Alchemy: An Allegorical Map to Consciousness Transmutation
January 30, 2013 § 33 Comments
“We are unraveling our navels so that we may ingest the sun. We are not afraid of the darkness. We trust that the moon shall guide us. We are determining the future at this very moment. We know that the heart is the philosopher’s stone. Our music is our alchemy.” ~ Saul Williams
Shrouded in mystery and steeped in mysticism, Alchemy is the art and science of transformation. The multi-leveled, symbol-rich philosophy of the ages functions both on an exoteric (practical) and esoteric (spiritual) level.
At its most literal, alchemy was the chemical quest to create the Philosopher’s stone—a legendary substance derived from a series of laboratory processes, known as the The Magnum Opus, The Great Work, or simply The Art. The Philosopher’s Stone was said to be the agent of gold transmutation, and the key ingredient in the creation of the fabled elixir of life, said to heal all diseases, induce longevity and even immortality.
Yet it’s clear from the ancient sacred texts, known as the Corpus Hermeticum—upon which alchemy’s Hermetic principals are based—that gold transmutation is but the tip of the iceberg, as well as a symbolic teaching, of what is essentially a philosophical and mystical tradition. The Philosopher’s Stone can be, and often is, viewed metaphorically.
“[T]he Stone is a symbol of incorruptible wisdom achieved by uniting both rational, intellectual thinking (masculine, right brain activity) with our intuitive knowing of the heart (feminine, left brain activity).” (Alchemy & The Philosopher’s Stone.)
“Alchemy posits that all things in the universe originate with the materia prima (First Matter),” notes P.T. Mistlberger in his essay “Psycho-Spiritual Alchemy.”
“The idea of the ‘primal material’ was developed by Aristotle and refers to the idea that there is a primordial matter that lies behind all forms, but that is itself invisible. It is the womb of creation, the field of pure potentiality, but it only gains existence, in the strictest sense, when given form.”
Mistlberger continues: “In the alchemical process, the primal material is that which remains when something has been reduced to its essence and can be reduced no further.”
From a mystical perspective, “essence” is also commonly associated with the soul.
“Psychologically,” Mistleberger adds, “this is a potent symbol for the inner process of transformation in which we regularly arrive at ‘core realizations’ that cannot be deconstructed further, but that themselves become the ground for successfully moving forward in life—‘integrating’ as we evolve.”
Certainly such high-level claims as gold transmutation and immortality elixirs made alchemy ripe for abuse from charlatans. Its cryptic language and oblique symbolism only aided sham-peddling swindlers with the perfect smoke screen behind which to operate mysteriously.
Fraudulent claims drove The Art into disrepute—Dante reserves a special place in his Inferno for alchemists—and the modern materialist mind is often quick to dismiss alchemy as an arcane jumble of smoke and mirrors hogwash. Though it is considered a protoscience for modern chemistry due to its establishment of basic chemical procedures (the most notable being distillation), its discovery of phosphorus, antimony and bismuth, and preparation of nitric, hydrochloric and sulphuric acid.
The real “gold,” however, seems to lie in the deeper, spiritual heritage of Alchemy. The mystical truths preserved in its archetypal imagery and symbolism still serve as an allegorical map for seekers today.
“Only through discovering alchemy,” notes pioneering Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, “have I clearly understood that the unconscious is a process and that ego’s rapport with the unconscious and his contents initiates an evolution, more precisely, a real metamorphosis of the psyche.”
While the imagery associated with alchemy can be bafflingly surreal and even disturbing, every detail holds symbolic meaning that becomes coherent when viewed through an allegorical lens.
The 7 Stages (or Operations) of Alchemy give insight into many of these symbols. The system is thought to be based largely on the ancient text, The Emerald Tablet of Hermes—the jewel in the crown of the Corpus Hermeticum. The first translation dates back to the 13th century, though its origin is suspected to go as far back as the 2nd century or older.
The 7 Stages, undertaken with the goal of the Philosopher’s Stone (both literal and metaphorical), are as follows:
1.Calcination. (“Its father is the sun.” ~ The Emerald Tablet of Hermes)
Chemically, this initial stage involves heating the substance over an open flame and burning away the first layer of impurities.
“Psychologically,” remarks Dennis William Hauk, an Internationally recognized expert on alchemy research, “this is the destruction of the ego and our attachment to material possessions. Calcination is usually a natural humbling process as we are gradually assaulted and overcome by the trials and tribulations of life, though it can be a deliberate surrender of our inherent hubris [igniting] the fire of introspection and self-evaluation.”
“In spiritual symbolism, this stage is sometimes humorously referred to as ‘cooking’ or ‘baking’ (and in fact the prime symbol of this stage is fire),” observes P.T. Mistlberger in “Psycho-Spiritual Alchemy.“
Spiritually, Adam McClean points out in his essay Birds in Alchemy, “the nigredo indicates the initial stages of the alchemist’s encounter with his inner space, through withdrawing from the outer world of the senses in meditation, and entering what is initially the dark inner world of the soul,”
Symbolized by crows, ravens, toads, sculls and skeletons—as well as the alchemist in his own burning flask or cauldron—philosophically, this stage represents the breaking down of old structures. Called the nigredo, or “blackening,” Calcination involved putrefaction and decomposition of the alchemical substances—a “trial by fire” that psychologists often equate with the Dark Night of the Soul, the death of old aspects of the self and confrontation with the shadow within.
2. Dissolution (“Its mother is the moon.”)
Also called the albedo, or “whitening,” the second stage, was said to result from the washing (ablutio, baptisma) of the products of the nigredo. Chemically, this phase denotes the dissolving of the ashes from Calcination in water. Often symbolized by a white swan or a white eagle, Dissolution marks a time of emotional cleansing, a purification through catharsis and letting go.
“It is, for the most part, an unconscious process,” details Dennis William Hauck, “in which our conscious minds let go of control to allow the surfacing of buried material. It is opening the floodgates and generating new energy from the waters held back. Dissolution can be experienced as “flow,” the bliss of being well-used and actively engaged in creative acts.”
“This stage is often characterized by experiencing the emotion of grief,” adds P.T. Mistlberger, “and allowing ourselves to truly grieve painful incidents from our past that we may have long buried.
“A key to the stage of Dissolution is the awakening of passion, and the harnessing of the energy of emotional pain toward an object of creativity. We do not just passively witness the reality of our inner pain; we redirect its energy, wedding it to our authentic personal desires and constructive aims.”
“It is that stage of catharsis after some intense experience of being consumed in the crucible,” details Adam McLean, “when we glimpse the appearance, however fragmentary, of a new possibility —a flickering light in our souls which draws us towards its promise of change.”
3. Separation (“The wind carries it in its belly.”)
Chemically, according to Hauk, this stage marks “the isolation of the components of Dissolution by filtration and then discarding any ungenuine or unworthy material.
“Psychologically, this process is the rediscovery of our essence and the reclaiming of dream and visionary ‘gold’ previously rejected by the masculine, rational part of our minds. It is, for the most part, a conscious process in which we review formerly hidden material and decide what to discard and what to reintegrate into our refined personality.”
The Separation stage, much as its name suggests, denotes a time of discernment and taking stock. ”In this stage,” notes Mistlberger, “we begin to see what is of value in our life, and what is not.”
“Chemically,” Hauk tells us, “it is the recombination of the saved elements from Separation into a new substance…”
“Psychologically, it is empowerment of our true selves, the union of both the masculine and feminine sides of our personalities into a new belief system or an intuitive state of consciousness. The alchemists referred to it as the Lesser Stone, and after it is achieved, the adept is able to clearly discern what needs to be done to achieve lasting enlightenment, which is union with the Overself. Often, synchronicities begin to occur that confirm the alchemist is on the right track.”
The divided self, often represented by a king and queen, now purified and healed—is reunited, producing filius philosophorum, or “the philosopher’s child,” a magical, hermaphroditic babe, representing the reborn, integrated self.
“Esoteric alchemy proposes,” Mistlberger elaborates, “that what is left if the first three stages of calcination, dissolution, and separation have been properly undergone is a state wherein we can more clearly mediate between our ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’.
“In this sense ‘soul’ refers to our embodied spirit, the part of our essential nature that is fully on Earth, and ‘spirit’ refers to our most rarefied connection with the divine, transcendental Source. These two are sometimes categorized as the divine feminine (soul) and the divine masculine (spirit). The combining of the two is the essence of inner tantra, a sacred marriage of spiritual opposites.”
The integration of the active, “impregnating” principal of divine spirit is often depicted as the masculine sun, or Sol, while the receptive principal of the body receiving that spirit infusion is represented by the feminine moon, or Luna. Below these aspects integrate via the symbolic sexual union of Sol and Luna.
“In conjunction, fears melt,” adds Nephtalia Leba in her essay “Alchemical Transformation.” “The old scripts that played in our head that said we ‘must’ or we ‘should’ are quieter, if not gone. There is more joy now. We begin to see the world more clearly. The acts we do choose to engage in – even the mundane acts – take on a greater delight.”
5. Fermentation (“Separate the Earth from Fire, the subtle from the gross, gently and with great Ingenuity.”)
Chemically, Fermentation is the growth of a ferment (bacteria) in organic solutions, such as occurs in the fermenting of grapes to make wine. And this idea is mirrored in the psycho-spiritual stage it represents in the seeker’s journey. Fermentation is a two step process, which begins with Putrefaction.
In this stage, Hauk details, “matter is allowed to breakdown and decompose. The alchemists often added manure to help get the process going…The dead material seems to come to life again with an influx of digesting bacteria, as Fermentation begins.
“This new life force changes the fundamental nature of the material in what the alchemists saw as a process of spiritization [the second phase in Fermentation].
“Psychological Fermentation is the introduction of new life into the purified presence that developed during Conjunction. This child of the Conjunction, however, is really just a melding of opposites of the personality that may still be contaminated with traces of ego, so it is necessary to “sacrifice” it to bring about its resurrection on a new level of being.
“During psychological death or Putrefaction, the ‘child’ of the Conjunction, which is the strongest presence you can create within your earthbound personality, is exposed to the decadent humidity of your deepest and most clinging psychic components, the psychological manure in which most of us wallow.”
Hauk continues: “Fermentation then begins with the inspiration of spiritual power from Above that reanimates, energizes, and enlightens the blackened soul. It can be achieved through various activities that include intense prayer, desire for mystical union, breakdown of the personality, transpersonal therapy, psychedelic drugs, and deep meditation. In simplest terms, Fermentation is a living, loving inspiration from something totally beyond us, something existing wholly Above in the realm of pure mind.”
Like the first “nigredo” stage of Calcination, the Fermentation phase has been associated with the Dark Night of the Soul psychologically.
“Here, we undergo a type of rebirth,” observes Mistlberger, “resulting from the deep willingness to let go of all elements of [ourselves] that no longer serve our spiritual evolution. This marks the true beginning of inner initiation, of entry into a ‘higher’ life in which our best destiny has a chance to unfold.”
This stage is often associated with the peacock due its reported accompaniment of multi-colored visions upon entering the spiritization phase, known as “the peacock’s tail.”
Interestingly, the cobalt blue center of the peacock’s tail is often used in Eastern mystical symbolism to represent “the blue pearl,” a third eye phenomenon observed by meditators during practice.
6. Distillation (“It rises from Earth to Heaven and descends again to Earth, thereby combining within Itself the powers of both the Above and the Below.”)
Chemically this stage involves the boiling and condensation of the fermented solution to increase its purity, such as takes place in the distilling of wine to make brandy.
“Psychologically,” Mistlberger details, “distillation represents a further purification process, being about an ongoing process of integrating our spiritual realizations with our daily lives—dealing with seeming mundane things with integrity, being as impeccable in our lives as we can be, and not using the inner work as a means by which to escape the world…
“…At this stage remaining impurities, hidden as ‘shadow’ elements in the mind, are flushed out and released, crucial if they are not to surface later on (a phenomena that can be seen to occur when a reputed saint, sage, or wise person, operating from a relatively advanced level of self-realization, appears to have a fall from grace).”
Mistlberger tells us that a common alchemical symbol for this stage is the Green Lion devouring the sun, suggesting “a robust triumph and an embracing of a limitless source of energy.”
7. Coagulation (“Thus will you obtain the Glory of the Whole Universe. All Obscurity will be clear to you. This is the greatest Force of all powers, because it overcomes every Subtle thing and penetrates every Solid thing.” )
“The end result,” concludes Mistlberger, “is the Philosopher’s Stone, also sometimes called the Androgyne, and is often symbolized by the Phoenix, the bird that has arisen from the ashes.
“This is closely connected to the idea of the Resurrection Body of mystical Christianity, or the Rainbow Body of Tibetan Buddhism, which includes the esoteric idea of the ability to navigate all possible levels (dimensions) of reality, without loss of consciousness.
“It is the form of the illumined and fully transformed human, in which matter has been spiritualized, or the spiritual has fully entered the material. Heaven and Earth seen as one, or as the Buddhists say, nirvana (the absolute, or formless) is samsara (the world of form). At this end stage, whatever we set eyes on we see the divine, as we have come to realize our own full divinity.”
Below, an alchemical woodcut depicts the Stone as eternally youthful and fully integrated. He controls the forces of duality and fends off any materialistic advances on his unified Soul and Spirit
“In the age-old image of the Ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself.
“The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia.” ~ Carl Jung
*To see where you might be on the path of alchemical process, take a test at www.alchemylab.com.
Tagged: Alchemy, Dreamers, Happiness, Intuition, Metaphysics, Occult, Personal-Growth, Soul, Spirit, Synthesis, The Seeker's Journey
Great post. Thanks
The subject really enthralled me and there’s so much more to it!
Glad the post inspired an enthused reaction! 😀
What an amazing collection of images and information…. thank you!
So pleased you enjoyed it, Lauren! Thanks for letting me know. 🙂
I really enjoyed this post. It describes how I have felt over the past year, the process of change and clarity. I wrote you an email trying describe things that Hauk and you seem much better at than I. I especially like what is said about our true selves and synchronicities that show you are on the right track.
Thank you for the email! I’ve been meaning to reply but the month has been a full one. I’m so glad that you are finding some worth in the posts. It is my hope that they can serve as a little inspiration, and give voice to others whose experience may not be broadcast by mainstream news media. So thank you for letting me know I’m accomplishing that!
Will have to take your email as a sign to write a post on intuition soon!
Absolutely LOVE this blog! Truly fascinating material. Thank you!
Oh, thank you, Kate!!! This means so much to hear!!
I love this Tai. I’ll bet my white crow heralded my Dissolution phase last year. What a lovely gift of a posting. I’m enjoying my moments on the fence these days- lollying somewhere in between Separation and Conjunction. Evaluation and Movement.
Thank you so much for the comment, Amy! I feel like I’m in a Separation phase, attempting to move into Conjunction, myself.
I took this kind of fun test which I found on one of the alchemy websites — which was very well researched — “Which Alchemical Stage Are You Embodying?” And according to it I am in a Fermentation phase…which is further along than I would have personally assessed, but it would explain my sense of a radical rebirth which seemed like a completion suddenly turning into a new dark night of the soul, which didn’t seem to make sense…but looking at it through the lens of the Fermentation phase, it gains more coherence because the newly reborn self (the “child” ) is put through a further purification process, which can feel like a new death…but is ultimately moving towards deeper transformation.
Anyway, check out the test! Even though we are ultimately the best judges of course, I found its insights interesting:
Thanks for being part of the conversation!!
Well done! Have you read Anatomy of the Spirit by Caroline Myss? I think you’d find it most interesting.
Quite interesting! Having read quite some books on alchemy and the hermetic tradition (Mircea Eliade, Titus Burckhardt, Julius Evola, as well as the actual alchemical texts like “Turba Philosophorum” or “The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz) I found this quite more down to earth. Good selection you used!
So glad to hear it! Thanks for letting me know. 🙂
I was reviewing recent dreams and wanted some insight as to the alchemical symbols in the dreams – and came upon this wonderful article. I learned so much from this and absolutely love the illustrations. Your words and the accompanying images have given me insights and answers that I have been seeking for a long time. Thank you VERY much. Orese
I’m thrilled to hear it, Orese!
That is definitely my hope & intention for the article. I am so pleased to know it provided the desired window into alchemical symbolism for you. It’s a fascinating language of allegory, of which I’ve really only scratched the surface, here. But I tried to make it a ‘thorough surface-scratching.’ 😉
I, too, found images in my alchemy research which correspond with powerful, provocative dreams I had experienced. It definitely appears to tap into a universal symbolist language of the unconscious…
Thanks for your positive comment! I appreciate hearing from satisfied readers. Consider subscribing (top right hand corner of site) so you can hear about future articles!
On on! Best of luck with the journey…
Really great.This will help me on my journey,thanks…
Thank you so much for telling me. That is definitely my aim. So it gives me joy to hear it has been achieved!
You might want to check out Jung’s “The Power of Myth” & Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” if you haven’t already. They aren’t about alchemy per se, but absolutely about the journey…and definitely touch upon alchemical symbolism & the symbolism of humanity’s process in general.
Thanks for stopping by & voicing your experience. 🙂
On on, brave traveler!
P.S. Check out some of the other posts on Parallax, as the seeker’s journey towards greater awareness & self-knowledge is a theme throughout this blog. Also, consider subscribing! 🙂 Top righthand corner. I write about one post a month, which usually centers around this theme as well. Coming up next: “The Power of Coincidence, How Our Lives Show Us What We Need To Know.” Onwards!
I’ve only found your blog today so still have a lot of reading ahead of me, but I’m already astonished by the quality of your content. Thank you Tai for sharing all the ideas and detailed research!
Uzi, thank you so much for your comment! Apologies for my belated reply. I somehow missed this comment when it first came in, but just now discovered a way to view any pending comments I may have missed. Oh, technology!
Anyway, I’m so pleased you’ve found us here at Parallax, and I hope you’ll sign up to be alerted of new posts (upper right hand corner of main page.)
It always feels so good to have my time & energy in putting these articles together acknowledged. So thank you for that! I hope you’ve continued to enjoy the content since first commenting. 🙂
Reblogged this on lampmagician.
Excellent post. A more detailed rundown of the process. It’s so easy for us to read this and think that we have just begun, but this is a cyclical process, repeated again and again, the continuous purification. Makes me think about Buddha’s description of how many lives we’ve lived, the mountain six miles long, six miles wide and six miles high, with the bird that flies over once every hundred years with a silk scarf in its beak, brushing the tip of the mountain, and that the time it takes to wear the mountain away is how long we’ve been reincarnating. So many reincarnations, so much time!
Alchemy is a repeating theme in my life, this is one more reminder that it’s part of my path. Julius Evola has some fascinating insight into Trismegistus and the alchemical process. He was philosoph~izing in the time of Mussolini and Hitler, and was on their blacklists because he was bringing about a spiritual revolution in the people in a time when spirit had been sidelined for the horrors of war.
The little test was very insightful and told me everything I knew but have been “on the fence” about, or simply dragging my feet on, hehe, acknowledging where I need to go from here. Thank you for that link.
I found that I could not answer the “ancient riddle”. None of the choices seemed to make sense to me. What do the poor have more of than the rich? What do children play with in the streets? Curious as to what your response was? Thank you so much.
Thank you so much, 64doors! I really enjoyed writing this entry. I got obsessed with researching it fully; it took me over a week to research & write. And like you, I have been connected to the idea of alchemy all my life. It was a pleasure to finally add some specific definitions to my intuitive knowledge! I’m so glad this post could provide you with the same supplementation. 🙂
I will have to look into Evola’s work! He sounds a most interesting figure! Thank you for passing along the name.
That test ALWAYS gets me. It’s pretty amazing!! I just retook it and it was, again, SPOT-ON to the current state of process I find myself in….In terms of the riddle I always pick “love.” “If you do not find it in your own house, you will find it nowhere….no one can live without it…everyone has used it…the poor *usually* possess more of it than the rich; children play with it in the streets…when rejected it lies dormant in the earth…the only thing from which the Philosopher’s Stone can be prepared….” I would say, “soul” but love seems like the more universal, “available everywhere” choice. And children definitely play with it in the streets…;)
May I recommend you this?
Fascinating! Love it. Thanks! 🙂
Reblogged this on Not Just Sassy on the Inside and commented:
Sindy over at Blue Butterflies and Me brought this to my attention. Such a great discussion of stages of spiritual/life evolution in terms of the principles of alchemy.
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This is the most insightful blog I have read. Not so blatant it removes free will and not as obscure as a lot of other things. The universe lead me here and I am happy I followed. This has been a 20 yr journey and now I Am Ash.
Thank you so much for the comment of your reader experience, Ash. I appreciate the positive feedback! Yes, it means a lot to me to be open to the Mystery, and to explore all possibility, but never to be dogmatic or lost in magical thinking, to be both objective and open minded–I’ve tried to walk the line with these articles. I’m very happy to hear you’re enjoying the posts. On on, fellow journeyer! — Tai
This was the post that first introduced me to your work, and it’s always stuck in my mind. These concepts of self-development with the images carry such a deep and reverent sense of intuitive direction. I just had the thought to return and re-experience that feeling of meta-perception the process of the alchemical work gives me. I am viewing all that has passed since—where am I now on this path? It seems to create cycles within cycles. This is such a great summary to a fascinating and under-appreciated topic. So impressed and inspired. Thanks.
Thank you for this wonderful comment, Caminantecurioso!
I loved researching & writing this post, so it’s meaningful to know it stayed with you. 🙂 I’d like to do more posts on alchemy.