Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.
Jung on the Axiom of Maria Prophetessa
One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the One as the fourth.
Maria Prophetessa, quoted by Jung (1944)
The axiom of Maria “… runs like a leitmotif throughout almost the whole of the lifetime of alchemy, extending over more than seventeen centuries.
Twelve is four times three. I think we have stumbled again on the axiom of Maria, that peculiar dilemma of three and four, which I have discussed many times before because it plays such a great role in alchemy…
One of the most quoted of all the ancient passages in Jung’s Collected Works is the axiom of Maria Prophetessa. I have mentioned this axiom repeatedly in the courses we offer at the Jungian Center, usually resulting in confusion in the students. So I decided to devote an essay to it, toward clearing up some of the confusion by examining Jung’s definition of Maria’s axiom and describing its psychological value via my own lived experience of it.
As was his custom, Jung drew on ancient wisdom in seeking psychological insights, and he valued particularly this axiom that went back seventeen hundred years and was quoted by many of the alchemists that Jung studied. Before we examine Maria’s axiom, we might well define “axiom,” and provide a bit of biography for Maria.
What is meant by “axiom”?
An “axiom” is “a statement taken to be true without proof; self-evident truth; an established principle; a maxim; rule; law.” The disciplines of mathematics and philosophy are full of axioms, e.g. “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line” (if the surface is a plane).
These maxims developed over centuries of observation, analysis and application by hundreds of people seeking to understand Nature and the workings of the world. Some of these investigators were alchemists, and among them, in the ancient world, were women like Theosebeia, the soror mystica (lit. “mystical sister,” or female assistant) of the 4th century alchemist Zosimos, and Paphnutia, an Egyptian alchemist and friend of Theosebeia. The ancient woman alchemist most often quoted by Jung is Maria Prophetessa.
Who was Maria Prophetessa?
In volume 12 of his Collected Works, “Psychology and Alchemy,” Jung provides an engraving of Maria Prophetessa, along with a quote by the alchemist Christianos described her as “the Hebrew prophetess,… the Jewess, sister of Moses, or the Copt,…” and Jung thought it was likely that she had a connection to the Gnostic tradition of her day. Living in 3rd century Alexandria (then the intellectual capital of the Roman Empire), Maria “played a considerable role in classical alchemy.”
Neither the engraving nor the descriptive adjectives of Maria can be taken at face value: We really have very little factual information about Maria, other than that her name came to be attached to a much-quoted axiom, and that the fragments of her writings quoted by later alchemists suggest she was well acquainted with Hermetic texts and the “secrets of the art” of alchemy. If she was Jewish, she would not be a Copt, which is a Christian sect. Both Jews and Christians of the second and third centuries were involved in Gnosticism, but how deeply Maria was influenced by this intellectual/religious movement it is hard to say, given that no manuscripts of hers are extant.
What is the axiom of Maria Prophetessa?
The most famous of the fragments attributed to Maria is this axiom:
“One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the One as the fourth.”
Jung notes that this rule “…runs like a leitmotif throughout almost the whole of the lifetime of alchemy, extending over more than seventeen centuries.” Most of the alchemists Jung studied quoted it, and I first encountered it early in my analysis, when my analyst repeated it.
If you are like me, your first reaction on reading it is wonderment, or (as in my case) utter befuddlement! What does it mean? And why was Jung so taken with it, that he cited it over three dozen times in his alchemical studies?
It took me a long time (years) before I finally understood the psychological wisdom in Maria’s rule. It describes how we develop: We start out as infants totally unconscious, existing in a reality that is oblivious of anything or anyone else. This is the initial state of personal reality: an unconscious unity.
Over months of infancy we gradually become aware that there is some “other” out there—caregivers, people who respond to our cries. This is the “one becoming two.” There is “us” and “other,” baby and mother/primary caregiver. Months pass and we become more aware of our otherness, until finally, by the age of two, we have become separated from the initial unity enough to learn the word “NO!” and we enter the time of the “terrible twos.”
Then we live with two-ness for the rest of our lives: It is not limited just to the age of two. As we grow we discover twos everywhere: two as ego-other, ego-shadow, mine-yours—realities embodying opposites, and with this oppositeness comes a tension. Sharing the insights of Heraclitus and Hegel, Jung recognized this tension seeks resolution in the emergence of a “third thing”—something we don’t “figure out” but that arises spontaneously if we hold the tension. This is what Maria meant by the “two becomes three.” A more familiar example of the three arising from the two is reflected in the old song in which “love and marriage” lead to the baby carriage. Put male and female together and you get an addition to the family.
So far, so good: I could see how I had developed from the initial unconscious unity into a two-ness, and how two could become three. But the last phrase of the axiom puzzled me for a long time: “out of the third comes the One as the fourth.” How does a fourth come out of a three?
Three is an odd number, and odd numbers are dynamic: they seek resolution in an even number. In this instance, three will move toward four. Jung cites many examples of this “trinity” moving toward the quaternio, or four-ness, e.g. how the sum of 4,3,2 and 1 is 10, “which stands for unity on a higher level.”; the 4 sons of Horus, the 4 symbolical figures in Ezekiel, the 4 evangelists, and the 4 gospels (3 synoptic plus the 1 gospel of John). In Jung’s own lifetime he was quite delighted when the Roman Catholic Church promulgated the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as this shifted the Trinity to a Divine quaternity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit and Sophia).
OK. Jung clearly had this bee in his bonnet, as I could find these citations of threes moving to fours all through his alchemical writings. But how was I living this? What was the psychological truth in this part of the axiom?
Jung admitted this was a “strange dilemma,” an “enigmatic” and “ambiguous” puzzle—not something we can “figure out” with our logical minds, and not a concept that comes with clarity. I had to muddle along over years before it resonated with me, or rather, within me, i.e. I had to achieve a higher level of consciousness that resulted from the inner work and multiple iterations of the process of seeing unity transform into duality, then holding the tension of these opposites until the third thing came along to shift the situation to a higher, resolving level. The third stage (three-ness) is incomplete, but when the fourth (resolving) insight came, there was a completion, and in these times I experienced the Self, the inner archetype of wholeness. Just as three mysteriously gives way to an emerging fourth, so we pass from a state of tension to one of insight and completeness.
As Jung notes, this process showed up mostly in my dreams:
“The incomplete state of existence is, remarkably enough, expressed by a triadic system, and the complete (spiritual) state by a tetradic system. The relation between the incomplete and the complete state therefore corresponds to the ‘sesquitertian proportion’ of 3 : 4. This relation is known in Western alchemical tradition as the axiom of Maria. It also plays a not inconsiderable role in dream symbolism.”
I came to discover that dream sequences over time reflected the movement of two to three to four. Initially in my analysis, this is how my analyst knew what was going on: the dreams I brought to our weekly sessions revealed over months the unfolding of these stages, in a cyclical pattern. Playing out over years, in numerous repetitions of this cycle, the result was alchemical, i.e. transformational, the “lead” of unconsciousness being changed into the “gold” of higher consciousness.
I came to conclude that an appreciation of the truth and value of Maria’s axiom is not a “head trip” that a person “gets” in an intellectual way, but rather is the result of living experience working Jung’s analytic method. The ancient and medieval alchemists lived this experience, as did Jung himself, hence his appreciation of the axiom. My more diligent students, devoted to their dreams, have come to appreciate it too, and I hope readers of this essay will be inspired to work with their dreams to see how Maria’s axiom unfolds in their own dream life and outer reality.
C.W. Jung (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1960), “The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1959), “The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1959), “Aion,” CW 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1976), “The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1979), “General Index to the Collected Works of C.G. Jung,” CW 20, complied by Barbara Forryan & Janet Glover. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Meyer, Marvin (2009), “Gnosticism, Gnostics, and The Gnostic Bible, rev. ed., eds. Willis Barnstone & Marvin Meyer. Boston: Shambala.
 Collected Works12, ¶209. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 CW 12, ¶26.
 CW 9i, ¶552.
 Jung refers to Maria and/or her axiom 45 times; CW 20, p. 32.
 CW 12, ¶26.
 World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary I, 138.
 If the surface is a sphere, the shortest distance is not a straight line but a great circle or segment of a great circle.
 CW 16, ¶505.
 Paphnutia was a friend of Theosebeia, but Theosebeia’s brother Zosimos criticized her for practicing alchemy incorrectly. She might have belonged to a different school of alchemy; Google “Paphnutia” for more on her.
 CW 12, ¶209.
 CW 16, ¶505.
 CW 9i, ¶437.
 CW 13, ¶113.
 Meyer (2009), 6.
 Quoted in a text ascribed to Christianos; CW 12, ¶209.
 CW 12, ¶26; cf. CW 16, ¶209.
 CW 20, p. 32.
 Heraclitus was a favorite ancient author of Jung; he cited him 32 times; ibid., p. 323.
 Specifically Hegel’s articulation of the dialectic (thesis leads to antithesis leads to synthesis); CW 12, ¶36. Jung did not appreciate Hegel (see CW 8, ¶s358-360) but recognized the validity of the dialectic.
 Jung frequently referred to this “third thing” using the Latin phrase tertium non datur (“the third thing not given,” i.e. not producible by the logical mind); cf. CW 6, ¶s 66,68,169,780; CW 7, ¶116; CW 9ii, ¶280; CW 11, ¶738.
 CW 16, ¶404.
 Cf. CW 9i, ¶s 430,611 & note, 644; CW 16, ¶s404,451,525; CW 13, ¶272; and CW 14, ¶279.
 CW 16, ¶525.
 CW 9i, ¶611 & note.
 CW 18, ¶1552.
 CW 13, ¶272.
 CW 9i, ¶430.
 CW 14, ¶279.
 CW 9i, ¶644.