The Stages of the Alchemical Opus
Created | Updated Feb 14, 2002
Elevating logic, rational thinking to such a superior position in western culture has meant that the alchemical perspective has become unintelligible, almost impossible to fathom. Embedded as we are in a scientific paradigm, the imagery and symbolic language of alchemy is presented as primitive, regressive and abnormal. Considered outmoded, outdated, or redundant by the majority, what possible purpose can alchemy therefore have in modern day life?
To gain an understanding of the meaning of its many images and symbols one would have to enter the imaginative world in which many alchemists lived and worked. It was a world in which mystery and spirituality took precedence over problem solving. In the alchemical imagination, for instance, the opposites unite, being linked together by hidden connections and identities, sometimes creating a magical third, which transcends ordinary consciousness. The famous alchemical saying 'as above, so below' epitomises the duplicity present in many of its operations. This paradoxical, non-technological approach seems a far cry from the customary black or white, pragmatic notions of consciousness.
In the common imagination, the goal of alchemy was to treat base matter in such a way as to transform it into gold. In this respect, alchemy is the art of transmutation, the transformation of a given substance into a higher one. But this was no ordinary gold and, understood metaphorically, translates as the innate value of a substance, or a deep insight or realisation. This 'inner' treasure, which required dedication, religious devotion, and the grace of God to obtain, was most commonly referred to as the philosopher's stone.
Discovering alchemy to be the historical counterpart to his own psychology of the unconscious, the famous Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961) saw in its operations a metaphor for realisation of the Self, the outcome of what Jung called the process of individuation. Furthermore, Jung was convinced that alchemy provided a model and a map for defining inner experiences, as well as a symbolic system for their expression. He also took the various alchemical terms to refer to stages of the analytical process. The alchemist therefore portrayed many of the problems of modern psychology through their lively, often bizarre images and metaphorical language. Such images, which were experienced as a property of matter, were in fact projections of unconscious processes, or fantasies. These fantasies are the basic currency of modern day dreams and nightmares.
Since the beginning of the Christian era, four stages of the alchemical opus1 or sacred work - a search for the supreme and ultimate value - were distinguished, characterised by the original colours described by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesos (535 BC-475 BC): melanosis (blackening), leukosis (whitening), xanthosis (yellowing), and iosis (reddening). Colour symbolism was important in alchemy, with the changes of colour associated with the successive transformation of matter, and the movement from one level of being to another. Because the alchemist and his work were closely interwoven, these colour changes also represent states of consciousness and felt visions that are unique in themselves.
Later in the 15th or 16th Century the colours were reduced to three, with the yellowing stage falling into disuse. This was probably due to the symbolical significance of the quaternity and the trinity; in other words, it was due to religious and psychological reasons2. Alchemy, however, continued to treat with four elements (fire, air, earth, and water) and four qualities (hot, cold, dry, and moist). It also made reference to the archetypal influence of planetary bodies upon the psyche, and the complexes, fantasies and behaviours they generate. Progress through the stages was said to be strewn with obstacles and, at times, highly dangerous. In many ways, it describes a journey of the human soul.
The three stages (using Latin names) of the alchemical opus are:
Nigredo or Blackening
At the beginning is the so-called 'dragon', the chthonic spirit, the 'devil' or 'blackness'. The nigredo, as the initial stage, is either present as a quality of the prima materia (or original substance), or else produced by the separation (solutio, separatio, putrefactio) of the elements. Either way, the encounter with 'blackness' destroys the original form to produce chaos, suffering or pain.
The elements are often represented anthropomorphically by male and female, but also in terms of planets and their corresponding metal. That is, the planets in heaven correspond to the metals in the earth:
It was thought that as the planets revolve around the Earth, they gradually spin their corresponding metals into the earth, which can be extracted by chemical operations.
These elements are then grouped into opposites (eg, King-Queen, Sun-Moon, Mars-Venus, etc, which are brought together in a union (coniunctio, coitus); the product of this union then dies (mortificatio, putrefactio, calcinatio) to produce the blackening of the nigredo.
Psychologically, the prima materia is identical with an undifferentiated, disintegrated, chaotic, unconscious mind, containing all the potential, all the dynamic oppositions, necessary to achieve the goal of the opus. The separatio and divisio, like the division and multiplication of cells in the developing embryo, are needed to get the process of synthesis started. In Jungian terms, the separatio is necessary to help differentiate the ego from the shadow, from the anima or animus, and from the Self.
The blackening is about depression, the melancholia, that is often the initial stage causing one to slow down and examine life, that brings one into therapy, and that deepens when one encounters the shadow side of personality. The shadow is the inferior part of the personality; sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life and therefore coalesce into a relatively autonomous 'splinter personality' with contrary tendencies in the unconscious. The shadow behaves compensatorily to consciousness; hence its effects can be positive as well as negative. The encounter with the shadow is invariably experienced as a mortificatio: dark shadow aspects of the Self have to be confronted and assimilated into consciousness; the feelings of guilt, worthlessness and powerlessness have to be suffered, taken on and worked through. As a prelude to resolving conflicts and warring elements in the psyche, a cleansing process was required involving an examination and withdrawal of projections. The nigredo stage was known by the alchemists to be dangerous: poisonous vapours of lead and quick silver (mercury) were generated or the vessel itself might explode due to over-heating. Safety apart - the alchemist, paradoxically, had to observe the value of patience in order to move the work on.
Albedo or Whitening
In alchemical language, matter suffers until the nigredo disappears and a new day dawns. The material slowly starts coming back to life. The albedo, the second stage, was said to result from the washing (ablutio, baptisma) of the products of this nigredo. Psychologically, it represents the later stages of shadow integration within the intimacy of the analytic 'retort' - the process of washing one's dirty linen in public; it being in the gross matter or 'shadow' of our worldly affairs where contamination has taken place.
In some traditions, the nigredo constitutes the 'death' of the prima materia - in analysis, a dying to old habits, attitudes and patterns of relating, to childhood attachments and dependencies, and the withdrawal of psychologically naive projections; at the moment of 'death' the soul (ie, the anima) is released, refined and then reunited with the revitalised materia to produce the glorious stage of many colours - called the 'peacock's tail,' the caudis pavonis, which then transforms into white (albedo), which contains all colours, like 'white' light. This moment is highly rewarding, though still a sort of abstract, ideal state. Jung compared it with daybreak, the preparation for the next and final stage, which is the sunrise.
Rubedo or Reddening
To make the opus come alive into a fully human mode of existence it must have 'blood', or what the alchemists call the rubedo or 'reddness' of life. In this final stage, the white becomes united with red through the raising of the heat in the fire. The white is associated with the Queen and the red with the King, who now arise out of the mercurial, tranformative 'waters' of the unconscious to perform their coniunctio oppositorum, the union of all opposites as symbolised by the conjunction of the archetypal masculine and feminine in the 'chymical marriage', the hieros gamos3. This results in the grand climax, the achievement of the goal - the lapis philosophorum, the hermaphrodite embodying the united King and Queen. This is the so-called 'third thing', the 'Rebis', the phenomenon of the union of love and soul itself, the soul that is engendered through love - this 'divine birth' symbolising a re-awakening of psychological reality, a new ruling consciousness.
In Jungian terms, these three stages could be seen as symbolic expressions of the stages of individuation. Individuation is the process by which we move towards the integration of the opposites, their transcendence, and finally bringing into consciousness of the Self. It can also be seen as a redemptive process of recovering spirit, soul or Self from the unconscious: nigredo, as the first stage, is about recognising and integrating the shadow; nigredo psychology asks what is wrong in the physical realm, looks for the psychosomatic symptom, and then moves to purging or cathartic remedies, as literal, gross measures based in emotional identification, bodywork, and literal history such as childhood experience.4.
Interestingly, Kerényi5 associates the nigredo with the archetype of the wounded healer and the birth of healing power. According to Greek mythology a black crow appears at the birth of Asklepios. His mother, Coronis (the crow maiden), while pregnant with Asklepios by Apollo, had intercourse with Ischys. On reporting this infidelity to Apollo, the crow was turned from white to black. Coronis was killed for her crime, but the infant Asklepios was snatched from her womb while placed on the funeral pyre. This myth highlights how death and life are inextricably linked, and that only by staying with the darkness of suffering can one find the germs of light, healing and recovery 6.
The albedo, the second stage, parallels the integration of the opposites - in alchemical terms, the conjunction, the heiros gamos or marriage between male and female. One is in a reflective state of consciousness after the tortures of the nigredo. As a whitening phase everything is seen under the light of the moon, rather than the clarifying or discriminating light of the sun. It can be a world of illusions and mirrors; sublime, pure and ideological, not to be sullied by the gross, mundane world.
However, as if to underline the interrelatedness of the three stages, the moon was considered as the shadow of the sun; its symbolism signifying germination and decay, light changing to darkness, and death and rebirth.
In the final stage, rubedo, the philosopher's gold has been produced, the goal of the opus complete - the recognition, the acceptance and the integration of opposites has led to their transcendence and the experience of Self. One now stands on solid ground, entering the world more soulfully, living life more vitally, to the full. On the horizon the 'shadows' begin to form, and one prepares yet again to enter the cycle of change.