When you hear metal, what comes to your mind? Industry? Maybe trading? Human association with metals goes a long way back in history. The ancient people viewed metals as mysterious materials found deep inside the earth and believed them to be full of spiritual powers with the potential for creation as well as destruction.
Several ancient civilizations practiced alchemy and it has been said that Arabs were the forefathers of the science. The philosopher Muhammad ibn Zakariya Al-Razi (9th century) claimed that “the study of philosophy could not be considered complete, and a learned man could not be called a philosopher, until he has succeeded in producing the alchemical transmutation.”
For many years, Western scholars ignored Al-Razi’s praise for alchemy, seeing alchemy instead as a pseudoscience, false in its purposes and fundamentally wrong in its methods, closer to magic and superstition than to the “enlightened” sciences. Only in recent years have pioneering studies demonstrated the importance of alchemical practices and discoveries in creating the foundations of modern chemistry.
Arab alchemists excelled in the field of practical laboratory experience and offered the first descriptions of some of the substances still used in modern chemistry. Muriatic (hydrochloric) acid, sulfuric acid, and nitric acid are discoveries of Arabic alchemists, as are soda (al-natrun) and potassium (al-qali). Moreover, the words used in Arabic alchemy books have left a deep mark on the language of chemistry: besides the word alchemy itself, we see Arabic influence in such words as alcohol (al-kohl), elixir (al-iksir), and alembic (al-inbiq). Furthermore, Arabic alchemists perfected the process of distillation, equipping their distilling apparatuses with thermometers in order to better regulate the heating during alchemical operations. Alchemists also assigned planetary correspondences to each of the metals they used.
With the deep and rich history of Arabs and alchemy in mind, let’s take a look at a few types of metals in Arabic and their meanings and importance.
Gold in Arabic / Dhahab /ذهب
In ancient Egypt, gold was used to represent the sun and the power that came along with it. It was believed to represent perfection and purity and was a symbol of wealth, prosperity, authority and charisma. If you were a pharaoh, you were a descendant of the gods, and therefore, the ruler of the skies and heavens. One of the largest caches of gold from the ancient world ever discovered turned up in Egypt when, in the 1920s, an archaeologist named Howard Carter stumbled across the tomb of a pharaoh that few had ever heard of — King Tutankhamen.
Gold appears in the stories of the Greeks and Romans as well. King Midas had the magic touch, and everything he got his hands on turned into gold — including his beloved daughter! On a physical and scientific level, people have spent a lot of time trying to understand the mysteries of gold and all of its properties. For quite some time, alchemists worked fervently to turn other metals into gold, and were spectacularly unsuccessful.
Silver in Arabic / Fiddfah /فضة
Silver is a real metal and is connected to the Moon. It is one of the most versatile metals — one of the three base metals in Alchemy. It is associated with philosophical traits of intuition, self-reflection, and inner wisdom. It is a feminine metal, a symbol of purity and is connected to the goddesses and spirits. Its energies include divination, healing, protection, emotion, love, wisdom, dreams, luck and wealth. It is symbolic of attributes such as vision, clarity, awareness, focus, persistence and subtle strength.
Lead in Arabic / Rasas /رصاص
Early alchemists recognized lead as the heaviest of the base metals. It was associated with the planet Saturn, and the god of the same name. It’s not especially pretty, tends to block out light and sound, and is a poor conductor of energy and electricity. Lead is not only heavy, it’s also durable and hard to change. Lead items found in archaeological excavations are usually still found unbroken after thousands of years, and many European cities are still using some of the lead piping that was installed by the ancient Romans. For centuries, alchemists were convinced they could turn lead into gold. It’s associated with fire, and melts easily over an open flame. Once burned down, the lead is replaced by a fine yellowish ashy powder, which is why alchemists believed that lead and gold were so intricately connected. Lead is the metal of transformation, resurrection and death.
Mercury in Arabic / Zi’baq /زئبَق
Mercury, also called quicksilver, is one of the heaviest metals known to mankind, and at room temperature, it still remains in a liquid form. It was known as mercurius vivens, or “the living mercury,” because even though most metals begin as liquids deep in the Earth, mercury is the only one whose final form is still in motion. Found in tombs in China, Egypt, and India dating back several thousand years, mercury was eventually used in healing medicine. Mercury is a bit of a weird anomaly when it comes to metals, and is unlike any of the others. Since it’s not hard or malleable, it can’t be scratched, shaped, or bent. It doesn’t conduct heat, but it does react to it, and will expand and contract based on temperatures – that’s why it’s used in thermometers. When it’s frozen, it actually works as an excellent conductor of electricity. Because it appears as a living, breathing thing in constant motion, mercury is sometimes associated with the serpent. Its symbolism is related not only with the life force itself, but also with the aspects of death and decomposition.
Copper in Arabic / Nohas ahmar /نحاس أحمر
One of the most fascinating aspects of magical correspondences is that often an item’s metaphysical properties match up to its tangible, physical ones. For instance, in the engineering and science worlds, copper is used as a conductor of electricity and heat. It allows the flow of a current back and forth. So, if copper can transfer energy in one direction or another in your home or workplace, guess what one of the metaphysical associations of copper will be? If you said energy conduction, you’re exactly right. Copper is ruled by the planet Venus, and that’s the reason why it’s associated with matters of love and symbolizes characteristics like charisma, feminine beauty, artistic creativity, affection and balance. It is also considered a healing metal that teaches about living a fulfilling life.
Tin in Arabic /qasdeer/ قصدير
Tin is associated with Jupiter, both the planet and the Roman god. It’s shiny and malleable, and the Romans called it plumbum album, which translates to “white lead.” They used it for making mirrors and even coins. Tin is often used in alloys, being blended with other metals to make something new. It embodies wisdom, logic, education, maturity, and knowledge and is believed to be the metal of sages and scholars. It is associated with mediation, balance and a philosophical view of life.
Brass in Arabic / Nuhas asfar /نحاس أصفر and Bronze in Arabic / Bronz /برونز
We put these two metals together because in alchemy they are considered as antimonies. An antimony is seen as a cooperative metal because it works best when it is combined with another metal. It is actually a metalloid that does not react chemically as a metal but has metal-like appearance and physical properties. They are considered protective metals and symbolize transformation and adaptability, wisdom and strength that can be gained from others and also given back in return. Antimony represents the free spirit, wild nature, or animal power, dwelling within all humans.
On another note, there are other types of metal and metal related vocabulary worth mentioning, that did not necessarily have a profound impact in alchemy:
Lime in Arabic / Kils /كلس
Steel in Arabic / Foolath /فولاذ
Platinum in Arabic / Platen /بلاتين
Pitch in Arabic / Zift /زِفت
Sulfur in Arabic / Kibreet /كبريت
Nickel sulfur / Nekel /نيكل
Acid in Arabic / Aseed /آسيد
Metal in Arabic / Ma’den / معدن
Today, no one doubts that Latin alchemy is mainly based on Arabic heritage. Before the first infiltrations of Arabic alchemical texts, the Latin West knew of only a few translations of Greek books of alchemic recipes, largely out of context. The history of the influence of Arabic alchemy in the West faces some major problems directly connected with its sources: not all the Latin translations from Arabic are cataloged or identified, their handwritten tradition is scarcely known, and translators’ names are rarely specified.