Alchemy and Psychology: Mental Health Lessons from the Magnum Opus
What images does the word “alchemy” conjure in your mind? Maybe a bearded old man in a starry robe working with strange and dangerous chemicals? A hotheaded little boy with a metal arm? Or perhaps a little red stone from a certain book by J.K. Rowling? Subtly, but certainly, the old study of alchemy has made undeniable waves in our culture. Alchemists laid the scientific foundations of modern chemistry and medicine, but the more mystical intentions and ideas have captivated the imaginations of authors and artists alike for centuries. But do they have anything else to teach us besides informing our fantasy and science fiction stories? Early psychologist Carl Jung believed so. The teachings and writings of alchemists may well contain a solid guide to leading a happy and healthy life, something that, in the post-Covid world, is more pressing than ever.
The goal of many alchemists was “to turn lead into gold.” An impressive feat if achieved, to be sure, but this sentiment was quite a bit deeper than it would initially appear. For many, this Magnum Opus (Latin for Great Work) was not to make money off shiny rocks but to purify and refine the soul itself. Maybe this would let an alchemist live forever, or turn lead into gold, maybe it wouldn’t, but at its core, turning lead into gold meant taking one’s own most toxic nature and turning it into something untarnished, radiant, and utterly beautiful. Carl Jung found alchemy quite fascinating, and, in his writings, used them as a basis for the process of self-actualization. There were, in theory, four steps to this Magnum Opus, a sequence of steps to refine lead that Jung believed could serve as a guidebook for us to become the most golden versions of ourselves.
The first step was Nigredo, blackening, or rotting. (Each step of the alchemical process had a number of names.) Before you could transform lead, you needed to let it rot. You needed to cook it until it all turned black and break it down into its core substances. Jung, in his model of psychology, interpreted this concept in the form of the Shadow, the collective of every emotion, thought, or part of one’s personality that one rejected from themselves. Jung believed that, like hidden impurities, these repressed parts of a person would still haunt them, twisting their thoughts and emotions without their knowledge and stunting their growth and development. If you wanted to achieve the Magnum Opus, if you wanted to become whole, you couldn’t leave them in the dark. Hard and harrowing an ordeal as this might be, unearthing the rot beneath the surface of one’s mind, and accepting it as a part of yourself, was the only way that you could address them and resolve them. If you wanted to achieve the Magnum Opus, you first had to break down who you were before.
The second step was Albedo, also referred to as whitening or purifying. After an alchemist had broken down their lead, they needed to wash away the impurities and filter it down to its most essential parts. Jung interpreted this in the form of the Anima in men and the Animus in women, accepting this opposite “feminine” or “masculine” part of oneself as a spiritual partner and guide. However, this stage doesn’t have to be anything so narrow so much as an opening of the mind. Once you’ve seen your shadow and absorbed it, once you’ve broken down your old ideas and preconceptions, what’s left is a new openness to possibilities. You’re no longer locked into a single identity, a single lifestyle, a single country or family, or tribe. Alchemists considered this the lesser work, spiritualizing the body and opening the soul up to the divine. Once you’ve accepted your Shadow, you can confront its problems head-on, and free up space in your mind for new opportunities for happiness.
The third step was Citrinitas, also called xanthosis or yellowing. This third stage is probably the least written or talked about, and it’s difficult to distinguish from the true fourth and final stage. However, a few things are known. It’s associated with the sun and the dawn, with opening oneself to the higher divine light. It has also been described as akin to the sunrise in that it heralds the beginning of a new day, of getting back to business. If an alchemist wants to achieve the Magnum Opus, it’s not enough to just have new epiphanies and discoveries from self-contemplation. They need to return to their lives with new purpose and new wisdom and translate their thought into action. Citrinitas is taking your wisdom back into reality and making sure that the newly-risen sun never sets again.
The fourth and final step was Rubedo, or reddening. This was when the transformation was completed. The self is actualized, the soul is pure, and immortality is achieved. The alchemists considered this the key to immortality, the stage at which one could truly create the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life. Jung and the psychologists who followed him considered this to symbolize individuation, creating a renewed personality for oneself that was whole and happy, one that reconciled all the patient’s disparate traits. This was the reward for the last three steps, the ultimate success that very few (if any) alchemists were said to have completed.
What does all this mean, though? How does any of this apply to regular people? Most people will probably agree with me that, like the alchemists' quest for immortality, achieving perfect, permanent mental wellness is unrealistic. However, if one looks closely at the Magnum Opus, one can find some advice for personal therapy and mental health. While it's not perfect, it is still useful. Nigredo shows us that growth is not always pleasant, that parts of ourselves shouldn’t be treated as all of ourselves, and that we should always be open to questioning who we are and what we believe. Albedo shows us that we should always be open to new possibilities, that every change is an opportunity, and that we should always clean the gunk and the junk from anything that we take in or put out. Citrinitas shows us that our lives should not be lived like hermits in constant meditation, but out in the world, putting our epiphanies into practice and taking on challenges with grace. And, finally, Rubedo, that perfection that no alchemist has achieved, shows us that the Magnum Opus is an ongoing process; your journey is never finished, and that’s okay, as long as you keep up the Great Work.
Photos by Elena Mozhvilo and Anne Nygård on Unsplash