Depth psychologist Carl Jung was fascinated by the medieval Alchemists, who apparently tried to turn lead to gold. It probably comes as no surprise that this was always a metaphor. It is as if they knew that by refining metals they were exposing themselves to the powers of the gods, seeking a higher truth from earthly existence. Lead revealed Saturn, the ruler of dark matter, the cold, dark ground of being; Tin expressed Jupiter’s breath of life; Iron the military will of Mars; Copper the irresistible beauty of Venus; Mercury the fluid messenger; Silver the intuitive Moon and Gold the Sun, the incorruptible soul and aim of Alchemy. We work through the aspects of the earthly life, just as we learn each personality trait of the Zodiac, or try to balance out the extrovert and introvert sides of ourselves, or undergo any other training towards a more centred, self-aware self.
The Alchemist was clearly a pagan, or nature lover. They found inspiration everywhere, with English alchemist Sir George Ripley (c. 1415–90) writing that “birds and fishes” bring us the gold, “it is in every place, in you, in me, in everything, in time and space.” In fact, I believe that the language of Alchemy was notoriously obscure because they knew they were dabbling in heresy and wanted to avoid persecution by the Christian church. While the Alchemists were careful to praise God in ‘His’ heavens, they sought an enlightened state from within the body of the earth, searching among the elements for the mysterious powers placed there by the planets, who of course to this point in history have been closely associated with the pagan gods and goddesses of early astrology. As such, I see Alchemy as another valid attempt by European natural philosophers to rebalance Christianity’s dissociative state when it comes to our human relationship with nature and the divine.
So, what might be the enlightened existence we could imagine as the goal of an alchemical process today? Jung was no New Age idealist; he knew that we have to work on our own Shadow, or dark side, if we are to attain a true light within. If we are to radiate with self-awareness, we can recall the ancient dictum to Know Thyself. But we know nowadays that this can’t be an unbalanced consciousness of merely mental power; it also includes emotional intelligence, a connection with gut instinct, and generally a more embodied notion of an enlightened or awakened person whose glow emanates from the whole body.
And, it must be more than merely a personal quest; we must aim for the awakening of all beings and the vitality of the entire ecosystem. This is another return to tradition, in order to become more fully awake in the current moment (one of my favourite themes). When someone from an indigenous tribe went on a vision quest, it wasn’t for personal power or selfish aims; it was for the people, the land, the collective, including human and more-than-human beings.
That means, nowadays, that we have to integrate our own shadow, as well as dealing with the archetypal poisons of greed, hatred and ignorance in humanity as a whole. We can’t do this for anyone else, but again, we can look to powerful stories that have stood the test of time to find out what they might suggest to us today.
Light is born from darkness, and ends up back there, just as we are born out of the matter of the universe and return to it upon death. When we get more comfortable with this, we can come to a place where we honour the ‘darkness’ of the earth and express our love for it, giving thanks for being the ancient, timeless birthplace out of which consciousness emerges. What we don’t know is not the enemy, it just needs a midwife. We must be gentle, loving, compassionate and generous towards what we think is the darkness, because it is also the ancient mystery, home of the Goddess, who has all too often been suppressed by a patriarchal power complex.
Jung pointed towards the Sacred Marriage, an ancient rite whereby we unite the polarities of the genders, the male and female within. To get beyond the personal and really stretch ourselves as ecological citizens, kin with the other animals and plants and places, not just arrogant users and abusers of the earth, we need to integrate the light and dark energies of life. This means getting comfortable with cycles of life and death, predator and prey, agricultural seasons of emergence, harvest and withdrawal. The call comes from deep within nature, either from within our inner souls or from within nature itself, outside of our bodies, from the rocks and trees, animals and elements.
Calling upon nature – within and without, earthly and celestial – for its mystical powers is closely related to animist practices, which we can embrace as our birthright and cultural history too. We can consort with animal spirits as totems and familiars, call up the spellbinding powers of the plants and planets, make compacts with the ancient gods and goddesses of the heavens and the local spirits of place, or genius loci, and become more complete in any time and place. With practice and guidance, we can realise our completely unique manifestation as a person, every moment and experience of which has never happened before and can never be repeated, utterly complete and impermanent at the same time, another flowering of the endless manifestation of humanity out of the soil of the earth. This is Alchemy today, the Heroic Journey, Grail Quest or Sacred Marriage of the 2020s. These are the rites of transformative initiation that shift us into another phase of life.
Join Dr Geoff Berry in your practice of transformation now.
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