The Nature of Salt, Mercury and Sulphur

From the Work of Dr. Rudolf Steiner

The three substances of salt, mercury and sulphur are the three forms or modes of action in which the universal primordial will is manifesting itself throughout nature, for all things are a trinity bound together in a unity. Each of these forms of will power is an individual power; nevertheless, they are substantial, for “matter” and “force” are one and originate from the same cause. The three substances, held together in harmonious proportions, constitute health; their disharmony constitutes disease, and their disruption death.

The alchemists of the Middle Ages studied natural processes, regarding them as the earth processes of nature. They distinguished, for instance, three different natural processes which they regarded as the three great processes of nature. (1)

sulpher salt mercury

The first important process is the salt process. Everything in nature that can form a deposit of hard substance out of a solution was called salt by the alchemist of the Middle Ages. When the medieval alchemist saw this salt formation, however, his conception of it was entirely different from that of modern man. For if he wanted to feel he had understood it, the witnessing of such a process had to work like a prayer in his soul. Therefore, the medieval alchemist tried to make clear to himself what would have to happen in his own soul if the formation of salt were to take place there too. He arrived at the thought: human nature is perpetually destroying itself through instincts and passions. Our life would be nothing but a decomposition, a process of putrefaction, if we only followed our instincts and passions.

If man really wants to protect himself against this process of putrefaction, then he must constantly devote himself to noble thoughts that turn him towards the spirit.

It was a matter of bringing his thoughts to a higher level of development. The medieval alchemist knew that if he did not combat his passions in one incarnation, he would be born with a predisposition for illness in the next one, but that if he purified his passions he would enter life in the next incarnation with a predisposition for health. The process of overcoming through spirituality the forces that lead to decay is microcosmic salt formation. We can understand how a natural process like this occasioned the most reverent prayer.

alchemistWhen observing salt formation, the medieval alchemists told themselves, with a feeling of deepest piety: divine spiritual powers have been working in this for thousands of years in the same way as noble thoughts work in me. I am praying to the thoughts of the gods, the thoughts of divine spiritual beings that are behind the illusion of nature.

The medieval alchemist knew this, and he said to himself: when I let nature stimulate me to develop feelings like this, I make myself like the macrocosm. If I observe this process in an external way only, I cut myself off from the gods, I fall away from the macrocosm. These were the feelings of the medieval alchemist.

The process of dissolution gave a different experience: it was a different natural process that could also lead the medieval alchemist to prayer. Everything that can dissolve something else was called by the medieval alchemist quicksilver or mercury. Now he asked again: what is the corresponding quality in the human soul? What quality works in the soul in the same way in which quicksilver or mercury works outside in nature?

The medieval alchemist knew that all the forms of love in the soul are what correspond to mercury. He distinguished between lower and higher processes of dissolution, just as there are lower and higher forms of love. And thus, the witnessing of the dissolution process again became a pious prayer, and the medieval alchemist said to himself:

God’s love has been at work out there for thousands of years in the same way as love works in me.

The third important natural process for the medieval theosophist was combustion, that takes place when material substance is consumed by flames. And again, the medieval alchemist sought the inner process corresponding to this combustion. This inner soul process he saw to be ardent devotion to the deity. And everything that can go up in flames he called sulphur. In the stages of development of the earth he beheld a gradual process of purification similar to a combustion or sulphur process. Just as he knew that the earth will at some time be purified by fire, he also saw a combustion process in fervent devotion to the deity.

alchemist 2In the earth processes he beheld the work of those gods who look up to mightier gods above them. And permeated with great piety and deeply religious feelings at the spectacle of the process of combustion, he told himself: gods are now making a sacrifice to the gods above them. And then when the medieval alchemist produced the combustion process in the laboratory himself, he felt: I am doing the same as the gods do when they sacrifice themselves to higher gods.

He only considered himself worthy to carry out such a process of combustion in his laboratory when he felt himself filled with the mood of sacrifice, when he himself was filled with the desire to devote himself in sacrifice to the gods. The power of the flame filled the medieval alchemist with lofty and deeply religious feelings, and he told himself: when I see flames outside in the macrocosm, I am seeing the thoughts and the love of the gods, and the gods’ willingness to sacrifice.

Hebrew          Hindu            Alchemy        Element

Shin                Sattvas            Sulphur          Fire

Aleph              Raja                Mercury         Air

Mem               Tamas             Salt                  Water

The medieval alchemist produced these processes himself in his laboratory and then he entered into contemplation of these salt formations, solutions and processes of combustion, letting himself at the same time be filled with deeply religious feelings in which he became aware of his connection with all the forces of the macrocosm. These soul processes called forth in him divine thoughts, divine love and divine sacrifice. The medieval alchemist discovered that when he produced a salt process, noble, purifying thoughts arose in him. With a solution process, love was stimulated in him; he was inspired by divine love. With a combustion process, the desire to make a sacrifice was kindled in him, it urged him to sacrifice himself on the altar of the world.

These were the experiences of one who did these experiments. And if you had attended these experiments yourself in clairvoyant vision, you would have perceived a change in the aura of the person carrying them out. The aura that was a mixture of colors before the experiment began, being full of instincts and desires to which the person in question had perhaps succumbed, became single-hued as a result of the experiment.

First of all, during the experiment with salt formation, it became the color of copper — pure, divine thoughts — then, in the experiment with a solution, the color of silver — divine love — and finally, with combustion, the color of gold — divine sacrifice. The alchemists said they had made subjective copper, subjective silver and subjective gold out of the aura. The outcome was that the person who had undergone this, and had really experienced such an experiment inwardly, was completely permeated by divine love. Such was the way these medieval theosophists became permeated with purity, love and the will to sacrifice, and by means of this sacrificial service they prepared themselves for a certain clairvoyance.

This is how the medieval alchemist could see behind illusion into the way spiritual beings helped things to come into being and pass away again. And this enabled him to realize which forces of aspiration in men’s souls are helpful and which are not. He became acquainted with our own forces of growth and decay.

We should recognize that all that we divide and separate on earth, both in our thoughts and in our actions, in nature is actually united in some way or another. In our thoughts we separate what is subject to gravity, and therefore tends to salt formation, from that which bears the light and is therefore akin to the workings of light (phosphorus formation) ; and we separate both these categories from what is contained in the state of equilibrium between the two (mercury formation). But in nature there are no such absolute divisions. All these ways of working are connected one with another, adjusted to one another, so that they form highly intricate constructions, and one of these intricate structural systems is shown in the luster of the metal gold; for it is through gold that the spiritual realm looks, as it were, right into the external work.

It is most important to notice how in old writings the primary principles, salt, mercury and phosphorus, were seen to be in every substance in different combinations, and to note the diligence with which it was sought to liberate and extract these three principles from a given substance. (2)

Ancient atavistic knowledge was indeed not without justification in calling phosphorus the light-bearer. Men saw that phosphorus does carry and contain that imponderable light. What salt repels and holds at bay, phosphorus carries within it. Thus, the substances at the opposite pole from salt, are those that appropriate, so to speak, the imponderable entities — principally light, but also others, for instance, warmth —and interiorize them, making them their inner properties. Here then you have, in external nature, two states which are polar to one another; that which acts in a saline manner and that which acts in a phosphoric manner. And between them, there is a third group: that which acts mercurially. Just as man is a threefold being, a creature with nerves and senses, with a circulatory system, and with metabolism; and as circulation is the bridge linking nerves and senses to the metabolic functions: so, also there is a mediatory function in external nature. (3)

You have two opposite states in the outer world of nature, the salt principle of action and the phosphoric principle of action (sulfur). Between them is the mercurial principle of action. The mediating principle in the outer world of nature includes everything that neither gives itself up strongly the way the salt principle does, nor powerfully interiorizes imponderables, but holds the balance between these two activities by seeking to achieve the droplet form.


The form quality of the mercurial middle presents in the blood in the “droplet form;” the functional middle between “giving itself up to the outside world” and the hiding, interiorizing of imponderables reveals itself in new immune responses and learning after every infection.

The openness to the outside world, on one hand, and the process of development, on the other, have been known as the salt process from antiquity. No other organ, no other function in the human organ has this dual aspect of “dying into form” and “being open to the world” to such an extreme degree as the red blood cell. In the lung, the blood – here above all the red cell – is exposed to the greatest possible degree to the outside world; the process of oxygen coming into the blood from the air we breathe is referred to as passive diffusion and proceeds at high speed. Active life processes designed to overcome anything foreign hardly intervene at all. In its genesis and function, the red blood cell is the Salt pole among blood constituents. (4)


Salt represents the principle of corporification, the astringent or contractive and solidifying quality, or, in other words, the body. Salt is Yin, solidifying, calcifying, gravity. Salt effects the nerve-sense system, and is solidifying, forming, cooling, cognition, thinking and perceiving, and has a conservational effect relating us to the past.

Mercury is the principle or form of will which manifests itself as life, consciousness, and sensation. Mercury is the equilibrium between salt and sulphur, a liquid metal. Mercury effects the rhythmical system, breathing and circulation, harmony and balance, feeling and emotion, present life tasks uniting past and future. Both salt and sulfur side are old, specialized and ontogenetically not capable of further development. The young mercurial process is apparent in the reactive immune system which is capable of change. The nonspecific inflammatory response system and the coagulation system are metamorphic stages between the two extremes on one hand and the mercurial middle principle on the other. The principle referred to as “the mercurial” seeks to achieve the droplet form you always have in you in your protein constituents.

Sulphur (also phosphorus) represents the expansive power — the centrifugal force, in contradistinction to the centripetal motion of the first quality — it is that which “burns,” i.e., the soul or light in all things. Sulphur is Yang, light or warmth. Sulphur connects to the astral body and phosphorus connects to the ego. Effects the metabolic-limb system, form-dissolving, warming, will-power, and future potential.

The Trinity of Salt, Mercury and Sulphur

When we study the bodily nature of man, we have to do with processes connected with the senses, with nutrition, and also with those in which nutrition and sense-perception coincide. When man eats, he absorbs nutriment; he takes into himself the external substances of nature but at the same time he tastes them, so that a sense-perception is intermingled with a process which is continued from nature outside, on into man himself.

Think for a moment of the process of nutrition being accompanied by the perception of taste. We find that while the sense of taste is stimulated, and the process of nutrition is set in operation, the outer substances are dissolved in the fluids and juices within the human organism. The outer substances which the plants absorb from lifeless nature are all, to begin with, given form. That which exists on earth without form, in lifeless nature, is really cloven asunder. Crystals are at the basis of all substances. Those substances which we do not find in crystallized form, but formless, in dust and the like, are really crystallizations which have been shattered. Out of crystallized, lifeless nature the plant draws its substances and builds them up into that form which is peculiar to its own nature. From this again the animal derives its nourishment. So that we may say:

Out there in nature, everything has its form, its configuration. When man takes in these forms, he dissolves them. This is one form of the process which goes on in man’s organism. The forms, as they exist in outer nature, are dissolved. They are transmuted into the organic fluids.

But when the substances have been absorbed and transmuted into fluid, forms which were first dissolved begin to build up again. When we eat salt, it is first dissolved by means of the fluids in the organism, but we then give it form again. When we eat substances drawn from plants, they are dissolved and then inwardly reformed, not, this time, in the bodily fluids, but in the etheric body.

Now think of what happened in ancient times, when, for example, a man ate salt. It was dissolved and re-formed in his etheric body, but he was able to perceive the whole process inwardly. He had an inner thought-experience of the formative process undergone by the salt. When he ate salt, the salt was dissolved and the salt-cube was there in his etheric body. From this he knew: salt has the shape of a cube. And so, as man experienced his being inwardly, he also experienced nature within himself. The cosmic thoughts became his thoughts. What he experienced as imaginations, as dreamlike imaginations, were forms which revealed themselves in his etheric body. They were cosmic forms, cosmic configurations.

But the age dawned when this faculty to experience in the etheric body these processes of dissolution and reconstruction was lost to man. He was obliged more and more to turn to external nature. It was no longer an inner experience to him that salt is cubic in form. He was obliged to investigate outer nature to find out the true configuration of salt.

In this way man’s attention was diverted entirely to the outer world. The radical change to this condition wherein men no longer experienced cosmic thoughts through inner perception of the etheric body, had been taking place since the beginning of the fifteenth century.

Man dissolves everything he assimilates from the outer world of matter. It is a process like salt being dissolved in water. Man bears this water within himself, in his vital fluids. All substances, in so far as they are foodstuffs, are salt. This salt dissolves. In the salts, the cosmic thoughts are expressed on earth. And man again gives form to these cosmic thoughts in his etheric body. This is the ‘salt-process.’

Jacob Boehme connected the thinking — the process by which the world presents itself to man in pictures — with the salt-process, that is to say, with the dissolving and re-forming process undergone by substance within the organism of man. Such was his ‘salt-process.’

These things indicate the existence of an altogether different wisdom and science in olden times, a wisdom which was experienced through inner perception of the processes taking their course in the etheric body — processes which revealed themselves to man as the ever-recurring cosmic thoughts. The world constructed from the thoughts which are embodied in the crystal-formations of the earth, to which man gives form in his etheric body and consciously experiences – such was the ancient knowledge which disappeared in the course of time.

members of the body

All through the universe the cosmic thoughts are weaving; the Logos is working. The crystal-formations of the earth are the embodiments of the single parts of the cosmic Word. Now the sense of taste is only one of the many senses. The processes of hearing and of sight can be dealt with in a similar way though in their case the working of the salts in etheric form must be thought of in a more outward sense. Man receives through his senses that which is embodied in the salts and re-forms it in his etheric body, experiences it within himself. Cosmic thoughts repeat themselves in the thoughts of men.

The universe is recognized in man and man in the universe. With concrete and unerring intuition, the initiates of olden times were able to describe this out of their visionary, dream-like knowledge of the universe and of man.

From the concrete thoughts of the world of myriad forms, from the innermost thoughts of man, there arises an etheric world as rich in its varied forms as the world outside us.

These ancient sages of the Mysteries were able, by their own dream-veiled vision, to evolve this knowledge, they were able to have actual intercourse with the spiritual Beings of the cosmos. And from these spiritual Beings they learned something else, namely that what man has formed in his etheric body — by virtue of which he is inwardly another cosmos, a microcosm, an etheric rebirth of the macrocosm — what he thus possesses as an inner cosmos, he can in the element of air, by the process of breathing, again gradually obliterate. In those ancient times man knew that within him the universe is reborn in varied forms; he experienced an inner world. Out of his inner vital fluids the whole universe arose as an etheric structure.

Now those spiritual Beings with whom the ancient sages could have real intercourse did not enlighten them only in regard to the vital fluids from which this microcosmic universe was born but also in regard to the life-giving air, to the air which man takes in with his breath and which then spreads through his whole organism. This air which spreads itself over the whole of the microcosm, renders the shapes therein indistinct. The wonderful etheric universe in miniature begins, directly the breath contacts it, to become indefinite. That which formerly consisted of myriad forms, is unified, because the ‘astral’ man lives in the airy element, just as the etheric man lives in the fluids. The astral being of man lives in this airy element and by the breaking up of the etheric thoughts, by the metamorphosis of etheric thoughts into a force, the will is born from the working of the ‘astral man’ in the ‘air man.’ And together with the will there arise the forces of growth which are connected with the will.

The astral lays hold of the airy element and spreads over that which is etheric and fluidic. And thereby a real process is set up which appears in outer nature at a different stage, when something is burnt. This process was conceived by the ancients as the sulphur-process. And from the sulphur-process there unfolded that which was then experienced in the soul as will.

In olden times, when a real knower spoke about ‘thinking’ he spoke of the salt-process just described. Nor did he speak in an abstract way of the ‘will’ but of the astral forces laying hold of the airy element in man, of the sulphur-process from which the will is born. Willing was a process of concrete reality and it was said that the adjustment between the two — for they are opposite processes — was brought about by the mercury-process, by that which is fluid and yet has form, which swings to and fro from the etheric nature to the astral nature, from the fluidic to the aeriform.

The writings of the Middle Ages which date back to the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries still showed traces of this ancient faculty of perception and of a knowledge that was at the same time inner experience.

The salt process, the sulphur-process are nowhere to be found in this form in external nature; they are processes which can only be known by man as taking place in his image being. In outer nature there transpires something which is related to these processes as the processes in a corpse are related to those in a living man. The salt- and sulphur-processes spoken of by modern chemistry are those which the old Folk-Wisdom living in Jacob Boehme conceived as taking place within a corpse. Such processes are dead, whereas they were once filled with inner life. And as he observed them in their living state, man saw a new world — a world which is not the world surrounding him on earth.

The ancients, then, were able with the help of their inwardly experienced knowledge, to see that which is not of the earth, which belongs to a different world. The moment we really understand these salt-and sulphur-processes we see the pre-earthly life of man. For earthly life differs from the pre-earthly life precisely in this: the sulphur- and salt-processes are dead in the external world of sense; in pre-earthly existence they are living. What we perceive with our senses between birth and death, is dead. The real salt- and sulphur-processes are living when we experience them as they are in pre-earthly existence.

This faculty of man to look back into pre-earthly existence has been lost — lost together with that union with the spiritual Beings who help us to see in the sulphur-process the reality of post-earthly existence. (5)

  1. Rosicrucian Christianity, Esoteric Christianity and the Mission of Christian Rosenkreutz, Lecture 2, Neuchatel, 28th September 1911.
  2. Spiritual Science and Medicine, Lecture V, Dornach, April 1921 (GA 313).
  3. Spiritual Science and Medicine, Lecture VI,by Rudolf Steiner (GA 112).
  4. Anthroposophic Medicine, March 25, 1920 (GA312).
  5. Salt, Mercury, Sulphur, Dornach, January 13th, 1923, Rudolf Steiner.