion is also known as a pigment, used by painters throughout many ages. It is considered as precious, in particular because of it’s spiritual (alchemical) qualities. I have included a few examples of paintings by among others Titan, Van Eyck, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Besides make-up (mercury is still used in some mascara’s), medication (an example of an experimental treatment of cancer by injecting it with mercury is seen in The Knick), and paint, other more common uses of mercury are inside electric switches, in thermometers and hour glasses and, most commonly, in amalgam fillings in our teeth.
Alchemy returned in the Twentieth century, first when Carl Jung discovered that the search for the philosopher’s stone has to be read as the search into the unconscious, psychic healing and the transmutation of the soul in to a more conscious being. And in the nuclear age when scientists at Harvard in an experiment in 1941 bombarded a quantity of 400grams of mercury with radiation in a particle accelerator and transformed it into a small piece of gold. In contemporary popular culture, mercury / quicksilver is also a known reference. I could not avoid Freddy Mercury, not because of the name, but because of the desire to “break free”, change and transmutate that he and his dancers embody; their flecked bodies seem like particles and molecules themselves. Mercury transforms into T2, the quicksilver, multi-shaped and dangerous Terminator in Cameron’s film. Which finds a more friendly face in Quicksilver, the superfast silvery character in X-Men who can shape and bend time, embodying the magic transforming qualities of mercury.
Finally, the planet mercury itself, too, has strange qualities that correspond to mercury’s mythical and physical proportions. Mercury has a very fast orbit: it goes around the sun in 88 days. However, it revolves its own axes very slowly: one mercurial day equals 59 days on earth. One day on Mercury (sunrise to sunrise) is longer than one year on Earth (one orbit around the Sun). Mercury is the smallest but least explored planet in our solar system. It is difficult to explore because it is so close to the sun. Because it has no atmosphere, it can get extremely hot and extremely cold. Seen from Mercury the sun is three times bigger than seen from earth. And Mercury has a double sunrise.
Mercury is the ultimate mediator and agent of transmutation, not only of matter, metals and stones, but also of the mind, soul and psyche. I still have to dive into lead, but clearly, mercury is the first element in this search to follow the metals…