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Reading Jung on Alchemy

At some point while I was writing The Friendship of Mortals, the first book of the Herbert West Series, I realized that alchemy had intruded into the story. It must have originated with the book’s narrator, librarian Charles Milburn. His job requires him to catalogue books about alchemy, and eventually he decides his friend Herbert’s experiences are analogous to a transformation from a base metal into gold.

So I (the writer) had to learn more about alchemy. I was slightly familiar with it from library research for a term paper in my undergrad years, specifically writings of the Romanian historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade. Alchemy had lodged in my mind as “one of those interesting things.” When I decided to read up on alchemy while writing TFoM, I discovered that Carl Gustav Jung had read and written a great deal about it.

I don’t remember buying Alchemical Studies, which is Volume 13 of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, but there it was among my books. I decided to read it, even though I had finished writing the Herbert West books long before, and didn’t intend to change them. It took me a couple of months to work my way through it. I read for about 30 minutes to an hour a day. Skimming was definitely out; if I was going to do that, I might as well not have bothered. Every page bristles with footnotes. Some text is in Greek or Latin (always with English translations, fortunately).

So what did I learn, apart from the fact that I’m pretty much ignorant when it comes to psychology? Jung thought the alchemists (those who wrote down their ideas, anyway) experienced the same psychological events as people of his own time, but described them using symbols from religion and mythology. The alchemical process, he said, paralleled what he called the process of individuation, or the fulfillment of one’s potential. This accounts for the multiplicity of alchemical ideas and the apparent contradictions among them. Alchemy wasn’t a secret known to a select company of initiates, but a psychological process.

Jung sums it up thus at the end of the final essay in this volume:

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Alchemy lost its vital substance when some of the alchemists abandoned the laboratorium for the oratorium, there to befuddle themselves with an ever more nebulous mysticism, while others converted the oratorium into a laboratorium and discovered chemistry. We feel sorry for the former and admire the latter, but no one asks about the fate of the psyche, which thereafter vanished from sight for several hundred years.

Well, I don’t know about that. My own idea (and I’m certainly nowhere near as learned as Jung) is that alchemy was rooted in metalworking, which must have been viewed in prehistory as a near-magical ability overseen by divine forces. The practical process was adopted by thinkers as a metaphor and used to express their ideas about the inner workings of the human mind and spirit. In medieval times, some alchemists worked with metals and other substances, heating and dissolving, combining and distilling. I’m sure many were affected in various physical ways. Mercury, lead, and acids can be toxic. Explosions and fires probably happened regularly in the “laboratorium.” Other alchemists confined themselves to the “oratorium,” and spent their time thinking and writing. But when alchemy fizzled out in the 17th century, psychological ideas certainly didn’t vanish. They found expression in literature, art, and poetry. What about Shakespeare and William Blake? Jung himself says that Goethe’s tragedy Faust (early 1800s) is full of alchemical ideas.

My takeaways from each of the five essays:

  • Commentary on “The Secret of the Golden Flower.” I have to admit, I found this somewhat incomprehensible because of my deficient knowledge of psychology and its terms. The only points I grasped were that a superficial adoption of yoga practices by Europeans was not the correct approach to the wisdom of the east. I kept reminding myself that this essay was written in the 1930s, and wondering exactly what “yoga practices” Jung was referring to.
  • The Visions of Zosimos. Describing the writings of a 3rd-4th century Graeco-Egyptian alchemist and Gnostic mystic, this essay impressed upon me the fact that alchemy in some form or other was written about for nearly two thousand years. Many of the basic concepts and symbols are described here in vivid and dramatic detail. Jung’s interpretations point out similarities among many mythologies and religions, concluding that “although chemistry has nothing to learn from the vision of Zosimos, it is a mine of discovery for modern psychology.”
  • Paracelsus as a Spiritual Phenomenon. Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus, was a 16th century Swiss physician, alchemist, and philosopher. Reading this essay, I detected a measure of respect and admiration by Jung for a fellow countryman and also one for whom “the art of healing” was of great importance. In performing this role, Paracelsus had to reconcile his Christian faith with natural religion, and in this conflict, Jung says, he began groping toward psychology and psychoanalysis.
  • The Spirit Mercurius. Of the five essays, this one impressed me the most. Jung shows the similarities among Mercury/Hermes, Wotan, the devil, Lucifer, and a Christ-analogue, a figure he calls “this many-hued and wily god.” I think that figure was lurking in the background when I wrote the Herbert West books, which is why I found this the most readable of the essays.
  • The Philosophical Tree. The final essay begins with descriptions of tree-like forms in paintings and other artworks created by some of Jung’s patients. I found them fascinating, but admit that I rather lost my way in the subsequent discussions of tree-symbols, snakes, Gnosticism, and the lapis. Jung takes the reader through a bewildering array of writings, symbols, and myths, to conclude with the human need to confront the unconscious and integrate it into the personality.

I suspect some of this book’s substance failed to register in my understanding, but in any case, reading it certainly exposed me to ideas and images I would not have encountered otherwise. The bizarre visions or dreams of Zosimos of Panopolis, for example, in which the dreamer is pierced with a sword and dismembered “in accordance with the rule of harmony.” Or the multiple manifestations and meanings of the Spirit Mercurius. Or Gnosticism (Just say “know”). And a whole list of new-to-me words: antinomian, ithyphallic, hylic, quaternity, ogdoad, chthonic, pleroma, mythologem, nominalism… to name a few.

Even though I don’t intend to learn much more about psychology, I identified a few terms I wished I had understood before I started reading. The idea of “projection,” for example, or “individuation,” or “participation mystique.” Wikipedia rabbit holes beckon!

Given all the above, how worthwhile was my reading of Jung’s essays on alchemy? At the very least, it did not lead me to conclude that I was irresponsible or frivolous in the way I incorporated alchemical ideas and symbols into my fiction. (Of course, it’s pretty hard to tell, given the self-contradicting and incredibly varied ways to describe the process and the ideas behind it, accumulated over a couple of millennia.) I approached alchemy as a process of transformation, whether material, spiritual, or psychological, and I don’t think I went wrong with that.

Squared circle, alchemical symbol
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42 comments

  1. Alchemy being rooted in metalworking makes more sense to me, too. (Sorry, Jung.) Interesting post, Audrey. I’ve never thought much about alchemy, but alchemists seem to be (or have been) a fascinating group.

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  2. I applaud you for reading it and putting your responses on paper. It sounds like a lot of work. This is a heck of a name. Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus, Whew…..

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  3. I confess I’ve never had much interest in alchemy, but I do have a lot of interest in psychology. However, mine is not the theoretical stuff – it’s more analysis – drawing out of the individual the underlying reasons for that person’s behavior. I like the line: “Jung takes the reader through a bewildering array of writings, symbols, and myths, to conclude with the human need to confront the unconscious and integrate it into the personality.” That’s exactly what Robbie is doing all by himself in the second half of MWFB, Pt.4: Survivor, and more or less it’s Dr. Winehandle’s method of psychoanalytic counseling. Of course, he largely misses the boat with Ian Glencrosse, who never wants to find out why he is as he is. I admire your persistence in studying Jung – I don’t have it in me at my present age.

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    1. My take is “of course.” Just as an uncountable number of writers and film makers have used the “fantasy blueprint” that J.R.R. Tolkein created, Rowling tapped into the existing knowledge base and zeitgeist about mystical/magical and put her own spin on it. And don’t forget that she wrotge for children.

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    2. Well, you could say that canon in one form or another is part of culture. Perhaps what Jung called the collective unconscious? Of course it’s one thing to dip into it without realizing and another to deliberately put alchemical symbols into fiction. But it’s our common property, in a way, so no one can accuse Rowling (or me, for that matter) of plagiarizing.
      Thanks for the link to that symbol site!

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    1. Thanks, Liz. My main problem was with lack of background knowledge of psychology; I couldn’t relate to those parts. But Jung’s summaries of alchemical writings were interesting. His prose (and the translation of it) are clear and readable.

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  4. I love this, especially what you wrote on your take on alchemy. That you made it through the book and understood enough to give a very good high-level summary for the lay person is very impressive.

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        1. I wish I could recommend a title, Debra, but I have to admit I haven’t looked for any that discuss the subject from a historical perspective. There’s an overview with some further reading links in Wikipedia, however.

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  5. Fascinating Audrey. I shall look out for those essays. I’ve always found Jung deeply seductive and only wish I had the intellect to understand him better. I have a copy of his Psychology and Alchemy, but have yet to summon the courage to attempt it. I shall look out for those essays. I tried to make sense of the Golden Flower, and like you, wondered what method of “Yoga” they were practising in the 1930’s. I also find Patrick Harpur an intriguing and erudite guide to Alchemy, in particular his novel Mercurius.

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    1. I was impressed by the fact that Jung sought out and read a huge number of texts on alchemy, I assume in Latin and Greek. Also that he identified similar symbols in a large number of mythologies in different cultures. I know a lot more about alchemy after reading this book. But I came up short when it came to psychology.
      I just looked up Patrick Harpur’s Mercurius on Goodreads; looks interesting!

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      1. Yes, he was well versed in classical languages and educated to a degree that deeply impressed me. I am quite a fan of Harpur, find him mysterious yet accessible.

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  6. Hats off, Audrey, that’s some deep and twisty rabbit holes you went down! I studied behavioural psychology [Skinner], so Freud and Jung are just names to me. And after getting a taste of what you’ve slogged through, so they shall stay!

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      1. To be honest, when I think of alchemy I just think of the whole transmuting base metal into gold thing. Hard to get my head around how it could be linked to psychology. 😦

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