The Sacred Art of Alchemy
by Paul Levy
Much to his astonishment, C. G. Jung discovered that the ancient art of alchemy was describing, in symbolic language, the journey that all of us must take towards embodying our own intrinsic wholeness, what he called the process of “individuation.” As Jung wrote, “I had very soon seen that analytical psychology [the psychology Jung developed] coincided in a most curious way with alchemy. The experiences of the alchemists, were, in a sense, my experiences, and their world was my world. This was, of course, a momentous discovery. I had stumbled upon the historical counterpart of my psychology of the unconscious.” The alchemists, over the course of centuries, had generated a wide range of symbolic images which directly corresponded to the anatomy of the unconscious which Jung had been mapping through his painstaking work with thousands of patients. Jung, in illuminating a psychology of the unconscious, can himself be considered a modern-day alchemist. Jung continues that "the entire alchemical procedure….could just as well represent the individuation process of a single individual."
The alchemists had little or nothing to contribute to the field of chemistry, least of all the secret of gold-making. Only our overly one-sided, rational and intellectualized age could miss the point so entirely and see in alchemy nothing but an abortive attempt at chemistry. On the contrary, to the alchemists, chemistry represented a degradation and a “Fall,” because it meant the secularization and commercialization of a sacred science. Jung makes the point, “The alchemical operations were real, only this reality was not physical but psychological. Alchemy represents the projection of a drama both cosmic and spiritual in laboratory terms. The opus magnum [“great work”] had two aims: the rescue of the human soul, and the salvation of the cosmos.” The alchemists were dreaming big.
The ancient art of alchemy was chiefly concerned with changing something of seemingly little value into something precious, of transforming lead into gold, thereby creating the “philosophers’ stone” (the “lapis philosophorum”). The “stone,” or “lapis,” is not a material substance, however, but is an awakened consciousness, which, though seemingly immaterial, pervades, in-forms and gives rise to all creation. The philosophers’ stone doesn’t just redeem the individual alchemist, it nonlocally influences the field to such a degree that it was considered to be able to redeem the entire cosmos. The lapis, as Jung emphasizes, is “a psychological symbol expressing something created by man and yet supra-ordinate to him.” Alchemy is a timeless, sacred art, as the alchemists’ art is to become an instrument for the incarnating deity to make itself real in time and space.
Alchemy is all about creating wealth. The alchemical gold and the philosophers’ stone had thousands of names, which was an expression of its all-embracing, numinous and miraculous qualities that cannot be adequately described by language. Regardless of what it is called, the creation of the stone is the goal of the alchemical opus. Alchemy is a mystical art-form, a genuine spiritual path. Jung elaborates, “The mystical side of alchemy, as distinct from its historical aspect, is essentially a psychological problem. To all appearances, it is a concretization, in projected and symbolic form, of the process of individuation.”
THE PRIMA MATERIA
The “famous secret,” and the basis of the alchemical opus is the unique prima materia, which is the chaos and raw material out of which the refined substance or “gold” is produced. To the alchemists, there was a spirit hidden in the darkness of the prima materia, a divine spark buried in the darkness of matter. Speaking about a spirit being hidden in matter, Jung clarifies, “The psychological equivalent of this theme is the projection of a highly fascinating unconscious content which, like all such contents, exhibits a numinous – ‘divine,’ or ‘sacred’ – quality.” The much-prized prima materia is the psychic flypaper which catches every imaginable projection buzzing around in the human mind. Symbolically speaking, the enigmatic prima materia represents the unknown substance within us that carries the projections of the unconscious. It is the psychic emulsion or medium in which the subconscious contents within us are encoded. The prima materia is thus a symbol for the unconscious itself.
The obscure prima materia re-presents and reflects back to us (through our inner experiences as well as our experiences in the outer world), our underdeveloped, inferior function, our growing edges, the places where we are not consciously related to ourselves. To the extent we are unwittingly identified with our unconscious, compared to being consciously related to it, is the extent to which we will act out our unconscious, which is the prima materia in action.
Psychologically speaking, we become inflated when, as an ego, we unconsciously identify with the Self (the wholeness of our being, which includes both conscious and unconscious elements). When we become inflated we act out our unconscious in the world and live beyond our means, beyond the boundaries of who we are as human beings. Not separate from our own mind, the prima materia, like an instantaneous feedback system, will then shape-shift and nonlocally reflect back our state of unconscious “inflation,” so as to keep us in balance. The prima materia in its lead-like aspect contains the spirit of depression, a downward movement into the depths of our being which is felt as melancholia, and which corresponds to the encounter with the shadow in psychology. Just like a dream compensates a one-sidedness, when we are unconsciously inflated, be it personally or collectively, the prima materia constellates a circumstance that will shock and awe us into humility so as to puncture our spell. When we are inflated, the prima materia will “ground” us so as to bring us back down to earth. Hopefully the “crash” won’t be too hard.
The elusive prima materia needs to be found before the opus could begin. Psychologically speaking, the mysterious prima materia re-presents, and is to be discovered in, the parts of the psyche that we deny, dis-own and marginalize, the aspects of ourselves that we feel ashamed of, revulsion for and turn away from in disgust. In Jung’s words, this “means that the thing which we think the least of, that part of ourselves which we repress perhaps the most, or which we despise, is just the part which contains the mystery.” We typically want to get rid of the shadow aspects of our personality, but the alchemists understood that our wounded, inferior and unconscious parts aren't an accident or error, but rather, has a value and cosmic perfection to them that is stunning. Our wounds, the base material of the work, are indispensible for the accomplishment of the opus, for without these shadow parts there would be no way to make the alchemical gold.
“And just as, in Christianity, the Godhead conceals itself in the man of low degree,” Jung writes, “so in the ‘philosophy’ [alchemy] it hides in the uncomely stone.” Symbolically, this is the stone “rejected by the builders,” which ultimately becomes the cornerstone. It is an archetypal, universal idea that the highest value is to be found in the lowest, that the blessing is to be found in the curse, and that the wisdom is to be found in ignorance. It is an archetypal experience that the highest value - what Jung calls the Self, and others call “The Messiah” - unless recognized for its divinity, is typically contracted against and reacted to with scorn, revulsion, contempt, and disgust. An ancient alchemical text expresses this idea when it says, “Christ had no form nor comeliness, was the vilest of all men, full of griefs and sickness, and so despised that men even hid their faces from him, and he was esteemed as nothing.”
It is an archetypal, shamanic idea that we have to descend into the unconscious, making a “nekyia,” a night sea journey, into the depths of our own darkness so that we can discover “The Pearl of Great Price,” another of the stone’s many names. The initial stage is the “nigredo,” the blackness of death, the darkness darker than dark, which is actually the seed for the future birth of the living opus. “The good tidings announced by alchemy [analogous to the “Good News” of the Bible] are that, as once a fountain sprang up in Judea,” Jung contemplates, “so now there is a secret Judea the way to which is not easily found, and a hidden spring whose waters seem to be worthless and so bitter that they are deemed of no use at all.” Jung continues, “…man’s inner life is the secret place,” where the “medicina catholica or panacea, the spark of the light of nature, are to be found.”
The tantalizing prima materia had a dangerous, toxic aspect, however, and was considered “bedeviled,” causing insanity if not approached with the highest regard. Though potentially deadly, the prima materia contains within itself its own medicine, which is to say that the alchemical process is its own solution. The prima materia is a quantum phenomenon, in that it is of an indeterminate nature of open-ended potentiality, and contains within itself both the poison and the medicine. The more virulent the poison, the more powerful are its potential healing qualities. Accomplished alchemists are able to transmute the poison into healing nectar, just like when a peacock eats poison, its multi-colored plumage gets even brighter. The prima materia is a higher-dimensional phenomenon which serves to unite both of the opposites – dark and light - into a higher synthesis. How the mercurial and shape-shifting prima materia actually manifests depends upon how we dream it.
Jung contemplates, “Yet nobody has ever known what this primal matter is. The alchemists did not know, and nobody has found out what was really meant by it, because it is a substance in the unconscious which is needed for the incarnation of the god.” Contemplating an indescribable divine mystery, according to Jung, “the alchemists did not really know what they were writing about,” certainly not with their conceptual mind. Not knowing what they were trying to articulate, the unconscious itself was simultaneously living through the alchemists as it revealed itself to them. This explains the alchemists’ oftentimes confusing, contradictory, and inscrutable description of their art. This lack of consistency and intellectual rigor has led the overly rational and intellectually-minded scientific community to completely dismiss and reject alchemy as being unscientific, irrational nonsense. In their rejection of alchemy, however, modern day scientists are acting out in the world their very rejection of the irrational prima materia within themselves.
In its original form, the paradoxical prima materia contains the most incompatible possible opposites inherent in the human psyche within itself in uncombined form. An eruption of the unconscious, the prima materia is often symbolized as a dragon, as it is the personification of the instinctual psyche. The prima materia is an “increatum,” an “uncreated,” autonomous, self-generating, spirit-like entity which is the root of itself and rooted in itself and is dependent on nothing. Jung tells us, “It is a characteristic of the arcane [esoteric, secret] substance to have ‘everything it needs;’ it is a fully autonomous being, like the dragon [uroboros] that begets, reproduces, slays and devours itself…a being without beginning or end, and in need of ‘no second.’ Such a thing can by definition only be God himself.” Speaking of the ineffable prima materia, an alchemical text says, “Thus the supreme artist [i.e., God] has prepared a great uncreated mystery.” The ungraspable prima materia is considered to be the virginal mother which gives birth to the lapis.
The prima materia is also considered to be an orphan because it is so completely unique and utterly one of a kind. It is seemingly hard to find because it is found everywhere. To quote an ancient alchemist, the prima materia is the Subject of the “Great Stone of the Philosophers, which the whole World has before its eyes yet knows not.” Jung clarifies this idea when he says, “The prima materia has the quality of ubiquity, it can be found always and everywhere, which is to say that projection can take place always and everywhere.” The prima materia is found in the projections of our unconscious, which are located inside of our head and outside in the world at the same time, as the inner and outer are an undivided continuum.
Jung makes the important point that “The real nature of matter was unknown to the alchemist. Inasmuch as he tried to explore it he projected the unconscious into the darkness of matter in order to illuminate it. In order to explain the mystery of matter he projected yet another mystery – his own psychic background – into what was to be explained.” The alchemists’ experiences with matter were revealing to them their own mind. Jung continues, "I am, therefore, inclined to suppose that the real root of alchemy is to be sought less in philosophical doctrines than in the projections of individual investigators…. while working on his chemical experiments the operator had certain psychic experiences which appeared to him as the particular behavior of the chemical process. Since it was a question of projection, he was naturally unconscious of the fact that the experience had nothing to do with matter itself (that is, with matter as we know it today). He experienced his projection as a property of matter, but what he was in reality experiencing was his own unconscious…Such projections repeat themselves whenever man tried to explore an empty darkness and involuntarily fills it with living form." To put it simply, the alchemists had unconsciously stumbled onto and were participating in the divine secret which has now become understood in quantum physics (albeit in different terms), that what we are experiencing right now as matter is inseparable from our own mind.
The act of projection is an unconscious, involuntary process, as it is a circuitous route by which to become conscious of ourselves. Jung comments that “there must have been something in the unconscious of the alchemists which lent itself to projection (i.e., had a tendency to become conscious because of its energy charge), and on the other hand found in the alchemical operations a ‘hook’ that attracted it, so that it could express itself in some way.” Something in the alchemists’ minds wanted to make itself known and become conscious, and it projected itself into matter to do so. The Self, the intrinsic wholeness of the human psyche, wanted to actualize itself, so it created the art of alchemy as a medium for and symbolic expression of its realization.