Tria Prima : According to the Alchemy of Paracelsus, the three substances of SALT, SULPHUR, and MERCURY that make up all things. The Tria Prima are chemical substances that have similar properties to the three celestial, or archetypal, elements that flow out from the Mind of God into creation. These forces, or hypostatical principles, correspond to divine trinities and triads found in religions and mysticism; for example, in Christianity the triad is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
The celestial elements comprise the four elements of the lower world, so that the Tria Prima is the basis for both macrocosm and microcosm. Paracelsus said:
You should know that all seven metals originate from three materials, namely from mercury, sulphur, and salt, though with different colors. Therefore Hermes has said not incorrectly that all seven metals are born and composed from three substances, similarly also the tinctures and philosopher’s stone. . . . But that it be rightly understood what the three different substances are that he calls spirit, soul and body, you should know that they mean not other than the three prinicipia, that is, mercury, sulphur, and salt, out of which all seven metals originate. Mercury is the spirit, sulphur is the soul, salt the body.
The most important of the celestial elements is salt, which is born in the heating of fire and seawater. Its powers as a preservative, and thus a powerful force for the attainment of immortality, make it important to alchemical processes. Salt is passive/feminine and represents substance, Earth, and the body.
Sulphur is active/masculine, a transforming essence. It is associated with the SUN and the energy of nature.
Mercury is neutral and volatile, the agent of transformation. Its contradictory properties enable it to participate in all states of matter. It is liquid at room temperature and can dissolve GOLD. When heated it forms both white powder (highly poisonous) and red crystals (therapeutic).
Paracelsus held that disease arises from imbalances among the Tria Prima. For example, an excess of sulphur would cause fever and plague, while an imbalance would cause gout.
- Holmyard, E. J. Alchemy. New York: Penguin Books, 1957.