The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Walter Pagel

Jung’s Views on Alchemy

Isis, 39 (1/2)

May 1948, 44-48.




Psychology and Alchemy

HHC: Titling and Index added


IN his Elementa Chemiae (translated by Peter Shaw, 3rd edition. London, 1753. Vol. I, pp. 200ff.) Hermann Boerhaave extols the merits of alchemy in the development of chemistry as follows:

To speak my mind freely, I have not met any writers on natural philosophy, who tread of the nature of bodies, and the manner of changing them, so profoundly, or explain’d them so clearly, as those called alchemists. To be convinced of this, read carefully … Raymond Lully . you will find him with the. utmost clearness and simplicity, relating experiments, which explain the nature and action of animals, vegetables and fossils… We are exceedingly obliged to them for the immense pains they have been at, in discovering and handing to us, so many difficult physical truths.

The author of the two books to which this essay is devoted,1 the eminent psychologist Professor C. J. Jung, would hardly agree with this praise accorded to alchemy on behalf of science, although he could not deny the empirical basis of some of the alchemical operations.  Nor would he regard as their true aims, those formulated by Boerhaave:

To make the philosophers stone; a little quantity whereof cast upon metals in fusion, shall immediately convert all the mercurial part of the metal into pure gold … to discover an artificial body of such virtue and efficacy, as that being applied to a body of any of the three

1. Paracelsica. Zurich und Leipzig. Rascher Verlag. 1942. 188 pp.  Psychobogie und Alchemie. Zurich. Rascher Verlag, 1944.  696 pp.  With 170 illustrations.


kingdoms, it shall improve its natural inherent virtue, so as to make it the most perfect thing in its kind… for instance, if applied in the human body, it will become an universal medicine, …  to make precious stones . . etc. (loc. cit. p. 203.)

But can scientific sense be made of the labour of the alchemists, most of which was symbolism and definitely not chemical experiment?  The ancients knew what chemical processes were, and therefore could not overlook that most of what they did was not chemistry.  Their “experiments” were admittedly bound up with a symbolic meaning.  If, on the other hand, as the alchemists persistently maintained, their descriptions represented chemical processes, these were at least made unrecognizable by the elaborate symbolic language in which they were couched.

In Jung’s opinion, these apparent contradictions can be removed, and the true nature of alchemy discovered, in certain processes of “projection” which take place in the “psyche” of the individual alchemist.  These psychical processes appear to the adept as a peculiar behaviour of chemical substances.  “Er erlebte seine Projektion als Eigenschaft des Stoffes.”  What he witnessed in reality, however, was his own unconscious self.  Hence the admonition to look into oneself, i.e., the internal light which God has kindled, in order to “invent” (“Quaeris multum et non invenies.  Fortasse invenies cum non quaeris.”)  Hence the emphasis laid on the purity of the mind (“mens” in contrast to reason) and the congruity of the latter with the “work.”

“Meditation” (i.e., an internal dialogue with one’s own unconscious self) and “imagination” (i.e., the action of the “celestial” in man, his “astrum”) will, in the alchemist’s opinion, set free the forces which enable him to alter matter.  The process of liberation of the soul from its bodily cage (including the unconscious self) that takes place in dreams, visions and phantasies appears to be the “Philosopher’s Stone”; for the alchemist believes that this process, while progressing in his own unconscious self, engenders a similar process of liberation of the “spiritual” in matter.  The process has become an “autonomous complex.”  It may acquire independent existence whereby it is “objectivated” or “projected” on base material ennobling it by “coloration.”

This is, in rough outline, Jung’s interpretation of alchemy - obviously opening up a new and startling perspective.  Psychology here seems to illuminate one of the great problems in the history of science and the human mind.  On the other hand, alchemy may in turn aid the understanding of certain psychological reactions observed in dreams or in the behaviour of everyday man.

Jung took great pains to collect his evidence from first hand sources.  There is hardly an alchemical treatise or manuscript which he left unturned during many years of industrious research.  Consequently his representation is extremely well documented, impressive by the breadth of its scholarship and inspiring by the depth of its vision.



The first work, Paracelsica, shows Paracelsus to be an exponent of typical “alchemical” ideas, as understood by Jung.  In Paracelsus’ world, “philosophy” as well as “scientia” is given by Nature to all creatures, as a “gift.”  The tree bears its fruit owing to this “scientia” which “informs” it. “Scientia” calls for perfection by means of alchemical operations - and is not unlike chemical substances; it must be subjected to distillation, sublimation, and subtilization.  It must be alive in the physician who, without it, knows nothing but his “mauls geschwetz.”  It cannot be derived from book-learning or authorities.  It is his “magic,” his “astrum,” enabling him to imitate nature; it is the “invisible man” acting while he is asleep, a natural “light,” i.e., an intuitive grasping of reality, bringing about a union of the “knowing” and the “known.”  This, however, is the essence of alchemy - a process of “maturation,” (“Zeittigmachung”) which occurs pari passu in the adept as well as in the metal.

It is by his participation in the all pervading “Soul of the World” that Paracelsus feels his power over things and matter.  This participation is embodied in the “astrum”


in man, the Adam Kadmon of the Kabbalah, the “Filius Philosophorum” of the early alchemists, the neoplatonic Protoplasies.

It is this “astrum” that “desires to drive man into great wisdom.”  As “iliaster,” it promotes all creatures from the potential world of ideas into actuality or, in other words, is responsible for the formation and function of the individual, and the maintenance and prolongation of individual life; it is its “balsam” or “mummy.”  Hence there are as many “iliasters” as there are individuals.  “Astrum” and “iliaster” work by means of “imaginatio,” not only in and on man himself, but also on objects outside him.  Here we encounter again the psychical factor in alchemy: it is a simultaneous mental operation that engenders the “work.”  In both, a “gradation,” “exaltation,” and purification of unclean admixtures take place.  Hence the need for “reverberatio” of man, the process of glowing at the highest degree of heat, whereby the impure will be consumed and the solid remain without rust.  It is thus that the alchemist “projects” himself into matter with which he becomes identical and whose transformations he witnesses in himself, and it is here that the “demons,” “trarames,” and especially water creatures such as “melusine” and nymphs and salamanders symbolise grades and stages in the transformation, both of humid matter outside and the blood-bound soul inside, man.  Hence the “Fire of the Alchemists” which contains such materialisations of psychical concepts as the “Melusinic Ares,” or the “Salamandrinische Essenz” is much more effective than the fire in the oven.

Such symbols as that of the “depth of the sea,” into which nobody dares to go in order to “save his King,” denote in Jung’s opinion the unconscious self of the alchemist - the “abyss” which, in contrast to early Christian belief, not only contains “evil,” but also the “King” who needs “redemption,” and will, at the end of the “work,” emerge, “crowned with his diadem, radiant like the sun, luminous as the carbuncle... stable in fire.”  In a similar way, an apparently chemical notion such as the “Retorta Distillatio ex medio centri” means according to Jung, the development and emergence of a psychic centre - the self.

The ultimate aim of the “work” thus appears to be: Tranquillity of the Mind.  This will in turn strengthen the body and make for “Vita longa,” in other words act not unlike the “arcana” and the “mumia.”

Even such obscure notions as that of the “Aniadus” and “Enochdianus” become accessible: when the body, by virtue of an “Arcanum” (such as Melissa) is purified and liberated from “saturnine melancholia,” its union can take place with the “astral” body which ensures “long life” whereby the “Enochdianus” emerges.  The latter is the celestial man, i.e., man endowed with divine forces (“Aniada”) which by right belong to man, for “the heaven is man and man is heaven and all men one heaven and heaven only one man” (Paragnanum, ed. Strunz, p. 56).  “Heaven” as far as found in man as the microcosm is called “Adech,” in other places “Archeus,” “Idechtrum,” “Protothoma,” etc.  Its role in creation as well as redemption is set out in Paracelsus’ obscure treatise, De Vita longa, edited by Adam von Bodenstein in 1562.  An attempt to give its interpretation occupies the best part of Panacelsica.  In brief: by virtue of psychical exercise and the Arcana, the Soul is not only prevented from escaping, but also maintained in its central position which it occupies, not as normally in the heart - the microcosmic sun - but also outside it.  In other words, the soul is liberated from its physical bondage whereby it is enabled to rest, unexposed to the vicissitudes of heart-bound imagination and emotion, (the “Cagaster”).  In its higher liberated and tranquil sphere the soul becomes the more spiritual “Iliaster” and as such reflects and transmits divine, i.e., cosmic forces, called “Aniadus,” “Adech,” and “Edochinus.”  “New life” and “long life,” the “vita cosmographica” are engendered by fusion of “man” with “greater man,” i.e., the “world-soul.”  It is the “scaiolae” to which falls the function of uniting the transcendent “anthropos” with the world of phenomena, since the “scaiolae” form parts, members and emanations of the “anthropos” on the one hand, and mental functions of the individual (“imaginatio, specu-


latio, phantasia, fides”) on the other.  Led by these, the adept, by virtue of a mental process not unlike distillation, separates “Vinum salutis, dem vil der philosophen haben nachgesteit” from the fallacious spectres of mere phantasy.  Finally, it is the emphasis laid on the symbolical representation of natural and physical aspects of human conflicts that marks out the “alchemy” of Paracelsus and distinguishes it from the tenets of the church which was bound to overlook them in favour of the spiritual conflicts.

In this interpretation the aim of Paracelsus appears to be not unlike that of “mysticism” in general, as achieved for example in Taoism - and modern Psychology, namely dealing with troublesome contents of the unconscious.  These have to be lifted up into and assimilated by the conscious self.


Psychology and Alchemy

Psychology and Alchemy sets out with a series of dreams of present-day individuals in which emerge surprisingly numerous parallels with ancient and mediaeval alchemical symbolism.

It continues with a comprehensive study of the relationship of alchemical symbolism to Christianity and Gnosticism, notably of Christ as far as embodied in the “Philosopher’s Stone.”  These parallels are evaluated on behalf of modern “depth-psychology” and “psychotherapy” for which the knowledge of primitive psychology and mythology appears to be essential.  Alchemy and astrology were “unablässig damit beschäftigt, die Brücke hinüber zur Natur, d.h. zur unbewussten Seele, nicht in Verfall geraten zu lassen,” in contrast to the Church in which an increasing separation of rite from dogma removed the self from its natural roots in the unconscious.  The question of what the ancient philosophers meant by “Lapis” cannot be answered satisfactorily until we know which were the contents of their unconscious self that they “projected” with its help.  It can be solved by psychology of the unconscious alone.  The psychical contents of the “projection” were unpersonal, collective “archetypes” - owing to the unpersonal objective matter into which “projection” took place.  In it was chiefly the image of the spirit, kept prisoner in the darkness of the material world, i.e., the painful state of awareness of the unconscious, recognized “im Spiegel des Stoffes… und deshalb auch am Stoffe behandelt” - a “potential” reality which either exists or does not exist and is thus characterized by a pair of “contraria,” (i.e., “Being - Not Being”).  Hence the significance of the union of contraria in alchemy.  “Uniting symbols” have as a rule, a “numinous” character.  This explains the “Lapis - Christ” parallel and the contacts between the alchemical “opus” and the mass - with the difference, however, that the latter is celebrated by those in need of redemption to the glory of the redeeming God, i.e., by the receivers of the fruit of grace from the work done on their behalf (“ex opere operato”), whereas the alchemist labours for the redeeming of the divine soul of the world that slumbers in matter and yearns for redemption, i.e., for an “elixir of life” which he produces by his own activity, (“ex opere operantis”).  The irreconcilable contrast between alchemy and Church can be expressed as the contrast between individualism and collectivism - a source of neurotic response in modern man.

Incidentally, Jung has discovered that the identification of the Philosopher’s Stone with Christ is much older than the work of Khunrath and Jacob Boehme (i.e., the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries).  He gives a comprehensive account of its prelude in gnostic redemption mysteries as found in Zosimos, and of its first definite sources such as the treatise by Petrus Bonus of Ferrãra (about 1330) and the Aurora consurgens from the first half of the 14th century, (as extant in Codex Paris lat. no. 14006 and in Job. Rhenanus Harmoniae imperscrutabilis chymophiosophicae Decades duae Francof. 1625).

With the space available, we cannot possibly enter into a discussion of the conceptional and pictorial detail of the author’s argument which runs through some 6oo pages, and no comment doing full justice to it can be offered.  A few words sum-


marising the reviewer’s impression must suffice.  A vast literature on alchemy has been accumulated and a number of books produced.  They all leave a feeling of frustration in the reader, none of them achieving more than a well illustrated catalogue of what appears to be yet another human folly.  Jung’s is the first (and largely successful) attempt at understanding it.  It obviously succeeds: (i) in placing alchemy into an entirely new perspective in the history of science, medicine, theology and general human culture, (2) in explaining alchemical symbolism, hitherto a complete puzzle, by utilizing modern psychological analysis for the elucidation of an historical problem and - vice versa - making use of the latter for the advancement of modern psychology; and all this in a scholarly, well documented and scientifically unimpeachable exposition.  If not the whole story of alchemy, he has tackled its “mystery,” its “Nachtseite,” i.e., the problem most urgent and vexing to the historian.  Engaged in this enormous task, he is prone to belittle the role of alchemy as a precursor to science and its actual foundations in serious philosophical, notably neo-Platonic, speculation.  Everything seems to be psychology and symbolism.  Yet, however much these explain, they fail to explain everything.  They may, if overemphasized, lead to a lopsided and unhistorical interpretation of what remains after all one of the essential chapters in the history of science.  With regard to Paracelsus, a glance into the memorable work of Darmstaedter who repeated the experiments of his hero, and also a consideration of the position of Van Helmont, will provide the necessary corrective.  The latter dropped most of alchemical symbolism; he believed he had witnessed an instance of transmutation and extolled the virtues of the universal solvent, the “Liquor Alcahest.”  The emphasis in his work, however, rests with the scientific search for the causes of chemical phenomena.  Yet, this is not detached from its religious and philosophical, or if one prefers, its “alchemical” motives, as Jacob Boehme visualized them when admonishing the adepts:

Und lasset euch das/ihr Sucher der metallischen Tincttur, offenbahr seyn/wolt ihr den Lapidem Philosophorum finden/ so schicket euch Wesenheit. zur newen Wiedergebuhrt in Christo/sonst wird - sie euch schwer seyn zu erkennen/denn sie hat eyne grosse gemeinschafft mit der himmlischen

In Van Helmont’s chemical work the heuristic (i.e. scientific) value of such non-scientific concepts as the “seeds” and their “specificity,” and of “water” as the archetype of matter, can be recognised.

A study of Neo-Platonism will reveal much serious philosophy in Paracelsus - where not more than “symbolism,” and at best psychological insight, appears to be the net result of his labours.   “In natura quidem intueri nihil aliud est quam esse tale et tale quiddam facere.” Passages like this from Ficinus’ commentary to Plotinus express concepts fundamental to Paracelsus, which constitute a genuine philosophy culminating in the elimination (“pneumatisation”) of matter.  Such an idealism has a legitimate claim to independence - whatever its historical or psychological affiliation with “symbolism” or “mysticism.”  It is just as significant for the understanding and historical appreciation of Paracelsus and alchemy as psychology is.

On the other hand, Jung’s exposition lays bare the faults and fallacies of the construction of scientific progress, as shown in stepladders of continuously progressive and “correct” results which are extricated and juxtaposed today, regardless of the philosophical, psychological and historical background from which they sprang.  Jung’s work, therefore, deserves special attention by the historian of science, not only as an encyclopaedia, atlas and new interpretation of alchemical symbolism which will be fundamental for all future studies on the subject, but also as a monumental reminder of the part played by non-scientific motives in the History of Science.

Central Middlesex County Hospital, London, England


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