Living Alchemy: The Calcinatio

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.  Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.


Living Alchemy: The Calcinatio


“Most lists of alchemical operations begin with calcinatio…. As with most alchemical images, calcinatio derives in part from a chemical procedure. The chemical process of calcination entails the intense heating of a solid in order to drive off water and all other constituents that will volatilize. What remains is a fine dry powder. The classic example of calcination, from which it derives its name (calx = lime), is the heating of limestone or slaked lime to produce quicklime. When water is added, quicklime has the interesting characteristic of generating heat. It was thought by the alchemists to contain fire and was sometimes equated with fire itself.”[1]


“Each of the four elements has its own operation. Calcinatio is the fire operation… Hence any image that contains open fire burning or affecting substances will be related to the calcinatio.”[2]


“The painful conflict that begins with the nigredo or tenebrositas is described by the alchemists as the separatio or divisio elementorum, the solutio, calcinatio, incineratio, … While this extreme form of disconiunctio is going on, there is a transformation of the arcanum – be it substance or spirit – …”[3]


Patientia et mora are absolutely necessary in this kind of work. One must be able to wait on events. Of work there is plenty – the careful analysis of dreams and other unconscious contents.”[4]


“No new life can arise, says the alchemists, without the death of the old. They liken the art to the work of the sower, who buries the grain in the earth: it dies only to awaken to new life. Thus with their mortificatio, interfectio, putrefactio, combustio, incineratio, calcinatio, etc., they are imitating the work of nature. Similarly they liken their labors to human mortality, without which the new and eternal life cannot be attained.”[5]


Mention the word “alchemy” to most people and they are likely to think of the nonsense idea that lead could be turned into gold. Some might think of alchemy as the precursor to our modern chemistry. But it took the genius of Carl Jung to recognize that the alchemists were engaging in both inner and outer processes of transformation, recognizing the Law of Correspondence: “As within, so without; as without, so within.”[6] As they toiled with their flasks and substances (the outer plane), they were likewise working inwardly, changing, reflecting, coming to insights about Nature and themselves.[7]

It comes as a surprise to most people today that alchemy is as relevant and useful to us as it was to those old men and women a thousand years ago. Why? because, as Jung understood, it is a powerful symbol system rooted in universal, eternal archetypes. The Jungian analyst Anthony Stevens provides a succinct definition of “archetypes:”

“innate neuropsychic centers possessing the capacity to initiate, control and mediate the common behavioral characteristics and typical experiences of all human beings, irrespective of race, culture or creed.”[8]

Being “innate,” archetypes are part of our collective inheritance, like DNA. As something “neuropsychic,” they relate to our nervous system and are intangible: like the wind, we can’t see archetypes, but we can spot their presence and impact by their actions or by the feelings associated with them. They are “generative”[9] in that they generate or cause us to behave or feel in certain ways, and they have intentionality:[10] They want us to act or feel to fulfill a purpose.

For example, the intention of the “mother” archetype is to protect, nurture and care for the vulnerable young life. The puer or “child” archetype seeks to play, to discover, to see and respond to the world with “beginner’s mind,”[11] while its opposite, the senex (old person) is meant to be responsible and mature.

Jung thought there are as many archetypes as there are types of people, roles people play and activities they get into.[12] There are also archetypes that relate to change or transformation, as the above quotes suggest, and each has an intent or action that it wants to manifest, e.g. the intent of the separatio is to separate or divide; the solutio dissolves or liquefies; the mortificatio kills; the putrefactio causes something to rot.[13]

We can use the alchemists’ insights to make our lives much easier if we recognize these change-related archetypes and go with the flow of their intention. This essay is an illustration of the calcinatio archetype as it worked its way in my life in the March-August 2021 interval. The point of this essay is to illustrate how a person lives alchemy.


The Background


In the winter of 2021 I learned from my analyst of the existence of a journal written by her mother, Jane Hollister Wheelwright. I knew Jane was one of the founders of the San Francisco Jung Institute, and that she had been analyzed by Jung himself. Now I was being told she had written a journal archived at the San Francisco Jung Institute library. I was intrigued. Surely Jane would have some valuable perspectives and insights–insights that should not sit on some shelf.

I contacted the Institute to see if they would send me a copy, thinking that, if the content warranted, I would turn it into a book. I was warned that the document was long, some 1,300 pages. I was undeterred.

When the journal arrived in my email, I printed it out. Yes, it was long–1,306 pages to be exact. But, as I did a cursory read, I could see that the content was worth an investment of my time, for it would be a great resource for our Jungian Center students and for anyone with an interest in Jung and his ideas.

Knowing how easy self-publishing is (having self-published four books previously), I told my analyst that I would work the journal into book format, put it through the publishing process, print multiple copies and send a copy to every Jung Institute in the world. This was my plan.

But, just as the lawyer has no will, and the plumber has leaky pipes, this astrologer failed to examine her chart before plunging into what proved to be an enormous undertaking. Transiting Pluto was highly aspected and transiting Saturn was squaring transiting Uranus. Had I had the sense to consult the transits to my natal chart, I might have prepared myself better for what I was about to experience.


The Experience


I expected that the digital typescript of Jane’s journal created by her daughter-in-law Betty Wheelwright would save me a lot of time. But no. I was able to eliminate the textboxes, but the text was in some software program that would not convert to Word. In addition, Betty had taken pains to provide footnotes, but these also would not convert. I worked on trying to convert for a week or so, until I had to admit it was no-go. Frustration #1.

I was not about to retype hundreds of pages, so I dug out my Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation program and set about dictating the entire text. This took weeks because I found that, even on the rare day I could devote 8 hours to this work, my voice was not up to 8 solid hours of dictating. Frustration #2.

Reading the journal aloud (i.e. carefully) I could see the dated, linear format could be reorganized into five chapters, as Jane focused on her life on the ranch, Nature (her idea of the Divine), aging, her experience with Jung and his cohort, and the importance of women. It would be much more useful to make chapters, rather than retain the day-to-day linear format in which Jane wrote the original. So I set about sorting the entries by topic. This took about a month. Some entries related to multiple topics, so I had to evaluate and sort meticulously. Just as Jung warned–a process taxing one’s patience, full of hindrance and delay.[14] Frustration #3.

By late March/early April I had a text in MS Word in hand. By this point news had gotten around about this project and I was amazed, and delighted, to see the spontaneous interest from people who had known Jane. Jungian analyst David Rosen volunteered (without my asking) to write the Foreword. Jane’s nephew Doyle Hollister volunteered to come up with a Preface and multiple photographs of the ranch, and he became the conduit for other Jungian analysts to provide blurbs for the back cover. Jane’s colleague John Beebe wrote a blurb, as did his partner Adam Frey. Faced with an array of photos, without the knowledge of how to crop or handle them, I reached out to my sister, who came up with images of many of the plants Jane mentioned, and she cropped and turned the photos into jpgs I could insert in the text. The project began to take on a life of its own. No frustration there.

But we were a long way from a book. I had to chose a typeface, font size, book size (trying to keep the page count to a realistic length), and then I set about creating front matter (title, copyright page, content, illustration list, Foreword, Preface), back matter (bibliography, credits, index)–all of it with the proper recto and verso pages, headers, footers, and gutters. I had quite a lot of experience with this step, but there still were glitches. Frustration #4.

By this point we were at galleys. I sent a copy of the galleys to my analyst, knowing she is a strong Introverted Sensation type–the personality type who can pour over a page and spot ALL the typos, misplaced punctuation, or other no-nos.[15] Meanwhile, I began work on the index.

Scholar that I am, I consider the index one of the most important parts of a book. I would never produce a book without an index, and, in this case, given I was planning to use the book in multiple courses, I was determined to produce an index of more than the usual usefulness: students would be able to go to the index and quickly identify subjects or questions we would discuss in a class. To say that my determination was tested at this step would be a gross understatement: a meticulous indexing of 700+ pages took nearly 5 weeks of my time, 8 to 10 hours a day. Big Frustration #5.

When I was not working on the index, I put together the covers–the title, photo of Jane and subtitle on the front, the blurbs and the usual précis of the book’s contents on the back. This was a much welcome change from the indexing going on at the same time (when I could no longer bear to sit at the computer). Little did I know the cover–approved by my analyst–would cause the biggest frustration of all!

With the line edits done, I created the text as a pdf, determined the spine thickness from the page count, and filled in the back cover with the blurbs and précis. Then I cut and pasted the front, spine and back covers together. This too had to be turned into a pdf. But I did not have a large-capacity flatbed scanner. I had to go find one. I did, but it took time. Frustration #6.

The last step was to upload the text pdf and the cover pdf to the outfit I had published with multiple times before: Kindle Direct Publishing (or, before that, Create Space). In my past experiences with them, I had found the process to be simple and straightforward. Not this time!

Frustration #7 arose because I did not hold the copyright for this work: my analyst did. But she is 90, happily non-digital, the owner of no computer, and no longer able to type. After multiple attempts at work-arounds, we decided to add me to the copyright. That made it possible to clear the first hurdle in uploading the text and cover to KDP’s system.

I suppose it could truly be said that I got “behind the 8 ball” at this point: Frustration #8 proved to be the biggest of all my frustrations because, even after 8 attempts to get an approved cover, KDP would not accept our cover design. They provide templates, but every one of theirs was completely inappropriate for a work of our type (scholarly, academic, serious, with lots of blurbs on the back cover). After 3 full days of cutting, pasting, driving to the store with the large scanner, re-uploading and waiting for the preview to tell me if we had success, I had to give up.


How I Lived Alchemy in This Interval


The above is a tale of six months of frustrations. From one step to the next I was dogged by frustrations. I was not unconscious of this: I knew what I was feeling. I also knew that frustration can be one sign of the calcinatio archetype.

Associated with the planet Pluto, the calcinatio is that alchemical archetype otherwise known as the “refiner’s fire.” As the quotes opening this essay note, the calcinatio marks an interval of burning, heat, passions, and the intention is purification. What is to be purified? Our desire nature.

Astrologers identify two levels of our desire nature: ego and Self, or, in planetary terms, Mars and Pluto. Mars’ mantra is “I want!” Pluto’s mantra (if it could be said to have one) would be “My Higher Self desires!” When we are working through a calcinatio alchemical phase it is common to encounter instances where what we want is not what we are getting. Our patience gets tried. Our expectations get dashed. Things don’t work out, or they don’t work to the timetable we want.

Now as a practicing astrologer, I knew all this–how these circumstances in life were asking me to surrender my ego to the Self–but this knowing was an intellectual, theoretical thing. But it is quite different in “feel” when you find yourself living it for months on end. I was aware of the numerous times of frustration, and in each case I would try to surrender what I wanted to what my Self wanted. I would tell myself that the process was a good test of my patience, that eventually things would work out, that we would get to hold the final book in hand.

Outer life at this point was provoking me to “refine my desire nature” by consciously surrendering my ego desires to the Self. As I look back on these 6 months I remember so often looking up to the heavens and saying “deo concedente“–one of the alchemists’ favorite sayings.[16] Similar to the Muslims’ Inchallah, this phrase means “if it is the will of God.” “I would like to finish dictating this endless manuscript, deo concedente,…” ” to finish reorganizing the text, deo concedente…” ” to finish installing the cover in Kindle, deo concedente.” This last was not to be.

The cover was the deal-breaker. We were not going to publish Jane’s book with Kindle Direct Publishing. We would have to find another way to do so. How? At first, I turned to book publishers. Big mistake. Publishers are running businesses, i.e. their first concern is to make money. Jane’s journal, for all its merits, will not be a blockbuster best-seller à la Tom Clancy or James Peterson. Scratch them.

Then I tried book printers, but most of them are geared to work with would-be authors who have never written, much less published, a book. By this point in my life I had 12 books under my belt. This was #13 (huh??–13??)–I should have realized this before I embarked on this journey! Maybe then I would have been more realistic in terms of what lay in store.

Finally I decided to “buy local” and Googled printing companies near where I live. Bingo! I found L Brown and Sons Press, and they proved to be delightful to work with, highly professional in their process, top-notch in the product (a beautiful book worthy of Jane Wheelwright) and– get this–less than half the cost per book than KDP’s price!!

Through all these months, I had a hunch–the thing that sustained me every time I hit another frustration–that the Universe intended this project to bear fruit, that I was not expending my time (700+ volunteer hours!) and energy in vain–and this hunch was correct.[17] We got a reasonably-priced book, using a local press, working with local people (who answer the phone!!–unlike KDP), and the Self did have something better for us than my original idea to work with Kindle.

Only now, at the end of what seemed at times to be an endless journey, did I think to check the transits. Since the calcinatio archetype is associated with Pluto, I focused on Pluto and spotted five aspects to my natal Pluto, three of them “hard” (inconjuncts to the Moon and Uranus, an opposition to Saturn), two of them “easy” (trines to the Sun and Mercury). The transits to the Jungian Center’s chart were equally informative: a trine to the Moon, conjunctions to Venus and the Ascendant and a sextile to the Mid-heaven. Months of frustration and unexpected events, an implacable obstacle, and an easy flow of regenerative energy both physically and mentally marked these six months for me, while the Jungian Center had a much easier time of it, with no hard aspects at all.

Like all the archetypes of change, Pluto asked me to “go with the flow,” that is, in this case, to hold my ego desires lightly, relinquishing them repeatedly to the Self, and, in the end, to be gifted with something so much better than I could imagine.

Just as a rowboat is easier to row with the current than against the current, so life is easier when we recognize the operative archetype(s) of change at a given interval. We are living alchemy all the time, whether we realize it or not. If we realize it, and spot the archetype of the time, life becomes much easier, just as a boat will be easier to row when it goes with the current.

Since most readers of this essay are not likely to be Jungian astrologers, this begs the question “How might I spot an archetype of change in my life?” You can spot an archetype by noticing a feeling that hangs around for weeks or months, and/or by noticing a repeating dream image. Specific examples of how this works are the subject of the next several essays.



Edinger, Edward (1985), Anatomy of the Psyche. Chicago & LaSalle IL: Open Court Press.

Jung, C.G. (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,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1966), “The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature,” CW 15. 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.

Stevens, Anthony (2003), Archetypes Revisited. Toronto: Inner City Press.


[1] Edinger (1985), 17.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jung, Collected Works 16 ¶398. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[4] Ibid. ¶466.

[5] Ibid. ¶467.

[6] Cf. CW 8 ¶s 829, 924, 932, 939, 966 987; CW 9ii ¶s 409, 414-415; CW 11 ¶443; CW 12 ¶346; CW 15 ¶s 12-13.

[7] Jung (1965), 205.

[8] Stevens (2003), 17-18, 44-45.

[9] Ibid. 44.

[10] Ibid. 139-171.

[11] This term is often used in Buddhism to refer to the result of long-term meditation practice, which allows one to see the world afresh–just a small child does.

[12] CW 8 ¶280.

[13] For a full discussion of the intentions for each of the archetypes of change, see Edinger (1985).

[14] CW 16 ¶466.

[15] I am an Intuitive, for whom things like line editing are extremely tiring, as I would be working in my inferior orientation. For a Sensation type, handling details like typos would be much easier.

[16] Jung noted this repeatedly; cf. CW 9i ¶277; CW 11 ¶448; CW 12 ¶450n; CW 14 ¶86; CW 16 ¶385; and CW 18 ¶1631.

[17] This hunch was strengthened by a dream I had on June 20th telling me that there would be “a satisfying or fulfilling end to whatever” I had been undertaking.