The Psychology of The Trickster

There is perhaps no figure in literature more fascinating than the trickster, appearing in various forms in the folklore of many cultures. He is different from the figure of the fool, who is harmless but also naïve, and many times ends up harming himself. The fool walks joyfully dreaming about all his adventures, unaware that if he takes just one more step, he would fall down a cliff.

Trickster is witty and deceitful. He is the timeless root of all the picaresque creations of world literature, and is not reducible to one single literary entity. Trickster tales have existed since ancient times, and has been said to be at the very foundation of civilisation and culture. They belong to the oldest expressions of mankind.

What is The Trickster?

Tricksters are the breakers of rules, agents of mischief, masters of deceit, and boundary crossers.

“[T]he best way to describe trickster is to say simply that the boundary is where he will be found – sometimes drawing the line, sometimes crossing it, sometimes erasing or moving it, but always there, the god of the threshold in all its forms.”

Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World

Tricksters are always “on the road”, they are the lords of in-between. While we endeavour to trace the trickster to his origin, he continues to play his tricks on us, always evasive, always crossing our conceptual boundaries of definition in which we try to confine him. Perhaps here is a first lesson to be learned from the trickster: whatever we do, he is always one step ahead of us.

The victims of people such as con men and snake oil salesmen, are those who are unconscious of trickster – they have been tricked by their own naivety, greed or self-deception. We have to be a little tricky, to guard against being tricked.

There can also be people who really believe that they are helping others, but are in fact tricking them. In this case, both perpetrator and victim are unconscious of trickster. Trickster is disruptive only when it operates unconsciously in our lives as an autonomous entity.

Another way the trickster can appear is as one who is not deceiving but telling you the truth, but we likely won’t believe him.

In medieval times, the jester was known to speak the truth without losing his head. He was the only person who received permission from the king to be allowed to tell it like it is, and was an important figure in the royal courts. To make his special privileges known, he wore a cap ‘n’ bells and a fool’s sceptre, mirroring the king’s crown and sceptre.

Primitive Form of The Trickster

Trickster is present in us as soon as we gain awareness of our ego in our childhood. It is the most primitive progression to the hero myth, but a necessary step towards becoming mature and whole.

“The Trickster cycle corresponds to the earliest and least developed period of life. Trickster is a figure whose physical appetites dominate his behaviour; he has the mentality of an infant. Lacking any purpose beyond the gratification of his primary needs, he is cruel, cynical, and unfeeling… This figure, which at the outset assumes the form of an animal, passes from one mischievous exploit to another. But, as he does so, a change comes over him. At the end of his rogue’s progress he is beginning to take on the physical likeness of a grown man.”

Man and His Symbols Part II, Ancient Myths and Modern Man – Joseph L. Henderson

Trickster rises against the restrictions and authorities. Just like the id, the unconscious instinctual component that is present at birth, the source of instant gratification, of bodily needs and wants, emotional impulses, and drives – that is in constant conflict with the superego, the internalisation of cultural rules, which helps us act in socially acceptable ways. Tricksters usually have an enormous libido, and often present scatological themes.

Trickster and Laughter

An early and innocent form of trickster is parents playing peekaboo with their children to make them laugh.

Trickster comes to us when we are too serious, rigid, when we follow rules and schedules, and when we lack a sense of humour. He causes us to forget what we intended to remember, say things we later regret, or appear in the form of a Freudian slip, and cause laughter.

Perhaps no philosopher has written about the importance of laughter as eloquently as Nietzsche. He writes:

“I would really allow myself to order the ranks of philosophers according to the rank of their laughter – right up to those who are capable of golden laughter. And assuming that the gods also practise philosophy… I don’t doubt that in the process they know how to laugh in a superhuman and new way – and at the expense of all serious things! Gods delight in making fun: even where sacred actions are concerned, it seems they cannot stop laughing.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §294

Laughter mediates between the sacred and the profane, where trickster resides. Laughter represents an attitude toward life and toward oneself, especially, laughing at oneself. To laugh is deep inner work, it breaks through our persona, and opens us up to a profound message.

Trickster pinches us and tells us that life is a play. We are the actors on a vast stage following a predetermined script. However, he also tells us that we don’t necessarily have to follow the script, that we can make our own, improvise and not be afraid of making mistakes, but rather laugh at them. We have the freedom and responsibility to do so. This is a core aspect of existentialist philosophy which teaches us to become authentic and discover who we truly are.

We can deceive others or be deceived, but we can never deceive ourselves. Trickster forces us to look at ourselves in the mirror, and to the persona that we are putting on to impress others, to the detriment of our instinctual needs, our creativity and playfulness that is so vital to give us the energy that we need in our daily life.

Trickster as Agent of Change

Trickster is against any authority, as he wants to do what’s best for him, and he is never going to put someone else before himself. He pokes holes in rigid boundaries and calls into question fundamental assumptions about the way the world is organised, and reveals the possibility of transforming them (even if often for ignoble ends). It is the figure that pushes us to question those in power, and the limitations, and rules that are imposed on us.

His energy sweeps in and delivers hard knocks in an attempt to wake us up as individuals and as a culture. He steps in and points things out, asking a culture to look at its own folly, addressing hot topics with wit and humour, shining a light into shadowy areas and bring public attention to the underbelly of society.

Comedians help deliver the trickster’s message, which can often be at the cost of their own mental stability. Comedians are important figures and help society as a whole. When comedy is supressed, there are severe consequences – since the trickster will remain unconscious. However, the trickster will find a way out, and if one ignores him, he will appear in the form of a neurosis.

Doubt is a precursor to change and trickster is all about change. The problem then is not doubt; the problem is fear of change. Confronting the risk of doubt is necessary for any individual to grow. As an agent of change, Trickster triggers our fear of change and is an uneasy yet essential companion on the path of growth.

“[T]he origins, liveliness, and durability of culture require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on.”

Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World

Trickster as Creator and Destroyer

The totality of life consists of order and chaos, and the spirit of this disorder is the trickster. He is the Dionysian god of wine and music that connects us to instinctual forces that lie outside the bounds of all things civilised, and who seeks to break conventions and take us into wild, untamed places. Nietzsche, who called himself the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus, wrote:

“I say to you: one must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Without chaos, society loses its culture, the system becomes flawed, stale and bureaucratic. Therefore, trickster not only destroys old values, but also creates new values. He reshapes the surrounding world with inner magic, continually weaving old into new.

“[I]n spite of all their disruptive behaviour, tricksters are regularly honoured as the creators of culture. They are imagined not only to have stolen certain essential goods from heaven and given them to the race but to have gone on and helped shape this world so as to make it a hospitable place for human life.”

Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World

Apart from creation, trickster teaches us that we all have the capacity for destruction.

“Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes and who is always duped himself.”

Paul Radin, The Trickster

The person who appears to be too kind, or pure on the outside, and is supressing his true emotions, may suddenly become self-destructive or engage in sinful behaviours. Intuitively, we may feel that there’s something “off” about such a person, and that he is putting on a persona. It is as if trickster is compelling him and insisting that he do the very thing that consciousness prohibits, and also tricking him into revealing that about himself.

One shouldn’t try to live at the extreme end, but rather achieve a balance and make peace with one’s dark aspects. The psyche compensates to achieve equilibrium and wholeness.

Trickster as Amoral

Because trickster disrupts convention, he is commonly cast in a negative light. However, this is wrong, since he knows neither good nor evil, yet he is responsible for both. He has both a light side, and a dark side. Though, he always presents an element of playfulness, that is what defines trickster.

Trickster possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being. His creative cleverness amazes us and keeps alive the possibility of transcending the social restrictions we regularly encounter.

Unlike the devil, who is an agent of evil, trickster is amoral, not immoral. Morality is a structure of society and ego-consciousness, the unconscious does not play by our rules. Trickster epitomises the paradox of the human condition. He occupies the peculiar unity of the liminal: that which is neither this nor that, and yet is both.

As humans, we struggle to understand paradox, contradiction, and to grasp the possibility that unity can underlie apparent duality.

Trickster Figures

Trickster is often identified with specific animals, taking the form of a fox, raven, monkey, coyote, hare, or spider, among others. He possess no well-defined and fixed form. As a shapeshifter, he is just like liquid, escapable. Trickster can cleverly show up in any guise and imitate the form of other animals, yet we can identify trickster energy by the very nature of its changeability and its incendiary actions. Whatever form he takes, he is a primordial being of the same order as the gods and heroes of mythology.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a trickster who stole fire from the gods to give it to mankind, to the displeasure of the gods, for mankind was not ready to use this principle in a creative, unselfish manner. However, this is precisely what made us human in the first place, as fire was essential for the evolution of man. Here we find a paradox, that which is necessary for the progress of the human species, is also capable of destroying us. One may think here of artificial intelligence or the singularity.

When trickster is punished, he is replaced by stupidity. Prometheus is punished by the gods and is replaced by his brother Epimetheus. Prometheus is the forethinker, who thinks before he acts, while Epimetheus is the afterthinker, who acts before he thinks. One might almost say that in them a single primitive being, sly and stupid at once, has been split into a duality.

Another trickster figure is Br’er Rabbit, a character from African American folktales who is portrayed as an underdog and is weaker than his opponents, thus gaining the audience’s sympathy. In the stories, he gets himself into trouble through his own mischievous nature, and then must use his cleverness and ability to deceive and outsmart larger and stronger animals, take control of the situation and get himself out of trouble.

Anansi the spider is an African trickster. He is a morally ambiguous character who fools humans and gods alike. His tricks are enhanced by his ability to change form and take whatever shape best suits his escapade. Yet some also cast him as divine creator who spun the entire world into being, bringing stories and wisdom to the world.

Similarly, in Native American culture, Iktomi is a spider-trickster spirit. He was once Wisdom, but was stripped of the title because of his troublemaking ways. His malicious plans often failed, so these tales were usually told as a way to teach lessons to the youth. He gives the dreamcatcher to people for protection. Folk tales unveil how he is respected, feared, and mocked. He can use strings to control humans like puppets, and has the power to make potions that change gods. According to a prophecy, his web would spread over the land. This can be interpreted as the telephone network, and then the Internet – the world-wide web. Iktomi has been considered from time immemorial to be the patron of new technology.

The myth is a way for the psyche to talk about itself. Many of the Native American people consider Iktomi to be the god of the Europeans, who (they claim) seem to readily follow his bizarre behaviour and self-entrapping tricks.

Coyote is another important trickster figure in Native American folklore. The European equivalent is Reynard the Fox.

One of the most popular figures in Norse mythology is Loki, the trickster God. By trickery, and mischief, he causes the death of Baldur, the most beloved of all the gods. Loki is soon found to be guilty and is punished, and the gods knew that this event was the foreshadowing of Ragnarök, the downfall and death of the gods, and of the very cosmos they maintained. In other words, if one ties down the trickster, that will destroy the world.

The Greek deity Hermes is a troublemaker and thief, as well as a beneficent creator who brought fire and music, among other things, to the human realm. His divine status, however, is unclear at his birth. He is born as an outsider, but wants to be an insider. Through his early exploits as a trickster, such as stealing Apollo’s cattle, he wins the admiration of Zeus and an uncontested place on Mount Olympus, the home of the Greek gods. Hermes is a divine trickster, psychopomp, and messenger of the gods, negotiating the boundary between man, and god, matter and spirit. He is the only God who can traverse all three realms: Mount Olympus, earth, and the underworld. And perhaps even, as mediator between the dream world and waking life.

Hermes is a third way of life, besides the Apollonian rational and the Dionysian irrational. He is the God of jokes and journeys, the tricky guide of souls.

When enemies invaded his city, Hermes dressed as a simple shepherd and carried a ram around the city, and wherever he walked he created safety. He showed people that he was their ally in any battle they might encounter, and protector in any danger. This reminds one of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, carrying the lost sheep back to the flock. The trickster god also has a protective energy.

Many tribes wear masks and abandon their personality, becoming possessed by the spirit of the trickster. Rituals are an important element of trickster. If the ritual setting is missing, trickster is missing. The behaviour of the tribes become eccentric, comic, and rude. However, the sacredness connects these traits with fertility, wellness, and joy. In the ambiguous character of the trickster, we can observe the close connection between the realms of the sacred and the profane.

Trickster strikes a deeper human chord. He performs a fundamental cultural work, and in understanding the trickster better, we understand ourselves better, in the unconscious aspects of ourselves that respond to the trickster’s unsettling and transformative behaviour. When we describe trickster phenomena we are always describing aspects of ourselves. He is a speculum mentis, a mirror into the mind – common to all mankind, which at a certain period in our history, gave us a picture of the world and of ourselves. The problem is primarily a psychological one, an attempt by man to solve his problems inward and outward.

The Psychology of The Trickster

Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Jung calls the figure of the trickster an archetype. It is part of the collective unconscious, the inherited and universal structure present in everyone, which is deeper than the layer of the personal unconscious, that is formed by the experience gathered through life. Archetypes are primordial patterns or imprints of the experience of our ancestors, the primary source of psychic symbols, which attract energy and structure it, and lead ultimately to the creation of civilisation and culture. Trickster is everywhere, he is an eternal state of mind.

Archetypes appear cross-culturally as images, symbols, and motifs found recurrently in myth, religion, and art throughout history. There are numerous examples of archetypes such as The Wise Old Man, The Great Mother, The Hero, and The Trickster, to name a few. Trickster is the archetype who attacks all archetypes. Jung stated that there are as many archetypes, as typical situations there are in life. We cannot observe them directly, but they have a great impact on our personal activities, and way of thinking. It is the deep and dark place where impulses and instincts emerge. Archetypes are organs of the soul, the tissue of the structure of the unconscious. They are living personalities within us, autonomous, and numinous. If they get enough energy, archetypes can have control over a person.

The unconscious is older than consciousness. It is primordial, from which consciousness arises. Thus, our conscious life “dresses” and guides our actions, but it is impossible for something to appear in consciousness without having roots in the unconscious.

The mythological features of the trickster extend even to the highest regions of man’s spiritual development. In the early Middle ages, strange customs were taking place. Jung writes:

“In the very midst of divine service masquerades with grotesque faces, disguised as women, lions, and mummers, performed their dances, sang indecent songs in the choir, ate their greasy food from a corner of the altar near the priest celebrating mass, got out their games of dice, burned a stinking incense made of old shoe leather, and ran and hopped about all over the church.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 9.1: On The Psychology of the Trickster Figure

These pagan rituals were uncommonly popular and it required considerable time and effort to free the church from them. The phantom of the trickster, however, continues to haunt the mythology of all ages. Jung writes:

“He is obviously a “psychologem,” an archetypal psychic structure of extreme antiquity. In his clearest manifestations he is a faithful reflection of an absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 9.1: On The Psychology of the Trickster Figure

The trickster myth reflects an earlier, rudimentary stage of consciousness – a collective personification that is the product of an aggregate of individuals, and is welcomed by each individual as something known to him, which would not be the case if it were just an individual outgrowth. If the myth were nothing but a historical remnant, one would have to ask why it has not long since vanished into the great rubbish-heap of the past, and why it continues to make its influence felt on the highest levels of civilisation.

The trickster points back to a primitive stage of consciousness which existed before the birth of the myth. Only when our consciousness reached a higher level could we detach the earlier state of ourselves and say anything about it.

“He [the trickster] is a forerunner of the saviour, and, like him, God, man, and animal at once. He is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, whose chief and most alarming characteristic is his unconsciousness… He is so unconscious of himself that his body is not a unity, and his two hands fight each other.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 9.1: On The Psychology of the Trickster Figure

The trickster is a primitive “cosmic” being of divine-animal nature, on the hand superior to man because of his superhuman qualities, and on the other hand inferior to him because of his unconsciousness.

The myth of the trickster, like many other myths, is supposed to have a therapeutic effect. It holds the earlier low intellectual and moral level before the eyes of the more highly developed individual, so that he shall not forget how things looked yesterday.

Trickster and Shadow

“The so-called civilised man has forgotten the trickster. He remembers him only figuratively and metaphorically, when, irritated by his own ineptitude, he speaks of fate playing tricks on him or of things being bewitched. He never suspects that his own hidden and apparently harmless shadow has qualities whose dangerousness exceeds his wildest dreams.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 9.1: On The Psychology of the Trickster Figure

For Jung, the trickster forms part of the shadow, both of which are dangerous to the extent that we keep them hidden from ourselves and project it onto others. He writes:

“The trickster is a collective shadow figure, a summation of all the inferior traits of character in individuals. And since the individual shadow is never absent as a component of personality, the collective figure can construct itself out of it continually. Not always, of course, as a mythological figure, but, in consequence of the increasing repression and neglect of the original mythologems, as a corresponding projection on other social groups and nations.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 9.1: On The Psychology of the Trickster Figure

The collective trickster energy is present in someone who looks like a leader, but is really the great pretender, one who convinces the people by promising truths, but delivering lies. This figure appears, disappears, and reappears – throughout all of human history.

We think that the danger is the one who’s trying to break into our house, but little do we know of the dangers of the unknown and repressed part of ourselves, which causes us to lose our own self.

“Ourself, behind ourself concealed, should startle most.”

Emily Dickinson, One need not be a Chamber to be Haunted

The trickster accompanies us into the rabbit hole, to the depths of our unknown self, to the valley of the shadow of death. However scary it is, trickster helps us to find depths in ourselves that we didn’t know were there.

Trickster and Ego Inflation

While the shadow helps us know our morality, the trickster is concerned with helping us reduce the sin of pride. He keeps us from being too confident in ourselves, since hubris forecasts a fall.

Trickster is important in individuation because he helps deflate ego inflation: when we become controlling, arrogant or narcissistic.

The healthy ego is our sense of who we are, serving as a bridge to the inner world.

“The trickster is the ego demolitions expert who helps us become more realistic about our psychological limitations and ultimately our spiritual limitlessness. This is an energy within ourselves and within the universe that humbles us, topples our ego, upsets our plans, demonstrates to us how little our wishes matter, and dissolves the forms that no longer serve us though we may be clinging to them for dear life.”

Dave Richo, The Power of Coincidence

When the ego is at its height, the trickster takes a little pin and bursts our “bubble of greatness”, and as we start to see the reality of things, everything that we thought to be meaningful (power, money, fame, pleasure) becomes meaningless.

Trickster helps to humble us down, and tells us that our power is limited in the vast universe. This surrender is a necessity for self-realisation and a connection with the divine.

Instead of the great helping the lowly, trickster reverses this and disguises himself as someone very lowly, but this lowly person overcomes the so-called great person, one who has an inflated ego. The bible has a passage that expresses this trickster energy clearly:

“But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty. And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.”

1 Corinthians 1:26-28

No matter how lowly you are, or how utterly useless you might feel in life. There is always something in the higher Self or God that still calls you.

The Trickster in Alchemy

In alchemy, the trickster archetype manifests as the elusive symbol of Mercurius, the Roman equivalent of Hermes, who is fluid like quicksilver. Jung writes:

“A curious combination of typical trickster motifs can be found in the alchemical figure of Mercurius; for instance, his fondness for sly jokes and malicious pranks, his powers as a shape-shifter, his dual nature, half animal, half divine, his exposure to all kinds of tortures, and – last but not least – his approximation to the figure of a saviour.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol.9 Part I: On The Psychology of the Trickster Figure

Mercurius masterfully holds the duality of spirit and matter, and is associated with the lapis philosophorum (philosophers’ stone) or the Self. He is paradoxically associated to Christ and to Lucifer, the light-bringer.

“In comparison with the purity and unity of the Christ symbol, Mercurius-lapis is ambiguous, dark, paradoxical and thoroughly pagan. It therefore represents a part of the psyche which was certainly not moulded by Christianity and can on no account be expressed by the symbol “Christ”. On the contrary, as we have seen, in many ways it points to the devil, who is known at times to disguise himself as an angel of light.”

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

The paradoxical nature of Mercurius reflects an important aspect of the Self, the fact that it is essentially a union of opposites, and indeed can be nothing else if it is to represent any kind of totality. The elusive philosophers’ stone, the central symbol of alchemy, which allows one to turn base matter into gold, is a product of a real trickster, Mercurius, who drove the alchemists to despair. For Jung, the philosophers’ stone is not found externally, but in ourselves.

The trickster, in the form of the alchemical Mercurius, can be said to contain the totality of the psyche, both the unconscious and the conscious mind, the known and the unknown, and the light and dark within us all.

The psyche seeks balance, not staying in extremes, but a combination of opposites. The transcendent function in alchemy is where the psyche finds the midpoint. This occurs when the time is just right, that is, in synchronicity.

In a way, “not enough” or “too much” are the trickster, the extremes are how we get tricked. However, trickster is trying to point us towards the centre, to the path of individuation.

This reminds one of what Aristotle said about virtue, that it is a point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait. For instance, the golden mean of confidence is between self-deprecation and vanity. As one becomes more balanced in life, one also reaches psychic wholeness.


Tricksters are always on the scene, attempting to show culture its shadow and the inevitable changes that are afoot. In mythological terms, the battle between the forces of creation and destruction, as typified by trickster polarity, are as alive and well in the modern world as they were for our ancestors. Trickster makes its way to the world stage via the psyche of the individual. We must come to terms with inner conflicts in order to gain more clarity about the outer conflicts we seem, as a culture, to be mired in.

The integration of the trickster archetype allows us to go from being ruled by our own self-centred ego to a new way of living, in which one has integrity and relatedness. It allows us to become aware of our true emotions, behaviours, and thoughts, that our unconscious persona is hiding, and without which there is no individuation at all.  In other words, trickster allows us to discover our Self, the totality of the personality which unites the opposites of consciousness and the unconscious and holds everything together in balance and unity.

Trickster attempts to wake us up and in the process, shake us to the core of our being. Perhaps this is because he embodies fundamental patterns that we fiercely struggle with and desperately need to reconcile within ourselves and our world. Through negotiating and disrupting conventions and boundaries, trickster broadens the realm of human potential. While trickster may bring us difficult lessons, he is also the force that allows us to imagine and create entirely new possibilities.

“In the history of the collective as in the history of the individual, everything depends on the development of consciousness. This gradually brings liberation from imprisonment in unconsciousness, and [the trickster] is therefore a bringer of light as well as of healing.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol.9 Part I: On The Psychology of the Trickster Figure

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The Psychology of The Trickster

Trickster tales have existed since ancient times, and has been said to be at the very foundation of civilisation and culture. They belong to the oldest expressions of mankind.

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The Dark World of Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka is one of the major figures of 20th century literature who received little public attention during his lifetime. He dealt with existentialist themes such as alienation, anxiety, disorientation and the absurd. It is hard to put Kafka into a box. Many people have tried to read his work in the lens of psychoanalysis, existentialism, Judaism, Marxism, and so on, but Kafka eschews reduction to one single view. The magic of reading Kafka is that we all come up with our own interpretations, and that there is no one definite or true interpretation.

His work is so original that the term Kafkaesque was coined to describe the atmosphere of his work: the nightmarish, bizarre or illogical situations. Throughout his works we see the strange dream-like mixture of perplexity and embarrassment play out, such as having some simple task to do that turns out to be so complex that it seems to have no end, and the notion of a grand organisation with its incomprehensible bureaucratic system that hovers invisibly over each individual, and has complete power over one’s life.

The Life of Kafka

Kafka was a German-speaking novelist born in 1883 into a middle-class Jewish family in Prague, the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and today the capital of the Czech Republic.

Kafka’s childhood was a lonely one, he often felt like an outsider. He felt alienated, firstly as a Jew at a time of rising anti-Semitism, and secondly as a German speaker in a predominantly Czech nation.

His father was a self-made man, who rose from a poor and uneducated background by creating a successful business and, who had a significant influence on Kafka’s writings: the strong, confident, and ultimate authority, in contrast to the shyness and frailness of Kafka. His father could not relate to his literary work and wanted him to follow his footsteps as a businessman. This naturally created conflicts. In fact, Kafka later wrote a very long letter on the emotionally abusive character of his father, which was never delivered.

“Dearest Father, you asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking. And if I now try to give you an answer in writing, it will still be very incomplete.”

Franz Kafka, Letter to His Father

Kafka, however, also held his father in high esteem, and admired his vitality and competency to deal with life, though there remained a hidden resentment of his father forcing him into a profession that didn’t suit him.

Kafka obtained the degree of Doctor of Law and had a compulsory one year unpaid training as a law clerk for the civil and criminal courts. He was later employed in an insurance company. He worked hard and was rapidly promoted. However, the long working hours overwhelmed him and he wanted time to write and read. In the story Poseidon, Kafka imagines a sea-god so overwhelmed with administrative paperwork that he never gets to sail or swim. His office job was an impediment to his true vocation as a writer, which he would often pursue late into the night.  He wrote:

“My life consists, and basically always consisted, of attempts at writing, mostly unsuccessful. But when I didn’t write, I was at once flat on the floor, fit for the dustbin. My energies have always been pitifully weak.”

Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice

At the office, Kafka lived up to his outward duties, but not to his inner duties, and those unfulfilled duties grew into a permanent torment.

“Each of us has his own way of emerging from the underworld, mine is by writing. That’s why the only way I can keep going, if at all, is by writing, not through rest and sleep.”

Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice

For Kafka, writing was a form of prayer. At the age of 29, Kafka experienced a creative outburst and wrote The Judgment in one sitting. As dark as the story is, in which the protagonist’s father sentences his son to death by drowning, Kafka described it as the total opening of body and soul, a sort of baptism, a death and a rebirth. At this moment he felt as if he had found himself, and accepted himself as a writer. Kafka wrote first of all for himself out of an internal compulsion, but what he wrote became, almost coincidentally, of worldwide importance.

Kafka had various unsuccessful love affairs with women, and only seemed to have found a hint of peace at the very end of his life. He suffered from social anxiety, and low self-confidence (especially because of his body). At times, he believed that people found him physically repulsive. He also had frequent migraines, insomnia, and other ailments. He tried to counteract this by following a strict diet and doing physical activity. At times, he contemplated suicide.

“Life is merely terrible; I feel it as few others do. Often – and in my inmost self perhaps all the time – I doubt whether I am a human being.”

Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice

In 1917, Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis, at the time an incurable disease. In 1924, at the age of 40, Kafka could no longer take any nourishment as his laryngeal tuberculosis worsened. He died by starvation. “There is infinite hope,” Kafka tells us, “only not for us.” His father is said to have wept bitterly at his funeral.

Kafka only published a few stories during his lifetime. One of his last short stories was A Hunger Artist, the story of an artist who would sit in a cage and go without eating for many weeks, while spectators would gather around and watch him, many suspected he was cheating – which would make the artist angry. Eventually, he became to be completely ignored by the public. Before he died, he apologises and says that he should never have been admired, since the only reason he was fasting and remained hungry, was because he could not find any food he liked. The artist was replaced by a panther, attracting large crowds to watch him eat his favourite food.

Most of Kafka’s work, however, remained unpublished. He would write furiously throughout his life, revising rather little, but ceasing when authenticity no longer seemed to be present, or leave his works in an “open” state. Incompletion is a quality of his work, a facet of its originality. He never considered fame important.

“Many years ago… I went over the wishes that I wanted to realise in life. I found that the most important or the most delightful was the wish to attain a view of life (and… to convince others of it in writing), in which life, while still retaining its natural full-bodied rise and fall, would simultaneously be recognised no less clearly as a nothing, a dream, a dim hovering. A beautiful wish, perhaps, if I had wished it rightly.”

Franz Kafka, Notebooks (February 15, 1920)

Kafka left all of his unfinished work to his lifelong friend, Max Brod, a fellow law student, with explicit instructions for it to be burned and unread. Brod, who was a successful and prolific writer in his time, refused to do so, he had realised that Kafka was no ordinary talent, but a genius. He saw the value of Kafka’s virtually unrecognised work and decided that it must be published. In fact, Brod had told Kafka that he would never get rid of his works.

Brod wrote the first biography of Kafka in 1937, and rescued Kafka’s unfinished works when he fled from Prague to Tel Aviv, penniless and with a single suitcase. He started editing and organising all of Kafka’s works, and published them. Kafka’s unique work rapidly attracted widespread attention.

While Kafka may appear as a dark and gloomy person, Brod actually described him as one of the most entertaining people he had met, and who possessed a great sense of humour, though this was only noticeable in his small group of friends, not in large crowds. This can also be seen in many of his works, which is often a mix of tragedy and subtle comedy. Kafka used to read his work aloud to friends, sometimes laughing so hard he could not continue reading.

“Kafka’s comedy is always also tragedy, and this tragedy always also an immense and reverent joy… the really central Kafka joke – [is] that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.”

David Foster Wallace, Speech at “Metamorphosis: A New Kafka”

We will be focusing on three of Kafka’s most popular works: The Metamorphosis, The Trial, and The Castle.

The Metamorphosis (1915)

The Metamorphosis is a short story published in 1915 and is the most popular of Kafka’s writings. It starts off with one of the most iconic opening lines in literature:

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”

Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

The protagonist, Gregor, a travelling salesman, is metamorphosed into a giant insect, however he still retains his human consciousness. The insect itself cannot be depicted. He thinks it is all a dream and tries go to back to sleep, but starts reflecting on his strenuous travelling career, where he is unable to form friendly relationships as he is always on the go. He wants to leave his job but is unable to do so, as he is the bread winner in the family. Gregor is already alienated prior to his transformation. Now, his alienation is intensified. He is a human imprisoned in a non-human body. This reflects Kafka’s personal feelings about himself.

Gregor realises that he has overslept and is late for work but is unable to get out of bed. The contrast between the extraordinary situation of Gregor’s transformation and the ordinary terms he uses to describe it (an insect trying to get to work), creates a sense of the absurd.

His mother knocks on the door but as he tries to speak, he squeaks and his words appear incomprehensible. The family suspects he may be ill and beg him to unlock the door. After much effort, Gregor drags himself along the floor and opens the door with his mouth, injuring himself. He delivers a long speech to the office manager who has come to visit him, but the latter is horrified and flees. Gregor’s family is also terrified, and he is driven back to his room, with the door slammed shut.

The family start to take responsibility and prioritise finding a job, whereas before Gregor’s transformation, they happily took his money, although there was no longer much warm affection given in return. They were the parasites – though Gregor never complained about that.

Gregor finds out that he cannot eat the fresh food provided by his sister, and only has an appetite for rotten food scraps. He also prefers darker spaces and enjoys crawling on the walls and ceiling. However, he is simultaneously attached to his family and to some of the possessions of his room, which the family tries to remove to give him more space. Gregor tries to reconcile his human emotions and history with the physical urges of his new body, making him behave, on the outside, more and more like an insect.

The family start discussing if Gregor is still human and if so, to what degree. One can think of a few things more frustrating than being stuck in an alien body without being able to communicate to your family that you are still exactly who you used to be. This creates a disturbing psychological distance between his mind and his body.

The family think about:

“… their total despair, and the thought that they had been struck with a misfortune unlike anything experienced by anyone else they knew or were related to.”

Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

His father, repeats “If he could just understand us”, indicating that there is still hope that Gregor’s mind remains intact. His mother calls him her unfortunate son. Gregor thinks:

“I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.”

Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

However, his sister convinces her parents that he is a parasite, an inconvenience who only puts more pressure on their financial situation. She says that nothing of Gregor exists in the insect, and that the real Gregor would’ve understood them and left on his own accord, letting them carry on with their lives and remember him with respect.

Gregor is increasingly neglected by his family, he barely eats food and suffers from several injuries.

“He thought back of his family with emotion and love… he felt that he must go away even more strongly than his sister… He watched as it slowly began to get light everywhere outside… and his last breath flowed weakly from his nostrils.”

Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

The story ends with the family briefly mourning the loss, and then taking a day off from their work. The warm sunshine creates a marked contrast from the dark and confined apartment, creating a sense of hope for the future.

The Trial (1925)

The Trial is a novel that was published posthumously in 1925, Kafka left it in unordered chapters, and the final version of the novel remains unknown. The chapters as we have them today are the sequence that Brod put them in.

“Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.”

Franz Kafka, The Trial

On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, the protagonist Josef K., a bank administrator, wakes up to find two strange men with black suits enter his room. He hears the supervisor shout his name from the next room. This is the start of an interrogation where K., states that he has been accused of an unspecified and unknown crime. K. is unaware of who accused him or the authority in charge. The supervisor tells him that he and the others are of minor importance and know nothing of his case, they were merely sent by their superiors.

While K. is under arrest, however, he is free to go to work and won’t be hampered in his normal way of life. K. has been notified by telephone that a brief examination into his case would be held. He has not been summoned at any particular hour, and has only been given small details of the location.

Naturally, he has great trouble in finding the court, he goes floor by floor searching for the room, in the maze-like building. They were treating him with peculiar negligence or indifference. When he finds the place in the attic, he is scolded for arriving late. K., states:

“There is no doubt that behind all the utterances of this court, and therefore behind my arrest and today’s examination, there stands a great organisation. An organisation which not only employs corrupt warders and fatuous supervisors and examining magistrates, of whom the best that can be said is that they are humble officials, but also supports a judiciary of the highest rank with its inevitable vast retinue of servants, secretaries, police officers, and other assistants, perhaps even executioners – I don’t shrink from the word. And the purpose of this great organisation, gentlemen? To arrest innocent persons and start proceedings against them which are pointless and mostly, as in my case, inconclusive.”

Franz Kafka, The Trial

K. is burdened with the absurd task of defending himself while being ignorant of the actual accusation. He finds out that the law books present in the court were full of indecent pictures, these were the people who he was being judged against. One cannot help but fall into the depth of despair when encountering obstacles one cannot overcome. The hierarchical structure of the court was endless and beyond the comprehension even of the initiated. Sometimes one simply felt astonished that an average lifetime was long enough for the acquisition of the amount of knowledge one needed to work against the great organisation with any degree of success. Progress was always being made, but the nature of this progress could never be communicated. It is catch-22, if we don’t know the law, we are obviously guilty. If we know it and can’t observe its innumerable, and tiny details, we are guilty also.

K. still had to work in the bank, and try to keep the case a secret, though rumours were starting to spread. When K., visits Titorelli, a court painter who has a great deal of knowledge of the processes within the court, he is shown a painting of a judge commissioned by the courts. Behind the judge is the figure of Justice who is also the goddess of Victory. However, the figure appears to be running, so that the scales are not balanced. K., looks closer and remarks that it really looks like the goddess of the Hunt. Kafka makes us think that the court which states that it is concerned with justice, is in fact concerned with hunting down the culprit and triumphing over him.

While K. is innocent, Titorelli admits that once a person is considered guilty, the court can never be persuaded to change its opinion, and the highest court is inaccessible to all.

The court is completely impervious to proof. However, impervious only to proof presented before the court. There is no definite acquittal, that is, one cannot be freed from being charged with an offense, however, through personal influences, one can prolong the final sentence so that one appears to be free, temporarily free. For the time being one is detached from the charge, but it still hovers over one and can be instantly reactivated as soon as the order comes from above. The court never forgets. K. still has to be interrogated, sessions are to be held, the case has to be constantly moving, so that from outside something must be seen to be going on. It’s all a big show.

K’s advocate is also incompetent, giving promises of later success, references to progress, but also to the immense difficulties confronting the work. Everything so sickeningly familiar would be produced again to fool K. once more with vague hopes and to torment him with vague fears.

K. shows up at a cathedral, where he was supposed to accompany an important client. However, the man never shows up. Night falls, and as he is leaving, a priest shouts his name. It is the prison chaplain, who tells him that he has been summoned and that his guilt is now considered a proven fact.

The priest tells him a parable:

“Before the law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper and asks for entry into the law. But the doorkeeper says he cannot grant him entry now. The man considers and then asks if that means he will be allowed to enter later. “It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not now.” … “If you are so tempted, just try to enter in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the lowest doorkeeper. But from room to room stand doorkeepers each more powerful than the last. The mere aspect of the third is more than even I can endure.” Such difficulties had not been expected by the man from the country; the law is supposed to be accessible to everyone and at all times… he decides it would be better to wait until he gets permission to enter… There he sits for days and years… Finally his sight grows weak and he does not know if it is really getting darker round him or if his eyes are deceiving him. But he does manage to distinguish in the dark a radiance which breaks out imperishably from the door.”

Franz Kafka, The Trial

The man is so caught up with this doorkeeper, that it seems to him the only obstacle to his entry into the law. He grows old and weak, and all his time spent waiting is condensed into one question, not yet put to the doorkeeper:

“ ‘But everybody strives for the law,’ says the man. ‘How is it that in all these years nobody except myself has asked for admittance?’ ”

Franz Kafka, The Trial

The doorkeeper, who realises the man has reached the end of his life shouts:

“Nobody else could gain admittance here, this entrance was meant only for you. I shall now go and close it.”

Franz Kafka, The Trial

The man never tries to enter the door, and instead waits for permission. The doorkeeper, however, told him that it was up to him if he wanted to enter or not, but he would’ve been met with resistance and had to fight for it. One interpretation might be that he chose to listen to a deceptive guard instead of himself. Another interpretation could be that it was not the man’s fault, his inhibition is a critique of bureaucracy, of the power of authorities, and of the estrangement of modern man. If he had got past the doorkeeper, he would have to face a second, and more powerful doorkeeper, and so on – ad infinitum. Whatever the interpretation might be, the man also saw an inextinguishable light emerging from the darkness of the door, signalling that there may be a glimmer of hope after all.

On the evening just before K’s thirty-first birthday, two men came to his room. K., who knew what time it was, did not fight back. He is taken to a quarry where he is cold-bloodedly murdered. His last words were: “Like a dog!” as if the shame were meant to outlive him.

The novel often appears nightmarish, surreal and dehumanising, while also being profoundly realistic. It is the prophecy of a dystopian or totalitarian society. The morning knock at the door that begins the terror throughout the whole novel stands for what lies in ambush for all of us in our daily lives. We are all on trial. It is the bureaucracy of terror and red tape which characterises so much of our 21st century, and which Kafka is precisely the one to have defined.

The tone of the novel reads in a mechanical and monotone flatness, like a civil service bureaucrat’s report on some terrible hellish circumstances. Kafka wouldn’t have been able to write this novel if it wasn’t for his work as an insurance officer.

There is nothing that will make you a pessimist faster than interacting with the legal system.

The Castle (1926)

The Castle is Kafka’s last unfinished novel that was published posthumously in 1926. In the novel, the protagonist K., a land surveyor, is summoned by the castle to measure the land, but has no way of accessing it.

He arrives at a village, however, he is not permitted to stay there without a pass from the mysterious bureaucratic powers of the castle. He tries every single thing to try to contact the castle authorities who in fact summoned him, but it never works. He is informed that he was erroneously requested due to a miscommunication. Nobody knows what the castle officials do, their actions are never explained. The villagers hold the castle officials in high esteem, who maintain that their work and paperwork is flawless. Though the fact that they had summoned K. as a mistake clearly shows that they are lying and that there are faults in the system.

There are great similarities between The Castle and The Trial. Both highlight the struggle of the protagonist against a great bureaucratic system that no one has access to and that rules over everyone. The castle is the all-seeing eye that pierces through the social mask of your persona. Many interpret the castle as our search for God, including Max Brod. Ambiguity is the essence of Kafka’s work.


In a parable, Kafka wrote:

“Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: ‘Go over,’ he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labour were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.”

Kafka, On Parables

Kafka brings us back to reality and tells us that there may well be no magical place that we can go to, in order to look forward to life and be happier. He goes on to write:

“Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid of all your daily cares.

Another said: I bet that is also a parable.

The first said: You have won.

The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.

The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.”

Kafka, On Parables

In this parable on parables, or meta-parable, Kafka contemplates on the paradox of life, to want to believe in a  “fabulous yonder” in contrast to the mundane existence of everyday life, but at the same time thinking that it’s incomprehensible or an inaccessible territory.

At the end of his life, Kafka became more spiritual. He wrote:

“Man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructible within himself, though both that indestructible something and his own trust in it may remain permanently concealed from him.”

Franz Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms

However dark Kafka’s work may seem, he champions the individual over the faceless bureaucracy. The lessons he teaches us is to be truthful, genuine, and ethical. Once one reads Kafka, one never really leaves him. A new door opens in one’s life to describe and refer to aspects in one’s daily life that could not find their proper expression.

“If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …  We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Franz Kafka, Letter to Oskar Pollak (27 January 1904)

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The Dark World of Franz Kafka

 Franz Kafka is one of the major figures of 20th century literature who received little public attention during his lifetime. He dealt with existentialist themes such as alienation, anxiety, disorientation and the absurd.

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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

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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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