Lecture X 4th July, 1941
The prima materia, which we have been considering in the last two lectures, is a basic idea in alchemy, and when one has once grasped what the alchemists meant by it, the riddle of alchemy is already half solved.
For this reason we will continue the subject today.
You may remember that the prima materia was designated as “Adam’s earth”, and Michael Maier tells us that Adam carried this earth away with him from Paradise.
There is an old legend that Adam, when driven out of Paradise, carried some of its soil away with him.
This earth was said to be red, and “terra rubra” [red earth) is also a name for the prima materia.
The idea is that primeval man possessed a substance, a sort of earth, out of which Paradise could grow, and Adam (or primeval man) carries the secret of this earth in himself.
The idea of the prima materia as a serpent is a very important philosophical conception.
The snake also belongs to Paradise, and the alchemists often play with the idea of the serpent of Paradise.
The snake in alchemy is the “mercurial serpent”, the old Gnostic image for the Nous, the mind, where the spirit was represented as a serpent, as the Agathodaemon (the good daemon), or directly called the serpent of the Nous.
The English word “mind” expresses it exactly, but in German it can only be rendered approximately as “Geist”.
This serpent does not represent “reason” or anything approaching it, but rather symbolises a peculiar autonomous mind which can possess one completely, a spirit of revelation which gives us “Intuitionen” (intuitions).
Paracelsus expresses this exactly when he says that the function of this mind is to throw out Intuitionen”.
It is a concealed mind, and for this reason, it is symbolised by the serpent, a reptile which conceals itself in obscurity, and this formulation also suggests an autonomous being, something quite outside ourselves.
For the mind which throws out these “Intuitionen” cannot be identified with man, it is no human function, but something strange and inhuman, totally different to man, as objective as a real snake.
After long observation, the old philosophers discovered that all the “Intuitionen”, which came to them from this region, were, in some peculiar way, inhuman; their character was not of a human nature.
This contradicts all our pre-conceived ideas of mind and of reason.
We are always absolutely convinced that our psychology is purely personal, but psychology is not only that which we know about ourselves, it goes far beyond this into the unconscious.
We cannot dispose of the unconscious, it, rather, disposes of us; and it is from this region that these intuitions or “Intuitionen” come.
Our forefathers were much more introspective than we are, and they worked at the difficult art of introspection, which we cannot say of ourselves, and therefore they knew very well that the mind, from which these ideas come, is something of a totally different nature to our human reason, and the best description they could find for it was a snake-like being.
They call it a serpent, a monster or a winged dragon; the last two are composite beings, for it is really indescribable, something beyond human experience.
We find a great many pictures of dragons in alchemy, in every kind of monstrous form, particularly in Arabic alchemy.
It is indeed from the total strangeness of the. psychical being that the really decisive “Intuitionen” come.
Since the time of the old Gnostics, the serpent has been the symbol for the brain and its appendages; that is, for the lower centres of the brain and for the spinal cord, partly on account of its shape, but also from introspective reasons.
The old saurians actually had a swelling in the lumbar vertebrae which was larger than the “brain”, and if they had a brain at all it must have been situated in the lumbar region.
This shows us how important the spinal cord is, it is a pure system of reflexes, reaching up to the highest and most complicated instincts.
The reflexes function through the collaboration of the spinal cord and the basal ganglia.
All this was symbolised by the serpent, and this gives us a further hint as to the source of the “Intuitionen”.
It shows us that they come from a region which lies in the subcortical centres; that is, from the instinctive and reflexive psyche.
This reaches into the sympathetic system, of which the chief part is the two ganglionated cords which lie on each side of the spine, a sort of rope ladder system which extends into the innermost organs of the body.
The sympathetic system has a peculiar connection with the cerebro-spinal system, it works with it but is older, in that it is to be found in the lowest invertebrate animals which have no backbone and no cerebro-spinal nervous system.
The name itself is peculiar – why sympathetic?
This system rules the vegetative functions of the body, and also, to a great extent, the circulation of the blood, and is thus connected with the emotions.
The connection with the cerebro-spinal nervous system gives a highly peculiar physiological foundation to the unconscious.
One could say, in a certain sense, that the unconscious was the invisible, psychical part of the tangible and visible nervous system, just as one might say consciousness was the invisible part of the brain.
This does not mean, of course, that the whole psychical phenomenon is a secretion of the brain or of the basal ganglia, or anything of the kind; the whole thing is far more complicated, and lies, through its very nature, on the borders of human understanding.
Living matter is a mystery which is beyond our understanding, if only for the reason that we ourselves consist of living matter.
We cannot climb above our own heads, a fact which should be a warning to all those people who try to explain the nature of God.
One would have to be His colleague before one could understand Him in any way!
The fact, that the mysterious being represented by the serpent is so much connected with the material body, was the reason why the definitions or symbolic formulations for the prima materia were usually purely material, and very often in the most unpleasant sense of the word.
As I told you before the alchemists were often suspected of working with every kind of unappetising material, and they did actually work with excrement.
And they sometimes drew a parallel between the prima materia and excrement, or even said that it was the human faeces, or that it originated in the same way, or that it was to be found in old privies.
In this aspect, therefore, it is the cheapest thing, which is cast out and rejected, and can be found at every street corner.
A very old alchemist, Petrus of Zalento, says that the prima materia is a white dove, but that its origin is of the basest, and that it can be found in stables and in kitchen waste, but when it is united with the spirit, it becomes “pulcherrima matrona” (the most beautiful lady).
This is a very peculiar description, on the one side it is the lowest, most objectionable and disgusting thing, and on the other the most beautiful and exalted.
One can hardly imagine a better bringing together and union of the opposites than the symbolism in this quotation.
Khunrath, therefore, calls the prima materia: “materia lutosa” (dirty or filthy matter) and also “materia virginea” (virginal matter), so that he too brings both these opposites together.
Whenever you find a symbolism in which the opposites are brought together, even sometimes in a repulsive way, you may be sure that there is a so-called metaphysical idea behind which can only be expressed by a paradox, or through a paradoxical formulation.
Even Kant uses an antinomy sometimes to express his philosophy, and such an antinomy does not belong to pure reason but comes from the Nous, it is a kind of revelation which has been dropped in, or thrown, by the unconscious.
It is, therefore, easy to understand why the prima materia is spoken of as a great and marvellous mystery.
This mystery is somehow connected with nature or lies in nature, and man’s reason is absolutely helpless when confronted with this mystery, he is unable to deal with it alone.
It is essential, therefore, that nature herself should help him, apart from God Whose help is also essential.
So the English alchemist, George Ripley, says that this mysterious “stone is brought by the birds and the fishes.”
It is a very curious fact that almost the same words are to be found in a logion of Christ’s which the old alchemists could not possibly have known.
At least as far as I know, there is no evidence whatever that the idea of the kingdom of heaven being brought by the birds and fishes existed in the tradition of the Church.
But these words are to be found in a papyrus which was discovered in Egypt on the edge of the Libyan desert, 120 miles from Cairo, on the site of Oxyrhynchus, one of the chief cities of ancient Egypt.
Two Englishmen, Grenfell and Hunt, discovered a large collection of papyri during their excavations there.
Among these was a fragment, discovered in 1903, which was evidently a piece of a large roll, which probably contained hundreds of anecdotes and sayings from the life of Jesus.
The contents of this fragment are not in our Bible, though there are similar things in the gospels, and it is in this fragment that we find our birds .. and fishes again.
It is very similar to the Logia papyri (discovered in the same place by the same Englishmen in 1897) and they must all have been part of a collection of sayings of Christ, incidents from his life, and perhaps miracles which he performed.
The gospels, as you know, were not known to St. Paul, but where composed after his death.
They were not written by the apostles, but, as it were, according to Matthew, according to Mark and so on.
They were probably composed some time afterwards, perhaps by pupils of Christ’s disciples, and record what the disciples related about the life of Christ.
It is, therefore, quite possible that the first form, which the material took, was a big collection of records of the life of Christ, and that the Oxyrhynchus papyri are fragments of this collection.
The total collection may have been the foundation of the gospels, but there are similarities and discrepancies between the gospels and the fragments, and on account of the discrepancies it is not very likely that it was just these fragments which were used in the composition of the gospels.
The passage runs:
“Jesus saith, (Ye ask? who are those) that draw us (to the kingdom, if) the kingdom is in Heaven? . . . . the fowls of the air, and all beasts that are under the earth or up on the earth, and the fishes of the sea, (these are they which draw) you, and the kingdom of Heaven is within you; and whoever shall know himself shall find it. (Strive therefore?) to know yourselves , and ye shall be aware that ye are the-sons of the (almighty?) Father; (and) ye shall know that ye are in (the city of God), and ye are (the city?).”
You see the way in which Grenfell and Hunt reconstructed the text, and it is of course not quite certain that this is absolutely correct, but at all events it is not far out.
Had this saying been included in the New Testament it would have brought in the good pious animals which are missing from its pages, and would have been an enrichment to the passage where Christ speaks of the growth of the lilies of the field.
In the Oxyrhynchus papyrus it is the beasts, the fowls of the air and the fishes of the sea; and in our excerpt, from the alchemistic literature, it is the birds and the fishes.
It is very strange that it should be an English clergyman, George Ripley, who wrote this and how he came on it is beyond our knowledge.
You may think that it is rather far-fetched to comp are these two passages with each other, but you will see later that the alchemists had such a high opinion of their miraculous substance, the prima materia, that we are not beside the point in putting the saying of an alchemist, in a sense, next to a saying of Christ, for the ideas of alchemy are not far from those of Christ.
These are philosophical definitions of the prima materia which are very characteristic.
In one treatise, for instance, it is called “unum” (the One).
This is an expression which is always used of God, so the prima materia in this passage must directly coincide with the Deity.
And it is als o called “unica res” (unique thing), “omnes res” (all things), “monas” (the monad), or “Ens reale” (the real being); and all these are expressions which are also used for the Deity in philosophical language.
It is also said to contain all the mysteries “in virtue et in actu” (in potentiality and in actuality).
It is in fact the secret of secrets, the unrecognisable efficacy which contains, so to speak, all the secrets of the world.
On the same page of the Musaeum Hermeticum it is called the “chameleon”, a peculiar definition but to the point, because the prima materia has many colours and always a different one.
You see what peculiar symbolism is used to express the prima materia; but, as it is the mystery which carries the whole world and which brings everything to pass, it must be the primal cause, and, according to the old definition, the Deity is the primal cause.
We find a thoroughly philosophical formulation in a very old treatise, which was probably originally Arabic and in consequence goes back to Alexandrian ideas.
This is the so-called “Treatise of Aristotle”, a treatis e written in the form of a letter from Aristotle to Alexander [the real Aristotle was the teacher of King Alexander) .
But of course it was not written by the real Aristotle, the name is a pseudonym used to give added weight to the text.
We find the following peculiar sentence in this treatise:
“The serpent . . . as a quas- hypostasized matter forms itself, through illusion, as immersed in the water.”
The meaning of this is:
the serpent is the hypostatic, underlying materia (the essence of matter), which sinks into the water, or is as it were in the water, and, through illusion, it deceives the senses.
The sentence indicates that this serpent was enclosed in fluid matter, that is, in the water or the solution which the alchemists had in their flasks or retorts, and that it appeared to them there, as if through illusion or hallucination.
I have already told you that the alchemists naturally stared with the utmost curiosity at their flasks and cooking vessels and saw most peculiar things in them.
They describe the visions, which they saw in their retorts, in very peculiar ways.
Some saw numbers of snakes or other reptiles, others human figures (the old Hermes, for instance, sitting reading) , and others again say that they saw the creation of the world, the dry being separated from the waters, the clouds rising from the sea, and the mountain rearing its head above the primeval waters.
All these images were projections of inner processes which the alchemists saw in their retorts, and it is to this that Pseudo-Aristotle refers.
A philosopher in another treatise says that it is a characteristic of the prima materia “to seek the higher and strive to separate itself from the lower.”
Evidently it has in itself the power of ascending, and apparently one need only put it in a retort in order to give it back its natural trend.
It is imprisoned in matter and, if freed, it ascends at once.
But, the author adds: “one must be careful to protect oneself from its evil intention”, for this substance was also known to be dangerous and evil, as we have heard before. It was said to contain demons and other dangerous, poisonous forces, which, in some peculiar invisible way, could have a poisonous effect.
In the same treatise, the Lib er Quartorum, we read:
“The thing from which all things come, is the invisible and immovable God.”
This thing, the first thing from which everything originated, is the prima materia, and in a way it is the visibility and changeableness of a God who is in himself invisible and unchangeable.
The idea of an immovable God goes back to the real Aristotle. The “Liber Quartorum” is an ancient text (there is an Arabic manuscript still in existence), and it undoubtedly goes back, through the Sabians, the philosophic school which flourished in Bagdad till the eleventh century, to the ideas of the old Alexandrian philosophers.
The sayings of the alchemists, about the prima materia, are so rich and diverse that in order to give you a clearer picture I have made yet another list, this time of the philosophical aspects.
XII. Philosophical Definitions of the Prima Materia:
I. The prima materia appears, on one side, as a substance.
This substance is said to be found in various places.
It comes, for instance, from the western land, and in one text, as I told you, from the miraculous tree which grows in the sea and which has four different coloured flowers, black, white , red and yellow.
The flowers contain the idea of fruit, and, in some texts, it is the fruit of the tree which is mentioned instead of the flowers; and those who eat this fruit are said to gain wisdom or eternal life.
The original quaternity arises from the One which is, so to speak, the centre. We could, therefore, imagine a section of the trunk, with the One in the centre and the four principles, which are
usually represented as the elements radiating outwards.
It is from this basic structure that the prima materia comes.
II. It is als o represented as coming from a mountain, from the mines, as it were, in which the miners work.
And this mountain is called “the mountain where there are no differences.”
This peculiar definition does not apply to the outer mountain but to its inside where there are no differences.
Naturally there are differences outside, or we should be unable to perceive anything.
And it is inside the mountain and inside things in general that the prima materia is to be found, hidden in caves, stones, plants , animals and so on. In the inner darkness nothing can be discriminated, and this is the place where we are unconscious.
This drives us to the conclusion that the mountain is the human being.
Nothing can be discriminated in the unconscious, anything can be anything, there are no differences.
III. For the same reason the prima materia is said to come from Hades, or it can be experienced there, for Hades is a black hole without an outlet.
Under certain conditions living people can descend into Hades, but it does not agree with them.
One must really be dead to go there, for it is the dark land where the dead are imprisoned; and this is a place from which this marvellous substance comes.
IV. On another side we find a category of definitions where the prima materia is not really a substance but rather a substance which contains an agent.
That is, it has a force or other kind of substance in itself.
The prima materia, therefore, is said to arise from the centre.
To put it more simply: the prima materia can be won from the centre of a stone or substance, but then it is no longer designated as a substance but as an agent.
It is said, for instance, to be extracted as a round being, a sphere or as a “round fish from our sea”.
A living being, therefore, from the great sea of the unconscious.
So apparently there is a centre or active. power, in the unconscious, not simply the unconscious but an agent in the unconscious, a special centre which is particularly important.
V. This centre or activity is understood, on the one hand, as having been created by God, and on the other as an “increatum”; that is, as something noncreated, “radix ip sius” (root of itself),
autonomous and eternal.
VI. The prima materia is “aeterna”, “incorruptibilis”, “incremabilis” (incombustible) , “perpetua” and “permanens”.
It is spoken of as if it were a sort of hypostatic substance, if one may use such a term, which is of an eternal nature and not under the laws of time and change.
This does not refer to the prima materia in its material form, of course, for it is the substance which is changed and transformed by the alchemistic process, but it refers to the centre of the prima
It is this centre which is unchanging, eternal, and somehow outside space and time.
VII. Therefore the prima materia is called “monad”, “ens reale” and “forma interna”, that is, it is the inner form which gives things their existence, and is, therefore, the cause of all existence.
It is “principium individuatonis” (the principle of individuation) for there is only individual existence, that is all we can distinguish, and we cannot assert that anything exists which we are unable to distinguish.
So the prima materia is called the “genius generativus” (the creating genius), and is also personified as the “filius macrocosmi” (the son of the universe).
VIII. It follows as a matter of course, after all we have heard, that the alchemists should call the prima materia a “divine mystery, given by God.”
IX. And this being has body, soul and spirit, and is, therefore, the principle of life itself, as well as the principle of individuation.
Its nature is spiritual, it cannot be seen, and it contains an invisible image.
X. But it is “veritas invisibilis, mente sola percepta” (the invisible truth, only perceived by the mind) and “fons immortalitatis” (an immortal fountain).
XI. As I said before, human designations are also used for the prima materia. It is called “virgo” (virgin) , or “rex ” (king), or is represented as both together in a hermaphroditic or androgynous being.
The insistence of the alchemists on the bi-sexual quality of the prima materia emphasises again the idea of the union of the opposites.
This means that all the paradoxes, which split and tear the world apart, are united in this being; they must be united or it would not be eternal.
By virtue of its eternity it contains no conflicts, tension or irreconciled opposites, and therefore it can no longer be changed.
It is because of this that the alchemists say that once their “stone” is established it can never be destroyed.
Therefore it can only be produced once in a human life, not repeatedly, because it is eternal.
The alchemists also called it “spiritus Dei in scintilla” (the spirit of God in the spark), and it was thought to be not only in man but also in nature, in everything which had an individual form, in every
stone, plant and animal.
They also speak of this being as “contrafactus Christi” (an imitation of Christ) and as ” filius macrocosmi” (son of the universe).
As such it is really God, and the alchemists make the following distinction:
The Christian God is a Trinity consisting of three persons, (God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost) and of one nature (see upper diagram on p. 222); whereas their “filius macrocosm” is also a trinity (see lower diagram p. 222), but consisting of one person and three natures (body, soul and spirit, or, expressed in more alchemistic language, salt, sulphur and quicksilver).
The “filius macrocosmi”, therefore, is the exact opposite of the 117 Christian God.
For psychological reasons, we must expect the most powerful of all human ideas: God (represented in Christianity as a threefold personality) to have a corresponding opposite, a mirror image, so to speak, reflecting the other side.
If not, God would be entirely one-sided.
And indeed such reflections are to be found in Christianity itself in the tricephalous quality of the devil.
Dante; for instance, describes the devil as having three heads.
We read in the thirty-fourth canto of the Inferno: “Oh what a sight! How passing strange it seemed, when I did spy up on his head three faces: one in front of hue vermillion, the other two with this, midway each shoulder joined and at the crest . . . ”
The “filius macrocosmi” of alchemy, however, is no devil, but a kind of natural being, and the alchemists apply the following passage in Isaiah to this filius:
“For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
This is the “materia vilis”.
“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.”
This is the rejected.
“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was up on him: and with his stripes we are healed.”
The alchemists brought this prophecy to pass literally, for they understood the whole process as torture, as a kind of purgatory, in which the prima materia was tormented, punished and burnt on the
fire in order that the “medicina catholica” (universal medicine) might be produced. ~Carl Jung, ETH, Pages 215-223.