This piece of writing is the work of a secret alchemy class taught in 1986 for the book ‘The Modern Alchemist: A Guide to Personal Transformation’ by Miller & Miller.
Alchemy is much more than the historical predecessor of metallurgy, chemistry and medicine — it is a living form of sacred psychology. Alchemy is a projection of a cosmic and spiritual drama in laboratory terms. It is an art, both experiential and experimental. It is a worldview which unifies spirit and matter, Sun and Moon, Yang and Yin.
Carl Jung spent the better part of the end of his life studying the subject of alchemy, which has been called the search for the godhead in matter. In typical “Jungian” style, his interest in alchemy developed from a vivid dream about an ancient library full of arcane books. Later, after much searching, Jung came to posses such a library. Alchemy reflected in symbolic form the same sorts of imagery Jung saw in his practice in neurosis, psychosis, dreams and imagination. Jung insisted that the psyche cannot be understood in conceptual terms, but only through living images or symbols, which are able to contain paradox and ambiguity. Alchemy reflects the process of personal transformation in the metaphor of transmuting base metals into gold.
Jung was amazed to find that the images and operations he encountered in the old alchemy texts related strongly to his theories of psychoanalysis and the unconscious. Therefore, his main research project at the culmination of his career was around this topic of alchemy and how it related to the dynamics of consciousness. Jung saw in alchemy a metaphor for the process of individuation, and the morphing and mutating imagery of that process which emerges from the stream of consciousness. Alchemy can also be viewed as a system of self-initiation. Jung often turned to the images of alchemy, mythology and religion to help describe psychic life. For an image to be a living symbol it must refer to something that cannot be otherwise known.
Most of us, unfamiliar with the subtle nuances of alchemical history and its practices, so a full list of alchemical books both classical and modern can be found at the bottom of this article.
The Basics of Alchemy
It is a curious fact that there is no single alchemy for us to examine. It is a cross-cultural phenomenon which has been practiced in various forms by ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Christian Europeans, and the Islamic, Hindu, and Taoist faiths. All of these use symbols to depict a process of transformation, whether this process is thought to occur inside (introverted) or outside (extroverted) of the human body. Although there are many types of alchemy, the main split is between intro- and extroverted forms. The deciding factor is the direction of the practitioner’s creativity.
In his book, The Alchemical Tradition in the Late Twentieth Century, Richard Grossinger summarizes the basic components of the different alchemical paths, which he dubs ‘planet science.’ These include the following:
1. A theory of nature as made up of primary elements.
2. A belief in the gradual evolution and transformation of substance.
3. A system for inducing transmutation.
4. The imitation of nature by a gentle technology.
5. The faith that one’s inner being is changed by participation in external chemical experiments.
6. A general system of synchronistic correspondences between planets, colors, herbs, minerals, species of animals, signs and symbols, parts of the body, astrological signs, etc. known as the Doctrine of Signatures.
7. Gold as the completed and perfected form of the metals, in specific, and substance in general (Alchemy is the attempt to transmute other substances into gold, however that attempt is understood and carried out).
8. The existence of a paradoxical form of matter, sometimes called The Philosopher’s Stone (the Lapis), which can be used in making gold or in brewing elixirs (elixer vitae) and medicines that have universal curative powers (panacea).
9. A method of symbolism working on the simultaneity of a series of complementary pairs: Sun/Moon, Gold/Silver, Sulphur/Mercury, King/Queen, Male/Female, Husband/Bride, Christ/Man, etc.
10. The search for magical texts that come from a time when the human race was closer to the source of things or are handed down from higher intelligences, extraterrestrials, guardians, or their immediate familiars during some Golden Age. These texts deal with the creation or synthesis of matter and are a blueprint for physical experimentation in a cosmic context (as well as for personal development). They have been reinterpreted in terms of the Earth’s different epochs and nationalities.
11. In the Occident, alchemy is early inductive experimental science and is closely allied with metallurgy, pharmacy, industrial chemistry, and coinage.
12. In the Orient, alchemy is a system of meditation in which one’s body is understood as elementally and harmonically equivalent to the field of creation. (Between East and West, the body may be thought of as a microcosm of nature, with its own deposits of seeds, elixirs, and mineral substances).
13. Alchemy is joined to astrology in a set of meanings that arise from the correspondences of planets, metals, and parts of the body, and the overall belief in a cosmic timing that permeates nature.
Thus, alchemy deals fundamentally with the basic mysteries of life as well as with transcendental mysticism. But its approach is neither abstract nor theoretical, but experimental, in nature.
Who Were the Alchemists?
Just who were the alchemists, and why are their contributions important to us today? The alchemists were the leading explorers of consciousness in medieval times, and their research led to a vast improvement in the conditions of life. Among the more famous are Albertus Magnus, Paracelsus, Nicholas Flammel, and Sir Isaac Newton. Their contributions not only improved the lives of their contemporaries, but influenced the thought of many philosophers of the same and later eras, such as Meister Eckhart, Thomas a Kempis, John Dee, Johannes Kepler, Thomas Vaughn, Bishop Berkeley, Emanuel Swedenborg, William Blake, and Goethe.
The contribution of these eminent alchemists are staggering: Albertus Magnus, alone, wrote eight books on physics, six on psychology, eight on astronomy, twenty-six on zoology, five on minerals, one on geography, and three on life in general from an Aristotelian point-of-view. He was a Dominican friar who was canonized a saint in 1931. Paracelsus was a Swiss born in 1493. His accomplishments were many and include being the first modern medical scientist. He fathered the sciences of microchemistry, antisepsis, modern wound surgery, hypnosis and homeopathy. He wrote the first medical literature on the causes and treatment of syphilis and epilepsy, as well as books on illness derived from adverse working conditions.
Even with his accurate scientific bent, his work is also in close accord with mystical alchemical tradition. His was a worldview of animism, ensouled and infused by a variety of spirits. He wrote on furies in sleep, on ghosts appearing after death, on gnomes in mines and underground, of nymphs, pygmies, and magical salamanders. invisible forces were always at work and the physician had to constantly be aware of this fourth dimension in which he was moving. He utilized various techniques for divination and astrology as well as magical amulets, talismans, and incantations.
Paracelsus believed in a vital force which radiated around every man like a luminous sphere and which could be made to act at a distance. He is also credited with the early use of what we now know as hypnotism. He believed that there was a star in each man, (Mishlove). This sentiment was echoed by 19th century magician and alchemist, Aleister Crowley, who said, “Every man and every woman is a star.” This alludes to the essential Self, but is also literally in that our elements were forged in some distant supernova.
Kepler developed the laws of planetary motion. But he developed his theories on the basis of explorations into the dimly lit archetypal regions of man’s mind as surely as on his mathematical observations of the planetary motions. He was clearly a student in the tradition of earlier mystic-scientists such as Pythagoras and Paracelsus. Thomas Vaughn, Robert Fludd, and Sire Frances Bacon number among the 17th century Rosicrucians who practiced not only alchemy but also other hermetic arts and the qabalah.
Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was a mathematical genius, as well as one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. He discovered the binomial theorem, invented differential calculus, made the first calculations of the moon’s attraction by the earth and described the laws of motion of classical mechanics, and formulated the theory of universal gravitation. He was very careful not to publish anything which was not firmly supported by experimental proofs or geometrical demonstrations; thus he exemplified and ushered in the Age of Reason.
However, if we look at Newton’s own personal notes and diaries, over a million words in his own handwriting, a startlingly different picture of the man emerges. Newton was an alchemist though after his death his family burned many of his arcane manuscripts in an attempt to hide the fact. He devoted himself to such endeavors as the transmutation of metals, the philosopher’s stone, and the elixir of life. He was intensely introspective and had great mental endurance. He solved problems intuitively and dressed them up in logical proofs afterwards. He, himself, was astounded by the startling nature of his own theories. Gravity is a problem that still hasn’t been dealt with satisfactorily by scientists.
His followers, however, emphasized exclusively his mechanistic view of the universe to the exclusion of his religious and alchemical views. In a sense, their action ushered in a controversy in psychical research which has existed ever since. Since Newton’s time, all discoveries suggesting the presence of spiritual force which transcended time or space were ironically considered to be a violation of Newton’s Laws — even though Newton himself held these very beliefs!
The Alchemical Quest
It is interesting to note, that today scientists actually can turn small amounts of lead into gold through particle acceleration, since they are only one atomic weight apart, but the energy expense is prohibitive. Despite the advances in science, the “unknown” is still projected into the realm of matter, and the alchemical quest continues. Science is still debating over what is physical, what is psychic and what is metapsychic. VonFranz, in Projection and Recollection in Jungian Psychology, states that “In Western cultural history the transpsychic has been described sometimes as “spirit” sometimes as “matter.” Theologians and philosophers are more concerned with the former, physicists with the later.” Since the dawn of the 21st century, many physicists openly speak of the spiritual nature of Reality, especially in the quantum realm — the microcosm and foundation of the macrocosmic world.
VonFranz points out that “what was once regarded as the opposition between spirit and matter turns up again in contemporary physics as a discussion of the relation between consciousness (or Mind) and matter.” It bears on such questions as the bias of the observer, and the theories of relativity, probability, synchronicity, non-locality, not to mention the whole field of parapsychology. Multidisciplinary studies such as quantum consciousness, quantum chaos and quantum cosmology have manifested Jung’s prescient vision. Jung really returned us to the alchemistic viewpoint when he said, in Aion…
“Sooner or later nuclear physics and the psychology of the unconscious will draw closely together as both of them independently of one another and from opposite directions, push forward into transcendental territory. …Psyche cannot be totally different from matter for how otherwise could it move matter? And matter cannot be alien to psyche, for how else could matter produce psyche? Psyche and matter exist in the same world, and each partakes of the other, otherwise any reciprocal action would be impossible. If research could only advance far enough, therefore, we should arrive at an ultimate agreement between physical and psychological concepts. Our present attempts may be bold, but I believe they are on the right lines.”
As vonFranz notes, “There is therefore no concept fundamental to modern physics that is not in one degree or another a differentiated form of some primordial archetypal idea.” These include our concepts of time, space, energy, the field of force, particle theory, and chemical affinity.”
Laws in physics are subject to scientific revolutions and there has been a major breakthrough in paradigms shifts about every 20 years, or each generation. One of the most influential recently is Complexity or Chaos Theory. VonFranz says:
“As soon as an archetypal idea that has been serving as a model no longer coincides with the observed facts of the external world, it is dropped or its origin in the psyche is recognized. This process always coincides with the upward thrust of a new thought-model from the unconscious to the threshold of consciousness.” This is basically the process of weeding out “scientific errors.” “…scarcely a thought is given to what they might mean, psychologically, once they are no longer fit to serve as a model in describing the outer world.”
This certainly happened to alchemy, until Jung revived an interest in it.. “It is only today, when we know that the assumptions of the observer decisively precondition the total results, that the question is becoming acute.”
Physicists have become increasingly conscious of the extent to which psychological circumstances influence their results. This “hard problem” of the subjectivity of our personal experience is the crux of consciousness studies and a sticking point in all neurologically-based descriptions of brain-mind dynamics, whether it is based in the quantum, holographic, electromagnetic, or chemical interactions.
The Parallels of Ancient Yoga & Magick
Other experimental-minded persons have sought the mysteries of life and divinity within their own bodies, since ancient times. Some employed entheogenic plants and elixirs, while others manipulated the paradoxical switch of the sympathetic and parasympathetic arousal systems through yoga or magick. Whether known as Yogis or Adepts, their goal was basically the same, as we shall see.
Some modern schools of the Hermetic Arts see an identity between medieval European alchemy and the eastern practice of Yoga. They see a metaphysical or symbolic correspondence between the planetary and metallurgical attributions of alchemy and the chakras. Yoga is also experimental in nature; the experiment is performed on oneself. The qualities of the metals correspond to the planets and chakras as follows.
Alchemy is not concerned exclusively with consciousness, but also seeks the subtle transformation of the body, so that the physical level is also brought into perfect equilibrium. Thus, the alchemical metals may be considered analogous to the chakras of the yogis. We can draw another parallel among the three major principles of alchemy and those of Yoga, which are known as the Gunas.
Three Yoga Gunas & Three Alchemical Substances
Mercury = Sattva Sulphur = Rajas Salt = Tamas
Mercury — The quality of Mercury is vital and reflective; it equates with the spiritual principles of goodness and intelligence; in Yoga Sattva guna is illuminative.
Sulphur — The quality of Sulphur is fiery and passionate like the principles of Rajas, which incites desire, attachment and action.
Salt — The quality of Salt is arrestive and binding, and reflects the gross inertia of matter, which is much like Tamas.
These gunas and the three alchemical substances symbolize spirit, soul and body. Another “alchemical” way the gunas were applied concerns food: sattvic foods incline one toward meditation and the spiritual life (fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains); rajasic foods are stimulating (i.e. spicy food); tamasic food incites the baser instincts (animal flesh).
The Four Elements of Life
The concept of four basic elements, harmonized in a fifth, is also common to both alchemy and yoga doctrines. The Indian elements are known as Tattvas. They are:
Tejas or Agni (fire)
Furthermore, the preparation for the practice of both alchemy and yoga requires a moral or ethical preparation. Both stress that evil tendencies should be overcome while positive virtues are developed. This includes both behavior and the purification of various body centers.
The objective is not wealth, but health or wholeness.
Kundalini & The Alchemy of Tantra
Alchemy also speaks of a “secret fire”, which is often compared to a serpent or dragon. Here again, we find the correspondence to Kundalini, the serpent-power. Alchemy is performed by the aid of Mercury, the illuminative principle, and the powers of the sun and moon. Both alchemists and Tantrics practice with the essential aid, sometimes sexual, of a mystical sister, the alchemist’s soror mystica or yogi’s yogini, complement of King/Queen, Shiva-Shakti, God/Goddess joined together in the miracle marriage. The yogic system works in three channels in the subtle body. One equates with the sun, another with the moon. They are called ida and pingala. The third, or harmonizing channel, is known as sushumna, and is associated with illumination. The twin serpents twine together and open the third way, as shown in the Cadeusus.
The yogi seeks to arouse the latent power of the Kundalini serpent so it rises up the chakra centers until it opens the third eye of mystical vision and illumination. Alchemists apply slow heat to their alchemical vessel to sublimate and refine the contents therein. The yogis use breath control, the alchemists bellows to control the fire. Interestingly, yogis employ breathing exercises called “breath of fire” and “the bellows.”
A New Kind of Human Being
In summary, the points of correspondence resulting in the alchemical production of a new kind of human being (one made hale or whole) are as follows:
Both systems agree that all things are expressions of one fundamental energy.
Both affirm that all things combine three qualities: a. Wisdom, Sattva, superconsciousness or Mercury; b. Desire, Rajas, compulsion or Sulpher; c. Inertia or Tamas, darkness, or Salt.
Both recognize five modes of expression: Akasha, Spirit or the quintessence; Tejas or Agni, fire; Apas, water; Vayu, air; Prithivi, earth.
Both systems mention seven principle vehicles of activity called chakras by yogis, and metals by alchemists.
Both say there is a secret force, fiery in quality, which is to be raised from one chakra or metal to another, until the power of all seven is sublimated to the higher.
Yoga says 1) Prana or Surya, sun, 2) Rayim, moon, and 3) Sattva, wisdom are the three agencies of the work (or ida, pingala and sushumna). Alchemy says the whole operation is a work of the sun and moon, aided by Mercury.
Both systems stress preparation by establishing physical purity and ethical freedom from lust, avarice, vanity, attachment, anger and other anti-social tendencies.
Both allege that success enables the adepts to exercise extraordinary powers, to heal all diseases, and to control all the forces of nature so as to exert a determining influence on circumstances.
In short, what both alchemist and yogi do is:
1. To recognize what goes on in his body
2. To use his knowledge of the control exerted over subconscious processes by self-consciousness to form a definite intention that this body-building function shall act with maximum efficiency creating increased vitality.
This supercharge of libido then wakens the spiritual vision of the pineal gland to full activity (in some modern interpretations overriding inhibitory mechanisms for the production of endogenous DMT).
The Great Work of alchemy consists of stabilizing this vision of Light into a full realization. The by-product is that the body-building power of the subconscious changes the alchemist him/herself into a new creature.
Jung asserted that the medieval alchemists were unaware of the natural process of psychological transformation which went on in their subconscious. Therefore, they projected this process into their experiments as a science of the soul. In other words, they projected an inner process outside of themselves. Had they been more conscious in their intent or more sophisticated in their psychology like the yogis, they would have been more consistently successful at producing the coveted lapis or Philosopher’s Stone, a sort of “quantum Tantra.”
A Revival of Alchemy into Modernity
But why is a study of alchemy relevant to our modern lives, even if we have a spiritual orientation? We are not daily occupied with pseudo-alchemical experiments like the alchemists, or are we? In many metaphorical ways we are thinking like alchemists all the time. Also, Jung observed that the dreams of his clients repeatedly stressed the main alchemical themes, especially the conflict and union of opposites. One of the main symbols of reconciliation of this conflict are various mandala forms, present from alchemy to Tibetan Buddhism.
The alchemical symbolism is widespread in dreams of modern individuals, and can shed light on these more primitive aspects of our subconscious life. It is important for our understanding of our own unconscious, and how it transcends and subverts us. Plato enjoined us to “Know Thyself.” In Alchemical Active Imagination, vonFranz states:
“True knowledge of oneself is the knowledge of the objective psyche as it manifests in dreams and in the manifestations of the unconscious. Only by looking at dreams, for instance, can one see who one truly is; they tell us who we really are, that is something which is objectively there. To meditate on that is an effort towards self-knowledge, because that is scientific and objective and not in the interest of the ego but in the interest of “what I am” objectively. It is knowledge of the Self, of the wider, objective personality.”
We could view alchemy as an antique form of psychophysical therapy, which originally had the meaning ‘to heal,’ and the implication of ‘service to the gods.’ Psychotherapy basically means service to the psyche, and offers us a way to reconnect with out unconscious, thus experiencing wholeness. It also opens an avenue to increased physical health, since those ailments which remain unconscious often manifest as psychosomatic diseases. Knowledge of alchemy’s symbolism can lead us to psychological insight in terms of our own conditions, especially that reflected in dreams.
Alchemy may be carried out as either a physical or mental operation. The Jungian orientation is primarily mental, though it often takes a physical form or expression. For example, you might choose to ritually ‘act out’ certain aspects of the Great Work in active imagination. The Jungian interpretation that alchemy is a passive and unconscious process comes from a basically mental, or Greek orientation.
The type of alchemy that aims at rejuvenation or preserving the physical body is descended from the physically-oriented Egyptian alchemy. The main traditions of conscious, inner spiritual alchemy come mainly from the Islamic and Oriental philosophies.
Jung & The Philosopher’s Stone
Jung’s original interest in alchemy came from a dream he had of a library filled with arcane tomes from medieval times and the Renaissance. During the next 15 years he spent collecting this library, he learned to recognize the major symbols of the unconscious. He was reading about them in alchemy books and hearing about them in his patients’ dreams and fantasies. Their projections recurrently told him of an inner quest, a sealed vessel, the conflict of opposites, a philosophical tree, a fountain of eternity, a golden flower, a Stone, a sacred wedding, etc.
Slowly Jung familiarized himself with their alchemical meaning. Then he, himself, became a living symbol of the healing power of the Philosopher’s Stone — a guide to the depths of the unknown. In his case this power manifested as the ability to heal at the psychophysical level — in other words, to release any blocks hindering the natural process of growth and transformation. When proceeding in the direction of their individuation his clients’ harmony was restored, self-equilibration returned. Jung equated individuation with self-realization. We should be careful here not to dichotomize between “mental” and “physical” too much or we will lose our proper alchemical perspective. Alchemy cannot be reduced to a metaphor of psychological or philosophical transformation — it requires first-hand experimentation. Grossinger says that:
“What Carl Jung recognized was that the stages of the alchemists also corresponded to a process of psychological individuation. The psychic stages were as precise and rigorous as the chemical ones by which they became imagined. Furthermore, they generated a physical and even quantitative terminology for an undiagnosed tension of opposites in the human psyche arising from male and female archetypes, a struggle they sought to resolve by the creative unity of the chemicals in the Stone.”
Alchemy sought to unite Spirit (male), and Matter (female) through a Royal Union (coniunctio) to create their synthesis in the homunculus, hermaphrodite, or lapis. This is an alchemical metaphor or version of the generic process of spiritual rebirth.
The entire body of alchemical literature covers many variations on the theme of the Great Work. No single person will ever express all of the operations and symbols described in alchemy, just as no single person ever embodies the totality of the Self. We each have unique experiences of the common roots of humanity or the collective unconscious. Thus, the various operations of alchemy come in different order for the various practitioners. The alchemical writings seem to contradict one another about the evolution of the process. Some claim to have made the Stone and lost it, over and over — like the elusive revelations of a psychedelic trip. Likewise, in dreams we sometimes find the symbols of the end-product (like a mandala, or flower, or child) appearing at the beginning of the process. They symbolize what is latent and seeks manifestation.
The Real Secret of Alchemy
Nevertheless, in both alchemy and Jungian psychology there are classic stages in the process of individuation or personal experience of the unconscious — psychic milestones. One major recurrent theme in modern dreams is the symbolism of the planets, which correspond with the alchemical metals. These metals, or planets (astrology), archetypes (depth psychology) or Spheres (QBL) can be understood psychologically as the building blocks of the ego, which forms itself from fragments of these divine archetypal qualities. These spiritual principles seek concretization through the unique experience of an individual ego. This links spirit and matter; it comes down to earth.
The sacredness of the Opus, or Great Work, is the central idea behind alchemy. It is a holistic perspective. One must be self-oriented, rather than ego-oriented. The adept is also diligent, patient and virtuous. In other words, in order to create the Stone, you must have that integrative potential within yourself for self-realization — for becoming whole or ‘holy.’ It requires an inward seeking, just like the process of individuation. It is a solitary task for no one may follow where you go. But there may be guides who will help inspire your faith and dedication to the task. Others have been to the territory you will explore, but none will accompany you.
The secret of alchemy is that it is a personal journey of transformation, and cannot be explained but only experienced. It is “eating the dish,” not just reading about it in an alchemical cookbook. Its effects must be channeled into spiritual growth, for if alchemy is used to gratify personal desire the work is lost. This means the ego gets inflated with its own importance when the real power source lies within the Self. This naturally produces a regression back into an unconscious state, back to the prima materia, raw psychic material. The instinctual urge for growth and transformation lies within us. For this urge to be considered evolutional requires that the ego must cooperate quite deliberately and consciously with the Self. This leads toward self-realization.
Beginning with the Original Material of the Universe.
Edinger said that the main purpose of the work is:
“to create a transcendent, miraculous substance which is variously symbolized as the Philosopher’s Stone, the Elixir of Life, or the universal medicine (panacea). The procedure is, first, to find the suitable material, the so called prima materia (lead), and then to subject it to a series of operations which will turn it into the Philosopher’s Stone (gold).”
The First Matter is a homogenous unity of Mercury, Sulfur and Salt. It is therefore ‘three,’ but can also be expressed as ‘four’ elements, which are again essentially ‘one.’ Jung felt that the secret of the psyche was contained in this question of the ‘three’ and the ‘four.’ In alchemy it is expressed as the axiom of Maria Prophetessa: “Therefore the Hebrew prophetess cried without restraint: ‘one becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the One as the fourth.'” Today, physicists echo this statement when they call ‘plasma’ both the fourth and first state of matter (the others being liquid, gas and solid).
In Jungian psychology, the prima materia is the original undifferentiated condition of ordinary consciousness, which is really unconsciousness — subjective awareness. Mystics of all times have repeated that in the ordinary state we are all asleep or even “dead” to the true Reality. In psychology the four-fold nature of the prima materia is expressed by the four functions which correspond with the alchemical elements: intuition (fire), thinking (air), feeling (water), and sensation (earth). In Jungian theory we have a dominant function and limited access to one or two others, but the fourth function is inaccessible, elusive, maladapted, or hard to integrate. It is what keeps us from “getting it all together.” Thus, we are out-of-balance.
Balancing the four functions means achieving an integrated personality, harmony and well-being. This requires undergoing a symbolic process of the union of opposites, which is what both alchemy (and Tantra) and Jungian analysis are all about. Both alchemy and Jungian psychology require a period of depth analysis (solutio) to distinguish the original, undifferentiated contents. The ego learns what part of the personality comes from itself and which parts from the Self. It reflects on its own component parts (subpersonalities) and learns to see itself as a small part of a greater whole, the larger unity of the Self. Edinger says, “The fixed, settled aspects of the personality which are rigid and static are reduced or led back to their original, undifferentiated condition as part of the process of psychic transformation,” i.e. back to a state of ‘innocence.’
Further, Edinger compares the problem of discovering the prima materia to the problem of finding what to work on in psychotherapy. He gives some hints:
(1). It is ubiquitous, to be found everywhere, before the eyes of all. This means that psychotherapeutic material likewise is everywhere, in all the ordinary, everyday occurrences of life. Moods and petty personal reactions of all kinds are suitable matter to be worked on by the therapeutic process.
(2) Although of great inward value, the primal materia is vile in outer appearance and therefore despised, rejected or thrown on the dung heap. The prima materia is treated like the suffering servant in Isaiah. Psychologically, this means that the primal materia is found in the shadow, that part of the personality which is considered most despicable. Those aspects of ourselves most painful and most humiliating are the very ones to be brought forward and worked on.
(3) It appears as multiplicity, “has as many names as there are things,” but at the same time is one. This feature corresponds to the fact that initially psychotherapy makes one aware of his/her fragmented, disjointed condition. Very gradually these warring fragments are discovered to be differing aspects of ones underlying unity. It is as though one sees the fingers of a hand touching a table at first only in two dimensions, as separate unconnected fingers. With three-dimensional vision, the fingers are seen as part of a larger unity, the hand.
(4) The prima materia is undifferentiated, without definite boundaries, limits or form. This corresponds to a certain experience of the unconscious which exposes the ego to the infinite. …It may evoke the terror of dissolution or the awe of eternity. It provides a glimpse of the pleroma. …the chaos prior to the operation of the World-creating Logos. It is the fear of the boundless that often leads one to be content with the ego-limits he has rather than risk falling into the infinite by attempting to enlarge them.
Transforming Base Matter
The different operations to transform the prima materia follow as the natural consequences of finding the material to work on. The imagery associated with these operations is profuse and draws from myth, religion and folklore. The symbols for all these imagery-systems comes from the collective unconscious. There is no set number of alchemical operations, just as there is no set number or order to archetypes.
However, certain of the operations seem to recur more often in the literature and experience. We could consider these as the skeletal frame of the alchemical process. Their order switches around also. Edinger lists seven operations which seem to typify the major transformations of the alchemical process. These include: calcinatio, solutio, coagulatio, sublimatio, mortificatio, separatio, and coniunctio. Other major operations include nigredo, albedo, rubedo, solificatio, multiplicatio, projectio, separatio, circulatio, and more.
We can detail the nature of each of these operations later. For now, it is enough to grasp the overview which is best stated by Jung, himself, in Mysterium Coniunctionis:
“…the alchemist saw the essence of his art in separation and analysis [solve or solutio] on the one hand and synthesis and consolidation [coagula or coagulatio] on the other. For him there was first of all an initial state in which opposite tendencies or forces were in conflict; secondly, there was the great question of a procedure which would be capable of bringing the hostile elements and qualities, once they were separated, back to unity again.
The initial state, named chaos, was not given from the start but had to be sought for as the prima materia. And just as the beginning of the work was not self-evident, so to an even greater degree was its end. There are countless speculations on the nature of the end state, all of them reflected in its designations. The commonest are the ideas of its permanence (prolongation of life, immortality, incorruptibility), its androgyny, its spirituality and corporeality, its divinity and its resemblance to man (homunculus).”
Jung goes on to point out what this might mean psychologically. We could view it as conflicting drives originating on the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical levels creating splits in the personality. Jung says that,
“The obvious analogy, in the psychic sphere, to this problem of opposites is the dissociation of the personality brought about by the conflict of incompatible tendencies resulting as a rule from an inharmonious disposition. The repression of one of the opposites leads only to a prolongation and extension of the conflict, in other words, to a neurosis. The therapist therefore confronts the opposites with one another and aims at uniting them permanently. The images of the goal which then appear in dreams often run parallel with the corresponding alchemical symbols.”
He reiterates the value of accessing the alchemical symbolism for increasing insight.
“Investigation of the alchemical symbolism, like a preoccupation with mythology, does not lead one away from life anymore than a study of comparative anatomy leads away from the anatomy of the living man. On the contrary, alchemy affords us a veritable treasure-house of symbols, knowledge of which is extremely helpful for an understanding of neurotic and psychotic processes. This, in turn, enables us to apply the psychology of the unconscious to those regions in the history of the human mind which are concerned with symbolism.”
Each of the operations of alchemy functions as the center of focus of an elaborate symbol-system. Other symbols which are related to the operation cluster around the theme of the operation — they share a common essence. These central symbols provide basic categories which we can use to understand our own personal psychic life, and even the transformation processes of others. Taken together, the alchemical operations illustrate almost all of the full range of experiences which are involved in the process of individuation.
As Grossinger points out, “Alchemy is thus a form of chemical research into which unresolved psychic elements were projected. The alchemical nigredo, the initial phase of the operation which produces ‘black blacker than black,’ is also an internal experience of melancholia, an encounter with the shadow.”
But this is also the necessary first stage in Jungian analysis — confronting that which has been rejected or repressed is essential to becoming whole. This realm of the shadow can often provide more real substance for the spiritual quest than mimicking the teachings of a spiritual master without really changing oneself. Though stumbling around in the dark seems frustrating, if it is honest and heartfelt, and one really grapples with the shadow problem, the way is cleared for progress that will be sustained by a firm foundation gained in the early phases. Throughout the alchemical process, the lapis functions as an inner guide by presenting itself in diverse symbolism.
A Divine Unity of Opposites
It symbolizes the growing manifestation of your latent potential for wholeness. It frequently manifests in mandala symbolism. This includes such forms as a revolving wheel or the zodiac, the petals of a magnificent flower, or a serpent eating its tail. As a grand union of opposites, it symbolizes the unification of king and queen, man and wife, conscious and unconscious, personality and society, etc. in a royal union called the Marriage of the Sun and Moon in alchemy Alchemy is a means of understanding our unconscious projections of archetypes into the world.
In Spiritual Development as Reflected in Alchemy and Related Disciplines, Rudolf Bernoulli summarizes the basics of extroverted and introverted alchemy. He says,
“There are two kinds of alchemy: one strives to know the cosmos as a whole and to recreate it; it is in a sense the precursor of modern natural science. It aspires to create gold as the supreme perfection in this sphere…The other alchemy strives higher; it strives for the great wonder, the wonder of all wonder, the magic crystal, the philosopher’s stone.
This is not a substance susceptible of chemical analysis. It does not represent a spiritual or psychological state that can be reduced to a clear formula. It is something more than perfection, something through which perfection can be achieved. It is the universal instrument of magic. By it we can attain to the ultimate. By it we can completely possess the world. By it we can make ourselves free from the world, by soaring above it. This is alchemy in the mystical sense …The goal is reached only when a man succeeds in creating the …stone within himself, and this is made possible only the intervention of the ‘inner master.'” i.e. the Self.
Psychologically, the union of body and spirit or of conscious and unconscious can be safely attempted only when both have undergone a purification brought about by the earlier stages of analysis, in which the conscious character and the personal unconscious are reviewed and set in order.
(Psychic Energy, p. 452-3).
From Trinity to Unity
In the alchemistic literature there is evidence that the mysterious coniunctio took place in three stages. The first is that of the union of opposites, the double conjunction, which chiefly concerns us here. The second stage effects a triple union, that of body, soul, and spirit; or, as it is said elsewhere, “the Trinity is reduced to a Unity.”
In the Book of Lambspring, published in 1625, this triple union is represented first by two fishes swimming in the sea, pictured with the legend, “The sea is the Body, the two fishes are the Soul and the Spirit”, and later by a second picture showing a deer and a unicorn in a forest, with the following text:
In the Body [the forest] there is Soul [the deer] and Spirit [the unicorn] …He that knows how to tame and master them by art, and to couple them together, may justly be called a master, for we rightly judge that he has attained the golden flesh.
The literature offers far less material about this more advanced stage of the work than about the simple coniunctio, and still less about the third stage, the union of the four elements, from which the fifth element, the “quintessence,” arises.
However, Jung’s latest works are largely concerned with the problems of this fourfold coniunctio, through which not only are the personal parts of the psyche — ego and anima, or ego and animus — consummated, but these, in a further stage of development, are in turn united with their transpersonal correlates — wise man and prophetess, or great mother and magician (under whatever names these superordinate elements are conceived). The subject is by no means simple, but it amply repays careful study.
Thank you for reading.
Part II will cover the following: Solificatio, operation of the sun and the Hero archetype The Philosopher’s Stone on the lapis and shamanic Mana Personality Puer/Senex on the dynamics of youth and maturity, magickal child archetype The Transcendent Function on the Self or God-Image in the soul Devouring Father on the conception of divine child Anima Consciousness on the return of the Feminine and Incubation Individuation and Rebirth on spiritual rebirth phenomena Ultima Materia on culmination of the Great Work in the Adept or God-Man/Woman