QUICKSILVER – Mercury’s Liquid Metal

QUICKSILVER– Mercury’s Liquid Metal

“The world of nature consists of many forms which are reflected in a single mirror—nay, rather, it is a single form reflected in many mirrors. “     Muhyi ‘d-Din ibn ‘Arabi

There are those who believe that millions, or billions, of years ago when the earth was new and young, all of the metals were liquid and flowed in veins through the body of earth. Over inconceivably vast aeons of time, as the planet aged, a process of hardening and solidification took place which transformed the substance of the earth. The metals became rigid and solid, they no longer flowed with liquid life. All, that is, except one — Quicksilver, which evaded the hardening process, and was called Mercury after the swift-footed messenger of the gods who remained eternally young.

Mercury is one of the strangest substances on earth, and holds a special place among the ranks of the metals. Although twice as dense as iron, 14 times heavier than water, and with one of the highest atomic weights, it remains a liquid under normal temperatures.

Like the noble metal silver, it gleams when it flows in a metallic stream; it is the water of the metallic world, moistening and dissolving metals the way water dissolves salts. On account of these properties it gained its chemical name hydragyrum (Hg) from the Graeco-Latin words for water and silver,

I remember being fascinated by this metal back at high school. We used to ‘borrow’ the mercury from thermometers in the laboratory and play with it for entertainment during boring science classes (that was before learning of its toxic properties!) If you’ve ever handled mercury you will remember its mysterious fluid weight and great power of cohesion. If the liquid mass is dropped it instantly shatters into countless droplets, each forming a perfect sphere. But just as rapidly these drops join and are absorbed back into the whole again, leaving no visible trace on the surface where it was dropped. Quicksilver is an apt name to describe the mobility of this Mercurius Vivus of the ancients.


Mercury could be called a European metal as the richest deposits are found in Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia and Russia – although smaller deposits have been heavily worked in the states of Nevada, California and Texas. Native Americans once used the ore as a pigment, and it also formed the basis of vermilion dye.

The mines in Almaden, Spain, go back to ancient times and once supplied the world’s demand for this metal. With the discovery of mercury’s ability to dissolve gold and silver, the ancients learned how to leach these precious metals from the ore, the Moors being attributed with discovering mercury amalgams. From Almaden the Romans sent great quantities of mercury ore (cinnabar) to Rome to extract the metal; from Almaden the Spaniards transported hundreds of tons of mercury a year in their sailing ships to the great silver mines of South America. When the richest silver deposits were exhausted they used the mercury to exploit the poorer ores, and no doubt the miners, many of whom must have become ill with mercury poisoning. For a long time mercury was transported in sheepskin bags.

In nature mercury is found in its familiar liquid metallic state, as tiny globules and larger droplets secreted within the matrix rock, or it often occurs in these deposits in its single ore form of cinnabar, or mercury sulphide, which the ancients ground with vinegar to extract the metal.

This beautiful deep red ore, sometimes known as ‘quicksilver blende’ transforms mercury’s heaviness and density into surprisingly light semi­precious crystals. The presence of sulphur reveals a hidden brilliance of colour in mercury that leaves little trace of its metallic nature. This relationship between sulphur and mercury was regarded as one of nature’s special processes by early metal workers and alchemists.


As ‘metallic water’ mercury dissolves the soft metals, first by moist­ening them, then absorbing them to form amalgams. Gold, silver, tin, lead, copper, zinc, cadmium and alkaline metals all succumb to the power of mercury.

However iron, and the iron related family of metals such as nickel and cobalt resist this dissolving power (so does aluminum), and mercury can be stored in iron as well as glass containers. In many respects iron and mercury are completely opposite metals, especially when mercury’s exreme mobility is contrasted with iron’s intense consolidating power.

Mercury’s mobility is evident throughout all its changing forms. Like water it is easily transformed from liquid into gas, or into a frozen solid state. It can lose its form in solution or acquire anew crystalline form, or changing its state, it becomes a new substance filled with colour. Because of this tremendous capacity for transformation, mercury symbolized more clearly than any other substance the one materia prima of the alchemists—the primal cosmic substance which is capable of taking on all possible forms and states.

Mercury is the most volatile of the metals, boiling and vaporizing into gas at only 359° C, and freezing at only -39° C, after which it solidifies to form a silvery-white, very malleable and ductile mass, soft and easily cut.

While a poor conductor of electricity and heat in its liquid state — “It is only externally lively, not having yet achieved the inner mobility of conductivity”1 — when frozen into a solid, mercury becomes a good conductor and takes its place in the table of metals between gold and copper.

Although a poor conductor, liquid mercury is extremely sensitive to heat, contracting and expanding exactly with the rise and fall of the outside temperature, giving us its most familiar use in thermometers. It is also used in barometers, vacuum pumps and electric switches.

As a liquid metal mercury has as special affinity with the forces involved in chemical reactions, those forces which’ ‘appear and work primarily in the liquid realm.” It is an important catalyst, beginning and speeding up certain chemical combinations and is described as “uniting and harmonizing the chemical polarities.”2