In recent years, the mysterious geometric symbol of the philosophers’ stone, with its combination of circles, triangles and a perfect square has become a popular one — appearing in pop-culture designs, artworks and even as a trendy tattoo choice.
But where did this symbol come from? And what does it mean?
Before it was a symbol, it was a thing: The philosophers’ stone, also sometimes known as the “sorcerer’s stone”, was a legendary material described as having great power.
Forged with the arcane art of alchemy, the stone was believed to combine the four classical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water into a single magical element.
The Philosophers’ Stone Symbol
The geometric symbol for the philosophers’ stone symbol is actually a combination of the written symbols for the four classical elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water.
Ancient alchemists believed that if the four classical elements could somehow be fused into a single material, the resulting “stone” would bestow otherworldly properties and immense power.
NOTE: For many people, their first encounter with the term “philosophers’ stone” was through J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Rowling may have borrowed the term, but the concept is thousands of years older than Harry Potter.
The History of the Philosophers’ Stone
In some historical traditions, the stone was said to have the power to transform base metals into gold. In other traditions, the stone was said to have far greater powers: being able to extend life, grant immortality, or transform the bearer into any form he or she desired.
Throughout history, the stone made appearances in multiple cultures — as alchemists struggled to produce the fabled material.
It all started in ancient Egypt:
In ancient Egypt, the high priests were said to possess a substance known as khem (sometimes spelled khame). This mysterious substance was said to have properties unlike anything on Earth, and could transform materials into different states of matter and into different elements.
The stone was also said to grant immortality and grant transformative powers over life itself.
It is believed that khem is the earliest reference we have to the legendary philosophers’ stone.
In ancient Greece, the legendary stone was seen in a more materialistic light, having usefulness only for the transformation of base metals into gold. Known to the Greeks as chrysopoeia (which literally means “transforming to gold”), it is believed that their legendary substance was one and the same as the ancient Egyptian concept of khem.
During the Islamic golden age, the practice of alchemy was widespread. It is said that ancient Arabic culture received the knowledge of alchemy from Egyptian scrolls, and kept the knowledge alive as a practice known as “al-kīmiyā“. It was via Islamic written and oral tradition that the concept of a mythical transformative substance is thought to have passed from the Egyptians to the alchemists of the European middle ages.
NOTE: It should be noted that the term “alchemy” in the English language is borrowed from the ancient Arabic word “al-kimiya”. This shared etymology illustrates the direct continuation of alchemic practices from to the Arabic world to medieval Europe.
The ancient Chinese had a similar concept to the philosophers’ stone known as Pànăn. Pànăn was said to be a mythical substance which granted powers of energy-generation and immortality. Somewhat unlike the Western concept, the ancient Chinese believed the stone had been formed from a combination of elements and extremely rare herbs.
Medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe
As Europe rose from the Dark Ages, the torch of alchemy was passed from the ancient world to a series of European occultists and scientists. Early researchers from Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa to the great Isaac Newton continued to explore the art of alchemy and search for mystical ways to transform mundane materials into rare and precious ones.
If it ever existed, the stone was lost
While the Ancient Egyptians spoke of the actual existence of khem, their mysterious substance which reportedly posessed otherworldly properties, it’s clear that later schools of alchemy struggled unsuccessfully to conjure up anything close to what the Egyptians had described.
While the practice of alchemy was successful in creating thousands of important chemical compounds which we continue to make use of today, the formula for khem, or the mystical philosophers’ stone, was lost to history.
The Philosophers’ Stone in Tarot Lore
In Tarot lore, the stone is said to appear in the Chariot card. The classic Rider-Waite-Smith illustration of the Chariot literally shows a rider fused with a giant block of the arcane material. In Tarot, the Chariot symbolizes transmutation.
It’s also notable that the Chariot is one of only 3 cards in the Rider-Waite deck which features alchemy symbols.
Today, the philosophers’ stone is seen as more of a symbolic concept than anything else. We use the mysterious geometric symbol to reference the mystical forces of transmutation and change. The stone is an impossible, otherworldly substance which we may dream of, but can never attain.