Alchemy 101

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by Iona Miller, 1985


The ancient art of alchemy was the search for the God-head in matter. The alchemical task was to unify spirit and soul in the body. Psychic reality means to be in soul, esse in anima, as Jung put it. It means an enlarged experience of concrete reality, a dialogue with events, situations and circumstances.

Psychic reality means to be in soul, through embodiment (soma) or enlivenment (psyche)--perceiving images viscerally and mentally. Acknowledgement of this force does not constitute Goddess worship--only recognition of the archetypal nature of reality, and the archetypal reality of nature, and our own nature. She is a way of reclaiming the divinity of body, matter, and world. This notion is part of the cultural return of the Feminine. Jungian analyst, James Hillman invites us into this world:

Let us imagine the anima mundi neither above the world encircling it as a divine and remote emanation of spirit, a world of powers, archetypes, and principles transcendent to things, nor within the material world as its unifying panpsychic life-principle. Rather let us imagine the anima mundi as that particular soul-spark, the seminal image, which offers itself through each thing in its visible form. Then anima mundi indicates the animated possibilities presented by each event as it is, its sensuous presentation as face bespeaking its interior image--in short, its availability to imagination, its presence as a psychic reality. Not only animals and plants ensouled as in the Romantic vision, but soul is given with each thing; God-given things of nature and man-made things of the street.

This resurrection of the soul of the world means a raising of consciousness of created things, the world's psychic reality. Physical reality becomes psychic, and psyche becomes real--it "matters." The difference between soul and external things no longer matters. Inner and outer world are both real and in fact One World.

Image, metaphor and symbol bridge the abyss between matter and spirit. Images are the subtle net that unites symbols. They are integrated with feeling, mind and imagination. We can see soul in all natural objects. We can notice our fantasies constantly conditioning our experience of reality. Knowledge of spirit doesn't come from ideas, even revelations, but through a reflective process.

Jung spent the better part of the end of his life studying the subject of alchemy. In typical "Jungian" style, his interest in alchemy developed from a vivid dream. Jung was amazed to find that the images and operations he encountered in the old alchemy texts related strongly to his theories of psychoanalysis and the unconscious. Therefore, his main research project at the culmination of his career was around this topic of alchemy and how it related to the process of consciousness. Jung saw in alchemy a metaphor of the process of individuation.

Jung elaborated most of his alchemical analysis of the psyche in three major volumes of his Collected Works. They include Alchemical Studies, Psychology and Alchemy, and the final volume Mysterium Coniunctionis. Since the publication of these there have been other works of interest produced by notable Jungian analysts. Among these are the following:

1). Foremost are the works of Marie-Louise vonFranz. Her works include Alchemical Active Imagination, Projection and Recollection in Jungian Psychology, Number and Time, and Alchemy; An Introduction to the Symbolism and its Psychology, to name but a few.

2). Edward Edinger has given us the classical text, Ego and Archetype plus Anatomy of the Psyche.

Other contributors include Henry Corbin with Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth, on Arabic alchemy, M. Esther Harding's Psychic Energy, Robert Grinnell's Alchemy in a Modern Woman, and Edward Whitmont's Psyche and Substance. Some of the most recent work has been done by avante garde psychologist James Hillman. He is director of the Dallas Institute which specializes in Jungian Studies. His works appear in Spring, the Journal for Archetypal Psychology, and include pieces on the Anima Mundi, or Soul of the World, and articles such as "Silver and the White Earth." As its title suggests, Spring originated as a voice for archetypal psychology, but now most articles are in the perspective of Imaginal Psychology.

Then there are the classical texts of alchemy, themselves. Among these number such as The Book of Lambspring, Aurora Consurgens, Codicillus (by Raymond Lully), Splendor Solis, Theatrum Chemicum, and The Alchemical Writings of Edward Kelly. Liber Azoth and De Natura Rerum (among others) by Paracelsus. Other classics include The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkrutz and Rosarium Philosophorum which Jung used to illustrate his work The Psychology of the Transference. Finally, there are the modern translations of older works by A. E. Waite which include Turba Philosophorum, The Hermetic Museum, Lexicon of Alchemy, and The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus.

Even newer are the compendiums such as The Secret Art of Alchemy by Stanislas Klossowski De Rola and Alchemist's Handbook by Frater Albertus. Another Jungian contribution is Mircea Eliade's The Forge & the Crucible. For the lesser known treatises, Jung's bibliographies are a gold mine. Jung also wrote the forward to the Taoist classic on alchemy, The Secret of the Golden Flower.

Most of us, unfamiliar with the subtle nuances of alchemical practice, view it as the historical predecessor of some of our modern sciences, like medicine, chemistry, metallurgy, etc. But, according to Jung's research, it seems to be much, much more. It is a curious fact that there is no single alchemy for us to examine. It is a cross-cultural phenomena which has been practiced in various forms by ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Christian Europeans, and the Islamic, Hindu and Taoist faiths. All of these use symbols to depict a process of transformation, whether this process is thought to occur inside (introverted) or outside (extroverted) of the human body. Although there are many types of alchemy, the main split seems to be between material (extroverted) and spiritual (introverted) alchemies. The deciding factor is the direction of the practitioner's creativity.

In his book, The Alchemical Tradition in the Late Twentieth Century, Richard Grossinger summarizes the basic components of the different alchemies, which he dubs 'planet science.' These include the following:

1. A theory of nature as made up of primary elements.
2. A belief in the gradual evolution and transformation of substance.
3. A system for inducing transmutation.
4. The imitation of nature by a gentle technology.
5. The faith that one's inner being is changed by participation in external chemical experiments.
6. A general system of synchronistic correspondences between planets, herbs, minerals, species of animals, signs and symbols, parts of the body, etc., known as the Doctrine of Signatures.
7. Gold as the completed and perfected form of the metals, in specific, and substance in general (Alchemy is the attempt to transmute other substances into gold, however that attempt is understood and carried out).
8. The existence of a paradoxical form of matter, sometimes called The Philosopher's Stone (the lapis), which can be used in making gold or in brewing elixirs and medicines that have universal curative powers.
9. A method of symbolism working on the simultaneity of a series of complementary pairs: Sun/Moon, Gold/Silver, Sulphur/Mercury, King/Queen, Male/Female, Husband/Bride, Christ/Man, etc.
10. The search for magical texts that come from a time when the human race was closer to the source of things or are handed down from higher intelligences, extra-terrestials, guardians, or their immediate familiars during some Golden Age. These texts deal with the creation or synthesis of matter and are a blueprint for physical experimentation in a cosmic context (as well as for personal development). They have been reinterpreted in terms of the Earth's different epochs and nationalities.
11. In the Occident, alchemy is early inductive experimental science and is closely allied with metallurgy, pharmacy, industrial chemistry, and coinage.
12. In the Orient, alchemy is a system of meditation in which one's body is understood as elementally and harmonically equivalent to the field of creation. (Between East and West, the body may be thought of as a microcosm of nature, with its own deposits of seeds, elixirs, and mineral substances).
13. Alchemy is joined to astrology in a set of meanings that arise from the correspondences of planets, metals, and parts of the body, and the overall belief in a cosmic timing that permeates nature.

Thus, alchemy deals fundamentally with the basic mysteries of life as well as with transcendental mysticism. But its approach is neither abstract nor theoretical, but experimental, in nature.

Just who were the alchemists, and why are their contributions important to us today? The alchemists were the leading explorers of consciousness in medieval times, and their research led to a vast improvement in the conditions of human life. Among the more famous are Albertus Magnus, Paracelsus, Nicholas Flammel, and Sir Isaac Newton. Their contributions not only improved the lives of their contemporaries, but influenced the thought of many philosophers if the same and later eras, such as Meister Eckhart, Thomas a Kempis, John Dee, Johannes Kepler, Thomas Vaughn, Bishop Berkeley, Emanuel Swedenborg, William Blake, and Geothe.

The contributions of these eminent alchemists are staggering: Albertus Magnus, alone, wrote eight books on physics, six on psychology, eight on astronomy, twenty-six on zoology, five on minerals, one on geography, and three on life in general from an Aristotelian point-of-view. He was a Dominican friar who was canonized a saint in 1931.

Paracelsus was a Swiss born in 1493. His accomplishments were many and include being the first modern medical scientist. He fathered the sciences of microchemistry, antisepsis, modern wound surgery, and homeopathy. He wrote the first medical literature on the causes and treatment of syphilis and epilepsy, as well as books on illness derived from adverse working conditions.

Notwithstanding this accurate scientific bent, his work is in close accord with the mystical alchemical tradition. He wrote on furies in sleep, on ghosts appearing after death, on gnomes in mines and underground, of nymphs, pygmies, and magical salamanders. His word view was animistic.

Invisible forces were always at work and the physician had to constantly be aware of this fourth dimension in which he was moving. He utilized various techniques for divination and astrology as well as magical amulets, talismans, and incantations. He believed in a vital force which radiated around every man like a luminous sphere and which could be made to act at a distance. He is also credited with the early use of what we now know as hypnotism. He believed that there was a star in each man. (Mishlove). This sentiment was echoed by 19th century magician and alchemist, Aleister Crowley, who said, "Every man and every woman is a star." This alludes to the essential Self.

Kepler developed the laws of planetary motion. But he developed his theories on the basis of explorations into the dimly lit archetypal regions of man's mind as surely as on his mathematical observations of the planetary motions. He was clearly a student in the tradition of earlier mystic-scientist such as Pythagoras and Paracelsus. Thomas Vaughn, Robert Fludd and Sir Frances Bacon number among the 17th century Rosicrucians, who practiced not only alchemy, but also other hermetic arts and the qabala.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was a mathematical genius, as well as one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. He discovered the binomial theorem, invented differential calculus, made the first calculations of the moon's attraction by the earth and described the laws of motion of classical mechanics, and formulated the theory of universal gravitation. He was very careful not to publish anything which was not firmly supported by experimental proofs or geometrical demonstration thus he exemplified and ushered in the Age of Reason.

However, if we look at Newton's own personal notes and diaries, over a million works in his own handwriting, a startlingly different picture of the man emerges. Newton was an alchemist. He devoted himself to such endeavors as the transmutation of metals, the philosopher's stone, and the elixir of life. He was intensely introspective and had great mental endurance. He solved problems intuitively and dressed them up in logical proofs afterwards. He, himself, was astounded by the startling nature of his own theories. Gravity is a problem that still hasn't been dealt with satisfactorily by scientists.

His followers, however, emphasized his mechanistic view of the universe to the exclusion of his religious and alchemical views. In a sense, their action ushered in a controversy in psychical research which has existed ever since. Since Newton's time, all discoveries suggesting the presence of a spiritual force which transcended time or space were ironically considered to be a violation of Newton's Laws--even though Newton himself held these very beliefs!

It is interesting to note, that today scientists actually can turn small amounts of lead into gold through particle acceleration, since they are only one atomic weight apart. Despite the advances in science, the "unknown" is still projected into the realm of matter, and the alchemical quest continues. Science is still debating over what is physical, what is psychic and what is metapsychic. VonFranz, in Projection and Recollection in Jungian Psychology, states that "In Western cultural history the transpsychic has been described sometimes as "spirit" sometimes as "matter."

Theologians and philosophers are more concerned with the former, physicists with the later."
Von Franz points out that "what was once regarded as the opposition between spirit and matter turns up again in contemporary physics as a discussion of the relation between consciousness (or "Mind") and matter." It bears on such questions as the bias of the observer, and the theories of relativity, probability, synchronicity, not to mention the whole field of parapsychology. Jung really returned us to the alchemistic viewpoint when he said, in Aion:

Sooner or later nuclear physics and the psychology of the unconscious will draw closely together as both of them independently of one another and from opposite directions, push forward into transcendental territory. ...Psyche cannot be totally different from matter for how otherwise could it move matter? And matter cannot be alien to psyche, for how else could matter produce psyche? Psyche and matter exist in the same world, and each partakes of the other, otherwise any reciprocal action would be impossible. If research could only advance far enough, therefore, we should arrive at an ultimate agreement between physical and psychological concepts. Our present attempts may be bold, but I believe they are on the right lines.

As VonFranz notes, "There is therefore no concept fundamental to modern physics that is not in one degree or another a differentiated form of some primordial archetypal idea." These include our concepts of time, space, energy, the field of force, particle theory, and chemical affinity.

Laws in physics are subject to scientific revolutions and there has been a major breakthrough in paradigm shifts about every 20 years, or each generation. VonFranz says, "As soon as an archetypal idea that has been serving as a model no longer coincides with the observed facts of the external world, it is dropped or its origin in the psyche is recognized. This process always coincides...with the upward thrust of a new thought-model from the unconscious to the threshold of consciousness."

This is basically the process of weeding out "scientific errors." "...scarcely a thought is given to what they might mean, psychologically, once they are no longer fit to serve as a model in describing the outer world." This certainly happened to alchemy, until Jung revived an interest in it. "It is only today, when we know that the assumptions of the observer decisively precondition the total results, that the question is becoming acute." Physicists have become increasingly conscious of the extent to which psychological circumstances influence their results.

Other experimental-minded persons have sought the mysteries of life and divinity within their own bodies, since ancient times. Whether known as Yogis or Adepts, their goal was basically the same, as we shall see.

Some modern schools of the Hermetic Arts see an identity between medieval European alchemy and the eastern practice of Yoga. They see a metaphysical or symbol correspondence between the planetary and metallurgical attributions of alchemy and the chakras. Yoga is also experimental in nature. The qualities of the metals correspond to the planets and chakras as follows:

Lead Saturn Sacral Plexus
Iron Mars Prostatic Ganglion
Tin Jupiter Solar Plexus
Gold Sun Cardiac Plexus
Copper Venus Pharyngeal Plexus
Silver Moon Pituitary Body
Quicksilver Mercury Pineal Gland

Alchemy is not concerned exclusively with consciousness, but also seeds the subtle transformation of the body, so that the physical level is also brought into perfect equilibrium. Thus, the alchemical metals may be considered analogous to the chakras of the yogis. We can draw another parallel among the three major principles of Alchemy and those of Yoga, which are known as the Gunas.


The quality of Mercury is vital and reflective; it equates with the spiritual principles of goodness and intelligence; Sattva guna is illuminative. The quality of Sulphur is fiery and passionate like the principle of Rajas, which incites desire, attachment, and action. The quality of Salt is arrestive and binding, and reflects the gross inertia of matter, which is much like Tamas. These gunas and the three alchemical substances symbolize spirit, soul and body. Another "alchemical" way the gunas were applied concerns food: sattvic foods incline one toward meditation and the spiritual life (fruits, vegetables, and grains); rajasic foods are stimulating (i.e. spicy food); tamasic food incites the baser instincts (animal flesh).

The concept of four basic elements, harmonized in a fifth, is also common to both alchemy and yoga doctrine. The Indian elements are known as Tattvas. They are: Akasha (quintessence; Tejas or Agni (fire); Apas (water); Vayu (air); Prithivi (earth). Furthermore, the preparation for the practice of both alchemy and yoga requires a moral or ethical preparation. Both stress that evil tendencies should be overcome while positive virtues are developed. This includes both behavior and the purification of the various body centers. The objective is not wealth, but health or wholeness.

Alchemy also speaks of a "secret fire", which is often compared to a serpent or dragon. Here again, we find the correspondence to Kundalini, the serpent-power. Alchemy is performed by the aid of Mercury, the illuminative principle, and the powers of the sun and moon. The yogic system works in three channels in the subtle body of man. One equates with the sun, another with the moon. They are called ida and pingala. The third, or harmonizing channel, is known as sushumna, and is associated with illumination.

The yogi seeks to arouse the latent power of the Kundalini serpent so it rises up the chakra centers until it opens the third eye of mystical vision and illumination. Alchemists apply slow heat to their alchemical vessel to sublimate and refine the contents therein. The yogis use breath control, the alchemist bellows to control the fire.

Interestingly, yogis have breath exercises called "breath of fire" and "the bellows."
In summary, the points of correspondence resulting in the alchemical production of a new kind of human being (one made hale or whole) are as follows:

1. Both systems agree that all things are expressions of one fundamental energy.
2. Both affirm that all things combine three qualities: a. Wisdom, Sattva, superconsciousness or Mercury; b. Desire, Rajas, compulsion or Sulpher; c. Inertia, Tamas, darkness, or Salt.
3. Both recognize five modes of expression: Akasha, Spirit or the quintessence; Tejas or Agni (fire); Apas (water); Vayu (air); Prithivi (earth).
4. Both systems mention seven principle vehicles of activity, called chakras by yogis, and metals by alchemists.
5. Both say there is a secret force, fiery in quality, which is to be raised from one chakra or metal to another, until the power of all seven is sublimated in the higher.
6. Yoga says 1) Prana or Surya, sun, 2) Rayim, moon, and 3) Sattva, wisdom are the three main agencies in the work (or ida, pingala and sushumna). Alchemy says the whole operation is a work of the sun and moon, aided by Mercury.
7. Both systems stress preparation by establishing physical purity and ethical freedom from lust, avarice, vanity, attachment, anger and other anti-social tendencies.
8. Both allege that success enables the adepts to exercise extraordinary powers, to heal all diseases, and to control all the forces of nature so as to exert a determining influence on circumstances.

In short, what both alchemist and yogi do is 1). to recognize what goes on in his body, and 2). to use his knowledge of the control exerted over subconscious processed by self-consciousness to form a definite intention that this body-building function shall act with maximum efficiency creating increased vitality. This supercharge of libido then wakens the spiritual vision of the pineal gland to full activity. The Great Work of alchemy consists of stabilizing the vision of Light into a full realization. The by-product is that the body-building power of the subconscious changes the alchemist himself into a new creature.

Jung asserted that the medieval alchemists were unaware of the natural process of psychological transformation which went on in their subconscious. Therefore, they projected this process into their experiments. In other words, they projected an inner process outside of themselves. Had they been more conscious in their intent, or more sophisticated in their psychology like the yogis, they would have been more consistently successful.

But why is a study of alchemy relevant to our modern lives? We are not daily occupied in pseudo-alchemical experiments like the alchemists, or are we? In many metaphorical ways we are thinking like alchemists all the time. Also, Jung observed that the dreams of his clients repeatedly stressed the main alchemical themes, especially the conflict and union of opposites. The alchemical symbolism is widespread in dreams if modern individuals, and can shed light on these more primitive aspects of our subconscious life. It is important for our understanding of our own unconscious.

In Alchemical Active Imagination, VonFranz states:

True knowledge of oneself is the knowledge of the objective psyche as it manifests in dreams and in the manifestations of the unconscious. Only by looking at dreams, for instance, can one see who one truly is; they tell us who we really are, that is something which is objectively there. To meditate on that is an effort towards self-knowledge, because that is scientific and objective and not in the interest of the ego but in the interest of "what I am" objectively. It is knowledge of the Self, of the wider, objective personality.

We could view alchemy as an antique form of therapy, which originally had the meaning 'to heal,' and the implication of 'service to the gods.' Psychotherapy basically means service to the psyche, and offers us a way to reconnect with our unconscious, thus experiencing wholeness. It also opens an avenue to increased physical health, since those ailments which remain unconscious often manifest as psychosomatic diseases. If we become conscious of the source of the dis-ease, it dissipates. Knowledge of alchemy's symbolism can lead us to psychological insight in terms of our own condition, especially that reflected in dreams.

Alchemy may be carried out as either a physical or mental operation. The Jungian orientation is primarily mental, though it might take a physical form. For example, you might choose to ritually "act out" certain aspects of the Great Work in active imagination. The Jungian interpretation that alchemy is a passive and unconscious process comes from a basically mental, or Greek orientation. The type of alchemy that aims at rejuvenating or preserving the physical body is descended from the physically-oriented Egyptian alchemy. The main traditions of conscious, inner spiritual alchemy come mainly from the Islamic and Oriental philosophies.

Jung's original interest in alchemy came from a dream he had of a library filled with arcane tomes from medieval times and the Renaissance. During the next 15 years he spent collecting this library, he learned to recognize the major symbols of the unconscious. He was reading about them in alchemy books and hearing about them in his patients' dreams and fantasies. Their projections told him of an inner quest, a sealed vessel, the conflict of opposites, a philosophical tree, a fountain of eternity, a golden flower, a Stone, a sacred wedding, etc.

Slowly Jung familiarized himself with their alchemical meaning. Then he, himself, became a living symbol of the healing power of the Philosopher's Stone. In his case this power manifested as the ability to heal on the mental level--in other words, to release any blocks hindering the natural process of growth and transformation. When proceeding in the direction of their individuation with self-realization. We should be careful here not to dichotomize between "mental" and "physical" too much or we will lose our proper alchemical perspective. Alchemy cannot be reduced to a metaphor of psychological or philosophical transformation--it requires first-hand experimentation.

Grossinger says that "what Carl Jung recognized was that the stages if the alchemists also corresponded to a process of psychological individuation. The psychic stages were as precise and rigorous as the chemical ones by which they became imaginal. Furthermore, they generated a physical and even quantitative terminology for an undiagnosed tension of opposites in the human psyche arising from male and female archetypes, a struggle they sought to resolve by the creative unity of the chemicals in the Stone. " Alchemy sought to unite Spirit (male), and Matter (female) through a Royal Union (coniunctio) to create their synthesis in the homunculus, hermaphrodite, or lapis. This is an alchemical metaphor of the process of spiritual rebirth.

The entire body of alchemical literature covers many variations on the theme of the Great Work. No single person will ever express all of the operations and symbols described in alchemy, just as no single person ever embodies the totality of the Self.

We each have unique experiences of the common roots of humanity or the collective unconscious. Thus, the various operations of alchemy come in different order for the various practitioners. The alchemical writings seem to contradict one another about the evolution of the process. Likewise, in dreams, we sometimes find the symbols of the end-product (like a mandala, or flower, or child) appearing at the beginning of the process. They symbolize what is latent and seeks manifestation.

Nevertheless in both alchemy and Jungian psychology there are classic stages in the process of individuation or personal experience of the unconscious. One major recurrent theme in modern dreams is the symbolism of the planets, which correspond with the alchemical metals. These metals, or planets (astrology), or Spheres (QBL) can be understood psychologically as the building blocks of the ego, which forms itself from fragments of these divine, archetypal qualities. These spiritual principles seek concretization through the unique experience of an individual ego. This links spirit and matter.

The sacredness of the Opus, or Great Work, is the central idea behind alchemy. One must be self-oriented, rather than ego-oriented. The adept is also diligent, patient and virtuous. In other words, in order to create the Stone, you must have the potential within yourself for self-realization--for becoming whole or 'holy.' It requires an inward seeking, just like the process of individuation. It is a solitary talk for no one may follow where you go. But there may be guides who will help inspire your faith and dedication to the task. Others have been to the territory you will explore, but none will accompany you.

The secret of alchemy is that it is a personal journey of transformation, and cannot be explained but only experienced. It is "eating the dish", not just reading about it in an alchemical cookbook. Its effects must be channeled into spiritual growth, for if alchemy is used to gratify personal desire the work is lost. This means the ego gets inflated with its own importance when the real power source lies within the Self. This naturally produces a regression back into an unconscious state, back to the prima materia. The instinctual urge for growth and transformation lies within us. For this urge to be considered evolutional requires that the ego must cooperate quite deliberately and consciously with the Self. This leads toward self-realization.

The main purpose of the Opus is "to create a transcendent, miraculous substance which is variously symbolized as the Philosopher's Stone, the Elixir of Life, or the universal medicine (panacea). The procedure is, first, to find the suitable material, the so-called prima materia, and then to subject it to a series of operations which will turn it into the Philosopher's Stone." (Edinger, 1978).

The First Matter is a homogenous unity of Mercury, Sulpher and Salt. It is therefore 'three,' but can also be expressed as 'four' elements, which are again essentially 'one.' Jung felt that the secret of the psyche was contained in this question of the 'three' and the 'four.' In alchemy it is expressed as the axiom of Maria Prophetissa: "Therefore the Hebrew prophetess cried without restraint: 'one becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the One as the fourth.'" Today, physicists echo this statement when they call 'plasma' both the fourth and first state of matter (the others being liquid, gas and solid).

In Jungian psychology, the prima materia is the original undifferentiated condition of ordinary consciousness, which is really unconsciousness. Mystics of all times have repeated that in the ordinary state we are all asleep or even "dead" to the true Reality. In psychology the four-fold nature of the prima materia is expressed by the four functions which correspond with the alchemical elements: intuition (fire), thinking (air), feeling (water), and sensation (earth). In Jungian theory we have a dominant function and limited access to one or two others, but the fourth function is inaccessible, maladapted or hard to integrate. It is what keeps us from "getting it all together." Thus, we are out-of-balance.

Balancing the four functions means achieving an integrated personality, balance, and high well-being. This requires undergoing a symbolic process of the union of opposites, which is what both alchemy and Jungian analysis are all about. Both alchemy and Jungian psychology require a period of depth analysis (solutio) to distinguish the original, undifferentiated contents.

The ego learns what part of the personality comes from itself and which parts from the Self. It reflects on its own components parts (subpersonalities) and learns to see itself as a small part of a greater whole, the larger unity of the Self. Edinger says, "The fixed, settled aspects of the personality which are rigid and static are reduced or led back to their original, undifferentiated condition as part of the process of psychic transformation," i.e. back to a state of 'innocence.'

Further, Edinger compares the problem of discovering the prima materia to the problem of finding what to work on in psychotherapy. He gives some hints:

(1) It is ubiquitous, to be found everywhere, before the eyes of all. This means that psychotherapeutic material likewise is everywhere, in all the ordinary, everyday occurrences of life. Moods and petty personal reactions of all kinds are suitable matter to be worked on by the therapeutic process.

(2) Although of great inward value, the prima materia is vile in outer appearance and therefore despised, rejected and thrown on the dung heap. The prima materia is treated like the suffering servant in Isaiah. Psychologically, this means that the prima materia is found in the shadow, that part of the personality which is considered most despicable. Those aspects of ourselves most painful and most humiliating are the very ones to be brought forward and worked on.

(3) It appears as a multiplicity, "has as many names as there are things," but at the same time is one. This feature corresponds to the fact that initially psychotherapy makes one aware of his fragmented, disjointed condition. Very gradually these warring fragments are discovered to be differing aspects of ones underlying unity. It is as though one sees the fingers of a hand touching a table at first only in two dimensions, as separate unconnected fingers. With three-dimensional vision, the fingers are seen as part of a larger unity, the hand.

(4) The prima materia is undifferentiated, without definite boundaries, limits or form. This corresponds to a certain experience of the unconscious which exposes the ego to the infinite...It may evoke the terror of dissolution or the awe of eternity. It provides a glimpse of the pleroma,...the chaos prior to the operation of the World-creating Logos. It is the fear of the boundless that often leads one to be content with the ego-limits he has rather than risk falling into the infinite by attempting to enlarge them.

The different operations to transform the prima materia follow as the natural consequence of finding the material to work on. The imagery associated with these operations is profuse and draws from myth, religion, and folklore. The symbols for all these imagery-systems comes from the collective unconscious. There is no set number of alchemical operations, just as there is no set number or order to archetypes.

However, certain of the operations seem to recur more often in the literature and experience. We could consider these as the skeletal frame of the alchemical process. Their order switches around also. Edinger lists seven operations which seem to typify the major transformations of the alchemical process. These include: calcinatio, solutio, coagulatio, sublimatio, mortificatio, seperatio, and coniunctio. Other major operations include nigredo, albedo, rubedo, solificatio, multiplicatio, projectio, separatio, circulatio, and more.

We can detail the nature of each of these operations later. For now it is enough to grasp the overview, which is best stated by Jung, himself, in Mysterium Coniunctionis: "...the alchemist saw the essence of his art in separation and analysis [solve or solutio] on the one hand and synthesis and consolidation [coagula or coagulatio] on the other. For him there was first of all an initial state in which opposite tendencies or forces were in conflict; secondly there was the great question of a procedure which would be capable of bringing the hostile elements and qualities, once they were separated, back to unity again.

The initial state, named chaos, was not given from the start but had to be sought for as the prima materia. And just as at the beginning of the work was not self-evident, so to an even greater degree was its end. There are countless speculations on the nature of the end state, all of them reflected in it designations. The commonest are the ideas of its permanence (prolongation of life, immortality, incorruptibility), its androgyny, its spirituality and corporality, its divinity and its resemblance to man (homunculus)."

He goes on to point out what this might man psychologically. We could view it as conflicting drives originating on the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical levels creating splits in the personality.

Jung says that, "The obvious analogy, in the psychic sphere, to this problem of opposites is the dissociation of the personality brought about by the conflict of incompatible tendencies, resulting as a rule from an inharmonious disposition. The repression of one of the opposites leads only to a prolongation and extension of the conflict, in other words, to a neurosis. The therapist therefore confronts the opposites with one another and aims at uniting them permanently. The images of the goal which then appear in dreams often run parallel with the corresponding alchemical symbols."

He reiterates the value of accessing the alchemical symbolism for increasing insight. "Investigation of the alchemical symbolism, like a preoccupation with mythology, does not lead one away from life any more than a study of comparative anatomy leads away from the anatomy of the living man. On the contrary, alchemy affords us a veritable treasure-house of symbols, knowledge of which is extremely helpful for an understanding of neurotic and psychotic processes. This, in turn, enables us to apply the psychology of the unconscious to those regions in the history of the human mind which are concerned with symbolism."

Each of the operations of alchemy functions as the center of focus of an elaborate symbol-system. Other symbols which are related to the operation cluster around the theme of the operation--they share a common essence. These central symbols provide basic categories which we can use to understand our own personal psychic life, and even the transformation processes of others. Taken together, the alchemical operations illustrate almost all of the full range of experiences which are involved in the process of individuation.

As Grossinger points out, "Alchemy is thus a form of chemical research into which unresolved psychic elements were projected. The alchemical nigredo, the initial phase of the operation which produces 'black blacker than black,' is also an internal experience of melancholia, an encounter with the shadow." But this is also the necessary first stage in Jungian analysis--confronting that which has been rejected or repressed is essential to becoming whole.

This realm of the shadow can often provide more real substance for the spiritual quest than mimicking the teachings of a spiritual master without really changing oneself. Though stumbling around in the dark seems frustrating, if it is honest and heartfelt, and one really grapples with the shadow problem, the way is cleared for progress that will be sustained by a firm foundation gained in the early phases.

Throughout the alchemical process, the lapis functions as an inner guide by presenting itself in diverse symbolism. It symbolizes the growing manifestation of your latent potential for wholeness. It frequently manifests in mandala symbolism. This includes such forms as a revolving wheel or the zodiac, the petals of a magnificent flower, a diamond body, flower of life, or a serpent eating its tail. As a grand union of opposites, it symbolizes the unification of king and queen, man and wife, conscious and unconscious, personality and society, etc. in a royal union called the Marriage of the Sun and Moon in alchemy. Alchemy is a means of understanding our unconscious projections of archetypes into the world.

In "Spiritual Development as Reflected in Alchemy and Related Disciples," Rudolf Bernoulli summarizes the basics of extroverted and introverted alchemy. He says, "There are two kinds of alchemy: one strives to know the cosmos as a whole and to recreate it; it is in a sense the precursor of modern natural science. It aspires to create gold as the supreme perfection in this sphere...The other alchemy strives higher; it strives for the great wonder, the wonder of all wonders, the magic crystal, the philosopher's stone."

This is not a substance susceptible of chemical analysis. It does not represent a spiritual or psychological state that can be reduced to a clear formula. It is something more than perfection, something through which perfection can be achieved. It is the universal instrument of magic. By it we can attain to the ultimate. By it we can completely possess the world. By it we can make ourselves free from the world, by soaring above it. this is alchemy in the mystical sense...The goal is reached only when a man succeeds in creating the...stone within himself, and this is made possible only by the intervention of the 'inner master.'" i.e. the Self. --von Franz, Psychic Energy, p. 452-3

Psychologically...the union of body and spirit or of conscious and unconscious can be safely attempted only when both have undergone a purification brought about by the earlier stages of analysis, in which the conscious character and the personal unconscious are reviewed and set in order.

In the alchemistic literature there is evidence that the mysterious coniunctio took place in three stages. The first is that of the union of opposites, the double conjuntion, which chiefly concerns us here. The second stage effects a triple union, that of body, soul, and spirit; or, as it is said elsewhere, "the Trinity is reduced to a Unity."

In the Book of Lambspring, published in 1625, this triple union is represented first by two fishes swimming in the sea, pictured with the legend, "The sea is the Body, the two fishes are the Soul and the Spirit", and later by a second picture showing a deer and a unicorn in a forest, with the following text:

In the Body [the forest] there is Soul [the deer] and Spirit [the unicorn]...He that knows how to tame and master them by art, and to couple them together, may justly be called a master, for we rightly judge that he has attained the golden flesh.

The literature offers far less material about this more advanced stage of the work than about the simple coniunctio, and still less about the third stage, the union of the four elements, from which the fifth element, the "quintessence," arises.

However, Jung's latest works are largely concerned with the problems of this fourfold coniunctio, through which not only are the personal parts of the psyche--ego and anima, or ego and animus--consummated, but these, in a further stage of development, are in turn united with their transpersonal correlates--wise man and prophetess, or great mother and magician (under whatever names these superordinate elements are conceived. ...The subject is by no means simple, but it amply repays careful study.

b. Alchemical Imagination: Making Psyche Matter

We should now proceed to find a neutral, or unitarian, language in which every concept we use is applicable as well to the unconscious as to matter, in order to overcome this wrong view that the unconscious psyche and matter are two things. --Professor Wolfgang Pauli

In the alchemical search for the God-head in matter (Kether in Malkuth), Paracelsus contended that matter was a living counterpart of the creating deity. A system of correspondences is the foundation of alchemy. The conception of a primal event manifested in different fields is fundamental to alchemy. The process in the retort vessel is analogous to the process of transformation of the psyche. Through alchemy, we can perceive the parallels between microcosm, universe, and man. Alchemy is based on the assumption that the equation world = man = God is Truth.

The metaphysical perception of alchemy grew in the Jungian school of psychology. It emphasizes the process of psychological transformation. This is the Opus, or Great Work of alchemy. It is given this appellation because that which "works" is that which has the power to transform. The experiments are performed on oneself. This renews the alchemical philosophy which is primarily concerned with the union of psyche and matter.

There is an indissoluble unity in alchemy between theory and practice. They are explicate aspects (which are experienced through a metaphorical sensory perception) of the Quest, or attainment of immortality through the union of opposites. Thus, the goal of the Opus is precisely this union, which is known as the Philosopher's Stone, Royal Marriage, or Unus Mundus (experience of one world view uniting psyche/body/spirit).

Paracelsus described alchemy as the voluntary action of man in harmony with the involuntary action of nature. If the center of the creative process takes place in the "heart of man", his intentions take on profound significance. They can now influence the destiny of the cosmos. Attainment of this state is known as the production of the Diamond Body.

Alchemy strives for the experience of spiritual rebirth via the union of opposites, or the sacred marriage. The sacred marriage is characterized as the union of the Sun (+0 and Moon (-). These polarized positions may be symbolized variously as positive-negative; male-female; god-devil; spirit-matter; father-mother; etc. The sacred marriage, or coniunctio, creates a bond by which opposites are united in an image which transcends both original potentials. The whole art of alchemy is contained within the image (implicate order) of a magical or divine child.

There is an inherent paradox in alchemy: all the while stressing redemption of the physical body, or matter, alchemy is actively striving toward creation of a subtle, immortal body, which has no apparent physical basis (magical child = body of light).

This central problem in alchemy is the spiritual redemption of the physical body. Alchemy requires resurrection of the soul of body. The challenge one encounters is to "see through" to a unified vision of mundane physical processes with spiritual values. This develops awareness of the ordering processes inherent in matter. The solution is to visualize the physical body as a metaphor for psychic transformation.


...the mystery of the structure of the universe, was in themselves, in their own bodies and in that part of the personality which we call the unconscious, but they would say in the life of their own material existence...They thought that instead of taking outer materials you could just as well look inside and get information directly from that mystery because you were it. After all, you too were a part of the mystery of cosmic existence, so you could just as well watch it directly. Even further, you could ask matter, the mystery of which you consist, to tell you what it is, to reveal itself to you. Instead of treating it like a dead object to be thrown into a vessel and then cooked in order to see what came out, you could just as well take a block of iron, for instance, and ask it what it was, what its kind of life was, what it was doing, how it felt when melted.

But since all these materials are within you, you can also contact them directly and in that way they contacted what we would now call the collective unconscious, which to them was also projected into the inner aspect of their own bodies. They consulted these powers directly through what they called meditation and therefore most of these introverted alchemists always stressed the fact that one should not only experiment outwardly but should always insert phases of introversion with prayer and meditation and a kind of yoga.

With yoga meditation you try to get the right hypothesis, or information, about what you are doing or about the materials. Or you can, for instance, talk to quicksilver, or to iron, and if you talk to quicksilver and iron then naturally the unconscious fills up the gap by a personification. Then Mercury appears to you and tells you who the sun God is. A power, the soul of Gold, appears and tells you who and what it is. (16)

So, we see that basically the dynamic impulses of the original alchemists and modern physicists is the same. Namely, to find out all that is possible about how God works.

This Opus, or Work, is understood as taking place in a sealed retort vessel. The nature of this vessel is the origin of the common-use term, "Hermetically sealed." This containment insures that none of the ingredients will be lost, and also provides a container in which the contents are slowly heated, or cooked (calcinatio). The initial material (prima materia) then goes through several stages of transformation, defined as operations. These are not always presented in the same sequence in alchemical texts. Most, however, include sublimatio (seperating), and coniunctio (uniting). There are also operations of circulating, multiplying, and reiterating.

The meditatio, or meditation, consists of inner dialogue with the alchemical figures: Saturn=lead; Luna=silver; Sol=gold; Mercury=quicksilver; Venus=copper; Mars=iron; Jupiter=tin. Because the process of alchemy does not extend into God-Realization. This does not exclude this from occurring through God's grace, however. Then Kether is in Malkuth, the beginning (prima materia) and end (ultima materia) are One. In alchemy, the Anima Mundi, or Soul of the World acts as the soul-guide to the highest region. We experience An-imaginal (Anima-ginal) Reality.


Always remember that the body is of vital importance in any alchemical operation. To transcend somewhere out of the body is not alchemical practice; rather, imagine the body NOWHERE, or now-here. Alchemy is ...a physiological mythology juxtaposed with a cosmogonic mythology. In between is the psyche itself-the arcane substance, the subjective factor-which achieves a personified level in the divinities of mythology. It is the psyche's own image-making activity, its self-creation through symbols, that is central to this model. It represents a process of the "psychization of instinct," the transformation of instinctual and biophysical phenomena into psychic experience. These phenomena can then to a certain extent be brought within the range of conscious will and reason. In this process instinct loses some of its primordial autonomy. It is an opus contra naturam, so to speak...Alchemy accordingly gives us a model for the psychology of projection; it points at once "upward" and "downward." It is radically symbolic in its insistence on the "arcanum." And finally, in the obligation it imposed for the careful elaboration of theoria, it included the formation of apperceptive concepts and symbols as a fundamental part of the opus . (17)