Lesson 8) The Fifth Element

Hello students!  As we near the end of this year and edge even closer to N.E.W.T.s, it’s important that you know and understand every single concept we have discussed up to this point.  That’s why for our last two lessons of Year Six we will take a look at two things that have been brought up throughout the years but never gone into much detail. Today’s topic in particular is the supposed fifth aspect, aether!

Aether, also known as the quintessence, is the substance that fills the region above the terrestrial sphere.  Basically, it does not exist on Earth but is permeated throughout space, sometimes even thought to be located in celestial bodies themselves.  This aspect dates back to no earlier than ancient Greece. In Greek mythology, Aether was one of the primordial deities and the personification of the pure essence or “air” that the gods breathed.  There is some debate over whether Aether was the son of Erebus and Nyx or the son of Chaos and Caligo. Unfortunately I cannot give much insight on the matter, though you may have more luck asking Professor Wessex.  Nevertheless, mythology aside, the philosopher who first introduced aether as an aspect was none other than Aristotle. He added it to his four aspect system in order to explain the actions of the planets and stars (though keep in mind that Aristotle worked this around the geocentric model).  According to Aristotle, aether didn’t possess any of the qualities that the terrestrial aspects had, nor did it follow Aristotelian physics. It was neither hot nor cold, wet nor dry. Its natural motion was circular, but not unnatural. Aether’s motion gave Aristotle the information he needed to explain how the planets and stars are able to orbit in a perfect circular motion.  He reasoned that the celestial spheres are made up of aether, which allowed them to move eternally in a circular motion at a given rate.  

Now for those of you who are not familiar with Muggle physics and Greek philosophers, which shouldn’t be any of you since other courses as well as this one have covered them but I digress, everything I just said in the last couple minutes probably sounded like absolute rubbish.  Which is alright! Let’s backtrack: Aristotle believed that everything on Earth was made up of some combination of the four aspects. For example, metals like iron were made of a combination of primarily earth with smaller amounts of the other aspects. This theory led to Aristotle’s explanation of gravity in that everything moved towards its natural place depending on how much of a certain aspect an object had.  Let’s say that you are holding a rock, you drop it, and it falls to the ground.  In Aristotle’s theory, the rock moves downward because it consists mainly of earth and is therefore pulled towards the Earth.  The order of motion from lowest to highest “pull” in this theory was earth, water, air, and fire. The reasoning for this order was that earth is heavy and will sink in water, while air bubbles move upwards in water. Fire is above air because flames always point upwards.  Essentially, heavy objects (earth and water) fall, while light objects (air and fire) rise. Aristotle classified this type of motion as natural motion.  Now, aether didn’t seem to follow this up or down rule at all, because it moved in circles.   In a geocentric view of our solar system, it appeared that all the celestial bodies rotated around the Earth.  We see the sun rise and set everyday. This was the circular motion of aether that Aristotle was referring to. Because this motion wasn’t vertical like the terrestrial elements, the movement of the stars and planets is not natural.  Unnatural motion, on the other hand, was defined as motion that resulted from a force, such as pushing or pulling.  An object in its natural place remained at rest until it was either pushed or pulled. An object not in its natural place always moved towards said place as a result of natural motion, unless forced from its path through pushing or pulling.  Aether, nor the stars and planets for that matter, appeared to be acted upon by a force, and therefore did not exhibit unnatural motion either. Interestingly enough, in his treatise On Generation and Corruption, Aristotle actually considered the transmutation of metals to be unnatural motion, which many European alchemists believed up until around the 1600s.

It’s needless to say that Aristotle’s theories do not apply today, especially with Isaac Newton formulating the laws of motion and universal gravitation.  If it weren’t for Newton, it’s possible that we would still think that the Earth is in its natural resting place because it’s too big to be moved by force.  However, I would like to mention that Aristotle also didn’t have the tools and technology that Newton had access to, so his models came from pure logic and philosophy, which was very impressive for someone who lived in the 300s B.C.E.  Plus, his theories are important to know, as they were the basis for how aether was thought to have worked until the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

After Aristotle, the topic of aether was a very much debated one.  While some alchemists agreed that aether should be added on as a fifth aspect, to tie together the Western aspects with the aspects of Chinese and Indian alchemy, other alchemists refused to even consider it.  Eventually, the topic of aether slowly died off in Western alchemy until around the late Medieval and Renaissance periods. As you all know, alchemy had sort of a revival in Europe around that time, and so naturally the topic of aether did as well.  However, due to Latin being a primary language, alchemists referred to it as quintessence, which comes from a Latin phrase meaning “fifth essence.”  Quintessence was perceived as something so new and unexpected in creation because it transcended the limitations imposed by the other four aspects, which led alchemists to place it above the other four in both function and form.  It existed in both spiritual and material planes and is often described in texts as a luminous light that is invisible to the naked, unawakened eye. It is often represented by a symbol known as the hermetic seal (shown on the right).  Although it may look similar to the sign of the Deathly Hallows, there isn’t any relation whatsoever.  The square, circle, and triangle are representative of the body (salt), soul (sulphur), and spirit (mercury), which you all know as the three primes.  Alchemists equate them in unity with quintessence to show the completeness and perfection of this fifth aspect.

Similar to Aristotle’s original idea of aether, Medieval and Renaissance alchemists believed quintessence was a medium similar or identical to what was thought to make up the celestial bodies.  Of course, there were different theories surrounding this idea. One of them was by a philosopher named Ramon Llull. In his text, The Testament of Lullius, Llull theorizes that although quintessence did exist within the terrestrial sphere, the amount of it was very small.  Due to its low presence, events happening in other celestial bodies can directly affect Earth. Another theory was developed by none other than, you guessed it, Paracelsus.  He believed that the stars were made out of quintessence and that every living being had a “hidden star” within them. Or, in other words, quintessence exists within all of us.  From this perspective, there are parallels between quintessence and the different types of cultural alchemy. For example, quintessence is equal to the chi and the element wood in Taoist and Chinese alchemy, respectively.  The former, as you already know, is the energy that flows through our bodies, and the latter is associated with life force. In Indian alchemy, quintessence is the kundalini as well as prana, the spirit of breath that you control in Pranayama.  Individual opinions and international debates over classification aside, it’s a widely accepted theory in the alchemical field that quintessence is an incorruptible aspect that activates the other four.  There is also wide speculation that quintessence plays a large part in the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone.

Not only did quintessence take off in esoteric spheres, but within the medicinal community as well.  Medicinal alchemists believed that quintessence was pure and heavenly and that it would rid the body of impurities and illnesses through consumption.  Since quintessence was the finest, most concentrated essence of a thing, it was thought that it could be isolated and incorporated into tinctures, elixirs, potions, and other remedies.

The first one who truly delved into this venture was the 14th century French Franciscan alchemist, Jean de Roquetaillade.  He detailed five ways to “make” quintessence along with various methods of distilling it from substances such as gold or blood, even listing diseases that quintessence could alleviate in his text, The Book of Quintessence.  De Roquetaillade believed that the way to create quintessence was to distill wine, and while others now argue that the final product of this process isn’t quintessence, de Roquetaillade did discover a prominent substance in alchemy that he called “burning water,” otherwise known as aqua vitae (symbol pictured on the right).  Aqua vitae is a strong alcoholic spirit, usually brandy, and is actually the very same alcohol that you used in your spagyric elixir project from last year!  Aside from its use in elixirs, it’s also a component in Belch Powder. De Roquetaillade created aqua vitae from distilling wine seven times. From there, he placed the aqua vitae in a distilling tool and then placed that tool in a furnace.  The heat from the furnace caused vapors to rise, condense, and distill. The resulting substance was what de Roquetaillade called quintessence, and he even wrote a note that repeating the process a thousand more times would turn the quintessence into a medicine as “incorruptible as heaven.”  The other known processes for creating quintessence are based off this first method, but involve additional tools, such as amphoras (tall, narrow-necked jars), horse manure, or horse stomachs.

After de Roquetaillade, alchemists continued similar experiments in an attempt to isolate quintessence.  One such Welsh alchemist named Emrick ap Llew tried to do so by distilling magical ingredients such as Mandrake roots and Re’em blood.  All of these attempts by ap Llew and others fueled a flood of new magical remedies containing “quintessence” that hit shelves of apothecaries across Europe in the Middle Ages.  By the 18th century, these quintessential remedies lost their popularity within the general wizarding population due to the media outlets such as the then newly founded Daily Prophet, proclaiming that they were no better than other common potions that could be brewed at home.  What truly caused shops to stop supplying quintessence remedies to the general public was the infamous bad batch of 1745. This batch was based off a recipe created by Gavin Dougal, a Scottish alchemist who was inspired by Paracelsus’s feats in toxicology and had the idea of extracting quintessence through distilling aconite fluid.  Not only was using “aconite quintessence” already a bad idea, but Dougal didn’t have his concoction tested before it was sold in stores. Needless to say, this was a recipe for disaster. The potion had an unsafe concentration of the poisonous quintessence and several people landed themselves in St. Mungos, with a few dying before apothecaries pulled Dougal’s potions, along with other quintessence-based remedies, from the shelves permanently.  Efforts to create the perfect medicine using quintessence have died out within the alchemical field since then, though there are a few alchemists that still dabble in them today, for personal use.

That’s all I have for today!  For your assignments, I have an essay on quintessence as well as the review assignment on the schedule.  Be sure to study, as you will need to take your finals the next time we meet. Now, I will be on my way to the Great Hall as I have a strong craving for chocolate pie.  Happy studying!


Tales of immortality, artificial life, transmutation, and other unexplained phenomena shroud the study of alchemy in mystery. Can creating synthetic life forms such as homunculi be achieved? What goes into the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone? In Year Six of this course, we will be addressing these mysteries and whether or not they are true to the study of alchemy in the wizarding world. We will also be discussing other traditions and organizations that have influenced alchemy and vice versa.
Course Prerequisites:

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