David – Chapters 11- 13 (Three Phases in the Alchemical Process)

May 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Three Phases in the Alchemical Process –

Alchemy, like any true Science operates in sequential steps. As Dennis illuminates in Chapters 11-13 of his Complete Idiot’s Guide to Alchemy, the most common division of these steps in the Western tradition is Nigredo, Albedo and Rubedo, the blackening, whitening and reddening stages.

These specific steps seem to have been codified from the Paracelsian Alchemical tradition carried forward by esoteric Masonry during the 18th and 19th century which has produced the most visible efforts in the Art and has provided the basis for so much of what we know today in practice. As with any Traditional exposition the divisions themselves are valuable more for their symbolic resonance than any hard line rule. Other models add additional levels to the process of Transmutation, but such additions usually only explore additional insights into the process which add detail, but do little to change the overall focus of the Great Work.

With these concepts in mind it’s interesting to go back and examine works such as Dante’s Divine Comedy. Here we find the Nigredo (descent into Hell), Albedo (journey into purgatory) and Rubedo (ascension into Heaven) laid onto a Christianized (with heavy influence from Greek and Islamic metaphysics) model. This same structure can be seen in the historical evidence from the practices of Mediterranean Mystery cults, Meso-American spiritual traditions, and Eurasian shamanic practices. The descent into the underworld (often via dismemberment or disintegration), purification and return forms a common motif for innumerable initiatory and religious traditions.

As becomes apparent through reading Dennis’ exploration of these phases, the integration of the process on all levels is demonstrated by astrological, chemical, spiritual, material, mythic and natural symbolism to show the reality of these processes at every level of existence.

Nigredo –

“The truth is that personal calcination happens whether we want it to or not…”

– from Complete Idiot’s Guide to Alchemy, by Dennis William Hauck

The first stage of the Work involves a return to that primal state of Void/Chaos from which all things arise. Nigredo is expressed through morbid imagery that often causes discomfort in those approaching the Art for the first time. This discomfort is nothing to be passed off, as it represents the fears of the individual who has spent a lifetime building a structure faced with the choice to dismantle that structure in the hopes of rebuilding something greater.

Our natural senses revolt at the thought of active attendance to the process of death. The materialist mindset of contemporary society makes this process even more daunting. As Dennis points out, however, this process is happening anyway, to enjoin this natural flow, and to take part in it rather than fight it, allows us to move beyond these fears into a relationship with reality that goes far beyond what seems normally possible.

The correspondences between the symbols help to provide deeper insight into the process, remember that Black is also symbolic of the Prima Materia, as are the dragon and toad.  When we enter into the Nigredo stage we are using fire and water (in it’s active state of acid), calcination and dissolution, to return to the source.  In this sense I try to remember that the pain of the Nigredo is merely the friction caused by seperating the true from the false, when the false has been given premacy and needs to put in it’s proper place.

Something like the traditional folk song “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” provides a further path to embracing, rather than struggling with, this powerful process.

Albedo –

“Another characteristic of the work during Albedo is that the alchemist discovers the underlying duality of the substance she is attempting to transform. The level of purification is so great that the fundamental duality of nature is observed in the experiment.”

– from Complete Idiot’s Guide to Alchemy, Dennis William Hauck

In order to combine two opposing forces one must first observe that the two forces themselves. As we pass through our lives we often divide things into categories, us/them, past/future, right/wrong, self/other. Binary opposition forms a powerful tool for conceptualizing, Hegel’s thesis – antithesis – synthesis and the practical evidence of this process in political revolutions, scientific inquiry, and cultural movements shows how powerful this simple model can be. After all things have been reduced through dissolution and calcination and brought back to their initial natural states, there remains the purified structure.

The Dark Queen of the Prima Materia is now seen as White or Illuminated.  Again looking at Dante’s inferno we see the Wisdom that lead Dante into Hell on his Quest embodied in Beatrice who then leads him out of Hell. When he entered Hell in a state of confusion he did so at the bidding of Wisdom then unseen, now having passed through the harrowing of Hell he finds this same Wisdom embodied in a beatific form.

There is still the sense of separation, but it is now seen in a positive light. These two primary forces, often described as masculine and feminine, exist beyond the particular that is being transmuted, and so stand firm after all else has been resolved. This is important to realize as it provides the foundation for the Chemical Wedding. To reach the undifferentiated state too soon causes a complete loss of identity.

I think of the phrase “I saw the light…” in terms of the Albedo, this simple colloquialism provides an interesting way to understanding this movement between states of Union, Duality and Multiplicity.  When we stand at the beginning of the process we are in the darkness of our unrefined being, an accidental accumulation of experiences, memories, and habits. When these are rectified we still exist in a differentiated form, able to “see the light” because we are outside it. To see the light, however, also means that we have moved beyond the darkness and into a new state of being.

This realization allows us to move into the process of Conjunction, what we can see, we can move towards and eventually embrace. The sexual symbolism used provides a further implication of the intimacy of this process and it’s potential for producing what Dennis describes as “the development of a spiritual fetus within, something new and unexpected, a wonderfully refreshing presence that emerges from the suffering and darkness of the Nigredo.

The Secret of the Golden Flower, a Taoist exposition of meditation techniques, provides an interesting line of thought on this spiritual fetus: http://www.alchemylab.com/golden_flower.htm

Rubedo –

The Red Phase is rightfully the most mysterious of all three phases. This phase represents the prior two phases brought to an even more purified ascendency. As the Peacock’s Tail emerges from the experiment we see all of the seperations that happened in the Nigredo sped up and encapsulated within a single movement that moves again into Whiteness.

This is the stage in which the Alchemist becomes a master, in which the Adept can take the process of transmutation to an active level of involvement in the world, the stage of projection.  The unification of Soul and Spirit is a very humbling thought, the subtle essence of individuality literally taken in Union with the Spirit of existence itself.

One way to think of the power of this process is to think of being drunk, there is a reason that hard liquor is known as Spirits, and fermentation and distillation form the process of it’s refining.  Imagine the feeling of freedom that comes from drunkness, only on a spiritual level, unattended by the negative consequences the next day. This is why so many references to ‘spiritual drunkenness’ exist in every tradition.

In a certain sense the power of this stage can be expressed through the virtues “Silence” and “Invisibility” which have been ascribed to Adepts of all times and places.  Meditating on the full importance and implication of these two traits gives numerous humbling indications as to the completion of the Work.

Tat: Now hast thou brought me, father, unto silence. Arrested from the senses which I had before; for [now] I see thy Greatness identical with thy distinctive form.

Hermes: Even in this thou art untrue; the mortal form doth change with every day. ‘Tis turned by time to growth and waning, as being an untrue thing.”

– from The Secret Sermon on the Mount, Corpus Hermetica, trans. G.R.S. Mead


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