Chemical nomenclature

Chemical Names of Metals

As those metals earliest known, viz. copper, iron, gold, silver, lead, quicksilver and tin, received the same names as the nearest heavenly bodies, which appear to us largest, and have been distinguished by the like characters, two questions arise: Whether these names and characters were given first to the planets or to the metals? When, where, and on what account were they made choice of; and why were the metals named after the planets, or the planets after the metals? The latter of these questions, in my opinion, cannot be answered with any degree of certainty; but something may be said on the subject, which will not, perhaps, be disagreeable to those fond of such researches, and who have not had an opportunity of examining it.

That the present usual names were first given to the heavenly bodies, and at a later period to the metals, is beyond all doubt; and it is equally certain that they came from the Greeks to the Romans, and from the Romans to us. It can be proved also that older nations gave other names to these heavenly bodies at much earlier periods. The oldest appellations, if we may judge from some examples still preserved, seem to have originated from certain emotions which these bodies excited in the minds of men; and it is not improbable that the planets were by the ancient Egyptians and Persians named after their gods, and that the Greeks only adopted or translated into their own language the names which those nations had given them 62. The idea that each planet was the residence of a god, or that they were gods themselves, has arisen, according to the most probable conjecture, from rude nations worshiping the sun, which, on account of his beneficent and necessary influence over all terrestrial bodies, they considered either as the deity himself, or his abode, or, at any rate, as a symbol of him. In the course of time, when heroes and persons who by extraordinary services had rendered their names respected and immortal, received divine honours, particular heavenly bodies, of which the sun, moon and planets seemed the fittest, were also assigned to these divinities 63. By what laws this distribution was made, and why one planet was dedicated to Saturn and not to another, Pluche did not venture to determine: and on this point the ancients themselves are not all agreed 64. When the planets were once dedicated to the gods, folly, which never stops where it begins, proceeded still further, and ascribed to them the attributes and powers for which the deities, after whom they were named, had been celebrated in the fictions of their mythologists. This in time laid the foundation of astrology; and hence the planet Mars, like the deity of that name, was said to cause and to be fond of war; and Venus to preside over love and its pleasures.

The next question is, Why were the metals divided in the like manner among the gods, and named after them? Of all the conjectures that can be formed in answer to this question, the following appears to me the most probable. The number of the deified planets made the number seven so sacred to the Egyptians, Persians and other nations, that all those things which amounted to the same number, or which could be divided by it without a remainder, were supposed to have an affinity or a likeness to and connexion with each other 65. The seven metals, therefore, were considered as having some relationship to the planets, and with them to the gods, and were accordingly named after them. To each god was assigned a metal, the origin and use of which was under his particular providence and government; and to each metal were ascribed the powers and properties of the planet and divinity of the like name; from which arose, in the course of time, many of the ridiculous conceits of the alchemists.

The oldest trace of the division of the metals among the gods is to be found, as far as I know, in the religious worship of the Persians. Origen, in his Refutation of Celsus, who asserted that the seven heavens of the Christians, as well as the ladder which Jacob saw in his dream, had been borrowed from the mysteries of Mithras, says, “Among the Persians the revolutions of the heavenly bodies were represented by seven stairs, which conducted to the same number of gates. The first gate was of lead; the second of tin; the third of copper; the fourth of iron; the fifth of a mixed metal; the sixth of silver, and the seventh of gold. The leaden gate had the slow tedious motion of Saturn; the tin gate the lustre and gentleness of Venus; the third was dedicated to Jupiter; the fourth to Mercury, on account of his strength and fitness for trade; the fifth to Mars; the sixth to the Moon, and the last to the Sun 66.” Here then is an evident trace of metallurgic astronomy, as Borrichius calls it, or of the astronomical or mythological nomination of metals, though it differs from that used at present. According to this arrangement, tin belonged to Jupiter, copper to Venus, iron to Mars, and the mixed metal to Mercury. The conjecture of Borrichius, that the transcribers of Origen have, either through ignorance or design, transposed the names of the gods, is highly probable: for if we reflect that in this nomination men at first differed as much as in the nomination of the planets, and that the names given them were only confirmed in the course of time, of which I shall soon produce proofs, it must be allowed that the causes assigned by Origen for his nomination do not well agree with the present reading, and that they appear much juster when the names are disposed in the same manner as that in which we now use them 67.

This astrological nomination of metals appears to have been conveyed to the Brahmans in India; for we are informed that a Brahman sent to Apollonius seven rings, distinguished by the names of the seven stars or planets, one of which he was to wear daily on his finger, according to the day of the week 68. This can be no otherwise explained than by supposing that he was to wear the gold ring on Sunday; the silver one on Monday; the iron one on Tuesday, and so of the rest. Allusion to this nomination of the metals after the gods occurs here and there in the ancients. Didymus, in his Explanation of the Iliad, calls the planet Mars the iron star. Those who dream of having had anything to do with Mars are by Artemidorus threatened with a chirurgical operation, for this reason, he adds, because Mars signifies iron 69. Heraclides says also in his allegories, that Mars was very properly considered as iron; and we are told by Pindar that gold is dedicated to the sun 70.

Plato likewise, who studied in Egypt, seems to have admitted this nomination and meaning of the metals. We are at least assured so by Marsilius Ficinus 71 ; but I have been able to find no proof of it, except where he says of the island Atlantis, that the exterior walls were covered with copper and the interior with tin, and that the walls of the citadel were of gold. It is not improbable that Plato adopted this Persian or Egyptian representation, as he assigned the planets to the demons; but perhaps it was first introduced into his system only by his disciples 72. They seem, however, to have varied from the nomination used at present; as they dedicated to Venus copper, or brass, the principal component part of which is indeed copper; to Mercury tin; and to Jupiter electrum. The last-mentioned metal was a mixture of gold and silver; and on this account was probably considered to be a distinct metal, because in early periods mankind were unacquainted with the art of separating these noble metals 73.

The characters by which the planets and metals are generally expressed when one does not choose to write their names, afford a striking example how readily the mind may be induced to suppose a connexion between things which in reality have no affinity or relation to each other. Antiquaries and astrologers, according to whose opinion the planets were first distinguished by these characters, consider them as the attributes of the deities of the same name. The circle in the earliest periods among the Egyptians was the symbol of divinity and perfection; and seems with great propriety to have been chosen by them as the character of the sun, especially as, when surrounded by small strokes projecting from its circumference, it may form some representation of the emission of rays. The semicircle is in like manner the image of the moon, the only one of the heavenly bodies that appears under that form to the naked eye. The character ♄ is supposed to represent the sythe of Saturn; ♃ the thunderbolts of Jupiter; ♂ the lance of Mars, together with his shield; ♀ the looking-glass of Venus; and ☿ the caduceus or wand of Mercury.

The expression by characters adopted among the older chemists agrees with this mythological signification only in the character assigned to gold. Gold, according to the chemists, was the most perfect of metals, to which all others seemed to be inferior in different degrees. Silver approached nearest to it; but was distinguished only by a semicircle, which, for the more perspicuity, was drawn double, and thence had a greater resemblance to the most remarkable appearance of the moon; the name of which this metal had already obtained. All the other metals, as they seemed to have a greater or less affinity to gold or silver, were distinguished by marks composed of the characters assigned to these precious metals. In the character ☿ the adepts discover gold with a silver colour. The cross placed at the bottom, which among the Egyptian hieroglyphics had a mysterious signification 74 , expresses, in their opinion, something I know not what, without which quicksilver would be silver or gold. This something is combined also with copper, the possible change of which into gold is expressed by the character ♀. The character ♂ declares the like honourable affinity also; though the half-cross is applied in a more concealed manner; for, according to the most proper mode of writing, the point is wanting at the top, or the upright line ought only to touch the horizontal, and not to intersect it. Philosophical gold is concealed in steel; and on this account it produces such valuable medicines. Of tin one-half is silver, and the other consists of the something unknown: for this reason the cross with the half moon appears in ♃. In lead this something is predominant, and a similitude is observed in it to silver. Hence in its character ♄ the cross stands at the top, and the silver character is only suspended on the right-hand behind it.

The mythological signification of these characters cannot be older than the Grecian mythology; but the chemical may be traced to a much earlier period. Some, who consider them as remains of the Egyptian hieroglyphics 75 , pretend that they may be discovered on the table of Isis, and employ them as a proof of the high antiquity, if not of the art of making gold, at least of chemistry. We are told also that they correspond with many other characters which the adepts have left us as emblems of their wisdom.

If we are desirous of deciding without prejudice respecting both these explanations, it will be found necessary to make ourselves acquainted with the oldest form of the characters, which in all probability, like those used in writing, were subjected to many changes before they acquired that form which they have at present. I can, however, mention only three learned men, Salmasius 76 , Du Cange 77 , and Huet 78 , who took the trouble to collect these characters. As I am afraid that my readers might be disgusted were I here to insert them, I shall give a short abstract of the conclusion which they form from them; but I must first observe that the oldest manuscripts differ very much in their representation of these characters, either because they were not fully established at the periods when they were written, or because many supposed adepts endeavoured to render their information more enigmatical by wilfully confounding the characters; and it is probable also that many mistakes may have been committed by transcribers.

The character of Mars, according to the oldest mode of representing it, is evidently an abbreviation of the word Θοῦρος, under which the Greek mathematicians understood that deity; or, in other words, the first letter Θ, with the last letter ς placed above it. The character of Jupiter was originally the initial letter of Ζεύς; and in the oldest manuscripts of the mathematical and astrological works of Julius Firmicus the capital Ζ only is used, to which the last letter ς was afterwards added at the bottom, to render the abbreviation more distinct. The supposed looking-glass of Venus is nothing else than the initial letter, a little distorted, of the word Φωσφόρος, which was the name of that goddess. The imaginary sythe of Saturn has been gradually formed from the first two letters of his name Κρόνος, which transcribers, for the sake of dispatch, made always more convenient for use, but at the same time less perceptible. To discover in the pretended caduceus of Mercury the initial letter of his Greek name Στίλβων, one needs only look at the abbreviations in the oldest manuscripts, where they will find that the Σ was once written as Ϲ; they will remark also that transcribers, to distinguish this abbreviation still more from the rest, placed the C thus, ◡; and added under it the next letter τ. If those to whom this deduction appears improbable will only take the trouble to look at other Greek abbreviations, they will find many that differ still further from the original letters they express than the present character ☿ from the Ϲ and τ united. It is possible that later transcribers, to whom the origin of this abbreviation was not known, may have endeavoured to give it a greater resemblance to the caduceus of Mercury. In short, it cannot be denied that many other astronomical characters are real symbols, or a kind of proper hieroglyphics, that represent certain attributes or circumstances, like the characters of Aries, Leo, and others quoted by Salmasius.

But how old is the present form of these characters? According to Scaliger 79 , they are of great antiquity, because they are to be found on very old gems and rings. If the ring No. 104 in Goræus be old and accurately delineated, this must indeed be true; for some of these characters may be very plainly distinguished on the beazel 80. We are told by Wallerius that they were certainly used by the ancient Egyptians, because Democritus, who resided five years in Egypt, speaks of them in the plainest terms. I do not know whence Wallerius derived this information, but it proves nothing. He undoubtedly alludes to the laughing philosopher of Abdera, who lived about 450 years before our æra, but no authentic writings of his are now extant. Fabricius says that we have a Latin translation of a work of his, De Arte Sacra, Patavii, 1572, which, however, is certainly a production of much later times. I have it now before me from the library of our university; and I find that it is not the whole book, but only an abstract, and written in so extravagant a manner that the deception is not easily discovered. It contains chemical processes, but nothing of the characters of metals; which is the case also with the letters of Democritus, published by Lubbinus 81.

[By way of contrast to the seven metals with which the ancients were acquainted, we may enumerate those known at the present day. They are as follows:—

8.Antimony  Basil Valentine 1490.
9.Bismuth  Agricola 1530.
10.Zinc  (Paracelsus?)1530.
11.Arsenic  Brandt 1733.
13.Platinum  Wood 1741.
14.Nickel  Cronstedt 1751.
15.Manganese  Gahn 1774.
16.Tungsten  D'Elhujart 1781.
17.Tellurium  Müller 1782.
18.Molybdenum  Hjelm 1782.
19.Uranium  Klaproth 1789.
20.Titanium  Gregor 1791.
21.Chromium  Vauquelin 1797.
22.Columbium  Hatchett 1802.
23.Palladium  Wollaston 1803.
25.Iridium  Tennant 1803.
27.Cerium  Hisinger 1804.
28.Potassium  Davy 1807.
33.Cadmium  Stromeyer 1818.
34.Lithium  Arfwedson 1818.
35.Silicium  Berzelius 1824.
37.Aluminum  Wöhler 1828.
40.Thorium  Berzelius 1829.
41.Magnesium  Bussy 1829.
42.Vanadium  Sefström 1830.
43.Didymium  Mosander 1842.
45.Erbium  Mosander 1843.
47.Pelopium  H. Rose 1845.
49.Ruthenium  Claus 1845.
50.Norium  Svanberg 1845.]


62  See Goguet, Origines. Bailly, Hist. de l'Astron. Ancienne.

63  Jablonski, Pantheon Ægypt. 1750, p. 49.

64  These contradictions are pointed out by Goguet, in a note, p. 370. A better view of them may be found in Hygini Astronom. (ed. Van Staveren), xlii. p. 496.

65  Jablonski, Panth. p. 55. Vossius de Idololatria, ii. 34, p. 489. Bruckeri Histor. Philosoph. i. p. 1055.

66  Origenes Contra Celsum, lib. vi. 22. I expected to have received some explanation of this passage from the editors of Origen, and in those authors who have treated expressly on the religious worship of the Persians; but I find that they are quoted neither by Hyde; Philip a Turre, whose Monumenta Veteris Antii is printed in Thesaurus Antiquitat. et Histor. Italiæ; nor by Banier in his Mythology.

67  Borrichius arranges the words in the following manner: “Secundam portam faciunt Jovis, comparantes ei stanni splendorem et mollitiem; tertiam Veneris æratam et solidam; quartam Martis, est enim laborum patiens, æque ac ferrum, celebratus hominibus; quintam Mercurii propter misturam inæqualem ac variam, et quia negotiator est; sextam Lunæ argenteam; septimam Solis auream.”—Ol. Borrichius De Ortu et Progressu Chemiæ.” Hafniæ, 1668, 4to, p. 29. Professor Eichhorn reminded me, as allusive to this subject, of the seven walls of Ecbatana, the capital of Media, the outermost of which was the lowest, and each of the rest progressively higher, so that they overtopped each other. Each was of a particular colour. The outermost was white; the second black; the third purple; the fourth blue; the fifth red, or rather of an orange colour; and the summit of the sixth was covered with silver, and that of the seventh, or innermost, with gold. Such is the account given by Herodotus, i. 98; and it appears to me not improbable that they may have had a relation to the seven planets, though nothing is hinted on that subject by the historian.

68  Philostrat. Vita Apollonii, iii. 41, p. 130. How was the ring for Wednesday made? Perhaps it was hollow, and filled with quicksilver. Gesner, in Commentaria Societat. Scien. Gotting. 1753, iii. p. 78, thinks that these rings might have been made or cast under certain constellations.

69  Oneirocritica, v. 37.

70  Isthm. Od. ver. 1. Of the like kind are many passages in Eustathius on Homer's Iliad, b. xi., and also the following passages of Constantinus Manasses, where he describes the creation of the stars, in his Annales (edit. Meursii, Lugd. 1616), p. 7, and p. 263: “Saturnus nigricabat, colore plumbeo; Jupiter ut argentum splendebat; Mars flammeus conspiciebatur; Sol instar auri puri lucebat; (Venus uti stannum;) Mercurius instar æris rubebat; Luna in morem glaciei pellucida suam et ipsa lucem emittebat,” &c.

71  In his Preface to Critias. Platonis Opera; Francof. 1602, fol. p. 1097.

72  It is probable that Ficinus had in view a passage in Olympiodori Commentar. in Meteora Arist. Ven. 1551, fol. lib. iii. p. 59.

73  This distribution, which is ascribed to the Platonists, may be found also in the scholiasts on Pindar, at the beginning of the fifth Isthmian Ode, p. 459.

74  Jablonski, Pantheon Ægypt. i. p. 282, 283, 287; and ii. p. 131. This author makes it the representation of something which cannot be well named. Kircheri Œdipus Ægypt. t. ii. pars ii. p. 399. Romæ, 1653, fol.

75  Goguet, ii. pp. 370, 371, considers them as remains of the original hieroglyphics; but he is of opinion that we received them in their present form from the Arabians.

76  Plinianæ Exercitat. in Solinum, p. 874.

77  Gloss. ad Script. Med. et Infimæ Græcitatis.

78  In his Annotations on Manilii Astronomicon (in usum Delphini). Par. 1679, 4to, p. 80.

79  In his Annotations on Manilii Astron. Strasb. 1665, 4to, p. 460.

80  In Gorii Thesaurus Gemmarum antiquarum astriferarum, Florent. 1750, 3 vols. fol., I found nothing on this subject. Characters of the moon and of the signs in the zodiac often occur; but no others are to be seen, except in tab. 33, where there is a ring, which has on it the present characters of Mars and Venus. In general the planets are represented by seven small asterisks, or by six and the character of the moon. Besides, the antiquity of this gem cannot be ascertained.

81  See the collection of Greek letters of Eilh. Lubbinus. Commelin. 1601, 8vo.