C.G. Jung on Alchemy

14 min readJul 30, 2019

I enjoyed reading ‘Jung on Alchemy’, a compilation of his various references to this subject, edited by Nathan Schwartz- Salant. What a revelation, to read that consciousness and its focal point ‘the ego’ have not been a constant for man over the ages; instead, he suggests, they have been an ongoing development.

Jung saw consciousness as but one of the facets of our ‘full self’, and a limited facet at that; The more fundamental and encompassing part of the self, being what he termed the ‘personal unconscious’. This personal aspect of the vast sea of potential is the product of the interaction between the ‘collective unconscious’ and the development of the individual during life.

This is the more complete picture; consciousness and the unconscious; two polarities; two sides of the same coin. Of course consciousness is blind to the unconscious. How could it be otherwise? How can we know what is not yet conscious?

Here, Jung turns this pair of opposites on to their heads; Referring to consciousness as ‘darkness’ and the unconscious as ‘light’; He describes the alchemist’s task of bringing through this light of illumination; The ‘light’ that is ‘unexpected, unwanted and incomprehensible.’

…. Those labouring in the darkness must try to accomplish an opus that will cause the ‘fishes eyes to shine in the depths of the sea’ or to catch the ‘refracted rays of the divine majesty’ even though this produces a light which the darkness as usual, does not comprehend. But when there is light in the darkness which comprehends the darkness, darkness no longer prevails. The longing of the darkness for light is fulfilled only when the light can no longer be rationally explained by the darkness. For the darkness has its own peculiar intellect and its own logic, which should be taken very seriously. Only the ‘light which the darkness comprehendeth not’ can illuminate the darkness. Everything that the darkness thinks, grasps and comprehends by itself is dark; therefor it is illuminated only by what, to it is unexpected, unwanted and incomprehensible. p62

Consciousness and its ‘spotlight’, the ego, therefor act as a tentacle like extension, time bound; A probe from the infinite sea of potential, deigning to become constrained into manifestation and the world of polarities.

Jung explains how the ego, our sense of self and ‘i am’, has developed over time, springing forth from the unconscious fertile ground of becoming; In alchemical terms, from ‘The chaotic water of the beginning’.

This ‘chaotic water’ exerts continuous influence over the conscious world it created, by what we ‘experience’ as ‘projections’:

You see our whole mental life, our consciousness, began with projections. Our mind under primitive conditions was entirely projected, and it is interesting that those internal contents, which made the foundation of real consciousness, were projected the farthest into space — into the stars. So the first science was astrology. This was an attempt of man to establish a line of communication between the remotest objects and himself. Then he slowly fetched back all those projections out of space into himself…

…. So our psychology has been a sort of coming-together, a confluence of projections. The old gods for instance, were very clearly psychical functions or events, or certain emotions; some are thoughts and some are definite emotions. A wrathful god is your own wrathfulness. A goddess like Venus or Aphrodite is very much your own sexuality, but projected. Now inasmuch as these figures have been deflated, inasmuch as they do not exist any longer, you gradually become conscious of having those qualities or concepts; you speak of your sexuality. That was no concept in the early centuries, but was the god, Aphrodite or Cupid or Kama or whatever name it was called by. Then slowly we sucked in those projections and that accumulation made up psychological consciousness…

…. Now inasmuch as our world is still animated to a certain extent, or inasmuch as we are still in ‘participation mystique’, our contents are still projected; we have not yet gathered them in. The future of mankind will probably be that we shall have gathered in all our projections, though I dont know whether that is possible. It is more probable that a fair amount of projections will still go on and that they will still be perfectly unconscious to ourselves. But we have not made them; they are part of our condition, part of the original world in which we were born. p83

The ego then, is an accumulation of once unconscious projections. Projections that appeared exterior, but were gradually recognized and claimed back, to accumulate as the ‘magnetic’ centre of ‘I am’.

In our current historical time we are all too aware of the ego and the sense of individuality; ‘I am what I am and this is mine’.

Jung talks about instances when the consciousness can become overly inflated; overdosing on unconscious projections that the individual is unable to properly assimilate:

An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own existence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead. Paradoxically enough, inflation is a regression of consciousness into unconsciousness. This always happens when consciousness takes too many unconscious contents upon itself and loses the facility of discrimination, the ‘sine qua non’ of all consciousness.p186

The ego then, is not something to be dispensed with, as some modern folk of the ‘new age’ would have it; A seeming ‘knee-jerk’ desire for dissolution and to be thrown naked into the seas of chaos.

In fact it turns out to be the jewel itself, the ‘lapis’ that requires faceting, honing and polishing.

In view of the supreme importance of the ego in bringing reality to light, we can understand why this infinitesimal speck in the universe was personified as the sun, with all the attributes that this image implies…

…. Although the alchemists came very close to realizing that the ego was the mysteriously elusive arcane substance and longed for lapis, they were not aware that with their sun-symbol they were establishing an intimate connection between God and the ego. As already remarked, projection is not a voluntary act; it is a natural phenomenon beyond the interference of the conscious mind and peculiar to the nature of the human psyche. p180

The unconscious can be integrated only if the ego holds its ground. p145

The experience of the self is always a defeat for the ego. The extraordinary difficulty in this experience is that the self can be distinguished only conceptually from what always have been referred to as ‘God’, but not practically. Both concepts apparently rest on an identical numinous factor which is a condition of reality. The ego enters into the picture only so far as it can offer resistance, defend itself and in the event of defeat still affirm its existence….

…. One should not draw the over-hasty conclusion that in every case there is a hybris of ego-consciousness which fully deserves to be over powered by the unconscious. That is not so at all, because it very often happens that ego-consciousness and the ego’s sense of responsibility are too weak and need, if anything, strengthening. p100

Jung further elucidates on unconscious projections. The fact that they have not been assimilated by consciousness, ie made conscious, does not mean that they do not carry weight and have substance:

There are people who even attract projections, as if they were meant to carry burdens. And others who are always losing their own contents by projecting them, so they either have a particularly good conscience or they are particularly empty people, because their surroundings have to carry their loads. Empty people or people who have an excellent opinion of themselves and cherish amazing virtues, have always someone in their surroundings who carries all their evil. This is literally true…

…. a projection is a very tangible thing, a sort of semi substantial thing which form a load as if it had real weight. It is exactly as the primitives understand it, a subtle body. Primitives — also the Tibetans and many other people- in as much as they are aware of such things at all, understand projections as sort of projectiles, and of course they play a role chiefly in their magic. Primitive sorcerers throw out such projectiles. p82

Jung saw the alchemist’s quest as vitally important in assimilating these unconscious projections and paving the way for the birth of the ‘ego’

… The conscious milieu of the middle ages provided no adequate outlet for these things. The immense world of natural science lay folded in the bud…

The projections of the alchemists were nothing other than unconscious contents appearing in matter

As I think I have shown, the ‘philosophical’ side of alchemy is nothing less than a symbolic anticipation of certain psychological insights, and these — to judge by the example of Gerhard Dorn — were pretty far advanced by the end of the sixteenth century. Only our intellectualized age could have been so deluded as to see in alchemy nothing but an abortive attempt at chemistry. p117

The alchemist’s faculty for conscious discrimination was not as astute as modern man’s, and was distinctly blunter than the scholastic thought of his contemporaries. This apparent regression cannot be explained by any mental backwardness on the part of the alchemist; it is more the case that his main interest is focussed on the unconscious itself and not at all on the powers of discrimination and formulation which mark the concise conceptual thinking of the schoolmen. p69

The alchemy of the classical epoch (from antiquity to about the middle of the seventeenth century) was in essence, chemical research work into which they entered, by way of projection, an admixture of unconscious psychic material. For this reason the psychological conditions necessary for the work are frequently stressed in the texts. The contents under consideration were those that lent themselves to projection upon the unknown chemical substance. Owing to the impersonal, purely objective nature it was the impersonal, collective archetypes that were projected: first and foremost as a parallel to the collective spiritual life of the times. The image of the spirit imprisoned in the darkness of the world. p86

Alchemy was a creative act. The practitioners acted as channels for the projection; It transformed them as it, in turn, became projected into matter. The Philosopher’s stone, that fabled transcendental object, became a mirror of their own inner metamorphosis.

The free-ranging psyche of the adept used chemical substances and processes as a painter uses colours to shape out the images of his fancy. If Dorn, in order to describe the union of the ‘unio mentalis’ with the body, reaches out for his chemical substances and implements, this only means that he was illustrating his fantasies by chemical procedures. For this purpose he chose the most suitable substances, just as the painter chooses the right colours. p110

Rutland says: Imagination is the star in man, the celestial or super celestial body. This astounding definition throws a quite special light on the fantasy processes connected with the opus. We have to conceive of these processes not as the immaterial phantoms we readily take fantasy pictures to be, but as something corporeal, a ‘subtle body’, semi-spiritual in nature. In an age when there was as yet no empirical psychology such a concretization was bound to be made, because everything unconscious, once it was activated, was projected into matter — that is to say it approached people from the outside. p95

Jung saw the development of the consciousness as a ‘forcing apart’ and discrimination of the opposites from their once happy slumber together, in the unconscious. The alchemist worked at the boundary between the unconscious and conscious in an endeavour to once again re-integrate these opposites.

The alchemist’s become ‘vessels of transformation’ themselves. They became renewed through the union of the opposites:

If a union is to take place between opposites like spirit and matter, conscious and unconscious, bright and dark and so on, it will happen in a third thing, which represents, not a compromise but something new. p68

Always one ends up with paradoxes when knowledge reaches its limits. p183

The alchemist’s endeavours to unite the opposites culminate in the ‘chymical marriage’. The supreme act of union in which the work reaches its consummation. After the hostility of the four elements has been overcome, there still remains the last and most formidable opposition, which the alchemist expressed very aptly as the relationship between male and female. We are inclined to think of this primarily as the power of love and attraction, which drives the two opposite poles together, forgetting that such a vehement attraction is needed only when an equally strong resistance keeps them apart. p158

In the age-old image of the ‘uroboros’ lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the ‘prima materia’ of the art was man himself. The ‘uroboros’ is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. Of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the ‘uroboros’ that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the one, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefor constitutes the secret of the ‘prima materia’ which, as a projection, unquestionably stems from man’s unconscious. p55

The ‘well sealed vessel’ not only applies to the alembic of the laboratory, but also to the alchemist himself :

The ‘vas bene clausum’ (well -sealed vessel) is a precautionary measure very frequently mentioned in alchemy, and is the equivalent of the magic circle. In both cases the idea is to protect what is within from the intrusion and admixture of what is without, as well as to prevent it from escaping. p90

The actual process of bringing the opposites together is definitely not ‘a walk in the park’. The dawning realm of contradiction and paradox bring tension and suffering to the time-bound consciousness.

Alchemy announced a source of knowledge, parallel if not equivalent to revelation, which yields a ‘bitter’ water by no means acceptable to our human judgement. It is harsh and bitter or like vinegar, for it is a bitter thing to accept the darkness and blackness of the ‘umbra solis’ and to pass through the valley of shadow. p63

Psychologically, the union of consciousness (Sol) with its feminine counterpart the unconscious (Luna) has undesirable results to begin with: It produces poisonous animals such as the dragon, serpent, scorpion, basilisk and toad; then the lion, bear, wolf, dog, and finally the eagle and the raven. The first to appear are the cold blooded animals, then warm blooded predators, and lastly birds of prey or ill-omened scavengers. The first progeny of the matrimonium luminarium are all therefor, rather unpleasant. But that is only because there is an evil darkness in both parents which comes to light in the children, as indeed often happens in real life. p170

Jung discusses the initial stages of the alchemical process:

This corresponds to the increasing participation of consciousness, which now begins to react emotionally to the contents produced by the unconscious. At first the process of integration is a ‘fiery’ conflict, but gradually it leads over to the ‘melting’ or synthesis of the opposites…

The alchemists termed this the rubedo, in which the marriage of the red man and white woman, sol and luna, is consummated. Although the opposites flee from one another, they nevertheless strive for balance, since a state of conflict is too inimical to life to be endured indefinitely. They do this by wearing each other out: The one eats the other, like the two dragons or the other ravenous beasts of alchemical symbolism. p107

A new vessel is required to house the reconciled opposites. The process demands and also creates it.

Although the renewed king corresponds to a renewed consciousness, this consciousness is as different from its former state as the ‘filius regius’ differs from the enfeebled old king. Just as the old king must forgo his power and make way for the little upstart ego, so the ego, when the renewed king returns, must step into the background. It still remains the ‘sine gua non’ of consciousness, but it no longer imagines that it can settle everything and do everything by the force of its will. It no longer asserts that where there’s a will there’s a way. When lucky ideas come to it, it does not take credit for them, but begins to realize how dangerously close it had been to an inflation.

We can compare the logical sequence of psychological changes with the alchemical symbolism as follows:

The psychological union of opposites is an intuitive idea which covers the phenomenology of this process. It is not an ‘explanatory’ hypothesis for something that by definition, transcends our powers of conception. For, when we say that conscious and unconscious unite, we are saying in effect that this process is inconceivable. The unconscious is unconscious and therefor can be neither grasped nor conceived. The union of opposites is a transconscious process and, in principle, not amenable to scientific explanation. p183

The ego’s counterpart in the unconscious realm was termed ‘the shadow’ by Jung. It is a complex in the personal unconscious with its roots in the collective unconscious and is the complex most easily accessible to the conscious mind. It often possesses qualities which are opposite from those in the persona, and therefore opposite from those of which we are conscious.

Medical psychology has recognized today that it is a therapeutic necessity, indeed, the first requisite of any thorough psychological method, is for consciousness to confront its shadow. In the end this must lead to some kind of union, even though the union consists at first in an open conflict, and often remains so for a long time . It is a struggle that cannot be abolished by rational means. When it is wilfully repressed it continues in the unconscious and merely expresses itself indirectly and all the more dangerously, so no advantage is gained. The struggle goes on until the opponents run out of breath. What the outcome will be can never be seen in advance. The only certain thing is that both parties will be changed; but what the product of the union will be it is impossible to imagine. p184

Today it is no longer a question of ‘how can I get rid of my shadow?’ — for we have seen enough of the curse of one-sidedness. Rather we must ask ourselves: How can man live with his shadow without its precipitating a succession of disasters? Recognition of the shadow is reason enough for humility, for genuine fear of the abysmal depths of man. This caution is most expedient, since the man without a shadow thinks himself harmless precisely because he is ignorant of his shadow. The man who recognizes his shadow knows very well he is not harmless. p196

Jung discusses the unconscious as a compensatory or balancing force:

….But the unconscious is also feared by those whose conscious attitude is at odds with their true nature. Naturally their dreams will then assume an unpleasant and threatening form, for if nature is violated she takes her revenge. In itself the unconscious is neutral, and its normal function is to compensate the conscious position. In it the opposites slumber side by side; They are wrenched apart only by the activity of the conscious mind, and the more one-sided and cramped the conscious standpoint is, the more painful or dangerous will be the unconscious reaction. p49

The images in dreams and spontaneous fantasies are symbols, that is, the best possible formulation for still unknown or unconscious facts, which generally compensate the content of consciousness or the conscious attitude. p73




Head in the clouds, but really quite practical. Fine art trained, but frequently seduced by the promise of science. https://instagram.com/goat777etc