On Reading Jung’s Alchemical Works

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.

 

 

On Reading Jung’s Alchemical Works

 

 

“At the time [1914] his [Herbert Silberer’s] book was published, I regarded alchemy as something off the beaten track and rather silly, …. He has used in the main late material, which I could make nothing of. The late alchemical texts are fantastic and baroque; only after we have learned how to interpret them can we recognize what treasures they hide.”[1]

 

“I let this book [Artis Auriferae Volumina Duo][2] lie almost untouched for nearly two years. Occasionally I would look at the pictures, and each time I would think, ‘Good Lord, what nonsense! This stuff is impossible to understand.” But it persistently intrigued me, and I made up my mind to go into it more thoroughly…. the texts still seemed to me blatant nonsense, but here and there would be passages that seemed significant to me, and occasionally I even found a few sentences which I thought I could understand. Finally I realized that the alchemists were talking in symbols….”[3]

 

In the previous blog essay I noted how some of our intrepid students undertake to read Jung’s master works,[4] his alchemical studies, and how they usually come away mystified, confused or put off. As the above quotes from Jung’s memoir indicate, Jung had this same initial reaction. But he kept at it, devoting over 30 years of his life to the study of alchemy. Why? Why did Jung feel alchemy was important? And how did it relate to his work as a psychiatrist? How and when did he discover alchemy? And why are his alchemical works so difficult to read? We will consider these questions in this essay.

 

How and when Jung discovered alchemy

 

Jung read Herbert Silberer’s Problems of Mysticism and Its Symbolism shortly after he (Jung) broke with Freud (c. 1914). While he appreciated Silberer’s “constructive” point of view, Jung forgot about the references Silberer made to alchemy. As the opening quote of this essay notes, Jung at that point in his career considered alchemy to be “silly” and “off the beaten track.” But a few years later, Jung began to have a series of dreams with a repeated theme:

“Beside my house stood another, that is to say, another wing or annex, which was strange to me. … Finally came a dream in which I reached the other wing. I discovered there a wonderful library, dating largely from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Large, fat folio volumes, bound in pigskin, stood along the walls. Among them were a number of books embellished with copper engravings of a strange character, and illustrations containing curious symbols such as I had never seen before. At the time I did not know to what they referred; only much later did I recognize them as alchemical symbols. In the dream I was conscious only of the fascination exerted by them and by the entire library. It was a collection of medieval incunabula and sixteenth-century prints…. Some fifteen years later I had assembled a library very like the one in the dream.”[5]

Recurring dreams, i.e. dreams with an image or theme that repeats, are significant. I had a similar series of dreams over six months from January to July of 2005, with, at first, a new room of my house, then a new wing, then a whole other new house, until finally, a series of dreams over the course of a week in July laid out the whole structure, values and form of the Jungian Center for the Spiritual Sciences. Knowing how Jung’s dreams gave him clues about his life’s work years before he got into alchemy, I was primed to expect my life to take a new direction and so it did.

Of the dream series Jung had over the years before he got into alchemy, one around 1926 was especially “crucial.”[6] In it Jung was on the Italian front in wartime, and accompanied by a “little man, a peasant,” he was going through the Lombard plain near Verona. They saw a manor house and drove through a gate toward it and saw another gate in the distance.

“Just as we reached the middle of the courtyard, in front of the main entrance, something unexpected happened: with a dull clang, both gates flew shut. The peasant leaped down from his seat and exclaimed, ‘Now we are caught in the seventeenth century.’”[7]

Jung’s response, in the dream, was to think “resignedly:”

‘Well, that’s that! But what is there to do about it? Now we shall be caught for years.’ Then the consoling thought came to me: ‘Someday, years from now, I shall get out again.’”[8]

And Jung did, nearly 30 years later, when he concluded his final alchemical study, Mysterium Coniunctionis, which he worked on from 1941 to 1954.[9]

In 1926, however, Jung had no idea the dream referred to the most absorbing and challenging component of his life’s work. It was only two years later, when Richard Wilhelm, the German sinologist, sent him a copy of his translation of the Chinese alchemical text, The Secret of the Golden Flower, that Jung got “stirred … to become more closely acquainted with the alchemical texts.”[10] This led him to contact a book dealer to watch for books on alchemy and in 1928 the first of the many alchemical texts Jung was to buy arrived. Ultimately (thanks in part to his wife’s wealth)[11] Jung amassed one of the foremost collections of alchemical texts. He spent all this money[12] and thirty years of his life devoted to alchemy. Clearly, he thought it was important. Why?

 

Why Jung felt alchemy was important

 

Initially Jung was put off: The Artis Auriferae Volumina Duo[13] sat in his study for nearly two years, and the occasional glance through it left Jung confirmed in his sense that alchemy was “nonsense.” But, typical of his Intuitive Thinking type, the puzzle intrigued him, and, despite the cautions and imprecations of his mistress and heretofore muse and research assistant, Toni Wolff,[14] Jung continued to investigate the text. The more Jung found the material “provocative and exciting,” the more Toni warned him that alchemy was “too esoteric,” a “pseudoscience” that would cause the world to brand him a charlatan if he pursued it. Jung kept at it, even after Toni refused to help him locate other texts.[15] So Jung threw her over,[16] and took on Marie-Louise von Franz as his research assistant.

A breakthrough in understanding came when Jung realized that the alchemists were “talking in symbols,”[17] and he was well-versed in symbology. With this insight, June knew he could ultimately succeed in making sense of the seeming “nonsense,” and he “buried” himself in the “texts as often as I had the time.”[18] One night, while he was into one text, he remembered the dream of being trapped in the seventeenth century. Jung’s response to this memory was interesting; he said “So that’s it! Now I am condemned to study alchemy from the very beginning.”[19] Apparently Jung found his dreams gave him his “marching orders.”[20]

It was years—more than a decade—before alchemy made sense, for, as Jung put it, “no Ariadne had put a thread into my hand,”[21] and the “labyrinth” was complex indeed. But Jung persevered in a disciplined and deliberate way, by making a lexicon of phrases the various alchemists used in describing their work. He “worked along philological lines,”[22] as if he were dealing with an unknown language, and gradually the texts began to reveal their meaning.

By 1931 Jung was ready to go “public” with his alchemical research, writing a “Commentary” to Wilhelm’s The Secret of the Golden Flower.[23] Four years later Jung gave his first alchemical lecture at the annual Eranos Conference, “Dream Symbols of Individuation Processes.”[24] This must have been well received, as Jung gave three more presentations on alchemy at Eranos: in 1936, “The Idea of Redemption in Alchemy,”[25] in 1937, “The Visions of Zosimos.,”[26] and in 1942, “The Spirit Mercurius.”[27] Also in 1942 Jung gave a lecture to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of the Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus, “Paracelsus as a Spiritual Phenomenon.”[28] Three years later Jung prepared an essay, “The Philosophical Tree” as part of a festschrift for one of his academic colleagues.[29] “Aion,” a long monograph consisting of two essays,[30] appeared in 1951,[31] and, after 13 years of effort, Jung completed his study of the coniunctio, Mysterium Coniunctionis, in 1954. He was then 80 years old.[32]

All this effort to puzzle out alchemy led Jung to a “momentous discovery:”[33] His own experiences in his analytical psychology were similar to those of the medieval alchemists. His world was their world. Given his long-standing appreciation of history and historical antecedents for his ideas, this meant a lot to Jung. That there was a “historical counterpart”[34] to his psychology of the unconscious gave credence to it, made it more valid, and gave it “substance.”[35]

It also provided Jung with an unbroken chain of intellectual achievements going back to Gnosticism. Jung had discovered Gnosticism decades before, but had not been able to trace its impact beyond the first two centuries of the early church.[36] Branded a “heresy,” Gnosticism had apparently died out. But not so! The alchemists’ recordings of their personal experiences of working with the lapis (the “Philosopher’s stone,” which held all manner of transformative properties) were Gnostic. They appreciated gnosis just as Jung did.[37]

His study of alchemy gave Jung historical perspective on psychic contents. All his work with patients, and his personal researches into Gnosticism, symbolism, mythology, cabala, mysticism and numerology now meant a lot more, as his understanding got “deepened.”[38] Where Jung had spent months traveling to foreign cultures to observe their myths and customs so as to verify his hunches about the universality of psychic contents from cross-cultural analysis,[39] toward a formulation of the theory of the collective unconscious, now he had, in alchemy, supplemental verification from history. The same “primordial images”[40] that Jung had found in ancient myths, legends and fairy tales the alchemists were writing about too.

 

How it is helpful in the work of analytical psychology

 

Jung concluded that “… without history there can be no psychology,”[41] especially a psychology of the unconscious. For a psychologist trying to explain a neurosis, an anamnesis is essential. For most people “anamnesis” means a personal history, the patient recounting his/her early-life experiences. But alchemy offered an anamnesis on the collective level, which, Jung knew “reaches deeper than the knowledge of consciousness.”[42] This would permit a better understanding of the archetypes in the collective unconscious, as well as a more thorough interpretation of the patient’s dreams.

No person exists in a vacuum. We all live enmeshed in a family matrix, a community, a society, in an era with its unique set of features and qualities. We also are the product of a personal, as well as a collective heritage, rooted in generations that precede us. In part because he was Swiss, Jung put great store in rootedness—having a sense of lineage and belonging to the soil, the land of one’s birth, the community of one’s locale.[43] Alchemy roots us not only in our personal history, but in addition, allows us to draw upon millennia of history in our work to understand ourselves.

More than just providing historical context, alchemy helps us understand the present and anticipate the future. This is thanks to the alchemists’ work, and Jung’s wrestling with the texts, that give us an understanding of the archetypes of change. The phases of alchemy—the nigredo, the albedo, the rubedo, and the critinitas—and the archetypes associated with them, e.g. the sublimatio, the coagulatio, the calcinatio, the separatio, the coniunctio, the transitio, and the solutio, can provide a larger perspective from which to view our situation.[44] Since archetypes have intent, they also suggest how we might handle the phase of life within which we find ourselves. A consultation with any Jungian-oriented astrologer will give you a sense of what’s going on in your life over the course of a year or more (as many of the archetypes of change are related to transits of planets), and this insight can make coping with life a lot easier: Just as rowing a boat with the current is easier than rowing against it, so it is easier to follow the intention of the archetype of change operative in life at a given time.

 

Why it is so difficult to read Jung’s alchemical texts

 

As Jung discovered, when he opened his first alchemical text, alchemy is a foreign language: arcane, full of esoterica (hidden, occult lingo and activities) and far removed from our modern sensibilities. Part of the obscurity of the language was deliberate: The alchemists were writing at a time when the church’s Inquisition actively sought out heretics and put them to the stake. Freedom of thought and challenges to authority were not prized 500 years ago. Paracelsus was courageous in his insistence on following his empirical observations, rather than the authoritative sources like the old Roman physician Galen.[45] By making their texts obscure, the alchemists were less likely to be hauled before ecclesiastical superiors and burned.

Another reason the texts are hard to interpret is due to the fact that each alchemist was writing about his/her (yes, there were a few women alchemists[46]) personal experience, and each one used different terms. There was no objectivity, and no standard lexicon of words for specific operations or actions.

The fact that our modern world is bereft of knowledge of and appreciation for symbols is a third reason we find alchemical texts difficult to understand.[47] As Jung came to realize, the alchemists depended on symbols. What they could not find words for they depicted in drawings or engravings (many of which can be found in CW 12, the most richly illustrated of all Jung’s books). But modern Americans know little about symbols; if they have any awareness at all, they generally confuse symbols with signs, a confusion Jung found thoroughly exasperating.[48] Jung was thoroughly conversant in symbology, so he was able to orient himself to the world the alchemists lived in. Not so with us, unless we commit to long-term immersion in symbolism.

A fourth reason for our finding Jung’s alchemical works hard reading is Jung’s own style. He was an Introverted Intuitive Thinking type, and he described how this type writes:

“[The introverted thinking type]… tends to vanish behind a cloud of misunderstanding… Although he will shrink from no danger in building up his world of ideas, and never shrinks from thinking a thought because it might prove to be dangerous, subversive, heretical, or wounding to other people’s feelings, he is none the less beset by the greatest anxiety if ever he has to make it an objective reality. That goes against the grain. And when he puts his ideas into the world, he never introduces them like a mother solicitous for her children, but simply dumps them there and gets extremely annoyed if they fail to thrive on their own account…. However clear to him the inner structure of his thoughts may be, he is not in the least clear where or how they link up with the world of reality. Only with the greatest difficulty will he bring himself to admit that what is clear to him may not be equally clear to everyone. His style is cluttered with all sorts of adjuncts, accessories, qualifications, retractions, saving clauses, doubts, etc., which all come from his scrupulosity. His work goes slowly and with difficulty.”[49]

and gets read with difficulty. Even in his non-alchemical works Jung can be hard to follow. He digresses, “circumambulates” his topic, makes intuitive leaps from one theme to another with little support for the Sensate type who seeks linearity and stepwise development of argument.

More than just a difficult style is the fifth reason for why CW 9ii, 12, 13 and 14 are difficult: the fact that Jung wrote several of his alchemical works after his heart attack in 1944. For several weeks he hovered near death (and had a near-death experience in this interval) and it was not clear if he would live.[50] When he finally did pull through, he felt like he had been given a new lease on life, and he determined to use this “bonus” time to pursue whatever topics struck his fancy, and to write for himself, not for the public. The result, besides “Aion,” and “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” were works like “Answer to Job”[51] (which very few people understood and which created a huge uproar) and the essay on Ufos (which also raised questions and led to interviews with the press).[52] Toni Wolff’s fears—that Jung might come to be regarded as an outlier, at least among academics—were well-founded.

If you wish to venture into Jung’s alchemical texts, here are some tips. Learn to work with symbols: study publications like Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols (which has a Jungian orientation) and those of The Archive for Research on Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS); learn to think allegorically and metaphorically, as the psyche is rarely literal: immersion in fairy tales can help with this; best of all, for really coming to understand Jung’s work, is to work on yourself, i.e. take up the same task the alchemists set themselves—to individuate; Jung’s alchemical books really come to life and make sense when you live them in the non-rational, intuitive manner that is at the heart of both alchemy and the individuation process.

Difficult though Jung’s alchemical works may be, they are well worth the effort to read them. Edward Edinger, the “dean” of American Jungian analysts, recognized this when he wrote two commentaries to accompany “Aion” and “Mysterium.”[53] He “translates” Jung’s exposition into layman’s language, targeted especially to analysts interested in understanding the role and value of alchemy in the analytic process. Here at the Jungian Center we have drawn on Jung’s alchemical studies in creating our curriculum: We have courses on numerology, astrology, symbology, mythology, Gnosticism, cabala, mysticism, comparative religion, fairy tales, esoterica, and archetypal psychology, in addition to a course on alchemy itself. In such ways does Jung inspire us.

 

Bibliography

 

 

Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

Barnstone, Willis & Marvin Meyer (2009), The Gnostic Bible. Boston: Shambhala.

Carol, Hans “Man and His Environment” (1977), Jung Speaking, eds. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

________ (1992), Ego and Archetype. Boston: Shambhala.

________ (1995), The Mysterium Lectures. Toronto: Inner City Books.

________ (1996), The Aion Lectures. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Jonas, Hans (1958), The Gnostic Religion. Boston: Beacon Press.

Jung, C.G. (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press

________ (1959), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. 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.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. 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.

________ (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.

Layton, Bentley (1987), The Gnostic Scriptures. Garden City: Doubleday Books.

Pagels, Elaine (1979), The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage Books.

Robinson, James ed. (1978), The Nag Hammadi Library. New York: Harper & Row.

Rudolph, Kurt (1984), Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. New York: Harper & Row.

 

[1] Jung (1965), 204.

[2] This work is a collection of Latin alchemical treatises, including some alchemical classics. It was published in 1593 and was the first alchemical text that Jung bought; ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] CW 9ii, 12, 13 & 14.

[5] Jung (1965), 202.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 203.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Editorial Note,” CW 14, p. v.

[10] Jung (1965), 204.

[11] Emma Jung-Rauschenbach was the second-richest woman in Switzerland when Jung married her in 1903; she had inherited a watch-making factory from her father, and her wealth supported Jung for nearly the whole of the rest of his life.

[12] Incunabula, i.e. books printed before 1500, are not cheap. These days most of these rare volumes are in university libraries, or in the personal collections of very rich individuals.

[13] Two Volumes on the Art of Making Gold, referring to the ostensible goal of the alchemist to transmute lead into gold. Jung came to understand that the alchemists were actually working on the individuation process of turning the inner “lead” (unconsciousness and lack of differentiation) into the “gold” of connection with and trust in the Self, in the process of individuation.

[14] On Toni’s opinion of alchemy, see Bair (2003), 368, 371, 390, 395 and 399.

[15] Ibid., 399.

[16] The verb here is Marie-Louise von Franz’s, quoted in ibid., 371.

[17] Jung (1965), 204.

[18] Ibid., 205.

[19] Ibid.

[20] This is not Jung’s term, but mine, as I too have dreams that give me explicit instructions about what I am to do.

[21] Jung (1965), 205.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Editorial Comment, CW 13, p. 1.

[24] Editorial Comment, CW 12, p. v.

[25] These two lectures were published in 1944 as “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12.

[26] Editorial Comment, CW 13, p. 57.

[27] Ibid, p. 191.

[28] Ibid. p. 109.

[29] These four, plus Jung’s “Commentary on the Secret of the Golden Flower” were printed together as “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13, which was the last of the alchemical works to be published, in 1967.

[30] “Researches into the History of Symbols” and “Contributions to the Symbolism of theSelf.”

[31] CW 9ii.

[32] He was born in 1875 and died just seven years after he wrote this, in 1961.

[33] Jung (1965), 205.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] For more on Gnosticism, cf. Barnstone & Meyer (2009), Jonas (1958), Layton (1987), Pagels (1979), Robinson (1978), and Rudolf (1984).

[38] Jung (1965), 205.

[39] He made trips to Africa, India, and the American Southwest, to meet with native peoples and learn about their myths, legends, customs and symbol systems. For details of these trips, see Bair (2003), 344-354, 426-429, and 335-338.

[40] Jung (1965), 205. Later in his writing Jung replaced “primordial image” with the term “archetype.”

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 206.

[43] Quoted in Carol (1977), 202-204.

[44] For more on the phases of alchemical change and the various operations, see Edinger (1985) and Edinger (1992).

[45] Jung respected Paracelsus for his independence of mind and rejection of authorities if they contradicted his own empirical observations; cf. CW 15 ¶19, CW 16 ¶221, and CW 13 ¶149.

[46] E.g. Maria Prophetessa, a 3rd c. CE Alexandrian alchemist whom Jung mentions 45 times in his Collected Works; for more on her, see the essay “Jung on the Axiom of Maria Prophetessa,” archived on this blog site.

[47] For more on Jung’s criticism of our symbol-less society, see the blog essay “A Way into Mystery,” archived on this blog site.

[48] CW 6 ¶817.

[49] CW 6, ¶634.

[50] For a detailed description of this interval, cf. Bair (2003), 496-502; for Jung’s own description of his NDE, see Jung (1965), 289-295.

[51] CW 11 ¶s553-758.

[52] CW 10 ¶589-824, for the essay; CW 18 ¶s1431-1451, for the interviews.

[53] Edinger (1996) and Edinger (1995), respectively.