"Rebis", from Theoria Philosophiae Hermeticae
by Heinrich Nollius (1617)
Alchemy: An Introduction to the symbolism and the psychology,
by Marie Louise Von Franz
A review by David Edwards
"Alchemy was the forefather of modern science, and the alchemists were concerned with the breaking down of materials to their base components, and composing new substances from these components through transmutation of the residue.
The common misconception was that upon dissolving metals in acidic substances, the metal was consumed. The alchemists realised that the metals had been transformed back to their original state in the form of atoms, and that the original metal was still held in the solution in a different state. It is worth noting here that Isaac Newton was a practitioner of alchemy, or chymistry , and modern science owes a debt to his work as an alchemist. (...)
The Great work of alchemy was concerned with explaining the relationship between the physical and material realms, and our part in that relationship. The perfection of the Philosopher's Stone is an allegory for perfecting our consciousness and being able to live beyond the material world. This is achieved by the breaking down of matter into it's constituent parts, and unifying the parts in balance and union of the opposing parts of duality to bring about the whole.
The work of the alchemists was not solely confined to the material world, it was also an exploration into the spirit of matter. This form of spiritual science left a very rich body of esoteric symbolism which can be decoded and utilised. Jung first noticed the relevance of alchemical symbols from the analysis of his patients dreams which they relayed to him. He discovered the link whilst thumbing through old books on alchemy. The relevance of this esoteric symbolism to psychoanalysis became apparent to him.
The same processes the alchemists employed in contemplation of the transmutation of metals can be used to bring union to the self. Jung noticed that the language of alchemy was a good descriptor for the process of individuation which the psyche must undergo to heal in the psychoanalytical process. The end result of Jungian psychoanalysis is for the self to individuate.
This process can be entered into by using these archetypal metaphors in three main stages; first is the nigredo, the black cloud of a depression, second is the albedo, the process of enlightening by identification of what is driving the depression as the prima materia, during which the philosophers stone, or the sense of self is discovered, third is the rubedo, the red state of heat, during which the identified drives are used to cook the philosophers stone to bring about the union of the opposites in a coniunctio.
"Conjunction", by Raphael Custos (c.1615)
This Trinitarian approach in alchemy echoes the concept of the Holy Trinity in the Christian faith, and as a side note it worth mentioning that the perception of our three dimensional existence was a concept created by physicists out of direct inspiration from the religious concept of the Holy Trinity. Once individuation has been achieved, and the nucleus of the philosopher's stone has been formed, heated and unified, autonomy from the herd mentality of collective consciousness follows with unexpected creativity and spontaneity.
"It is the quality of genius to produce the unexpected: it is the surprising thing which clicks and yet is not banal. You can never guess what a creative person will produce for it is a new creation and there is no knowing what it will be. From the mind come ideas and from the feeling side come reactions which in such a person are absolutely unique."
The individuated personality no longer looks outward for validation as its strength now comes from within and the nucleus formed during the process of balancing the conscious and the unconscious.
"Ultimately the individual is a unique and closed system, a unique thing which centres round an unpredictable source of life. If that becomes real in an individual then one feels the mystery of a unique personality. That has to do with shutting the house, which means separation from collective entanglements and contamination, not only outwardly, but inwardly, separating within oneself from what is ordinary and not oneself."
It is important to emphasise the self contained aspect to alchemy and psychoanalysis, which is what the sealed lead coffin of Osiris from the hermetic traditions alludes to. Von Franz asserts that just like the allegorical story of Osiris transcending death (with the wheat grains growing from his encased body) in his sarcophagus, it is often better when faced with a depression to engage in the conflict between the unconscious and conscious internally, rather than to avoid it. Frequently if one chooses to avoid or deny the depression there is a danger of psychosis, in which the unconscious drives can overwhelm consciousness.
In alchemy, this self contained aspect was usually represented by the hermetically sealed vessel, in which the Prima Materia is heated by the red sulphur; in psychoanalytical terms this is the ego being heated by the unconscious drives of the conflict to progress the individuation of the self.
Another good example of this would be the ouroboros, or serpent devouring its own tail.
Michael Maier - Atalanta Fugiens, Emblem 14 (1617)
"One must remember the Ouroboros the tail eater, where the opposite are one: the head is at one end and the tail at the other. They are one but have an opposite aspect and when the head and the tail, the opposites meet, there a flow is born, which is what the alchemists mean by the mystical or divine water, which I described as the meaningful flux of life. With the help of the instinct of truth, life goes on as a meaningful flow, as a manifestation of the Self."
Alchemists were searching for the spiritual in the material, and the importance of this is in psychoanalytical terms is the link between the conscious and the unconscious.
"We do not really know the difference between material reality and the psyche."
What this means is that our experience of order in the world comes through our minds. In other words the human psyche decodes reality through its perception, and alchemical symbolism can help to adjust the sense of self when that perception becomes faulty due to the balance between conscious and unconscious becoming unstable. Through active imagination and personifying the drives of this conflict when it appears as animus/anima archetypes, one can redress the balance and unify the opposites to bring about a whole, individuated self.
Individuation and the alchemical process both initiate from a state of conscious confusion, and by no means is either an easy process. Creation comes from destruction, and symbolically when faced with a destructive emotion or psychosis, an aspect of the psyche has to symbolically die in order for the individuated self to emerge with the ego dominating and assimilating the unconscious. Individuation is seen as the incarnation of the divine in flesh, and the individuated personality becomes akin to a Son of God.
"All outer events in life are in a way only similes ; they are only parables of an inner process, synchronistic symbolisations. You have to look at them from that angle to understand and integrate them, that would be spiritualizing the physical."
"You have again to solidify the spirit ! You have to do both."
"The process needs both movements so as not to become destructive, and that is so beautifully illustrated in alchemy. The body has to be spiritualized and the spirit has to be incarnated, both things must take place."