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The Sacred Art of Alchemy
Much to his astonishment, C. G. Jung discovered that the ancient art of alchemy was describing, in symbolic language, the journey that all of us must take toward embodying our own intrinsic wholeness, what he called the process of "individuation." As Jung wrote, "I had very soon seen that analytical psychology [the psychology Jung developed] coincided in a most curious way with alchemy. The experiences of the alchemists, were, in a sense, my experiences, and their world was my world. This was, of course, a momentous discovery. I had stumbled upon the historical counterpart of my psychology of the unconscious." The alchemists, over the course of centuries, had generated a wide range of symbolic images which directly corresponded to the anatomy of the unconscious which Jung had been mapping through his painstaking work with thousands of patients. Jung, in illuminating a psychology of the unconscious, can himself be considered a modern-day alchemist. Jung continues that "the entire alchemical procedure....could just as well represent the individuation process of a single individual."
The alchemists had little or nothing to contribute to the field of chemistry, least of all the secret of gold-making. Only our overly one-sided, rational and intellectualized age could miss the point so entirely and see in alchemy nothing but an abortive attempt at chemistry. On the contrary, to the alchemists, chemistry represented a degradation and a "Fall," because it meant the secularization and commercialization of a sacred science. Jung makes the point, "The alchemical operations were real, only this reality was not physical but psychological. Alchemy represents the projection of a drama both cosmic and spiritual in laboratory terms. The opus magnum ["great work"] had two aims: the rescue of the human soul, and the salvation of the cosmos." The alchemists were dreaming big.
The ancient art of alchemy was chiefly concerned with changing something of seemingly little value into something precious, of transforming lead into gold, thereby creating the "philosophers' stone" (the "lapis philosophorum"). The "stone," or "lapis," is not a material substance, however, but is an awakened consciousness, which, though seemingly immaterial, pervades, in-forms and gives rise to all creation. The philosophers' stone doesn't just redeem the individual alchemist, it nonlocally influences the field to such a degree that it was considered to be able to redeem the entire cosmos. The lapis, as Jung emphasizes, is "a psychological symbol expressing something created by man and yet supra-ordinate to him." Alchemy is a timeless, sacred art, as the alchemists' art is to become an instrument for the incarnating deity to make itself real in time and space.
Alchemy is all about creating wealth. The alchemical gold and the philosophers' stone had thousands of names, which was an expression of its all-embracing, numinous and miraculous qualities that cannot be adequately described by language. Regardless of what it is called, the creation of the stone is the goal of the alchemical opus. Alchemy is a mystical art-form, a genuine spiritual path. Jung elaborates, "The mystical side of alchemy, as distinct from its historical aspect, is essentially a psychological problem. To all appearances, it is a concretization, in projected and symbolic form, of the process of individuation."
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Paul Levy - The Sacred Art of Alchemy
Paul Levy's "The Sacred Art of Alchemy" takes a look at alchemy as a psychological art more than as an attempt to turn lead into gold. Nice introduction for those new to alchemy the Jung worked with it in his three major books on the subject.