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Alchemy and Jungian Analytical Psychology

A paradigm about life and death.

Jung's whole process of individuation comes from alchemy. Around the age of 45 to 50, Jung began to have several dreams in which he was involved with issues from the Middle Ages. Investigating this, he realized that alchemy had its golden phase during this period. Because of this, he spent more than ten years studying and living alchemical experiences of active imagination, accessing contents of the unconscious, later generating the Red Book, which has all the alchemical influence.

His work weaves itself together as he experiences serving the Self. Making lead, a dense material, turn into gold, in the sense of becoming an incorruptible, pure and golden material. This is sacred work and it is in this "laboratory" that he confronts the shadow, resignifies the persona, faces the sexual counterpoint, until he finds the imago dei.

Throughout this process of life, in which dissolving and coagulation occur countless times, the process of expanding consciousness develops. The less we allow ourselves to enter the sea of the unconscious, the more materialistic and fixated on the ego we are, the more this enormous unconscious dimension will take over through symptoms or even a psychotic break. That's why it's so important to look at the unconscious, the Self and all the creative and evolutionary potential that lies within them and that we need to fulfill on this earthly life journey.

At the basis of alchemy we find the four elements: fire, earth, air and water. These elements are also very present in Jungian work, as a reference, for example, in Jungian typology. Within these four elements lies the prima materia and every possibility of transforming life.

For alchemy, everything, without exception, is evolving. Alchemy tells us about the great processes of transmutation: Nigredo (the world of shadow, putefraction, chaos, hell), Albedo (state of purification), Rubedo (enlightenment). The only way out of Nigredo is to face the underworld in order to emerge truly transformed and reach the depths of the soul. For alchemy, this confrontation is essential: "Visit the center of the earth, rectifying yourself, you will find the hidden (or philosopher's) stone - V.I.T.R.I.O.L, in Latin".

Every therapeutic path involves going through these cycles: nigredo-albedo-rubedo. Vitriol's path is about having to deal with your demons (fears, sorrows, emptiness and everything else that bothers you) in order to transform and integrate everything you have.

The sad truth is that human life consists of a complex of inexorable antagonistic factors: day and night, birth and death, happiness and suffering, good and evil. We can't even be sure that one day one of these factors will prevail over the other, that good will turn into evil, or that joy will defeat pain. Life is a battle. It always has been and always will be. And if it weren't, it would come to an end (JUNG, 1965, p.85).

From a young age, Jung understood that control is an illusion of the ego to dominate nature. And that's what the alchemists understood: that nature is much bigger than the ego. If I don't try to control it, I don't run the risk of getting out of control. For alchemy, "the raw material of honey is the sweetness of the earth, which resides in things that grow naturally."

We can be dominated and disturbed by our moods, or become foolish and unable to remember important facts that concern us and other people, provoking the question: "What the hell is wrong with you?". We pretend to be able to "control ourselves", but self-control is one of the rarest and most extraordinary virtues. We may have the illusion that we are in control of ourselves, but a friend can easily tell us things about ourselves that we weren't aware of (JUNG, pg25).

And in order for us to go through the various phases of life, we need to go through various stages. According to the alchemical understanding, there are seven stages:

The first of these is CALCINATIO. In general, calcination is an internal demand that is inflated. It's a fire phase. It's an operation to achieve a transformation through fire. SUBLIMATIO is an operation that uses the air element, when a solid becomes gaseous without passing through the liquid state. It comes out of the fire that is corroding to acquire a reflective distance, in other words, to be able to look from another angle and make a reflective critique without the need for a sentence or judgment. The air will help him to distance himself from his emotions in order to transform.

SOLUTIO represents a confrontation of the self with the unconscious, it is adding water (feelings, values) in a moderate way in order to return to the content that has been calcined and sublimated.

After this journey, MORTIFICATIO, or PUTREFATIO, represents a phase that generates great transformations, but is also represented by a lot of pain.

There is usually a loss or death, albeit a symbolic death. In this phase, the person has to give up something very important in their life, let something die so that the new can emerge. The person in this phase knows that they need to give something up in order to really change, and this is usually very painful.

SEPARATIO is an operation of separation, of discrimination, of realizing what is good, what is bad, what is worthwhile and what is not. And finally CONIUNCTIO, integration, which would be remarriage, the integration of opposites, of sun and moon, of positive and negative, of good and evil, of everything that is within the individual, the light and the shadow. The coniunctio is a stage where something has been integrated into life, into its structure.

Each time we reflect on and respond to this whole movement, we evolve in our perception of the meaning of life (what our mission is, what I'm doing here), which we question at every stage, until we reach re-ligare, preparation for death, the phase of detachment. And it's essential that we do this.

I have always been struck by the fact that a surprising number of people never use their minds, if it can be avoided, and also that a considerable number do so in an absolutely stupid way. I've also been amazed to find many intelligent and shrewd people living (as far as can be seen) as if they had never learned to use their senses: they don't see what is in front of their eyes, hear the words that ring in their ears or notice the things they touch or taste. Some live without even being aware of their own bodies (JUNG, pg 60).

As we are able to work internally, we are more likely to overcome life's obstacles, integrate content, develop self-knowledge and have a richer life.

We need to reflect on our relationship with life and death. It's interesting that the same fear we have in the first phase of life, the construction phase, will be correlated in the second phase. Life is heading towards death, because our main condition is finitude. And man knows this, and this condition is a source of much anguish. For this reason, the importance of the meaning of life is a fundamental issue for Jungian psychic dynamics.

The idea that life tends towards an end cannot become an impediment to fulfillment. According to Jung, life is heading towards death, but psychological life refuses to conform to the laws of nature. For alchemy, the further man is from nature, the sicker he will be.

All the time we want a state of rest, such as stimulating joy and repelling sadness. If life is in motion, sadness and joy are natural states. The idea of rest is to run away from life itself. Jung comments that from the middle of life onwards, only those who are willing to die retain their vitality [...] and also that refusing to accept the fullness of life is equivalent to not accepting its end. Both the one and the other mean not wanting to live. And not wanting to live is synonymous with not wanting to die (JUNG, §800).

It's very common for people to hold on or cling to something when they're coming to an end, but life is movement. The question of death provokes a real search for meaning, for who we are, as well as being an opportunity to understand what life is and what humanity is for us (what it means to love, to achieve, to relate, etc.). It is through death that we understand that we are part of a greater whole.

Just as the trajectory of a projectile ends when it hits the target, so life ends in death, which is therefore the target towards which the whole of life tends. Even its ascent and its zenith are only stages and means by which it reaches the target, which is death. This paradoxical formula is nothing more than the logical conclusion of the fact that our life is teleological and determined by a goal. (Ibid., §803)

Referring here to mortificatio, the operation of mortification, which best symbolizes dying, it also implies the subjection of passions and appetites through abstinence. This operation is linked to humiliation, defeat, torture, death, mutilation and rotting. However, these dark images are a path to growth. According to Jung, alchemy represents the projection of a drama that is both cosmic and spiritual, aiming not only to rescue the soul of its practitioner, but also to save the cosmos. At the beginning of this dangerous process, one encounters the dragon, the devil, the chthonic spirit, the nigredo, the dark night of the soul. This encounter produces suffering, but from the darkness, light is born. Until the dawn, the albedo. In other words, for the demonic to cease to have an autonomous existence and become deeply integrated into the unity of the psyche, at the end of the process, there must be the breath of life.

Psychologically, mortificatio indicates that the guiding principle of the ego consciousness is losing its power, comfort and rationality. What is precious is extracted after mortificatio: gold, the philosopher's stone. In other words, it comes from the symbolic death of certain traits of the ego. And with the death of impurity, greed, filth, obsessive and guilty passion, with the removal of projections, light can be reached.

In short, the conscious bearing of the conflict between opposites and the confrontation with darkness is what will truly nourish the self. According to Edinger, mortificatio literally represents killing, being the experience of death, which is the most negative operation in the entire alchemical opus. However, it is through these dark images that we arrive at highly positive images of growth, resurrection and rebirth.

According to Edinger, blackness refers to the shadow and alludes to the importance of being aware of one's own shadow, which, on an archetypal level, means that it is also desirable to be aware of evil, because blackness is the beginning of whiteness, and according to the law of opposites, an intense awareness of one side constellates its opposite.

"[...] Putrefaction is so effective that it annuls the old nature, transmutes all things into a new nature, and generates another new fruit. All living things in it die, all dead things decay, and then all these dead things come back to life. Putrefaction removes the acridness of all corrosive spirits from salt, making them soft and sweet." (Paracelsus, Hermetic and Alchemical Writings in EDINGER, pg 167).

And so, with the sense of death, we can feel that life is here and now, and we can work to reveal it at every stage, because a life without meaning, says Jung, is not worth living. For him, "the soul holds as many mysteries as the world with its systems of galaxies before whose majestic configurations only a spirit devoid of imagination is capable of denying its own inadequacies." (Ibid, §815)


EDINGER, EDWARD F. Anatomy of the Psyche - Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy. São Paulo: Cultrix.

Paulo: Cultrix.

JUNG, Carl G. Man and his symbols. 16th printing. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira. JUNG, Carl G. The nature of the psyche. Vol. 8/2. Petrópolis: Vozes.


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