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"My studies of alchemy may seem obscure and baffle many people, but taken symbolically - the symbolic gold of great worth, or the transforming philosopher's stone 'lapis philosophorum' hunted for centuries by the alchemists - is to be found in man." C.G. Jung

Jung and Alchemy

In its infancy, alchemy in the Western world was primarily an experimental scientific process dedicated to transforming physical, material lead into physical, material gold. Ancient Greek alchemists were counted among the scientists (i.e. chemists) of their day.

In much later years of alchemy's development and reemergence (during the European Renaissance), the primary goal for many alchemists had evolved and been transformed into something of a very different nature. For many of these alchemists, the alchemical process had become that of bringing about a mysterious corresponding inner transformation process within the human psyche.

Much through accident, the eminent Swiss psychiatrist, Dr Carl G Jung, MD, discovered - in the images of alchemy - further validation of his groundbreaking psychological theories regarding the universal nature of symbols. This was in reality little different than Dr Jung's earlier discovery of universal symbols contained in sacred religious writings, myths, fairy tales and/or in dreams.

Inner Transformation
The fascinating thing Jung discovered was that when looked at through a symbolic, imaginative, psychological "lens" - the (al)chemical experiments of transforming base, worthless metals into precious gold unconsciously reflected an internal developmental process of "wholeness" and health in the human psyche (which Jung termed as "individuation").

Jung came to greatly value alchemy for its rich symbolic content and imagery.... and in his studies, Jung eventually unearthed numerous indicators that even some of the earliest Greek alchemists were aware of a corresponding internal process taking place within the human psyche.

Yet, for Jung, what truly set apart the symbols of transformation found in alchemy was (in fact) due to the early alchemists' beliefs that they were strictly dealing with physical, chemical, material processes.

No Restrictions
Because these earliest alchemists were imaginatively experimenting with what they considered to be strictly physical matter - they were not bound in their imaginations and/or experiments by codified, religious doctrines regarding what was spiritually and/or religiously acceptable to "experiment" with and what was not.

Whereas, the symbols and images that spontaneously arise in the meditations of various religious mystics (whether the mystic be Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, etc.) are inevitably going to be partially bound by the codified, accepted parameters of their particular faith and/or meditational practices.

Example: In certain forms of Eastern Meditation - if beautiful divas and goddesses appear and try to divert the Yogin from his goal, he must (by virtue of established dogmatic beliefs and/or practices of what's "profitable") chase such thoughts away as being nothing more than "disturbing factors." And I assure you that I'm not just picking on Eastern Meditational practices - because these same sort of mental strictures typically hold true regardless of the particular faith and practice.

Psychological Gold
Jung found psychological gold contained within the experiments and writings of alchemists.
And in the end, three large volumes of Carl G Jung's Collected Works were devoted to alchemy and alchemical symbols in relation to the development of the human psyche and individuation.

"For fifteen years I studied alchemy, but I never spoke to anyone about it; I did not wish to influence my patients or my fellow workers by suggestion. But after fifteen years of research and observation, ineluctable conclusions were forced upon me. The alchemical operations were real, only the reality was not physical but psychological.

Alchemy represents the projection of a drama both in cosmic and spiritual terms. The opus magnum had two aims: the rescue of the human soul and the salvation of the world…"

Interview of C. G. Jung by Mircea Eliade for the Parisian magazine Combat, C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters ed. W. McGuire and R. F. C. Hull, Thames & Hudson, London, 1978

Modern Day Alchemical Critics
Many modern day alchemists (and, yes, they do exist) are often found to be less than thrilled and/or enthusiastic with what they incorrectly perceive as Jung reducing the transformational alchemical process into a "mere psychological process."

  • What immediately occurs to me is that Jung's alchemically minded critics betray themselves when they mistakenly use the phrase "mere psychological process."

    The "poo-pooing" alchemical critics of Carl G Jung betray themselves in that they reveal that they just don't "get it," and that they just don't "get" the depth of Jung and/or the depth and magnitude of his transformational theories of the psyche. For Jung, as a healer of the soul, there was no such thing as a "mere psychological process."
  • Then... many of the arguments put forth appear to start out with the incorrect assumption that Jung's "individuation process" is associated with the treatment of "mental illness."

    While many of Jung's theories are, without a doubt, of great benefit in the treatment of severe psychological disorders - Jung's psychology of the individuation process is a psychology of deep meaning, growth, and wholeness. It is only directed toward emotionally healthy people having established a strong and solid sense of ego identity and having a strong and solid grip on reality.

    The "individuation process" in Jung's journey toward wholeness is definitely not recommended for anyone who is "teetering on the edge." In fact, just the opposite is true. If you happen to be someone who is "teetering on the edge," then Jung would have been the first to say: "Kids, don't try this at home."

  • Finally... the other main argument often put forth is that the transformative alchemical process is only for those who are spiritually adept masters.

    If that's your "bone to pick" to with Jung, then my only suggestion is to climb down from your "spiritual elitist high horse." You, like the Athenian Icarus, are flying way too close to the Sun.

    Neither Plato, Jung, or (for that matter) myself have any time, sympathy, or patience for that sort of egotistical "holier than thou" spiritual inflation and malarkey.

And so that's (in an oversimplified nutshell) a little of what's up with Jung and alchemy...

Elsewhere on the internet:

Interview with Thomas Cavalli Depth Psychology Alliance founder Bonnie Bright interviews Jungian Psychologist, lecturer, and author Thom Cavalli (author of Alchemical Psychology and Embodying Osiris) They discuss Alchemy, Egypt, current global events and how Egypt is in the midst of playing out an archetypal confrontation (Approx 29 mins)

Suggested reading for alchemy and psychology:
(please, please, please... the following books are not recommended for the faint of heart)

The Mysterium Lectures
by Edward Edinger
This book is an indispensable guide for wading through Jung's "Mysterium Coniunctionis" which is listed further down below. It's, however, not (absolutely) necessary to have the "Mysterium Coniunctionis" in order to receive benefit from Edinger's book.
(Buy it now at Amazon.com)

Transformation of the Psyche: The Symbolic Alchemy of the Splendor Solis
by Joseph L. Henderson and Dyane N. Sherwood
Joseph L. Henderson... need I say more? Transformation of the Psyche is organized around 22 illuminated paintings from the early Renaissance alchemical manuscript the Splendor Solis, and is further illustrated by over 50 color figures. This book is the first scholarly study of the Splendor Solis paintings in their entirety, and of the mythological and historical allusions contained within the images. The book is a wee bit expensive, but it's evident the publishers spent some serious bucks in producing this book. I could of course be wrong, but believe the publishers (Brunner-Routledge) primarily produced this book out of love for the subject and will likely never break even on costs, let alone make a profit. Jungian folks interested in alchemy (and in particular interested in the Splendor Solis images) will definitely not be disappointed in the quality and content of this book.
(Buy it now at Amazon.com)

Anatomy of the Psyche - Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy
by Edward Edinger
(Buy it now at Amazon.com)

Alchemy - An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology
by Marie-Louise von Franz
(Buy it now at Amazon.com)

(The following books are even less recommended for the faint of heart)

Psychology and Alchemy
by Carl Jung
(Buy it now at Amazon.com)

Alchemical Studies
by Carl Jung
(Buy it now at Amazon.com

Mysterium Coniunctionis
by Carl Jung
This book is thought by many to the pinnacle of Jung's thought.
(Buy it now at Amazon.com)

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