There’s a famous alchemical work called the Rosary of the Philosopher’s, or Rosarium Philosophorum, which features 20 woodcut illustrations. They are very famous, having been printed and reprinted a number of times.
An English translation of the version printed in 1550 can be found here:
It contains a number of quotes, real and otherwise, from earlier alchemists such as Geber, (pseudo-) Arnald of Villanova, Senior etc.
One of the illustrations is of a green lion eating the sun, which could be taken as meaning it is a substance which absorbs gold, indeed the translation says as much,
“Of Our Mercury which is the Green Lion Devouring the Sun”
There is also the text:
“I am the true green and Golden Lion without cares,
In me all the secrets of the Philosophers are hidden.”
associated with the picture.
Now, this text is often taken as being one about spiritual alchemy. The problem with that is that that general approach (espeically with regards to claims by Jung and other esotericists) has been discredited as regarding the actual position of alchemy in Europe in the16th century and earlier.
Which leaves us with an interesting question – how can the green lion eat gold?
And one obvious assumption – that the text maps onto physical operations. I should point out straight away that a lot of medieval alchemy is simply the author re-writing previous authors, changing the emphasis of the words and concepts used and inventing or bringing to prominence different names which may or may not cover the same substance or concept. Which makes finding the way through the texts rather difficult.
In some medieval alchemical texts, gold is certainly consumed by mercury to form an amalgam on which further work is carried out. So if the green lion is a mercury compound then it can surely consume gold. If it is sulphuric acid, it cannot, but what it could do is react with other metals present and form strange compounds. And if the sun referred to is not specifically gold, but sulphur or suchlike, then you can still get some odd reactions taking place.
o, lets look at some other alchemical mentions of the Green Lion.
The Book of the Composition of Alchemy says at the end, in the exposition of kinds, that “The green lion is glass”, which is probably an error transposing Vitriol into Vitrum. I suspect that this is a later addition than the body of the text, which has probably undergone a lot of changes over the years. The core is an Arabic work, but I don’t know how far back the symbolism of the green lion goes; 9th century recipes attributed to Rhazi include the distillation of green vitriol to produce an acidic water.
By the early 14th century, in the Testamentum of pseudo-Lull, a water from green vitriol is to be joined to a metal. That and other mentions in that century prove that distillation of sulphuric acid was practised; the difficult bit is understanding what part it might have played in the alchemical recipes. There are other recipes from that century which include vitriol, saltpetre and mercury, the practise of which most likely gives some odd mercuric compounds with acids, such as the white mercury sulphide, or if salt is present as suggested by some, mercuric chloride, which is also white. I can’t think of any obvious way in which it could be tainted green, nor do the old chemistry textbooks help.
So that’s another set of experiments that I would like to do.
But by the 15th century in England, the green lion is, according to George Ripley, not actually vitriol, although fools think it is:
XVI. But of the Green Lyon of Fools, this we say, that from it with a strong fire is drawn Aquafortis, in the which, the aforesaid Philosophers’ Lyon of the Mineral Stone, ought to be Elixirated, and assumes its Name. Raymundus saith, it were better, or safer, to eat the Eyes of a Basilisk, than that Gold, which is made with the Fire against Nature.
XVII. And I say also, that the things from whence the same Aquafortis is drawn is green Vitriol and Azoth: i.e., Vitriol Natural, not Artificial, viz. the droppings of Copper, called also Roman Vitriol, Roman Gold, by many of the Philosophers, from the abundance of its noble Tincture, the which Tincture must be fermented with common Gold.
Leaving aside the question of what Ripley’s green lion might be, the problem is that distillation of vitriol produces sulphuric acid, a mineral acid not hitherto known for it’s effect upon gold. To dissolve gold need aqua regia, a mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acids.
Now some alchemical recipes will produce a mixture of nitric and sulphuric acid, and the Compound of Compounds, or at least the late/ post medieval version of it, has a recipe that produces sulphuric and nitric acid mixture and then you add Ammonium Chloride to give Chlorine ions in solution, which will certainly dissolve gold. But as with some other similar recipes, it doesn’t mention the green lion, which suggests that there are two paths, one calling green vitriol the green lion, the other not.
What may help clarify things is the question of the green lion is when this version of the Rosarium was written. There is a Rosarius attributed to Arnald of Villanova, and then there are other texts that are also tited “Rosarius” or similar. However the Arnaldian one is not the same as the 1550 one we are concerned with, according to this review by Michela Pereira:
I note that mention of the Green lion is made in a section headed “The table of the Greater Science” and one attributed to “Morienus”, and the later section headed “Of our Mercury which is the Green lion devouring the sun”.
The problem is simply finding decent information about the Rosarius and similar texts, given how many there were and how alchemists did not hesitate to steal texts and re-write them. Thorndike’s History of Magic and experimental science, volume 3, page 55, mentions an anonymous Rosary from the 15th century and another that isn’t from the 14th. The list of alleged quotes from alchemists in this 1550 Rosarius is comprehensive, but does not seem to be newer than the early 14th century, but does include the likes of St Thomas Aquinas, who as far as I am aware didn’t really have his name attached to alchemical works until the Aurora Consurgens in the 15th century.
So if the text is really from the first half of the 16th century, that does happen to overlap when the Compound of Compounds was re-written to use acid to dissolve mercuric chloride. Having written that, it seems I’m a bit wrong – reading Principe “The secrets of Alchemy”, it seems that the 1550 version is based on the original later 14th century text, which acceptable enough given that was when the use of vitriol for acid manufacture was commonplace, and it’s use with mercury and the like.
In fact the more I think about it the more I wonder if the importance of the green lion has been overstated, based on the use of green vitriol in manufacturing mercural compounds. You mix some white stuff, green stuff, and mercury, and get a whitish substance
Of course one can rarely be certain about reproducing alchemical practises from texts and possible recipes, which is irritating. It might be that there is no practical intention in the text at all. But then why the lion of green? After all, lions are important in medieval heraldry and bestiaries, as the king of beasts a lion would be a sensible choice to eat the king of the metals.
Maybe I don’t have the right kind of brain, but I read extracts from bestiaries such as this:
and can’t see why the lion is so useful in alchemical symbolism.
As a conclusion, all I can say is that this requires further study.
The natural color of “aqua regia” is green because of the free chlorine that produced . I think this is the reason of symbolic representation of the “green lion”. The “king” of the acids (aqua regia) dissolves the “king” of the metal (gold).
I also want to express my thanks for this valuable and rare blog on the history of alchemy and chemistry.
That sounds very plausible, although it suggests that the ‘meaning’ of some alchemical symbolism can be extremely well hidden behind necessary processes. After all to make aqua regia you need to do the usual nitric acid distillation with green vitriol, and then add ammonium chloride. Yet it does seem clear that a lot of medieval alchemists were so fooled by the terms used that they identified the lion with green vitriol, which demonstrates that this isn’t a new problem.
Looking at it that way, ‘our mercury’ being capable of dissolving the sun, i.e. gold, is similar to terms used in the adapted Compound of Compounds, which is probably from the late 15th/ 16th century. In it the need is to reduce metals to the prima materia using the green lion and a solution of aqua regia. Oh dear, the answers been staring me in the face all this time….
And thank you for the thanks. It’s nice to be appreciated. I’m slowly putting together stuff for a proposed book based on the experiments you can find on this blog and other ones.
I totally agree with your views.
I think about the method of preparation of aqua regia has dealt the Lawrence Principe in a different manner (see “Instruments and Experimentation in the History of Chemistry” pp. 60-62)
Also I’m waiting with interest the publication of your book
Actually Aqua Regia is red… this is why Paracelsus called it the Red Lion.
Makes sense “Our Mercury” “eats gold”. Real mercury dissolves/ absorbs gold and aqua regia does too. This video about aqua regia is interesting. http://www.periodicvideos.com/videos/mv_aqua_regia.htm
says aqua regia can end up being green or red depending on how much gold is dissolved in it.
Also the illustration shows the sun bleeding. In the video it shows the solution becoming a blood-red color. So the illustration of the bleeding sun makes a lot of sense
Also green vitrol (ferrou sulfate) is apparently used to precipitate gold out of Aqua Regia, as claimed in the product description of this science company http://www.sciencecompany.com/Ferrous-Sulfate-100g-P6368C670.aspx
at the 26 minute mark demonstrator uses Oil of Vitriol (sulphuric acid) and steel/iron nails to make Green Vitriol (Iron Sulfate/ Ferrous Sulfate) – names it at around 31:30 mark.
also, check out this video. skip to 104 mark. Demonstrator uses Blue Vitriol (copper sulfate) to make Green Vitriol using nails (iron/ steel) [the iron displaces the copper) and gives a brief talk about alchemists and performs an alchemist “prayer” in latin
filters Green Vitriol from the dark iron filing/sulphuric acid solution at 37:30
And a little detail.
Looking at the picture with the green lion devours the sun we see the color red like blood running from his mouth.
This should represent the red compound resulting from the dissolution of gold in aqua regia.(maybe the Au+3 cation)
The compound we get from dissolving gold with Aqua Regia is an orangish yellow. It is “reddened” from the gold that it was… but Chlorauric acid, or Gold Chlorate is an orangish crystal.
Józsefné Kovács said:
The blood of the Sun is an allegoric representation of the Red Stone aka Philosopher’s Stone. In other words the Green Lion releases the Red Stone from gold…
the green lion is weed.
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Fiat Lux said:
Great question, let’s look for answers in more ancient texts widely available and written by alchemists of their own time. For simplicity the green lion and the white snake of Alchemy are representations of the same thing. Without revealing any secrets, historically we find:
* 1440bc: Plagues of Exodus 2 and 3: First God sends a plague of green frogs unto Egypt followed by a plague of white lice. (Here we can see that the green element is a precursor to the white element).
* 2400bc: Osiris – king of the dead, is depicted in white with green skin and is lord of the underworld. He is Lord of the black earth. (Here we see green being connected with death and the underworld an important hint. But we also see that the green is again connected with the white).
But what is the connection between the green lion and the sun? Referring to the caduceus: both the white(green) and red snakes are required for the golden rod to achieve its disc (crown) and wings (rays). In other words, for the caduceus to become spiritualized. When studying alchemy the Sun (the disc), light (its rays), Sulphur and gold are often conflated which muddies our understanding. Even amongst the Greeks separating Helios (the Sun) from Apollo (divine light of the Sun) was difficult.
There are multiple valid interpretations of the illustration given above:
* The green lion would consume or bind with the Sulphur in the manufacture of the stone.
* The green lion would also function as a necessary agent and in effect regurgitate or spew forth the Solar disc and its rays.
* The green lion is also a necessary agent in releasing the blood of the dragon which is directly connected with the Solar aspect of the stone — (ex: Michael and the Great Satan.)
J. Erik LaPort said:
Green Lion = glass of antimony (Sb2O2SO4), which can be green or red or a number of other colors depending on the sulfur content. It is the “G” of the Fulcanelli writings. It is the Green Lion and Glass Grinds of Morienus.
Sun = gold, highly purified and particle size reduced to as fine as possible.
Eating the Sun = glass of antimony with finely divided gold powder suspended in it. This is the dry body+soul compound known by many cover-names that was reacted with Sophic Mercury (e-mail me to find out what that really was).
These two when reacted creates that archetypal Philosophers’ Stone.
Józsefné Kovács said:
What is the Sophic Mercury?
Mr David Keys said:
The Green Lion seen in the picture of the Rosary of the Philosophers, is NOT aqua regia, as is frequently stated. In actual fact, it is the “Mercury of the Philosophers” dissolving metallic gold , which takes place in the “egg” during coction or “cooking”.
In General, the green lion is a sulfuric acid, or vitriol. Now… what is interesting, is that sulfuric acid cannot dissolve gold. So because of that, this is a much more philosophical drawing, showing essences, not manifestations. Also, what is often forgotten is the Yellow Lion with the green snake under it’s paws. The Yellow lion represents the refined but not yet perfect sulfur, and the green snake represents the unrefined mercury… but the next thing we will see is the green lion representing the refined but not yet perfect mercury dissolving the perfected sulfur. This panel is completely philosophical in nature. The only way to dissolve gold in sulfuric acid is if there is also an electric current.
MR. David is right. The Green Lion which eats the SUN is what is known as “The mercury of the philosophers” which by the way comes from Antimony and has nothing to do with Mercury or Aqua Reg.
There is also another Green lion which is a salt of Saturn and looks like a green glass. That’s the true green lion of the philosophers, and it’s red blood is capable of dissolving gold.
Pride=death of the soul
The Green Lion is not any thing but the power to grow. To gain better understanding about Ripley one needs to read his Philorcium for the errors and his Key to the Golden Gate. The latter is the same doc attributed to St Dunstan and Edward Kelly.
Let us take heed; for although Sol and Luna may be subtiliated and mixed with tinctures, and so reduced into lesser tinctures, and Elixirs with mean profit; yet the true way according to the Doctrine of Philosophers, is not in them: for Sol and Luna are two tinctures Principal, red and white, buried in one and the same body, which by nature were never brought to perfect compliment, yet they are separable from their dirty and accidental dross, and afterward according to their proper qualities, are made most fit ferments for pure earth, white and red, so as in no sort they are said to breed any other thing.
For the whole Work is one, and the thing itself is one, and all the whole is derived from an Image. For our Ancestors knew, that the parts of this Stone are celestial and concrete; which were altogether absurd, if common Sol and Luna were needful to the composition thereof.
For it is said, Take a body wherein is Argent Vive, pure, clean, unspotted, and incompleat of Nature: such a body after its compleat and perfect cleansing, is much better than the Bodies of Mineral Sol and Luna.
Of this self-same body, which is the matter of the Stone, three things are chiefly said; that it is a green Lyon, a stinking Gum, and a white Fume.
But this is spoken of Philosophers, purposely to deceive Folks, and to bring them into doubts, by the many different names.
But understand thou shalt, one thing always is really signified, though accidentally and by names it is said to be three: for the Green Lyon, Stinking Gum, and White Fume, are spoken of one and the same subject, wherein they altogether lie hid, until by Art they are made manifest.
By the Green Lion, all Philosophers mean Green Sol multipliable and spermatick, which is as yet incompleat by Nature, having power to reduce Bodies to the first matter, and to make fixed things spiritual and flying, and so it is fitly called a Lion.
For as every Beast is subject to the Lion, so every Metalline body is confirmed and strengthened by the power of this Liony and green Sol; namely, of our Mercury, when it is Philosophically prepared.
Alchemy isnt just chemistry + symbolism, in modern terms it would involve a dozen academic disciplines, including biology. Couldnt The Green Lion also represent the Vegatative Principle – “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” ? Plants dont grow unless they are exposed to sunlight, perhaps the Alchemists theorised that plants in some way “Eat” sunlight ?
It might, but that intepretation would depend upon the time and place, i.e. I don’t recall much written about vegetative principles until post-medieval.
Also alchemy doesn’t map onto modern science because it’s not like modern science.
The Green Lyon does represent the vegetative principle or the principle of growth and evolution. It is symbolic of the life force evolving in the three kingdoms. When one finds the material referred to by Ripley in Key to the Golden Gate and
Dunstain’s Book (Philosophia Maturata) one will have a white fume that resolves into a stinking red gum (philosophical sulfur) and ardent water (philosophical mercury) with and a diaphanous volatile salt. All three must be purified of the feces from the destruction of the starting material caused by the operator.
Once purified the philosophical materials when combined evolve into a fixed and coherent union or Quintessence. This Quintessence contains an abundance of energy readily available for integration into one’s life force by ingestion. The actions of the Quintessence begin to remove the feces clogging the circulation which is the cause of the degradation of ageing.
This work of the Green Lyon does not involve metallic gold at all. That work with the calx of gold is another process. Yet it is done with the same starting material to get the stinking gum, ardent water and volatile salt
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“Our gold is not common gold”. “Copper is the gold of philosophers.” “I tell you that all that is perfect in copper is only that greenness which is in it, because that greenness is by our magistery quickly turned into our most pure gold, and this we have tried, but you can by no means prepare the stone without green and liquid Duenech, which is seen to grow in our minerals.” – When copper oxidizes, it turns green. The green is known as Patina. It’s a natural reduction process for many metals… Green Lion eating Copper… Is it any wonder why elemental Gold is considered perfection when it doesn’t react with Oxygen. What do you think the wind carries in its belly… oxygen…
Michael Ellis said:
I have a very good suspicion that it involves a green crystal formation that develops on gold under special circumstances. My other theory is that it is actually a property of the plant kingdom that generates precious metals from plant archaea. My final theory is that when the mercury is developed per Paracelsus’ instructions with iron vitriol, a certain green substance is developed that coats metals with gold upon heating.
“Copper goes through a natural oxidation process that forms a unique protective patina on the metal. The surface of the metal undergoes a series of color changes: from iridescent/salmon pinks to oranges and reds interspersed with brassy yellows, blues, greens and purples. As the oxide thickens, these colors are replaced by russet and chocolate browns, dull slate grays or blacks, and finally to a light-green or blue-green.”
Oxidation, rust, is technically a fire. A very SECRET FIRE.
Copper(I) oxide is very red.
hi ithink after a lot of work that green lion is the sulution to breek down the gold atomes to one single atom idid it with gold ore i have been working on i used aqua regia aqua regia if their is gold its a yellow orange color and after dijest all metales i use smb wich its very specific for gold precipation from aqua regia i get a orange light brown powder its pure gold but in defrent form that all refinneres know its asingle atom will not melt to make a metal even at 1200 c but i proced this prosses more i used hcl salt and vinger water the solution turn forest green with green crestales i thhjink thats the answer beleave me its gold in defrent forme that make it geen its a singl atom .i have been doing a lot of work on it its gold .but iam not intersted in the powder iam workin on how to take it back to metal .the single atom can give a defrent colors green red and white may be if ifinish with more evapration of the green solution .i will get the white powder i think pesonly thats what every body looking for
Rajkumar Vijayakumar said:
I can explain you , so green lion what is it. The substance will be green color and it’s behavior will be like a lion… simply an acid.. which tears and kills everything in its mouth.. now the sun is a salt.. which when dropped in the green lion it bleeds and glows in red .. if you leave this for a day or two then we’ll get a salt which can be used for medicine and for transmutation or alchemy as well.. if you still have doubts then I can share my video … also same material will be called in different name and different place with different alchemist so don’t get confused spend time in reading lot of books