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Carl Jung on the Prima Materia.


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

Lecture IX 27th June, 1941

We will continue with the list of the names of the prima materia which we began in the last lecture.

The alchemists found it very difficult to characterise this mysterious substance which really represents the central secret of alchemy, and so the names which they found for it come from all the points of the compass, and vertically from heaven through the earth to hell.

Surprisingly enough they designate the prima materia as “anima corporum” (soul of the bodies) or as ” anima media natura”.

The latter definition is very peculiar because one expects the genitive, “naturae” (of nature).

But it is certainly not a misprint, for it is a phrase which often app ears in the literature.

So they really meant ” anima, the central nature ” or ” the central anima, nature”, and therefore this anima must be the central essence of nature itself.

One of the names which is used most frequently is “anima mundi” (soul of the world],!

So the prima materia, with which the alchemists claim to work, is nothing less than the soul of the world.

It is also spoken of as being on or as “in compedibus” (bound in fetters).

This is an allusion which shows us clearly the influence which Gnostic or Manichean philosophy had up on alchemy.

This is not an idea which the alchemists could have derived from Christianity, but, as you know, the ideas of a divine soul imprisoned in matter, of the Nous being embraced and fettered by the Physis, and of Primordial Man (Anthropos) being caught while he was endeavouring to overcome the darkness, play a great role in Gnosticism and Manicheism.

The aerial nature of the soul is expressed by such names as: “er” (air], “aether” (ether], “flos aeris” [flower of the air]. “vapor” (vapour] and “fumus” (smoke]; and all these names are used by the alchemists to express the prima materia.

This series reaches far back into the primitive conception that the spirit or soul is a smoke, a vapour, or a vaporous substance.

These are the earliest terms known to be used by mankind when trying to express an existence which is practically intangible and invisible.

It was seen as a kind of misty air, smoke, or steam, of a peculiarly moist character.

The prima materia was also given mythological names.

It was sometimes called “Osiris”, or the “grave of Osiris”.

This is an idea which originated in Egypt.

There are numerous graves of Osiris in Egypt where the god is worshipped in the state of death or as a mummy.

According to the myth, Osiris was destroyed by Typhon or Seth, the evil, destructive principle.

He was killed and dismembered and the fourteen parts were strewn over Egypt.

His wife, Isis, collected all the s e fourteen pieces, and made each into a mummy of the whole Osiris.

She gave these mummies to fourteen colleges of priests, and each college was under the impression that it had the whole Osiris.

The mummy of Osiris, therefore, was worshipped at all those different tombs.

In the same connection the prima materia was also called the “house of the dead” and the “entrance to the west”.

A particular surprising series of names refers to the human realm, in that we find the prima materia called “homo” (man); not any special man or individual but simply the Man.

This again is probably a remnant of the Gnostic conception of the first Man.

Therefore the prima materia is also called, or personified as, “Adam”; and also as “Hermaphrodite”.

A hermaphroditic quality is always ascribed to the prima materia, which is bi-sexual par excellence.

Adam carried Eve in himself till God took out one of his ribs and fashioned it into Eve.

Obviously before this happened Adam must have been a hermaphrodite, and therefore Adam represents the first earth which was still hermaphroditic.

Another name which is often used is “monstrum” (monster), a heterogeneous mixture of different animals, and also “monstrum hermaphroditum”, or simply “animal”, in the sense of a living being.

It is also referred to as “pater” (father), “mater” (mother), “virgo” (virgin) and “Virgo Sancta” (the Holy Virgin), which last is obviously an allusion to Mary.

And further the prima materia is called “mulier” or “foemina” (woman); and “sponsa” (bride), probably an allusion to the bride in the “Song of Solomon”.

In this connection we also find it referred to as: “sponsa infixa in limo profundi” (the bride held fast in the slime of the deep).

This again is obviously the idea of the soul of the world enclosed in the dark abyss of matter.

And this imprisonment is sometimes interpreted as a pregnancy, and the prima materia is referred to as “foetus spagiricus”, that is the mysterious, alchemistic foetus, and also as: “Eva” or as “filia” (daughter).

Further it is called “Rex in profunda maris”, the king who is in the depths of the sea, where he is suffering want.

And the prima materia is also named: “externus homo”, the outer [not inner) man, which refers to the carnal man; and, in the same connection, it is called, “abyssus”, for the outer, carnal man is an abyss, on account of his darkness and obscurity.

And further, on account of its hermaphroditic character, it is referred to as “frater et soror” (brother and sister).

Among the names for the prima materia which belong to the human sphere we find “sanguis” (blood) and “microcosmus” (microcosm); and a particularly interesting name is “limbus microcosmi”.

Limbus is a strip or border, and microcosm refers to man.

The words ” limus ” (slime, dirt) and ” limbus ” are often very confusing, and occasionally there are spelling mistakes in the texts; but it is quite certain that the term ” imbus” is often used intentionally.

We may, therefore, assume that “limbus microcosmi” refers to the border round man; a peculiar parallel to modern definitions of the unconscious, particularly to William James’ “fringe of consciousness”.

“Scintilla” and “spinther” (spark) belong in the same.

Among the mythological definitions, there are many animal names, such as : “serpens” (serpent), “serpens mercurialis” (mercurial serpent], “piscis rotundus imari” (the round fish in the sea], “draco” (dragon], “monstrum” (monster), ” corvus” (raven] , and “avis sine alis” (bird without wings).

This last refers apparently to a creature without wings which flies about at night, and so is evidently synonymous with the definitions “ghost” and ” shadow “.

These remind us of the fact that the prima materia was also called “the house of the dead” or the “land of the dead.”

The prima materia is also often referred to as “ovum” (egg), the egg contained the four elements according to the old definition, and on the same lines it is called “sperma” (sperm] and “semen mundi” (seed of the world).

It is frequently directly called ” spiritus” (spirit], “spiritus aquae et vapor terrae” (spirit of water and vapour of the earth), “spiritus metalli” (spirit of metal) or “spiritus niger” [black spirit).

And further “oleum vivum (living oil), ” unctuositas” (unctuousness) or “pinguedo” (grease).

Such a passage in an old text (speaking of the round fish of the sea) says: “. . et habet in se pinguedinem, vivificam virtutem, quaesi len to igne co quatur . . . ” (and it has in itself a greasy substance, a revivifying virtue, which if one cooks it on a slow fire etc.).

This greasy substance represents the prima materia.

It is also called the “quinta essentia” (the fifth element), “phoenix”, “chameleon”, “leo ruber” (red lion), “calumba alba” (white dove), “sulphur vivum” (living sulphur) , “red sand of the sea”, “sputum lunae” (spittle of the moon) and “spiritus animatus” (animate d spirit or spirit permeated with soul).

This shows us that it is the spiritual and psychical elements mixed together which make the essence of the prima materia.

In summing up, I must point out that the terminology used for the prima materia is the most diverse imaginable, terms from both the organic and inorganic realms are used in rich profusion.

And, as I told you, I have only mentioned a small fraction of the names which occur in the literature; for instance, I have omitted the whole of the Arabic nomenclature.

The list could be prolonged indefinitely, which simply shows that the more names a thing has, the less one knows what it is.

The enormous list of names proves clearly that the prima materia was really something completely unknown to the old masters, it is impossible to draw any other conclusion.

The alchemists often say directly in their texts that the most important thing is to find the prima materia, and that, though it is very difficult to find, the whole opus is in vain without it.

The astonishing thing is that they will describe the most wearisome processes at great length (chemical procedure with retorts and ovens), always with the presupposition that the reader has the prima materia and is working with it.

And yet it is clear that they are aware that no one knows what the prima materia is.

It is this fact which makes the whole realm of alchemy so terribly difficult to understand.

They talk of something completely unknown as if it were known, and as if they knew exactly what to do with it.

I can only say that they talk of it as we do of the unconscious; no one knows what the unconscious is and yet we often think we have said something definite ab out it.

We say for instance: “We must do this or that with the unconscious” , but we really mean : ” We must do this or that with the unknown”; and the alchemists talk in exactly the same way.

I do not want to repeat the names in summing up, so I will only point out that they originate in the inorganic sphere as much as in the organic, and that mythological and philosophic terms are borrowed freely.

The philosophical terms, in fact, are so numerous that we will speak of them separately later.

Up till now I have only given you the names of the prima materia, but we must go into more detail, and consider the essential content of the conclusions which the alchemists drew, in order to get some idea of the nature of the prima materia.

We must discover whether their ignorance of its nature is real or only apparent.

XI. Prima Materia

Steebius speaks of the prima materia as “coelum et terra” (sky and earth).

It is very often referred to as “coelum” [the sky or heavens), particularly in later alchemy, probably through the influence of Paracelsus.

Paracelsus assumed that the essential thing in man [that is in his physical and psychical disposition) was the inner firmament, by which he understood the astrological constellations of the human being.

Those among you who know something of astrology will understand this very well.

The idea is that the constellations in the sky are also found in man in the form of an inner image of the firmament.

According to the conception of Paracelsus, every man receives this inner image of the heavens at the moment of his birth, and has, therefore, his own individual firmament within himself.

Dorneus speaks of the prima materia as “coelum ex materia prima” (the heavens drawn out of the prima materia).

The prima materia is often represented as an impure substance, a heterogeneous, inharmonious, chaotic mass, where everything is in confusion, and where the astrological constituents are more or less at war with each other.

The essential element in the prima materia must be drawn out of this chaotic substance, as the peculiar winged monster is drawn forth from the clod of earth. [See picture on p.197.)

Some of the alchemists speak of the heavens, in the sense of the prima materia, as created by God, and others speak of it as something non-created, as you will see later.

Mylius is one of those who speak of it as if it had been created by God: “Deus creavit”, (created by God).

You heard in the “nomina” that the prima materia was thought of as “Hyle”, “abyss”, “primaeva terra chaotica” (primary chaotic earth) and “initium omnium” [beginning of all).

So the alchemists regard it as the principle of existence in general.

Zosimos said that men do not impart information about the prima materia, Comarius also speaks of it as b eing in Hades, and Olympiodor, quoting Zosimos, calls it the “habitation of souls”; and, in the same passage “the egg” and the “entrance to the West.”

The West is the land of the dead, the sun sinks in the West, it is there that the day, and life itself, sink, so to speak, into eternity.

This land of the dead, Hades, is regarded as the dark sky, the night, which stands opposed, so to speak, to the light sky of the day.

The alchemists assumed that the darkness was still in a chaotic state, and therefore the prima materia was to be found in it.

Dorneus, quoting Paracelsus, calls the prima materia an “increatum” (a non-created) which has existed since the beginning of time, side by side with the creation of God, as it were.

Therefore the Rosarium calls it: “radix ipsius” (the root of itself), it was not created but arose out of itself.

According to Mylius it is “primum subjectum” (the first subject), or, as we should say today, the first object.

The idea is, that the prima materia is co-eternal with God, and that he used it as his working material, he prepared it as the text says.

It is thought of as a sort of substance underlying everything.

Mylius also calls it “perpetua” (perpetual). It is eternal and “susceptible”, that is, it receives the eternal images which God impresses on it, and therefore all living beings find their origin in it.

One of the most frequent terms which is used for the prima materia is “humidum radicale”, varied sometimes by “humidum unctuosum” and “humidum subtile”, Its nature is moist and therefore it is very often directly called water or the sea, in the sense of the primordial waters .

They are related to Kronos, the primeval god, or Saturn.

This is the reason why the prima materia is so often represented as lead.

Texts from the Bible are also frequently used in order to illustrate the nature of the prima materia, so one of the old alchemists, in the “Aquarium Qapientum “, speaks of its “goings forth having been from of old, from everlasting.”

This author was referring to Micah V:2: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be the ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”

And in the same treatise (on the same page) the personified prima materia says of itself: “Before Abraham was, I am.” (St. John VIII. 5 8.)

The idea here is that the prima materia is the first mother, from which the redeemer is born.

You remember the picture from “Pandora” (see p. 197) where the clod of earth or rock releases a peculiar spirit which eventually becomes the redeemer himself or the logos; the logos which existed before anything was, and through which everything thing was created.

The “Aquarium Sapientum” (Hydrolithus Sophicus or Waterstone of the Wise) also alludes directly to the logos, and quotes from the Vulgate: “Erat in mundo et mundus illud non agnoscebat. Veniebat in proprietatem suam” etc.(It was in the world and the world knew it not. It came into its own, etc.)

This is an abbreviation of the passage in St. John’s gospel (I. 9-11): “That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own and his own received him not.”

We see from all this that the prima materia is a kind of pre-form, the first form or matter from which the redeemer originates.

And because the origin of the redeemer is always obscure and mysterious, on account of the contempt in which he is held, the prima materia is frequently spoken of as “vilis”, as something common or cheap , which is thrown away as worthless.

We shall find another parallel to this later.

As the “seed of the world” the prima materia contains the seed of God, which impreganated the first waters.

So Mylius calls it the “genus generativum” (the begetting species) and as such it is incorruptible, can never be destroyed, and can overcome the elements and their qualities.

It is eminently victorious and thus stands above all the conditions of the world, and lacks the known qualities.

It has every quality and yet, so to speak, none.

It contains the spirit of God from the beginning, “anima mundi”, the soul of the world, and is the centre between high and low.

These are metaphysical conceptions of the prima materia and are to be found in the Museum Hermeticum.

In the same collection of treatises we find it called the “primumens” (the first being) and this definition comes close to calling it God himself.

Although the alchemists hesitate as a rule to use this analogy directly, they come very near to doing so.

We shall find a passage later where an alchemist speaks very freely on this subject, and when the Turba says that it is “mundi principium” (beginning or principle of the world), it uses an expression which is usually only used of God.

The designation of the prima materia as the earth refers, as we have already seen, to the ,darkness of the world.

So we hear of it as “terra nigra” (black earth).

A Greek alchemist, Olympiodor, goes so far as to connect this black earth with the “Theokataratos” (man cursed by God), and he goes on to refer to an old Egyptian myth or fairy story:

The mole was originally a man, and as such learnt to know the mysteries of the sun, particularly the secret form of the sun.

But he betrayed these mysteries, and therefore God cursed him and punished him by transforming him into a mole, and banished him, blinded, to the earth.

All day he is doomed to grub about underground and may only come up to the surface at night.

This mole, the author says, is cast out man, who has strayed away rom knowledge and truth and has therefore been banished into the darkness of the earth.

Olympiodor attributes this parable to Hermes.

We find a different conception of the origin of the prima materia in a text written by an Arab author, who says that it comes from the “tree in the western land”.

And we hear further that this tree stands in the sea and bears flowers of four colours.

It is in fact Adam’s tree of Paradise.

The flowers are white, black, red and yellow.

This peculiar image, of a tree standing in the sea in the western land, is, like the story of the mole, another important alchemistic myth.

The sea represents the darkness: there are inconceivable mysteries, such as monsters, in the unknown depths of the sea.

And it is from these mysterious depths that the tree grows which has four different coloured blossoms.

You must bear this in mind and you will gradually become aware of the peculiar imago which lies behind all these various conceptions.

If you think of the earth as the flat disc it was thought to be in the old days a (sort of island surrounded by the sea), and imagine the tree growing in the centre with its four different flowers, you will once again find the diagram of the basic foundation, which we have met so often and in such diverse places.

The same Arab author tells us that the prima materia: “is found in the mountain where there are no differences.”

You must think of a shaft which leads down into the dark centre of the mountain where nothing can be discriminated.

This is an idea which leads into psychology, to the condition of unconsciousness.

Consciousness is essentially discrimination, and when we cannot discriminate we are already in the unconscious, in the darkness of this mountain, and it is here that the prima materia originates.

You must by now be getting some idea of what the prima materia really is.

As I have already told you, it is the dark chaos of the beginning of the world; and, translated into psychological language, we come at once to the definition of the unconscious which contains everything.

Everything flows from the unconscious, but we cannot tell what the condition of things in the unconscious is, for no discrimination is possible in the unconscious.

So we can say that everything which comes to us from there is the prima materia.

The alchemists usually defined the products, which flowed out of the prima materia, or the unconscious as we should call it, as mercury (quicksilver).

This fluid metal, a thoroughly – mysterious substance, was exceedingly interesting to the phantasy of these old philosophers.

It formed a sort of bridge to the definition of mercury as spirit, they imagined the spirit as a sort of fluid metal.

According to astrology, the planet Mercury has a great deal to do with the human mind or spirit.

In a commentary on the treatises of Demokritos in the “Alchimistes Grecs” we find mercury described as attracting the souls of the substances.

Dorneus says that the prima materia contains an “imago non visibilis” (an invisible image), an image which we cannot discern but which has form and, according to Mylius, “habet vitam” has life).

If we assume that these are all indirect descriptions of an unconscious, psychical condition, a great many of the synonymous terms which are used will become clear to us.

The definition as lead, for instance, a dark metal which is somehow connected with Saturn; and through Saturn with water and cold.

The Chinese actually use the term: “lead of the water region.”

We read in the “Book of Krates” that the lead has four parts; and Petasius said, according to Olympiodor, that fire is contained in the lead and, in the same passage, that it is possessed by a demon which causes madness.

These are psychological phenomena ; for, as you know, it is unconscious contents which come up and overcome consciousness in madness.

The dark powers break through into the daylight, so to speak, in the form of wild and confused ideas; mad ideas as we commonly call them.

But the prima materia is also the element of order, for it consists of four parts, as we hear again and again in the literature.

A quaternity is always a system of order.

As man, the prima materia is a cosmic being, a microcosm.

It is man under the aspect of the Heimarmene.

Zosimos speaks of metal men, and other alchemists put trees or plants (such as lunaria, a mythical plant connected with madness) in the place of man.

The prima materia is never that which it appears to be, because it always contains the opposite as well. It is outwardly cold, inwardly fiery; outwardly black, inwardly white or red and so on.

It is essentially a paradoxical being, a living sulphur, or it contains an “incombustible sulphur”, in spite of the fact that sulphur is the inflammable par excellence.

It is also spoken of as a water which does not turn to steam, or as a solid mercury which cannot be made volatile through heat.

We have already seen that the prima materia is called father and mother.

And it is often emphasised that these are invisible forms.

Steebius speaks of “mater quae videri non potest” (the mother whom it is not possible to see); and Dorneus speaks of it as a great mystery, and as being in the region of aether, a whole universe, so to speak.

And, in contrast, it is the smallest thing conceivable, the point in the middle of a circle.

Dorneus says: “It came out from the centre in a round form.”

These are all very old ideas which we also find with the primitives, there are tribes where the soul is imagined as the tiniest ball.

This centre is also, as we heard before, called the sapientia (wisdom), that is Sophia; in fact the prima materia is born from Sophia. Mylius calls it “substantia media”, the central substance of the world thought of as the mediator, the saviour, who unites and overcomes the opposites, and the same author says it is “in centro terrae” (in the centre of the earth). ~Carl Jung, ETH, Pages 206-214