Quintessence (alchemy)

 Jesse Brauner
Quintessence (alchemy)

In the context of alchemy, the word "quintessence" can refer to a number of different things, some of them rather esoteric in nature.

To understand the meaning of quintessence, it’s best to start with the basics; the prefix "quint" is linguistically connected to the number "five", and this provides a clue to one meaning of the overall word. It has long been believed that in addition to the four primary elements of earth, air, fire and water, there exists a fifth element as well. Such ideas possibly have their roots in the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras; most famous today for the mathematical formula that bears his name.

What exactly constitutes the ‘fifth element’ can vary sharply from one tradition to another, but regardless of its nature it is believed to be a key component of life in the universe. For example, scholars in the Middle Ages, who were likely influenced by the writings of Pythagoras, believed this fifth element to be 'ether'.

In alchemy, quintessence also has an association with chemicals. According to traditional modes of thinking, there are certain parts of chemicals and chemical mixtures that are more valuable/better than others, and this component is deemed the ‘quintessence’. In wine, for example, alcohol is what gives the liquid its character, and thus is considered to be the quintessence of the drink.

Another alchemical meaning of quintessence has to do with the famous “lapis philosophorum” or Stone of the Wise (also known as the Philosopher’s Stone). Perhaps the most iconic object in the entire field of alchemy, quintessence was said to be closely associated with this stone, and in some cases to even be synonymous with it.

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