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

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The Baghdad Batteries: Were Babylonians able to generate electricity in 250 BC?

May 28, 2009 at 4:06 pm (Metallurgy, Technology, The Ancient World, The Arab World) (, , , , , , , , )


In the mid 1930s a series of curious objects, believed to date from the 3rd century BC, were unearthed in Khujut Rabu, near Baghdad. These earthenware jars, measuring about 5 inches high, contained copper cylinders and iron rods. This strange group of objects, not given any special attention, found its way into the collection of the National Museum of Iraq. It was not until several years later that Wilhelm Konig, the museum’s director, came across these jars and pieces of metal and, upon analyzing them, drew a startling conclusion.


In 1940 Konig published a paper contending that when the pieces of these artifacts were fitted together correctly and the jars were filled with an acidic solution, they formed functional electrochemical cells capable of generating electricity. While modern historians attribute the invention of the battery to Italian physicist Alessandro Volta in 1800, Volta may have simply recreated a 2,000 year-old lost technology. (Cultures dating as far back as 2,750 BC made written mention of electricity, although only regarding electricity that occurs naturally. It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that serious academic inquiries into electricity were conducted by Western scientists, notably William Gilbert and Benjamin Franklin.)

Volta’s early “Voltaic pile” battery consisted of copper and zinc rods separated by pieces of cloth soaked in brine. When several of these units were piled atop one another and connected end-to-end by a wire, an electrical current flowed.

Volta’s early “Voltaic pile” battery consisted of copper and zinc rods separated by pieces of cloth soaked in brine. When several of these units were piled atop one another and connected end-to-end by a wire, an electrical current flowed.

The Baghdad batteries, Konig believed, worked in the same way as the Voltaic pile. This theory is supported by the fact that the iron rods discovered inside the earthenware jars do in fact show evidence of acidic corrosion, perhaps having been submerged in vinegar. Konig suggested that when the iron rods were inserted into the copper cylinders, fitted into the jars’ mouths with asphalt stoppers, and the jars were filled with vinegar, the resulting cells were in fact capable of producing an electrical current. This claim was proved in 1940 by Willard F. M. Gray of the General Electric High Voltage Laboratory in Pittsfield, MA. Making an exact replica of the devices unearthed at Khujut Rabu and using a copper sulfite solution, Gray generated a half a volt of electricity.


Later experiments using grape juice and vinegar produced similar results. Even the popular television program Mythbusters successfully recreated Gray’s experiment in 2005. While the voltage generated by these batteries is meager (never more than 1V), it has been hypothesized that if several of them were wired together as were the zinc and copper rods in Voltaic piles, higher voltage could be achieved.

Here is a reproduction of a Baghdad battery connected to a multimeter.

Here is a reproduction of a Baghdad battery connected to a multimeter.

Konig cited examples of artifacts electroplated with gold, dating from the same era as the batteries, as evidence of the use of low-voltage electricity in the 3rd century BC. By negatively charging a piece of metal with an electrical current and submerging it in a solution of metal salt, it becomes coated with a layer of positive metal ions. This technique has been used, for example, in the process of gold plating. Gold-coated Egyptian artifacts dating contemporaneously with the Baghdad batteries might support this interpretation of the batteries’ use.

A summary of the conclusions drawn by the television program Mythbusters, regarding possible uses of the Baghdad batteries.

A summary of the conclusions drawn by the television program Mythbusters, regarding possible uses of the Baghdad batteries.

In the years since Konig published his paper in 1940, there has been much debate about the batteries in the scientific community. With some factions contending that the notion of ancient electricity is farcical and others going so far as to claim that the Baghdad batteries explain the legendary powers of the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, a wide range of viewpoints have been expressed. Since ancient texts never explicitly confirm knowledge of usable electrical energy, modern historians are doomed to continue speculating about the role, if any at all, that controlled electricity played in ancient Babylonia. But when pondering objects that have the potential to drastically redefine our conception of ancient history, as with the Piri Reis map discussed in a previous entry, an open mind is certainly the most suitable tool.

Some Further Reading:

The Baghdad Batteries on WorldMysteries.com

The Baghdad Batteries on the UnMuseum

A description of how electroplating works

Some information about Alessandro Volta and his accomplishments

A history of batteries, complete with a timeline

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