As many of you may know I often use material from a variety of mystical media e.g. alchemy, Tarot, the Kabalah, Hermeticism, as a means of exploring and explaining certain psychological principles. It is not that I ascribe to the functionality of these mystical approaches to understanding reality but that, as projections of the human psyche, they help me to grasp the vast mystery that lies behind the creative human mind and its relationship with what is perceived as real.
Recently a blog reader wrote about the significance of alchemy in the understanding of the human psyche and especially the field of Analytic Psychology founded on the ideas and research of Carl G. Jung. He was particularly interested in the role that Mercury played in this understanding.
Below is my answer to the query the reader presented.
There are typically two ways to think of alchemy, the “scientific” way as a precursor to modern chemistry and the “mystical” way (this is now thought by many to be the core of Analytical Psychology or Depth Psychology). I tend toward the mystical. Both seem to have as their goal the combination of all four mystical elements of the universe– earth, fire, air and water to create a 5th i.e. the philosopher’s stone. The “stone” for the mystical alchemist is the ‘ultimate state of enlightenment’ where the disparate parts of humankind are separated then recombined into one.
For example (and this is where Mercury comes in), The prima materia of the universe comes as a dichotomy that of masculine and feminine with the male sulphur, hot, dry and active in opposition to the female, the argent-vive (mercury)–cold, moist and receptive, or male represented by Sol the creative force and the female by Luna the receptive force of wisdom. The conjunction of these two upon following a certain pattern will produce what Carl Jung termed a coiniunctio, the ultimate goal of the Individuation process i.e. what humankind seeks to become– a whole.
The action of Mercury in this process participates in both the light and dark worlds of the psyche and thus participates at all levels during the process of transformation.
I also believe that the “dream body” (the ‘you’ in your dreams, acts as Mercurius, the intermediary between the conscious and unconscious– the waking world and dreaming world.
Thus the feminine is the catalyst to the reunion of the male and female dichotomy that which was One as symbolically represented by “Adam”. Instead of lead transmuted into gold via the Philosopher’s stone the mystical way is talking about the psychological process of Individuation. It is the transmutation of the conflicted, and separated, human dichotomy into the wholeness of the Illumined Philosopher.
I used the word “catalyst” in the paragraph above to point out that though the feminine starts the process of unification it does not lose its essence in the process. It’s a little like combining several ingredients in a meal and roasting them together so that they infuse one another but maintain their distinctness. The combining creates a flavor greater than the sum of their parts (if only our politicians could practice that simple rule of the universe).
In a later email the reader also commented on the significance of the number 4 in Jung’s philosophy.
The “four” to which you refer is represented by the four sides of the square while the circle represents the whole, or spirit, or the “stone”. It is the jewel in the lotus, the Christ if you will.
By securing the prima materia (philosophical mercury) the dark matter of this bit of alchemy, the light of the stone can be found (“in the darkness can be found the light”). In a way the light of what we are can be found within (distilled from) the darkness of the unconscious, both personal and collective.
The anima mundi, or world soul, that Jung so eloquently spoke of is released from its bondage when the union between Sol and Luna takes place.
Perhaps this is the reconciliation spoken of by many Christians– that which can unite the souls of all humanity? Jung saw within the way of the alchemists the archetypes, the primordial dream symbols that form and inform the myths of humankind. Jung of course saw all this as a means for understanding the enigmatic psyche.
His “four-ness” or what he referred to as the ‘quaternity’ and reference to the “squaring of the circle” regarding the images related to the four elements of the universe represented by the pairing within the male and female archetypes (air and fire in the male, Earth and water in the female) and the ‘spirit’ (the wholeness of the circle) was represented in his images of the mandalas that share common attributes across all cultures.
In short, he seems to have seen the human psyche as having a four fold nature (note the personality traits represented by the four function types, feeling, thinking, sensation and intuition from which the Meyer’s Briggs Type Indicator was developed– see http://www.personalitypathways.com/type_inventory.html
Why is there still such interest in alchemy, a largely discredited prescientific method of research?
I believe that there is this internal pressure from the human soul to reunite the varied aspects of our archetypal selves and thus gives continued import to the study of alchemy, not as a means of manipulating the material world but as a means of fully understanding the human relationship with it.