Is there any civilisation before us who hasn’t felt this at their core? Peoples before us had such reverence for the celestial objects, they saw their gods in the planets. In a search for meaning, they turned to the sky. They believed the planets of our solar system have significant power over their destinies.
The word planet has its roots in the Greek word planētēs, meaning “wanderer”, because certain celestial objects moved across the sky relative to the fixed stars. They called these objects asteres planetai – wandering stars. There were 7 classical planets that they could observe with the naked eye: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
During the times of Ancient history, there were 7 important metals which humans had identified and widely used. These are gold, silver, mercury, copper, iron, led, and tin. Although several other elements were known in certain ancient cultures, like zinc, arsenic, or antimony, they did´t have such widespread use and importance.
When humans discovered metals and how to use them, it had a such profound impact on the human culture and progress of civilisation. Today we call the early time periods of the past that followed the Stone Age by their use of metals: the Bronze Age, the Iron Age. The discovery of metals was revolutionary, and probably started in the ancient Near East, today called one of the ‘cradles of civilisation’.
These 7 classical metals were so prominent that they were associated with planets-gods. In alchemy, this association was so indisputable that the alchemical symbols used for these 7 metals were most commonly the corresponding planet symbols.
The metals were considered to be a material expression of the parent planet and it’s energy. But what aspects of these metals attributed them this affiliation with their planets?
Sol gold is, and Luna silver we declare,
Mars yron, Mercurie is quyksilver,
Saturnus leed, and Jupiter is tyn,
And Venus coper, by my fathers kyn
A bright, shiny yellow in appearance and resistant to corrosion, very ductile and malleable, it is easy to connect why it was associated with the Sun and was a symbol of immortality. Even today it is one of the most recognised and most precious metals in the world. Its rarity and aesthetic qualities made it a perfect material for ruling classes to demonstrate their power and position.
Gold items were sometimes buried with the dead as a symbol of the deceased’s status, like the mask of Agamemnon found at Mycenae, or mask of King Tutankhamun.It has been used since antiquity in the production of jewellery, coinage, sculpture, and as a decoration for temples, monuments and statues. It was also an ideal material for important political and religious objects such as crowns, sceptres and chalices.
In the Inka civilisation of South America gold was considered to be the sweat of the sun god Inti and was used to manufacture religious objects such as masks and sun disks. In ancient Colombia golden dust was used to cover the body of a future king in a luxurious coronation ceremony, which generated the legend of El Dorado.
Gold has also been used in medicine. Pliny in the 1st century BCE suggested applying gold to wounds as a defence to ‘magic potions’.
Gold, with its malleability and incorruptibility, has also been used in dental work. The Etruscans in the 7th century BCE used gold bands to fix in place substitute animal or human teeth. Today it is a proven anti-inflammatory and is used in arthritis drugs.
Gold was so precious that people have tried for centuries to produce it through alchemy. The goal was chemical transformation of base metals into gold or silver. Although alchemists took the motto: Aurum nostrum non est aurum vulgi, or Our gold is not the gold of the masses, which suggests they might have sought the esoteric knowledge, not the precious metal.
In ancient China gold symbolised the yang – masculine or positive principle, characterized by light, warmth, dryness, activity.
Silver, on the other hand, represented the Moon. In ancient China it was the yin – feminine or negative principle, characterized by dark, wetness, cold, passivity. It is relatively scarce in nature, soft, white and shiny. It also has highest electrical and thermal conductivity.
It was used for thousands of years for jewellery, ornaments, utensils, and trade, and as the basis for many monetary systems.
Like the Moon reflecting Sun’s light, silver is the best reflector of light. Today, most mirrors are made by coating glass with silver.
Its Moon-like qualities show in chemistry – it is a metal that requires darkness for its reactions. Solutions of silver are kept in dark bottles and its salts are easily spoilt by daylight. Photographers need darkness in the studio in order to work with this metal.
Most of the world’s silver occurs dissolved in the oceans, reminding us of the Moon’s influence on the water. The length of female menstrual cycles are synced up with the waxing and waning of the moon, occurring around every 28 days, which was believed to be no coincidence.
Silver has had a long use in medicine as a natural remedy against bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Today, colloidal silver is again growing in popularity.
Mercury or quicksilver is obviously associated with Mercury. It is the only element to retain its alchemical name as its modern common name. Named after a Roman god Mercurius, the planet of Mercury symbolises communication, intellect and awareness. The closest to The Sun and fastest moving of the planets, Mercury takes mere 88 days to circle the Sun. Mercury’s chemical symbol, Hg, comes from the Greek hydrargyrum meaning water- silver.
The shining globules of this metal spill and form again so quickly it is no wonder it was associated with mental agility. It is the one element common to see in 3 states: the liquid, but also as solid and as vapour (e.g. in fluorescent lamps). Interestingly, so did the god Mercurius (or Hermes in Greek mythology) serve as a messenger to all the other gods; a bridge between the upper and lower worlds, and leading newly deceased souls to the afterlife.
The alchemists considered it one of the 3 principal substances on Earth, along with salt and sulphur. Although highly toxic, it was used as a medicine too, perhaps the most recent use is the most well known, as a cure for syphilis before the antibiotic era, and as part of amalgam fillings in dentistry until today.
Mercury is primarily a neurological poison, causing tremors, extreme mood changes, a scattered mind, and a myriad of other symptoms appropriately called mercury madness.
Copper is traditionally associated with Venus. It is found as a pure metal in nature, which is why it is one of the oldest metals known. Copper metallurgy had flourished in different cultures, including the Middle Eastern, Asian, European, Central & South American and Native American.
In the Roman era, copper was principally mined on Cyprus. Its name derives from the word Kyprus, the Greek name for the island of Cyprus. This island is also commonly mentioned as the birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite, where she rose from the sea. Her Roman equivalent is of course the goddess Venus.
The planet, as well as the goddess, represents love, beauty, arts, money, entertainment, leisure, and sensuality. Indeed, when you see an object made of copper, be it and instrument, a bowl, or copper dome of a cathedral, the first thing that strikes you is its aesthetic qualities, rather than usefulness. Copper is an attractive shiny metal, soft, malleable and ductile, with very high thermal and electrical conductivity. It is so soft that it needs to be alloyed with other metals, into brass or bronze, before it can be used for a structural purpose.
Traditionally astrology associates the arts of music with Venus, and with copper being highly resonant, it is used in a variety of musical instruments.
There is a gender symbolism with Venus and Mars: ‘Women are from Venus, men are from Mars’. Interestingly, women have about 20% higher copper serum than men and for iron, which is associated with Mars, it is the other way round. If you walk into a room which is predominated by copper and warm colours, you notice it has a warm, relaxing, artistic atmosphere, whereas a room dominated by iron and steel reminds of a factory and has a working and more tense atmosphere. Even today the mars glyph is used as a symbol of the male and venus glyph as a symbol of the female.
Iron is Mars’ planet. Of the 7 ‘classical’ metals, it is perhaps most connected to Earth and by far most abundant in Earth’s crust. This also shows in the use as a compass, where it aligns with the Earth’s magnetic field.
The first iron production started in the Middle Bronze Age but it took several centuries before iron displaced bronze. The Hittites seem to be the first to understand the production of iron from its ores and held it in high regard in their society. They began to smelt iron between 1500 and 1200 BCE and the practice spread to the rest of the Near East, and later to Greece and throughout Europe, starting the Iron Age around 1200 BC. Iron had a distinct advantage over bronze in warfare implements. It was harder and more durable than bronze, although susceptible to rust. Soon it was discovered that just few percent of carbon turns iron into steel. Blacksmiths in western Iran were already making good steel by 1000 BCE, however steel did not become a major commodity until the modern times.
Mars is associated with 2 Roman gods, Mars – the god of war, and Vulcan – the god of fire and metallurgy. It was therefore associated with blood, war and fire. Following the symbolism, the main iron ores are pyrite and hematite (pyr meaning fire and haem meaning blood, which itself is red because of haemoglobin-the iron containing molecule).
The planet itself is also symbolic for energy, action, desire, and ‘animalistic’ instincts of survival, aggression and anger. Whereas Venus is the planet of romance and sensuality, Mars is the planet of raw desire and sexuality.
The soil of Mars is rich in iron, giving it the nickname ‘the red planet’. One can think of the movie Martian which well depicts the storms raging on the planet, with strong winds and spiralling dust, as if to express its war-anger qualities.
Tin is traditionally connected to Jupiter, the planet of good luck and abundance, also called the Great Benefic. In Roman mythology Jupiter was the god of sky and thunder, same as his Greek equivalent Zeus, with his symbols being eagle and thunderbolt. He was considered the king of all the gods. The Etruscan equivalent of Jupiter is the god Tin.
It astrology the planet stands for expansion and growth (both mental and spiritual), optimism, morality, gratitude, hope, honor, knowledge.
Perhaps he most important ‘expanding’ role of tin in history was its use in bronze making, which can be dated to around 3000 BC, when people discovered that the addition of a this metal to copper increases its hardness, lowers the melting temperature, and improves the casting process by producing a more fluid melt that cools to a denser metal, that doesn’t rust. Bronze was the first alloy used on a large scale and it soon replaced copper as the ideal choice for tools, weapons, utensils, sculpture and ornaments. This was an important innovation that was the onset of the Bronze Age -a time marked by extensive use of metals, proto-writing and, developing trade network, and other early features of civilisation. Indeed a Jupiter’s gift to mankind.
Tin was not widely available, and It was transported vast distances along trade routes. Then around 1200 BC the invasions and population migrations disrupted the trade routes, which limited the supply of tin and rose its price, which brought to the collapse of the Bronze age and paved the way to the Iron Age. Bronze was still used during the Iron Age, and has continued in use for many purposes to the modern day. Pewter, an alloy with 85-90% tin, with the rest being copper, antimony, or lead, was used in the ancient world by egyptians and later romans, and was used extensively in the Middle Ages. Pewter was the chief tableware until the making of porcelain.
However, tin has perhaps failed to live up to what we would expect from a Jupiter-metal. Inorganic tin is relatively nontoxic, and is commonly used in preserving food. Tin-plated metal was used for food packaging as tin cans, which are now made mostly of steel. Other applications of tin include solder, and plating of steel for corrosion-resistance.
Lead was probably the first metal ever to be smelted, because it was easy to extract, due to its low melting point. It was the heaviest and the densest metal known, and clearly associated with Saturn, the darkest and ‘heaviest’ of planets.
It has been in wide use for thousands of years, with oldest lead artefacts dating back to 6000 BC. The ancient Egyptians used it for making weights and sinkers, glasses and ornaments. It was too soft for making tools and weapons, but lead based ingredients were widely used in cosmetics, especially black eye makeup.
In ancient Rome they obtained lead mostly as a by-product of extensive silver smelting and it was used for making cisterns and water pipes, many of which were underground. Consequently the word plumbing is derived from the Latin word for the metal, plumbum (Pb). However, lead’s toxicity did not go unnoticed and the Romans eventually consigned its production to provinces and slaves, while they enjoyed their lead-seasoned foods and wine, wrongly thinking ‘moderate’ exposure wouldn’t do much harm. However, the slow-motion saturnian karma eventually befell them, as many researchers suggest lead poisoning played a role in the fall of Roman empire.
To understand the lead-Saturn connection, one must look deeper into the astrological meaning of the planet. Saturn, commonly referred to as the Great Malefic, is the planet of Karma, and associated with restriction and limitation. Authority, discipline, responsibility and learning life’s lessons is the theme here. Like the ghoulish Roman god Saturn, who devoured his own offspring, and its Greek equivalent Chronos, it is the ruler of time, with mortality being the final lesson. Something like a strict father/authority figure who wants to teach discipline and rules, Saturn’s lessons are not pleasant, but help us understand that in the end you reap what you sow – hence no surprise he was also a patron of the harvest.
Lead is a heavy, dense, dull element, and of the seven is the least lustrous and least electrically conductive. It is also the least resonant so you’ll hardly find a musical instrument made of it. Its dark restrictive qualities show today in production of bullets and shots, weights, and radiation shields. This metal was also considered the father of all metals, and during the Middle Ages alchemists repeatedly used it as a key ingredient trying to generate gold.
Perhaps the most evident malefic ‘Saturn-Lord of time’ properties of lead show in a long tradition of poisoning the general populace. Like with its planet, no benefits come without a price to pay. Lead poisoning—a condition in which one’s temperament becomes gloomy cynical and taciturn—was called saturnine. Duding the Medieval, another sinister use was assigned to it – as a convenient slow-acting poison to eliminate undesirable relatives. The French referred to it as poudre de la succession — or succession powder.
Saturnism, or lead poisoning, was also one of the first industrial diseases to be recognised. The symptoms are reminiscent of the planet’s restrictive symbolism: fatigue, sluggishness, depression, loss of appetite, constipation, numbness… In children even low lead exposure can cause permanent intellectual disability. Lead accumulates in the bones and teeth, both traditionally ruled by Saturn.
Lead in a way represents a limit of the material reality. It is the last element in the Periodic Table that is not radioactive. Similarly, Saturn represents the limits of time and matter; it is the last planet in the solar system visible by naked eye. Saturn’s influence may seem heavy and restricting, but that is the nature of the physical realm.
The New Planets
Uranus, which is occasionally visible to the naked eye, was officially discovered in 1781 and Neptune in 1846. Pluto’s discovery followed in 1930, and it’s planet status lasted until 2006, when it was reclassified as dwarf planet. Although the later discovered radioactive elements Uranium, Neptunium and Plutonium were named after these planets, there is no modern alchemy to connect them.
The Earth Element
Traditionally no metal is associated with our planet. Of the 92 elements that naturally occur on earth, no doubt many are essential for life that inhabits it. There is, however, a very earthly element that scientists consider a key component for all life on Earth, and that is carbon. Scientists often assume, perhaps erroneously, that if life exists anywhere else in the universe, it would be carbon-based.
Carbon (from Latin word for coal: carbo) is an element with 6 protons, 6 electrons and 6 neutrons. And while these 6 6 6 irresistibly remind one of the antichrist, in this case it is simply connected to life in material form, to us being ‘in carne’, or ‘in carbon’. The atoms of carbon can be bonded together in different ways, they can take the beautiful form of a diamond, or a more obscure one of a graphite, but in a way life in the physical reality can be like that too, and sometimes both at the same time; sweet and bitter. Wherever we look, everything seems to be connected in ways we can only try to understand, and it’s important to remember it’s all part of a bigger picture.
About the Author
Katarina is the author of Dotted Dragonfly where this article was originally published.
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