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What is the Prima Materia?


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

Lecture XI 11th July, 1941

We have been speaking of the prima materia during several lectures.

It is a fundamental and exceedingly important idea in alchemy, and therefore it will be well worthwhile to give you a resume of the superfluity of meanings which I have endeavoured to depict for you.

It is really true, as the alchemists say, that when one has understood the idea of the prima materia the problem of alchemy is already half solved and its questions half answered.


I. Projection of the Unconscious

  1. Nature

The most important question naturally is:

What is the prima materia?

It is really a projection of the unconscious, as we saw clearly in many of the definitions, for the Middle Ages, as well as Antiquity, saw the unconscious in nature.

We could define the unconscious as a psychical existence in ourselves of which we are unconscious.

We can only become conscious of it in the form of individual symptoms and indications, and sometimes we are surprised by it.

We get messages from time to time from the unconscious: dreams, phantasies, intuitions, visions and so on; and it is from these that we draw the conclusion of a psychical existence
in ourselves which is totally different to our conscious mind.

Its psychology is quite different, and the contents which come to us from it differ, in a most peculiar way, from the contents of the conscious.

The latter belong to a personal psychology, to the personality of the ego which is in the world, whereas the unconscious is not, but is rather a world itself.

One could almost say it was the world, and that it speaks, as it were, to us.

It is impersonal and not human (that is, in any case it is not personal), and this explains a great many peculiarities of the prima materia.

Antique and even medieval man had no knowledge of psychology, there was no psychology (that is, what we call psychology) in those days.

Even today the majority of people have no idea what psychology is; they have a personal psychology and some metaphysical convictions.

Knowledge of psychology only comes with knowledge of the unconscious.

So it is quite comprehensible that antique and medieval man should have got an inkling of the psyche when he contemplated the canopy of heaven with its planets and stars, and the earth with
its growth and products.

It was particularly the starry heavens which fascinated our forefathers.

You know that the antique study of the sky was far more astrology than the science of astronomy: in other words, it was the projected unconscious which was so fascinating.

The stars represented forces of a psychical nature.

The sun, moon and planets were the exponents, so to speak, of certain psychological or psychical constituents of the human character; and this is why astrology can give more or less valid
information about character. T

he empirical correctness of the horoscope is, of course, another question; I am only speaking of the old conviction that the stars represented the human character and determined it.

According to this belief, if I am melancholy, given to depressions and bad moods, Saturn is influencing me.

The assumption is that if Saturn is unfavorable in my horoscope, I shall necessarily suffer from the conditions of Saturn.

And the same was valid for all the other planets, each in its own way.

Therefore antique man had no knowledge of his real character, because his character (inasmuch as it was unconsciously determined) was in the sky, and he only saw it in as far as he could read the

It was not in fact recognised as character, but as Heimarmene (compulsion by the stars).

Of course it was not the stars which compelled him, but the grouping of the constituents and qualities of his own psyche which he saw in the stars.

And it is a curious fact that, all over the earth wherever we find astrology, the stars have essentially the same meaning.

Saturn and Mars, for instance, are known as “malefici” (evil doers) everywhere.

It is evident from this that our forefathers saw all unconscious psychical events, that is, all the roots of the human character, in the sky.

While a man sees something in the sky, there is no chance of his seeing it in himself, and so naturally he will attribute his own actions to the stars.

If he loses his temper, for instance, and performs an act of violence, Mars is the culprit, or at least his Mars was in a bad aspect, so he was obliged to act as he did.

This is the reason why the religious mysteries of later antiquity were all concerned with freeing man from the Heimarmene; in other words with freeing him from the compulsive quality of the foundations
of his own character, or with separating him from the unconscious in order that he might be free.

This tendency found its culmination in Christianity, for it is the Christian teaching which gives man the greatest hope of freeing himself entirely from evil.

The well known sentence in the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from evil”, meant, as it was first understood, deliver us from the evil principle of the Heimarmene.

If you have read St. Paul attentively, you will have realised that Satan was this evil principle, the Lord of the World who is the dark and strongest Archon, the ruler who keeps men in fetters and
oppresses them.

And this same principle was called Saturn, so that the prayer “deliver us from evil” could also be: “deliver us from Saturn”, for it means deliver us from the oppressive power which rules the world.

It was not only the stars which contained the projections of the ancients but the whole space between the stars and the earth, regarded as the kingdom of the air.

You find this idea als o in the New Testament, St. Paul describes this realm in the Epistle to the Ephesians.

He speaks of “the prince of the power of the air” of the “principalities”, “powers” and “rulers of the darkness of this world” and of ” spiritual wickedness in high places”.

These “powers” are the old Gnostic rulers of the planets.

The beautiful old name, Elizabeth, is a remnant of the same idea.

It originated in Babylon and means: “My deity is the seven”, that is, these even planets, for only seven were known in those days.

These seven were regarded as the rulers of human destiny; this was a projection of a feeling that man’s fate did not lie in his own conscious hands, but was made for him.

He found himself fettered, under conditions which he did not make, he could not find these conditions in himself, so he assumed that they were outside.

It was in this way that the heavens and earth became peopled and permeated with psychical life.

It was perhaps the unknown depths of the sea which attracted the most projections.

The sea is one of the best known symbols for the prima materia, as the mother of all life.

All life came from the sea, and we feel life streaming into us from an unknown source, as it were from the sea.

We do not know at all where psychical contents come from, so it is easy to assume that they all come from outside.

Medieval and primitive man, in spite of all his projections, was by no means sure of this; and of course they really come from inside and from outside.

Our sense impressions come from outside and als o certain psychical effects; we do not recognise these effects today, but our forefathers were aware of them.

The most important things, however, come from inside, the real manifestations of life.

The things, which impress us from outside, can only do so because of our inner attitude.

You can put the most marvellous things before the eyes of a stupid person and they will make no impression on him, for all impressions come from inside ourselves.

If you see the beauty of a picture, it is you who produce the beauty; a donkey would not see any beauty, for it could not be eaten.

  1. Substances

A further stage of the projection already reaches a sort of conclusion.

That is, one begins to suspect that the effective thing is something definite, not just the celestial vault, the wide earth or the vast sea.

The existence of definite substances is suspected, and then one has already come nearer to a definition of the prima materia.

For instance, let us imagine the prima materia is water, water is a mysteriously determined power which can also evaporate as steam.

By this analogy we have come nearer to understanding the prima materia: it is similar to water, subject to mysterious laws which impress us in a marvellous way.

Think, for instance, of the definition of the Tao in Lao-Tse’s “Tao-te Ching”, where he says that the Tao is like the nature of water, it always seeks the deepest place.

The secret power of water lies in its infallible faculty of knowing the deepest place and finding it.

It was this which impressed our forefathers so deeply; and when they speak of “water ” it is the essence of the unconscious that they describe.

This essence is a peculiar wisdom of nature, a knowledge which man does not possess, an instinctive knowledge, a conformity to obscure laws, totally inexplicable to naive man.

The mysterious operative in nature, which determines us, is therefore said to be of the nature of water.

But it is not tangible like water itself; we read in the Rosarium, for instance, that it is “aqua sicca” (dry water) , it does not moisten the hands.

It is evident that this water is not the ordinary water which flows in our springs and fountains, it is rather “a qua spiritualis” (a spiritual water).

In all these definitions, the alchemists are referring to a psychical nature.

This is the reason they so often use the analogy of steam or smoke.

These are subtle substances and convey to some extent the character of the indescribable thing which works up on us in this world, though it is hidden from our sight.

We cannot see it or touch it with our hands, and therefore it is well concealed and it is to be found wherever it is least expected.

It is safely concealed, for instance, in a black or dark metal, such as lead, and therefore the alchemists frequently speak of it as lead because the term describes exactly how one experiences the unconscious.

Sometimes it feels like a heavy weight lying on the top of one; these are the times when, according to astrology, Saturn is oppressing us.

It is exactly as if something were sitting up on one, and this was sometimes expressed as a demon sitting on man’s neck and oppressing him.

It is in the neighbourhood of very unconscious people that this weight is most evident, it works as a sort of heaviness in the atmosphere which oppresses us.

This is the weight of the lead and shows us why the alchemists projected the unconscious into lead, but as we shall see later, with the presupposition that it was not the actual substance of the lead
itself, the tangible metal, which was meant, but something which was concealed in the lead.

It was naturally quicksilver above all which impressed the alchemists.

Quicksilver is a metal and yet it is liquid like water, and has therefore the same mystical significance as water.

But it is a metallic water, and has, therefore, certain qualities in common with lead, in that lead is also a metal which is easily melted, and when it is in a liquid state it behaves exactly like quicksilver.

And beyond this, quicksilver was connected with the god Hermes or Mercury, and for this reason Hermes is the arch-authority of Greek alchemy.

Innumerable treatises of a chemical nature are ascribed to him, and many of the discovered papyri refer to his name or quote his authority.

He is “Hermes Trismegistos” (thrice-greatest Hermes), and is identical with the Egyptian Thoth, the god of learning.

Hermes was a leader of souls, a god of revelation and understanding, connected with the human mind, and also the source of dreams.

He was actually the god of the unconscious, and the being who determined the human intellect.

Mercury, quicksilver, represented him and this is the reason for the alchemistic idea that the greatest wisdom was hidden in mercury and also in lead.

But it was particularly quicksilver (the mercurial water as it was called in the Middle Ages) which was directly regarded as being itself knowledge, light, reason, and the Nous.

It had a transforming influence on man, for it is above all in mind that men differ.

Another substance, which naturally occupied the phantasy of the ancients, was fire.

The fact, that fire ranks as an element, shows us how little the nature of fire (that is the chemical process) was understood.

It was not understood as a process at all, but as a substance, concealed inside matter, a phlogiston as it was called later.

This was a sort of caloric, understood to be hidden in all things and it was also called the principle of life.

This again is a symbol for a certain quality of the unconscious which imparts the warmth of life.

We experience this quality directly in an emotional condition.

For instance, someone may be sitting quietly, feeling cool and collected, when suddenly a hot wave surges up in him.

A disagreeable thought, or something which rouses anger, has struck him and the inner fire flares up and bursts forth.

Another variety of the same idea is the “scintilla” (spark) , the “Seelenfiinklein” (little spark of the soul) as Meister Eckhart calls it.

This is a very ancient idea and is to be found among the most primitive people.

These scintillae are thought to be the souls of the ancestors by the Paleolithic primitives of Central Australia.

This is an interesting parallel to the alchemists’ definition of the prima materia as the “land of the dead”.

The Central Australians say that this land consists of “maiaurli” (little soul sparks).

These are malicious little beings, particularly inconvenient to women.

When, for instance, a primitive woman is not pregnant (which occasionally happens even with primitives!) she must take great care in passing certain rocks, trees, rivers, and particularly fords
where there are “maiaurli”, that is, souls of the ancestors.

If she forgets to s ay a certain incantation, out jumps a maiaurli, straight into her uterus and she at once conceives.

One of the best known preventatives is for a young woman to pretend she is old, and to limp along on a stick, so that the maiaurlis think: “That is quite an old woman, there is no point in
doing anything there!”

This idea of the maiaurli is a remnant of the “scintilla” which played a great role, as the “Seelenfiinklein” right into the Middle Ages.

  1. Living beings

The resemblance or relation of the prima materia to the principle of life soon led to the assumption that the prima materia was man himself, or rather that it was connected with man.

There are many passages in the literature where it is definitely stated that it is not man, and others where it is almost as definitely stated that it is.

In a treatise in “Artis Auriferae”, for instance, we read: “And as man is composed of the four elements, so is also the stone, and so it arises from man, and thou art its minerals”.

We gather from the literature that the prima materia is in man, and to be found in the neighbourhood of man, but yet is not man.

So our forefathers came very near to the realisation that the prima materia must b a being connected with man.

It was to be found, they said, everywhere where men are: in their houses, kitchens , stables and so on.

They thus perceived that the unconscious was not just anywhere, but was bound to the neighbourhood of man, but they did not realise that it belonged to man himself.

And even today the majority of people do not realise this either.

We are always piously convinced that it is someone else who is making a colossal mistake, whereas it is clear to everyone else that I am making one myself.

The things which I conceal from myself I simply do not see.

It is the old story of the mote and the beam, and while I am cold-bloodedly concentrating on the mote, I have a whole house in my own eye.

II. Symbols

We come now to the second part of our summary.

The things, which I have spoken of up till now, were not symbols but conjectures.

They were real projections, the alchemists met the thing they were searching for in the actual objects.

When they spoke of the sky, stars, earth or water they meant what they said; and they worked with actual quicksilver and gave themselves endless trouble to find the best quicksilver.

There is a famous treatise by Count Bernardus Trevisanus who travelled round Europe for six years in order to find the right quicksilver, but in the last moment the devil betrayed him so that he
never found it!

One sees from such things that they also meant the real quicksilver, and that they worked practically and most seriously in their laboratories, right into the seventeenth century.

We come now to the symbolic stage, in which stage the alchemists were conscious that all they said about the prima materia was symbolic, although they thought it was presumably a substance.

The authors assure us that they call it so and so, but that the name has a mystical significance or is used metaphorically.

We will classify the symbols under the same headings that we used for the projection of the unconscious: nature, substances and living beings.

  1. Nature

It is from nature that the image of the chaos was taken, the primeval condition of the creation: “And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was up on the face of the deep.

And the Spirit of God moved up on the face of the waters.” (Gen. I:2.)

This text is the starting point of the whole idea, the prima materia is in the condition of the beginning of things, the condition before there was any consciousness.

This is simply the unconscious, for our consciousness originated in the unconscious.

You can observe in any small child the way in which fragments of consciousness flow together and form the ego.

At first a child speaks in the third person, and only later does it say “I”.

This is the moment when the island of consciousness has begun to gain continuity.

When consciousness comes on the scene the primeval chaos begins to recede.

The chaos consists of the elements and the effects of the stars.

The elements are of an earthly nature, the physical and chemical constituents of our bodies.

These are the earth in us, so to speak, and the stars represent the beginning of psychical life, the influence of the stars in the condition of the chaos.

You remember the picture of” the Chaos” (see sketch p. 202) and the wild confusion and conflict which prevailed.

There was no coordination, nothing was organic, everything was still inorganic.

The chaos is also frequently simply defined as the earth or as “terra prima ” (the first earth), from which nothing yet grows, but from which everything can grow.

And for the same reason it is represented as “mother” or “virgin”, as a mother who is still a virgin, and, as you saw, this was symbolised later by the Virgin Mary, the mother of God.

Or this earth, on account of its wonderful fertility, was also called the “earth of Paradise”, or simply “susceptible”, something which can receive a seed into itself and nourish and develop it.

This last definition is of the utmost importance, in that the unconscious is thus represented as the “susceptible” in us; it receives everything into itself and reacts to all impressions.

The unconscious is indeed the dark being in ourselves which hears what our conscious ears do not hear, and sees what our conscious eyes do not perceive.

It receives impressions of every kind, allows them to grow and molds them in itself.

They disappear from our conscious memory and we become aware of them again in the form of dreams and visions and so on.

This is the amazing fertility of the unconscious.

Is it not a fact that you often do not know where some stimulus has come from, or you are at first unconscious that anything is stimulating you, and then suddenly later something quite unexpected
grows out of it.

These phenomena are most easily observed in artists or in other creative people.

This earth is a dark earth, it is invisible as the original chaos was invisible in the darkness; and therefore it is also called “Hades ” or the “Land of the Dead” by the alchemists.

Hades is inhabited by the dead, the ghosts of the ancestors, the maiaurli.

It is thought of as being situated in the centre of the earth or in some other cavity in the earth.

The dead are sunk in the earth, so to speak, like grains of wheat, always waiting to spring up into new life.

Psychologically this means that the souls of the ancestors (potential factors, qualities, talents, possibilities, and so on, which we have inherited from all the lines of our ancestry) are waiting
in the unconscious, and are ready at any time to begin a new growth.

You can often observe in human life that certain family characteristics, which seem to have skipped a generation, suddenly develop and then we say: “He is a chip of the old block after all.”

Family characteristics come to light in every kind of form, positive and negative: features, bodily illnesses, psychical disturbances, talents and so.

These are, so to speak, the re-animated souls of the ancestors which have been lying dormant in the unconscious, and the alchemists call these units or souls the sleepers or the dead in Hades who are
resurrected by the “holy waters” (that is the miraculous water of alchemy, the fertilising Mercury).

These waters fall on the dead like spring rain and wake them to a new life.

This means that the opus of the alchemists woke the unconscious to a new life.

The alchemist understood this as an awakening of the possibilities and potentialities lying dormant in lead, for instance, and his work consisted in calling forth the miraculous life
concealed in the lead.

In reality the unconscious, which he contemplated in the lead, was in himself, but in that he meditated on the lead, he woke its spirit to a new life.

This contemplation created the spring rain, and the fertilising qualities of this rain are so great that even Hades itself blossoms.

Another influence in this dark chaos of nature is that of the planets and above all that of the sun and the moon, the father and mother, as the alchemists call them.

You know that it is the father and mother complexes which play the most distinguished roles in analysis!

Everyone has had a father and mother from whom he assumes that he inherited his whole existence.

Whether this explanation is correct is another question, but at any rate it is certain that father and mother represent two psychical factors of unequalled importance, for we originate from them.

These two psychical factors are represented by the sun and moon in alchemy, the two great sources of light in the sky.

This points to the fact that the prima materia is solar as well as lunar, and both in one, for it is the “mountain in which there are no differences”, and the symbol of the hermaphrodite.

  1. Substances

We come now to the sub stances.

Mercury was the substance par excellence that was used as a symbol for the prima materia.

It was considered to be the “soul of the body”, of the human body, and of every other substance, for the alchemists found a soul in everything.

Everything contained an “imago invisibilis” [an invisible or non-pictorial image).

The way that a crystal framework forms in a solution of salt is a good example for what the alchemists mean by this invisible image.

These invisible images really exist in the unconscious, they are one of its strangest characteristics; it contains the images of all that which is not yet in being, of that which will be, and also
perhaps of that which will never be.

But these images are always present as potentialities, and can at times take shape, that is when they allow themselves to be formed by the conscious or when they force their form on consciousness.

Another substance, which is used as a symbol, is lead.

The alchemists very often called it Saturn, and then one can be sure that they do not mean concrete lead but symbolic lead.

Saturn is the god of lead and the condition of heaviness, darkness, and melancholy is attributed to him.

But it is in this condition that the fire is concealed, a passionate fire, libido.

It contains a universe, a world, for the alchemists felt that the unconscious was a world.

They saw the soul all over the world, and as man becomes conscious this soul comes home to him, so to speak.

This idea of a world soul is, as you know, also a fundamental idea in Indian philosophy.

But the universal mind, the anima mundi, is also a dangerous demon which causes madness.

This is absolutely true, for if you investigate the diseases of the mind – particularly the well-known and most common mental disease, schizophrenia – it becomes very evident that the
patients have simply been overwhelmed by the unconscious.

The spirit of Saturn or lead has suddenly burst into flame with a terrible commotion, and the inmost oven, so to speak, has burst.

The old alchemists knew this, and therefore they said that the lead contained an insolent demon which made people mad.

Water was a substance which was also very often used as a symbol, as a philosophic principle.

It is usually called “humidum radicale”, [radical humidity).

The alchemists suspected that a moist substance existed from which all existing things originated, and they described this as the “humidum radicale”.

  1. Living Beings

Among other living animals, man himself was naturally used as a symbol for the Prima materia.

He played a great role in alchemy as the homunculus, for instance.

And also as Adam, the mystical Adam, primeval man, who fell into the power of the darkness.

This primeval man was the Gnostic Nous who , looking down from above on to the Physis, saw his image in the primeval waters, and was embraced by the loving arms of the female Physis,
and drawn down into, and imprisoned in, the depths.

The task, which the alchemists set themselves, was to free this primeval and whole man of the beginning from his prison.

I hope to be able to show you, in a later series of lectures, the kind of opus through which the alchemists sought to reach this goal. ~Carl Jung, ETH, Alchemy, Pages 224-231.