How did the element mercury get its name? And what does it have to do with the meaning of life?
Mercury is an element that appears watery at room temperature, which inspired its nickname ‘quicksilver’. A fascinating application for mercury is its use in gold extraction and mining. When you expose mercury to raw material containing gold, the mercury will extract the gold.
Mercury was probably named by the alchemists who discovered it. The alchemists discovered many of our elements and shaped our foundational understanding of chemistry. Chemistry and much of modern science grew out of alchemy.
Today alchemy is largely written off and discarded because alchemists were primarily interested in discovering the Philosophers Stone. This was a legendary substance said to be capable of turning any metal into gold, bring wealth and prosperity to its holder, and contain within it the elixir of life that would grant immortality.
So why did the alchemists give the element mercury its name? When the alchemists discovered this element that flows quickly and extracts the gold from raw ore, why did they name it mercury?
Before the element was named, only two other things had the name “mercury”- the planet and the god. The element is named after both of them.
Mercury has the smallest orbit in our solar system. So it travels very quickly around the sun. From the perspective of earth, it looks like it’s zipping around the night sky when observed over a duration of time. The Romans projected their gods onto the stars and the movement of the planets. You might recognize some of these famous Roman gods and planets, Jupiter, Mars, Pluto, Venus, etc. Mercury looked to be zipping around the night sky and seemingly travelling between many of the other planets (or Gods) from the perspective of Earth.
The planet Mercury was given this name because the it is based on the Roman God Mercury (which is comparable to the Greek god Hermes), who’s the winged messenger of the gods. He is known for his fleetness of foot, winged hat, and quickly travelling between the gods and the physical world to deliver messages.
So the element mercury was partially named after the planets and its corresponding god’s speed. This makes sense for a substance given the name “quicksilver”.
But the element was also named after the god himself and what Mercury represents.
As mentioned before, Mercury is the Roman adoption of the Greek god Hermes, who is the winged messenger of the gods.
The Greeks thought of human beings as play things of the gods. And they understood the gods not as real people who existed, but more like forces of the world, similar to how we might understand physics or forces of the unconscious. As an example, think of the god of rage. Ares/Mars wasn’t just some guy, but the force of rage, destruction, and the spirit of battle that can possess all human beings.
What Mercury (the god) does is it communicates these ideas, feelings, and emotions from the realm of the gods and presents them to you. This is what happens when you realize something or when an idea/emotion becomes made aware of in your mind. So mercury roughly equals something like focused attention and Consciousness. For all intents and purposes, let’s just call it the “human spirit”, because focused attention and consciousness are characteristically human.
So mercury (the element) was named after the god, who represents something along the lines of the human spirit.
Why was the element mercury named after this idea? Well, the alchemists thought that the physical properties of mercury are symbolic of the human spirit. Recall mercury’s property of extracting pure gold when mixed with raw ore, and recall how the god Mercury represents human consciousness. Mercury is that which extracts the gold, and this is the ideal of what it is to be human. We are that which is meant to extract the gold from the raw ore of the world. Any situation, challenge or circumstance is an opportunity for the human spirit to extract the gold and make it Good.
Perhaps the Philosophers Stone is not a real stone at all, but is a way to live embodying the highest ideal for human life.