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

Lecture XIII 14th February, 1941

We come now to some passages on the meaning of alchemy in two books which belong to the seventeenth century.

The prime of alchemy was already past, and a rapid decline was soon to become apparent.

The first of these books is by MYLIUS: the “Philosophia Reformata”.

This book includes a great many passages from the writings of earlier alchemists, it is rather a depressing compilation on the whole, but it contains some good remarks.

Mylius says of alchemy for instance:

” The understanding of the divine mysteries is really an attempt to serve God and one’s neighbours.”

He also calls it a “thesaurus aeternus” (an eternal treasure) and he says further:

“Beware therefore, 0 son of wisdom, of ghosts, and separate thyself from dead bodies and stones, for there is no path to be found in these, nor wilt thou find that which thou hast undertaken in them ”

He says here that the alchemist must separate himself from the chemical substances, there is no way to be found in them, and this is a very important statement coming from an alchemist.

The passage needs some elucidation, it says, for instance, that the son of wisdom must beware of ghosts, and what has alchemy to do with ghosts?

They sound uncanny, but there are several passages in the literature where they are referred to, though it is often difficult to be sure what is meant.

The Latin word ” spiritus ” can mean spirit, steam, gas and ghost.

(I was in doubt for a long time how to translate the word, as I often was about the word “corpus “, which is also used ambiguously, it can mean one of the substances and also the living body.)

There are passages where ghosts are undoubtedly meant, they are conjured or exorcised, and incantations and sacrifices are undertaken to propitiate them.

We may assume that it is often the spirits of the planets that are addressed, for we know there is an inner connection between the metals and planets.

Quicksilver is connected with Mercury, for instance, and when the alchemist was working with quicksilver it was deemed advisable to conjure up the spirit of Mercury, in order that it should help with the work.

In later alchemy, however, such “familiar spirits” became suspect; the only spirit recognised by Christianity was the Holy Ghost.

And this passage from Mylius warns the alchemist against having anything to do with spirits or ghosts; that is, all magic practises are condemned.

There is also a warning about dead bodies and stones.

These include all the materials with which the alchemist works, chemicals, minerals, retorts, ovens, and all the things which are most emphasised in alchemy.

With what then is he to do his work?

He is told here to separate himself from all the implements of his art, for he will not find the thing he has undertaken in them.

We can only conclude from this, that the chemical experiments on which the alchemist actually worked, were not the essential thing in alchemy, that they were rather intentionally emphasised, is a cloak for something totally different behind.

Mylius quotes Pseudo-Plato as having said:

“We attribute this (art) to the glorious God, Who gives inspiration to whom He chases; from whom He takes it away again, as He chases.”

Mylius says in another passage:

“It is a precious gift of God, which is higher than every secret of the sciences of this world, and is an incomparable treasure of treasures.”

These are high testimonies to the value of the goal of alchemy.

As it is called the art of gold making, we might think that these people were particularly fond of money and that they considered the possession of gold to be the highest good; but on the other hand they
constantly assert that their gold is not ordinary gold, and that only stupid people are under that impression.

The second book, from the seventeenth century, is the MUSAEUM HERMETICUM.

It says:

“It is the book of truth, for the people who desire to live without sin, the secret book of the gifts of God, the path of the elect, but among thousands scarcely three are chosen. It is the science of the wise, and not that of the inexperienced, and a gift of God, to which one can only attain through the grace of the intellect illuminated by God, and through patient and pious humility.”

In another passage of the same book we read:

“It (the art) is only bestowed on the worthy, who have incurred great expense, and given long work and much time to it; it comes to the rescue in great need, it destroys false glory, false hopes and fears, it hinders ambition, violence and excess, and it mitigates enmities. He who has perfect knowledge of it, flies from all extremes and is satisfied with the middle way. Therefore it is an ‘ars sacra’.”

We are told here that alchemy is a sacred art.

Who would have thought that the alchemists, popularly supposed to be searching for gold, were really promising themselves freedom from illusion, exaggerated emotion, passion, excess and all possible vices?

These are spiritual effects, psychological results, which it is difficult to harmonise with the technique of alchemy.

To conclude these passages from the texts on the meaning of alchemy, I will read you a short quotation from the Chinese alchemist, WEI PO-YANG.

I have already mentioned his treatise as being the oldest Chinese alchemistic text extant.

Wei Po-Yang says:

“He who properly cultivates his innate nature will see the yellow light shine forth as it should. He who augments his Te [magnanimity – virtue) will be able to return to his true root and origin. The material for working is as close to one as his heart and is not apart from his body . . . . The trio [The Book of Change, the Taoists, and the Processing) are variations of the same thing under the guise of different names.”

The “Processing” is the alchemistic procedure; this, Taoism and the Book of Changes are all the same thing, according to Wei Po-Yang.

The Book of Changes is the sub title for the I Ching, a very old Chinese book of wisdom, which I have often mentioned in former lectures.

It was translated into German by Richard Wilhelm.

He worked on it with one of the last of the old classical Chinese wise men, Lau Nai Siian, and brought it out with its old commentaries and annotations of his own.

It is an oracular book, and if you speak to an educated Chinese of the present day about it, he will be rather embarrassed and tell you that it is a collection of old magic words, entirely without meaning.

But if you succeed in winning his confidence, he will tell you in private, that he has experimented with it at times.

This book lies just under the threshold of Chinese consciousness, it is rationally despised under European influence, but every Chinese believes in it at bottom and is perfectly right to do so, for it is an extraordinarily intelligent book.

The text of the I Ching consists of a series of oracular verdicts, which characterise certain psychological situations, and when a Chinese wants to learn about the Tao in a certain given situation, he consults the I Ching with the help of a Taoist teacher.

The book is mainly a support to meditation, but it is also used for worldly affairs.

It was consulted by Japanese diplomacy during the last war, to get a picture of the world situation; so you see it still has a great deal of influence in the East, though in rather a back door way.

It is difficult for a European to understand and most Europeans would dismiss it as a collection of incomprehensible magic formula; Richard Wilhelm was really an exception in this respect.

If one uses it practically and thinks about it seriously, it becomes comprehensible.

Our western scientific training consists largely of not thinking about anything, it is a heaping up of undigested facts, without any attempt to establish connections.

But it is impossible to understand eastern philosophy or western alchemy without a great deal of reflection.

I have now come to the end of the passages on the meaning of alchemy, but I will sum up their main content again briefly.

The old masters regard their art as a divine secret or mystery.

What do they mean by this?

We find the same terms “secretum” or “mysterium” in the teaching of the Church, where they refer to the sacraments, particularly to the sacrament of the altar, to the transformation of the substances during the Mass.

The old alchemists, particularly those writing in the early Middle Ages, were no doubt familiar with the Church use of the terms; and would only employ them when they meant something similar.

There are even texts which speak of the alchemistic opus as a sacrament.

A mystery or sacrament is not the act of man, it is the act of God, and man only does what is necessary to enable divine grace to become effective.

Divine grace is not, so to speak, conjured up , the priest does not make a sort of magic incantation in the prayer of consecration to compel the intervention of divine grace; but the Mass itself is a divine intervention, of which man should become aware.

It is the intervention of divine grace which works the miracle.

The alchemists’ point of view is similar, they do their work in the hope of divine intervention, and they believe that it is possible that a miracle may happen.

This is why they call their science the highest of all sciences, for it is not a human but a divine philosophy, a sort of religion.

When the alchemist calls his work a divine philosophy, he means that the enlightenment which comes to him during it is no deduction or induction; it does not come to him through his own knowledge or as his own work, but takes place during the opus through inspiration.

Therefore they say that knowledge of the work can only be reached through inspiration.

The decisive knowledge, in any case, is a matter of grace, and it is even a matter of elect or chosen people.

Only those who belong to the chosen can succeed.

This means that the decisive action in the art takes place on the other side, the place where man really comes to an end and where divine effect begins.

If we wish to understand this psychologically, we can only say that something which I could not do from the conscious can be done from the unconscious .

It is impossible for us to assert anything about the Deity or about divine activity.

We do not know where the enlightening idea, for instance, which accomplished something apparently impossible, came from.

The unconscious itself is a hypothetical term, we cannot even strictly speaking be sure that the unconscious can be defined as psyche.

We only know that phenomena occur similar to psychical phenomena, but even this is a hypothesis.

Strictly speaking, we simply do not know.

When our forefathers talk of the necessity of divine inspiration, they mean much the same as we do, when we say in modern language: “I am done unless I get a hunch.”

We are equally helpless in such matters, the activity of hunches is not our activity; we can never compel a hunch to come to us, it comes or stays away of its own accord.

But a hunch can be very illuminating, and the old masters, who were more naive than we are, assumed that whoever sent such wonderful ideas at just the right moment must be a wonderful, even a divine, Being.

This conclusion is perfectly justifiable; for if someone has a really good idea about some problem of ours, we do not assume that he is an unconscious idiot but that he must be an unusually intelligent man, and therefore able to elucidate our problem.

The alchemists also regard the opus as a purification, a cleansing of the mind, and this expression again has long been well known in the Church.

It is a freeing of the human mind from the bonds of the earth.

This is not just a matter of desires and passions, but means emancipation from all entanglements with earthly things.

This wider sense is very visible in the East, where they attempt to free consciousness from every connection with the object, from all external things.

Every entanglement, which has a certain influence on my mind, is in the position to corrupt my mind.

Connection with an object always holds the danger that one may be drawn into the object, and think more out of the object than out of oneself.

It is from this condition that the lack of freedom of the human mind arises, it is caught in this way and cannot free itself from the pressure of mere appearances.

The alchemists also say that their art is concerned with human nature.

It is a divine mystery, but one which concerns human nature.

I do not know if you were struck by the passage I quoted from Dorneus, where he speaks of the art as if it were a sort of supernatural image of the human mind.

It is very difficult to be sure what he meant, but “animi hominis imago” must have something to do with the human mind or consciousness.

It is questionable whether it could be consciousness, for the result of the art is, as we know, the philosophers’ stone, represented as a homunculus or a hermaphroditic being, which is something far beyond consciousness.

So it is more likely that this “imago” is an image of the human spiritual being, which the masters try to objectify and to bring into reality.

The final result of alchemy is undoubtedly a spiritual existence, in spite of the many names that are given to it which are derived from a chemical terminology.

This spiritual being is also called a “cibus immortalis”, an eternal food, the nourishment of the human soul.

The connection with the language of the Church is obvious here.

The “cibus immortalis” is the body of the Lord, the eternal and ever present Host.

In another treatise we saw that the secret of alchemy lay in man and in “this purified and nourished serpent.”

In as far as the secret is in man it is to some extent comprehensible, in that it is connected with the human mind, but when it comes to the snake we are in the dark.

I tried to elucidate it a little in a few words, but it is very obscure.

It is connected with the Mercurial snake, which is the Nous, understanding, which can also be translated as mind or spirit.

Pneuma and Nous were identical in the time of Hellenistic Syncretism, from which the gospels originate.

The spirit is usually expressed by a serpent which proves that this spirit is not Just the human mind, but an animal or reptile mind.

Inasmuch as the serpent is a very ancient symbol-of wisdom, it is the spirit Of wisdom, a divine mind, and as you know the Deity is very often represented by animal symbols, even in the Christian Church,
the Holy Ghost as the dove, for instance.

The Agathodaemon, which plays an especially important role in alchemy, is represented as a serpent, and this representation refers to a non-human spirit, If even though it is a matter of the work of the human mind.

We must assume, therefore, that the spirit has two aspects in alchemy, the human mind as we know it, and the serpent mind, which we can only say is unconscious.

The snake is a personification of the unconscious, for, as early as the Gnostics, it was used as a symbol for the spinal cord and the basal ganglia, where the vegetative psyche is localised.

And, further the alchemists say that this mystery lies in the most insignificant and cheap est things, rejected and thrown away by all men.

This is an excellent description of the unconscious which always seems a minus to us because we cannot see it.

It is actually the most insignificant thing, it is everywhere, and yet no one sees it.

The medicine, which is to be produced, is an inner medicine, an elixir of life, and should not be used outwardly.

We are told it is harmful, and even mortal, if taken externally.

This idea also comes from Church language, for the body and blood of Christ is such a medicine, which bestows immortality.

The effect of this medicine of the alchemists, as you saw in one of the last passages, is a psychological effect.

It expels all vices and illusions, it quiets exaggerated emotions, curbs the passions and so on.

These results are undoubtedly psychological effects, and they are produced by practising the art.

In the Church the same thing would be expressed as the effects of grace, which are connected with celebrating and participating in the sacraments.

In the same passage we are told that these effects establish “the middle way” which is an “aequanimitas”, a balance, an equilibrium of the soul, which can keep us from extremes and in the centre between the opposites.

We hear a great deal of the opposites in alchemy, which is not only extremely paradoxical in its formulations, but has a special teaching in regard to the opposites.

They play nearly as large a role in alchemy as they do in classical Chinese philosophy.

Therefore the Chinese alchemistic treatises, as far as we know them, do not differ in any essential way from the western treatises, in fact in places they agree with each other almost word for word.

This is all the more striking in that it would be impossible to prove any direct influence; they were written in a time when there was no connection whatever between East and West.

This teaching of the alchemists is opposed to that of the Church.

The latter laid emphasis on the fact that we should deny all earthly things and sublimate them into spiritual things, whereas alchemy and eastern philosophy hold fast to the idea of finding a middle way between the opposites.

This is represented in alchemy as the hermaphrodite, the symbol of the centre between the classical opposites of male and female.

The Chinese Tao and the Tai-gi-tu also express the union of the always present opposites in a peculiarly apt way.

The lapis philosophorum is a spiritual being, incorruptible, which is always with man, though, so to speak, out of space and time.

This idea is not an invention of the alchemists, but is also in the teaching of the Church, as the omnipresence of Christ.

All the events of Christ’s life, according to the teaching of the Church, happen outside space and time, now and ever.

He is begotten, lives and is sacrificed, not once but always.

The sacrifice of the Mass is an eternally repeated fact; a fact which happens under our eyes, but which is also an event in the Beyond.

The result of the alchemistic procedure is also a mountain with a treasure, and, as we saw, this is a symbol for a collected, concentrated personality which towers above ordinary humanity like a mountain above the plain.

A heaped up personality, so to speak, which has been collected together and is crowned with a sanctuary.

A further symbol is a king, who wears a crown, an exalted figure.

Or it is also expressed as a congelation, a making firm of the spirit.

This means that the spirit is no longer fluid like mercury, which can move and flow away in all directions, but has become firm, solid like a stone, and no longer allows itself to be enticed to the right or to the left, up or down.

That means also that the mind has been freed from all objective ties.

This knowledge, which they also name Self-knowledge, is the goal of the opus according to the old alchemists.

This Self-knowledge has three aspects, knowledge of God, knowledge of nature, and knowledge of man.

For by Self-knowledge, they do not mean mere knowledge of the ego, but also knowledge of the Nous, that mind or spirit which is represented by the snake.

The serpent in alchemy really represents the idea of the eternal, divine presence, which should become known through the Opus.

As I told you before, my technique, in dealing with these treatises, consists of making notes of the themes which recur frequently, and which are specially emphasised.

And in order to test whether the hypotheses which I formed as to the meaning of the terms were correct, I looked up many other passages where the same words occur.

The second theme which we will ‘investigate is that of the thesaurus, the treasure.

II. Thesaurus

DJABIR (an Arabic alchemist of the eight century whom I have mentioned before) says in the “Livre de la Misericorde”:

“A sealed up treasure, which God only opens for the chosen.”

And the Consilium Conjugii (which probably belongs at latest to the thirteenth century) speaks of this treasure as: “Domus thesaurorum” or “Gazophylacium”.

It is a whole treasure house here, and the term is often quoted in later alchemy, and understood as a sort of house of wisdom, which is often fully described.

It is a space, so to speak, in which the appointed are accepted, a sort of temple.

In another treatise, the “Tractatus Micreris”, (at latest twelfth century) it is said:

” The treasure of God is sulphur, which neither burns nor is burnt.”

What kind of sulphur can this be? A sulphur which cannot be oxidized ; but there is no such thing.

In other words: this secret can only be suitable expressed by a paradox. It is and is not; another union of the opposites such as we find in Taoism.

Michael Maier speaks of the: “egia Gaza (royal treasure) in the sea.”

The sea is a symbol of the unconscious, so this treasure is hidden in the unconscious.

Curiously enough we find the same idea in Kant, he speaks of the treasure which lies in the field of “dim representation “.

This field is the collective unconscious where the treasure is hidden, the royal treasure in the sea.

The alchemists also think of it as being in a temple or citadel.

DORNEUS for instance says:

“In this citadel of truth lies the true and undoubted stone and treasure of the philosophers.”

He used the word “thesaurus” and in connection with wisdom.

The “thesaurus sapientiae” is an expression which is used in the language of the Church, we find it in the Vulgate.

Dorneus says in another treatise:

“The eternal treasure of the truth is the cheap est thing in the world, it is not thought worthy of hatred but is mostly despised, but the wise find it more worthy of love than precious stones and gold. It is indeed the lover of all things but is rejected by all as an enemy. It can indeed be found everywhere, but is discovered by few, almost by none. It is calling through the streets to everyone: All ye that search for the way, come unto me, and I will lead you to the path of truth.”

We see in this text how difficult it is to find this treasure, like every treasure which is worth having.

And further it is cast away and rejected; it is not to be found in any special place but everywhere, it is a guide to the path of truth, and is even the path of truth itself.

Such an assertion in the mouth of an alchemist stands in flagrant contradiction to his own Christian faith.

As a Christian, the alchemist professes that Christ is his guide and that his truth is the dogma of the Church, but at the same time he is searching for a truth in alchemy outside and beside Christianity.

This was one of the main reasons for the secrecy of the alchemists; it was very unhealthy in the Middle Ages to be concerned with any truth which was not admitted by the authorised Church and reigning monarch.

We think, of course, that we are far removed from those dark ages, that is one of our pet illusions! ~Carl Jung, ETH, Lecture XIII, Pages 107-114.