Alchemy Class Notes – Session Twelve

“Enter alchemy – thing-words, image-words, craft-words. The five supposed sources of alchemy are each a technology. Each is a handwork physically grappling with sensate materials: (1) Metallurgy and Jewelry: mining, heating, smelting, forging, annealing; (2) Cloth and Fiber Dyeing: dipping, coloring, drying; (3) Embalming the Dead: dismembering, evacuating, infusing, preserving; (4) Perfumery and Cosmetics: grinding, mixing, distilling, diluting, evaporating; (5) Pharmacy: distinguishing, tincturing, measuring, dissolving, desiccating, pulverizing.”

Although admittedly going off on a tangent here, this post was inspired by Session Twelve of the Jung Platform’s course on James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology. What I’ve recently come to appreciate is that the study of alchemy is as inexhaustible as is its application to my life.

Alchemy is styled and practiced in a number of traditions dating back at least to the 3rd and 4th century BCE. With that in mind, my focus here is to review the general structure of Western alchemy, while staying with Hillman’s emphasis to work one’s perspective by giving substance to soul and soul to substance.

Alchemy is a practice; a work in which a transformation of some kind is initiated through the desire and aim of a goal. In everyday life, it can be applied to cooking, writing, relationships to any person, place or thing, or the learning of a craft, trade or art. You may think of other applications.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923) Title: Soul in Bondage

Prior to the 18th century, before science divorced herself from the arts, it may have been more readily understood that the work on the materials would simultaneously “work” the practitioner. Alchemy then was a quest for knowledge about the nature of particular substances and processes in the world.

The modern sense of our individuality reflects science’s need to distinguish between subject and object, self and other. These changes bring much freedom to the individual, while also coinciding with a loss of soul, or soul’s substantiality. Not only a sense of one’s personal soul, but the felt sense that the world herself is ensouled, enlivened by all creatures and substances and their varying degrees of autonomy and obeisance.

One might say that the more one feels the divide and separation between themselves and others, the more we might miss, or dismiss the autonomy of other beings and things, leaving no room for acknowledging the invisible, autonomous forces, except where science quantifies them (gravity, electromagnetism, etc.).

Modern ideas of alchemy deeply reflect these changes of self-perception and our place in the cosmos. To speak of a literal alchemy in which base materials are turned into precious metals has lost credibility with all but a few practitioners. As well, the work, if undertaken at all, seems narrowed by an emphasis on personal transformation. But, if alchemy itself is a reflection of an evolving consciousness of universal import, we might see this modern emphasis on self as a necessary stage before the gap between material and non-material existence can dissolve.

Limbourg brothers, Title:Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry English: Anatomical Man.

If alchemy lives on anywhere, as a practice of noting influence and correspondences between the microcosm of one’s human experience and the macrocosm of the hidden nature of the greater cosmos, we have astrologers to thank. For astrologers have never abandoned the idea that human nature and experience is a reflection of the nature, motion and resemblance shared throughout the cosmos, enhanced all the more by our apprehension of it.

With that in mind, we can break alchemy down into three dimensions of the practice: the materials, the operations and the stages of the work.


In alchemy, as in astrology, the elements are the givens, each of which have mythological, planetary or astrological correspondence. The idea of turning base medals into gold, literally or psychologically, requires coming to know the nature of each material substance. Alchemical psychology and Western astrology, borrowing much from their mythological heritage, see in each planet a corresponding metallic nature.

When alchemists link the planet Saturn to lead, it sees leaden characteristics, knowable by working directly with the substance lead. Alchemy, like astrology, does not stop here, but sees lead’s slow, heavy nature as an influential psychic force corresponding to our nature as well. For example, Saturn’s influence is said to be felt as weighty, depressive, slowing us down in some way in both mind, body and circumstance. As Saturn is associated with the Greek god Kronos, where we get our word for time (chronology), there may also be a need for time or attention to some aspect of our lives.

Hillman says of the alchemists work with metals:

“The metals were imagined to be made of coagulated moist vapors, like a condensed gas whose spirit could be released by the proper operations. Because the metals were inherently moist, that is, embodying phlegm, they had a phlegmatic tendency to be passive or inert, requiring fire. Resistance to change is given with the seeds of our nature and only intense heat can move human nature from its innate inertia.”

When we moderns deprive ourselves of seeing any correspondence between ourselves and the nature and motion of the cosmos, we risk increasing the feeling we may already have of alienation, with both ourselves, others and the world we are literally pieces and parts of.

Saturn = Lead

Jupiter = Tin

Mars = Iron

Sun = Gold

Mercury = Quicksilver (Mercury)

Venus = Copper

Moon = Silver


The operations used in alchemy for initiating action and reaction upon the materials are primarily salt, sulfur and mercury. Salt as agent for thickening, loosening and resistance to heat, sulphur for heating and combustion, and mercury or quicksilver for fluidity. Hillman warns that there is no purity in substance, operation or stages of alchemical work but a blending and merging of one into the other.

Making Waffles – Alexander Hugo Bakker Korff (1824–1882)

“Whatever is said about salt is always contaminated, and must be so contaminated by the materials, vessels, and operations with which it is in interaction. Psychic materials are always in diffuse interpenetration, with other materials and do not remain singly self-consistent, and so require multiple interpretation. In fact, this very contamination is part of their definition: let us say that alchemy is soft-edged. Lines between its elements cannot be drawn hard and fast because these elements are also elementary living natures.”


The work both progresses and regresses in stages associated with coloration, usually three or more of the following: Black, Blue, White, Yellow, Red. The colors themselves have astrological and mythological associations. Alchemy in contrast to modern science, is the practice of knowing the nature of anything by the qualities it presents to us. Where modern science reduces things down to size and mathematical relationships, alchemy seeks essence through the quality and nature of relationships within and between things.

Hillman emphasizes the alchemist’s ability to see psychologically through any practice that involves working with the worlds substantive qualities. From this work a truer understanding of ourselves and the nature of the world emerges into the unique expression each of us then presents daily to the world. In coming to know the substances, images, environments and actions/reactions which influence us, we are continually ensouled through our sensual, everyday experience that sees our nature reflected back to us through the nature of the cosmos.

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

Visions of Johanna – An Alchemical View

When I first started studying Alchemy in the writings of C.G. Jung and much later, James Hillman, I had difficulty finding its relevance in the life of us moderns. Already lacking enough time in the daily grind to leave room for a little reading, writing and relaxation, how does one find the time to devote to studying alchemy, enough to allow its relevance to bear fruit?

So in the past few months I have been looking for alchemical movement beyond what is written specifically about it, to how it can be seen in our modern culture through lyrics, movies and television. As presented by James Hillman, alchemy is the work of soul-making. Through the movement and expansion of our dayworld perspective we may begin to include the underworld perspective; its world of mystery and invisibles that unwittingly affect our lives. In the work, an Opus Contra Naturum (a work against nature), we move through the darkness of our human condition to the mystery of the goal, finding a way to navigate the darkness, authenticate our uniqueness, and in so doing, enter more fully and freely into life for life and death’s sake.

If you’re looking (or obsessed?), you can see alchemical movement everywhere, from song lyrics to television and most importantly in your own life. Perhaps by practicing seeing alchemy in the culture, we moderns can also see its relevance for our own lives.

Twice, in the past week, I heard Dylan’s haunting song, Visions of Johanna, an old favorite of mine playing on the radio. You can hear the song, at the two-minute mark, here. Looking at the lyric with alchemical glasses we immediately find ourselves in the dark, right in the first line:

“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet ?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin our best to deny it

The song contrasts the writer’s dayworld experience of his lover, Louise, with the absence of another, Johanna. Although it’s tempting to see Johanna as only a past lover, perhaps more than that, Johanna is soul or the desire for soul itself, the lament of her absence pointing to a loss, leading to the dark feeling of the Nigredo stage of alchemy in which, when it is reached, leaves us there, in the dark, stranded.

File:Bob Dylan in Toronto1.jpg

“Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place”

The pangs of absence tells us we’re not ready yet for any mirrors, not able to reflect yet, it’s still too dark.

In the next verse there’s the admission of an attraction to danger and submitting to misery. As well, the misery starts to double in on itself as “the little boy lost” now complains about this awful state, bragging even and painfully aware of his own uselessness. Perhaps there can now be movement to the blue stage where the scintilla or spark so necessary for lighting the fire will be ignited.

“Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me
He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall”

Sure enough, next we see the bluing of the darkness in his reflection on DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, for even she must of had the “highway blues.” So, there it is, the recognition that although alone, you are still in the company of other travelers.

“Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles”

According to Wiki, this song was written shortly after Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lownds in 1965. Perhaps the dayworld marriage to Sara sparks a conflict in the soul whose love and need for freedom is threatened after feeling the weight of commitment that marriage and children bring.

“The peddler now speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him
Saying, “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him”

There’s no resolution, but much conflict in the last verse of the song. But, “the empty cage” does suggest that something has fled. In thinking about this I wonder if the emptiness too is not a necessary part of the work. The fleeing itself suggests movement, and that the “empty cage now corrode(s)” may indicate that there is no longer a need for a cage. The soul, as the flow and movement of the life-giving (animating) force, must give up any containment that is life or soul-destroying.

File:Michael Maier Atalanta Fugiens Emblem 34.jpegA marriage is in order though, but one that we nurture and create providing for us a ground of being in which we can then navigate the course of our lives. In alchemy this marriage is imaged as heaven and earth; in which our dayworld perspective is continually fed by the mystery of the unknown, the underworld, the source of all creation so necessary for both our life and our death.

“And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes ev’rything’s been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes”

Lyrics copyright: Dwarf Music reprinted here

JANUARY CHALLENGE… My Awakening Experience And Moving Forward

Here is my contribution to Barbara Franken‘s January Challenge series.

This is a story in which the right kind of trouble unexpectedly brings a gift.

From an early age, I struggled to feel a sense of belonging and identity. As a child I loved play-acting and imagining what it might be like to be a bear, a dog, a fox, or an orphan, a prisoner or conductor. My attempts at belonging were easily expressed by play-acting where I could put on a mask and give myself over to fantasy. But when not play-acting, I felt lost, convinced that I was missing something that others must have.

According to my parents Merriam-Webster dictionary, identity was defined as the quality of being a particular thing and not some other thing. Yes, I thought, my problem has something to do with a lack of being someone in particular. As I grew older, anytime I felt that others were defining me, even when they were being complimentary, I felt alienated. How could they know something about me when I had no clue? I was a fake, and I knew it.

Years later when in my early 30’s I moved to Oregon from Long Island, New York. After a few stormy years of relationships that failed, and feeling the need for solitude to just let myself be me, I started to practice meditation.

Some months later though I started to feel strong, uncontrollable emotions and I could no longer make it through a single day without crying. This was not the kind of crying where a few tears run down your cheeks, but gut-wrenching crying that would last until I finally fell asleep exhausted.

A year later, I was ready to seek out a guide. Having a love and familiarity with the writings of C.G. Jung and James Hillman, I entered into analysis. In the course of a three-year long therapy, traveling to the depths of hell and back, I experienced a most amazing and unexpected healing.

Not that I went from 0 to 250 in an instant. There was plenty of work to be done. Exploring my dreams, memories and relationships led me to see that I was filtering my experience through a very cloudy lens. There was a series of recognitions that came from therapy that both broadened my view and opened me up to not be afraid of an ongoing increase in that opening.

Many insights began to come into view, including a painful recognition that how I understood myself, others and the events of my life needed a revisioning. But with that came a recognition that nothing could happen without seeing how tightly I held on to a view of the past and present which bled into the future. Even if there are objective facts about my life that get to tell the story their way, what I needed was a story that made room for all the longings I ever knew and how to live with and through their power over me. That meant looking fear right in the face and learning how to talk back, and most importantly, learning to talk at all.

Seeing a deficiency in my use of language was a huge part of the work and it still is today. A love of words and language allows for an ongoing stream of ideas leading to new ways to experience and understand all that life has to offer. And for me, learning to open up to deeper levels of myself and others eventually led to the following life-changing experience.

One morning, much later in the therapy, upon waking from an emotional dream, I felt an intense burning and buzzing at the base of my spine. I sat up in bed, and felt what can only be described as an electric shock shooting up my spine into my head. I thought I might die it was so intense, but it only lasted a few seconds. I knew that something very big had happened. Over the course of the next few years, I began to feel different, physically, emotionally and intellectually. I felt tremendous healing as I slowly began to live closer and truer to matters of the heart.

It is as if now I am now more like a hollow reed where before I was a lead stick. It’s difficult to describe, but I continue to feel a sense of opening, enfolding, better able to love and be loved. And especially to belong – in my body, in my family, and in the entirety of this big, beautiful and crazy world.

There’s not freedom from suffering but to suffer as love does when it lives on in spite of the relentless longings. Feelings flow, moving through me without resistance. If I could bottle the experience, I gladly would and give it away. I am most grateful for feeling a sense of renewal.

Surprisingly, the one thing I thought I was missing; having an identity, I now know I never needed.

Next up in the series is one of my wonderful sisters in blogging, Linda –

Alchemical Psychology, Part VII – Air

“The Imagination of Air and the Collapse of Alchemy,” is Hillman’s next to last chapter in his book, Alchemical Psychology. He reminds us at the start of the chapter that it is the images of air and not their measurement that was the focus for the alchemists. The chapters of this wonderful book get meatier and meatier and so please forgive me for the increasing length of these posts. Even so, what is presented here is just a glimpse of this very heavy chapter on air.

Geist, Logos, Pneuma, Spiritus, Prana, Ruach, Psyche, Anima/Animus – words of air, forms of its imagination. Air makes possible this perceptible world, transmitting the colors, sounds and smells that qualify and inform our animal immersion.

Aspiration, inspiration, genius is structurally inherent, a pneumatic tension within each soul.

A pneumatic tension. In the latter days of alchemy, through the chemical imagination, a bridge is created leading to a new era in which the effects of air upon physical substances spurs a revolution in science birthing inventions that greatly change the technology of everyday life. Transportation powered by steam and gas for lighting streets, homes and businesses helps to usher in both the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Dispelling the dark however, removes the sense of the mystery of the invisibles from our imaginations. To us moderns, if you can’t count it, you can’t count on it.

IMG_20140517_101614815Hillman notes the shift from alchemical work done for personal benefit, to that work which leads our focus out into service of the world. One of the first of many airy inventions was hot air balloons, leading eventually to the technology of flight. Through the use of burning coal and the construction of city gas lines the illumination of the great cities of Europe, America and eventually much of the world had begun.

The control over nature, that bringing light to the masses provides, leads to the powerful ideals of a progressive movement that now envisions the possibility of improving conditions of humanity, so much so, that we might one day eliminate crime, hunger and poverty.

The enlightenment literalized and moralized: deprivation of gas-lighting becomes a privatio boni. To light the night, and actually dispel darkness, its dreadful dominion, implies the upgrading of mankind.

File:Sir Humphry Davy, Bt by Thomas Phillips.jpgHillman goes on to show us, through the discoveries of latter-day alchemists, that their work with air itself brings a spirit and a puer sensibility to their lives and undertakings. Here, he starts with the work and writings of Humphrey Davy to show us some of that puer spirit and the part he played in the transition from an alchemy of subjective value to a science that serves humanity. Davy’s work in chemistry alone identified 47 new chemical elements.

Davy gives us, further, a clue to the spirit of empiricism that informs the period from Jan Baptist van Helmont and Robert Boyle through Davy. These men played even as they measured:  Benjamin Franklin with his kite; Robert Hooke with his gadgets; Stephen Hales examining his animals and plants; Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac ascending to 7,000 meters in a balloon; Humphry Davy and his crowd sniffing.

It was not merely that magical tricks and alchemical transformations still pervaded the new chemistry, but that the occupation with air constellated its elemental force: risk, flight, fancy. The spirit of experimentation – the puer impulse had not yet succumbed to the pre-arranged intentions of what experiments came to be in later science. A lab experiment now is a senex ritual repeating what is already known. Less an investigative act of curiosity, it is more an initiation into the scientific paradigm by an imitative performance of what the figures of science, now senex patriarchs of scientific laws, did centuries ago.

Hillman notes the shift in perspectives between those who held to the use of a substance called Phlogiston to explain chemical phenomena and those who advanced the understanding of chemistry through experimenting with chemical reactions, such as oxidation, contributing to a pivotal moment in the transition to modern science.

Let me demonstrate the paradigm shift, the death knell of alchemy, before your imagining eyes. If a strip or bar of metal is calcined, that is, dry roasted in the intense heat of a burning glass – the old alchemical operation of calcinatio  – the calx or powdery residue of the metal weighs more than the original metal. Does this heavy calx remaining mean that something volatile in the metal has been burned away, subtracted, leaving a heavy deposit? If this is your account, then you belong to the school of Stahl and would call the “something volatile” that has burned away phlogiston. If, however, you consider the heavier residue to indicate that calcining has added something to the metal that is present in the calx and was not present in the metal (at all or to the same degree), then you belong to the school of Lavoisier and the “something added” is oxygen.

This shift in paradigms moves the focus away from qualifying the material world to quantifying and measuring it.

When Lavoisier designed the shorthand symbol for his principe oxygine, he drew it with sharp points  because acids were imagined in the eighteenth century to be composed of atoms with spikes, hence their biting, corrosive effect. Phlogiston, through its sulfuric ancestry, was warm, oily, and generous; oxygen, through its acidic ancestry, was corrosive and aggressive. The chemical revolution brightened, and soured, the air.

The exchange of alchemy for chemistry was, in short, an exchange of phlogiston for oxygen. What went was vitalism and the final cause; what came was atomism and the material cause. What went was Stahl’s anima; what came was Lavoisier’s methode. What went was the meaning in chemical transformations; what came was their explanation.

The reduction to matter is not necessarily a fall, a defeat of the wing; materialization is a means by which spirit becomes differentiated, makes itself knowable.

Quoting the scientist Henry Cavendish:

Since we are assured that the all-wise Creator has observed the most exact proportions, of number, weight, and measure, in the make of all things; the most likely way therefore, to get any insight into the nature of those parts of the creation … must in all reason be to number, weigh and measure. 

Much is gained by this new method of revealing nature’s secrets.

God can thus be present in the method and not only in the material as alchemy thought. This is the watershed between alchemy and chemistry: where alchemy sought the secret in matter, chemistry imagined the secret in the modes of examining the matter – measure, weight, and number. Hence the importance of technical apparatus, mathematical models, laboratory experiment – these were divine instruments. To call this merely quantification or technology or applied science is to lose the inspiration, aspiration, effervescence, illumination, and ascension – the gas – that suffuses the discoveries and the heights of vision to which the methods led.

The collapse of phlogiston freed the spirit. It had been held in an alchemical vestige, for phlogiston was, as Stahl insisted, a kind of matter, yet one which no method could analyze. Lavoisier’s accurate method overcame that subtle matter, releasing spirit from that style of alchemical materialization. Now the place of spirit was in the method of “free” scientific inquiry, which together with the social, religious and technical revolutions that inseparably accompanied the new method, breathed the aerial soul, and its inflations, into the free-thinking spirit of the times whose watchwords were both measure, weight, number and liberté, egalité, fraternité.

Hillman spends much time detailing the lives of these new scientists and especially their lack of relatedness and particularly to women. Many of these men never married. Rather than find one’s soul through the love of a woman, nature now became the object of their adoration.

The new weightiness of air corresponded with a new substantiation of soul in the material world. Physical experiment made the invisible more visible. 

The fascinating mistress was not woman, but the mystery within the natural world.

This “fascinating mistress” though is also a call from one’s genius, often seen as a puer trait. Anytime the puer archetype is seen the senex is never that far away, which might help us to understand the drift in modern science towards scientism, where the guards of the hen-house have in some instances starved the hens.

It is easy enough to attribute inventions to genius, but genius is also an air, a nimbus around the head. Genius was the Roman word for psyche or daimon, for a vapor-like spirit that “blows.”  It is not an ego, but breaks in upon it – invenio – a gift of the genie in the bottle who speaks to the “boy,” a guiding presence telling the attentive worker how next to move his hand, waking him in the night with flashes of intuition as to how best respond to the demands of the invisible to become visible by means of invention.

Of course, these men were often solitaries; they reserved their ears for the subtle “invenio” of the airy genius.  “I do not think I could work in company,” Faraday said, “or think aloud, or explain my thoughts.”  The genius of making, poesis: apparatus as poem.

I love that Hillman sees the lives of these transitional scientists as still serving soul and that much as the myth of Eros and Psyche is a story of love and attraction that brings joy, so it is that anytime there is love you will find psyche.

We must therefore read the chemical revolution neither with progressivist heroics for what had been conquered nor with nostalgia for loss of feminine soul. The genius of air was still imagining by making new images, and these men were still serving soul as it seems to have asked to be served. 

Love was there in the work itself because psyche was there when, following Jung, we see that “suitable objects” can be “lodging places” of psychic events. The experiment, the laboratory, the apparatus, and the paper (Black, Davy, Dalton, Faraday, Boyle each wrote hundreds of papers or delivered hundreds of popular and scientific lectures): here was eros, anima, joy; and an aesthetics of usefulness.

And one last thought to remind us that alchemy is not necessarily lost to us moderns.

Though our minds are still ruled by the mechanical enlightenment, animation works in the laboratory hands, elaborating fantasy, inspiring things with new life, like the puer spirit now playing in computers. Alchemy, therefore, did not collapse – if we mean by alchemy a poesis of matter.

Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) (Kindle Locations 6604-6607). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Thank you 5th Dimension for Up, Up and Away

Love is waiting there, in my beautiful balloon
Way up in the air, in my beautiful balloon
If you’ll hold my hand, we’ll chase your dream across the sky.

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

For A Dancer

One of the most beautiful, yet saddest songs about death that I have ever heard is Jackson Browne’s For a Dancer. Maybe you’ve heard it? In my teens, friends and I loved JB’s album, “Late for the Sky,” in which the studio version of For a Dancer can be found on.

My friend Regina, who recently passed away, loved to dance and sing. I can remember being in the upstairs of her house where in her parents bedroom (the biggest room of the house), we would dance around in a circle, practicing her choreographed interpretation of The Skater’s Waltz. Now this was certainly not my idea, and probably not even my idea of a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon when your 9 or 10, but Regina could be very persuasive and she always made me laugh.

Mt.Hood 8_2013 002Death follows us throughout our short lives, peripherally, if not front and center, when we are touched by its presence – through the loss of a loved one, or as well, through our own brushes with death. Its inevitability creates the tension that gives each life its uniqueness and the mystery of our individual being.

Why are we here, rather than not here? Why now, why not some other time? What is death, what precedes it, and what follows?

On the one hand, if nothing precedes it or follows it, no big deal, some people will tell you. But it’s not the impermanence of life that gives me pause as much as it the mystery of life in the first place.

Some of us don’t like to think much about death, and will tell you that it is morbid to do so. Some find it easier to come to conclusions about what happens to us – either convinced that there is life beyond death, or that we die and that’s it, gone as if we’ve never been here in the first place.

I have a deep respect for the limits of what we can know, and I can’t define with certainty the nature of what life or death is.

But I sense that somehow, whatever it is that beats our hearts, and sustains our physical presence, is not a product of our biology, but the source of what creates our physical form and sustains us.  I’m not a scientist, or anything close to that, but there are many invisible forms of energy around us that don’t seem to exist until they are translated by some sort of device. Think radio, micro, and other waves/particles that surround us without us in any way sensing them. Maybe we are translators of God’s uncreated source of all there is.

But death is also important as an operative metaphor for change in the life we live now, and so is worth attending to, in all the hundreds of ways death will visit us. Whether through actual physical death of loved ones, or the little deaths we experience through life’s changes. Death, while seeming to be an end, or a cessation, is also transition, and movement in which we are remade, revised and reborn. Live, love, laugh and cry and when someone asks you to dance, say yes.

“I don’t know what happens when people die.

Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try.

It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear

That I can’t sing

I can’t help listening.

And I can’t help feeling stupid

Standing around

Crying as they ease you down

‘Cause I know that you’d

Rather we were dancing”

Jackson Browne – For A Dancer

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

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