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The Encounter with Alchemy


One of the most remarkable elements of C. G. Jung’s activity is undoubtedly the numerous works that he devoted to alchemy and its significance for psychology.

This line of research continued for decades, extending from his middle life to the end of his productive period, and fascinated him as

virtually no other area of work and knowledge.

Entering Jung’s study and library at his home in Kusnacht today, one finds along one wall, protected from the direct light, an impressive collection of rare and valuable alchemical texts.

As an “eminently historically minded researcher,” in the words of Aniela Jaffe, it was not simply a hobby that made him assemble all these manuscripts and even produce extensive hand-copied excerpts from these alchemical editions, in order to surround himself with curiosities for their own sake.

Rather, he was guided by his need to document, by means of “historical prefigurations,” what he had experienced for himself and explored psychologically, to place the productions of the unconscious of modern people in a larger historical context.

Looking back upon this critical stage in his own life, he asked himself what examples of these inner experiences there might be in history, and where.

In the Memories he put it this way:

If I had not succeeded in finding such evidence, I would never have been able to substantiate my ideas. Therefore, my encounter with alchemy was decisive for me, as it provided me with the historical basis which I had hitherto lacked.

In approaching Jung’s work, therefore, we cannot avoid regarding alchemy as more than just the “prescientific” expression of the scientific techniques of chemistry.

It does not mean the art of turning lead into gold, which became decadent and disrespectable in past centuries, and in which error-not to mention (self-)deception-and truth were so oddly combined.

Those who sought in earnest the lapis philosophorum or “philosophers’ stone,” striving to express it in chemical form, referred to a practice that presented in the imagery of material “transmutation” what was primarily a path to spiritual and physical knowledge, a way of self-transformation.

One of the few in our century who have sought to connect the meditative and the operative aspects of alchemical practice, the writer and pharmacist Alexander von Bernus, explains:

The background of alchemy is initiation, an indoctrination into the mysteries that dates back millennia. Originating in the Egyptian-Chaldean Hellenistic universal consciousness in the pre-Christian era, and later flowing into the West via the Arabic cultural orbit, it became tinged with the substance of Christianity …. To be sure, the idea of transmutation stands at the center of alchemical initiation;

not, however, that of the transformation of metals but rather the mystical process of inner transmutation, of which the outward chemical and physical transformation of metals is but the external manifestation, realized and made visible in the material world.

Mircea Eliade, who in his studies of comparative religion investigated the attitude of people in primitive communities toward the material world, also stressed the mystery character of this “discipline,” referring to the initiation rituals practiced among smelters, smiths, and alchemists.

Accordingly, he says, given certain assumptions, alchemy can hardly be viewed as an early form of modern chemistry.

From a historical point of view, however, a different development presents itself.

Alchemy came into being as a sacred science, whereas chemistry was consolidated only after it had cast off its    sacred elements.

Hence there is necessarily a break in the continuity between the spheres of sacred and profane experience

…. There is an immense distance between one who is religiously moved to take part in the sacred mystery of a liturgy and the aesthete who enjoys its gorgeous beauty and the music that goes with it.

Of course the techniques of the alchemists had more than merely a symbolic character.

They were real procedures in the laboratory, but their aims were different from those of chemistry.

The chemist’s work consisted in the precise observation of physical and chemical processes and systematic experimentation to investigate the structure of matter, whereas the alchemist concerned himself with the “suffering,” the “death,” and the “marriage” of matter, insofar as these were necessary for the transformation of matter (the philosophers’ stone) and of human life (the elixir of life).

That the nonchemical and thus nonoperative factor could sometimes predominate in alchemy can be gathered from the fact that it was the mystical element of religious experience that became its real content-that is, although the alchemical terminology and symbolism were used in individual cases, they referred not to the work in the alchemist’s lab, but to the person who was to be transmuted, transformed into a new type. Jakob Bohme could be considered a proponent of this mystical alchemy, as could the Rosicrucians as seen in Andreae.

And from there the step to depth psychology is not so large.

But Jung was not the first to consider the psychological aspects of alchemy in detail.

The psychoanalyst Herbert Silberer, who is mentioned repeatedly in Jung’s correspondence with Freud, had made a beginning as early as 1914 in a study in which-starting with the “secret figures of the Rosicrucians from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (Altona 1785ff.)-he tied alchemy, hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, and freemasonry into his interpretation of depth psychology.

It was already clear to Jung when he entered this field that one could no longer be content with such relatively young texts as Silberer had used, but would have to go back to the original alchemical sources, back if need be to the beginnings of Western alchemy.

These lay in Alexandrian times, when the Greek spirit merged with the technical magic of the Near East.

Only with this do we come to the pivotal point in intellectual history.

Because Jung’s interests were directed only to the process of inner transformation, to individuation and hence self-development, it is understandable that the decisive impetus for his absorption in the alchemical tradition came from the unconscious.

Behind it lay several years of the study of ancient Gnosticism.

Interesting as the Gnostic imagery was for him, Jung could not find in it the sought-after “historical prefiguration” of his own results, for the gulf in consciousness between the gnostic symbolism and the inner experiences of modern people turned out to be too great and unbridgeable.

In the realm of intellectual history and the history of consciousness, what was lacking was something like a bridge-piling in the stream of the human psyche.

Hence it is also clear that in the mid-twenties Jung was on the lookout for the possibility of building such a bridge.

In 1925 and after, he had a number of dreams which all revolved around a similar motif:

Beside his own house there stood another one, or an annex, which struck the dreamer as strange and which he did not seem to recognize, although it seemed that it must always have been there.

And one day, when the dream led him into this house, he discovered there a wonderful library, dating largely from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Large, fat folio volumes, bound in pigskin, stood along the walls.

Among them were a number of books embellished with copper engravings of a strange character, and illustrations containing curious symbols such as I had never seen before.

With this dream Jung was staring the answer directly in the face, for it later turned out that the emblems and signs in these folios came, or were to come, from alchemical contexts.

That Jung would possess a similar collection of alchemical texts of his own ten or fifteen years after this dream is certainly of some biographical interest, but what was more essential for him was the insight that this unknown wing of his house, with its peculiar library, embodied a part of his own personality, one which would soon be explored still more closely.

Finally, around 1926, another dream appeared, set during the war in South Tyrol and the North Italian countryside, which Jung interpreted as a portent of his encounter with alchemy.

A figure in the dream, a peasant, uttered the noteworthy remark, “Now we are caught in the seventeenth century!”

For Jung, who had become accustomed from childhood to similar indications of how he was rooted in past epochs, this was actually no particular news.

He construed it rather as a matter-of-fact task of his life, to which he would have to devote himself in order to get out again from this “seventeenth century,” years later, matured and transformed.

Many years were to pass, then, before the writing and publication of Psychology and Alchemy (1944), one of Jung’s major works.

They were years of absorption in alchemical texts and their decipherment and psychological interpretation, the process of which suggested a close parallel with the shared experience of analyst and client in their work together.

Jung commissioned resourceful antiquarians to provide him with the most important of the now rare original texts-a rather expensive undertaking.

And the young classical scholar Marie-Louise von Franz, who had already come to Bollingen as a student, paid for her analysis with Jung by helping him with the translation of the Latin and Greek authors.

Also necessary was a thorough familiarity with the extremely abundant pictures that the early authors and printers had added to their works in order to illustrate at least a suggestion of that which could not be expressed conceptually.

Jung pointed out that the astonishing parallelism between certain unconscious productions of modern people and the results of alchemistic researchers already begins wherever there are formal and substantive correspondences, for example between dream images and alchemistic copperplates.

The longer Jung worked in his new field, the clearer it became to him that alchemy had represented something of an esoteric undercurrent within official Christianity.

Put differently, alchemy was related to ecclesiastical Christianity as a dream to consciousness.

And just as the dream, through its images, compensates for the conflicts of the everyday conscious life, so alchemy strove to expose something of the tension that was present-acknowledged or not-within Christianity.

Such problems there clearly were-for example, we notice that there is no feminine figure in the traditional image of God in the Trinity, and that the factor of evil is generally treated as if it lay outside God’s will, seeing the devil as the dark opposite number of a God of light.

In this connection Jung argues:

Evil needs to be taken into account just as much as good, for good and evil are ultimately nothing but the idealized extensions and abstractions of action, and both are part of the chiaroscuro phenomenon of life. In the end, after all, there is no good that cannot produce evil, and no evil from which some good cannot come.

So the encounter with the shadow, along with the integration of this dark side of the human psyche that belongs to the total personality, is part of the process leading to psychic wholeness.

Something analogous occurred in the first stage of the alchemistic process, known as nigredo or “blackening.”

Here, generally speaking, it was the dynamic aspect of development that played the dominant role, whereas the dogma of the confessional was formulated once and for all, statically as an article of faith.

The alchemist was primarily an experimenter, a seeker.

He himself stood in the midst of a process from which (in contrast to modern science!) he could not separate himself.

Ultimately the goal of the multistage process, accompanied by manifold phenomena of color and shape, was the “chemical marriage,” an expression of the successful unification of the opposites, be they light and dark or masculine and feminine, without which the “philosophers’ stone” could not grow.

What religions had known for ages as the “sacred marriage,” and what the mystic hoped for “within” as “mystical union” through the bestowal of the grace of God, the chemical marriage was to these seekers.

And in alchemy this marriage took place within and without-externally in the form of material transformation, inwardly in the process of turning to gold within oneself.

Not without reason did the alchemists have as their motto Aurum nostrum non aurum vulgi-“Our gold is not ordinary gold.”

What they meant by marriage was also-in the strict sense of the word-extraordinary.

The motif of the sacred marriage can be traced back to the Egyptian rites for the dead, where marriage and death are intimately connected.

“For love is strong as death,” says the wedding song of Solomon (8:6).

At the death of the symbolic figure of the Kabbalah, the great Rabbi Simon bar Yochai, his marriage in the other world was celebrated, according to the Zohar.

As we shall see, Jung himself gained experience in the immediate vicinity of death that touched upon the mysterium coniunctionis, that dimension of individual and transpersonal reality which the alchemist designated-in Goethe’s sense- as the “open and secret” goal of the opus alchymicum, the work of preparing the philosophers’ stone (lapis philosophorum).

In terms of Jungian psychology, it involves nothing less than the accomplishment of individuation or self-becoming, which ultimately embraces the whole process of life, including death itself.

Thus this process cannot be completed during one’s incarnation on earth. No one can say, “I have gotten through it!”

From this point of view the mysterium coniunctionis, even from the psychological standpoint, as Jung understood it, presents a problem whose difficulties he expressed in all of his books on the subject.

One troublesome point consisted in the fact that though the birth of more enlightened rationalism did indeed bring with it an illumination and strengthening of ego consciousness, at the same time, once the world had been stripped of its gods, matter too was now rendered lifeless.

The world in its entirety, it seemed, could now be viewed in a purely materialistic way, and indeed the measuring, weighing, calculating mind did bring about, in the form of modern technology, a manipulation of matter that had never before been possible.

Matter and spirit, or psyche-insofar as the latter was recognized at all-were separated from one another as unconnected entities.

It is doubtless interesting that Jung’s alchemy dream went back to the seventeenth century, to a time, historically speaking, when this tendency to dissociate spirit and matter was prevalent, resulting on the one hand in the physical sciences, and on the other-with repeated delays-in a “psychology without a soul.”

Jung’s task clearly was to pick up the threads of spiritual development and grasp of reality where they had once been broken off.

But instead of simply satisfying the historical, reliquarian interests of a backward-directed consciousness, what concerned him was something quite different.

For one thing, by comparing the alchemical symbolic world with the dream symbolism of people living today (for example in Psychology and alchemy), he gained insights into the individuation process and also into such important matters as the phenomenon of the transference, so significant for every therapist.

The alchemists’ techniques for transformation shed crucial light on those of freeing oneself from neurosis and one-sided conscious orientation, so that the conscious and unconscious psyche finds wholeness in the Self.

Furthermore, this work with the problems of alchemy and psychology encouraged a dialogue with modern physics, because the atomic world of microphysics showed signs of being essentially related to the psychic world.

Indeed, there was no lack of indications that physical and psychic energy-ultimately-represent two aspects of one and the same reality, and this brings within sight the realization of a single unified view of reality that the late medieval alchemists and philosophers called the unus mundus, the one, or unified, world.

In concrete terms this meant that Jung, as a psychologist, was broadening his own outlook, by opening himself up afresh-as he had once done as a result of his studies in the physical sciences-to questions of natural science.

This he did while at the same time interesting physicists, in turn, in the application of the physical approach to the psychological.

Thus it is understandable that two noted physicists were exchanging views with the psychologist as early as the mid-thirties, when he was beginning to put forward the first demonstrable results of his alchemy research.

These were Wolfgang Pauli, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Swiss Institute of Technology and winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1945, and Professor Pascual Jordan, director (after 1930) of the Physical Institute of the University of Ro stock.

On his first studies in this area, Jordan wrote to Jung:

“I am very impressed to see a belated appreciation even for alchemy beginning to develop here again; I have long felt, you know, that the wholly superficial assessment of alchemy that has persisted up to this time stood in need of  liquidation, but until now I had looked in vain for a more incisive explanation of what really lay behind this phenomenon that is so important in the history of our culture.”

Before Jung could make the dialogue on the foundations of natural science bear fruit in this way, he found himself on the receiving end.

Along with the dreams, already mentioned, that pointed toward alchemy came an acquaintance with an ancient Taoist text that treated Chinese yoga as well as Chinese alchemy.

This was The Secret of the Golden Flower, as translated into German by Richard Wilhelm.

In the Preface to the second edition of the work which he himself annotated,

Jung wrote:

My late friend Richard Wilhelm sent me the text of The Secret of the Golden Flower in 1928, at a moment that was full of problems for my own work. Since 1913 I had been engaged in investigating the processes of the collective unconscious, and I had obtained results which struck me as difficult in more than one respect. Not only were they far removed from anything known to “academic” psychology, but they also went beyond the bounds of medical, purely personalistic psychology. It was an extensive phenomenology to which hitherto known categories and methods could no longer be applied. My results, which rested on the efforts of fifteen years, seemed to be hanging in midair, for there was nothing anywhere to compare them with.

It was the ancient Chinese alchemists’ text that put Jung on the right track, so that he was at last able to uncover in alchemy, and Western alchemy in particular, the comparative material he needed for his own psychological investigations.

Thus the text itself was only a sort of catalyst, an impulse, not really a pattern by means of which one could get a feeling for Far Eastern spirituality.

In the same place Jung objected to the misconception that his psychological commentary described his therapeutic methods.

Rather, the situation here was much as it was with the I Ching, also translated into German by Wilhelm, which represented a challenge to the analytical psychologist and the physicist alike, being grounded in the principle of synchronicity, of parallelism in time.

This refers to a noncausal “ordering” of both psychic and physical facts, in which a definite archetype must be postulated as the ordering factor.

As for this subject, several years passed before Jung, in collaboration with Wolfgang Pauli, explained “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle.”

He made first intimations of this at the time of his preoccupation with alchemy, for example in his English seminar in the fall of 1929 and his obituary for Richard Wilhelm in 1930.

Through his pursuit of alchemy (before and around 1940), all the elements that had previously lain disconnectedly side by side fell into place for Jung:

… the fantasy-images, the empirical material I had gathered in my practice, and the conclusions I had drawn from it. I now began to understand what these psychic contents meant when seen in historical perspective. My understanding of their typical character, which had already begun with my investigation of myths, was deepened. The primordial images. and the nature of the archetype took a central place in my researches, and it became clear to me that without history there can be no psychology, and certainly no psychology of the unconscious. A psychology of consciousness can, to be sure, content itself with material drawn from personal life, but as soon as we wish to explain a neurosis we require an anamnesis which reaches deeper than the knowledge of consciousness. And when in the course of treatment unusual decisions are called for, dreams occur that need more than personal memories for their interpretation.

With this the circle was closed.

What might be misunderstood, if considered only superficially, as a ludicrous escapade in a marginal field actually turned out to be a helpful insight for the everyday practice of the psychotherapist who was familiar with the symbolism of alchemy.

In fact, his research into alchemy could not help but take on a central, or one might say centralizing, role in C. G. Jung’s life.

In his work with it he saw his inner relationship to Goethe.

Goethe’s secret was that he was in the grip of the process of archetypal transformation which has gone on through the centuries. He regarded his Faust as an opus magnus or divinum.

In a letter dated 1955, when he was eighty, Jung characterized Faust as nothing less than an “opus alchymicum in the best sense.” The mystery of the coniunctio, he said, was like a leitmotif pervading the whole of Goethe’s work.

At the same time Jung hinted that even Faust, which had been with him his whole life, had not become intelligible to him until the mid-thirties, when he read J.V. Andreae’s The Chemical Marriage of Christian Rosenkreutz, the famous basic text of Rosicrucianism which narrated the path of alchemical initiation and maturation of the fictional Christian Rosenkreutz over the span of “seven days.”

At the same time Jung’s understanding of religious reality, which he discussed in lectures in the mid-thirties and also in book form after 1940 (Psychology and Religion) and subsequently in Paracelsica (1942), was appreciably deepened.

More and more his attention was drawn to the figure of Christ as the anthropos or true human being, the quintessence of the Self, for Western people at any rate.

Alchemy dealt with this Christ-self in the form of the philosophers’ stone that was to be prepared, and thus it is possible to speak of a parallel between Christ and the stone.

In Psychology and Alchemy this important aspect is clearly elaborated and thoroughly documented, from the third-century Gnostic and alchemist Zosimos of Panoplis, whose Visions Jung annotated in detail, down to Jakob Bohme in the seventeenth century, who of course was not a practicing alchemist, but who did make use of alchemical symbolism.

From this Jung arrived at the conclusion:

From this material it appears quite clearly what alchemy was seeking, in the last analysis. It wished to produce a corpus subtile, the transfigured body of the resurrection-a body that is simultaneously spirit .. In this it matches Chinese alchemy, as it has become known to us through the text of The Secret of the Golden Flower. This is the “diamond body,” that is immortality, attained through the transformation of the body. Because of its transparency, its brilliance, and its hardness, the diamond is a fitting symbol.

And always, the one who performs the operation is included in the process.

Hence if we seek to understand the significance of alchemy for C. G. Jung’s psychology, the picture we arrive at, in a nutshell, is this:

In his “work” (opus alchymicum), the alchemist is confronted with a task, as one who no longer can or will remain what he is.

He has to undergo a total, inner transformation. This is why Gerhard Dorn (Dorneus), the sixteenth-century Paracelsist often quoted by Jung, programmatically demanded:

Transmutemini in vivos lapides philosophicos. Transform yourselves into living philosophic stones!

This means: Find within yourselves the “philosophers’ stone”; prepare it by recasting your own nature, and be not content with the conventional chemical practices of the alchemist’s kitchen!

The procedures, beginning with the prima materia, the still-untransformed yet mysterious initial substance, allow the technician, who must always be also a meditator, a contemplative worker, to pass through a definite series of developmental stages.

The first stage involves the nigredo or “blackening,” a dangerous stage that can confound the technician through the production of fumes and poisons.

In the path of psychological individuation this corresponds to the confrontation with the “shadow.”

The second stage is called albedo, “whitening,” and can be compared with the integration of the soul-image, the anima or animus.

Turning to the phenomenon of the transference between patient and therapist, which can cause such difficulties in analysis, the motif of the “mystical marriage” comes into play.

In this regard, the early practitioner had at his side a soror mystica, a spiritual sister or helper.

Lastly, the alchemistic opus proceeds to the third stage of rubedo or citrinitas, “reddening” or “yellowing,” that is, turning to gold. The longed-for philosophers’ stone appears to have come close enough to realize; in it-in psychological terms, in the self-the opposites of spirit and matter, light and darkness, masculine and feminine, are united.

With this the alchemist’s path of initiation, so far as this is possible, has reached its end.

The mystical work along its sorrowful road, beset with so many errors and obstacles, is finished-to the extent that it can ever be so.

This work kept C. G. Jung busy for more than a decade, haunting him to the last phase of his late work. The question of why he had undertaken a task that demanded so much trouble and patience he answered in his memoirs:

The experiences of the alchemists were, in a sense, my experiences, and their world was my world. Thus I had at last reached the ground which underlay my own experiences of the years 1913 to 1917; for the process through which I had passed at that time corresponded to the process of alchemical transformation discussed in [Psychology and Alchemy].

In the Epilogue to that fundamental work, Jung stated clearly that what the alchemist did was project (unconsciously) the stages occurring in his own individuation into the process of chemical transformation he had set in motion that is, that which he experimented with was his own transformation and growth.

And the term “individuation” should in no way be taken to mean a totally known and enlightened, or enlightenable, state.

It denotes merely the realm of the process of personality forming centralization in the unconscious, which is still very obscure and in need of further investigation.

It has to do with vital processes which from time immemorial, because of their numinous character, have been the most significant initiators of symbol-formation.

And these processes are mysterious, in that they present the human intellect with riddles for whose solution it will continue to struggle for a long time to come, and perhaps in vain.

For it is entirely doubtful whether, in the last analysis, the intellect is or is not the appropriate instrument for this.

Not for nothing did alchemy style itself an “art,” sensing correctly that it had to do with processes of development that could really be comprehended only through experience, and intellectually only labeled.

Jung’s lifelong insistence on learning through his own experience, regardless of the grand words of the great authorities (though these should be respected all the same), serves here as a path of spiritual instruction for everyone:

Rumpite libros, ne corda vestra rumpantur. Tear up your books, that your hearts may not be torn!

The alchemist must persist in his study of books, but he must also be sure that the experience of his spirit is not masked by the letters on the page.

The letter kills, the spirit bring to life!

As C. G. Jung’s interest in alchemy covered more than three decades, it is a thread of his life that we shall take up several more times during the thirties, in considering not only the biographically and historically crucial phase of the era of National Socialism, but also the contributions it made to his work during this time, whether in regard to the psychology of religion, his several months long journey to India, or his encounters in the circle of Eranos.  ~Gerhard Wehr, Jung: A Biography, Pages 245-261

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