Psychology and Alchemy

[Carl Jung on “The Method” in Alchemy]

The basis of alchemy is the work (opus). Part of this work is practical, the operatio itself, which is to be thought of as a series of experiments with chemical substances.

In my opinion it is quite hopeless to try to establish any kind of order in the infinite chaos of substances and procedures.

Seldom do we get even an approximate idea of how the work was done, what materials were used, and what results were achieved.

The reader usually finds himself in the most impenetrable darkness when it comes to the names of the substances—they could mean almost anything.

And it is precisely the most commonly used substances, like quicksilver, salt, and sulphur, whose alchemical meaning is one of the secrets of the art.

Moreover, one must not imagine for a moment that the alchemists always understood one another.

They themselves complain about the obscurity of the texts, and occasionally betray their inability to understand even their own symbols and symbolic figures.

For instance, the learned Michael Maier accuses the classical authority Geber of being the obscurest of all, saying that it would require an Oedipus to solve the riddle of the “Gebrina Sphinx.”

Bernard of Treviso, another famous alchemist, goes so far as to call Geber an obscurantist and a Proteus who promises kernels and gives husks.

The alchemist is quite aware that he writes obscurely.

He admits that he veils his meaning on purpose, but nowhere—so far as I know—does he say that he cannot write in any other way.

He makes a virtue of necessity by maintaining either that mystification is forced on him for one reason or another, or that he really wants to make the truth as plain as possible, but cannot proclaim aloud just what the prima materia or the lapis is.

The profound darkness that shrouds the alchemical procedure comes from the fact that although the alchemist was interested in the chemical part of the work he also used it to devise a nomenclature for the psychic transformations that really fascinated him.

Every original alchemist built himself, as it were, a more or less individual edifice of ideas, consisting of the dicta of the philosophers and of miscellaneous analogies to the fundamental concepts of alchemy.

Generally these analogies are taken from all over the place.

Treatises were even written for the purpose of supplying the artist with analogy-making material.

The method of alchemy, psychologically speaking, is one of boundless amplification.

The amplificatio is always appropriate when dealing with some obscure experience which is so vaguely adumbrated that it must be enlarged and expanded by being set in a psychological context in order to be understood at all.

That is why, in analytical psychology, we resort to amplification in the interpretation of dreams, for a dream is too slender a hint to be understood until it is enriched by the stuff of association and analogy and thus amplified to the point of intelligibility.

This amplificatio forms the second part of the opus, and is understood by the alchemist as theoria.

Originally the theory was the so-called “Hermetic philosophy,” but quite early on it was broadened by the assimilation of ideas taken over from Christian dogma. In the oldest alchemy known to the West the Hermetic fragments were handed down mostly through Arabic originals.

Direct contact with the Corpus Hermeticum was only established in the second half of the fifteenth century, when the Greek manuscript reached Italy from Macedonia and was translated into Latin by Marsilio Ficino.

The vignette (fig. 144) that is on the title-page to the Tripus aureus (1618) is a graphic illustration of the double face of alchemy.

The picture is divided into two parts.

On the right is a laboratory where a man, clothed only in trunks, is busy at the fire; on the left a library, where an abbot,”‘ a monk,and a layman” are conferring together. In the middle, on top of the furnace, stands the tripod with a round flask on it containing a winged dragon.

The dragon symbolizes the visionary experience of the alchemist as he works in his laboratory and “theorizes.”

The dragon in itself is a monstrum—a symbol combining the chthonic principle of the serpent and the aerial principle of the bird. It is, as Ruland says, a variant of Mercurius.

But Mercurius is the divine winged Hermes (fig. 146) manifest in matter, the god of revelation, lord of thought and sovereign psychopomp.

The liquid metal, —”living silver,” quicksilver—was the wonderful substance that perfectly expressed the nature of that which glistens and animates within.

When the alchemist speaks of Mercurius, on the face of it he means quicksilver, but inwardly he means the world-creating spirit concealed or imprisoned in matter.

The dragon is probably the oldest pictorial symbol in alchemy of which we have documentary evidence.

It appears as the tail-eater, in the Codex Nfarcianus (fig. 147), which dates from the tenth or eleventh century, “together with the legend: (the One, the All).

Time and again the alchemists reiterate that the opus proceeds from the one and leads back to the one, that it is a sort of circle like a dragon biting its own tail (cf. figs. 20, 44, 46, 47).

For this reason the opus was often called circulate (circular) or else rota (the wheel) (fig. 80).

Mercurius stands at the beginning and end of the work: he is the prima materia, the caput corvi, the nigredo; as dragon he devours himself and as dragon he dies, to rise again as the lapis.

He is the play of colours in the cauda pavonis and the division into four elements.

He is the hermaphrodite that was in the beginning, that splits into the classical brother-sister duality and is reunited in the coniunctio, to appear once again at the end in the radiant form of the lumen novum, the stone.

He is metallic yet liquid, matter yet spirit, cold yet fiery, poison and yet healing draught—a symbol uniting all opposites (fig. 148). ~Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, Pages 288-295.