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Paradigms and Templates

March 4, 2009

Existing paradigms for reading and interpreting alchemical texts are less than adequate. For the most part these paradigms concern themselves with reading and interpreting these texts according to literary/mythological, psychological, chemical/herbal, or occult templates; or some eclectic amalgamation of these. Such interpretive templates and the reading paradigms which rely on them are foreign to alchemical theory and practice and their use should be re-evaluated by scholars and practitioners alike.

  1. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    June 1, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    A large part of the current interpretations of alchemical theory seem to be influenced by depth psychology; it seems rare to pick up a book on alchemy nowadays that does not have “Jung” written somewhere on the dust jacket. But you seem to be saying that Jung’s ideas about alchemy were inaccurate, and thus that all these books are skewed misleadingly. How so?

  2. June 14, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Before we examine this issue in earnest, let us commend Carl Jung on his pioneering efforts to open up the very narrow vision of the psychological theories of his day and to return the numinous element to the field. Jung’s contributions to the development of psychological theory should not be slighted. However, Jung -being human- was able to err. He was always ready to admit this fact, though his supporters often seem less willing to do so. Jung once commented that he was glad he was Jung and not a Jungian.

    Now, there are a number of misconceptions that Jung had about alchemy, and we will touch upon the two that are not only the most pertinent to your question, but the most far-reaching in terms of the possible dangerous developments to which they may lead.

    Jung, in his own words:

    My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.

    – Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (p. 43)

    1) Jung saw alchemy as a symbol-laden proto-psychology similar -if not identical- to his own theories regarding archetypes and the collective unconscious. While traditional alchemical theory certainly recognizes the existence of both personal and collective aspects to the sub-(not ‘un’)-conscious, and even agrees with Jung that the archetypes are seeds and that the subconscious is very much like a “seed plot of a world to come” alchemy does not agree that archetypes are universal. Traditional alchemical theory sees these archetypes or ‘seeds’ as patterns arising out of humanity’s individual and collective interpretations and misinterpretations of life over eons of time. So, while some of these archetypes are more-or-less accurate interpretations of life experience and can -to varying degrees- be relied upon as useful patterns for the living of life (within specific contexts), others of these archetypes would be positively injurious were one to model ones life after the pattern contained in their seed.

    For the traditional alchemist engaged in the spagyric (separative) art, it was vital that he/she not merely adopt the myriad patterns found in the subconscious, but rather that he/she learn first to separate the subtle (gold) from the gross (lead) and then, ultimately, to transcend such patterns all together. This transcendence permits the alchemist to respond creatively to the direct perception of reality rather than to react programmatically to a mediated reality that has been passed though filters and overlaid with projections.

    Never grudge, then, that thou hast destroyed thy gold, for he that thus destroys it loseth it not, but soweth good seed in good earth, from whence he shall receive it again with one-hundred fold increase. Whereas he that saves his gold, loses his labour, and is deceived -for lack of true understanding- when he undertakes this Work without true knowledge of its causes.

    – Eirenaeus Philalethes, Ripley Revived.

    Which brings us to our second point.

    2) Jung’s ‘alchemy’ was entirely a psyche-ology, that is, it was strictly limited to dealing with the contents -patterns and images- found within the psyche. Traditional alchemy, while it provides ways and means to cope with the contents of the psyche, is primarily a method of clarifying and ultimately transcending the psyche.

    The Spirit (ar-Rūh) and the soul (an-nafs) engage in battle for possession of their common son the heart (al-qalb). By ar-Rūh is here to be understood the intellectual principle which transcends the individual nature and by an-nafs the psyche, the centrifugal tendencies of which determine the diffuse and inconstant domain of the ‘I’. As for al-qalb, the heart, this represents the central organ of the soul, corresponding to the vital center of the physical organism. Al-qalb is in a sense the point of intersection of the ‘vertical’ ray, which is ar-Rūh, with the ‘horizontal’ plane, which is an-nafs.
    Now it is said that the heart takes on the nature of that one of the two elements generating it which gains the victory in this battle. Inasmuch as the nafs has the upper hand the heart is veiled by her, for the soul [or self – jR], which takes herself to be an autonomous whole, in a way envelops it [the heart – jR] in her ‘veil’ (hijāb). At the same time the nafs is an accomplice of the ‘world’ in its multiple and changing aspect because she passively espouses the cosmic condition of form. Now form divides and binds whereas the Spirit, which is above form, unites and at the same time distinguishes reality from appearance. If, on the contrary, the Spirit gains the victory over the soul, then the heart will be transformed into Spirit and will at the same time transmute the soul suffusing her with spiritual light.
    Then too the heart reveals itself as what it really is, that is as the tabernacle (mishkāh) of the Divine Mystery (sirr) in man.

    – Titus Burckhardt, “Introduction to Sufi Doctrine”

    The value of alchemystical praxis is that it provides for the dissolution of the sense-of-self and it does this through lessening attachment to and identification with the contents of the psyche. It does not encourage the exploration of the subconscious (as does Jungian psychotherapy) without first providing the minimum theory and practice necessary to clarify the psyche (i.e. prepare the soil). Only when the psyche has been clarified does alchemy proceed to the dissolution of attachment to psychic contents and to the psyche which defines itself through identification with such contents.

    If the self is lead into the subconscious whilst the psyche is insufficiently clarified, the self may identify with the inferior contents and be overwhelmed; suffering inflation, delusion and psychosis. Conversely, if the sense-of-self is dissolved prematurely, the psyche can be destabilized; inducing nihilism, madness and despair.

    Of course, mere words are not going to convince anyone of the real nature of alchemy, the psyche, or archetypes. Only experience in directly dealing with the psyche and in going beyond the psyche (as part of a safe, sane and comprehensive developmental process) will establish certainty.

  3. brkkuroi
    October 3, 2013 at 8:50 am

    Jung was also quite keen on the concept of “ancestral memory.” Titus Burckhardt in his essay on the Odyssey “The Return of Ulysses” points out the alchemical references that are contained in the Odyssey including but not restricted to the conflict between Poseidon(the God of the Sea) and Odysseus and the honey in the cave when Odysseus returns to Ithaca. He also mentions the distinction between the Way of the Ancestors and the Way of the Gods and links these two “ways” to the astrological signs Cancer(ruled by the Moon) and Capricorn (ruled by Saturn). The Gospel also draws a similar distinction between John the Baptist “For among those born of women there has not been any greater man than he. Yet whoever is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.” and there is the distinction between the baptism of water and earth by John the Baptist and the Baptism by the Holy Spirit( Fire and Air) by Jesus. Several months ago I read an alchemical entry in which the phenomenon of memories and influences from the ancestor causing problems in the alchemical work. The entry also referred, if I remember correctly to influences from the Moon and Saturn. I have searched for this entry on the internet but I have been unable to find it .I have searched through your site for a similar entry, but I have found no reference to ancestors. Could you direct me to written materials that might be helpful for understanding this issue? I have searched your site using the words, “moon, saturn and ancestors”- using the search device- and I have not found material that links these concepts. This is an issue that has been one of deep personal and professional concern for me for more than 30 years. The long lead in to my question was intended to supply orientation.

  4. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    October 4, 2013 at 12:50 am

    “A good question is often designed after careful thought about what exactly you need to know.”
    Would you mind taking a bit of time and thought to define precisely which issue it is that you seek assistance with?

  5. brkkuroi
    October 4, 2013 at 10:23 am

    Xiaoyaoxing, thank your for taking the time to reply. After reviewing my post, I realized that at the present time I don’t know how to put the issue into words. My question or post would either be too broad or too narrow; too personal or too impersonal; too discursive or too emotional. I need to think very, very deeply, as this issue is very deep and personal , and I don’t know how to put it in a clear form Please forgive me for wasting your time. I will get back to you.

  6. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    October 4, 2013 at 7:47 pm

    I look forward to being able to serve …

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