Jung’s Prophetic Visions Part 2

Part II: Alchemy and Its Phases—A Road Map for Individuals and Cultures

The first part of this essay appeared last month. Refer to the January 09 posting, which is still on this Web site.


Part II: Alchemy and Its Phases—A Road Map for Individuals and Cultures


            “Alchemy.” The word conjures up medieval men hunched over flasks and fires trying to turn lead into gold. Historians of science regard alchemy as the precursor of modern chemistry.[1] The dictionary defines it as “a combination of chemistry and magic studied in the Middle Ages, especially the search for a process by which cheaper metals could be turned into gold and silver…”[2] It was part of Jung’s genius, born out of his respect for ancient ways and wisdom traditions, to recognize that the medieval alchemists were about something much more profound than making gold out of lead.[3]

            Rather than metallurgical transformation, alchemy is about the process of personal transformation. Lead is symbolic of the basic unconscious state that we’re in when we come into the world, and the gold is the achievement we reach when we have developed in ourselves what Jung called “individuation,” that is, when we have become fully and truly who we are meant to be.[4] This process of change takes many forms, involves many processes and takes us through many phases as we work to individuate.

            Jung and his followers (especially Marie-Louise von Franz) describe the phases of alchemical change using the terms developed by the early alchemists.[5] These medieval researchers were fluent in the scholarly language of the day, Latin, hence the terms show up in forms that are foreign to the ears of most contemporary Americans.

            The alchemical change process occurs in four major phases: the nigredo, the albedo, the rubedo and the citrinitas.[6] In this Part II we will define and describe each phase in terms of an individual’s experiences. Then we will apply the phase on the collective level, in a general way. In Part III we will relate the phases to our current reality, with reference to specific events and phenomena we are witnessing now, and then look into the future.

The Nigredo

            The first of the phases is dark, dismal, a very black time, well-labeled the nigredo, which comes from a Latin word (niger) meaning “black” or “dark.” For the person in this phase, life is not pleasant, as it is full of confusion and bewilderment, disorientation, sickness of spirit and confrontations with the shadow. Jealousy, envy, irritability, anxiety, self-righteousness, greed, melancholy and inflation are just some of the panoply of feelings that show up during this most difficult of the phases.[7]

A variety of alchemical processes are part of this time, including:

the putrefactio, when we come to recognize some component of our existence is putrid, or rotten, with little or no energy left to feed our life.[8]

the mortificatio, “death”—of people, things, parts of ourselves, in a metaphorical or (more rarely) literal sense—which leaves us with a sense of loss and grieving.[9]

the calcinatio, “burning” or the “refiner’s fire” spoken of in the Old Testament,[10] the process in which we experience the frustration of our desire nature, with the purpose of purifying or “refining” our will.[11]

the solutio, or dissolution of one or more of the elements of our existence that give our life structure, a process during which we are flooded with affect.[12]

            These are just a few of the more than dozen processes[13] that alchemists recognized and described. Since each alchemist wrote from his/her own experience, each alchemical text describes the order, sequence and processes differently, making close comparison difficult.[14] But Jung saw the close correlation between their varied descriptions and what he himself experienced in his own development and in that of his patients.[15]

            The nigredo is the phase when we are still operating mostly unconsciously. Our complexes are mostly autonomous in this beginning phase.[16] As a result, we suffer more acutely than in the later phases.

The Albedo

            The term albedo comes from the Latin albus, meaning “white” or “bright.” Things begin to feel lighter, “brighter” in this phase, compared to the previous misery of the nigredo.[17] The work of this phase is to become aware of our “contrasexual side”[18] and make the acquaintance of our “inner partner.”

As we wrestle with our complexes and strive to domesticate them, we experience strong passions and bitter hostilities, within and without, in dealings with others (often those closest to us).[19] The challenge is to balance the opposites and achieve an integration of the animus/anima. In the process of the sublimatio, we become more objective, able to rise above situations to see them from a transcendent perspective.[20] In developing a conscious relation to the inner man (for a woman) or woman (for a man), we redeem the body and matter,[21] and come to experience what the great 13th century abbess, Hildegard of Bingen, called benedicta viriditas,[22] the blessedness of being alive. 

In the albedo phase we work to bring up from the unconscious (that is, we “redeem”) attitudes and feelings about ourselves, our bodies, our sexuality, the opposite sex and the host of feelings we have around embodiment itself. The purpose here? To come ultimately to a deeper level of wholeness and a greater appreciation of life on the physical plane.

The Rubedo

            The third phase means “reddening” in Latin and just as our face reddens in the process of blushing, so we experience a surge of renewal in the rubedo phase. After confronting the shadow in the nigredo and wrestling with our inner opposite sex in the albedo, we come to the third phase more able to hold the tension of opposites (good and bad, male and female).[23] The process of the sublimatio has led to the development of new attitudes, and the deus absconditus (the hidden god within) becomes known. Through long-term conscious suffering the ego now becomes conscious of the Self: we begin to recognize the wise source of inner guidance. After numerous experiences of “crucifixion” the ego begins, in this rubedo phase, to subordinate itself to an authority higher than it. The Self becomes actualized, rather than just a potential within. And we begin to be able to sustain the paradox of recognizing our divine nature without identifying with it.[24]

            By this point in the spiritual journey life is feeling very different from where we were, and what we were feeling, when we set out in the nigredo phase. By this penultimate phase, life seems to be working better, we feel better—as if we are “getting our act together.” Stay the course and we come to the final phase.

The Citrinitas

            The source of our English word for the yellow-green gemstone “citrine,” citrinitas is the alchemical term for the final phase of transformation, the fulfillment of the opus, or work, the metaphorical “gold.” A new day dawns. A new way of being lies before us, as we recognize ourselves as filii macrocosmi (children of the Universe).[25] Fertilized by spirit, illuminated by repeated transmutations of our inner dross into the “gold” of consciousness, we participate consciously in the process of creation in this final phase. We consciously take up our role as co-creators with the Divine.

            These four phases—nigredo, albedo, rubedo, citrinitas—describe the stages of alchemical change not only on the individual level. Jung recognized that “the collective psyche shows the same pattern of change as the psyche of the individual.”[26] This being so, collective life would manifest the following:

in the nigredo phase: fires, floods, epidemics and natural disasters, plane crashes and other events that leave hundreds or thousands dead; inflation, in the economic sense of rising prices; the discovery of rot and corruption in the public sphere, in corporations and in government; greed, with the basic motivation being money, with people being “bought” in a variety of ways, and the political system held hostage by the plutocrats or moneyed interests; large segments of the population not understanding what’s going on in the world, experiencing confusion, disorientation, feelings of being “out of the loop,” shut out of public life; sickness of spirit, with many signs of spiritual malaise, e.g. widespread substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, sexual violence; anxiety and irritability, along with a rash of psychosomatic illnesses, a rise in mental illness and more minor forms of madness like “road rage.”

in the albedo phase: confrontations between the sexes; public debates about the role of women in the public sphere; protests and agitation for more equal rights for women and minorities; more push to integrate women and minorities into the mainstream of our collective life

in the rubedo phase: more discussion of unity, the interdependence of all beings (not just human beings), the preciousness of life, a growing reverence for life and Earth, our planet that sustains our life; and the appearance of new attitudes and concerns (e.g. the growing planetary awareness of global warming)

in the citrinitas phase: new ways of being and living that create a world that works for everyone, all beings, not just humans; the rise of a way of living and working that sustains natural systems, that provides spiritual fulfillment and economic justice to all. Visionaries in indigenous cultures[27] hundreds of years ago have provided descriptions of this phase as a time of: peace (all sources of conflict are gone); union (all recognize that we are one); life directed by the Creator, with everyone understanding the cosmic plan; everyone being able to communicate with everyone and everything else (i.e. telepathy is the usual way communication occurs); a single currency, with no governments; love and joy being experienced all the time.[28]

            In general terms, this is how we might expect the alchemical stages to show up on the collective level. In Part III we get specific. Was Jung right? Can we see actual events in our current reality that might suggest just where we are along the alchemical road map? We will address these questions in our March blog posting.


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[1] Cf. Boynton (1948), 207, and Crombie (1959), 129.

[2] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 49.

[3] MDR, 201.

[4] Ibid., 201n.

[5] Cf. Jung, CW 12, CW 13 and CW 14 (which some regard as Jung’s masterpiece); von Franz (1980) and Edinger (1985).

[6] von Franz (1980), 196.

[7] Ibid. 208, 220.

[8] Edinger (1985), 95,147-8,152,157,158.

[9] Ibid., 19,35,52,91,95,111,147-180,202,211,212,215.

[10] Malachi 3:2.

[11] Ibid., 17-47,72,79,83,104,117,207.

[12] Ibid., 17,18,31,47-81,83,99,117,212.

[13] Others include the coagulatio, the sublimatio, the separatio, the extractio, the mundificatio, and the coniunctio.

[14] Edinger (1985), 6, 14.

[15] This work took Jung more than a decade; MDR, 205.

[16] By “autonomous” is meant operating outside of conscious control or direction by the ego mind.

[17] von Franz (1980), 221.

[18] I.e. in a man, his inner feminine, the anima; in a woman, her inner masculine or animus.

[19] von Franz (1980), 221.

[20] Edinger (1985), 18,47,83,100,117-145. Alchemical sublimatio and Jung’s use of the term are not to be confused with Freud’s usage. He restricted the term to a redirection of sexual energy (libido) into creative pursuits. Jung understood libido much more broadly, to refer to any form of psychic energy (not just sexual) and the sublimatio to be an alchemical process of rising up to gain a more objective perspective on life.

[21] “Redeeming” something, in Jungian thought, means to bring it up out of the unconscious. This usage is very different from the religious use, as in “Christ redeemed our sins,” meaning that he paid for or expiated the transgressions of those who believe in him.

[22] Edinger (1985), 175.

[23] This ability to hold the tension of opposites, Jung felt, was essential if we are to avoid nuclear war; see Hannah (1976), 129.

[24] von Franz (1998), 227,229,230,233.

[25] Ibid. 231.

[26] CW 10, ¶160.

[27] These include Egyptian, Mayan, Hopi, Zulu and Dogon; see Stray (2005).

[28] These are specifics of the Hopi vision of what they term the coming “Fifth World.” Cf. Waters (1963) and Mails (1997).