written by Anne Baring http://www.annebaring.com/anbar08_seminarl1.htm
Imagination is the star in man: the celestial and super-celestial body
— Ruland the Lexicographer
Hidden within man there exists such a heavenly and divine light which cannot be placed in man from without but must emerge from within
— Vision of Zosimus, as mentioned in Jung's Alchemical Studies
Join the male and the female and you will find what is sought
— Maria Prophetessa
To all of us falls one heritage - Wisdom. All of us inherit of it equally. But one man makes the best of his heritage, and another does not; one buries it, lets it die, and passes over it; another draws profit from it — one more, one less. According to how we invest, use, and administer our heritage, we obtain much or little from it; and yet it belongs to all of us, and it is in all of us
Alchemy flows beneath the surface of Western civilization like a river of gold, preserving its images and its insights for us so that we could one day understand our presence on this planet better than we do. Alchemy builds a bridge between the human and the divine, the seen and unseen dimensions of reality, between matter and spirit. The cosmos calls to us to become aware that we participate in its life, that everything is sacred and connected—one life, one spirit. Alchemy responds to that call. It asks us to develop cosmic consciousness, to awaken the divine spark of our consciousness and reunite it with the invisible soul of the cosmos. It changes our perception of reality and answers the questions: “who are we and why are we here?” It refines and transmutes the base metal of our understanding so that we – evolved from the very substance of the stars – can know that we participate in the mysterious ground of spirit while living in this physical dimension of reality.
Alchemy is a mystery of the soul, preserved and transmitted through many centuries. It heals the wound in the human soul that has come into being because of a sense of alienation, loneliness and separation from the divine. Our soul is the vessel in which this mysterious transmutation takes place. The greatest alchemists knew that we carry within us the possibility of opening our awareness to the presence of the cosmic ground of being and growing into a deepening awareness of that connection, totally transforming our perception of life and our own nature.
We are embedded in the world of spirit. Our physical bodies carry cosmic elements that have come from the stars. We are the living embodiment of spirit but we don't know this. Alchemy is about a very slow and arduous process of attunement to this realization — arduous because the evolution of consciousness takes aeons of earth time and it is so difficult to recover and understand what has been lost over the centuries. Many deeply imprinted beliefs and habits impede this understanding and it is hard to dismantle the structures of belief that have been built up over millennia. European alchemy, the inheritor of Egyptian, Greek and Arab alchemy, is the Western tradition of inner psychic transmutation; like Kundalini Yoga and meditation in the East, it assists the process of reuniting us with our source.
At the present time, the neglect of our inner life, our deep instinctual needs and wisdom, has led to the situation where, as in the Grail legend, the territory of the soul is in the grip of a terrible drought. Few people understand any more what the landscape and the language of the soul are like; few can read the images that are like hieroglyphs whose key has been lost. An understanding of the basic concepts of alchemy can help us to reconnect with the soul and with the hidden ground of life. The alchemical images yield their secret to those who contemplate them.
The evolution of human consciousness on this planet is a very slow gradient of ascent from unconsciousness to self-consciousness and, ultimately, to awakened consciousness. There are many set-backs and long periods of stagnation and incubation. The whole of humanity suffers because the increase of consciousness is so slow and the transformation needed to diminish human suffering and ignorance so difficult to implement. Now, it seems that because of the turmoil in the world and the harm to the planet caused by our unconscious behaviour, our evolution is being accelerated.
It is as if, during the last seventy years or so, we have been placed in an alchemical retort, forced to live through the fire of transformation, for the most part, unconsciously. The more individuals who are able to awaken to this process of transformation and cooperate with it, the less suffering there will be for the whole body of humanity because, essentially, we are one life. Collectively, humanity in the last century and this one has been through a fiery calcinatio, an alchemical term for the first stage of the alchemical process. We have witnessed the images of incineration in the gas ovens of Auschwitz, the fire bombing of Coventry, Hamburg and Dresden, the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, death by napalm, depleted uranium and white phosphorus bombs, the horrific fiery collapse of the twin towers, the bombing of Baghdad and all the senseless acts of terrorists using explosives to destroy lives. These facts, combined with the suffering and destitution created by wars, by the sale of arms, by corruption, greed and fear asks that whoever is able to, contributes to the process of awakening and transformation that is now engaging the whole of humanity.
Given the position of governments which have to act on behalf of national interests, only individuals or groups of individuals can hope to make some contribution towards change, yet because of the crisis we face, the very limitations of governments and the general chaos of the financial markets are accelerating the awakening of people all over the world. In relation to the lives of those whose desperate concern is survival, this inner work may seem irrelevant, even absurd, yet if change in the world situation is ever to come about, it can only come through an increase in the number of concerned and committed individuals engaging in the awakening and transformation of their own consciousness and giving expression to that transformation in some form of service to the world. This service may take the form of the struggle for freedom from oppressive regimes; it may seek to alleviate the hunger and deprivation in areas where starvation stalks the lives of millions, or the liberation of women from oppression and servitude to religious beliefs and social customs; or the protection of the planet from the failure of governments to take collective action. Whatever form it takes, its inspiration will spring from a changed perception of life and an awakened and compassionate heart.
The Roots of Alchemy
Alchemy is at least 4000 years old and has deep roots in Egyptian, Babylonian and Greek, as well as Chinese, Indian and Persian civilizations. Some scholars think that the word alchemy comes from an Arabic word meaning “the preparation of silver and gold”. Others that it means “black earth”. The word ‘alchemy’, because it contains the prefix ‘al’, suggests Arab connections but the word ‘chemeia’ suggests a derivation from the Egyptian word ‘Khem’ which was a word used to describe Egypt, known for its black earth in the annual Nile inundations. The great obelisks which stood gleaming in the courtyards of these temples were once covered with electrum which was an alloy of silver and gold. But certain Egyptians knew how to apply this science to the soul; they discovered how to make an alloy of its two basic elements - the gold of the masculine element and the silver of the feminine one.
There have been men and women in every culture—in Egypt and Babylonia, in Persia, Tibet, India and China, in mountains and forests remote from the centres of civilization, who have transmitted their knowledge of ways of relating to the dimension of spirit, ancient ways that until recently were the closely guarded secret of a handful of initiates. There are two aspects to alchemy: one approach is through seeing the soul as the alchemical vessel of transformation; the other is the creation of physical gold. Alchemy is a science, both in the sense that it has a methodology and in the sense that it gives astonishing insights into the nature of matter.
The work of alchemists in different cultures laid the foundations of modern science: chemistry, biology, physics on the one hand, and psychology on the other. They also developed the knowledge of how to distil the essence of plants for the purposes of healing – leading to the science of Homeopathy and Herbal Medicine. Much precious knowledge transmitted from earlier shamanic cultures was lost because so many transmitters of this knowledge were murdered by the religious fanaticism that has so regrettably prolonged the suffering of humanity. Even today, in our supposedly enlightened times, we can still see the deep suspicion of alternative therapies and herbal medicines and the ongoing attempts to disparage and eliminate them on the dubious grounds that their efficacy cannot be proven by scientific methods and may even be dangerous.
In Europe, alchemy had its great age of flowering in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries although there were well-known alchemists in earlier times and other places. Just as the city of Prague was the centre of European alchemy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so the thriving city of Alexandria was the centre of alchemy in Hellenistic times. Recently discovered manuscripts (Zosimus of Panopolis 3rd century AD) show that from earliest times alchemy was understood as the art of soul transmutation, not the literal transmutation of metals into gold. Hence the alchemical saying: “Our gold is not the common gold”.
The origin of alchemy lies in the shamanic traditions of the lunar cultures which kept alive the vital connection between the visible and invisible worlds. There has always been a chain of teachers (known as the Golden Chain or Catena Aurea) who have transmitted this knowledge from generation to generation over thousands of years. Two great streams of alchemical knowledge, one flowing from ancient Egypt and Babylonia with their highly advanced knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, and the other from Arabia and Islamic Spain, came together in Europe in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. There were some 4000 alchemists working in Europe between 1200 and 1650 and they created dozens of extraordinary and, in some cases, very beautiful alchemical texts.(1)
Alchemy, like Kabbalah, was a visionary and contemplative tradition handed down from teacher to pupil and, indeed, many alchemists were kabbalists and vice-versa. All were astrologers, for the Great Work required the knowledge of the alignment of the alchemical processes and the physical elements undergoing transmutation with certain planets. Among the most famous Egyptian alchemists were the mythical figure of Hermes Trismegistus and Marie Prophetessa, a Jewess of Alexandria, from whose name comes the bain-marie or pan of water which, even today, is used by chefs to heat dishes gently in the oven. Later, in Europe, there were great Jewish and as well as Christian alchemists, among them the brilliant and controversial physician Paracelsus. We owe them an immense debt of gratitude and it is helpful to invoke their presence and ask them for assistance in understanding their writings. Here are the names of some of the alchemists who were part of this Golden Chain:
Geber or Jabir 8th century alchemist who lived at the Court of Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad. Founder of chemistry who had an immense influence on European alchemists.
Rhazes, Rasis or Al-Razi (c.825–c.924), Persia
Roger Bacon (1220–1292), England
Albertus Magnus (1200–1280), Germany
Raymund Lull (1235–1316), Deia, Majorca
Nicolas Flamel (1330–1413), Paris
Basil Valentine – German, 17th century (this name may be an alias)
Salomon Trismosin 15th–16th century, author of an exquisite manuscript – Splendor Solis
Paracelsus (1493–1541) Swiss he
Gerhard Dorn, (1530–1584), Belgian
Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), Italian (burnt at the stake in 1600)
We also owe a debt of gratitude to Jung, a modern alchemist, because, without his rediscovery of alchemy, much that he discovered might have remained unknown to the general public. Jung came to study alchemy through two dreams recounted in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. These prompted him to collect many books on alchemy and to make an inventory of all the images and descriptions in them. Through his understanding of alchemy it could be said that he reconnected solar with lunar consciousness and, following Iain McGilchrist, in his book The Master and His Emissary, the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, the left hemisphere of the brain with the right hemisphere. He recovered the ancient shamanic way of knowing of the lunar era that the alchemists had managed to keep alive through some four thousand years. He realized that the images of alchemy were similar to those in the dreams of his patients and that they described a process of inner psychic transformation to which he gave the name of the individuation process.
Where Christianity taught that the Redeemer is outside us and that our redemption (as Christians) has been assured by Christ’s sacrificial death, Jung realized that the secret science of alchemy (declared a heresy after the thirteenth century) taught that the alchemist can become the redeemer or rescuer of the lost aspect of spirit hidden within himself and nature, working with spirit to accomplish this redemption. Alchemy gives great importance and significance to the individual since the divine drama of redemption is consummated in and through us, not accomplished on our behalf. It is an awesome and heroic task. Each one of us carries the mystery of the incarnation of spirit in this physical dimension of reality. Each of us can learn to become aware of it and to serve it. In the rich library of alchemical images, we are looking at spirit’s manifestation and transformation of itself as well as its desire for recognition and communication with us. Our human consciousness, our soul, is the vessel in which this mysterious transformation takes place. That is why Jung recognized that alchemy is a sacred rite, an opus divinum.
Jung realized that when the alchemists spoke of the “philosophical gold” they were referring to the true gold of the spirit which could, through repeated “distillations,” “washings” and “cleansings,” be freed from the dross that had accrued to it in the course of human evolution. From the alchemist Gerhard Dorn , Jung took the idea of the unus mundus, the unifying cosmic ground in which both matter and psyche participate and whose connecting substratum gives rise to synchronicities as well as to miraculous healings, visionary experiences and sudden illuminations. He said that alchemy had two aims: the rescue of the human soul and the salvation of the cosmos. His last and most profound book on the alchemical Great Work is Mysterium Coniunctionis. After he had finished the first draft, he had an accident, followed by a serious illness and, feeling himself to be on the threshold of death, had the great visions of the coniunctio which he described in his autobiography,Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
I was first attracted to alchemy when I studied Medieval History at Oxford and with great excitement read about the alchemists of the Middle Ages. A striking visionary dream when I was twenty-eight and had just embarked on a Jungian analysis alerted me to a spiritual journey I was unconsciously (at that time) making. It was only many years later that I recognized its alchemical symbolism when I read Jung’s writings on alchemy:
I am in a garden, walled and square with a central wall bisecting it through the middle. In one part of the garden is a beautiful blossoming apple or cherry tree. Beyond the garden the whole horizon of the world is ringed by burning cities. I am crawling on my stomach along the central wall which is ablaze with fire. As I crawl slowly and with great difficulty along the wall I look up towards another wall in front of me, forming a T-junction with the one I am on. Appearing over the top of this, as if standing on a ladder on the other side, there is a man wearing a strange hat that falls to one side. He is waiting for me to pass through the fire and come to meet him. As I inch my way along the wall towards him, I realize that he is the Gardener, the Keeper of the Garden.
I am still assimilating the message of that dream and another later dream, described in Chapter Seventeen, where a stone spoke to me, saying, “Help me, help me”. I discovered later that the hat worn by the Gardener of my dream was the Phrygian cap once worn by devotees of the goddess Kybele, and later, by the medieval alchemists (there is a sculpture on the outside of Notre Dame in Paris of a man wearing this cap, illustrated in a book on alchemy by Fulcanelli called Le Mystère des Cathédrals). Only through my study of alchemy did I begin to sense the meaning of the image of the Dream of the Water which had haunted me for so many decades ever since those early channelled messages. Only in alchemy did I find the reference to the ‘Divine Water’ and understood that this ‘water’ was the invisible sea of being in which we are all immersed without being aware of it, immersed as Mechthild of Magdeburg (1210–c.1285) describes it in her book, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, “like a bird in the air, like a fish in the sea.” Very gradually, over many years of wondering, I began to understand the ‘Divine Water’ as an image that mirrored the deep ground of the soul to the surface personality that is unaware of its existence. But I felt it was more than this: it was the longing of that deep ground to bring humanity and this planet to conscious awareness of the sacredness of life, of the unity and perfection of the cosmic order and our potential role in creating a conscious relationship with this Sacred Order. I began to understand alchemy as a shamanic method leading to a direct encounter with spirit.
As I learned more, I saw that alchemy throws a rainbow bridge between the seen and unseen dimensions of life—between matter and spirit, the seen and the unseen. One of the great maxims of the alchemists, following the words written on the Emerald Tablet, said to have been written by Hermes Trismegistus, was “As Above, so Below”. Their aim was to assist the ‘marriage’ of two dimensions of reality: between the unseen reality of the highest order—the macrocosm, and the visible, manifest world as well as our own human organism—the microcosm. Squaring the circle by uniting these two dimensions of reality leads to the birth of the divine child: the awakened consciousness that is the treasure, the pearl of great price, the ultimate fruit of this union. So the alchemists said: “Whoever shall make the hidden manifest knoweth the whole work.”
The Importance of Myth
Like the Rosetta Stone, the greatest myths contain a meaning which can be decoded from the symbolic imagery that conceals it and used as a key to a deeper understanding of life. In the words of the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, “Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.”(2) Certain myths have the power to heal and transform if their images are understood in relation to the soul itself. In symbolic images and allegorical stories they tell of the hidden workings of the spirit within the matrix of the soul. They chronicle the evolution of human consciousness and the tremendous struggle for greater consciousness through search, suffering and heroic endeavour that the human story represents. Such myths can be applied as much to the life of an individual as to the life of a culture or to the whole evolutionary journey of humanity on this planet. They describe what has to be accomplished over and over again, if humanity is to reach the goal that spirit intends. They tell the story of the quest for a deeper, more complete relationship with life that is described as the treasure—the supreme value. The treasure is not power, nor any kind of supremacy over any thing or any one. The treasure is an enlightened state of being or, in the more familiar language of the West, the wisdom, insight and compassion that are the fruits of a relationship with the hidden ground of life.
Certain myths flow beneath the surface of our lives like a mighty river, connecting our superficial awareness with its roots, ready always when we are ready, to well up like a perennial spring whenever we call upon our soul for help. In European civilization there was a wealth of ideas that had to go underground, since they could only escape persecution by being hidden in metaphor and allegory. Only now are they emerging, having been preserved for the day of their ‘resurrection’ by a strong mythological tradition expressed in alchemy on the one hand and in countless legends and stories such as the fairy tale of the Sleeping Beauty and the legend of the Holy Grail on the other.
The revelations transmitted by awakened individuals in all cultures later become embodied in religious institutions which gradually lose or exclude elements that are vital to people’s balance and well being. A tendency to crystallization, dogmatism and literalism may cause religions to become fixated in the past, unable to apply their great revelation to the human soul and contemporary events. In the case of the three patriarchal religions, there has been an excessive emphasis on the masculine principle, on theological dogma and an insistence on belief rather than the transformation of consciousness as the path to God. Oppressive social customs became associated with specific beliefs.
Alchemy kept alive the shamanic participatory consciousness of the lunar era through some four thousand years. The principle themes of alchemy descend from the great Bronze Age lunar myths of death and regeneration that were celebrated in Egypt, Sumer, Babylonia and Greece and were originally related to the annual death and regeneration of the life of the crops. The seven major themes of alchemy echo the major themes of these great lunar myths: in Sumer, the Descent of Inanna; in Egypt, Isis’s search for the fragmented body of Osiris; In Babylonia, Ishtar’s descent into the Underworld and her rescue of her son Tammuz, and in Greece, Demeter’s search for her daughter Persephone. The theme of death and regeneration common to all these great myths is applied to the transformation of the consciousness in the alchemist:
The theme of a descent into the underworld and the return
The theme of the struggle with a superhuman adversary
The theme of the quest for a priceless treasure
The theme of the rescue of a divine element lost in the underworld
The theme of transformation
The theme of the sacred marriage
The theme of the birth of the divine child
In alchemy, the alchemist undertakes the redemption of his own soul and, simultaneously, of the Anima Mundi or hidden feminine aspect of spirit imprisoned in matter. Alchemy transposes the images and themes of ancient mythology – the rescue of the divine element (son or daughter) lost in the underworld, the quest for the treasure and the image of the sacred marriage – to the human soul. It also incorporates the shamanic tradition of the initiatory death and rebirth involved in the process of becoming a shaman, which is what the alchemist, in effect, was. The alchemist made the descent into the underworld of his soul to recover the treasure buried in the ‘matter’ of his instinctual life in order to give birth to the new value or transformed consciousness. He became (with the help of divine grace) the redeemer of his soul, discovering the revelatory experience of the treasure. Men and women sometimes worked together as partners to bring into being the treasure of the alchemical gold as did Nicolas Flamel and his wife Peronelle in 14th century Paris, where, amazingly, their house still stands. The partner in the alchemical Work was called the “soror mystica” or “frater mysticus”.
There is a fascinating story about Nicolas Flamel. One night he had a dream that an angel came to him. The angel held a book, the book of Abraham the Jew, and spoke these words to Flamel, “Look well at this book, Nicholas. At first you will understand nothing in it but one day you will see in it that which no other man will be able to see.” Not long after having this dream a man came into Flamel’s bookstore carrying a book. Flamel recognized it as the same book the angel had held out to him. He purchased the book and for twenty one years studied its mysterious twenty-one pages in search of the fundamental secrets of nature. He was one of the few alchemists who with his wife Peronelle, was able to create the physical gold and with this he endowed many hospitals in Paris, some of which still exist today. He designed his own tomb and covered it with alchemical images. When it was opened years after his death, his body was missing.
The Quest for a Priceless Treasure
Alchemy transposes the images of ancient mythology — in particular, the quest for the treasure and the sacred marriage — to the human soul. Alchemy was the secret tradition which taught that the priceless treasure spoken of in so many myths lies within our own human nature — unrecognized and neglected or, putting it the other way round, that we live unknowingly within the field of the treasure even though our existence in this physical dimension of reality seems so separate, so remote from it. Alchemy gives the treasure many beautiful names which resonate down the centuries: the Elixir of Life, the Philosopher’s Stone, the Heavenly Balsalm, the Flower of Immortality, the Divine Water, the Quintessential Gold.
Spirit depends on us to rescue it from its imprisoned or buried state, buried in nature, matter and ourselves. This Work involves a descent into the underworld of the soul in order to recover the lost awareness that the life of nature, matter and the body are also a manifestation and embodiment of spirit, mindful of the words of Sri Aurobindo that “hidden nature is secret God.”(3) Alchemy today invites us to change our attitude to nature and matter and the way we exploit all aspects of planetary life for the benefit of our species. The Great Work of alchemy is about recovering the lost lunar sense of participatory awareness and applying it consciously to our relationship with nature. It is about reanimating the poetic vision, the poetic sensibility and the heightened awareness or insight that connects us to the unseen ground of being. At the same time it is about growing into our unique individuality, differentiating ourselves from the deficient values that presently control the political and religious life of society, without in any way seeing oneself as superior to other people or forcing our views upon them.
The alchemist descended into the depths of his soul to undergo a death and rebirth, to be transformed from base metal into gold, to recover the treasure buried in the matter of his instinctual life and to be reunited with the divine ground personified by Sophia, the feminine image of Divine Wisdom. In the vessel of his glass retort he attempted to transmute metals and chemical substances, but it was the images and dreams that came to him as he did this work which reflected what was taking place in the vessel of his own soul and alerted him to, then deepened his understanding of the process of psychic transformation that was taking place within him. The matter in the retort acted like a mirror that reflected the processes taking place simultaneously within the vessel of his soul and the vessel of his retort. He realized from this that matter and spirit were mysteriously connected with each other.
The alchemists had first to bring the primordial life energy into consciousness within themselves, then discover how to work with it to transform it and allow it to transform them. In the course of this process of attunement and transformation the centre of gravity within their psyche gradually shifted from the needs and desires of the ego-bound personality to a deeper focus created by a growing relationship with and awareness of spirit in all its manifestations. This process — which in some took many decades and in others was sudden and unexpected — opened the one who experienced it to values utterly different from those which govern the world, values associated with what the alchemists called the ‘Old King’, awakening him to a new kind of relationship with matter, the earth, the cosmos. Ultimately, the soul gave birth to the transformed consciousness that the alchemists named ‘The Young King.’ The alchemists stressed that the Work was to be done gently, patiently, allowing it to unfold. To try to achieve this state by force or ambition was to risk inflation, madness and death.
The Royal Art
Alchemy has been called the Royal Art. What does this mean? It means that each one of us carries latent within his or her nature the royal value—the greater, finer, more complete or whole person we are capable of becoming. Alchemy is about the process of redeeming or giving birth to that royal value—the quintessence of our nature—assisting it to come to full consciousness and to bring us to wholeness or spiritual maturity. Alchemy is the process which transmutes the volatile matter of our being into finer and finer elements. It tells the story of the rescue of spirit buried or lost in the forms of its creation which needs our help to emerge from its place of exile. In entering the alchemical Great Work, we become the co-redeemers of spirit, working hand in hand with spirit to release, redeem and re-unite with the divine cosmic ground of our psychic life and all of nature. Alchemy is a very gradual process of attunement to the hidden ground of spirit — a process of both revelation and transmutation. The aim of the alchemist was to rescue the “living gold”, the treasure of spirit buried in the underworld of his soul. Zosimus of Panopolis, living in Egypt in the third century AD, said, “I swear to you that if you do this work properly, you will one day have a river of flowing gold.”
The Image of Gold
Gold is the image that comes to mind when alchemy is mentioned, gold or the mysterious philosopher’s stone. This gold or stone was said to be not only a cure for all disease and sickness but was thought to represent the awakened subtle or spiritual body that would act as a vehicle for the soul in the worlds beyond this one. The gold or stone symbolizes the gift of wisdom, insight or gnosis and the power to heal human suffering as well as awareness of the presence of the subtle soul body. “There are two categories in this art, namely, seeing with the eye and understanding with the heart, and this is the hidden stone, which is fitly called a gift of God… And this divine stone is the heart and tincture of gold which the philosophers seek.”(4)
The symbol of the alchemical gold was the circle. In many images and symbols which have their origin in Egypt, the alchemical quest describes the process which transmutes what we are into what we are capable of becoming; transmutes us from base metal into gold, bringing us from a state of ignorance and fragmentation into one of enlightenment and wholeness. It gradually opens our eyes to an utterly different, incandescent vision of reality. It brings into being a deep state of communion between our consciousness and the invisible dimension of spirit. “Alchemy is not merely an art or science to teach metallic transmutation, so much as a true and solid science that teaches how to know the centre of all things, which in the divine language is called the spirit of life.”(5)
The “Young King”
Alchemy gives us the image of a king who has to die in order that his son may rule in his stead. Many startling alchemical images illustrate the processes which bring about the “death” of the Old King. Those of you who are familiar with the Grail stories will remember the story of the aged king who lies wounded in the groin, waiting for the redeemer who will free the waters of the soul so that the Wasteland he rules over may be restored to fertility. The texts of European Alchemy carried forward the imagery of this medieval story. In particular, there is a beautiful text (Trismosin, Splendor Solis) that accompanies an equally beautiful alchemical picture of the sixteenth century which says: The King’s son lies in the depths of the sea as though dead. But he lives and calls from the deep: ‘Whosoever will free me from the waters and lead me to dry land, him will I prosper with everlasting riches.”(6)
We can identify the Old King – the king who needs to die – with the deficient values that currently control the so-called ‘real’ world, the values driven by the will to power that have ruled it throughout the solar era. He can also be identified with our current perception of reality, where, in St. Paul’s words, “we see through a glass, darkly.”(1Cor. 13:12) We can also identify the Old King with an outworn image of spirit that needs to be relinquished in order for a new image – the Young King – to emerge from the depths of the soul. Just as from time to time, we have to buy new clothes to replace worn out ones, so an image of spirit or God which has long presided over a civilization may need to die in order for a new image of spirit to come into manifestation. The King’s Son in the above text personifies the different values generated by a deeper relationship with spirit, based on experience rather than belief.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus was the ‘Young King’ who brought potential renewal to the culture of that time and the possibility of a transformation of the values governing the ‘real’ world. Five hundred years before him, at the beginning of what has been called the Axial Age, the Buddha did the same for his culture in India. St. Francis was to do the same for 13th century Italy and, in my view, Jung for Western culture in the twentieth century. Yet still it seems that we have the utmost difficulty in freeing ourselves from the power of the Old King who, at the present time, seems more entrenched than ever.
In relation to the collective soul of humanity, the whole world may fall under the spell of the values which characterize the Old King and remain under it for centuries, if not millennia. We may risk regression to an inferior psychic state if there is too great an inflexibility on the part of those who are the dominant element in a culture so that no change is allowed, no new element integrated with the deficient system of values. The extreme example of this would be tyranny in the form of an inflexible political or religious dogma or the desire for world domination by one nation or one religious group. (No-one has described this obsession with power and control better than George Orwell). But this impulse to dominate arises when the conscious personality, symbolized by the Old King, is out of touch with the depths. It is then possessed and driven by its shadow — the will to power of the unconscious instinct. Jung warned about the danger of the inflation of the modern mind, saying that “every increase in consciousness harbours the danger of inflation.”
An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own presence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead. Paradoxically enough, inflation is a regression of consciousness into unconsciousness. This always happens when consciousness takes too many unconscious contents upon itself and loses the faculty of discrimination, the sine qua non of all consciousness…the bigger the crowd the better the truth—and the greater the catastrophe. (7)
The Sacred Marriage
4000 years ago in the courtyards of the great temples on the banks of the Nile the Sacred Marriage of goddess and god was celebrated. The theme of the Sacred Marriage has come down to us in myth, in fairy tales like Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty, and in the Biblical Song of Songs. Alchemy sets the supreme quest for the treasure in the context of a marriage between the solar and lunar aspects of the soul, the fiery gold of the masculine element and the volatile silver of the feminine one, a union between our mind and our soul, our head and our heart, between the solar King and the lunar Queen. This marriage also unites the invisible dimension of the subtle world of spirit with the visible material world of our experience, rendering the latter transparent to spirit. The Sacred Marriage is the age–old image of this mysterious double union. The alchemists called the consciousness that was the fruit of this inner marriage Stellar Consciousness —signifying that they had become reunited with the invisible cosmic ground that is the foundation of the phenomenal world. (8)
The alchemists said that in order for consciousness to be transformed from base metal into gold, both king and queen have to undergo a process of dissolution and transformation. The alchemists associated the king with the sun, with gold, sulphur and the colour red. The king today might be said to be the limited consciousness we associate with our rational mind which may be entirely bound to the perception of reality offered by our senses and is unaware of a deeper dimension of reality or a deeper dimension of the psyche. The king formulates many goals but these goals may be unrelated to anything pertaining to the realm of spirit.
The images they associated with the queen are the moon, silver, quicksilver (Mercury) and the colour white. The rose, the lily, the dove and the swan were also associated with her. Her nature is described as volatile, liquid, watery, changeable. Translated into the imagery of the psyche, the queen is our instinctual soul, whose focus is the heart. But far beyond this, she represents the archetypal dimension of the Anima-Mundi, the hidden soul of nature and the cosmos, the matrix of our creative energy and the womb of our imagination, which derives ultimately from the divine ground of the cosmos. From the perspective of the kabbalist, the queen represents the Shekinah.
Just as the transformed consciousness of the king is represented by the ‘Young King’, so the redeemed and transformed consciousness of the queen is personified by the ‘Young Queen’. Their union creates the child of the awakened, integrated consciousness symbolized by the alchemical gold and the other numinous images of the completion of the Great Work.
To awaken the consciousness personified by the king to the values associated with the wisdom of the soul, he has to undergo a symbolic death. He makes a descent into the watery realm of the soul, the realm of the emotions, feelings, instincts that has never been associated with anything of value and that has been both feared and despised and has consequently remained largely dissociated from consciousness during the solar era. He comes to know the queen intimately, becoming aware of his feelings not as something inferior to his rational mind, but as something like his own mother, something that he has been born from, emerged from, and can now unite with consciously as his bride—the feminine and royal counterpart of himself.
By descending into this dimension, overcoming his suspicion of and contempt for it, and surrendering his desire for control, the king develops respect for mysteries he is not aware of and does not yet understand. He develops insight; he develops wisdom; he develops humility and compassion. The queen as the personification of the soul is also transformed as the king enters into conscious relationship with her. She is no longer forced to remain in a neglected, isolated state. She is no longer in thrall to the deficient values and limited perception represented by the Old King; nor is she any longer bound by the powerful unconscious drives of blind instinct to which he also was bound. The values of the heart begin to be heard and strengthened. Feeling begins to function in a more conscious related way as both king and queen are transformed. As in the story of the Sleeping Beauty, the king discovers a new relationship with the queen as she becomes his bride and beloved. Where before there had been a hedge of thorns separating them, now king and queen are joined together in the bridal chamber of the soul. This alchemical union works a profound transmutation of both, resulting in the birth of the child of the new consciousness. Both have to undergo a process of fragmentation, dismemberment, reconstitution and regeneration described by the different stages of the alchemical Great Work. In relation to the man or woman of today, this descent is essential for them both, since woman has been educated in the same way as man, has absorbed the same values and been imprinted with the same ideas and, knowing nothing of the soul, may give the highest value to the rational mind.
In the kabbalistic tradition (for many alchemists were kabbalists) the union of the King and Queen in their regenerated state signifies the meeting or union of the two pillars (masculine and feminine) on the right and left sides of the Tree of Life in the central pillar whose focus isTiphareth (Tifereth) the heart. There are some very beautiful alchemical images of the Hermaphrodite who symbolizes this union of Sol and Luna, King and Queen. To the left of the king and the right of the queen are two tree-like images, each planted in a stone, one hung with red suns and the other with silver moons, representing the two ‘pillars’ of the Tree of Life. The unified king and queen in the centre, whose feet also rest on two stones, symbolize the completion of the alchemical work in the union or conjunctio of the “two natures” of the king and the queen. Beneath their feet is a dragon who symbolizes Mercurius, a central ‘character’ of alchemy, whose meaning will be explained below. Those who are familiar with Kundalini Yoga will be able to relate the two pillars of the Tree of Life with the two ‘channels’ – the Ida andPingala – which meet in the central channel of the Sushuma as the Kundalini energy makes her ascent from the base of the spine to her flowering in and above the head. (See Chapter Sixteen)
The Prima Materia
The prima materia is the foundation of the alchemical work, the raw material out of which the stone or the gold or divine elixir is produced. The alchemists said, “This matter lies before the eyes of all; everybody sees it, touches it, loves it, but knows it not. It is glorious and vile, precious and of small account, and is found everywhere…To be brief, our Matter has as many names as there are things in the world; that is why the foolish know it not.”(9) I have long wondered whether they could have meant that spirit is the prima materia, present within everything, seen by all, yet unrecognized because our consciousness is not capable of recognizing its presence within all the forms of life, having been taught for generations that spirit is not present in nature or matter.
The alchemists said to look for the prima materia in what has been most despised. In the prima materia are all the elements that have been split off from, despised and rejected and shut out of our conscious mind. Here are the deepest instincts, the deepest feelings, the deepest capacity for relationship with life — above all, the elements that were associated with the despised or neglected Feminine: nature, matter, soul and body, that were excluded from spirit. The alchemists called the prima materia “black earth” or the dragon and sometimes even shit. When Paracelsus started his teaching at the university of Basel, he put a steaming pot of human excrement on the table and said, “This is what the work is about, this is life, this is God.” The response of the horrified students was to pull him off the podium and chase him out of the classroom. He was probably lucky to escape with his life.
The dragon is the most eloquent and powerful image of the prima materia. As has been explained elsewhere, the dragon is an image of the immense and unrecognized power of instinct, which ultimately is the creative and destructive power of life itself — the power that lives in and through all of us. As with the eastern traditions, the art of the alchemist was to assist in bringing this apparently chaotic and overwhelming power to a fully awakened state, yet never to forget that he was its servant, never its master, using it for his own ends. The so-called Black Arts describe the work of someone who is in the thrall of the dragon, serving his own desire for power or the desire for power of governments, a situation that could be related to many modern scientists, particularly those who have been working to develop weapons capable of destroying life on an apocalyptic scale. Paradoxically, the dragon is both the greatest danger to us and our greatest treasure, the gold that is the outcome of the alchemical Great Work.
Mercurius is one of the most enigmatic figures in Alchemy and is sometimes shown in male and sometimes female form, or, in the later stages of the alchemical process, as a hermaphrodite. The origin of Mercurius goes back to Hermes or the Egyptian Thoth, the guide of the soul in the underworld. Many alchemical images portray Mercurius holding a caduceus and its entwined serpents. The alchemists saw him/her (for Mercurius was often androgynous) as many different forms: as the prima materia — the primal matter that is to be transformed by spirit, as spirit itself, and as the guide, agent of transformation and the longed for treasure and goal of the alchemical work, the philosophical gold, elixir or stone. They recognized Mercurius as the living gold, the divine fire, the lumen naturae — the light of unseen spirit hidden within the forms of life, matter and each one of us. Confusingly, Mercurius could take the form of a dragon, a lion, a wolf, a raven, a dove and a phoenix, and many other images, depending on which stage of the alchemical process was being portrayed. During the process of transformation the dragon is slain, the lion has its paws cut off, the wolf is killed, as these symbolic images of the destructive or dangerous aspect of instinct—the will to power, lust, cruelty, greed, are transformed. What the alchemists seem to be saying is that Mercurius is everything because spirit is everything viewed at different stages of its own awakening and transformation within the soul of the alchemist. It is important to bear in mind that all these images are related to actual changes in the constitution of the minerals in the alchemical retort or vessel.
All over Europe, particularly in the great cathedrals, the image of the Green Man (Mercurius) gazes out at us from entrance arches, ceiling bosses, choir stalls, and carvings at the top of columns. All these marvellous images are the work of the master builders of the Middle Ages, many of whom were familiar with alchemy and its secrets. All these images proclaim: I am the lumen naturae, the light of nature, the ever-living presence of the creative spirit; Spirit as light is all around you, permeating all that you see and touch as matter. Another name for the lumen naturae was the Anima-Mundi. The image of the Green Man goes back to Osiris, Attis and Tammuz, all gods of the earth’s regeneration.
As the alchemists watched the matter in their alchemical vessel transform before their eyes, matter came alive. They saw it undergo a transformation and they began to speak to it and to respond to the images it gave rise to through their imagination. The mystery drew them into the midst of itself. What scientists are discovering now rests on foundations they laid centuries ago. But unlike modern scientists, the alchemists saw themselves as the servants, not the masters of the stone and they knew that the dangers involved in the Work were haste, arrogance and avarice.
Sophia or Divine Wisdom
The Feminine image of Divine Wisdom or the Holy Spirit is the presiding image of Alchemy. The alchemists called themselves the Sons of Wisdom. Sometimes she is named Anima-Mundi, sometimes Sophia, Sapientia or Lady Alchymeia. Alchemists who were kabbalists knew her as the Shekinah, the Bride of God, the divine ground of the phenomenal world. All these images point to the hidden wisdom of nature which the alchemists took as their guide although they also knew that their work was contra naturam or against nature because it went against the attitudes and instinctual habits that were so hard to overcome. They saw themselves working with nature, assisting the release of spirit hidden within her forms.
But they knew that Divine Wisdom represented far more than what we call nature. We are connected with each other and with planetary and cosmic life through an immense and complex web of hidden relationships that science is only beginning to discover. This web, as I have suggested in Chapters Four and Fifteen of The Dream of the Cosmos, is best described in metaphysical language by the idea of Cosmic Soul and by the image, in the Buddhist tradition, of the Net of Indra. The feminine archetype has always been associated with the earth, with nature and with soul — not soul in a personal sense but soul as the invisible presence of the unseen archetypal realm and the great connecting web of life.
For many thousands of years this cosmic matrix of relationships was personified by the image of the Great Mother and later by specific goddesses like Hathor and Isis in Egypt. Later it was carried by the image of Divine Wisdom and the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, by the Shekinah of Kabbalah and by the Cosmic or World Soul of Plato and Plotinus; still later, in the Middle Ages, by the image of the Black Madonna and the Holy Grail—the mysterious vessel or stone that was described as the source of all abundance. For many centuries in a European culture that was deeply repressive of the Feminine, alchemy secretly carried the image of this disowned aspect of the Divine. Alchemists had visions of a cosmic woman and knew her to be a living force and divine presence, pouring out the waters of love and illumination on humanity. Perhaps this is why Dr. Marie–Louise von Franz says in her commentary to the alchemical text called the Aurora Consurgens, “Alchemy lays upon the man the task, and confers upon him the dignity, of rescuing the hidden, feminine aspect of God from imprisonment in matter by his opus, and of reuniting her with the manifest, masculine deity.”(10) In memorable words, Wisdom speaks to the alchemists, saying, “Understand ye sons of Wisdom, Protect me, and I will protect thee; give me my due that I may help thee.”(11) This, one of the most powerful and profound statements of alchemy, is a message to our own times when the instinctive desire to protect nature and serve the life of the planet is arising in so many of us.
The Aurora Consurgens
This is an extraordinary book that anyone wishing to understand more about alchemy would benefit from reading and would find fascinating. I have included some passages from the Aurora because they are deeply meaningful and very numinous for me and may, perhaps, resonate with others also. Not only are the words of the text exquisitely beautiful but the commentary by Dr. Marie–Louise von Franz, is profound and illuminating. She says that “Aurora is one of the earliest medieval treatises in which we find the nascent idea that the alchemical opus involves an inner experience and that a numinous content, Wisdom (the anima), is the secret which the adept was looking for in the chemical substances.”(12)
The author of this illuminating book that brings alchemy so vividly to life, was believed by Dr. von Franz to be Thomas Aquinas. In it a man speaks of a vision and a revelation he had just prior to his death, a revelation whose words were transcribed as he spoke by the monks sitting with him. It is truly remarkable that this text has come through to us apparently uncensored. In the first chapter a mystical female figure is introduced, the personification of the Sapientia Dei or Wisdom of God, the same figure who appears in Proverbs, Ben Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon and who represents the divine cosmic ground which gives life to all. It is she who suddenly manifests and speaks to the author of the Aurora. Dr. von Franz comments,
We can understand how shattered the author of Aurora must have been when Wisdom suddenly appeared to him in personal form. Doubtless he did not know before how real an archetypal figure like Wisdom is, and he had taken her merely as an abstract idea. For an intellectual it is a shattering experience when he discovers that what he was seeking… is not just an idea but is psychically real in a far deeper sense and can come upon him like a thunderclap… He is saying that she is not merely an intellectual concept but is devastatingly real, actual and palpably present in matter.”(13)
His experience describes the power and numinosity of the visionary experience of the Anima-mundi or the Soul of the World. In words which invoke Solomon’s description of Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon 7:7, 10, 21-7, 29; 8:1-2):
She it is that Solomon chose to have instead of light, and above all beauty and health...For all gold in her sight shall be esteemed as a little sand, and silver shall be counted as clay...And her fruit is more precious than all the riches of this world, and all the things that are desired are not to be compared with her...She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her, and an unfailing light...He who hath found this science, it shall be his rightful food for ever...Such a one is as rich as he that hath a stone from which fire is struck, who can give fire to whom he will as much as he will and when he will without loss to himself.(14)
Wisdom speaks to him, saying:
Be turned to me with all your heart and do not cast me aside because I am black and swarthy, because the sun hath changed my colour and the waters have covered my face...because I stick fast in the mire of the deep and my substance is not disclosed. Wherefore out of the depths have I cried, and from the abyss of the earth with my voice to all you that pass by the way. Attend and see me, if any shall find one like unto me, I will give into his hand the morning star. (15)
And in words that resonate with those attributed to Jesus in the Gospels,
I am that land of holy promise, which floweth with milk and honey and bringeth forth sweetest fruit in due season; wherefore have all the philosophers commended me and sowed in me their gold and silver and incombustible grain. And unless that grain falling into me die, itself shall remain alone, but if it die, it bringeth forth threefold fruit: for the first it shall bring forth shall be good because it was sown in good earth, namely of pearls; the second likewise good because it was sown in better earth, namely of leaves (silver); the third shall bring forth a thousand-fold because it was sown in the best earth, namely of gold. For from the fruits of (this) grain is made the food of life, which cometh down from heaven. If any man shall eat of it, he shall live without hunger. (16)
I think this wonderful alchemical text lays the ground for what is emerging in human consciousness now — an awareness of the sacredness of nature, matter and ourselves and our responsibility to protect the planet from our unthinking exploitation of its resources.
The Stages of the Work
Alchemy defines three and sometimes four stages of the Great Work, saying “This art is like an embryo and then the birth of a child.” The process is circulatory and continuous and moves through the different stages over and over again, so what is defined as the nigredo or ‘blackness’ of the first stage may be experienced by the alchemist in the context of the final stage, the rubedo.
The Seven Processes involved in the Alchemical Great Work are:
The rescue of the lost feminine aspect of spirit hidden within nature and ourselves
The process of transformation involved in this rescue.
The death of the old consciousness symbolized by the old king and queen
The formation of the new consciousness symbolized by the young king and queen
The formation of the Hermaphrodite – the union of the two transformed elements
The integration of body, soul and spirit
The union with what the alchemists called the unus mundus, the divine cosmic ground
Stage 1: The First Stage of the Lesser Work – The Creation of the White Stone –
known as the Nigredo or Separatio and ruled by the element Fire
The word Nigredo means ‘blackness’ — the blackness of the prima materia as well as the blackness of depression. The raven was the symbol of this stage where the alchemist undergoing the process of transformation found himself falling into what is described as a ‘blackness blacker than black’, a blackness which he saw reflected in the blackening of the matter in the alchemical retort and that could be said to correspond with the dark phase of the moon. The nigredo may also be associated with the many years of loneliness and isolation of someone who has embarked on this inner path.
The alchemists also named this state the unio naturalis and the massa confusa as well as the black earth and the dragon—all terms which describe the semi-conscious state, the unconscious entanglement of different aspects of our psyche that is the inevitable result of the slow emergence of consciousness from the matrix of nature. They saw the Nigredo as the state of blind suffering and ignorance before the dawning of awareness. It may be said to describe the state where we live from day to day, responding to events as they happen; where we believe we have control of our lives but are the victim of the complexes, imprinted ideas and beliefs, archaic drives and instinctual habits which control us. In this state the spirit is not awake, not free, but is the prisoner or victim of all these things.
The alchemical processes associated with the Nigredo are Putrefactio (decay), Calcinatio (incineration, blackening, burning) andMortificatio (dying or suffocation). Paracelsus, a sixteenth century alchemist and physician, said, “Putrefaction is of so great efficacy that it blots out the old nature and transmutes everything into another new nature, and bears another new fruit. All living things die in it, all dead things decay, and then all these dead things regain life.”
The process of the separatio or differentiating between the elements of our nature is difficult, confusing and often frightening owing to the sense of losing control. In Jungian terms, the nigredo or separatio brings one into direct contact with the shadow or unknown aspect of one’s psyche. Our original sense of oneness is split into two and this can be experienced as a kind of dismemberment, often graphically illustrated in the alchemical texts. Yet, this work of differentiation and separation is the first stage of reuniting the conscious solar aspect of the psyche with the unknown and dissociated lunar aspect which includes the shadow and the whole realm of the soul. It brings us into direct confrontation with the unknown archaic aspects of our psyche. The alchemists had first to separate out the different elements of body, soul and spirit and then reunite them in a new conscious union, based on the awareness that each is an essential aspect of spirit, that what was darkness — unknown and even terrifying — can be illumined by the light of consciousness entering into or descending into that darkness. Paradoxically, the ascent to the light is through a descent into darkness.
So they followed the instructions of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus which said: “Thou shalt separate the earth from the fire, the subtle from the dense, gently, with great ingenuity.” The word ‘gently’ was given special emphasis, contrasting with the violence and repression with which the body and the instincts had been treated by Christianity.
The alchemists called themselves washerwomen and cooks and compared the process of transformation to being cooked, kneaded, washed, hardened, softened, raised, lowered, divided and, finally, united. “Study, meditate, sweat, work, wash, cook,” they said. It is an impossible process to describe and the images offer a better understanding than the words. One cannot delete something from the psyche as one deletes a sentence or paragraph on a computer. One can only gradually become aware of a hitherto unknown aspect of oneself and slowly deepen one’s insight into the causes, power and persistence of unconscious habits of behaviour and projections, causes that originate not only in personal experience but in the whole religious and political inheritance of a culture. This insight is part of the process of the dawning of a different kind of light within the darkness of what was previously unknown.
Jung stressed the vital importance of the ego in this work. The ego or conscious mind or personality is the mediator between the conscious part of oneself and the darkness of the unknown part of the psyche — the unconscious. Without its cooperation no transformation can take place. As the new centre of consciousness comes into being, the ego is strengthened and this strength is essential if it is not to be overpowered or inflated by the emerging elements of the unconscious. Jung’s own experience, described in great detail in The Red Book, testifies to this need. The conscious personality or conscious mind has to learn to relate to this greater power rather than to deny its presence or suppress its voice and its attempts to communicate. Ultimately it becomes the servant of this greater power and surrenders to its guidance.
Today and also most probably, then, the call to enter the alchemical process may be initiated by trauma: the experience of profound and devastating loss where the foundation of our life seems to disintegrate. The ego or conscious personality can be assailed by a paralysing depression, a deep melancholia and lose all hope and will to live. These feelings may result from the loss of a parent, partner or child or from the loss of our marriage, our home, our health, our job or our money — our life seemingly reduced to dust and ashes. If we can understand this traumatic event as a preparation for a new orientation in our life, even the call of the buried spirit, this may help; otherwise it may be experienced as blind, apparently pointless suffering, the endurance of a cruel, negative fate. There may be a risk of suicide if there is no insight into what is happening. Writers and artists know that this descent into the paralysing darkness of depression can be a prelude to a new creative initiative but it feels as if, like Persephone, one has been snatched into the underworld and has been abandoned there. If one looks for a contemporary example of the nigredo on the world stage, the possible collapse of the euro and the banking system, together with the growing unemployment and the human suffering caused by the ongoing financial crisis and the failure of a state such as Greece, provide it. This fiery experience of disintegration and mortificatio can be the prelude to a new beginning, a new creative initiative hitherto unimagined.
2. The Second Stage of the Lesser Work – known as the Albedo, Solutio or Purificatio
The two primary symbols of the stage of the Albedo are the dove of the Holy Spirit and the White Stone. This stage is presided over by the element Water and is about baptism and regeneration in the watery womb of the soul, awakening to the feminine principle and the neglected feeling values, opening the eye of the heart in the sense described in Chapter Fifteen. In this stage water and, specifically, water associated with the ethereal substance of the soul — the aqua permanans — is the agent of transformation, “This divine water makes the dead living and the living dead, it lightens the darkness and darkens the light.”(17)
Other symbols describing this stage are the white rose and the lily, the pelican and the swan and, most importantly, the Young Queen. The moon is also a symbol of the Albedo for it shines in the darkness and presides over the mysteries of transformation that take place in the darkness, in a part of the psyche of which we are not, at the beginning of the alchemical process, aware. The rising moon signifies the dawning of insight, understanding and a relationship with spirit. The copious shedding of tears accompanies this stage as fixed habits and powerful complexes are dissolved or melted down. The alchemists compared the Albedo to the gradual whitening of the early dawn sky after the darkness of night. In vivid imagery they describe the process of transforming the prima materia of the initial psychic state by repeated washings, cleansings, purifications, repeated immersions in water, and repeated submissions to the heating power of fire which together separate out and remove the rust or verdigris which had accrued to and hidden the gold of the spirit in the pre-conscious state. So there are images of the sun drowning in the mercurial fountain, the king sweating in a confined space or drowning and calling out for help. But in the waters of the soul, the king and queen are being brought together in what is known as the first coniunctio, described in many images. The imagination begins to be activated, new ideas and possibilities are born.
The stage of the Albedo describes the stage when the soul is beginning to become conscious of the hidden spirit whom the alchemists called Mercurius and whose secret presence oversees the Great Work of the transformational process. In this stage they began to work consciously with this spirit, to serve it with trust and devotion yet also become aware of how they might be deceived or misled by its trickster-like qualities. Some Christian alchemists likened this stage to the Assumption of the Virgin. “Little by little and from day to day,” wrote the sixteenth century Belgian alchemist Gerhard Dorn, “he will perceive with his mental eyes and with the greatest joy some sparks of divine illumination.”
3. The Greater Work - The Rubedo, Coniunctio and Multiplicatio - the re-unification of body, soul and spirit.
The alchemists called the third and final stage of the alchemical process the Greater Work the Rubedo. In some texts it is preceded by a stage called the Citronitas or yellowing. They likened it to what the medieval alchemists and mystics called the “Rising Dawn” (Aurora) or Golden Hour (Aurea Hora) as a description of the soul’s mystical union with God. (18) They also likened it to Resurrection and to the reddening of the sky as the sun begins to rise to the zenith, spreading its irradiating and warming rays over the earth. Red-gold is the colour of the Rubedo and the red rose and the red stone are symbols of the completion of the Greater Work.
The stage of the Rubedo involves the long and difficult work of fixing the new attitude so that it is stable and constant, not alternating between the old and new states and, above all, avoiding the danger of inflation. It may involve commitment to some creative work, bringing into manifestation insights and knowledge that has been learned, communicating these to a wider audience or serving life in some way which reflects a deeper compassion and commitment. It can be compared to the physical processes of churning milk into butter, turning grapes into wine, wheat into bread, raw elements into cooked food. As my teacher, Barbara Somers, once unforgettably described it, “the jam begins to set.”
This stage describes the awakening of the conscious personality to full awareness of spirit as guide and companion within the illumined soul, the conscious alignment with spirit, and the final union (coniunctio) of the two formerly estranged aspects of the psyche, the solar King and lunar Queen — in Jungian terms the conscious and the unconscious — so there is no longer conflict and enmity between them, nor indeed the inflated claim of the conscious mind that it constitutes the totality of consciousness, ignoring the existence of the unconscious.
The Rubedo announces the full expansion or awakening of the heart, the incandescent flowering of the imagination that a sixteenth century alchemist called Martin Ruland, who was a pupil of Paracelsus, called the star in man—the celestial or super-celestial body. Body, soul and spirit are unified and transfigured in this experience of enlightenment and union, sometimes at the moment of death, as in the AuroraConsurgens but also, I believe, in the startling enlightenment of the near-death experience which offers a glimpse of life beyond death. We grow through the Nigredo and Albedo stage of alchemy into the Rubedo. We cannot force entry into it by spiritual exercises or any formulation of goals. It may happen to us, as with the near-death experience, or we can grow into it through the expansion of the heart, the instinctive capacity to love, to give to others, to serve life through an awakened compassion. His Holiness the Dalai Lama would be a modern example of this capacity to give, to serve.
The coniunctio involves the whole process of psychic transformation as the union of the two aspects of the psyche proceeds through the different phases of alchemy that aare repeated over and over again, in what the alchemists called the circulatio, relating this word to the rotation of the planets around the sun. The alchemical transformations the alchemist worked with were carried out during appropriate astrological transits — As Above, So Below. But in another sense, the coniunctio stands for the final awakening, the final union with the divine ground, now fully recognized, honoured and consciously present within the soul. The power to transform, to serve, to heal, comes from this source. The stone or elixir has the power to multiply (multiplicatio) as in the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fish in the Gospels. The whole alchemical process is about the incarnation of spirit in the human soul and the long incubation or preparation needed for the soul to become capable of containing the tension, dangers and revelation of this gradual incarnation or awakening of spirit.
The final stage of alchemy is about becoming aware of and entering into the immortal “body of light”, the integration of body, soul and spirit and the union with the divine ground that the alchemists called the unus mundus. A primary symbol of the Rubedo is the phoenix, symbolizing life regenerated from the ashes of the old, unconscious life. The beautiful and evocative images of the treasure belong to this final stage: the Quintessential Gold, the Stone of the Wise, the Pearl of Great Price, the Golden Phoenix, the Elixir of Life, the Flower of Immortality, the Heavenly Balsalm and the Divine Water as well as the perfume of flowers, a flowering tree and the celestial blue colour. One text describes the stone (lapis) as a “light without shadow, a marvellous thing that makes a great golden fountain to gush forth from itself.”(19)
The alchemists always stressed that the Work, as they called it, should be done gently, patiently, and should never be forced. Forcing could lead to madness, illness, even premature death because greed and the will to power would enter into it. The three dangers they had to be wary of were haste, arrogance (inflation) and avarice.
Processes or Aspects of this final phase of transformation:
Sublimatio — meditation, contemplation, receiving the ‘dew’ of heaven or inspiration.
Coagulatio — embodiment: Learning how to integrate the insights that have been gained with our daily lives.
Fixatio — fixation of the volatile: developing a steadiness of focus through contemplation.
Distillatio — distillation of the quintessence.
Multiplicatio — Access to far greater energy and power to create and heal from a different focus and depth.
Coniunctio — the Completion of the Great Work signifies rebirth into the divine worlds often, though not necessarily, at death, and the conscious experience of union with the Divine Ground.
So, to summarize, the alchemists wanted to free the quintessential gold of the spirit hidden within nature, to free the divine life impulse from the beliefs, fixed attitudes, instinctual habits and unconscious projections that veil it from us. Their aim was to help this mysterious spirit to become conscious in themselves so they could come to the full experience of its presence and guidance but in doing this, they knew that they were actually influencing and perhaps transforming in a positive sense (by refraining from harming it), the very nature of matter and therefore all life, since all things are connected. The gradual revelation of the treasure involved great suffering on the one hand and illumination, wonder, and inexpressible joy on the other as the light of a new consciousness dawned. “No-one,” wrote Gerhard Dorn, “may accomplish this work except through affection, humility and love, for it is the gift of God to his humble servants.”
As they watched the matter of their own psychic life transform in the mirror of the alchemical retort, the greatest and also the most humble of the alchemists experienced the immense mystery of what they were witnessing. They realized they were assisting spirit in the process of its own transformation, bringing itself to consciousness over aeons of earth time, leading creation back to its source. They had revealed to them in a gradual process of illumination, the divinity of nature and all life processes; they saw that one divine spirit was at work in all forms of life as well as their own human consciousness. They sought to bring to birth in themselves the hidden spirit that needed to be rescued from its buried state in nature and themselves. In accomplishing this double act of redemption they became the sons of Divine Wisdom, inheritors of the treasure, the true philosophical gold. And, as their understanding grew, they realized they were the ministers, not the masters of the stone, their lives illumined by the Wisdom of the Holy Spirit eternally pouring forth the water of life.
The three phases of the Great Work blend imperceptibly into each other and they are repeated over and over again in a process known as the circulatio as the three-fold union of body, soul and spirit proceeds. There is not one awakening, but many, not one illumination but many. As the darkness at the heart of ourselves is entered, so the windows of the soul are opened and the light begins to shine, the light radiating from what the alchemists called the lumen naturae, the light that is the hidden ground of all life, revealing what was previously unknown or shrouded in darkness. The image of the alchemical diagram of the squared circle points to the recognition of the incarnation of spirit in matter and the unification of the masculine and feminine principles — the coniunctio or indissoluble ‘marriage’ of the Above with the Below.
The completion of the Great Work brings the revelation of spirit as the quintessential ground of the soul and of all life. The beginning of the Rubedo announces the awakening of the heart, the flow of compassion towards all living things and the creation of the body of light—what the alchemists called ‘the resurrection body’, the body we may ultimately inhabit after our death. Our physical body is the cosmos in miniature carrying the radiant light of the cosmic ground in every cell. Body, soul and spirit are unified and transfigured in this experience. As a triune whole, they in turn are united with the cosmic ground of being.
The late Father Bede Griffiths (1906–1993), one of the great sages of our time who lived in India for many years, tells of how he suffered a stroke, and thinking he was dying, prepared for death. But instead of death, he felt the need to surrender to the Mother, to the Feminine. He made that act of surrender and felt a wave of love overwhelm him, a wave so powerful that he didn’t know if he would be able to survive it. He realized that all of us carry this love within our being but are shut off from it because the mind gets in the way of it and creates the dualistic consciousness we live in. Since that experience, he said he was able to live beyond the dualistic mind in the time that remained to him. He said this about the Great Work:
The soul discovers its source of being in the Spirit, the mind is opened to this inner light, the will is energized by this inner power. The very substance of the soul is changed; it is made a ‘partaker of the divine nature.’ And this transformation affects not only the soul but also the body. The matter of the body – its actual particles – is transformed by the divine power and transfigured by the divine light – like the body of Christ at the resurrection. (20)
In becoming aware of our soul, in discovering how to relate to it, transform and be transformed by it, heal its wounds, listen to its guidance, receive illumination and insight from our dreams, we help to bring about the marriage between the King and the Queen and eventually, that sacred marriage with the Divine Ground which is the principal theme of alchemy and is, I believe, the tremendous destiny of the human race. This unrecognized yet immanent Holy Spirit is the flow of life in our veins, the flux and flow of our thoughts, the primordial power of our instincts, the miracle of our bodily organism, the creative genius of our imagination. Anyone who has experienced the sheer ecstasy of saving another’s life, of serving life to the utmost of his or her ability, will have touched the spirit and experienced its awesome power.
“One is the stone, one the vessel, one the procedure, and one the medicine.” The process of transformation is unique for each one of us yet intrinsically the same for all. Alchemy gives us the blazing revelation of the divinity of life in the reunion of body, soul and spirit and calls us to the service of that life with whatever creative gifts it has bestowed on us. The gradual creation of the alchemical treasure is an experience of great loneliness, suffering and sacrifice on the one hand and illumination, wonder and inexpressible joy on the other as the light of the unified consciousness dawns.
What I have learned in the last fifty years is that alchemy is:
· A return journey to the unseen dimension of spirit with the help of spirit.
· A journey that can take each one of us as far as our longing can reach.
· A process that attunes our awareness to a hidden order of reality.
· A revelation that we are at all times and in all places living within the light of spirit. There is nothing beyond or outside spirit. There is only one life which is the life of the cosmos and the life of each and all. Each one of us is a unique atom in the invisible life of the Whole.
· A discovery that there is no death for consciousness nor does the matter of the body really die. Our purpose on this planet is to discover this truth, and live this truth with every breath of life; to love and serve life as best we can by doing harm to no-one and activating the flow of light and love in our lives.
The Alchemist’s Prayer
Oh, most singular and unspeakable Presence, first and last in the universe, heighten the fury of my fire and burn away the dross of my being. Cleanse my soiled soul; bathe me in your awesome light. Set me free from my history and cut me loose from my boundaries. Unite me with the One Thing hidden in my life, wherein is my only strength. Fill me with your Presence, allow me to see through your Eye, grant me entry to your Mind, let me resonate with your Will. Make me transparent to your flame, and fashion me into a lens for your light only. Transmute me into an incorruptible Stone in your eternal service, like the golden light that surrounds you.(21)
1. Adam McLean has spent many years taking immense trouble to assemble, translate and put many these texts onto his website, together with hundreds of extraordinary images from the alchemical texts, many of them hitherto unknown. www.levity.com/alchemy
2. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 269
3. Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine
4. quoted in the Aurora Consurgens, edited and with a commentary by Marie-Louise von Franz, Bollingen, New York and Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1966, p. 160, from a manuscript by Petrus Bonus.
5. Pierre-Jean Fabre, Les Secrets Chymiques, Paris 1636
6. One of the priceless manuscripts in the British Library
7. CW12, Psychology and Alchemy, par. 559–563
8. see website www.alchemylab.com
9. The Hermetic Museum, Waite, London, 1953, 1, 13
10. Aurora Consurgens, p. 242
11. from the tractatus aureus, quoted by Jung in par. 155 of CW12, Psychology and Alchemy. Compare the passage in Proverbs 4:6–8 “Forsake her not and she shall preserve thee; love her and she shall keep thee.”
12. Aurora, p. 186
13. ibid, p. 192
14. ibid, p. 35 & 37. For comparison, see Proverbs 3: 13–18
15. ibid, p. 133
16. ibid, pages 141 and 143
17. Jung, CW14, Mysterium Coniunctionis, par. 317
18. Aurora, p. 205
19. ibid, p. 324, from the Carmina Heliodori
20. Bede Griffiths, A New Vision of Reality
21. website www.alchemylab.com
Apart from Jung’s books and those of Marie-Louise von Franz, see Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, Alchemy: The Secret Art and The Golden Game