Sulphur first appears as a generative force in an eighth to tenth century tractate entitled Liber misericordiae within the alchemical compendium Corpus Jabirianum attributed to the Arab polymath Jabir ibn Hayyan, the Pseudo-Geber (c. 721-815). According to Pseudo-Geber’s theory, all substances in the cosmos are comprised of Philosophical Sulphur and Mercury (termed Philosophical to distinguish them from the crude elements of the same name) acting on the prima materia or first substance. In this cryptic system of knowledge the action of combustible Sulphur, composed of the elements fire and air as well as the secondary qualities of hot and dry, reacted with fusible Mercury, composed of the ethereal elements water and earth along with the qualities of wet and cold, to produce the bodies of the seven metals under the respective influence of the seven planets.
In order to correctly denote the meaning of Sulphur, we must adhere to an animistic interpretation that sees the world as a living organism contained of intermingling and interconnected fragments. On the Tabula Smaragdina or Emerald Tablet, Hermes Trismegistus draws attention to thirteen precepts that garner an idealistic impression of the alchemy as the quintessential law or process that enables all creation. Hence we should abstain from any attempt to grasp or understand this esoteric symbol using a purely mechanistic or reductionist approach. Looking at creation from a dualistic perspective then, Sulphur might be described as a volatile, fiery and active masculine ‘spirit’ which confers ‘form’ to all things by binding their vital essence to the corporeal realm. In this way, Sulphur enters into the sublunary sphere of generation to act upon substances and partake in the transformation process without ever suffering any violation or fundamental change to its own anatomy. This formative energy behaves rather elusively; it remains concealed when coagulating the ‘body’ of a substance or object to render it dry and hard and will only reveal itself during the retrograde stages of un-creation, namely during chemical trials heeded by distillation, putrefaction or dissolution. The latter is sparked by ethereal Quicksilver, a generative force that compliments philosophical Sulphur by rendering itself into a purer and more receptive plastic-like substance for the fixation and coagulation of superior forms during each coniunctionis or new marriage between the two. It mirrors physical attraction between male and female in that the beauty of the feminine aesthetic temporarily disables its opposite before prompting the former to tap into a wellspring of unknown pristine strength and liberate itself from its own conceptual margins. Final causes decree that Sulphur will evolve into pure action potential, otherwise known as gold or ‘spirit’ through the agency of Quicksilver in quite the same way that a fertilised egg morphs into a human child inside the mercurial womb of its mother.
It goes without saying that the sulphuric ‘seed’ can inhabit a great many ‘forms’, perfected or otherwise; Philosophical Sulphur can act as a stand-in for planetary bodies like the Sun, the condition of incarnated light, the state of waking consciousness, the day, the ego or personality, the metal gold, and the mineral diamond. When speaking of the ethereal element, many alchemical treatises will warn against the acidic, corrosive properties of its rudimentary state. Philosophical Sulphur, they claim, will char, corrupt, destroy and even invoke the devil within you if you do not arm yourself with the appropriate prophylactics. Clearly, the allegory dissipates before our very eyes if Philosophical Sulphur is substituted for one’s ego or personality. Ego consciousness is rather short-sighted and has a tendency to associate exclusively with its own needs and wants, as well as with its own feelings, doubts and predicaments. Left unchecked these can balloon into devils that will infuse themselves into the axes of our souls, incite polar reversal there so that we’re thrown into the nuclear winter of a fiery Hell, and subsequently cannibalise us from the inside-out. The only way forward is through purification, a chemical distillation aimed at purging the personality of its carnal drives, or at the very least shifting the axes of our conscious worlds so that they point to the higher constellations of our unconscious minds. In so turning our attention elsewhere we are attaining two milestones on the road to self-actualisation; firstly, we’re acknowledging that the cosmos is much grandeur and all-encompassing than our own inwardly-turned and ephemeral egos, and secondly, we’re detaching ourselves from our caustic sentiments and even subjugating them. In retrospect, one might say that the alchemical symbols act as individual ciphers that map out an entire hidden system of knowledge regarding the processes of creation and can thus impart a wealth of information to anyone with the intuitive talent to construe them correctly.
Matter also works on quite the same principles. Contrary to the short-sighted view of our twenty-first century crude science and medicine, alchemy has always been of the opinion that everything that exists possesses a vital principle or life-bestowing essence. This should ring true to any inquiring intellect given that it is quite impossible to reduce any living body–mineral, animal or plant–to its physical composition without the loss of its animating principle. The life essence or blueprint is none other than Philosophical Mercury and Sulphur combined and can be separated from base matter by subjecting it to ordinary chemical processes like maceration, distillation and decoction. Originating from a mother matrix, this powerful and active dual force is identical in all adherents of one particular hierarchy but proceeds to manifest at a different vibrational frequency in each of the mineral, plant and animal kingdoms. In its pure state Philosophical Sulphur appears as a delicate oily substance and can be separated from Philosophical Mercury through ordinary distillation. Knowing how to alchemically separate these principles from plant matter or the like and then resynthesizing them produces homeopathic elixirs whose medicinal powers exceed that of any pharmaceutical one hundredfold. In China and Tibet these ‘occult’ principles adhere to a body of conventional scientific knowledge that came into existence roughly two thousand years ago under the aegis of macrobiotics, a denomination of Eastern inquiry which also sought the Elixir of Life.
The esoteric symbol for Sulphur is comprised of two rudimentary shapes; a cross surmounted by a triangle. The first represents the four cardinal directions and the ethereal elements, whilst the second is an exponent of masculinity, generation and action potential. In the arrangement the triangle is shown in an ascendant position in relation to the elements meaning that the generative force is always acting, fixing and colouring individual combinations of the latter into new forms.