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Carl Jung and how he got interested in Alchemy


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Modern Psychology: C. G. Jung’s Lectures at the ETH Zürich, 1933-1941

Lecture X 24th January, 1941

Perhaps you found the last lecture somewhat difficult, but it was necessary to give you a sort of general survey of the alchemists’ ideas as to the meaning and goal of their work, and this structure reaches far
back into history.

As you saw, we had to go back as far as Empedocles, in order to understand where the peculiar symbols originate, which the alchemists use to express their ideas about a complete or perfect being.

This perfect being is a conception of an optimum of life, and it is symbolically represented as the all-round being.

The latter is closely related to the Sphairos of Empedocles, and to Plato’s round primeval man.

This deduction is no arbitrary opinion, for the alchemists themselves often refer to Plato’s “Timaeus” as the source of their ideas.

Today we will turn to another aspect of our subject.

I expect you realise by now how extraordinarily complicated alchemy is, both in the way the alchemists think md in their outlook; and you are probably surprised, that I, as a practical psychologist and psychiatrist, should be concerned with such an extremely peculiar subject.

But as you know, I have been working for many years on the psychology of the unconscious, and it was the enigmatical and puzzling structure of the unconscious which brought me to alchemy, as well as to the study of Yoga and of the Ignatian exercises.

In the case of alchemy, however, this fact needs further explanation.

I did not embark on this complicated and abstruse material from the start, but in the course of increasing experience, about ten or more years ago, I began to investigate it.

The first stimulus was provided by a peculiar case, which I will sketch briefly.

L It was not, of course, the only one, I have seen a great many such cases in my practise, but it was the one which gave me the first and strongest incentive to study alchemy.

It was the case of an American woman, with a good academic education, about 50 years old, who, in the course of years, had gradually come to a sort of deadlock; partly because of her age, and partly because she was a modern human being.

Earlier in life she had had very pronounced views on religion, but they gradually became somewhat ineffective.

So she began to search, and this brought her to psychology.

As often happens at that age, she began to dream of her youth, and at the same time she developed a desire to visit her mother’s native land, where she had never been.

Her mother was born in a northern European country, but had emigrated to America.

On her visit to her mother’s country, my patient was seized with a wish to paint the landscape, which is indeed very paintable, and for the first time in her life she took to painting.

She had no special talent in this direction, but she found great satisfaction in the attempt.

When she left there and came to Zurich, she was still full of her impressions and went on painting, this time necessarily from memory.

She then began producing pictures which had little resemblance to nature, to outer nature anyway.

The first picture which she produced, while working with me, was a view of 9 7 the sea shore. (See sketch 1.)

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There are large rocks in the foreground, and she [Sketch I] herself is standing with the lower half of her body caught in the rock.

This rock, and some of the others, have cavities in them, which makes them look like eggs cut in half, with seeds in the centre.

They are also different in colour from the other rocks.

A strong wind is coming from a hole in the sky, and is blowing her hair back.

She was trying at first simply to paint the seashore and the rocks, but, because her visual memory was not strong enough, the picture became symbolic under her hand, and turned into this curious thing.

She then had a phantasy:

I passed by with a magic wand, and rescued her from the rock. This was a sort of vision and does not app ear in the picture. I made it clear to her that psychologically she was really in a very unpleasant position, caught in a rock as in the picture, and that I had no magic wand, so she must face the problem of how she could get herself free.

I advised her to go on with the pictures, which would most likely show her a way out of her predicament.

The next picture again represents a range of rocks and the sea; but now a golden lightning has struck the rocks and has freed a round stone. [See sketch II.)

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This is her rescue, she has escaped as a stone.

The following picture was very curious, for the stone had become a sphere, suspended in space, surrounded by a wavy, mercurial ring, resembling Saturn, (See sketch III) with the number 12 on it.

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Above there is a golden snake which is approaching the sphere. This is evidently the golden lightning, which liberated her, and which appears again here as a golden snake.

She told me that the image reminded her of a dream, which she had had under ether during an operation some years before.

Such narcosis dreams are usually very important, for naturally people, who undergo an operation, are often occupied with the thought of death, which constellates a correspondingly intense content, that then appears in such a dream.

My patient told me that there had been a round sphere in her ether dream, with a band round its equator.

This band was formed of quicksilver, and rotated in such a way that it had zones where it widened and zones where it narrowed.

There were 12 points of condensation, and each point represented an epoch in history, perhaps several centuries, and was characterised by a great man.

This is somewhat the same idea as we find in Persia, the Zoroastrian idea of the Saoshyant, the saviour of the world who should appear every 1000 years.

Or in Islam as the figure of Chadir, who also appears periodically.

You know the poem of Friedrich Riickert where Chadir says:

“And again when 500 years were past,
I came, travelling the same way at last.”

The patient said she was born at midnight, or at least between 12 and 1, so that 12 was so to speak her number.

Evidently the 12 refers to the moment of her birth.

Astrologically speaking, this is her absolutely individual moment, the essential sign of her personality.

But she could not tell me why the band was quicksilver, we simply had to accept it as a fact.

The golden snake, which was approaching the sphere, was somehow disagreeable to her, for she was afraid it might embrace the sphere, after the manner of the band of quicksilver, and hatch something out of it.

She had a very dim remembrance of the Orphic world egg, which was surrounded by the serpent, but she knew very little mythology.

She was just afraid that the snake might have some evil intention.

The next picture justifies her suspicion (see sketch IV).

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The sphere has opened at the top and the snake is entering it, head first.

The snake has become black, which accounts for my patient’s fear: black represents evil.

Everything has changed in a most peculiar way.

The quicksilver is now lining the sphere, and [Sketch IV] forms a threefold image, containing a kind of seed which makes the fourth.

Apparently this represents a process of growth.

Then we come to the last picture of the series (see sketch V), the snake has withdrawn and is now below the picture.

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The sphere has closed again, containing the quicksilver, and the threefold image has become a quaternity.

Four whirls surround a sphere in the centre [the quinta essentia).

It was the invasion of the snake which brought about the quaternity. [Sketch V]

If I had known more alchemy in those days, the quicksilver would not have been necessary.

As it was, I felt increasingly convinced that there must b e a reason for its obtrusiveness.

The patient was unable to account for it, and, while I was puzzling over it, I turned to an old book, “Artis Auriferae”, which I had had in my library for some years.

It contained an edition of the “ROSARIUM PHILOSOPHORUM”, [the Rosegarden of the Philosophers).

The latter was first printed in 1550, and, as it happens to be one of the best of the old alchemistic treatises, I can thoroughly recommend it.

Most of the editions are in Latin, there is one old German translation, but it is very difficult to obtain.

It is a typical treatise, but is remarkable as one of the first attempts at a synopsis of alchemy; an anonymous author has tried to produce a summary of the whole of Hermetic philosophy.

He was obviously very widely read, and there are many quotations from the old authors in his book.

The pictures, in this old book, reminded me vaguely of my patient’s.

I then read the treatise, but it left me hopelessly confused.

I could make no sense of the peculiar mixture of chemical prescriptions, symbolism and philosophical ideas.

But every now and then I met with hopeful sentences, apparently intended to keep up the interest or courage of the reader.

For instance, the advice for studying the books of the philosophers: “lege de parte in partem”, showing that one should read very carefully from one passage to the next.

And further: “Magnam habeat librorum copiam philosophus” (the philosopher should have a great number of books) ; and : “Liber labrum aperitif ” (one book opens the understanding of another).

I realised then that it would be necessary to read a great many of the alchemistic books, and I soon came on a treatise by a philosopher of the sixteenth century, BERNHARDUS TREVISANUS: “De secretissimo philosophorum opere Chemica ” . (Concerning the most secret chemical work of the philosophers.)

This treatise is interesting, in that the author tells us how he searched and worked all his life, and yet did not succeed in finding the right tincture, and I found this confession very pleasing.

After all those years he made the discovery (which he should have made at the beginning), that is, he realised he should study the literature.

So he began to read the “Turba Philosophorum ” (the assembly of the philosophers).

This book is written in the form of a meeting of the Greek philosophers, each explains in his own way how he understands the alchemistic work.

There are many famous names among them (naturally pseudo names), but many 102 of them have been distorted by the Arab copyists.

Having read this book, Trevisanus gives his own interpretations of its meaning, and tells us what he thinks should be done.

He says that it was the sayings of PARMENIDES which had enlightened him the most, and it was among these that he had found the thing which led him to his goal.

He never claims to have made gold, or the Philosophers’ Stone, but he says that he reached his goal.

I took this as a hint and read the “sermones” of Parmenides.

I will read you some extracts:

(11) . Parmenides : “. . . Therefore explore the books ever and again, so that y o u may know the natures of the truth . . . . Contemplate therefore the words of the wise, how they completed the whole work with these words, in that they said, that nature rejoices in nature, and that nature holds nature fast.”

He is quoting a version of the sentence of Demokritos here: “Nature delights in nature, nature conquers nature, and nature rules nature.”

“In these words, therefore, do ye complete the whole work . . . . 0 ye divine natures, ye that at the hint of God multiply the ‘natures of the truth’! 0 thou strong nature, thou that conquers the natures and allows
their natures to enjoy themselves and to be joyful! To this in particular God has granted a strength, which the fire does not possess . . . .”

The fire he speaks of is the fire which the alchemists used for their processes; but it is the power of God, and not the fire, which accomplishes the work.

These passages naturally stimulated me considerably, and I read on.

The following passages are under the name “Mundus” which is however merely due to the way the Arab and Latin transmitters mutilated the name “Parmenides”.

(18) ” . . . For through this process the spirit is substantiated and the body transformed into a spirit . . . .

(47) ” . . . . But the old philosophers believe, that he, who has transformed gold into ‘poison’, has already reached the goal, and that he, who cannot do this, remains in nothingness. But I say unto you, all ye sons of the doctrine, that if ye have not refined all things through the ‘fire’ till those things ascend as ‘spirits’, ye remain in nothingness. This then is a spirit, escaping from the fire”,

This means that the fire cannot destroy it.

“and a heavy smoke, which rejoices the body when it penetrates into the body. But all philosophers have said: ‘Take the black, old spirit, and destroy and torture the ‘bodies’ through him, until they are changed’.”

Then in a further sermo:

(62.) “All explorers of the art, it becomes you to know, that whatever the philosophers have reported and prescribed, namely the ‘purple snail,’ and the roots ‘celandine’ and ‘kermes’, are one.”

The philosophers should not be disturbed by the many names, for they are one and the same thing.

“Do not trouble yourselves therefore about the multiplicity of things.”

Many substances are not necessary.

“For one (only) is the colour of the philosophers, though they give it what names they please, and, suspending its real name, they have called it black, because it is drawn from ‘our Pelagus’.”

This means that the blackness is drawn from “our sea”.

” And know ye, that the old priests did not consider it suitable to lay any artificial materials on their altars; so that they dyed with the Tyrian colour of the purple snail, in order not to lay anything dirty or impure on altars that should be venerated and kept pure.”

That is they used royal purple.

“But our Tyrian colour, which they had in their altars and treasure houses, is sweeter smelling and purer than it is possible for me to describe; (a colour) that is drawn from our red, purest ‘sea’, and which has a pleasant smell, is beautiful, and is neither dirty nor impure when it decays.”

This sweet smell is frequently alluded to in the alchemistic writings, and is also to be found, as a quality of the Holy Ghost, in the literature of Hellenistic Syncretism.

These two literatures are historically directly connected.

“And know ye, that we have called it by many names which are all true ; take wheat as an example in order to understand; it is ground and then it is called by another name.”

It is then called meal.

“And when it is p assed through the sieve, it is divided into various substances, from which different kinds of bread arise, each one having a separate name. Yet all these cereals are called by one single name, and (afterwards) discriminated by several names. So we acknowledge our Tyrian (colour) in every stage of its process, with the name of its colour.”

This means that its appearance changes from time to time, and receives different names, but we must not be deceived, it is a matter of one and the same substance.

We read in the last sermo:


“Know ye, all explorers of this art, that the ‘head’ is everything ”

The Latin word “caput” means head, but also principle, fundamental source, beginning.

The “caput mundi” is the beginning of the world.

It is possible, therefore, that it is the fundamental source which is everything but it could also really be the head, for the latter has been compared, by the alchemists themselves, with the head of Osiris which was fished out of the sea.

“He who does not possess this, has no benefit from anything which he ennobles. Therefore the masters have called that, with which it is completed, the ‘living’. For it is not several natures which ennoble that’thing’, but only a single and suitable one, which must be handled with care; for many have gone astray on account of ignorance of the process. Do not trouble, therefore, about the multiplicity of combinations, Nor about that which the envious have written in their books, for the nature of the truth is only one, through which the natural is changed; because the secret, which is concealed inside nature, is neither seen nor Known by any, save by a wise man. He who proceeds with care, and knows his ‘complexion’, draws from it that nature which overcomes all the natures. Then will the words of the master come to pass: Nature delights in nature, nature overcomes nature and nature rules nature.”

This is another version of the sentence of Demokritos.

“And yet there are not different natures, nor several, but only one, which has the strength of all in itself, through which it far excels the other things. See ye not that the master began with one, and ended with one?

Then he called those unities ‘the water of sulphur’, which conquers all nature.”

Bernhardus Trevisanus found something in these “sermones” of Parmenides, which enlightened him about the whole mysterious art.

At the age of sixty he found, through the study of books, the thing which he had been searching for elsewhere all his life.

While I was wondering whether I too had learnt something vital, my eyes fell on the end of the Turba where it says: “quorum dicta insipientibus sunt occulta”. (These words are hidden from the ignorant.)

So I said to myself: “Well, I must belong to the ignorant”, for I was by no means sure what it was that Trevisanus had seen.

But I did not allow myself to be discouraged, and went on reading these treatises, and studying the literature which extends over some sixteen centuries.

I have not read all by any means, for it is a matter of thousands of treatises, many of them only in manuscript form and scattered all over the world; but I am now acquainted with all the main authors.

I had to invent a method in order to decipher these texts and to reach their meaning.

I made a catalogue of all the peculiar symbols which they use, and made notes of the connections in which these symbols occurred.

In this way I gradually succeeded in deciphering their peculiar symbolic language.

I must now give you a short summary of the history of the literature of alchemy, in order that you may have some idea of the material with which we are dealing.

We find the oldest traces of alchemy in Egypt.

A book about chemical experiments is mentioned in the catalogue of the library in the temple of Horus at Edfu.

This reference is not later than the time of the Ptolemies (circa 300-100 B. C.).

We also find a Persian alchemist, OSTANES, mentioned in the oldest Greek alchemistic literature, who probably lived in the time of Alexander the Great [fourth century B. C.) or possibly even earlier.

Then we hear from a Sicilian historian, called DIODORUS SICULUS, that Isis was in possession of an elixir of life, a “pharmacon athanasias”, a medicine of immortality.

Siculus wrote about 50 B.C., in the time of Julius Caesar; and in India the grammarian PATANJALI, who lived about 150 B. C., mentions two alchemists.

There are distinct traces of an already well established alchemy in the first century B. C. in China; but the first actual Chinese treatise which we possess is that of WEI PO-YANG, who wrote about 140 A. D.

His treatise has been translated into English and he says something very pleasing in the Epilogue.

He describes himself as “a lowly man from the country of Kuai, who has no love for worldly power, glory, fame, or gains, who wastes his days leading a simple, quiet, leisurely, and peaceful life in a retreat in an unfrequented valley.”

It was in this valley that Wei Po-Yang lived and worked, though he has, of course, become a legendary figure.

Apart from the Chinese style, the trend of thought, revealed in is treatise, does not differ in any respect from Alexandrian alchemy; which is curious, for one could not prove any historical connection between the two, so we may assume that it is a matter of eternal truths.

The earliest western alchemical texts, which we possess, are of Greek-Egyptian origin.

These two traditions are very much confused, and have given rise to that peculiar mixture of ideas from which much [also in our own Christian religion) has arisen.

Among the oldest Greek-Egyptian authors and their writings I should mention:

DEMOKRITOS, you will remember his passage on the natures which is so often quoted; COMARIUS, the Archpriest, who taught Cleopatra; and a treatise called ISIS TO HORUS, which Isis the prophetess addresses to her son Horus.

These treatises belong to about the first century and are about the oldest which we possess.

The PAPYRUS OF LEYDEN comes from about the third century A. D. and consists mainly of magic sentences, and prescriptions for gold making and gold forging.

Many of these old texts were collected in the famous CODEX MARCIANUS (circa eleventh century) which is in the library of San Marco in Venice.

BERTHELOT, the French scientist, published a great many of these treatises comparatively recently (1887-88) in his “COLLECTION DES ANCIENS ALCHIMISTES GRECS”, including the writings of ZOSIMOS, third century A. D.

Berthelot also gives some Byzantine texts, OLYMPIODORE, LE CHRETIEN,STEPHANUS [of Alexandria?) etc.

These are our main direct sources of Greek Alchemy, but there is also a Greek alchemy which comes to us through the Arabs.

Most of these Arabic texts were translated into Latin about the eleventh and twelfth centuries, though some of these translations are said to date from the tenth century.

GERBERT OF REIMS, who died in 1003 A. D., is said to have made some of these translations.

He was afterwards POPE SILVESTER II., and, according to a legend, he kept a golden head in a chest, a kind of oracle, which answered questions.

We hear of “the children of the golden head” from Zosimos.

The “TABULA SMARAGDINA”,as you have already seen, came to us through the Arabs, and also a particularly interesting treatise: TRACTATUS AUREUS HERMETIS; the seven books of HERMES;
the “LIBER QUARTORUM” (which is attributed to PLATO) and several other texts. ~Carl Jung, ETH, Lecture 10, Pages 81-90.