Colour My World, Alchemical Psychology, Part I – Black

One of my favorite James Hillman books is his, “Alchemical Psychology,” which I have just recently read. The book is a fascinating tour of the alchemical process and its correlative psychological journey as told to us by the Alchemists of old. Yes, they weren’t only interested in literally transforming substances, but about experiencing the transformation of the psyche and finding the Philosopher’s Stone. Hillman begins by suggesting that one of the primary sources of neurosis is a deficiency of imagination which can be heard in the one-sidedness of the language we use – which is an important means to understand ourselves and the world.

“My neurosis resides in my mental set and the way it constructs the world and behaves in it. Now, the essential or at least an essential component of every mental set, of every personality, is language. Thus language must be an essential component of my neurosis. If I am neurotic, I am neurotic in language. Consequently, the one-sidedness that characterizes all neuroses in general is also to be found specifically as a one-sidedness in language.”

He goes on to talk about the similarities in what drives people to therapy to what drove the alchemists to their work. It doesn’t matter so much what you want to change, but that you want to change something. The work, whether on ourselves or on physical materials, generates a psychic response. Hillman suggests that the difference for the alchemists was that they did not conceptualize their mental states in the way that we do today, but lived them through the work. In Alchemy there is what is referred to as the Opus, the Great Work. Hillman refers often to C.G. Jung’s writings on alchemy in which he refers to the Opus as the Opus Contra Naturam, a work against nature, which I understand to mean against the inclination towards entropy. The alchemical stages are experienced as colors:

  • Black
  • Blue
  • Silver/White
  • Red
  • Yellow

Each color represents a phase that is entered into in the work:
The first four color terms – black, white, red, and yellow – are also the primary color terms embracing the entire alchemical opus: nigredo, albedo, xanthosis or citrinitas, and iosis or rubedo. These color terms describe: (1) stages of the work; (2) conditions of the material worked on; and (3) states in the psyche of the artifex or worker-alchemist.”

He then notes that the idea of the color in each stage that we move through as we make our way through life is sensate and naturally embedded with images and ideas as compared to conceptual notions that especially modern psychology would use. In the black or nigredo phase of the work Hillman says:

“First, as non-color, black extinguishes the perceptual colored world. Second, the blackening negates the “light,” whether that be the light of knowledge, the attachment to solar consciousness as far-seeing prediction, or the feeling that phenomena can be understood. Black dissolves meaning and the hope for meaning. We are thus benighted.  Third, the two processes most relevant for producing blackness –putrefaction and mortification – break down the inner cohesion of any fixed state. Putrefaction, by decomposition or falling apart; mortification, by grinding down, as seeds in a mortar are refined into ever thinner and smaller particles.”

I hope to continue on this theme and at least run through each stage of color and briefly describe them. I will leave you with one more quote from the book:

“This is the Nekyia,  the night sea journey through the underworld made also by Odysseus, Aeneas, and Hercules, and by Eurydice, Inanna, Persephone, Psyche, by Orpheus, by Christ. Whether this underworld is frigid and ghastly or burning with the hots of hell, it is a realm characterized by temperatures suitable only for demons, ghosts, heroes and heroines, goddesses and shades who are no longer altogether of the upper world. Outsiders. Marginals. Alchemy is a profession of marginals; those at the edge. Those who live from their own fires, sweating it out, self-sustaining their own temperatures which may be at variance with the collective climate.”

All quotes taken from: Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) (Kindle Locations 292-293). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Thanks to Chicago for this lovely tune:

Links to all posts in the series: Colour My World , Alchemical Psychology, Part I – Black Alchemical Psychology, Part II – Blue Alchemical Psychology, Part III – Silver Alchemical Psychology, Part IV – White Alchemical Psychology, Part V – Yellow Alchemical Psychology, Part VI – Red Alchemical Psychology, Part VII – Air Alchemical Psychology, Part VIII – Caelum

16 thoughts on “Colour My World, Alchemical Psychology, Part I – Black

  1. Pingback: Making Bone Black Oil Paint | Damian Osborne

  2. I am a transformation junkie of sorts.
    As fascinating as it might be to change base metals into gold, I think what changes our perspective is even more fascinating and freeing too.
    Glad you enjoy Hillman! 🙂


  3. Alchemy and psychology, two topics with which I have long been interested. I figured that the first in a series is a safe bet, so here I am. This is a rather engaging read. Thank you for bringing Hillman to my field of conscious awareness. I guess the transmutation of man is a continuous and ever-evolving process.


    1. Yes, likewise! I started reading about the alchemists through the writings of Jung and discovered Hillman through Jungian writers. I am a transformation junkie of sorts.
      As fascinating as it might be to change base metals into gold, I think what changes our perspective is even more fascinating and freeing too.
      Glad you enjoy Hillman! 🙂


  4. What an interesting take on color. I always thought it was just visible wavelengths that got rejected by whatever object that reflected that color back to us.


  5. Rex

    very interesting post! I have never explored Hillman in detail but the kernel of his thought is so intellectually appealing – at least for those who want to avoid the dry theories of materialistic psychology and instead want to find the meaning in life through the understanding of “psyche”. The value he gives to this most valuable but least explored concept is what makes him endearing in psychological studies.

    Thanks for visiting my blog. I have a habit of reflecting on life and putting truths in form of aphorisms. Just as you mention in your post here the relationship between neurosis and language (which is so true) I happened to write on such a relationship on my blog here


    1. Hillman is a rare gem in modern psychological thought; a much needed rebel and dispeller of literalistic thinking while still honoring the best of western ideas.
      Language is central to how humans come to know and understand – any and everything.
      Thanks so much for visiting and leaving a note. I am so enjoying discovering like-minded souls blogging here on WordPress.


  6. Great! So glad to see somebody looking at this stuff. This kind of interpretation really resonates when I am trying to get across to youth that ‘as above, so below” and “as without, so within” means looking at the exoteric and esoteric connections. Great way to get into the right mind frame for doing phenomenology as well.


    1. Hillman was the spell breaker par excellence, who even got the joke that spell breaking itself is just one more fantasy, one more metaphor to live by. He would insist, we are in psyche and never the other way around. Thanks for sharing your insights here and for your work with youth.


  7. I had read Jung first too. Hillman in some ways is more approachable, he had an amazing way of turning ideas inside out and I enjoy his primacy of Psyche in everything he writes about. Thanks for reading and leaving a note Symbol Reader!


    1. Hi Debra, I had to return to this post today because the color black has been on my mind. I see this is actually where we met in the blogosphere – how awesome. This particular post has left me wanting more today – I am so happy your more recent articles are longer. I am so happy we both seem to have been able to find our voice through writing here. Here is to Black!


      1. Dear Monika,

        Thank you for going back to that post and yes, especially for all of our mutual sharing here.

        Words cannot express how much your support and friendship here has colored my world, in a very full spectrum way.

        No exaggeration, working at expression in writing, voicing all of the thoughts and ideas that come through me, is essential to my sense of well-being, as much as food, water, shelter, and love are.

        Cheers! To Black it is!


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