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Carl Jung “The Mercurial Fountain”


The Practice of Psychotherapy (The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 16)


We are the metals* first nature and only source/
The highest tincture of the Art is made through us.
No fountain and no water has my like/
I make both rich and poor men whole or sick.
For deadly can I be and poisonous.

[Figure 1]

This picture goes straight to the heart of alchemical symbolism, for it is an attempt to depict the mysterious basis of the opus.

It is a quadratic quaternity, characterized by the four stars in the four corners.

These are the four elements. Above, in the centre, there is a fifth star which represents the fifth entity, the “One” derived from the four, the quinta essentia.

The basin below is the vas Hermeticum,, where the transformation takes place. It contains the mare nostrum, the aqua permanens or the “divine water.”

This is the mare tenebrosum, the chaos.

The vessel is also called the uterus in
which the foetus spagyricus (the homunculus) is gestated.

This basin, in contrast to the surrounding square, is circular, because it is the matrix of the perfect form into which the square, as an imperfect form, must be changed.

In the square the elements are still separate and hostile to one another and must therefore be united in the circle.

The inscription on the rim of the basin bears out this intention.

It runs (filling in the abbreviations):

“Unus est Mercurius mineralis, Mercurius vegetabilis, Mercurius animalis.” (Vegetabilis should be translated as “living” and animalis as “animate” or even “psychic” in the sense of having a soul.)

On the outside of the basin there are six stars which together with Mercurius represent the seven planets or metals.

They are all as it were contained in Mercurius,
since he is the pater metallorum.

When personified, he is the unity of the seven planets, an Anthropos whose body is the world, like Gayomart, from whose body the seven metals flow into the earth.

Owing to his feminine nature, Mercurius is also the mother of the seven, and not only of the six, for he is his own father and mother.

4s Out of the “sea,” then, there rises this Mercurial Fountain, triplex nomine, as is said with reference to the three manifestations of Mercurius.

He is shown flowing out of three pipes in the form of lac uirginls, acetum fontis^ and aqua vitae.

These are three of his innumerable synonyms.

The aforementioned unity of Mercurius is here represented as a triad.

It is repeatedly emphasized that he is a trinity, triunus or trinus, the chthonic, lower, or even infernal counterpart of the Heavenly Trinity, just as Dante’s devil is three-headed.

For the same reason Mercurius is often shown as a three-headed serpent.

Above the three pipes we find the sun and moon, who are the indispensable acolytes and parents of the mystic transformation, and, a little higher, the quintessential star, symbol of the unity of the four hostile elements.

At the top of the picture is the serpens bifidus, the divided (or two-headed) serpent, the fatal binarius which Dorn defines as the devil.

This serpent is the serpens mercurialis? representing the duplex natura of Mercurius.

The heads are spitting forth fire, from which Maria the Copt or Jewess derived her “duo fumi.”

These are the two vapours whose condensation initiates the process xl which leads to a multiple sublimation or distillation for the purpose of purifying away the mali odores, the foetor sepulcrorum,
And the clinging darkness of the beginning.

This structure reveals the tetrameria (fourfold nature) of the transforming process, already known to the Greeks.

It begins with the four separate elements, the state of chaos, and ascends by degrees to the three manifestations of Mercurius In the inorganic, organic, and spiritual worlds; and, after attaining the form of Sol and Luna (i.e., the precious metals gold and silver, but also the radiance of the gods who can overcome the strife of the elements by love), it culminates in the one and indivisible (incorruptible, ethereal, eternal) nature of the anima, the quinta essentia, aqua permanent, tincture, or lapis philosophorum.

This progression from the number 4 to 3 to 2 to 1 is the “axiom of Maria,” and it runs in various forms through the whole of alchemy like a leitmotiv.

If we set aside the numerous “chemical” explanations we come to the following symbolical ground-plan: the initial state of wholeness is marked by four mutually antagonistic tendencies-4 being the
minimum number by which a circle can be naturally and clearly defined.

The reduction of this number aims at final unity.

The first to appear in this progression is the number 3, a masculine number, and out of it comes the feminine number 2.

Male and female inevitably constellate the idea of sexual union as the means to producing the i, which is then consistently called the “filius regius” or “films philosophorum.”

At bottom, therefore, our symbolical picture is an illustration of the methods and philosophy of alchemy.

These are not warranted by the nature of matter as known to the old masters; they can only derive from the unconscious psyche.

No doubt there was also a certain amount of conscious speculation among the alchemists, but this is no hindrance whatever to unconscious projection, for wherever the mind of the investigator
departs from exact observation of the facts before it and goes its own way, the unconscious spiritus rector will take over the reins and lead the mind back to the unchangeable, underlying archetypes, which are then forced into projection by this regression.

The quaternity is one of the most widespread archetypes and has also proved to be one of the most useful diagrams for representing the arrangement of the functions by which the conscious mind takes its bearings.

It is like the crossed threads
in the telescope of our understanding.

The cross formed by the points of the quaternity is no less universal and has in addition the highest possible moral and religious significance for Western man.

Similarly the circle, as the symbol of completeness and perfect being, is a widespread expression for heaven, sun, and God; it also expresses the primordial image of man and the soul.

The minimum plural number, 4, represents the plural state of the man who has not yet attained inner unity, hence the state of bondage and disunion, of disintegration, and of being torn in different directions an agonizing, unredeemed state which longs for union, reconciliation, redemption, healing, and wholeness.

The triad appears as “masculine,” i.e., as the active resolve or agent whose alchemical equivalent is the “upwelling.”

In relation to it the dyad is “feminine,” the receptive, absorbent patiens, or the material that still has to be formed and impregnated (informatio> impraegnatio).

The psychological equivalent of the triad is want, desire, instinct, aggression and determination, whereas the dyad corresponds to the reaction of the psychic system as a whole to the impact or the decisions of the conscious mind.

The latter is absolutely impotent by itself, unless it can succeed in overcoming the inertia of the whole human being and in achieving its object despite his laziness and constant resistance.

But by dint of compulsion or persuasion the conscious mind can carry through its purpose, and only in the resultant action is a man a living whole and a unity (“in the beginning was the deed”)

-~provided, of course, that the action is the mature product of a process embracing the complete psyche and not just a spasm or impulse designed to repress it.

We are moving here in familiar waters.

These things are described in the most magnificent images in the last and greatest work of alchemy Goethe’s Faust.

He gives a vivid account of the experience of the alchemist who discovers that what he has projected into the retort is his own darkness, his unredeemed state, his passion, his struggles to reach the goal, i.e., to become what he really is, to fulfil the purpose for which his mother bore him, and, after the peregrinations of a long life full of confusion and error, to become the filius regius, son of the supreme mother.

Or we can go even further back to the important forerunner of Faust) the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz (1616), which was assuredly known to Goethe.

Fundamentally it is the same theme, the same “Axioma Mariae,” telling how Rosencreutz is transformed out of his former unenlightened condition and comes to realize that he is related to “royalty.”

But in keeping with its period (beginning of the seventeenth century), the whole process is far more projected and the withdrawal of the projection into the hero which in Faust’s case turns him into a superman is only fleetingly hinted at.

Yet the psychological process is essentially the same: the becoming aware of those powerful contents which alchemy sensed in the secrets of matter.

The text that follows the picture of the Mercurial Fountain is mainly concerned with the “water” of the art, i.e., mercury.

In order to avoid repetition, I would refer the reader to my lecture on “The Spirit Mercurius” (89).

Here I will only say that this fluid substance, with all its paradoxical qualities, really signifies the unconscious which has been projected into it.

The “sea” is its static condition, the “fountain” its activation, and the “process” its transformation.

The integration of unconscious contents is expressed in the idea of the elixir, the medicina catholica or universalisy the aurum potabile^ the cibus sempiternus (everlasting food), the health-giving fruits of the philosophical tree, the vinum ardens, and all the other innumerable synonyms.

Some of them are decidedly ominous but no less characteristic, such as succus lunariae or lunatic (juice of the moon-plant), aqua Saturni (note that Saturn is a baleful deity!), poison, scorpion, dragon, son of the fire, boys’ or dogs urine, brimstone, devil, etc.

Although not expressly stated in the text, the gushing up and flowing back of the Mercurial Fountain within its basin completes a circle, and this is an essential characteristic of Mercurius because he is also the serpent that fertilizes, kills, and devours itself and brings itself to birth again.

We may mention in this connection that the circular sea with no outlet, which perpetually replenishes itself by means of a spring bubbling up in its centre, is to be found in Nicholas of Cusa as an allegory
of God. ~Carl Jung, CW 16, Pages 203-209