The true alchemists believed in something else. They believed that all things evolve. And not only things classified as living. The alchemist recognized three kingdoms: mineral, vegetable, and animal. Corresponding to the sacred compounds Salt, Sulphur, and Mercury, each kingdom slowly metamorphosed into the next, base metals like iron growing eventually into gold, all minerals gradually becoming plants, plants animals. To accelerate this evolution: this the alchemist saw as his most holy, scientific responsibility. Although these researcher-contemplatives never found literal gold or immortality (the usual disappointment at rainbow’s end for those who live out what should be lived in), they located something more precious than metallic wealth: an unintended glimpse, coded into their elaborate formulas, of the psyche’s deepest patterns.
Nevertheless, for millennia the written works of the alchemists gathered dust in old libraries, the elaborate treatises scattered, discredited, and forgotten. Alchemy looked to the hyperrational eye of science like ersatz chemistry, a superstitious dabbling in physical impossibilities, just as mythology seemed a collection of dead explanations for natural processes. To the jealous eye of religious orthodoxy, alchemy was heresy pure and simple, a kind of do-it-yourself Gnosticism. So the potent imagery dreamed by artifex and soror mystica («mystical sister»: female alchemist) in their laboratory-shrines shuffled sadly from history’s spotlight, leaving behind a handful of obscure terms like opus, reflux, and hermetic seal. Until C. G. Jung.
You can’t read much of alchemy, or of Jung, without learning that he saw in alchemy’s rich, magical, medicated symbolism the outlines of individuation, the lifelong enrichment of consciousness and its actualities by contact with the unconscious and its potentialities. Jung found in alchemy the bridge between Gnosticism and psychology and the historical counterpart to his concept of the collective unconscious. He discovered that the artifex, the alchemical researcher who preceded both chemist and psychologist, projected into matter’s dark mystery the search for the Self (from the Hindu atman or spark of God), archetypal center and organizer of personality, symbolized by the trapped spirit Mercurius (or his windy forerunner Hermes, derived in turn from the Egyptian Thoth) and the Lapis Philosophorum, the Philosopher’s Stone that could extend life, heal all sicknesses, and transform base metals into gold. And, for the true philosophers, not the base gold of the «puffers,» but the essence of metals: «Our gold is not the ordinary gold.» Nor was their wisdom the ordinary wisdom.
So over steaming retorts the meditative alchemist dreamed deep visions and wrote them down as chemical transformations. Although every artifex used his own methods in his own way, the opus alchymicum, the work to cook the Lapis, divides roughly into four basic procedures or regiminia: the nigredo (blackening), the albedo (whitening), the citrinitas (yellowing), and the rubedo (reddening). Each stage begins with decay and ends with rebirth and coniunctio, the chemical synthesis of two substances that alters both – and a counterpart to the Jungian view of transference (therapist + client = something new) and to the psyche’s transcendent function which unites the psychological opposites. To apply this scheme: nigredo = shadow work, albedo = anima/animus work, citrinitas = Wise Old Man/Wise Woman work, rubedo = Self work. The Self archetype, symbolized by the Lapis, is the core.
During individuation each of these archetypes surrenders part of its energy to the probing ego and part to activating the next, deeper archetype. See M. Ester Harding’s book Psychic Energy and while you’re at it, Edward Edinger’s The Anatomy of the Psyche and, if you really want a challenge, Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy; all three were very helpful.
The Prima Materia
The reverent artifex began with the prima materia, the «first matter,» the «orphan,» the chaotic source substance, «found in filth,» out of which all creation supposedly formed. And this material was what? No one knows. Probably not even the alchemists knew. But their descriptions of it match those of an unconscious content ready to enter awareness–a «point at issue,» as M. Ester Harding put it. They intuited in fantasy what they couldn’t locate chemically.
Because four elements – earth, air, fire, and water – composed the prima materia, purifying any metal amounted to changing the relative proportions of those elements until they matched those of silver, a noble substance, or gold, the noblest (and, in psychological symbolism, the most conscious or transformed). According to the sulphur-mercury theory, built on that of the four elements, purified sulphur mixed with purified mercury made gold, the perfect metal. But the «true imagination» of the reflective alchemist provided the key ingredient – and welded the psyche’s activities to the sparks and gasses of the work in the laboratory. Metal and alchemist suffered purification together.
Into an egg-shaped retort, the unum vas, vas bene clausum («well-sealed vessel»), or vas Hermeticum (also called the «uterus»), went the prima materia, there to cook on a low flame. This corresponds to holding the rising unconscious experience or set of experiences firmly in awareness and «heating» or «cooking» it with meditation (meditatio) and fantasy (or with Jung’s active imagination). Containment also includes grasping the process with the help of concepts (theoria). Meditatio senses the material, theoria grasps it.
According to the legendary Maria Prophetissa, a Neoplatonist alchemist of the third century, the whole secret is in knowing the vessel. It must be thick so its boiling contents won’t get away (projection, symptoms, psychosis). It must focus its heat on its center, aided by reflux condensers and the retort called the pelican, in which the distillate runs back into the belly. Put psychologically: in the sturdy vessel of an ego purged of personal issues, the contained nonego self can undergo transformation. Properly heated, the prima materia split into its four constituting elements (divisio elementorum). As the Axiom of Maria tells us, «One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth.» Concentrating on a surfacing experience separates the mutual contamination of its components into the categories imposed by consciousness: here/there, up/down, left/right, light/dark. The four elements also recall Jung’s four orienting functions of the ego: thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition.
But fire and meditation soon bring about the first coniunctio oppositorum, or the reunification of prima materia split into its opposites: Sol (consciousness) with Luna (the unconscious, as personified by the anima), ego with id (body), male with female, sulphur and salt, spirit and nature, heaven and earth, Logos and Eros, son and mother. The increasing heat of awareness fuses the unconscious content, divided and differentiated by a conceptualizing consciousness, into a new, partly conscious substance. King and queen join incestuously (which can symbolize self-union) and thereby give birth to something new.¹
The Holy Grail
According to legend, that was the vessel used by Jesus at the Last Supper and later by Joseph of Arimathea to collect and preserve the Saviour’s blood after the Crucifixion. It is thus the most precious object in Christendom. The theme of the miraculous vessel is much older than Christianity, however. As Freud would have been the first to agree, the Grail or vessel is a feminine symbol, a womb in which a miraculous, life-giving transformation occurs. The vessel or vas was central to the alchemical tradition which began in ancient China and reached northern Europe, as Jung comments, in the twelfth century. The Gnostics, which whom Jung felt a close affinity, believed that one of the original gods had made a gift to humanity of a krater, a mixinig vessel, in which those who sought spiritual transformation were immersed.
This Gnostic tradition seems to have entered European alchemy through the influence of Zosimos of Panopolis, one of the earliest and most influential alchemists, whose visions were later to be of great interest to Jung. The medieval mystics adopted the vessel a symbol of the soul, which exists to be filled and replenished endlessly by Divine Grace.
The association of the Grail legend with England and King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table came through the figure of Merlin, the great magician, shaman, and bard of Celtic mythology. Merlin was born of an illicit union between the devil and an innocent virgin and thus emerged as a counterbalance to the figure of Christ. Early in his career, Merlin presides over a dragon fight which results in the deposition of the old usurper King Vertigier and his replacement by King Uter, to whom Merlin confides the secret of the Grail, instruction Uter to set up a Third Table. The First Table was that of the Last Supper; the Second was the table on which Joseph of Arimathea had kept the Grail, and it was square; the Third Table, which King Uter will provide must be round. This rounding of the square is the very essence of the mandala configuration and symbolizes the achievement of wholeness, the complete realization of the Self. The quest of the Holy Grail is the individuation quest undertaken sub specie aeternitatis.²
²Jung: A Very Short Introduction, by Anthony Stevens