Inner Gold – Alchemy and Psychology

Alchemy occupies a unique place in the collective psyche of humankind. We have spent millennia transitioning from instinct to reason, the culmination of which lead to the Age of Enlightenment, a radical cultural shift.

Our ancestors, however, lived by instinctual impulse, rather than logical reasoning. We did not think about our actions, we simply acted them out. Thought forms, universally understandable gestures, and many attitudes follow a pattern that was established long before man developed a reflective consciousness. People don’t have ideas; ideas have people.

It was Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Jung who recognised that in our increasingly rational and materialistic world, we were depriving ourselves from our inner world, the unconscious (which is the root of our being).

This does not mean that we must go back to a primitive way of life, but rather to acknowledge the one-sidedness of our modern rational mind, which only looks externally. We must reconnect with the unconscious. We can then inform our conscious and rational life, by creating a dialogue with the unconscious, through dreams, myths, symbols and rituals.

“The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul, opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was any ego consciousness, and which will remain psyche no matter how far our ego-consciousness extends.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 10: Civilisation in Transition

In his mid-50s, Jung discovered alchemy and devoted the remaining 30 years of his life to studying it, which he practically dug up from the dunghill of the past, for it was considered pseudoscience, a forgotten relic of history and despised field of investigation which he had suddenly revived.

However, alchemy was anything but pseudoscience. The alchemists sought to understand the nature of reality by using theories, experiments, and equipment. Thinking that alchemy is a pseudoscience is an anachronism, attributing modern ideas to older periods in history.

“Everything that the modern mind cannot define it regards as insane.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 12: Psychology and Alchemy

Alchemy can be approached in different ways. The historians of science see it as the predecessor of chemistry, and strip off all the symbolic and mythical aspects. In fact, the name chemistry derives from alchemy (“al-chemistry”). Chemistry is the de-sacralisation of alchemy, and alchemy is the shadow of modern science. The focus here is on the chemical operations, discoveries and equipment. With their experiments, the alchemists created chemically pure substances to make glass, perfumes, paint, gunpowder, and more, as well as inventing the distillation of alcohol.

The historians of religion, on the other hand, focus on the historical rights, the myths and symbols connected with the alchemical works. One such person is the Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade, who has written about this in his book, The Forge and the Crucible.

Jung’s primary focus, however, was not as a historian, but rather viewing alchemy from a psychological perspective. He writes:

“[T]he rediscovery of the principles of alchemy came to be an important part of my work as a pioneer of psychology.”

Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols

In his 50s, Jung had developed most of what he is known for as founder of analytical psychology: psychological types, complexes, archetypes, synchronicity, the collective unconscious, the Self, individuation, and much more, which he had been studying and developing since his break with Freud. Now, his focus was to reinforce his ideas that the collective unconscious is a reality (which he observed in many of his patients) and that the Self develops through individuation, and he became interested in finding other sources as comparative material to his psychology. He called this the method of amplification, which allows one to “turn up the volume” of the unconscious material, by using alchemical, mythological, religious, and cultural parallels.

Jung eventually found the missing link, as he writes:

“But when I began to understand alchemy I realised that it represented the historical link with Gnosticism, and that a continuity therefore existed between past and present. Grounded in the natural philosophy of the Middle Ages, alchemy formed the bridge on the one hand into the past, to Gnosticism, and on the other into the future, to the modern psychology of the unconscious.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections 

Jung found that many of the alchemical symbols were tackling the same thing he was grasping for in his earlier psychological work, and were strikingly similar to the dream images of many of his patients. He believed that the alchemical symbols were products of the collective unconscious that appeared to the tormented souls of the alchemists, who were precursors to his analytical psychology. Ancient alchemical texts provide us with a wealth of symbolic insight into the human mind and human behaviours that continue to be vitally relevant.

Jung was first introduced to alchemy when his friend Richard Wilhelm sent him a copy of the ancient Taoist alchemical book of life, The Secret of The Golden Flower. Jung realised that the Tao was a method for reuniting what has been separated, namely, consciousness and the unconscious, in order to reach psychic wholeness by a union of opposites, which Jung calls the Self. This is an alchemical idea that would occupy Jung for the rest of his life, culminating in his last great work Mysterium Coniunctionis.

At first, Jung hesitated to tackle alchemy, realising how much work it would involve. However, he came to the conclusion that it had to be done, for there was too much buried in the subject of alchemy which was important for a better understanding of ourselves. Jung first began with Eastern alchemy, but soon Western alchemy became his main focus.

Before delving into alchemy, we’ll first explore the idea of wholeness and the Self.

The Self: Achieving Wholeness

We are all born whole, but are fragmented as we gain a sense of “I”. This is known as the ego-Self axis, where the first half of life is ego-Self separation, and the second half of life is ego-Self reunion. There is a line connecting the ego with the Self, like a channel. Jung writes:

“The self is not only the centre but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the ego is the centre of consciousness.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 12: Psychology and Alchemy

When the ego becomes the sole source of identity in our life, we disregard the other half of our personality, the unconscious, resulting in one-sidedness and psychic dissociation. Our task is to recover our original unity that we had as infants, before developing the ego. This is known as original wholeness, the original self.

To become like a child is not a regression, but a recovery of unity. Although it can also take on a negative form if one seeks the protecting circle of the mother and does not want to take responsibility to become independent, this is seen in the so-called “man-child” who has never “grown up”.

We all have an archetypal inner child in us, even as we age (the idea of puer aeternus or eternal youth), integrating this archetype in our adulthood can be highly beneficial. For Nietzsche, the child is the final metamorphosis to becoming who we truly are.  

“The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Play is an essential part of our life and it is sadly put at the background when we grow up and develop our ego, though we unconsciously long for it. Children project meaning into objects and live in animism, where objects are animated into living forms. The subject is more connected with objects. Jung writes:

“The dynamic principle of fantasy is play, a characteristic also of the child, and as such it appears inconsistent with the principle of serious work. But without playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 6: Psychological Types

Integrating our inner child leads to a heightened state of consciousness, which we did not possess when we were born. We are born integrated, disintegrate, and must re-integrate, that is the process of self-realisation. There is no integration without disintegration.

Wholeness is achieved through constant inner work:

“Only after one hundred days of consistent work, only then is the light genuine; only then can one begin to work with the spirit-fire.”

Lü Dongbin, The Secret of the Golden Flower

Light is an acute state of consciousness that uncovers areas of the unconscious which are usually covered. Jung writes:

“It is high time we realised that it is pointless to praise the light and preach it if nobody can see it. It is much more needful to teach people the art of seeing.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 12: Psychology and Alchemy

To become whole is not a linear process, but rather of circumambulation, a process in which everything relates to the centre. Jung wrote:

“I began to understand that the goal of psychic development is the self. There is no linear evolution; there is only a circumambulation of the self… This insight gave me stability, and gradually my inner peace returned. I knew that in finding the mandala as an expression of the self I had achieved what was for me the ultimate. Perhaps someone else knows more, but not I.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

To be in the centre is to be relieved from anxiety, suffering and hopelessness, which are the aspects of the rim of the circle, the temporal (money, pleasure, fame, power, etc.). A medieval manuscript portrays a king who lives on the rim of the wheel, which moves in a never-ending process of: “I am reigning”, “I have reigned”, “I have lost my kingdom”, and “I shall reign”. In the centre is the figure of Christ, a symbol for the Self. To be in the centre is to experience ecstasy, standing outside of oneself without ceasing to be oneself.

The Ancient Greek Philosophers called this the state of apatheia (not to be confused with apathetic), it is a state of wisdom and tranquillity, of being undisturbed by one’s wild emotional fluctuations, of being indifferent to what happens to you in life, and going along with whatever life throws at you. By observing what actually happens, instead of our perception of what happens, it allows to calm our inner tornado and earthly passions. The Stoics practiced what is known as the dichotomy of control: to focus on what is in your control, and not on that which is out of your control.

Apathetia is not, however, a permanent state – that would be a superhuman feat, it is rather a temporary state in people who are more in tune with their soul, which for Jung is the alignment of one’s ego to the Self, the source of spiritual nourishment. This is characteristic of the archetype of the wise old man and woman. Others are more affected by anxiety and suffering, because they live on the rim of the wheel or the ego, where life becomes a vicious cycle.

People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own soul. To be alone with oneself can lead to solitariness in the positive or loneliness in the negative.

“If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Essays in Aesthetics 

Spending some time alone with oneself and one’s unconscious can be a rich source of spiritual nourishment and is key to self-realisation. It is only by confronting our unconscious that we can become whole. Jung writes:

“As a doctor it is my task to help the patient to cope with life. I cannot presume to pass judgment on his final decisions, because I know from experience that all coercion – be it suggestion, insinuation, or any other method of persuasion – ultimately proves to be nothing but an obstacle to the highest and most decisive experience of all, which is to be alone with his own self, or whatever else one chooses to call the objectivity of the psyche. The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 12: Psychology and Alchemy

Now that we have a basic notion of the idea of wholeness, we’ll start with the origins and history of alchemy.

The Origins and History of Alchemy

The etymology of alchemy is of uncertain origin. It is said to derive from the Arabic al-kīmiyā (al ­being the prefix for “the”), the word comes from the old name for Egypt (Kemet) meaning the black lands, the fertile soils along the Nile River, as distinct from the “red lands” of the desert. Therefore, alchemy can be seen as the Egyptian art or the black art. Others believe the Arabic word derives from the Greek word khymeia, meaning “to cast together”, or “to pour together”. The term alchemy may well be a mix of these different sources.

It is unclear where alchemy first appeared, if it was Egypt, China, India or some place in the Middle East, or if it happened in various places at the same time. Many of them exchanged their different beliefs, practices and knowledge along the Silk Road, which was also an intellectual route. According to many scholars, however, alchemy can be traced back to Egypt.

The Pre-Socratic and Ancient Greek philosophers dealt primarily with rational thought and natural principles to understand the world, and did few or no experiments. They came up with the basic concepts still valid in modern physics: the concepts of matter, space, time, and the atom, and many of them sought to understand the world through one of the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth.

The Egyptians, on the other hand, mainly dealt with matter, and while they had religious ideas, they did not possess the philosophical basis that the Greeks had. An enormous amount of the Egyptians’ energy was directed to life after death, and their main concern was that the right kinds of rituals be performed so that eternal life after death would be assured in the right way.

The distinction between matter and spirit was not made by the Egyptians. If you were going to have eternal life, you needed a body that would live forever. That was the purpose of mummification. The main chemical procedure consisted in bathing the corpse in a base of sodium bicarbonate. The root of the Latin word natrium (sodium) is the Egyptian word ntr, meaning “god”. Mummification meant bathing the corpse in “god substance”, till it was completely soaked in it. As such, one became eternal and identical with the cosmos.

The trends of Greek and Egyptian civilisation came together and united in a very fruitful marriage, of which alchemy was their child. As such, alchemy was born as a hybrid of Greek philosophy and Egyptian material transformation and symbolism.

The central figure in alchemy is Hermes Trismegistus (or Thrice-Great Hermes), whose name is derived from the ancient Egyptian God Thoth, and his Greek counterpart Hermes, the messenger of the Gods and psychopomp. The philosophy of Hermes is known as Hermeticism, and he is the author of the Emerald Tablet, which is supposed to contain all the knowledge of the philosophy and practice of alchemy, in just a few lines. It is the source of perhaps the most important alchemical maxim: “as above, so below.” The inner world (microcosm) and outer world (macrocosm), are one and the same: as within, so without. The immortal and eternal realm of the inner world corresponds to the physical and mortal reality of the outer world that we all experience. Through transforming ourselves, we transform the world; through transforming the world, we transform ourselves. Human consciousness expands and embraces cosmic consciousness. The drop returns to the ocean, and the spark to the flame.

In his book, Jung and the Alchemical Imagination, Jeffrey Raff divides the history of alchemy into three main phases: Hellenistic alchemy, from 200 B.C. to A.D. 600; Arabic alchemy, extending to about A.D. 1000; and Latin alchemy, continuing from about 1100 to 1700. The history of alchemy went through its own process of death and rebirth.

The alchemist Zosimos wrote about Maria Prophetissa, which some scholars consider as one of the founders of alchemy. They both lived in the Middle East, around A.D. 200 or 300.

Alchemy sought to uncover the mystery of matter. By transforming matter, one transformed the spirit. For instance, having a good physical health was important, because it corresponds to good mental health, and so on.

By A.D. 600, alchemy started dying out as a spiritual discipline. It would later be revived in the Muslim conquests when the Arabs discovered the Greek and Egyptian alchemical texts, and continued the tradition. The most interested in alchemy were the Sufis, who wrote about imagination, the power of the mind, and visionary states. Jabir Ibn Hayyan is regarded as the most famous of the Arab alchemists, who is supposed to have died around A.D. 800.

Alchemy again started to fade away, until another war happened. This time it was the Crusades. The Crusaders discovered the Greek texts that the Arabs had taken and brought it back to Europe, this started the Latin period of alchemy. One of the most famous alchemists of this period was Paracelsus, who was more concerned with the medical and practical side of alchemy. He was also interested in the creation of the homunculus, the representation of an artificial small human being.

Around the 1700s, the scientific method was born, and alchemy was branded as fraudulent, nonsense, and heresy. People began to focus on the backwardness and superstition of the past, and the Enlightenment and rationalist world of modernity. However, one of the greatest scientists, Isaac Newton, continued to study alchemy for the rest of his life, and produced around a million words in alchemical works. After his death, most of it was burned, for fear of ruining his reputation. It wasn’t until the 20th century, that Jung brought alchemy back to life as psychology.  

The Basics Concepts of Alchemy

Alchemy is popularly known as the art of transmutation, most notably, turning lead into gold. This process is known as chrysopoeia (gold-making). Lead was often associated as the basest of metals, it’s dull, soft, quite useless for making tools, and poisonous.

There are seven primary metals in alchemy, which have seven planetary influences: gold (Sun), silver (Moon), copper (Venus), iron (Mars), tin (Jupiter), mercury (Mercury) and lead (Saturn). For the Hindus, these also correspond to the seven chakras in the body.

If the alchemists were ever able to produce artificial gold is unknown. It seemed to be the goal of the alchemists and composed thousands of years of earnest behaviour. For Jung, however, the task was and has always been psychological. The end product is not material in nature, but rather spiritual. Alchemy is the art of expanding consciousness, of self-realisation.

“There is in natural things a certain truth which cannot be seen with the outward eye, but is perceived by the mind alone, and of this the Philosophers have had experience, and have ascertained that its virtue is such as to work miracles… Transform yourselves from dead stones into living philosophical stones!”

Gerhard Dorn, Theatrum Chemicum

The spiritual alchemist conceals the truth intentionally, so as to prevent wicked people or charlatans overcome by greed and material possession to access its wisdom. There were many dilettante alchemists who failed to understand the spiritual and psychological nature of alchemy as inner transformation. Moreover, concealing the truth helped shield them from the persecution of religious fanatics, as it was considered heretical and would result in a death sentence.

Alchemists were not only concerned with lead, but also transforming the lowest kind of matter one can think of: rotten flesh, urine, poison, faeces, etc., into the expression of the highest kind of matter: gold. This is known as base matter or prima materia (first matter), which is the one thing that makes up everything in the universe and is the source of life. There are hundreds of different suggestions for this elusive substance. Psychologically, it can be defined as our very consciousness.

A famous alchemical saying is, in sterquilinis invenitur (in filth it will be found). That which you most value in life is found in the least likely places. Many alchemical works are difficult and seemingly impenetrable, it is like navigating through a maze, but sometimes you stumble upon a gem.

The prima materia expresses itself in a trinity. These are known as the tria prima, which the alchemists gave code names to: sulphur (soul) mercury (spirit) and salt (body). These compose everything in the world.

The process of transforming matter would always go through these three principles. In the alchemical art of spagyrics (which means to separate and recombine), the alchemist would transform plants and herbs into oil by distillation, creating essential oils (the soul). In the process of fermentation, they would create liquor (the spirit), which is why we call alcohol spirits. And the destruction of the plant by fire would create an ash, which when washed with water, filtered and evaporated, would leave salt crystals (the body). This shows us that the alchemists really thought seriously about the connection between the inner world and the outer world.

The alchemists saw the body as all the objects and material that compose reality. However, these are mere concepts or ideas. Physical reality isn’t really as solid as we perceive it to be. The world can take on a whole new appearance depending on our perception of it. This is a reflection of the spirit, which is the mind. And the soul is the cause of everything that is.

The spirit is the bridge that joins body and soul, represented by Mercury, the Roman version of Hermes, who is also related to Thoth, they are all the same archetype. In short, alchemy is the understanding of how the unconscious (the spirit) relates to consciousness (the body), which for Jung represents one’s total personality, the Self (the soul).

To understand the nature of reality, one must understand the prima materia. By breaking it into its component parts, the alchemist would then reunite the parts in such a way as to create a new substance, by changing the different elements (fire, water, air and earth), and qualities (hot, cold, dry, and moist). This is an important principle in alchemy, known as solve et coagula, a process of breaking down to separate and reunite, which is identical to the meaning of spagyrics.

The goal of transforming the prima materia is to create the lapis philosophorum (the philosophers’ stone), which is the central symbol of alchemy. It is the substance that acts as an intermediary catalyst, and by mixing it, turns base matter into gold.  Obtaining the stone is part of what is called the Opus Magnum (the Great Work) of the alchemists. The alchemists believe that the opus proceeds from the one and leads back to the one. This is expressed in the famous axiom of Maria, a recurring theme in alchemy and symbol for wholeness, which Jung quotes:

“One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 12: Psychology and Alchemy

This is the essence of the philosophers’ stone, whose symbol is the squared circle. In the image, we can see all the principles of alchemy take place. The outer circle is a representation of the soul, whose possibilities are unlimited and infinite. Within the circle, is a triangle: the tria prima. Then we have a square, which symbolises the four elements. When all these are brought together, we get once again the circle of the soul. This can be repeated in an infinite regression, and is what comprises the philosophers’ stone.

The stone is sometimes described as capable of producing the universal panacea (which cures the diseases and sufferings of humanity), the alkahest or universal solvent (capable of dissolving any substance without destroying its fundamental component), the holy grail (which grants eternal youth) and the elixir of life (which grants immortality, and was of interest primarily to the Chinese alchemists). Ironically, many Chinese emperors seeking to prolong their lifespans died from drinking elixirs. These ideas are to be taken as inner work, there are no shortcuts for self-realisation.

It was our desire for truth and enlightenment of our nature that motivated us to seek through every means possible for that certain something that we unconsciously felt we had lost and which is ours to reacquire.

For Jung, the philosophers’ stone is to be found in ourselves, it is the old adage, “know thyself”.  

“The alchemical stone (the lapis) symbolises something that can never be lost or dissolved, something eternal that some alchemists compared to the mystical experience of God within one’s own soul. It usually takes prolonged suffering to burn away all the superfluous psychic elements concealing the stone. But some profound inner experience of the Self does occur to most people at least once in a lifetime. From the psychological standpoint, a genuinely religious attitude consists of an effort to discover this unique experience, and gradually to keep in tune with it (it is relevant that a stone is itself something permanent), so that the Self becomes an inner partner toward whom one’s attention is continually turned.”

Man and His Symbols, Part 3: The Process of Individuation – M.L. von Franz

Alchemy as Psychological Projection

The psychological significance of alchemy comes from psychological projection. Projection is never made, it happens, it is simply there. In the darkness of anything external to what we find, there is an interior or psychic life that is our own. Jung believes that since it was a question of projection, the alchemist was naturally unconscious of the fact that the experience had nothing to do with matter itself. He experienced his projection as a property of matter; but what he was in reality experiencing was his unconscious.

“This was a time when the mind of the alchemist was still grappling with the problems of matter, when the exploring consciousness was confronted by the dark void of the unknown, in which figures and laws were dimly perceived and attributed to matter although they really belonged to the psyche. Everything unknown and empty is filled with psychological projection; it is as if the investigator’s own psychic background were mirrored in the darkness. What he sees in matter, or thinks he can see, is chiefly the data of his own unconscious which he is projecting into it. In other words, he encounters in matter, as apparently belonging to it, certain qualities and potential meanings of whose psychic nature he is entirely unconscious.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 12: Psychology and Alchemy

This procedure was not, of course, intentional; it was an involuntary occurrence. There is a psychical existence which precedes consciousness. From time to time, we get messages from this realm through dreams, fantasies, intuitions, visions, and so on; and it is from these that we draw the conclusion of a psychical existence in ourselves which is totally different to our conscious mind.

Thus, there exists in alchemy an astonishing amount of material from the unconscious, produced in a situation where the conscious mind did not follow a definite program, but only searched. This is an important point. The conclusions are spontaneous, in contrast to other symbolic material which have always been revised. Alchemy contains a collection of archetypal symbols with a minimum of personification.

The dynamic depictions of the subjective transformative process occurring in individuals not only provided confirmation and validation of Jung’s own concepts, but he found that they provided a rich lexicon for understanding the dreams of his patients and a host of cultural phenomena.

To become who we are, requires a reconnection with the instincts, with the unconscious and the mythic world. And at the same time, maintaining a strong ego to differentiate between one’s daily life and the archetypes of the collective unconscious. One must know the difference to apply rational thinking and ethical behaviour to the products of the unconscious without being overwhelmed by them or kowtowing to them, but also without ignoring them and treating them as if they were meaningless.

When one closes oneself completely from the unconscious, one also closes oneself from the energy that come from these symbols. This can lead to alienation and depression.

The Importance of Symbols

Meditation, prayer, dreams, etc., are all healing processes that allows us to reintegrate our fragmented selves, align ourselves and be at harmony with ourselves. This cannot be done by logical reasoning, it is a participatory and existential mode of being.

“The union of opposites on a higher level of consciousness is not a rational thing, nor is it a matter of will; it is a process of psychic development that expresses itself in symbols.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 13: Alchemical Studies

The way to lure the unconscious into consciousness is by interacting with symbols, which are the language of the unconscious. We are constantly surrounded by symbols in our daily life, this has been so since time immemorial. And though we are less aware of them than our ancestors (because we have created an artificial environment and lifestyle that in many cases goes against our instinctual impulses), they are still very much alive in our unconscious, and play an important role in our lives.

Searching for symbols is like fishing in the ocean of the unconscious. Carrying too many will make your boat sink, this represents ego inflation and hubris, but carrying no symbols at all will make you feel empty, and without energy, life appears without any colour, life becomes meaningless. Like a fisherman that returns home after a long day without fish, the soul remains “hungry”. Jung developed his own technique to engage with symbols, which he called active imagination.

“The unconscious has a thousand ways of snuffing out a meaningless existence with surprising swiftness.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 14: Mysterium Coniunctionis

The work of the alchemists is filled with symbols. Such as the ouroboros (the tail-devourer), which depicts a snake or dragon eating its tail. It is thought to be the oldest allegorical symbol in alchemy, which appears in Cleopatra the Alchemist’s Chrysopoeia, symbolising the concept of eternity and endless return, associated with the maxim ‘One is All, and All is One’.

Sometimes an alchemist would be initiated by a teacher, who would deliberately confuse the student. They would not tell you what they really meant, because they wanted you to figure it out for yourself. If the teacher told all his secrets to his student, there would be no inner work, only a detached transmission of knowledge without any transformation in the individual. One must work with the material until one comes upon a realisation that impacts one’s life.

Gold is the highest value in consciousness, the realisation of the Self. To reach that state, however, we must first disintegrate our ego-consciousness. The one becomes the many, like all those figures appearing above the head of the meditator in the Taoist alchemical book of life that introduced Jung to alchemy.

Everybody is a multiple personality, not in the pathological sense of that term, but insofar as we all have living personalities besides our ego personality. These are the archetypes of the collective unconscious and are autonomous. You can see them in your dream figures, which most of the time (but not always) represent different parts of yourself (not other people). This seems quite bizarre for us when we think about it, as it is completely contrary to our normal everyday life. The Ancient Greek Philosophers called it a daimon (not to be confused with demon), an inner voice, guardian spirit, tutelary figure, angel, or higher self who watches over each individual.

The Operations of Alchemy

So, how does one practice alchemy? There are a number of operations for achieving the philosophers’ stone, though there was no general agreement of how many or which ones they were. There were, however, several steps that occur most frequently in alchemical texts. In his book Anatomy of the Psyche, Edward Edinger distinguishes between seven operations as the major ones that make up the alchemical transformation, and uses their Latin terms to differentiate the psychological processes from the chemical procedures. These are: calcinatio, solutio, coagulatio, sublimatio, mortificatio, separatio and coniunctio.

It may look like a linear process, but it is not. It is akin to Jung’s notion of circumambulation, where one or more operations may repeat themselves. The different operations are steps towards individuation.

Fire is a central symbol in alchemy. Alchemy is the art of fire, and the alchemists, philosophers by fire. The first operation is calcinatio, the process of burning a substance until it is reduced to fine ash.

When the soul is burned up with fire, it is lustful, jealous, frustrated or angry. Fire is active, energetic and instinctual. It is different from the coldness of intense sadness, which is passive, contemplative and lethargic. Fire, however, is also a process of catharsis. It is the destruction of the ego and material possessions, a natural humbling process as we are gradually assaulted and overcome by the trials and tribulations of life.

Heraclitus considered fire to be the first principle from whence all things owe their existence. Fuelling the flame of the heart with daily devotions of right action, right thought, right speech, meditation and prayer; increases the power, wisdom, and love of the divine nature of man.

“The fire and the rose are one… We are pleased to the depth of our soul to be told that the fire of transformation and the flower of rebirth are one and the same.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

The expression, “God is a consuming fire” is well-known in holy scriptures. The seraphim (“burning ones”) are fiery celestial beings that fly around God crying “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty!” Fire burns away all our errors and lies, only truth survives the fire.

The second operation in alchemy is solutio. While calcinatio symbolises fire, solutio pertains to water. Some texts consider it the root of alchemy. It is the process of turning a solid into a liquid. It is a further dissolution of the ego and immersion in the dark depths of the ocean, the unconscious.

The third operation is coagulatio, which represents earth, turning liquid back to a solid. It takes on a fixed, heavy and permanent shape. It is the fall from spirit to flesh, from heaven to earth. For something to have become earth means that it has been concretised in a particular form, it has become attached to an ego. Exposing oneself to daily life, and hard work – solidifies one’s personality. Jung wrote:

“I have done without electricity, and tend the fireplace and stove myself. Evenings, I light the old lamps. There is no running water, and I pump the water from the well. I chop the wood and cook the food. These simple acts make man simple; and how difficult it is to be simple!”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

It is important to have a strong anchor in reality when interacting with the unconscious, and to not get lost in abstract thinking, to the detriment of practical life, which leads to depression and melancholy. Actions speak louder than words. Additionally, when one takes responsibility by making one’s unconscious contents conscious, one is headed towards self-realisation.

The word humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means earth. A humble person is down-to-earth. Human is derived from the same word, one who is grounded. Humility contains a rich source of nutrients, which heals us.

The fourth operation is sublimatio, pertaining to air. It turns the material into vapor, which arises from the top of the alchemical vessel and was seen as spirit, in contrast to the material. The reunion of the body with the spirit is an elevating process where a low substance is translated into a higher form by an ascending movement. It is like breathing pure mountain air after a difficult ascent. When we have a problem and look at it from “above”, many times it ceases to be a problem, as we gain psychic objectivity. Sublimatio is associated with ladders, stairs, clouds, chariots, etc.

The process is liberating but also dangerous, as it may leave one to unbearable heights, it can be disastrous to be stuck in the sky. A young man recalls several dreams he had:

“I once dreamed that I had climbed a ladder to a high platform, and that then somebody removed the ladder so that I was left stranded on the height with no way of getting down again. Another time I was climbing a ladder miles above the earth’s surface with something impelling me onward. I dared not to look down for fear of becoming dizzy and letting go of the rung.”

Edward Edinger, Anatomy of the Psyche

One needs an ascent as much as a descent. This is the paradox. Nietzsche expresses this beautifully:

“Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman – a rope over an abyss. A dangerous going-across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and staying-still. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what is lovable in man is that he is an over-going and a down-going.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

As an alchemical dictum says, “sublimate the body and coagulate the spirit.” Upward movement eternalises, downward movement personalises. This process is expressed in the Emerald Tablet, which refers to the one principle of alchemy:

“It ascends from the earth to the heaven, and descends again to the earth, and receives the power of the above and below. Thus you will have the glory of the whole world. Therefore all darkness will flee from you.”

Hermes Trismegistus, The Emerald Tablet

Our happiness should not be based upon something that is illusory, the less earthly desires one has, the richer one truly becomes. Illusions bind us to a false sense of human limitation, and enslave us by seducing us to indulge in things that hampers the development of the soul.

Stages of Alchemy: Nigredo, Albedo, Rubedo

The rest of the operations take on a different form than the four elements. During the process of transformation of matter, the alchemists would see different stages or changes of colour take place: the nigredo (blackening), albedo (whitening), citrinitas (yellowing), and rubedo (reddening).

After the 15th century, however, the colours were reduced to three, and yellow fell in disuse or was seldom mentioned, as it merged with the final stage.

The nigredo is a spiritual death. It is only by having the courage to let go of one’s old ideas and limitations that are blocking one’s development, that one may open the door to new insight, transforming into a new self. As Nietzsche wrote:

“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well as the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions, they cease to be mind.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak §573

The guide for this insight is not just the experience gathered in life, but also listening to the unconscious, which is our ultimate guide in life. The subject must be open and aware of his or her unconscious and approach it in an honest manner.

The nigredo represents the fifth alchemical operation, mortificatio. We can observe this process in nature, such as the decomposition of bodies, the falling of leaves, the rotting down of fruits, etc., where nutrients are recycled back to the earth. The idea of something turning black is matter beginning to die and rot (putrefactio). The nigredo is seen as the most negative of the operations, and often referred to as a “black blacker than black”, a place without light. It is the dark night of the soul. The process is a purging of the horrible darkness of our mind.

This stage is represented by the raven, and includes death, suffering, grief, depression, loneliness, weariness of life, and suicide. It is seen in those who experience a crisis of meaning in life, who feel as they are swallowed up by the ground, and the only way out is to begin their inner work. The state of horror, however, is so unbearable that we reach for anything to shut it down, and so we numb ourselves with pleasure.

When we begin to feel uncomfortable and aware that something is not right, but we do not know what it is – we are in a state of massa confusa, of inner chaos. It is the voice of the unlived life. If we pay attention to this, we begin to see things we don’t like to see in ourselves, but which can be very valuable. In this state, one should ask oneself, what is the next right thing that I can actually do, apart from nothing? The nigredo is a moment of maximum despair, that is a prerequisite to change and transformation. It is a process of separating the wheat from the chaff.

“When you come to that loneliness with yourself – when you are eternally alone – you are forced in upon yourself and are bound to become aware of your background.”

Carl Jung, Visions: Notes of Seminars

The gateway to peace is narrow, and none may enter save through affliction of the soul. For Jung, the nigredo is the confrontation with one’s shadow and unconscious material. He writes:

“Self-knowledge is an adventure that carries us unexpectedly far and deep. Even a moderately comprehensive knowledge of the shadow can cause a good deal of confusion and mental darkness, since it gives rise to personality problems which one had never remotely imagined before. For this reason alone we can understand why the alchemists called their nigredo melancholia, ‘a black blacker than black.’ ”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 14: Mysterium Coniunctionis

At the height of despair and darkness, however, is where suddenly an illumination comes from above.

“There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection. To round itself out, life calls not for perfection but for completeness; and for this the “thorn in the flesh” is needed, the suffering of defects without which there is no progress and no ascent.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 12: Psychology and Alchemy

It is the archetype of the wounded healer, to be at home in the darkness of suffering and there to find germs of light and recovery. This is a healing process, Jung calls this process enantiodromia, the union of the opposites.

“The greater the tension, the greater is the potential. Great energy springs from a correspondingly great tension of opposites.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 13: Alchemical Studies

Before the second stage, the albedo – there is a transitionary phase called the cauda pavonis (the peacock’s tail) in which many colours appear. The albedo is the washing away of impurities, a baptism, represented by the dove. This leads to the sixth step, the separatio, the awareness of the opposites, of nigredo and albedo. At this point the first main goal of the process is reached, the albedo is highly prized by many alchemists as if it were the ultimate goal. It is the female or moon condition, which allows one to create silver.

However, some subjected the white matter into another death, turning black once more. If successful, it would lead to the final stage, the rubedo. The colour red is associated with the sun, gold, and the philosopher’s stone, putting an end to the great work.

“Seek the coldness of the moon and ye shall find the heat of the sun.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 14: Mysterium Coniunctionis

This is the awakening, where the phoenix rises and is reborn from the fire. We stop fearing the darkness, once we know the phoenix in us will rise from the ashes.

“Only that which can destroy itself is truly alive.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 12: Psychology and Alchemy

The red and the white are King and Queen, the Sun and the Moon, who at this stage, may celebrate the hieros gamos (holy marriage), leading to the final stage, the coniunctio. This step was particularly important for Jung, and represents the reunification of the prima materia, creating the philosophers’ stone. It is the wholeness of the hermaphroditic Mercurius, the contrasexual soul images (anima and animus), the union of opposites that restores one to the Self. Jung writes:

“Mercurius stands at the beginning and end of the work: he is the prima materia, the caput corvi [raven’s head], the nigredo; as dragon he devours himself and as dragon he dies, to rise again as the lapis. He is the play of colour in the cauda pavonis and the division into four elements. He is the hermaphrodite that was in the beginning, that splits into the classical brother-sister duality and is reunited in the coniunctio, to appear once again at the end in the radiant form of the lumen novum [new light], the stone. He is metallic yet liquid, matter yet spirit, cold yet fiery, poison and yet healing draught – a symbol uniting all the opposites.”


Alchemy is a process of spiritual death and rebirth. Death is the end or the transition to a new experience. It is the Hero’s Journey which we all partake in. The call to adventure that leads to a confrontation with our dragon (our worst fear, event, person or memory long avoided), a difficult quest that may require many attempts to complete. The reward is accessing the treasure chest of our inner gold, that is, the psychological death of our old self and the birth of a new and more capable self, with an elixir to share the experience with others. The end of the alchemical work was conceived as self-knowledge.

Alchemy seeks to heal the suffering of the human mind, of the human soul. A true alchemist seizes the black matter of all existence and makes it something luminous. For this spiritual knowledge to be valuable, it must be put into practice.

To summarise, we have: calcinatio (fire), solutio (water), coagulatio (earth), sublimatio (air), and then mortificatio and separatio (nigredo and albedo), and finally coniunctio (rubedo).

It should be reiterated that this is one of many different interpretations of the alchemical process, and should not be taken as the definite one. This should, however, serve as a solid introduction to the alchemical work.

In the mountain of the adepts, we see that the process of psychological development is analogous to the stages in the alchemical transformation of base matter into gold. The philosopher’s stone here is represented as a “temple of the wise” buried in the earth. The phoenix, symbol of the renewed personality, straddles the sun and moon (the opposites as masculine and feminine). The zodiac in the background symbolises the duration of the process; the four elements indicate wholeness. The blindfolded man represents the stumbling search for truth; the right way is shown by the investigator prepared to follow his natural instincts.

“An old alchemist gave the following consolation to one of his disciples: No matter how isolated you are and how lonely you feel, if you do your work truly and conscientiously, unknown friends will come and seek you.”

C.G. Jung, Letters, Vol. II

Inner Gold – Alchemy and Psychology

Alchemy occupies a unique place in the collective psyche of humankind. Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Jung discovered alchemy and devoted the remaining 30 years of his life to studying it, which he practically dug up from the dunghill of the past, for it was considered pseudoscience, a forgotten relic of history and despised field of investigation which he had suddenly revived.

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