Some Symbols in Books of Alchemy

Sources: Wd1426, Wd1421A, Wv149, Ws2541A

Wd1426, a book of alchemical recipes, has caused us to add some additional symbols to our inventory of character entities: signs for substances antimony and sal armoniac; the elements fire and water; and the syllabics "subli-" and "precipi-" (found in sublimate, precipitate, etc.). We've also gone ahead and added the elemental symbol for earth, on the assumption that it will eventually appear in our books as well. The new symbols will soon (March 2002) appear in the latest online version of the primary keying instructions as reproduced below. (Examples of the symbols in context follow further on below.)

Addendum, June 2002: Wd1421A employs the same set of symbols.

Addendum, February 2003: Wv149 adds symbols for sulphur, oil, and ?tartar and one of as yet unknown meaning.

Addendum, December 2003: added two symbols found in a strange non-chemical book Ws2541A, viz. salt and saltpetre

Alchemical signs
SymbolExampleMeaningRecord as
antimony symbol antimony symbol antimony &antimony;
sal armoniac symbol sal armoniac symbol sal armoniac / sal ammoniac (in (al)chemical contexts only) &salarmon;
elemental fire symbol elemental fire symbol fire (in (al)chemical contexts only) &fire;
elemental water symbol elemental water symbol water &water;
elemental earth symbol   earth (the element) &earth;
subli- abbreviation symbol subli- abbreviation symbol subli- (forming words like "sublimate") &absubli;
precipi- abbreviation symbol precipi- abbreviation symbol precipi- (forming words like "precipitate") &abprecipi;
sulphur abbreviation symbol sulphur abbreviation symbolsulphur abbreviation symbol sulphur or sulphu- (forming words like 'sulphuris') &sulphur;
oil or oleum symbol oil or oleum symbol oil or oleum &oil;
tartar(ic) symbol tartar(ic) symbol tartar (tartrate? tartaric acid? potassium? potash?) &tartar;
vitriol symbol vitriol symbol vitriol (sulphuric acid) or vitrio- (forming words like 'vitriolata') &vitriol;
salt symbol salt symbol salt &salt;
nitre or saltpetre symbol nitre or saltpetre symbol nitre or saltpetre (potassium nitrate) &nitre;

Note that the interpretation of some of these symbols is necessarily contextual. That is, it is the fact that they are in a book of alchemy (and maybe even the fact that they are within a particular book) that causes us to interpret "*" as "sal ammoniac" as opposed to "asterisk" or "sextile", or the upright triangle as "fire" instead of "delta" or "trine". If such interpretation is too much too ask, capture as one of the other look-alike symbols, or a generic character that describes the appearance (e.g. ▵ (upward-pointing triangle)) will be acceptable. If the capture is consistent, we can always convert later to a semantically more precise or more appropriate rendition.

This book (Wd1426) is singularly helpful in that it provides a key to most of the symbols in the book within the first few pages of the book itself:

The actual form of the symbols is quite consistent throughout the book, and the printing is generally clear. As well as the symbols listed, we find the usual "ounce" symbol; the standard doubled "ss" for "semis" ('half'), and other common characters. The planetary signs are used mostly in their alchemical senses, to designate metals.

Noteworthy are the three representations of chemical processes (precipi-, sublimi-, and amalgama-) that act more like ordinary Latin abbreviation symbols and less like planetary or elemental signs, inasmuch as words are built on them. Two are symbols, one is simply three "a"s with dots over them to indicate abbreviation. The symbols will need to be captured as distinctive entities; the abbreviation can follow the usual rules and retain only the actual letters, placed within <ABBR> tags.

Looks like: Means: Capture as:
precipitate &abprecipi;tate
to sublim to &absubli;m
sublimate &absubli;mate
sublimed &subli;med
sublimation &subli;mation
amalgama <ABBR>aaa</ABBR>
amalgamate <ABBR>aaate</ABBR>

Some sample transcriptions

CAPTURE AS: Then add more of the fixed Salt to it which hath not &subli;med, making it one third to the &salarmon;, which humect with Spirit as before, cir|culate and &subli;m, and the &salarmon; will be increased. Do thus till all the fixed Salt be &subli;med. Cir|culate the remaining Volatile Spirit with the &salarmon;, till all the Spirit be converted into &salarmon;,

CAPTURE AS: TAke reddish rich Virgin Earth in &Aries;, im|pregnate it with &Sun;, &Moon;, serene and dew, till the end of <HI>May:</HI> Then imbibe sprink|lingly with dew gathered in <HI>May,</HI> and dry in &Sun;, expose all Night to the &Moon; and Air, securing it from Rain. Still when it is dry, imbibe and turn the Earth often. Continue this till &subli;mation. The hot &Sun; (especially in the Dog-days) will make a pure Salt shoot up, which mingle back into the Earth, by turning it all over. Then distill by gra|duated &fire; as <HI>A.F.</HI> forcing all the Spirits

<ITEM>&rx;. <HI>Rob. de Ribes.</HI></ITEM>
<ITEM><HI>Rob. de Berber. an.</HI> &ounce;j.</ITEM>
<ITEM><HI>Spir. &sulphur; g.</HI> iij.</ITEM>
<ITEM><HI>Salis perlar.</HI> &scruple;.j.</ITEM>
<ITEM><HI>Extract. santal.</HI></ITEM>
<ITEM><HI>Extract. Chelid.</HI> an. &ounce;ss.</ITEM>
<ITEM><HI>&tartar;ri &vitriol;lati.</HI> &dram;iij.</ITEM>
<ITEM><HI>Tinctur. croci &Mars; cum &oil; &sulphur;ris praep.</HI> &dram;ij.</ITEM>
<ITEM><HI>Salis Corallor.</HI> &ounce;ss.</ITEM>
<ITEM><HI>Essentiae</HI> &Mars; &dram;j.</ITEM>