Laymen usually sneer at alchemy as a superstitious belief that base metals, particularly lead, could be turned to gold. Think again. First, have you ever read anything in alchemy that actually says, “turn lead to gold” or do the alchemical treatises say, “extract the silver and gold” from the lead? If you say “extract” the alchemists weren’t at all wrong. That’s precisely what happens in modern industrial chemistry. Two of the major impurities that are extracted from lead during the refining process are… silver and gold! Furthermore, they are extracted using a reverberating furnace, which is precisely what the alchemists said to use.
Not only that: many of the apparently strange colours alleged to appear in alchemical experiments using salt, mercury and sulphur don’t appear if we carry out their experiments in a modern laboratory. Why? Simple: salt, especially sea-salt contains one very important impurity, undiscovered until the late 19th century – iodine. Once you add that to the experiments, you reproduce precisely the strange and dramatic colours they described.
This is not to say that everyone who played around with spagyrics and furnaces was intrinsically wise. Some were shocking charlatans and rogues: so are some modern practitioners of magic, religion, and even chemistry. But, as in every other field, those that were good, were extraordinary; the Flamels, Bacon, and even Isaac Newton, to name just a few.
Their importance for Jungian analysis goes beyond chemistry. In 1917 Herbert Silberer, a Freudian analyst, published “Problems of Mysticism and its Symbolism” in which he showed that alchemical writing frequently showed pure projection of the alchemists’ unconscious material, very like the Rorschach ink-blot test, except a patient projects their material onto the random shapes on the paper, while the alchemists were projecting onto what they saw during their experiments. Jung spent many years following up this discovery and correlating the alchemists’ descriptions with his own patients’ dream and other images, eventually using it to describe the major steps involved in coming to terms with the collective unconscious in his “Mysterium Coniunctionis.”
So what? Well, look at it this way. If we can learn what sort of spontaneous images appear at various phases of the individuation process, we have a good general road map. Certainly we are unlikely to see green lions and dragons (unless we have been smoking funny cigarettes, or our mother-in-law just dropped in,) but those fleeting mental images we so often ignore as “red herrings” may be useful guides to where we are on the path at present, and where next to go and (hence) grow.
Even more important, if the underlying tendency of the human psyche is to integrate as much as possible of itself into a form, which is available to consciousness, we may as well go along with that. After all, it really means becoming more genuinely the person we were meant to be, our Self. Why fight it? If that tendency to “wholeness” is to be symbolised by something, we may as well find a symbol, which is appropriate and aesthetically pleasing. Each person, if they work hard enough for long enough, will sometime discover what symbol works best for them. (Don’t force it: it will come to you of its own accord, when it’s good and ready.) For the alchemists it was either the “philosophers’ gold” or the “philosophers stone” or the “elixir,” the medicine which cured all ills. Some people have called it the Holy Grail, and some see it as a non-geographical ‘place,’ heaven, paradise or Shangri-La. We now know it as a state of mind, but at least we now know where we’re going.
Alchemy was and is part of a wider worldview usually described as Hermetic philosophy, whose major tenet is that we can only know our own nervous system’s representation of something; we can never know the objective thing itself. If you think this sounds like Immanuel Kant, you’re quire right, (and so was he.) This idea is at odds with 19th and early 20th century so-called science, which chased a chimera called “objective reality.” Fortunately most branches of proper science have started to move beyond this simplistic notion, but many people have not caught up yet. If we accept the notion of subjectivity, we can say that our perceptions of objects and situations will not only depend on our personalities, but also where we are along the path of individuation at the appropriate time. So how can we work that out?
Again the “philosophers” provide some ideas. They described three major phases in discovering ourselves, and we’ll use their Latin names so we look like intellectuals. The phases were called Nigredo, Albedo and Rubedo, meaning respectively blackness, whiteness and redness.
In the Nigredo (black) phase, we start to become aware of all those parts of ourselves of which we were hitherto unaware. Most of those parts are bits we would dearly love to deny in ourselves and only see in others; that is, they represent shadow material for us. This has a ~~~~~~ of effects on us. First, we realise that we aren’t the pure-living, decent rational person we imagined, so we become understandably depressed. Second, because the ego represents not only our idea of what we are, but is also bound up with our body image, we feel our old attitudes dying, but may even feel our body itself is dying. That does nothing to help the depression of course, as you can imagine. Many people at this stage feel they are becoming rotten, repulsive, or loathsome, and may often have persistent unpleasant images of death, graveyards, and dismemberment. What is actually happening of course is that the previous neatly organised personality is undergoing a process of breaking down, and we perceive that process as if it were happening to our body, not just to our ego. If this confusion between body and psyche persists, images come of being reduced to a bare skeleton, which is then ground to dust, which is then cast to the winds. That gives a measure of how completely the old personality has to be dismantled before its new integrated version can form in its place.
There is little we can do actively to push this process along: all that the alchemist can do is go through it. Because it is so confronting, terrifying and miserable, it is not a good idea to do this alone. A good analyst, partner or understanding friend is indispensable for this whole process, but particularly in this phase.
Eventually this “dark night of the soul” comes to an end, often after a few false alarms. Some alchemists referred to this new dawning of a psyche freed of projections as Citrinitas, after the yellow colour of lemons and sunrise. Jung took this view, and in his description in Volume 16 of his Collected Works, gave the impression that this described the whole transformation, implying that the second half of the process was merely a repetition of the first. (Those who find this assertion surprising might like to check his 526.) With all due respect, we will beg to differ.
What we have at the end of the Nigredo is a somewhat chastened person, now much more aware of their frailties and weaknesses than ever before. Because all those shadow projections enabled us to feel a false sense of security, and we’ve lost them, we feel very naked and alone. That doesn’t sound like the end of the process at all! The next phase is called Albedo, (whiteness) because we experience the removal of shadow projections as a washing away of impurities, literally referred to as ablutio, washing. Fine, but if we’re left totally defenceless, that doesn’t seem too clever.
Again, we have to wait and let things happen. We can’t make them happen; we just have to be receptive. If we are, we start to become aware of something ‘outside’ ourselves that is intensely and immediately interested in ensuring our survival and success. Medieval people often called this a Guardian Angel. New Age enthusiasts frequently and unfortunately refer to this power as a Divine Mother, but that is inaccurate because it would involve a regression to childhood passivity, which is the opposite of what is required. This new something is what Jung called anima in men and animus in women. It has always been there: we were born with it, although in a latent form which only started to show itself properly during puberty when we projected it onto that wonderful person with whom we ‘had’ to have a relationship. Now we start seeing it for what it really is: a contrasexual representation of the unconscious activities of the brain’s frontal lobe – biological intelligence (to use the modern neurological name for it.) In fact, during the Albedo, our brain is sorting itself out so that higher centres run lower centres, just as they’re supposed to do. What we did previously was to try running the whole show from the middle of the brain, the motor and sensory cortex.
What we experience in practice during this phase is that a super-human presence begins to guide us. It seems super-human because we have no way of representing frontal lobe activity as being within us. There is no place on the sensory or motor cortex to record such a thing. It seems ‘higher’ than us because it is a higher centre in our brains than we had previously been able to comprehend in quite this way. Sure, we could know we were thinking, but this is of a different order. Now we are starting to experience this part of our brain as a force, entity, whatever, with aims and intentions frequently totally at variance with those of our ego. The male alchemists understandably pictured this ‘other being’ as a wonderfully beautiful young lady, the “Virgina casta” (chaste virgin) but Medieval females had a ready-made image of a male redeemer in the figure of Christ. (Those who saw their redeemer as anything non-Christian were understandably reluctant to write about it. After all, who wants to end up as the chief attraction at the Saturday afternoon barbecue on the village green?)
So the albedo is not just a repeat of the nigredo, except that yet again we best avoid projecting the redeemer onto an outside person. If we do we will make even bigger fools of ourselves than we have before. Albedo is a phase of growth wherein we come to terms with this new protective entity, and the worst thing we can do is imagine that we can subordinate it to our will. If we try, or even worse, if we delude ourselves that we have succeeded, we fall into a trap, which for men Jung called the Dark Magician, and for women the Great Mother. The Dark Magician thinks he is the great leader, fount of all wisdom; and the Great Mother thinks she has discovered the fount of all love. As Jung said, “Needless to say, neither one can stand the sight of the other.”
Not only is this appropriation of the anima/animus power silly: it is also extremely dangerous. The psyche will not tolerate it, and the brain eventually provides a counter-force, which breaks through with extremely destructive violence. To see what happens for men stuck here, the Old Testament book of Job shows the consequences. For women, the best account of the dangers appears in a brilliant poem by the High Priestess Enheduanna a third millennium BCE Princess. Her poem “In-nin-me-huš-a” (meaning “Lady of fiery powers”) describes this psychotic response of the unconscious to the inflated ego in terms of the Great Goddess Inanna ripping the guts out of a range of mountains, a frequent metaphor for mother material. The full text is available at Oxford University’s Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. It’s worth a read, for women and men.
So we will leave all those self-important gurus to wander blindly off to their own destruction, while we return to reality. If we can achieve a working relationship with this newly recognised entity in whatever form or forms it takes, and that relationship feels very much as we are the servants and “it” (her or him) is the boss, we find we are no longer defenceless. This power can use us as an instrument, apparently for its own will, but we usually find later that it was in our own best interests in the long term. Very elite athletes, especially martial artists can illustrate dramatically how subordinating to this power allows them to respond with speed, precision and force far beyond what conscious thought and will could achieve.
The term Citrinitas has again been used to describe this attainment of what can only feel like a new enlightenment once we get the hang of it. We are now like an optimally tuned high performance car … stored in a garage!
The alchemists described the next phase as Rubedo, the reddening, mainly because they saw it as returning blood and life to the pure whiteness of the albedo. To stretch our automotive analogy a little further, in the rubedo we say “Let’s get this show on the road.” Rubedo is the art and science of applying our newly acquired optimised psyche in the outside world, so that segment of alchemy will take us the rest of our lives. To the extent we have done our inner work properly, we will be more capable of understanding our experiences in their true context and react to them more suitably and adaptively. That will probably make us more humane, because, randy aggressive little apes as we are, we have as much power within us for affinity (ana-) as we have for putting asunder (-lysis) and that’s what ana-lysis is all about.
Now before we go rushing off to the local toyshop to buy ourselves a chemistry set, remember this. Alchemy, or more precisely Hermetic philosophy, can be applied to any field of human endeavour. When we are told what our true vocation is, it will be something absolutely unique to each of us. The truly great artists, composers, writers and achievers in all fields nearly all had some partial understanding of something above and beyond them, which helped them create and discover new worlds. That same something is however a sovereign to which we must defer, even if it leads to our deaths. For most people that is not an inevitable outcome, and one might wonder whether it was Self or Ego pride which was fatal. Mainly it is the imperative to live our lives as we were built to do, genetically and through our life experiences. When we find what field of endeavour is our real vocation (from the Latin vocatus, calling) we will find that it is a way of living wherein “That which is above and that which is below are the same,” where our inner and outer worlds reflect and complement each other. That’s when we start to come to terms with our true Self. See? It’s all done with mirrors!
There is an old Gaelic expression for this way of being. Walk with one foot in each world; one in what is generally called the real world, but the other in that inner world which is just as real. Roger Sperry’s Nobel Prize-winning work on left and right brains tends only to accentuate the importance of this. It’s a delicate balance, and sometimes we will fall over; but at least when we get to the point we will know what to strive for in future. One thing is certain: we will never walk alone.