Class Notes – Session One

As many of you know, I recently signed up for the Jung Platform’s course on James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology. This past Thursday was our first session. The online class presents a live conversation between Jungian Analysts Patricia Berry and Robert Bosnak. The audience was given time at the end of the session for questions and comments.

File:Fotothek df tg 0005526 Theosophie ^ Alchemie ^ Medizin.jpgI’ve decided to preface my posts on the class here with an attempt to first locate myself in relationship to learning, therapy and alchemy and to write briefly about the value I see in attending the class. To start, I want to acknowledge the ghosts that accompany me into my seat as both student and participant.

Formal school has often times been a stumbling block for me. As a child and into my teen years I was a terrible student within the formal setting of public school. These early years of my life coincided with an ongoing experience of a particularly painful sense of absence. Absence was a dominant theme; absence from school, absence from relationships, absence from embodiment all of which left me with an increasing sense of abandonment. These themes of absence, abandonment and identity are part of what is for me, the alchemical Prima Materia.

My love of learning was eventually initiated during my teen years through the discovery that ideas themselves are part of a deeper level in which I am in relationship to. As a teenager I recall the thrill of reading Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha which led me to a much-needed understanding that I was not alone in feeling that life itself is a journey. The depth, beauty and intimacy of ideas and their ability to affect change in both my perspective and skill at living life, were initiated at that time, and continue to this day to be the great work of my life.

“[T]here is one thing that this clear, worthy instruction does not contain; it does not contain the secret of what the Illustrious One himself experienced—he alone among hundreds of thousands. That is what I thought and realized when I heard your teachings. That is why I am going on my way—not to seek another doctrine, for I know there is none, but to leave all doctrines and all teachers and to reach my goal alone—or die.” Herman Hesse

Initially, the work took on an inward focus as I saw that something in or about me was the problem because – I am that which suffers. In time I have found that the work has moved beyond interior issues and out into relationships with others and the larger issues of cosmology and the state of the world.

The feeling in the midst of deep personal suffering and woundedness brings with it a sense and desire for something to change. But what becomes apparent in the work is the difficulty of breaking the mold and habit of self that develops within the confines and limitations of the resources of that same self. That difficulty is what led met to seek out a guide and so in my thirties I sought out a therapist to work with. There I came to know my deficiencies and began to see how limited a view I had of myself and the world. I also learned of the importance of using and understanding language and that knowledge of ideas found through the study of history, religion, mythology and science helps in gaining a perspective as to our time and place in the cosmos.

So, perhaps the class, instructors and students alike, are individually and as a group, looking for that Prima Materia, each of us searching for what brings us to enter into the study of alchemical psychology. For myself, I have a deep need to continue digging for the gold because I have experienced tremendous healing in my life through what I still see as the great work. The sensitivity that comes from such a work though, has allowed me to feel a great sorrow for the suffering of others and for the ways of the world, many of which bring seemingly unnecessary pain through an ongoing quest for power, a lack of willingness and skill in real communication, a misallocation of resources and the fear and insecurity that an ongoing demythologizing in the bringing together a variety of cultures brings.

Through the experience of deep and personal healing, I have come to know that there is much value within our own experiences. There is perhaps a terrible irony in what it took for me to come to enough of an understanding of the nature of myself and the world to release me into life, in that, I could not have done the work alone, and yet, I had to do the work alone, and that work initially brought more suffering, but perhaps the right kind of suffering that eventually and profoundly led to healing. As James Hillman put it, “Our wounds open us up,” but we must first find a way to “suffer that opening” without being irreparably ripped to pieces.

Alchemical Psychology – Part VI, Red

In the last three chapters of James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology, we turn our attention to the last stages of alchemy imagined as the reddening, or rubido: a) images of the goal, b) changes that led to the collapse of alchemy, and finally c) alchemical caelum, or the “aesthetic condition of mind.” There’s a lot left to this book so in this post we’ll look at images of the goal.

Hillman begins by offering a bit of hope for humankind, something he does not often do in his writings.

“…that the intellect of the human animal bears witness to the cosmos, and that the good of society requires both the courage of disciplined imagination and the courage of the imaginative disruption of discipline.”

Again, Hillman reminds us to take care of how we think of the goal. It’s no surprise that the goal is always imagined as something of lasting value; gold, pearls, elixers, and healing stones, but Hillman stresses that it is because these images of the goal are of lasting value that they compel us to stay the course.

“We are thus obliged to inquire into the goal idea before we look at goal images, asking why the psyche invents these goals. What is the function of goal-thinking, goal-fantasying? What do goals do for the soul? Why does the psyche need them? The goal propels us into the work. …the urging impetus, without ever being exteriorised into an objective literal aim.”

For myself, I am a bit suspect of goals, especially ill defined ones. It seems to me that some goals, those we define with conceptualized ideas (whole, healthy, happy, enlightened, free, etc), rather than imagistic ones (musician, writer, lover, dancer, linguist, priest, student, parent, runner, nurse), act as a dangling carrot, perpetually out of reach, the unobtanium “other” – unreachable because things like wholeness, health and enlightenment are static concepts. Immersing ourselves in the work, ironically allows the goal to be in the work (do you wash the dishes to clean them, or to be done with it?), changing the substance through the dynamics of living.

Next the discussion moves to specific images of the goal and the value they hold in their display. In our culture, especially in spiritual work, this may seem at first a huge disappointment. If it’s all about display, why not just razzle and dazzle ’em with fine clothes and fancy speech? But display here is not mere pretence, but something of genuine, lasting value displayed for the sake of the world; anima mundi, unveiling, revelation. Shine on you crazy diamond!

“Despite the endless warnings in alchemy against the vulgar, and alchemy’s deliberately arcane mystifications, the goal, evidently, is display, and this gives another sense to the psychology of alchemy. Rather than emphasis upon the closed vessel as the modus for self-knowledge, we are to ”freely give.” Revelation. If the goal is an idea that motivates the opus all along the way, then ideas of display and exposure must lead the mind.”

“What is the use of concealed diamonds … to the world?” To the world,” that little phrase, suggests a wholly social, political, ecological, communal aspect to the entire opus, an unnamed goal named” world.”

What follows is a lengthy discussion of the specific nature of each image of the goal – pearls, gold, elixers, etc. Hillman writes in detail about the symbology of each, drawing from mythology and wisdom of many ages and cultures that help reveal a deeper more complex nature in each.

He makes the distinction between spiritual only goals and physical only goals noting that through images of the goal we see that the physical and spiritual happen together, so “the pain is not prior to the goal.” What a relief, I say, for no longer do we have to try not to suffer, but to recognise that the “pearl is also always the grit.”

“Instead, I prefer to read alchemy, and its goals, as images of psychic conditions always available. Then the pathologized aspects of the grit and the pearl, the lead and the diamond, the hammer and the gold are inseparable. The pain is not prior to the goal, like crucifixion before resurrection, but pain and gold are coterminous, codependent, corelative. The pearl is also always grit, an irritation as well as a luster, the gilding also a poisoning. This accords with life, for we are strangely disconsolate even in a moment of radiance; we suffer an inmost irritation simultaneous with exhibition, for display harbours as well the feelings of shame and awkwardness. The superiority of clear-sighted surety – when we truly see and know, brilliant as a diamond, as an eagle – always carries with it, unredeemed, the loneliness of distance and the insensitivity of certitude.”

He goes on to discuss the nature of each of the operations in alchemy; separation, mortification, putrefaction, and how their functioning continually serves psyche, for the goal is better served by not envisioning it as a moment in time in which we are perfected, but rather, moving cyclically, repeating and refining, as is necessary, all that we do throughout our lives.

“Remember: it is the nature of each bit of psyche to want to persist as it is. What succeeds wants to continue as it is. The drive to persist and resist alteration is the very nature of substance, according to Spinoza. Thus there will always be a profound and natural resistance to the psyche’s own innate movement. That alchemy imagines movement in soul by means of the repulsive rot of putrefactions and the killing torture of mortification shows how obdurate and compacted, shall we say stone-like, is the stuff of the psyche and how hard indeed it is to bring about change.” 

“And since these goals – diamond and pearl, rubedo and lapis, elixir of immortality – are imaginal and mythical, they are beyond time, dissolving the literalism of the laboratory and its measures of time into images, rather than temporal steps, images of drying and moistening, distilling and condensing, therewith moving the method of alchemy itself into myth.”

And although priorities in the stages of the work will arise organically from the nature of the material to be worked on, the steps or stages of alchemy themselves are not necessarily ordered by linear succession.

“I regard each rung for itself and apart from the ladder, each step a necessary standing place offering understanding for where one is and what one is undergoing. And, therefore, I understand the operations of alchemy as topoi rather than as pieces of a system for achieving the utopic.”

The image of the stone brings more surprises. Why a stone? Isn’t that the very image of concreteness and stuckness that we started with in the nigredo? No, because the stone is that which comes forth from the work of blackening, blueing, whitening, and yellowing.

“The stone’s dryness bespeaks the psyche’s move from subject to object, the subjective person no longer stuck to identifications, the gluey, gooey moisture dried to ashen powder, desert sand. Personal life reflects the objective psyche, thatness rather than me-ness, or better said, a me-ness that is simply thatness. Spiritual disciplines might call this compassion “that thou art,” a kind of unity of feeling with any thing. Yet I believe the stone’s feeling is yet more strange. It feels, let us imagine: “there is just that,” “even I am just that.” All that other people are and the world is, from rivers and elephants to teacups and toasters is essentially what I call “me” as part of an ensouled anima mundi and yet utterly depersonalized as molecules dancing in dry air.”

2012-12-29_14-28-15_165The stone is the image of what the work creates in us. It frees us from defining our lives only by the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” so that we may experience a metaview of ourselves and others allowing us to meet in a shared realm of depersonalized experience where we can recognize each other in the archetypal realms we are all touched by.

“Metal” etymologically means “mine,” the verb “to mine,” from the Greek mettallao, means to search, inquire. The stone’s movement is not growth, development, or metamorphosis but rather intellectual curiosity. Pray and study, work and read, oratory and laboratory, one book opens another, explain the unknown by the more unknown – these were the maxims for the stone, or of the stone, the stone’s own teachings. Not grow, become healthier in mind and body, develop and transform but the seeking and searching of the awakened mind, the light of the intellectus agens, like a burning jewel in the stone. Learning is the key. Study. Experiment. Travel. Read. These are the processes that work the stone and follow from the idea of its metallic seeds. Dig. Mine. Quarry.”

And finally I will leave you with this:

“A stone-like love, a love utterly dehumanized, as if there is something about me that loves something about you, like the love of two stones. Cool, distant, apathetic? As if our planetary bodies were asteroids sharing a mythical affinity? Rather, I feel this notion of love is not so much cold as simply unconcerned with love, stone-focused rather than love-focused. It is indeed a fevered concupiscence, engaged in a coupling conjunction soul to soul as the alchemical images show – naked, sexual, crazy – yet having nothing to do with anybody anywhere. Let us imagine it as a love of two stones. Externally solitary, yet interiorly they are not distant from one another because they are not different. They are akin in their impersonal stony essence, descendents of a common body, Gaia, brothers and sisters, their love the incestuous passion of kinship libido, that calor inclusus which urges all things, including humans, to participate in the cosmos. We love the world unspeakably because of what burns within our silent, lapidary essence.”

Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) (Kindle Locations 5472-5474). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Thank you Wake Owl for such fine music like this song, appropriately titled, Gold.

I don’t feel like I’m falling,
I’m up against the sky,
I said I’d taken it all in to make the good life,
I don’t feel like I’m falling,
I’m up against the sky,
Let’s grab the heart of the world and turn into the light

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

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

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

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