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History of Chemistry: Alchemy Symbols of the Ancient Greeks

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The first recorded use of symbols to refer to elements was by Ancient Greek philosophers who used their studies of the planets and the days to correspond to their understanding of the elements.

The Ancient Greeks promoted the use of symbols in the study of the elements. The ancient Greek philosophers defined the four elements as air, earth, fire and water. Another famous philosopher Aristotle linked the elements to different concepts. He identified air as a life giving force that represented heat and wetness. Earth as a cold dry element that represented movement and sensations in life. Fire as an element that represented the emotions of love and anger and hot dry conditions. Finally he defined water as a cold wet element. In the symbols it can be seen that fire is represented by an upward triangle and its opposite water is as a downward triangle to signify they act as opposite elements. The ancient Greek philosopher Hippocrates also linked these elements to different diseases in the human body and promoted the balancing of these elements in the treatment of conditions.


Other symbols used in alchemy related to metallic and non metallic elements that were known at the time as they could be isolated easily and used. A common use of alchemy symbols was in partnership with days of the week or planets as it was thought that different planets affected that elements properties. In the table below you can see the different symbols and the elements they were used to represent.

Terms in section
Philosophers

A philosopher is a term given to thinkers who in history came up with ideas and theories about how things worked but often did not have evidence.

Aristotle

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher from 300BC who made many advances in the theory of elements and maths

Hippocrates

Hippocrates is a famous Greek doctor who around 400BC promoted many advances in medicine

Metallic

Metallic elements have metallic bonding and are located on the left hand side and in the middle of the periodic table

Non metallic

Non metallic elements are located on the right hand side of the periodic table with covalent bonding

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