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Prima materia

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Art source: Alchemical and Hermetic Emblems

In alchemy and philosophy, prima materia, materia prima or first matter (for a philosophical exposition refer to: Prime Matter), is the ubiquitous starting material required for the alchemical magnum opus and the creation of the philosopher’s stone. It is the primitive formless base of all matter similar to chaos, the quintessence or aether.[1]

The Mystery of the First Matter

Throughout the literature of Hermetic science there is perfect agreement among the adepts as to one fundamental tenet success in the Great Work depends upon what they call the “discovery” of the First Matter. Right here we must be alert. The meaning of words changes as the years pass, and we shall be led astray if we suppose that to “discover,in alchemical doctrine, is exactly the same as to “find.” We must go back to the older meanings of the verb “discover,” back to its derivation — even back to the Hebrew verb which is translated “discover” in the Authorized Version of the Old Testament.

Literally, to discover is to lay bare, to denude, to strip of concealment. This is the exact significance of the Hebrew verb GLH, galah, which we have just mentioned. One of the meanings of this verb in Hebrew is “to open a book,” and in this connection the reader familiar with Tarot will notice that the first letter of the verb is Gimel, represented in the Tarot Keys by the High Priestess, who holds in her lap an open book or scroll. The second letter is Lamed, represented by Key 11, Justice, which has equilibrium for its fundamental meaning. The last letter is Heh, typified by the Emperor, symbol of reason and of dominion over the conditions of physical existence.

Furthermore, since the first letter of GLH is that which is associated with memory, it appears that in order to denude the First Matter of its veil of concealment, we must employ the power of recollection and association represented by the High Priestess. Indeed, the High Priestess herself is a symbol of the First Matter, as we shall see more clearly by the time we come to the end of this lesson. The discovery of the Matter is not the term of a quest undertaken in the world about us. It is the unveiling of the true nature of something within us, and it is accomplished in very truth by an act of recollection. Deep in our sub-consciousness lies hidden the secret of the First Matter. To bring it to the surface is the primary object of Hermetic practice, just as it is the primary object of yoga. Thus the letter Lamed, among other things a symbol of that true faith which takes form in persevering action, enters into the composition of the verb GLH. Without faith in the actual existence of the First Matter, it will never be discovered. If we share the world’s opinion that the alchemists were fools, we shall never participate in their wisdom, for we shall never be able to persist through the preliminary stages of the Great Work, sticking to our practice day in and day out, through that period of testing and trial in which no outward and visible signs of success reward our efforts. For, as the final letter of GLH shows, the discovery is to be made with the mind alone, even as we learned from the Upanishad quoted in the first lesson. In its initial stages it is a rational process.[2]

When you have discovered the First Matter, you know that you have done so. Nobody can argue you out of that knowledge. It is not an opinion. It is not simply what you think. You share the experience of the sages. All that they have written on this topic becomes perfectly clear to you. At the same time you understand why none of the adepts ever tells, in plain language, what the First Matter really is. You understand that the secret simply cannot be told, because it is a knowledge for which there are no adequate verbal expressions. [2]

Bear ever in mind the truth that the real object of the Hermetic practice is identical with the real object of yoga. That object is nothing less than the complete liberation of the alchemist from the bondage of delusion. It is by no means an utter abandonment of the world, as many have supposed. As one Eastern writer puts it: “The knower of the Essence, enjoying the pleasures of the senses with moderation, but knowing them for what they are, may derive both temporal and spiritual pleasure, even like one having knowledge of two languages.[2]” (–Panchadasi) And what is it to know the enjoyments that come through the various channels of sensation for what they are? This is the answer given in the Yogavasishtha:
“The whole world is Spirit, there is nothing else in reality; — Betake thyself to this view of things, and rest in peace, thus regaining thy real Self:”

Commentaries on the First Matter

The Sophic Hydrolith:

“The original matter is really a kind of stone, which, being hard and solid like a stone, may be pounded, reduced to powder, and resolved into its three elements (which Nature herself has joined together), and then again may be recombined into a solid stone of the fusibility of wax, by the skilled hand of the artist, adjusting the law of Nature.”

Edward Kelly, The Humid Path:

“The Sages have, indeed, purposely concealed their meaning under a veil of obscure words, but it is sufficiently clear from their writings that the substance of which they speak is not of a special, but a general kind, and is therefore contained in animals, vegetables, and minerals. It would, however, be unwise to take a round-about road where there is a shorter cut; and they say that whereas the substance can be found in the animal and vegetable kingdoms only with great difficulty, and at the cost of enormous labour, in the bowels of the earth it lies ready to our hands. It is the matter which the Sages have agreed to call Mercury or Quicksilver. Our quicksilver, indeed, is truly a living substance, so called not because it is extracted from cinnabar, but because it is derived from the metals themselves.”


“The matter of our Stone, Mercury, is a commonly diffused subject, and though it is found with greater ease in some minerals, it may be discovered everywhere. In this sense Morienus, that illustrious Sage, answered King Calid’s question as to the matter of the Stone in the following way: ‘It is of thee, 0 King, and thou art its ore.’ And Raymond asserted that he had extracted his substance from a vile and worthless thing.”


“Know that our Mercury is before the eyes of all men, Though it is known to few. When it is prepared its Splendor is most admirable; but the sight of it is vouchsafed to none, the sons of knowledge. Do not despise it, therefore, when you see it in sordid guise; if you do, you will never accomplish our Magistery – and if you can change its countenance, the transformation will be glorious. For our water is a most pure virgin, and is loved of many, but meets all her wooers in foul garments, in order that she may be able to distinguish the worthy from the unworthy. Our beautiful Maiden abounds in inward graces; unlike the immodest woman who meets her lovers in splendid garments. To those who do not despise her foul exterior, she then appears in all her beauty, and brings them an infinite clever of riches and health.”

Albertus Magnus:

“This Mercury of the Wisemen is a watery element, cold and moist. This is their permanent water, the spirit of the body, the unctuous vapour, the blessed water, the virtuous water, the water of the Wisemen, the philosopher’s vinegar, the mineral water, the dew of heavenly grace, the virgin’s milk, the bodily mercury, and with other numberless names it is named in the books of the philosophers, which names, though they are divers, notwithstanding, always signify one and the same thing, namely, the Mercury of the Wisemen.”

Quoted in Vaughan’s Coelum Terrae, from a Rosicrucian original:

“I am a poisonous dragon, present everywhere, and to be had for nothing. My water and my fire dissolve and compound; out of my body thou shalt draw the Green, and the Red Lion: but if thou dost not exactly know me, thou wilt with my fire destroy thy five senses. A most pernicious quick poison comes out of my nostrils, which hath been the destruction of many. Separate therefore the thick from the thin artificially, unless thou dost delight in extreme poverty. I give thee faculties both male and female, and the powers both of heaven and earth. The mysteries of my art are to be performed magnanimously, and with great courage, if thou wouldest have me overcome the violence of the fire, in which attempt many have lost both their labour and their substance. I am the Ego of Nature, known only to the Wise, such as are pious and modest, who make of me a little world. Ordained I was by the Almighty God for men; but though many desire me, I am given only to few, that they may relieve the poor with my treasures, and not set their minds on gold that perisheth. I am called of the philosophers Mercury: my husband is Gold philosophical I am the old dragon that is present everywhere on the face of the earth; I am father and mother; youthful and ancient; weak, and yet most strong; life and death; visible and invisible; hard and soft; descending to the earth, and ascending to the heavens; most high and most low; light and heavy; in me the order of Nature is oftentimes inverted, in colour, number, weights and measure. I have in me the light of Nature; I am dark and bright; I spring from the earth, and I come out of heaven; I am well known, and yet a mere nothing; all colours shine in me, and all metals by the beams of the sun. I am the Carbunole of the Sun, a most noble clarified earth, by Which thou mayest turn copper, iron, tin, and lead into most pure gold.”

Eliphas Levi, Mysteries of Magic:

There exists a force in nature which is far more powerful than steam, by means of which a single man, who can master it and knows how to direct it, might throw the world into confusion and transform its face. It is diffused throughout infinity; it is the substance of heaven and earth; for it is either fixed or volatile according to its degrees of polarization. When it produces radiance it is called light. It is that substance which was created by God before all else when He said: Let there be light. It is substance and motion at one and the same time; it is a fluid and a perpetual vibration. The inherent force by which it is put into activity is called magnetism. In infinite space it is ether, or etherized light; it becomes astral light in the stars which it magnetizes, while in organized beings it becomes the magnetic light or fluid. In man it forms the astral body or plastic mediator. The will of intelligent beings acts directly on this light, and, by means thereof, upon all nature, which is made subject to the modifications of intelligence. This agent is precisely what the medieval adepts called the first matter of the Great Work. This Universal Agent, this vital and luminous caloric, this electro-magnetic ether, is represented on ancient monuments by the girdle of Isis, which twines in a love-knot round two poles, by the bull-headed serpent, by the serpent with the head of a goat or a dog, and by the serpent devour- ing its own tail. It is the winged dragon of Medea, the double serpent of the caduceous, and the tempter of Genesis; but it is also the brazen snake of Moses, encircling the Tau; it is the Hyle of the Gnostics; and lastly, it is the devil of exoteric dogmatism, and is really the blind force which souls must conquer, in order to detach themselves from the chains of earth.”


[1]. Prima Materia, Wikipedia. Accessed April 2023.

[2]. Paul Foster Case, The Hermetic Alchemy; Science & Practice.

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