Alchemical Psychology, Part IV – White

Following the silver, perhaps through the refining of silver, we move into the white or the albedo stage in the alchemical journey towards the gold. The albedo is essential as means, not only a stage to pass through, but for the creation of a vessel which will ultimately contain all that follows.

“In alchemical color symbolism white is the principal stage between black and red, a transition of soul between despair and passion, between emptiness and fullness, abandonment and the kingdom. Albedo is also the first goal of the work, coming after the nigredo has divided the world into mind and matter, yet before the rubedo restores the subtle body to its carnal keeper. Because of alchemical warnings about the “reddening coming too fast” and about the black crows creeping back down into the nest, the albatio or “whitening” is essential to slow the reddening on the one hand, and on the other to raise the blackness from its inertia.
As a state between, the albedo is referred to as bride, Mary (as intercessor), moon, dawn, and dove.”

Again, Hillman warns us of the importance of distinguishing between the pre-black white of innocence and the white that transitions from black towards the red, in which the white works as mediator between the disintegrating parts of the nigredo and the gold in which we can bear to live in two worlds at once, the physical and the psychic.

“Primary white is immaculate (without stain or blemish), innocent (without hurt, harmless), ignorant (without knowing, disregarding), unsullied and unsoiled. This condition cannot be the terra alba because there is no earth to whiten.
Our white, the second white or albedo, emerges from that black, a white earth from scorched earth as the silver from the forest fire. There is a recovery of innocence, though not in its pristine form. Here innocence is not mere or sheer inexperience, but rather that condition where one is not identified with experience.”

The second innocence, is not so much rebirth, but rebirthing. No longer must we experience things only personally, but both personally and from knowing the universality of all that happens, no longer just what happens to me, as if a first and only time, but with the insight that I live in a stream of otherness, and there “is nothing new under the sun.”

All that I can feel and sense has an archetypal nature, which allows us to feel to the depths what happens because we no longer need to escape feeling by transcending beyond the personal into some hyper spiritual mode that seeks to explain away, nor stay in the intensity of personal feeling where we fail to see the universality of our experience because we’re over-identified with it. One denies our personhood, where the other denies our connection to the gods. White is the mediator or the means by which the material becomes psychic.

Hillman notes that an over abundance of earthiness can lead to its opposite of hyper-spiritualizing:

“The gross notions of earth in contemporary psychology betray its materialism; this psychology is so heroic and spiritualized that mother must carry its grounding. No wonder that modern psychology cannot leave its philosophy of development, its laboratory concretism and reliance upon measurement, its reductive explanations. It has not found another earth that would give support and yet not be materialistic.”

The other earth here is the subtle body, or what Hillman refers to as “soul-making.” His term for the Great Work. He refers often to the work of Henry Corbin and his notion of Celestial Earth:

“The terra alba is a climate and geography, with palaces and persons, a richly imaginal place, not mere abstract wisdom. In Corbin’s accounts the celestial earth is full of spiritual bodies; or let us say that the subtleties of soul are embodied in the mundus imaginalis by primordial persons, eternal archons, angelic essences who offer human consciousness a grounding in hierarchical principles, enabling a human being to recognize what is essential, what comes first, and what is of lasting worth.”

The whitening puts the soul in motion compared to the stuckness of the nigredo in the material nature of things.

“So the albedo is experienced also as the motion of psychic reality, what we have come to call “psychodynamics” and “processes” – so long as these are not literalized into systems upon which we can rest content. For when motion becomes a system of motion, rather than the actual moves the psyche makes, then we are again in a nigredo, that is, densely unconscious. Our language (psychic energy, process of individuation, development, psychodynamics) is stifling actual movement in concepts about movement.”

And motion unsticks us, allowing for a sense that we can be moved into a second sight that brings forgiveness and peace in spite of the sometimes terror and horror of being alive. Sensing and accepting that we live through archetypal forces and they live through us relieves us of the burden of a personal self being the only source of our experiences.

“We also find ourselves easing off, no longer purging the bowels of putrefactio, no longer guilty. Complaining gives way to recollections in tranquility: the memories are there but no longer hold one to their rack. The sense of sin is washed, ablutio. The material has sweat itself into moistening, and we may even find a sense of humor. Ironic chagrin relieves shame. The voice now speaking in the inner ear and the words now coming from the inner figures of imagination tell us “it’s all right,” “take it easy,” “let it be,” “give yourself a chance.” The white lady brings peace. She sits in the garden with a wide lap.”

As in all of the alchemical stages there is always the danger of leaving behind the previous stages. In the case of white, we risk being tempted to leave behind the black, being forever relieved of the burden of one’s shadow instead of incorporating the skill of life-long dusting off.

“The urge to white is so close to the escape from black. Then the ablutio can become simply whitewashing, and candida can mean only a clean breast, a frank and open discussion, candid. “Albation,” says the dictionary, still means dusting (off, away, over) with a fine white powder. Here the whitening converts back to primary innocence and the opus is back where it began.”

The next danger of the whitening is that of too much comfort in the cooling. The albedo stage, if it is to lead further into the reddening stage, needs to use the skills now acquired to tackle the issues in life that were once forbidden because of fear, lack of skill and reflection.

“We may have to invite new aggressions and passions; summon up the furies; force confrontations with essential questions that the white lady might prefer to cool.”

A third danger is that of calcination or premature drying.

“Yes, the opus needs intense heat to dry up the personalized moistures: sobbing collapses, longings that flow out, sweet dopey confusions. These are dried in the soul-making process. But these conditions cannot just be hit over the head, taken to the (dry) cleaners, caustically scorched. For in them there is a germ trying to flower.”

The risk here is to not turn reflection into cynicism, Too much heat, drying us out, exhausting us from too much work.

The last danger is that of vitrification, in which we take on the burden of too much personalization.


“What goes on in the soul is not of your or my doing, but refers back to the germination in us of the gods in the earth, the seven metals of the objective psyche or world soul. Vitrification closes us to this awareness; we become glassed into our personal individuality.
We tend to forget that work on the psyche (soul-making) does indeed make the spirit more embodied. We forget that what goes on in the mind is gaining more and more substantial reality. If these newly-made psychic realities rise to the top, they tend to take on a life of their own, up and out, in behaviors glazed and unsusceptible to any further change.
When the vessel becomes the focus of the work, when we take psyche itself substantially, when we literalize containment or seeing-through, then we are vitrifying. Psychology as a subject of its own, rather than a mode of seeing through, reflecting, shaping and containing other substances, is simply a vitrification, a glazed and fixed consciousness without humour, without imagination, without insight. Psyche has become Psychology.”

In order for the Great Work to continue, fixation on the means of reflection, the whiteness itself must not be seen as the goal, but rather as the vessel that will be used in the marriage yet to come.

Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) (Kindle Locations 3553-3556). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

“White bird,
dreams of the aspen trees,
with their dying leaves,
turning gold.”

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

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