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Articles    H4'ed 10/20/09

The Sacred Art of Alchemy

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An unconscious, split-off, and autonomous content leads a life of its own in the subterranean levels of the psyche, and, in Jung’s words, is prone to “instantly projecting itself whenever it is constellated in any way – that is, whenever attracted by something analogous to it in the outside world.” A sheen of our unconscious projections overlays the seemingly externalized world, acting as both a filter through which and a mirror in which we see ourselves. “So, although the alchemists failed to discover the hidden structure of matter,” Jung appreciates that “they did discover that of the psyche, even if they were scarcely conscious of what this discovery meant.” It took Jung’s unique genius to appreciate and be able to bring to light the real hidden value, meaning and profundity of what the alchemists’ had discovered. 

“But the principle of the unconscious,” Jung explains, “is the autonomy of the psyche itself, reflecting in the play of its images not the world but itself, even though it utilizes the illustrative possibilities offered by the sensible world in order to make its images clear.” The sensory datum of this world are autonomously selected, exploited, and configured by the psyche, so as to give shape and form to itself and thereby reveal its own underlying structure. In other words, the unconscious is revealing itself through its very projections onto the world, which is to say that the unconscious is synchronistically revealing itself through our experience of life itself. The unconscious is its own self-revelation. All we need to do is to recognize what is being revealed.

So many people become entranced by their perceptions, convinced that how they are seeing things is objectively true. “Practical experience shows us again and again,” Jung elaborates, “that any prolonged preoccupation with an unknown object acts as an almost irresistible bait for the unconscious to project itself into the unknown nature of the object and to accept the resultant perception, and the interpretation deduced from it, as objective.” To the extent we are asleep, we are reacting to our own projections as if they objectively exist in concretized form outside of ourselves. Alchemy is an inspired, visionary art form that works with the projective tendencies of our mind in order to help us dis-spell, consciously see through and liberate our projections. The art of alchemy is like a psycho-spiritual multi-vitamin and mineral elixir secreted by the cosmic mind to help heal the collective madness that has infected our world.


Alchemy is an expression of the fact that light is hidden in darkness, that the deepest blessings are found in the distressing dark shadows of the human psyche. Jung amplifies the darkness when he writes, “The prima materia is ‘saturnine,’ and the malefic Saturn is the abode of the devil, or again it is the most despised and rejected thing, ‘thrown out into the street,’ ‘cast on the dung-hill,’ ‘found in filth.’” The alchemists were having a deepening experience of God which included both light and dark, good and evil, an experience which was a projection of a deep process of integration that the alchemists must have been going through within themselves. Jung points out that, “…in alchemy an attempt was made at a symbolical integration of evil by locating the divine drama of redemption in man himself.” This involved a process of coming to terms with the unconscious, which always becomes a necessity when we are confronted with its darkness. This confrontation forced itself on the alchemists as soon as they made a serious effort to find the prima materia.

The prima materia was a genuine numinosum, a holy, psychic/spiritual substance which allowed the alchemists to consciously experience both the light and dark sides of God within themselves. As Jung puts it, “the individual is confronted with the abysmal contradictions of human nature, and this confrontation in turn leads to the possibility of a direct experience of light and darkness, of Christ and the devil.” In the prima materia, the alchemists were literally dreaming up a “Holy Grail-like” receptacle to hold, embrace, reflect, embody, integrate and potentially liberate all of their vast range of often contradictory projections. This sacred substance included and united their image of God and the Devil, thereby helping them come to a fuller understanding of the vastness of the Self, the totality of our being, which includes both light and dark.  

Symbolically speaking, the prima materia corresponds to lead, which relates to Saturn-Chronos, the negative father. One of the prima materia’s many symbols is a weak and infirm old man, the mythic dying king, or “senex,” who has lost touch with feeling, with eros, with relatedness, with creativity, with compassion, and with love. This figure of the rigid-old-man-negative-father is symbolic of a calcification of consciousness which, out of fear of its own weakness, holds onto and becomes addicted to power and control. The dying old man represents a dominant position in consciousness which has outlived its usefulness, and thus becomes an obstacle to the growth and development of consciousness. This archetypal figure is in need of being liquefied and de-solidified, of being given an alchemical bath in the healing waters of the psyche.

There is an alchemical saying “solve et coagula,” dissolve and coagulate (which correspond to the alchemical operations “solutio” and “coagulatio”). The alchemists were dissolving and regenerating elements of their experience and their identity both over time, as well as in each and every moment, so as to potentially distill, re-constitute and create something new within themselves. De-solidifying, de-literalizing and de-constructing their experience in each moment empowered the alchemists to actively participate in their own transformation and evolution. The alchemists saw the essence of their art as both analytic and synthetic, as it involved separation, discrimination and analysis on the one hand, and synthesis, consolidation and integration on the other.

Saturn, the corrupted patriarchy, mythologically speaking, is the governor of the prison, the one who binds us and seemingly limits our freedom, while simultaneously being the supreme tester and great purifier. Paradox is the language of alchemy, as it is an expression of the unified point of view in which the seeming opposites are not so opposed to each other after all. 

The archetype of the dark father has to do with domination and force over others, as compared to being in relation. The archetypal, negative patriarchy has to do with the suppression of the feminine, of feeling, of spontaneity, of life itself. The negative patriarchy, synchronistically, just so happens to be the deeper archetypal process which is animating events in our world today. Alchemy is a collective dream of our ancestors which also happens to be profoundly relevant for our world today. The archetype of the negative father is initiatory, which is to say it is revealing something to us which is most important for us to know. Seen as a compensatory dreaming process, the figure of the negative father, with its willful lust for, and abuse of power, is challenging us to connect with our intrinsic, God-given power. Our true power is a power infused with the spirit of eros, with relatedness, feeling and relationship, with love and connection, all of which are elements in the magic elixir which transmutes the poisonous aspect of the draconian figure of the negative father.   

To be under the spell of Saturn-Chronos, the dark father, “Father Time,” is to be entranced and absorbed in linear time at the expense of the timeless dimension of our being. To recognize that we are playing out on the world stage the mythic process of the negative patriarchy is to have an expansion of consciousness in which we step into a mythical dimension where time is not “chrono-logical.” When we snap out of the spell and logic of linear time, we wake up to “dreamtime,” where time is experienced as a radial-matrix whose center is here and now. Dreamtime is not linear but circular, not fixed but fluid, not mechanistic but natural, not historical but a-historical. Dissolving the figure of father time, of living by the clock, we become introduced to the “syn-chronic” order. The synchronic order, whose timing frequency is a universal factor of synchronization, is a realm of infinite interconnectedness and inter-resonance between everything and everything else. In the synchronic realm the microcosm and macrocosm are synchronistic, mirrored reflections of each other, different iterations of the same underlying, harmonic fractal. This inter-nested fractal reflects a singular nowness eternally unfolding in endlessly diverse and novel patterns.

To the alchemists, creating the philosophers’ stone was analogous to waking up to the dreamlike nature of the universe. Becoming lucid in the waking dream is seen as a reflection of God’s ongoing creation of and incarnation into the world. Just like every little piece of a hologram contains the whole hologram, each individual is a reflection of the whole. Jung wrote, “For the alchemists the process of individuation represented by the opus was an analogy of the creation of the world, and the opus itself an analogy of God’s work of creation. Man was seen as a microcosm, a complete equivalent of the world in miniature.”

Recognizing the co-respondence between the microcosm and the macrocosm, between the inner and outer is the birth of “symbolic awareness,” which is to recognize that this universe is not speaking literally but, like a dream, is speaking to us symbolically. This is the meaning of the famous alchemical maxim, “As above, so below.” What is happening in the world is a symbolic reflection of what is happening inside of ourselves. A true hermetic art, alchemy requires a hermeneutics (a methodology of interpretation) of symbols. This is a mode of apprehension which takes place in the faculty and under the tutelage of the creative imagination, in which sensory data are transmuted into living symbols, allowing the universe to fulfill its revelatory and theophanic (God revealing) function. Symbolic awareness is the very expansion of consciousness which nonlocally dissolves the rigid and fixed archetypal figure of Saturn-Chronos, the negative father, throughout the whole field, like pouring water on the wicked witch of the west, only in this case the whole world becomes “fluid,” and thus ripe with new possibilities.

A genuine transformation mystery, alchemy is about transforming the negative patriarchy, the dark side of God, the wrath of God, into a loving God. In this way, alchemy is simply a further iteration of the Christ event, of an old testament turning into a newer one, a genuine “second coming,” only this time the “Incarnation” is happening within and through the unconscious of all of humanity.

Alchemy, as Jung explains, “…involves a mystery consummated in and through man. It is as though the drama of Christ’s life were, from now on, located in man as its living carrier. As a result of this shift, the events formulated in dogma are brought within range of psychological experience and become recognizable in the process of individuation.” Drafted into being instruments of the Incarnating deity, we find ourselves as a species genuinely imitating Christ to an ever increasing degree.

The alchemists’ goal, however, was, as Jung points out, “…to realize the idea ‘Christ’ on a plane far transcending a mere imitation of him.” The alchemists imitation of Christ, to quote Jung, wasn’t “…an intentional straining after imitation, but rather, an involuntary experience of the reality represented by the sacred legend. This reality comes upon him in his work…The Passion happens to the adept, not in its classic form…but in the form expressed by the alchemical myth. It is the arcane substance that suffers those physical and mental tortures; it is the king who dies or is killed, is dead and buried and on the third day rises again. And it is not the adept who suffers all this, rather it suffers in him, it is tortured, it passes through death and rises again. All this happens not to the alchemist himself but to the ‘true man,’ who he feels is near him and in him and at the same time in the retort…it is the real experience of a man who has got involved in the compensatory contents of the unconscious by investigating the unknown, seriously and to the point of self-sacrifice.” It is the arcane substance, the “true man,” i.e., the Self, which is undergoing transformation and incarnation within the individual alchemist. By alchemically containing this experience, the alchemists became their own retort, their own hermetically-sealed vessel. Participating in the transformation of the deity, the alchemists developed a relationship with, became assimilated into, and thereby a channel for, the incarnation of the emerging Self.  

Jung continues, “the opus Christi is transferred to the individual. He then becomes the bearer of the mystery, and this development was unconsciously prefigured and anticipated in alchemy.” Alchemy is like a precognitive dream of the psyche itself, reflecting and revealing the divine incarnation process into which the human ego has found itself drafted.

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Paul Levy is a visionary artist and a spiritually-informed political activist. A pioneer in the field of spiritual emergence, he is a healer in private practice, assisting others who are also awakening to the dreamlike nature of reality. He is the (more...)
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