Quinta Essentia

August 7, 2009 at 8:57 pm (Alchemy, Enlightenment, Exclusive Societies, Geology, India, Japan, Kabbalah, Literature, Metallurgy, Mythology, Religion, Shakespeare, Symbology, Technology, The Ancient World, The Occult, The Renaissance, Theater) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties. In form and moving, how express and admirable. In action how like an angel. In apprehension, how like a god. The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

–   The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, scene ii

Shakespeare's tortured prince weighing the value of mankind.

Shakespeare's tortured prince weighing the value of mankind.

This dizzyingly rich quotation is familiar to any student of literature, and has become a sort of mantra to those who practice the theatrical art of soliloquy. But what interests me here are not the layers upon layers of meaning that Shakespeare wove using these words, but rather one individual word in particular. That word is quintessence which, as it is used in this context, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The most typical example of a category or class; the most perfect embodiment of a certain type of person or thing.” But a bit of etymological reasoning leads to more questions than answers. Why would the prefix quint, meaning five, when attached quite literally to the word essence, produce a word synonymous with archetype or apotheosis? What is this mysterious fifth essence that has seemingly sneaked unnoticed into our contemporary lexicon? The answer, it turns out, lies in various ancient philosophies, ranging from the ancient Greeks to the age-old practice of alchemy.

A table of Medieval alchemical symbols.

A table of Medieval alchemical symbols.

The practice of alchemy, which combines elements scientific, philosophical, and spiritual, is believed to date back to traditions of the ancient Persian Empire, as early as the 8th century BC. While certain aspects of alchemy bear resemblance to complex spiritual systems such as Kabbalah, its more practical attributes can be seen as a precursor to modern chemistry. Although alchemists practicing in different eras and parts of the world embraced drastically differing systems, one unifying theme running through them all is a concern with physical elements.

earth, air, fire, water

The four primary, or Classical, elements are earth, air, fire, and water.  This way of dividing the physical world can be found in various ancient cultures. In many traditions, however, there is a fifth element that is considered to be the most important one of all. Known to the Greeks as Aether, the Hindus as Akasha, and the Japanese as void or sky, the notion of a fifth, ethereal element that ties the four physical elements together is pervasive amongst ancient philosophical traditions. It is from the alchemical interpretation of this fifth element, this quinta essentia, that we receive our term signifying an example of perfection. Sometimes referred to as the Philosopher’s Stone, the fifth element is the unity that comes with the mastery of the four lower elements, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is just this notion that Shakespeare was evoking when he dubbed man “the quintessence of dust”. After all, even a ghost in the machine, no matter how powerful the spirit and how complex the mechanism, is still a mere ghost in a mere machine. This conclusion was, it seems, one of the weights that made Prince Hamlet’s head so heavy.

Some Further Reading:

The online text of a University of Virginia class focusing on the history of alchemy

An analysis of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man…” soliloquy

The entry for lapis philosophorum (the Philosopher’s Stone) from Symbols.com

A site that catalogues the history of chemistry, from alchemy to nanotechnology

Permalink 2 Comments

Phobos Update: Buzz Aldrin Mentions a Monolith on Mars’ Moon

August 3, 2009 at 1:44 am (Astronomy, Geology, NASA) (, , , , , )

An Irrational Geographic entry from the 21st of May discussed Phobos, the tiny moon of Mars that, by its very appearance, acts as one of the most ghostly objects in our solar system. I recently came across this footage of astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who was part of the Apollo 11 moon landing mission, mentioning a monolith on Phobos. While he does not discuss the issue in depth, I found it fascinating nonetheless. Here is the clip in question:

Some Further Reading:

Buzz Aldrin’s Homepage

NASA’s entry on the Earth’s moon

A site that explores the possibility of a monolith on Phobos

Permalink 1 Comment

Earthquake Fish, Earthquake Weather, Earthquake Clouds, Earthquake Light

June 3, 2009 at 5:00 pm (Animals, Death, Fear, Geology, Meteorology, Modern World, Mythology, Technology, Tectonics, The Ancient World) (, , , , , , , , )

Appearing in ancient texts from many cultures across the globe, earthquakes have been a source of fear and speculation since time immemorial. With an average of 18 major temblors striking per year (mostly in the Pacific Ring of Fire), it is small wonder that this violent phenomenon has driven humans to desperate attempts at earthquake prediction. While few modern cultures accept, as some once did, that earthquakes are caused by celestial struggles or air trapped beneath the earth’s surface, many still point to early warning signs with origins in ancient mythology. The following earthquake prediction techniques are not supported by mainstream modern science, but are nonetheless widely embraced by individuals and organizations determined to gain a foothold against one of nature’s most destructive habits.

Earthquake Fish

Ribbon Fish

More commonly known as the ribbonfish, these oddly shaped creatures dwell at great depths and commonly measure up to 8 feet long. Taiwanese legend points to these slender fish when attempting to predict earthquakes, claiming that these deep-sea dwellers rise to the surface in the moments before a quake strikes. Modern seismology has shown no correlation between the activities of these fish and actual earthquakes.

Earthquake Weather

Some claim that the Loma Prieta earthquake that ravaged the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989 was preceded by "earthquake weather". This photograph depicts the part of the Bay Bridge that collapsed during the temblor, which was broadcast on live TV due to the fact that the San Francisco Giants were playing in the World Series at the time.

Some claim that the Loma Prieta earthquake that ravaged the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989 was preceded by "earthquake weather". This photograph depicts the part of the Bay Bridge that collapsed during the temblor, which was broadcast on live TV due to the fact that the San Francisco Giants were playing in the World Series at the time.

Perhaps the most prevalent folk superstition regarding earthquakes in the modern day United States, the notion of earthquake weather in Western culture dates at least as far back as Herodotus (486 BC – 425 BC). Aristotle wrote about this meteorological phenomenon as well, attributing earthquakes to subterranean winds. Warm, calm weather, he believed, would precede seismic activity. While modern seismologists dismiss this notion as foolish and unfounded, I have personally witnessed this widespread superstition in action. On one unseasonably warm afternoon in San Francisco I was warned by multiple people to be wary, for we were experiencing, they claimed, typical earthquake weather. Fortunately, that day ended without disaster.

Earthquake Clouds


Discussed by Indian scholar Daivajna Varāhamihira as early as the 6th century, peculiar cloud formations are believed by some to rapidly appear in anticipation of earthquakes. Similar observations have appeared in Chinese and European writings of antiquity. These long, slender clouds that have been likened to snakes are said to form in a matter of seconds, acting as a grim premonition to observers below. Modern seismologists are divided about the legitimacy of this prediction technique, which does, at least superficially, seem to show some semblance of legitimacy. These clouds, it is hypothesized, correspond to temperature changes along fault lines that can accompany increased seismic activity and the eruption of heated gasses. The thermodynamic mechanisms by which terrestrial temperature changes affect cloud formation, however, have still yet to be demonstrated in a way that satisfies the scientific community. Until this can be successfully done, earthquake clouds will remain relegated to the realm of superstition.

Earthquake Light


This beautiful luminescence was spotted in the sky over Tianshui, Gansu province about 30 minutes before the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008.

Similar in appearance to the polar aurorae (borealis and austrialis), earthquake light is said to include a wider range of colors. Having been embraced as a harbinger of earthquakes since ancient Greece, several 20th century earthquakes have, many claim, been preceded by these beautiful lights. Minutes before an earthquake struck the Sichuan province of China in 2008, cell phone video footage of these lights was uploaded to the website Youtube.com. Skeptics contend that these lights were merely the result of sunlight refracted by atmospheric moisture. Neuroscientist Michael Persinger has attempted to explain these mysterious lights through his Tectonic Strain Theory, which links seismic activity to electromagnetic fields that can be misinterpreted by human cognition as lights or even UFOs.

While each of these prediction techniques has its fervent proponents, evidence for their reliability is not sufficient enough for them to be employed by the United States Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program. This does little, however, to dissuade individuals from looking to ancient wisdom for comfort in the face of a violent force so overwhelmingly powerful that it effortlessly causes the world’s most developed nations to grovel before it in fear. This speaks to the common occurrence of drastic emotion overriding and even dashing to bits all the pristine knowledge of the academic ivory tower. In the face of violent death, sometimes there is only the terrified individual against an indifferent quagmire of external forces.

Some Further Reading:

A frequently updated site tracking earthquake clouds

The United States Geological Survey’s homepage for earthquake information

An article exploring many facets of earthquake clouds

A brief look at the Tectonic Strain Theory

The National Earthquake Information Center

An article proposing a scientific explanation for earthquake lights

A video depicted the earthquake lights that purportedly predicted the Sichuan quake of 2008

Permalink Leave a Comment