Alchemical Psychology – Part V, Yellow

We start off the chapter on yellow with a brief mention that many alchemists did not include the stage of yellow, especially in the later years of alchemy’s heyday, but moved directly from white to red. Hillman, who was himself trained as a Jungian analyst, suggests that Jung included the yellow because he was fond of the fourfold nature of things, seeing the quaternity as a suggestion of wholeness.

Curiously the yellowing has two contrary qualities. One brings us back to putrefaction:

“Yellow signifies a particular kind of change – usually for the worse: withering leaves, aging pages, and long-stored linen, old teeth and toenails, liver spots, peeling skin, indelible stains of food and semen. The process of time shows as a yellowing. The alchemists spoke of it as “putrefaction” and “corruption.”

But also the sunny side of life:

“Yet yellow has a host of cheerfully sunny implications, from the etymological link of “yellow” with “yolk” to the metaphorical association with ripening grains, spring flowers, honey, sunlight, and the apotropaic use of lemons to ward off death.”

Rather than see the contrary qualities of yellow as oppositional, Hillman suggests that the yellowing phase of the work be seen for its transitional nature, yellowing the white.

“Another name for sulfur is hudor theion, Holy Water, because of its vivifying power in bringing about substantive change. These changes are intensely sensate, as when raw sulfur heated with lime results in calcium sulfide, which, when added to water, results in the gas hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide – spirit of sulfur – stinks. By introducing this gas into solutions of a variety of metals, various colors appear also on the surface of metals.

The alchemical mind regards these changes perceived by the nose and eye as evidence of the dictum “By means of rot essential change takes place.” The organic process of putrefaction is fortified by sulfur. Sulfur hastens nature toward its decay and thus toward its next season. Thus, when things stink, when they yellow with decay, something important is going on, and what is going on is sulfuric.”

Yellow marks the transition from interiority as experienced in black and silver/white stages, to an expanding awareness through turning our attention outward to the world.

“The innate extraversum or turning outward of sulfur (despite its milk-white interior) corresponds with the place of yellow in Japanese medical color symbolism, where yellow and red are outside; black and white, inside. According to this four-color set, black is inside and cold; white, inside and chill or tepid; yellow is outside and warm; red, outside and hot. The transition then, from white to yellow would show both as an increase in warmth and a conversion from inside to outside.”

As our attention is drawn outward, things heat up in the struggle with the ten thousand things of the world. Perhaps it is the disparity between inner and outer that now troubles us, especially after experiencing the beautiful light of reflection in the silver and white stages. Now, out there in the world where the rubber meets the road, we are able to see the extent to which the ideals that brought us out of the nigredo stage are a challenge to manifest in the world. Therefore the yellowing may feel like a step back, but is necessary for the reflections now received to be differentiated into what works, or, we may now ask, “what does the work want?”

“In sum: during nigredo there is pain and ignorance; we suffer without the help of knowledge. During albedo the pain lifts, having been blessed by reflection and understanding. The yellow brings the pain of knowledge itself. The soul suffers its understanding.

Brighter, more coagulated and more combustible, the yellowed intellect is complicated with emotions, as one is indeed acutely aware and alive when in the grips of jealousy, cowardice, fear, prejudice, aging, or decay.”

This stage is necessary before the conunctio, or as Hillman puts it:

“…the inseparability of visible and invisible, psyche and cosmos, a unus mundus.

Jung said alchemy has two aims, “the rescue of the human soul and the salvation of the cosmos.”  Yellowing rescues the soul from the whiteness of psychological reflection and insight: “In this state of ‘whiteness’ one does not live … In order to make it come alive it must have ‘blood.’“  I understand this rescue operation to apply to psychology itself. Let me explain: as the alchemical opus rescues the soul of the individual, so this opus can rescue the psyche of psychology conceived only in terms of the individual human. From the alchemical perspective the human individual may be a necessary focus but cannot be a sufficient one; the rescue of the cosmos is equally important. Neither can take place without the other. Soul and world are inseparable: anima mundi.”

The work is not only for ourselves, although that is a vital part, but we are never complete until the work is brought out into the world. Once we can move away from the obsession of subjectivity, we are ready to sacrifice and serve, not for our betterment, but because the world needs us and we need it and during the yellow stage we begin to experience the freedom from self as we extend the desire for healing outwards with a love for the world.

Hillman ends the chapter cautioning us that the work is never static, and there is no once and for all end to achieve but a transitioning towards a more dynamic response to the world previously unknown.

“The rubedo is imagined as a final moment of the opus – not because a result is finally achieved (the King, the gold, the elixir), but because Becoming is overcome and Being is released from static immobility.”

Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) (Kindle Location 4891). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Thanks Coldplay for Yellow:

“Your skin,
Oh yeah your skin and bones,
Turn into
Something beautiful,
And you know,
For you I’d bleed myself dry,
For you I’d bleed myself dry.”

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

22 thoughts on “Alchemical Psychology – Part V, Yellow

  1. Thank You for an quality article!
    You may be interesting in watching my small collection
    of, mainly, symbolical formations in the current sky..
    many with alchemic connotations, what I’ve discovered
    not so long ago..;-). But it always had a strong connection
    with my life interests and activity..

    With kind regards,
    Marat Dakunin


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  3. Debra,
    Boy am I glad Linda Watts mentioned your blog in tandem with mine, for it brought me here and I am so glad I did. You have quite an amazing thing going on here. Wow; that’s all I can say and equally impressive is how many wonderful, insightful, and inspiring comments from your thoughtful readers. 🙂


    1. Thank you for those very kind words! I am happy that you enjoy reading here.

      I agree, I have made some great friends here through blogging and having such wonderful conversations. The comment section has become half the fun for me. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you linda, for visiting and for leaving a note too. Yes, Hillman was a student of Jung in the 50’s, but being a bit heretical, broke away from the pack of his followers, being dissatified with what the followers were doing with Jung’s ideas.
      I found Jung first, through the writings of Alan Watts and other esoteric writers. I discovered alchemy through Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy, a sci-fi book and other historical readings about Renaissance writers and neo-platonists.
      Having gone through a Jungian analysis in the mid-nineties, and keeping a dream journal for several years, I can say that this experience led me through some of the darkest days of my life and were instrumental in developing the skill of “traveling in the dark.”


      1. I have always wanted to participate in a dream group. I went to a couple of dream workshops, and they were a bit overwhelming for me, but interesting to hear people talk about their dream experiences.
        Dreams remind me that there are places we go and people we meet there who surprise us with their otherness while we seem to not have the control we have in waking life.


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    1. You’re welcome! Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment. I am happy to hear you are interested in reading Alchemical Psychology. There is so much more in the book than I could possibly bring in here. Enjoy!


    1. Thanks Symbol Reader. I agree. Writing this series has taught me more, perhaps just by going back to the book, reflecting a bit and putting it into words. One of the joys of writing as is having writing friends like you to share with.


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