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Prima materia

Materia Prima is the primitive formless base of all matter, according to Aristotle and the Alchemists, given particular manifestation through the influence of forms. According to the latter, lead could be turned to gold by reducing it to prima materia and imposing the form of gold on it.

In the broadest terms the concept of the prima materia states that all particular substances are formed out of one and the same original substance. Considered in this way it becomes apparent that, in one form or another, this is a universal concept, possibly of an archetypal nature. The most prevalent notion of the prima materia to be found in modern thought is the atomistic theory which we inherited from the ancient Greeks. In this conception all material structures are composed of tiny building blocks of indestructible 'substance'. This substance is considered to be pure matter, and in an entirely materialistic paradigm this equates naturally to the concept of the prima materia.

As modern quantum science has begun to cast some doubt upon the veracity of the atomic theory, universal field theories have arisen to take its place. In Descartes' philosophy of radical doubt the prima materia is knowledge or perception (including the inner perception of one's own mind) because the existence of an objective reality corresponding to our perceptions can never be demonstrated. In eastern cultures the mind is conceived as being the single substance out of which everything was formed. In religious cultures god and spirit perform this function. Given the variety of forms in which it appears it is uncertain whether the prevalence of this concept is founded in its objective reality or the structure of the human mind itself. Its existence is intimately linked to our need to understand the ultimate or absolute truth of our reality and to our quest for the 'theory of everything'.


In alchemy, the Greek god Proteus has been often used as the symbol of the "first matter."

The German alchemist Heinrich Khunrath wrote of the shape-changing sea-god who, because of his relationship to the sea, is both a symbol of the unconscious as well as the perfection of the art. Alluding to the scintilla, the spark from "the light of nature" and symbol of the anima mundi, Khunrath in Gnostic vein stated —

"our Catholick Mercury, by virtue of his universal fiery spark of the light of nature, is beyond doubt Proteus, the sea god of the ancient pagan sages, who hath the key to the sea and ....power over all things".

(from "Von hyleanischen Chaos" cited in Jung C.W. vol.14:50)

In his discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) Sir Thomas Browne queries —

Why Proteus in Homer the Symbole of the first matter, before he settled himself in the midst of his Sea-Monsters, doth place them out by fives?

The poet John Milton was also aware of the association of Proteus with the Hermetic art. In Paradise Lost (Book 3 line 603) he wrote —

Though by their Power Art they bind Volatile Hermes, and call up unbound
In various shapes old Proteus from the Sea

In modern times the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung defined the mythological figure of Proteus as a personification of the unconscious, who, because of his gift of prophecy and shape-changing has much in common with the central but elusive figure of alchemy, Mercurius. As Jung recognised —

'Mercurius was their (the alchemists) favourite name for that being which changed himself, during the work, from the prima materia into the perfected lapis philosophorum ' (C.W. Vol. 14 para.565)
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Prima_materia". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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