Alchemical Psychology, Part III – Silver

White and silver share a lot of the same qualities but Hillman breaks up the next chapter into two parts starting with silver; all things lunar and reflective. Silver allows reflection and is the means by which we mediate between psyche and the physical. The risk here is one of identifying with depersonalized images, becoming cold and detached from human life rather than using images as a bridge beween the psychic and physical worlds.

“The cool, silver psyche, though seemingly “unrelated,” can establish relations between the most burning issues and hold them together, yet without fusing them into a false compromise (amalgam). It mediates, attaching molten factions by means of its own detachment.”

042Hillman begins the chapter with a very startling idea that may be difficult for many moderns to hear. Particularly those who prefer to stave off pathological states by avoiding the black and blue stages whenever and however possible, but without which the alchemical journey has nothing to work with. For alchemy is often referred to as the Great Work and starts with the disintegration of the black and blue stages.

“Allow me to set forth as clearly and rationally as I can what I shall be about in this strange chapter. It starts from two large ideas. The first comes from Hegel who said that in insanity the soul strives to restore itself to perfect inner harmony. For Hegel, insanity is an essential stage in the development of the soul, and a stage upon which the soul purposefully performs.  Insanity belongs to soul-making. The second large idea comes from alchemy. In alchemical soul-making, gold is necessarily preceded by silver. This means that gold comes out of silver, red comes from white, sun from moon, brighter awareness from lunacy.”

Hillman frequently suggests that it is within our pathology we often find its cure – reminding us of an important understanding of the idea of homeopathy in which like cures like. Sometimes we must delve into our own craziness to find out what it is asking of us. For example, fighting off sadness will rarely make one happy but trying to be as sad as you possibly can might do the trick.

There is in this chapter a long discussion on the physical properties of the metals as understood by their elemental nature. The baser more corruptible metals were understood as moist and in need of heat and fire for transforming them. He reminds us that the root of the word metal, meaning search, “induces the activity of searching deeply into nature for the deus absconditus.”

Silver, the lunar mind is the means of reflection in which we see through images and allows the material to be hammered into specific shapes to become useful. Silver also has the quality of mirroring.

“If silver mirrors because it is both receptive (moist) and solid, then solid receptivity is the kind of consciousness that serves to mirror. Notice how necessary it is for mirroring to have incorporated or digested one’s own moisture and to be limited by one’s own boundary. One cannot mirror if one too easily flows; and one cannot mirror everything, but only what one can receive and to which one is solidly present within the limits of one’s own borders. Mirroring is not blank receptivity; it requires focusing.”

Next comes the warning that silver may cost us carrying with it the potential for debasement into lead which can then weigh us down.

“Though we may extract a silver moment from our leaden body, these extractions leave behind an even heavier and denser condition. Depression is the price of silver. Melancholy has, ever since Aristotle’s Problemata, been the disease of thinkers. The more white reflection the more burdened lead; as we produce silver, we increase the lead. This is surely familiar: an insight may be shining in itself, but it makes no dent on the gray mood from which it came.”

Silver remains vulnerable to other elements such as air.

“Silver requires polishing, attention, a bit of rubbing and fussing; it calls for worry. Since exposure makes it lose its shine, it is best hidden, protected. It is covered with blackness, by silence and dullness, and by hiding itself invisibly in lead.”

It’s a long chapter, too much to bring in here. Through the careful mining of silver we begin to notice the subtle body, and become comfortable giving metaphor equal footing in our sensing and knowing of the world.

“Metaphors are psychological language – and all alchemy is metaphorical, the luna metaphorica that Benedictus Figulus spoke of – making subtle everything we ever may have assumed to be only empirical fact, whether events in the world, our own flesh, even the elemental minerals in the earth. Alchemy transmutes the world to the dream, which it does in the laboratory of its language. ”

It’s easy to miss that it is through psyche, the soul, that we experience the world. We moderns prefer the language of brain chemistry, genetics, computer models – forgetting that those metaphors come straight out of psyche as does all of our reflections. Taking care of the silvering for reflection helps us create a bridge between what we sense and understand of the physical world remembering that all we experience comes to us primarily in images.

“Silver is hidden because it is buried all through the alchemical work itself, within every word, as the metaphorical resonance that transfers everything said and done to a psychic level. Silver is necessary from the beginning, else we cannot rightly hear the instructions. “Throw away the books,” say the alchemists, meaning “discard the literal,” so as to hear the spirit in the letter.”

Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) (Kindle Location 3128). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Thank you to Yes for the song, I’ve Seen All Good People.

“Don’t surround yourself with yourself
Move on back two squares
Send an instant karma to me
Initial it with loving care”

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

32 thoughts on “Alchemical Psychology, Part III – Silver

  1. Sebastian K.

    Hi Ptero. The first sentences you wrote on silver are really to the point, i can verify it is so, even from my own personal experience. Lunar can be really cold, even cold blooded at some point. Detached and kind of aloof. Caught up in the dream world and dream time. Regarding the basic alchemical triad, my personal hunch about it is that black and white are like jin jang symbol, and their unity together actually gives out the the redness. Of course, this is a bit more eastern view than western. Western great work is opus contra naturam, and as such it is contra circular, and somewhat linear. I disagree on that level with western alchemy. Yin yang symbol is circularity of black and white fused together, and that fusion gives actually the redness and viridas – the liveliness within the nature.
    Best to you.


    1. Hi Boštjan,
      Perhaps western alchemy appears linear if taken as a step by step work, but in practicing one finds that is never the case. There is inherent in life and natural circularity, just as surely as the sun rises and sets.

      As an Opus Contra Naturam, the nature being worked against refers specifically to the westerner, or anyone for that matter, that lives with a pespective that splits them apart from the world we live in.

      All of these “systems” of course are just that, systems or languages that point to the whole of reality that we all live and are immersed in (whether we know that or not).

      Thank you so much for sharing your insights here! I am grateful to hear how the eastern and western compare.


      1. Sebastian K.

        Point taken, Debra. We would like it to be clean and neat (linear), but the damn thing just won’t play by our rules 🙂


  2. Melancholy has, ever since Aristotle’s Problemata, been the disease of thinkers. The more white reflection the more burdened lead; as we produce silver, we increase the lead. This is surely familiar: an insight may be shining in itself, but it makes no dent on the gray mood from which it came.” I can relate to this as sadness has been my default mode. Where has this data been all my life? Soooo glad i found you 🙂


    1. Yes, and perhaps all the stages belong as we cycle through the flow of our lives. I think that is the essence of alchemy, the great work.
      Hillman’s writing and ideas are so fresh, irreverent and provocative. He died on October 27, 2011. Something happened at that time that left me wanting to share his incredible gift that I received from him to others.
      Sometimes I feel silly for admiring him so much, but I know his writing brought me from a very dark place where no silver or white was perceptible, to a place where I can walk in the dark carrying just enough light to keep me moving and not get stuck, looking for beauty in others, the world and even in myself.


  3. Pingback: The Damsel in Distress | sara annon

    1. In case you missed them – I have two posts prior to this on alchemy. The first one is an intro to Hillman’s book, writing about the black, nigredo, or disintegration stage here: The second is about the the Blue stage, where through acceptance of the darkness or disintegration we find ourselves in, we begin to gain some distance, just enough to experience an ability to reflect rather than be fully contained by the disintegration:


    1. Thanks! I think this particular chapter in the book took in too much air too! It was very hard to condense into a brief synopsis. There is a wealth of insights in Hillman’s writing that I didn’t have the time to include here.
      I hope to inspire myself and others to think alchemically, perhaps making the ups and downs a bit more bearable.


  4. Fascinating as usual. I always wear silver jewellery, gold somehow does not agree with my lunar nature, I only love gold in art and in the sky as the Sun. I especially loved Hillman’s warning about lead and melancholy, I know he is right here from my experience. Thank you for all this.


    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. Yeah, I guess I have a lot of lunar qualities too, having always been fascinated with mental states trying to understand what crazy and sanity are.
      Ditto on the lead. That was very helpful for me too. Inspiring ideas and quick insights can sometimes mean too much, leaving me disappointed in an aftermath of normalcy.


      1. Symbol Reader is an amazingly creative writer, well-versed in mythology and many of my favorite authors.
        I know you were speaking to her, but I must add, I have silver on one hand, gold on the other, and that is the story of my life! 🙂


      2. very interesting! I shy away from red and very bold colors on my person, although I so enjoy the sun’s energy. a fascinating topic.

        I discovered symbolreader very early on and she is simply a sparkling jewel.


      3. maybe being born in summer, leonine in nature, I am drawn to the colors of the sun?
        When I first read symbolreader’s blog, I wanted to throw away the keyboard!! But, I know that we all have a piece of the puzzle and we do need each other and the world needs us, even when we can’t see clearly.


      4. I must admit I have always been fascinated with fire and light. I’ve known some wonderful people with Aquarian natures though.
        I’m posting a Rumi poem to honor the tribe…
        Peace to you Linda!


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