The term “alchemy” conjures a host of polyvalent associations. Primitive man, mad-scientist, magician, and multi-level-marketer all come to mind. Given the primordial origins of the term, such polysemy is not surprising, for the practice of alchemy has its roots in an experience antedating recorded history. It springs from an age where the cosmos was perceived to be alive and permeated with meaning. Like astrology, alchemy seeks correlations between nature and human experience. But, unlike astrology which looks for patterns in the starry heavens above, alchemy looks to the earth below us. Such a quest is understandable. The earth grounds and sustains us, and even today there is something magical about the shimmer of a gemstone and its long journey from the subterranean world. Novalis’s hymns to the miners still resonate today[1], and we feel there is something intuitively fitting about Wolfram identifying the Grail with a stone in his rendition of the Parzival legend.[2] The earth, like the heavens, promises spiritual transformation to those willing to work with it and transmute its energies. In this essay, I’ll discuss three modern approaches to the study of Alchemy.

1. The Anthropological Approach: Smiths and the Mythical Background of Alchemy.

Historian of religion Mircea Eliade traces the roots of alchemy to the ancient practice of smithcraft. Meteoric iron was thought to possess a sacred quality in the ancient world. This is unsurprising, given that it literally fell from the heavens. “They came from some remote region high up in the heavens and possessed a sacred quality enjoyed by things celestial.”[3] Some tribes even believed the sky was made of rock crystal and that their shamans had such crystals inserted in their bodies.[4] This celestial context comes through even in the early names for iron. For example, the Sumerian word An.Bar, the oldest word designating iron, is made up of the pictograms ‘sky’ and ‘fire’. It is usually translated ‘celestial metal’ or ‘star-metal.’”[5] Because they were associated with the heavens, these meteors were conceived of as masculine and “given names like ‘thunderstones’, ‘thunderbolt teeth’ or ‘God’s axes.’”[6] Upon impact, they united with the feminine principle of the earth.[7]  Weapons made with meteoric iron shared in its transcendent nature and were thus also thought to be magical.[8] The Bedouins of Sinai, for example, believed that “a sword of meteoric iron becomes invulnerable in battle and assured in overcoming all his opponents.”[9]

            The smith, as the one who forged this supernatural metal into weapons, shared in its magical power, a power also conferred on his tools. “The hammer, the bellows and the anvil are revealed [in these cultures] to be animate miraculous objects,”[10] since, “the art of creating tools is essentially superhuman.”[11] Indeed, the tools of the smith even come to be associated with the weapons of the storm gods. These  “storm-gods strike the earth with ‘thunderstones’; their emblem is the double axe and the hammer, the storm is the signal for the heaven-earth hierogamy. When striking their anvils smiths imitate the primordial gesture of the strong god; they are in effect his accessories.”[12] Likewise, in forging metals into magical tools and weapons, the smith, like the shaman, is said to be a master of fire.

“Like the shamans, the smiths were reputed to be ‘masters of fire’. And so, in certain cultures, the smith is considered equal, if not superior, to the shaman. ‘Smiths and shamans come from the same nest’, says a Yakut proverb. ‘the wife of a shaman is worthy of respect, the wife of a smith worthy of veneration’, says another. And a third: ‘the first smith, the first shaman and the first potter were blood brothers. The smith was the eldest and the shaman came in between. This explains why the shaman cannot bring about the death of the smith.’ According to the Dolganes, the shaman cannot ‘swallow’ the soul of a smith because the latter protects it with fire; but on the other hand, it is possible for the smith to get possession of the soul of a shaman and to burn it in fire.”[13]

            It is this sacred fire that allows the smith to interfere with the normal flow of time. Ancient man conceived of rocks as gestating in the earth and literally ripening into gemstones.[14] “If nothing impedes the process of gestation, all ores will, in time, become gold.”[15] The metallurgist assists in this process to bring ores to their perfection more rapidly. In so doing, he takes pride in being “able to collaborate in the work of Nature, able to assist the process of growth taking place within the bowels of the earth.”[16]

            The importance of metallurgy can also be seen in legends of the First Smith. He is often portrayed as a Son of God who was sent “to complete the creation, and to impart the trade-secrets to men.”[17] He makes man capable of understanding the mysteries, teaching them the use of fire, cooking, house building, procreation, and even poetry.[18] For example, it is “a civilizing hero, a divine messenger, who is the originator of mining and metallurgy. This comes out very vividly in the Chinese legends of Yu the Great, the ‘piercer of mountains’. Yu was a happy miner who gave health to the earth instead of disease. He knew the rites of trade.”[19]

            This was the mythological background in which the practice of Alchemy emerged. The rites of metallurgy exposed man to the “dramatic Life of Matter”.[20] Eliade points to the dream of Zosimos Panoplis, one of the earliest alchemical writers in the Western tradition, to illustrate this point. In this dream, a being named Ion reports to Zosimos that he has been cut to pieces and burned with fire so as to transform his body into spirit.[21] Zosimos, in pondering the dream, wonders whether this has to do with the production of alchemical water, aqua permanens.[22] Eliade notes that the report of being cut to pieces, decapitated, and burned with fire resembles the dismemberment of Dionysus and shamanic initiation. He thus postulates that the fundamental novelty of alchemy is that it  “projected onto Matter the initiatory function of suffering. Thanks to the alchemical operations, corresponding to the tortures, death and resurrection of the initiate, the substance is transmuted, that is, attains a transcendental mode of being: it becomes gold. Gold…is the symbol of immortality.”[23] Thus, “the ‘initiation tests’ which, on the spiritual plane, culminate in freedom, illumination, and immortality, culminate on the material plane, in  transmutation, in the philosopher’s stone.”[24] This project ultimately depends on the self-transformation of the alchemist. Dorn, for example, commands “transmutemini de lapidibus mortuis in vivos lapides philosophicos” [transmute yourself from dead stones into living philosophical stones].[25] According to many alchemists, this transformation involved coming to a perfect knowledge of God as a totality. And Eliade asserts that this “is why the Stone makes possible the identification of opposites. According to Basil Valentine, ‘evil must become the same as good.’ … We are here face to face with the very old symbolism of the coincidentia oppositorum, universally widespread, well attested in primitive stages of culture, and which served more or less to define both the fundamental reality (the Urgrund), and the paradoxical state of the totality, the perfection and consequently the sacredness of God.”[26]

2. The Psychological Approach: Alchemy and the Jungian Depths

These psychological aspects of alchemy were explored more thoroughly by Jung who devoted many years to their study. Jung took the alchemists to be working out what he labeled “individuation”, a process by which one integrates unconscious contents into one’s conscious life. According to Jung, the ego (Ich) is the center of our conscious life. It is that which has conscious contents. Jung tends to use this term in a way that conflates transcendental and empirical subjectivity.

“We understand the ego as the complex factor to which all conscious contents are related. It forms, as it were, the center of the field of consciousness [das Zentrum des Bewusstseins feldes]; and, in so far as it comprises the empirical personality [empirische Persönlichkeit], the ego is the subject of all personal acts of consciousness. The relation of a psychic content to the ego forms the criterion of its consciousness, for no content can be conscious unless it is represented to a subject [kein Inhalt ist bewusst, der nicht dem Subjekt vorgestellt wäre].”[27]

But, in addition to conscious contents, our life and actions are also determined by unconscious contents.

“On the one hand the ego rests on the total field of consciousness, and on the other, on the sum total of unconscious contents. These fall into three groups: first, temporarily subliminal contents that can be reproduced voluntarily (memory); second, unconscious contents that cannot be reproduced voluntarily; third, contents that are not capable of becoming conscious at all. Group two can be inferred from the spontaneous irruption of subliminal contents into consciousness. Group three is hypothetical; it is a logical inference from the facts underlying group two. It contains contents which have not yet irrupted into consciousness, or which never will.”[28]

Life, then, charges us with integrating the conscious and the unconscious into a totality, a totality which Jung calls the Self (Das Selbst). This occurs through the long dialectical process of individuation.

“The labors of the doctor as well as the quest of the patient are directed towards that hidden and as yet unmanifest ‘whole’ man, who is at once the greater and the future man. But the right way to wholeness is made up, unfortunately, of fateful detours and wrong turnings. It is a longissimi via, not straight but snakelike, a path that unites the opposites in the manner of the guiding caduceus, a path whose labyrinthine twists and turns are not lacking in terrors. It is on this longissimi via that we meet with those experiences which are said to be ‘inaccessible.’ Their inaccessibility really consist in the fact that they cost us an enormous amount of effort: they demand the very thing we most fear, namely the ‘wholeness’ which we talk about so glibly and which lends itself to endless theorizing, though in actual life we give it the widest possible berth. It is infinitely more popular to go in for ‘compartment psychology,’ where the let-hand pigeon-hole does not know what is in the right.”[29]

            Jung believes that the alchemists were, unbeknownst to them, working out this process in their laboratories. He contends that the alchemists operated in an era that did not bifurcate mind and matter in the way that we do today. As a result, they were able, in their labors, to project their unconscious contents onto the material elements before them. “Everything unknown and empty is filled with psychological projection; it is as if the investigator’s own psychic background were mirrored in the darkness. What he sees in matter, or thinks he can see, is chiefly the data of his own unconscious which he is projecting into it. In other words, he encounters in matter, as apparently belonging to it, certain qualities and potential meanings of whose psychic nature he is entirely unconscious.”[30] The psychological faculty at play in these visions, Jung claims, is the active imagination, the power by which dreams are created only now at play in the waking state.[31] What the alchemists provide us with, then, is a description of the archetypes and the individuation process. Jung makes this case by studying a series of dreams of one of his clients. This client was unfamiliar with alchemy, yet his dreams nonetheless showcased conspicuous alchemical imagery.[32] Likewise, Jung draws attention to a similar polyvalence at play in the archetypal realm and in alchemical imagery. For instance, prima materia, which Jung takes to be an image of the unconscious, has so many definitions that it proves to be undefinable.

“For this reason it is incorrect to maintain that the alchemists never said what the prima materia was; on the contrary, they gave all too many definitions and so were everlastingly contradicting themselves. For one alchemists the prima materia was quick-silver, for others it was ore, iron, gold, lead, salt, Sulphur, vinegar, water, air, fire, earth, blood, water of life, lapis, poison, spirit, cloud, sky, dew, shadow, sea, mother, moon, dragon, Venus, chaos, microcosm. Ruland’s Lexicon gives no less than fifty synonyms, and a great many more could be added.”[33]

            Because of the dominance of the church at the time, the unconscious contents that the alchemists dealt with tended to be those that had been repressed under a Christian worldview. Because the alchemists are working with unconscious contents, they can work through their necessary heresies without having to admit them to themselves.[34] Several prime examples can be noted here. First, Jung claims that orthodox Christianity, with its concept of God as a Trinity (of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), excluded the feminine. Jung believes that pictures of the mandala, with its four directions, pointed towards the inclusion of this feminine energy, since odd numbers were traditionally thought to be masculine and even ones feminine.[35] Indeed, Jung claims that in alchemy the unconscious doesn’t merely project a contrary content (e.g. a divine daughter rather than a son), but a compensatory modification (e.g. a different son through a mother).[36] Second, Jung claims that Christianity conceived of God and Christ as purely good, denying the very existence of evil. All these so called negative contents expelled from the concept of the divine, which we could think of as constituting Christianity’s shadow, could be safely contemplated in alchemy under its conjunction of opposites.[37] Third, while the Church demanded faith mediated by its dogma and ecclesiastical hierarchy, the alchemist sought, like the gnostics before him, immediate experiential knowledge of God.[38]

“For this reason there have always been people who, not satisfied with the dominants of conscious life, set forth—under cover and by devious paths, to their destruction or salvation—to seek direct experience of the eternal roots, and, following the lure of the restless unconscious psyche, find themselves in the wilderness where, like Jesus, they come up against the son of darkness, the αντιμιμον πνευμα. Thus an old alchemist—and he is a cleric!—prays: ‘Horridas nostrae mentis purge tenebras, accende lumen sensibus!’ (Purge the horrible darkness of our mind, light a light for our senses!).”[39] 5561

And finally, whereas the Christian sees himself as redeemed by the Son of God through the ex opere operato administration of the sacraments, the alchemist sees himself as participating ex opera operantis in the redemption of the God trapped in matter.[40]

“Whereas Catholicism emphasizes the effectual presence of Christ, alchemy is interested in the fate and manifest redemption of substances, for in them the divine soul lies captive and awaits the redemption that is granted to it at the moment of release. The captive soul then appears in the form of the ‘Son of God.’ For the alchemist, the one primarily in need of redemption is not a man, but the deity who is lost and sleeping in matter.”[41]

            Jung contends that alchemy is important today, since the individuation process encoded therein can help us deal with the effects of the waning of Christianity on the Western psyche. When the Christian mythology functioned, it served to keep the powers of the unconscious at bay. But now that these myths no longer resonate, they can no longer ward off archetypal possession.

“In so far as the archetypal content of the Christian drama was able to give satisfying expression to the uneasy and clamorous unconscious of the many, the consensus omnium raised this drama to a universally binding truth—not of course by an act of judgment, but by the irrational fact of possession, which is far more effective. Thus Jesus became the tutelary image or amulet against the archetypal powers that threatened to possess everyone. The glad tidings announced: ‘it has happened, but it will not happen to you inasmuch as you believe in  Jesus Christ, the Son of God!’ Yet it could and it can and it will happen to everyone in whom the Christian dominant has decayed.”[42]

In the modern period, we begin to see these unconscious archetypal contents get taken up by the ego as it inflates itself to godlike proportions. Jung cites Goethe’s Faust and Nietzsche as examples.[43] By inflating the ego and denying the autonomy of the unconscious realm, modern man becomes possessed.

“Yet, ever since the Age of Enlightenment and in the era of scientific rationalism, what indeed was the psyche? It had become synonymous with consciousness. The psyche was ‘what I know.’ There was no psyche outside the ego. Inevitably, then, the ego identified with the contents accruing from the withdrawal of projections. Gone were the days when the psyche was still for the most part ‘outside the body’ and imagined ‘those greater things’ which the body could not grasp. The contents that were formerly projected were now bound to appear as personal possessions, as chimerical phantasms of the ego-consciousness. The fire chilled to air, and the air became the great wind of Zarathustra and caused an inflation of consciousness which, it seems, can be damped down only by the most terrible catastrophe to civilization, another deluge let loose by the gods upon inhospitable humanity.

            An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own existence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It is inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead. Paradoxically enough, inflation is a regression of consciousness into unconsciousness. This always happens when consciousness takes too many unconscious contents upon itself and loses the faculty of discrimination, the sine qua non of all consciousness. When fate, for four whole years, played out a war of monumental frightfulness on the stage of Europe—a war that nobody wanted—nobody dreamed of asking exactly who or what had caused the war and its continuation. Nobody realized that European man was possessed by something that robbed him of all free will. And this state of unconscious possession will continue undeterred until we Europeans become scared of our ‘god-almightiness.’ Such a change can begin only with individuals, for the masses are blind brutes, as we know to our cost. It seems to me of some importance, therefore, that a few individuals, or people individually, should begin to understand that there are contents which do not belong to the ego-personality, but must be ascribed to a psychic non-ego. This mental operation has to be undertaken if we want to avoid a threatening inflation. To help us, we have the useful and edifying models held up to us by poets and philosophers—models or archetypi that we may well call remedies for both men and the times. Of course, what we discover there is nothing that can be held up to the masses—only some hidden thing that we can hold up to ourselves in solitude and in silence. Very few people care to know anything about this; it is so much easier to preach the universal panacea to everybody else than to take it oneself, and, as we all know, things are never so bad when everybody is in the same boat. No doubts can exist in the herd; the bigger the crowd the better the truth—and the greater the catastrophe.”[44]

Though Jung was not optimistic about the widespread popularity of the alchemical quest of individuation, he nonetheless thought it was our only way out of collective madness. Unless we come to reconcile the primordial and unconscious elements of our psyches into our lives in a healthy way, we risk descending into savagery and scapegoating others for it. “Dionysus is the abyss of impassioned dissolution, where all human distinctions are merged in the animal divinity of the primordial psyche—a blissful and terrible experience. Humanity, huddling behind the walls of its culture, believes it has escaped this experience, until it succeeds in letting loose another orgy of bloodshed. All well-meaning people are amazed when this happens and blame high finance, the armaments industry, the Jew, or the Freemasons.”[45] For Jung, then, the spiritual work of alchemy was of paramount importance for human survival.

3. The Metaphysical Approach: Alchemy and Spiritual Ascent

Philosopher Julius Evola takes a more literal interpretation of alchemy describing it as a Royal Art of spiritual development. He follows Jacob Böhme in maintaining that “between eternal birth, restoration from the fall, and the discovery of the philosopher’s stone there is no difference.”[46] This process is not merely moral, but “concrete and ontological, even to the point of conferring certain superhuman powers, one of whose incidental applications may even be the famous transmutation of metallic substances.”[47] This is not a practice, claims Evola, that is to be merely theorized about, but to be actively engaged in if it is to have its intended effect of transforming consciousness.[48] Just as in traditional philosophy, the goal of alchemy is self-knowledge.[49] Citing Agrippa, Evola notes, “no one can excel in the alchemical art without knowing the principles in himself, and the greater the knowledge of the self, the greater will be the magnetic power attained thereby and the greater the wonders to be realized.”[50]

            Evola notes that within the alchemical system sulfer, mercury, and salt correspond to soul, spirit, and body in man. By soul/ sulfer, he means the personality and what undergirds it. The soul is empirical subjectivity which contains the “solar or golden force.”[51] Spirit/ mercury is the energy that enlivens both body and soul. It is “something between corporeal and noncorporeal [and is] the animating principle of the organism” and “carries the lunar and mercurial force.”[52] Because it is between body and soul, it actually can be further divided as two forms of mercury: mercury as bodily principle and mercury as the principle transmitting the solar fire of the soul.[53] Body/ salt is associated with the element of earth and constitutes the only horizon for materialistic man.[54]

“The ordinary man does not know the other three Elements—air, water, and fire—as they actually are in themselves—the common man knows only the ability to perceive what these elements undergo when they manifest through the earth element—that is to say, as they are translated in the process of the corporeal perception. Water, air, and fire, as everyone knows them (that is, as states of physical matter), are no more than correspondences—so to speak—tangibly symbolic of the true elements called ‘living’ by the hermetic masters. In themselves they are other existential states, other modalities of consciousness, quite separate from the body, that can transpose all the principles of things according to their noncorporeal nature, just as in the corporeal existence, in the terrestrial body, all principles are analogously transposed and known by their manifestation in the Earth element…

            The other elements beyond earth, which together constitute the ‘philosopher’s heaven’, can only be apprehended by a consciousness different from that which comes from the body, even if such consciousness has been perfected by all the expedients of modern science. The principle of this other knowledge is ‘like is known by like,’ and here again the premise is that in the essentiality of man are also contained the essences of all the other elements, that is, the potentiality of other states of consciousness apart from that under the spell of the earth element.”[55]

            The alchemical work begins by separating one’s mercurial energetic body from the physical body. “Hermetically speaking, separation means the extraction of the Mercury from the body. Once the action of the animal organism on the vital force has been suspended, the other principles are virtually free as well.”[56] The alchemists called this the black work. It is akin to the way that consciousness pulls away from material reality into the realm of dreams, and ultimately into a dreamless sleep or death, with the difference being that, in the alchemical work, the process  is active.[57] One must separate consciousness from the body, setting aside the empirical personality, while still retaining a quintessence of the self as a solar principle.[58]

“Now the whole secret of the first phase of the hermetic Opus consists in this: in working in such a way that the consciousness is not reduced and then suspended at the threshold of sleep, but instead can accompany this process through all its phases, in complete awareness, up to a condition equivalent to death. The ‘dissolution’ is then made into a living, intense, indelible experience, and this is the alchemical ‘death’, the ‘blacker than black,’ the entrance into the ‘tomb of Osiris,’ the knowledge of the dark land, the realm of Saturn, of which the texts speak….The whole difference is that the ‘philosophical death’—mors philosophorum—is active: it is not a question of a body which, upon disintegrating loses its soul, but of a soul so concentrated in its power, that it unmakes the body.”[59]

Evola points out the obvious dangers in such an undertaking. It can lead to all kinds of mental and physical disorders or even death.[60]

            Once the black work is performed, one can commence with the white work which “regenerates, restores the memory, reintegrates the personality with the noncorporeal state.”[61] One stands from a place of pure intelligence, gazing at the intelligible light. Evola cites the Corpus Hermeticum: “a simple vision has taken place in me… I have come out of myself and have clothed myself in a body that does not die. I am no longer the same, I have been intellectually born… I no longer have a color, nor am I tangible or measurable. All of that is now alien to me… and I no longer see with physical eyes.”[62] This corresponds to the transmutation of lead to silver.[63] In this change one gains a new awareness of one’s body. “The sensation of the body is introduced into the new state, experiencing corporeality as a function of the state of ‘light’, ‘day’, ‘life,’ etc.—and, vice versa, that experience becomes a function of the new corporeality.”[64] The body is in this way perfected.[65] One no longer ‘has’ a body, “but rather the general power that can manifest a soul in a body in the fullest sense.”[66]

            One then completes the process in the red work. Here one increases the fire and the intensity of the white work.[67] At this point we reach something like what the German idealists would have called a pure positing subject. “The ego is transformed by these actions, and is these actions—the ‘fires of Saturn’, the Gods of the ‘Golden Age’—to the point of reducing completely one’s own individuation to that function of ‘nature which is dominated by itself’ and corporeality to something that expresses nothing better than this same domination. It is to this stage that we attribute the purple, the scepter, the crown, and all other symbolic elements of royalty and empire.”[68] …. “By the act of awakening and being awakened at the same time (the deep powers produce a transfiguration of the principle that has awakened them, in which, in the final analysis, they still participate), the mineral body, so to speak, returns the ego to the consciousness of its primordial and absolute act, of which the body expresses petrification, the neutralized state, sleep, and the mute state of dark slavery. The sliver then is transmuted into Gold, not only as life and ‘light’’ mercury (since spirit and body now form a single thing), but also as pure ego (sun).”[69]

Evola claims that Upon completing this work, consciousness has achieved a state that transcends being and non-being.[70] At this point, the alchemist has access to a variety of powers. The first class of powers is mental. The alchemist, claims Evola, can telepathically communicate with other minds—both reading their thoughts and issuing mental commands.[71] The second set of powers are emotional. The alchemist can project emotions to others and even charge “objects and places” with specific emotive states. This power can also be used to control animals. The third set of powers involves the detaching of the subtle body from the physical one. The alchemist can thereby project his consciousness to other points in space (astral projection) or change his appearance to onlookers.[72] This involves power over the vegetative soul and so also allows one to influence the growth of plants and to heal and harm physical bodies.[73] Finally, the fourth set of powers concerns the mineral world. This allows one to teleport and transfigure the physical body and to transmute metals. Hence, we have the alchemical quest to transform base metals into gold. It was not sought for itself, but merely as a sign for a spiritual awakening. “The production of metallic gold was to alchemy proof of transfiguration given by a power: the testimony of having realized the Gold in oneself.”[74]

            Evola’s more literal and metaphysical interpretation of the alchemical work allowed him to associate the alchemists with the legends of hidden masters and Daoist immortals. 

“By definition, the initiate is an occult being and his path is neither visible nor penetrable. He is elusive, not to be pigeonholed. He arrives from the direction contrary to that towards which all gazes are fixed and takes the most natural seeming vehicle for his supernatural action. He may be an intimate friend, companion, or lover, he may be sure of possessing all your heart and confidence. But he will always be something different, other than what he lets be known. We will perceive this ‘other’ only when we have penetrated his domain. And then perhaps we will have the feeling of having been walking on the edge of an abyss.”[75]

Or again,

“It might be useful to consider how many ‘random’ and unpredictable elements are the germs of sometimes great revolutionary changes in life and history. It might also be useful to consider how much there is in the natural order of phenomena, beyond the laws that explain the how, but never the why of their happening. All that constitutes an empty space, which might not be so empty after all. Behind the scenes of the consciousness of men and their history, where the physical eye and doubt alike dare not stretch, there may be someone. Homer said that the gods often travel through the world in the guise of strangers and pilgrims and turn the cities of men around. This is not just mythology. There is reason to believe that no historical or social event of any importance, no phenomenon that has followed a determined course of terrestrial events comprising certain ‘discoveries’ or the birth of new ideas, has not had a casual or spontaneous origin, but on the contrary has obeyed an intention, if not an actual plan conceived behind the scenes and realized via paths we can scarcely imagine today, under the sign of the Light, as well as—according to circumstances—under the sign of Darkness.”[76]

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[1] See, for example, Henrich von Ofterdingen, Chapter V, trans. Owen. “A monk appeared and read mass, and afterwards pronounced a solemn prayer, in which he invoked Heaven to give the miners its holy protection, to assist them in their dangerous labors, to defend them from the temptations and snares of evil spirits, and to grant them abundant ore. I never prayed more fervently, and never realized so vividly the deep significance of the mass. My companions appeared to me like heroes of the lower earth, who were obliged to encounter a thousand perils, but possessing an enviable fortune in their precious knowledge, and prepared, by grave and silent intercourse with he primeval children of nature, in their somber, mystic chambers, for the reception of heavenly gifts, and for a blessed elevation above the world and its troubles. When the service was concluded, the overseer, giving me a lamp and a small wooden crucifix, accompanied me to the shaft, as we are accustomed to call the steep entrance into the subterraneous abodes.”

[2] Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, Chapter 9, trans. Hatto (New York: Penguin, 1980). “‘It is well known to me,’ said his host, ‘that many formidable fighting-men dwell at Munsalvaesche with the Gral. They are continually riding out on sorties in quest of adventure. Whether these same Templars reap trouble or renown, they bear it for their sins. A warlike company lives there. I will tell you how they are nourished. They live from a Stone whose essence is most pure. If you have never heard of it I shall name it for you here. It is called ‘Lapsit exillis’–. By virtue of this Stone the Phoenix is burned to ashes, in which he is reborn.—Thus does the Phoenix moult its feathers! Which done, it shines dazzling bright and lovely as before! Further: however ill a mortal man may be from the day on which he sees the Stone he cannot die for that week, nor does he lose his colour. For if anyone, maid or man, were to look at the Gral for two hundred years, you would have to admit that his colour was as fresh as in his early prime, except that his hair would grey!—such powers does the Stone confer on mortal men that their flesh and bones are soon made young again. This stone is also called ‘The Gral.’”

[3] Mircea Eliade, The Forge and The Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy, 2nd. ed., trans. Stephen Corrin, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 8.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 22.

[6] Ibid., 21.

[7] Ibid.

[8] This transcendence was conceived of both as divine and demonic. Ibid., 29.

[9] Ibid., 25.

[10] Ibid., 29.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 30.

[13] Ibid., 81.

[14] Ibid., 42.

[15] Ibid., 50.

[16] Ibid., 47.

[17] Ibid., 95.

[18] Ibid., 95-98.

[19] Ibid., 53.

[20] Ibid., 148-149.

[21] Ibid., 150.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 151.

[24] Ibid., 152.

[25] Ibid., 158.

[26] Ibid., 166.

[27] Jung, Aion, in Collected Works 9.2, 4007.

[28] Ibid., 4008.

[29] Jung, Religious and Psychological problems of Alchemy, collected works, 5531. Jung makes some further insightful observations about the therapeutic process as follows. “As a doctor it is my task to help the patient cope with life. I cannot presume to pass judgment on his final decision, because I know from experience that all coercion—be it suggestion, insinuation, or any other method of persuasion—ultimately proves to be nothing but an obstacle to the highest and most decisive experience of all, which is to be alone with his own self, or whatever else one chooses to call the objectivity of the psyche. The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation…. I would be all too delighted to leave this anything but easy task to the theologian, were it not that it is just from the theologian that many of my patients come. They ought to have hung on to the community of the Church, but they were shed like dry leaves from the great tree and now find themselves ‘hanging on’ to the treatment. Something in them clings, often with the strength of despair, as if they or the thing they cling to would drop off into the void the moment they relaxed their hold. They are seeking firm ground on which to stand. Since no outward support is of any use to them they must finally discover it in themselves—admittedly the most unlikely place from the rational point of view, but an altogether possible one from the point of view of the unconscious. We can see this from the archetype of the ‘lowly origin of the redeemer.’” 5552-5553. Once more, he describes this process as cyclical, spiraling, and organic. “The way to the goal seems chaotic and interminable at first, and only gradually do the signs increase that it is leading anywhere. The way is not straight but appears to go round in circles. More accurate knowledge has proved it to go in spirals: the dream-motifs always return after certain intervals to definite forms, whose characteristic it is to define a center. And as a matter of fact the whole process revolves about a central point or some arrangement round a center, which may in certain circumstances appear even in the initial dreams. As manifestations of unconscious processes the dreams rotate or circumambulate round the center, drawing closer to it as the amplifications increase in distinctness and in scope. Owing to the diversity of the symbolical material it is difficult at first to perceive any kind of order at all. Nor should it be taken for granted that dream sequences are subject to any governing principle. But, as I say, the process of development proves on closer inspection to be cyclic or spiral. We might draw a parallel between such spiral courses and the processes of growth in plants; in fact the plant motif (tree, flower, etc.) frequently recurs in these dreams and fantasies and is also spontaneously drawn or painted. In alchemy the tree is the symbol of Hermetic philosophy.” 5553-5554. Similarly, he claims that in therapy the focus should be not focus on what is done by the patient but on how it is done. “Hence the psychotherapist must fix his eye not on what is done but on how it is done, because therein is decided the whole character of the doer. Evil needs to be pondered just as much as good, for good and evil are ultimately nothing but ideal extensions and abstraction of doing, and both belong to the chiaroscuro of life.” 5566. The therapist, in this case, need only wait. “The open conflict [between the ego and the shadow] is unavoidable and painful. I have often been asked, ‘and what do you do about it?’ I do nothing; there is nothing I can do except wait, with a certain trust in God, until, out of a conflict borne with patience and fortitude, there emerges the solution destined—although I cannot foresee it—for that particular person.” 5556

[30] Jung, Religious Ideas in Alchemy, in Collected Works, 5753.

[31] Ibid., 5780. Ruland, an alchemist, calls the imagination “the star in man, the celestial or supercelestial body.” 5802.

[32] See, Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy: A Study of the Unconscious Process at Work in Dreams.

[33] Collected Works, 5842

[34] Ibid., 5880.

[35] Ibid., 5548.

[36] Ibid., 5549.

[37] Ibid., 5562.

[38] Ibid., 5560.

[39] Ibid., 5561

[40] Ibid., 6001-6002. One can see an influence of such ideas in Wagner’s Parsifal

[41] Ibid., 5837.

[42] Ibid., 5561.

[43] Ibid., 6002.

[44] Ibid., 6005-6006.

[45] Ibid., 5615.

[46] Julius Evola, The Hermetic Tradition: Symbols and Teachings of the Royal Art, trans. Rehmus, (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 1995), xvi.

[47] Ibid., xvii.

[48] Ibid., 14.

[49] Ibid., 11. “Zosimos calls the race of philosophers: ‘autonomous, nonmaterialistic and without king,’ and ‘custodians of the Wisdom of Centuries.’…. Such is the truth of the ‘new race’ that the Royal Art of the ‘Sons of Hermes’ is building on earth, elevating the fallen, calming the ‘thirst,’ restoring the power to the enfeebled, bestowing the fixed and impassive gaze of the ‘eagle’ to the wounded eye blinded by the ‘lightening flash,’ conferring Olympian and royal dignity to what used to be a Titan. In a gnostic text pertaining to the same ideal world in which Greek alchemy received its first expressions it is said the ‘Life-Light’ in the Gospel of John is ‘the mysterious race of perfect men, unknown to previous generations.’”

[50] Ibid., 25.

[51] Ibid., 44.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid., 47.

[54] Ibid., 46.

[55] Ibid., 46.

[56] Ibid., 101.

[57] Ibid., 104-105.

[58] Ibid., 110.

[59] Ibid., 105.

[60] Ibid., 106.

[61] Ibid., 146.

[62] Ibid., 146.

[63] Ibid., 156.

[64] Ibid., 155.

[65] Ibid., 157.

[66] Ibid., 165.

[67] Ibid., 168.

[68] Ibid. 169.

[69] Ibid., 170.

[70] Ibid., 186.

[71] Ibid., 193.

[72] Ibid., 194.

[73] Ibid., 195.

[74] Ibid., 197.

[75] Ibid., 214.

[76] Ibid., 215-216.

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