Revealing the link between psychology and alchemy exalted both subjects into powerful tools for individuation, myth and dream interpretation, and shadow integration. But the misconceptions about the true nature of alchemy often discourage people from seriously studying this topic. In this blog post, I’ll present an in-depth analysis of the alchemical Magnum Opus.
While I’m not an academic by any means, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time researching both of these seemingly unrelated subjects.
My journey began when I was still a teenager. After finding a beautiful “silent book” from Taschen filled to the brim with alchemical symbols, I was infatuated by the hidden mysteries and secrets inside the gravures and tablets.
Naturally, I had no idea where to start learning more about the lost art of alchemy. The fact that there were so many misconceptions floating around the internet wasn’t helpful. Every symbol, every painting further confused me. Was it chemistry? Or astrology? Or an occult science?
Fortunately, patterns started to emerge. I began noticing certain commonalities, methods, and myths. These people, these “mystics” weren’t superstitious folk writing fiction, no. They were serious, empirical scientists attempting to unearth the secrets of reality.
They performed laboratory experiments that proved or disproved their hypotheses. They refined metals and created therapeutic concoctions. More importantly, they performed psychoanalysis.
“Wait wait… Hit the breaks! What does psychoanalysis have to do with alchemy?”
OK, let’s take a step back before we bridge the gap between the material and the spiritual.
The truth is that in order to understand alchemy, you need to understand where it’s coming from and what its goal is.
A modest goal for part 1 of Psychological Alchemy 101 would be a mythohistorical overview of the Great Science, as well as a breakdown of its most famous symbols and processes.
The Great Science
One would think that our modern methods can accurately track down the origins and purpose of alchemy, right?
Well, a half-hearted conclusion is that it’s merely the predecessor of modern chemistry. Indeed it is in some ways. Many of the methods, tools, and terminology we use in labs around the world come from dusty old manuscripts of medieval practitioners.
Unfortunately, we also tend to see alchemy as an inferior version of the modern scientific method. That’s strike one in my books.
If you begin researching the subject by dismissing its validity a priori you’ll only scrape the surface. Because let me tell you, these adepts were extremely protective of their methods, showering their journals with metaphors and ciphers only other adepts had the keys for.
This is also why until the dawn of the 20th century, the world post-Enlightenment associated alchemy with superstition and dated beliefs about the world.
Yet, only a few hundred years prior, it was called the Great Science. It was believed that everything else, including hard science but also mythology and philosophy, stems from the spagyric process.
The Origins of Alchemy
We’ve talked many times about how the same mythological story would spring up in different regions. A scarlet thread joining together the sacred traditions of civilizations. A prisca theologia, if you wish.
Well, alchemy has the same roots. Whether you go east or west, you’ll find that people, after many experiments, arrived at the same conclusions about the nature of reality. But what’s more impressive is the common symbolism and imagery they’d use.
While I want to focus on the Western alchemical tradition (since that’s where we’ll find footing in part 2 of this post), it’s important to highlight the underlying themes:
- The Chinese branch of alchemy was closer to Taoism and medicine. They sought the elixir of life, a universal panacea akin to the philosopher’s stone. The schematic concept of Wuxing is similar to the Aristotelian theory of the 4 (+1) elements. A notable achievement of Chinese alchemists is the discovery of gunpowder.
- The Vedas mention the connection between gold and eternal life. But the spiritual side of alchemy was more prominent, aiming at the creation of a divine body that would live on after the dispensation of the corporeal soma. Still, we see plenty of references to concoctions that elongate life and mentions of turning base metals into noble metals (particularly in Buddhist texts).
- Eventually, the Islamic world would take on the mantle and further develop concepts into practical theory, creating a holistic, natural philosophy.
But in my opinion, it all started thousands of years ago, in a little triangle in the Mediterranean.
The Eastern Mediterranean region was always a melting pot of different civilizations, novel ideas, and progressive science. In the case of alchemy, the secrets of the Great Work were passed down from ancient Egypt to Greece and consequently to the Hellenistic world at large.
This kind of syncretism resulted in the creation of a mythical figure, borrowing elements from the Egyptian God Thoth and the Greek God Hermes.
This legendary character was a master of magic, alchemy, science, astrology, etc. Many stories appeared about the Thrice-Greatest. But for the most part, it is believed that he quickly became a placeholder “deity” where multiple people would use his name as a pseudonym.
Nevertheless, his influence extended over thousands of years, creating the philosophical current of Hermeticism.
A rather bold and ambitious philosophy, I might say. Where modern thought is concerned with very niche topics and subjects, modest in its ability to draw insights from other disciplines, Hermeticism sought to unite every aspect of reality into one system that was able to explain everything.
That included history, mathematics, physics, religion, astrology, literature, ethics, political science, etc.
You simply couldn’t engage with esoteric subjects without having a solid grasp of all areas of human consciousness. More importantly, this cosmology placed man on a journey of apotheosis (or, in modern terminology, individuation) where the very alchemical process of uniting different elements is happening inside of us.
(There’s a stark difference between today’s attitude toward science and the attitude of the Hermeticist. The latter believed that if his work wasn’t progressing humanity forward and if he wasn’t humble and good-willed his efforts would fail. In one sentence, their guiding principle: “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”)
The Emerald Tablet and Corpus Hermeticum
While it’s hard to pin down the philosophy of Hermeticism, your best bet would be these two sources:
- The Emerald Tablet was considered a foundational text for the alchemists of the Islamic world. It contained cryptic passages that revealed, to the initiated, the secrets to the Philosopher’s Stone as well as the hidden mechanisms behind reality.
- Corpus Hermeticum is a collection of texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. They offer a panoptic overview of the basic cosmogony of Hermetic philosophy. It contains multiple treatises, expounding on subjects like Nous (mind), God, Matter, etc.
In recent years, scholars have struggled to articulate the exact meaning of these two manuscripts. There have been attempts to distil the core message but understanding the Hermetica is a lifelong journey.
If you’re wondering what hermeticism has to do with psychological alchemy…
Well, hermeticism IS psychological alchemy! Just dressed in different clothes, suitable for each particular era.
The hermetic scientist believed in a micro/macrocosmic relationship between matter and spirit, man and universe. Whatever happened outside, happened inside. And that brings us to the cornerstone and key first principle:
1. As Above, So Below
As within, so without. I think everyone at this point has heard this phrase. It’s a rough translation of:
“Quod est superius est sicut quod inferius, et quod inferius est sicut quod est superius.”
In practical terms, it means that you can observe physical phenomena and draw conclusions about the inner mechanism of your psyche. The universe itself is the projected reality of the human unconscious.
2. Prisca Theologia
Religions are merely manifestations of cultural eccentricities of the same spirit. One God, split into multiple emanations, starting with the four elements. He is the Παν and the creator of all. He experiences consciousness through his de-differentiation into dual opposites.
(See the connections yet?)
3. Three-Parts of Wisdom
It is believed that to understand reality, you need three key areas of expertise.
- Alchemy, the Operation of the Sun. Here, the practitioner seeks to perfect matter, as well as his own biology, by revealing the mysteries of life, death, and resurrection.
- Astrology, the Operation of the Stars. Hermeticists knew very well that astrology is a metaphorical framework that speaks the Nous of the All, rather than describing the physical movements of the stars.
- Theurgy, the Operation of the Gods. There’s an internal mechanism within all humans that help them “ascend” their duality and reach unity with the One. Or, in modern psychological terms, sans esoteric jargon, individuation.
The key to the last two operations is alchemy since it is the blueprint of creation, containing the instructions for everything else.
Medieval Alchemy (Spilling the beans…)
OK, I think the last section of this post should be about establishing the terminology.
Remember how I said that my first contact with alchemy was through these beautiful paintings and sketches in a book?
Well, I slowly figured out the symbolism behind them. It’s a daunting task at first, but if you do it once then everything else makes more sense. I’ll give you a few resources to dig deeper since a lot of this stuff is free out there, but you still need the Key.
The goal of alchemy is to take crude matter and split it into two, then three, then four parts. Purify and recombine them to get the Elixir of Life, the lapis philosophorum, the Stone.
Crude Matter = Prima Materia. It’s symbolized as a coiling snake, the Ouroboros. It symbolizes death and chaos.
Red and White fumes, Lion and Eagle, Sun and Moon, Man and Woman. These are Sol and Luna, the dual nature of everything. And the first substances to come out of the crude matter.
The Tria Prima. Mercury, Sulphur, and Salt = Spirit, Soul, Body. Everything is made out of these three philosophical substances.
The Four Elements. Fire, Water, Air, Earth. By further distilling the tria prima.
7 Classical Planets. You’ll notice the number 7 a lot. They represent the planets, the seven steps of the alchemical process, as well as the base metals known back then.
OK, now let’s take a random image and use the above to decipher it.
We see a dragon (crude matter), moon and the sun (sol and luna), a red, white, and black ball (the tria prima). There are also red droplets. These are the kind of droplets you’ll see in the laboratory when the fumes start condensing at the neck of the flask and drop to the bottom again.
It makes sense, right? While other pictures are much harder to make sense of (like the Ripley Scroll), you can now kinda figure out what’s going on. Keep in mind that not all alchemists agreed with each other, so everyone used a slightly different version of the process.
Before I let you leave, I think it’s important to express a key idea that connects mythology and alchemy. If you spend time studying the original source material, you’ll find that a lot of terminology is mythopoeic.
There are correspondences between Gods, planets, animals, metals, plants, etc. There’s mention of “spirit” and soul, daemons, and mythological creatures residing within the boiling flask of the alchemist.
You might also recognize a weird connection between the narrative of certain myths and the steps of the alchemical process, especially in paintings.
Now, the big question is… which came first? The myth or the chemistry?
Don’t answer right away. I want you to think about it for a moment. I’ll give you my answer in the next post, and I’ll explain why and how Jungian psychoanalysis is mainly an alchemical process.
Writer. Seeking to discover my private mythology through dreams.