Author Topic: The Alchemical Nigredo  (Read 16993 times)

Matt Koeske

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The Alchemical Nigredo
« on: September 27, 2007, 09:41:22 AM »

A discussion in another thread (Homunculus . . . you must be logged in to view) led to a deeper contemplation of the alchemical Nigredo.  In my opinion, there is a major discrepancy in Jungian thinking between the the conventional Jungian interpretation of the Nigredo ("Blackening") and the traditional alchemical interpretation.  I see this discrepancy as a significant flaw in Jungian theory (regarding the use of the alchemical opus as a symbol of individuation).

Jung and the Jungians tend to see the Nigredo psychologically as a time of depression and chaos.  Jung equated this Blackening with the prima materia (from which the entire alchemical process unfolds) . . . and this is not wrong.  The mistake is placing the discovery or creation of the prima materia at the very beginning of the opus and conflating it with a state of (perhaps "primitive" or childlike) unconsciousness.  It is implied in Jungian thinking that we are initially quite "unconscious" and "blackened", not understanding our thought or motives or feelings . . . and that (through some process of individuation) we become "enlightened".

It is true that the alchemists traditionally saw an Albedo or Whitening or Purification (culminating in the creation of the White Stone) following after the Nigredo.  But the Jungian interpretation of this alchemical symbolism is taken very much out of its initial context.  For instance, in alchemical tradition the Nigredo follows after the Solution or Coniunctio (the 5th emblem in the Rosarium Philosophorum sequence that Jung used to graft his individuation theory onto in "The Psychology of the Transference").  That's 5th, not 1st.  (The Nigredo follows in stages 6 through 9 . . . and even the 10th emblem representing the "Daughter of the Philosophers" or the White stone prominently displays the Raven, the symbol of the Nigredo).

Jung also grafted his anima progression theory onto the Rosarium emblems . . . and therefore saw in the Coniunctio emblem/stage a union of Opposites (Masculine ego and Feminine unconscious).  Such a union of Opposites is considered an ideal state to move toward in the scheme of Jungian individuation.  I would even argue that the Jungians conflate this Coniunctio with rebirth or wholeness in many ways.

But, whether or not these Jungian ideas have any validity by themselves, they definitely do not map to the alchemical process as depicted in the Rosarium Philosophorum or any other alchemical text (as far as I know).  In alchemical tradition, it is made very clear that the discovery of the prima materia is not anything like a pre-opus state of un-consciousness.  In fact, the discovery of the true prima materia is described by many alchemists as the greatest achievement of the magnum opus.  After its discovery, the Work can unfold in a more or less orderly fashion . . . and without its discovery, the Work will fail to produce the Stone (or anything else of value).  There are a number of accounts of alchemists lamenting the undiscovered first matter . . . or lamenting the fact that they only had a small supply given to them by a mysterious other (and they never figured out how to reproduce the stuff themselves).

The Nigredo was considered the true beginning of the Work, and despite its blackness and association with death and putrefaction, it was granted a position of enormous value in the alchemical opus.  I personally see it as corresponding to the birth of a new consciousness and sense of responsibility or initiation.  The Nigredo is the beginning of the true differentiation between the ego and the Self . . . and only with this differentiation can the Work (as a conscious + unconscious process) unfold systematically or archetypally.

In other words, the nigredo and its prima materia are not the beginning of ego consciousness, but the beginning of a truly responsible and conscious relationship between ego and Self-as-Other.  A partnership in which the ego learns how to facilitate the libido of the Self (through a languaging process for which I like to use the term, "Logos" . . . which I therefore define differently than most Jungians) . . . rather than usurping the Self's libido or numinousness as a kind of providence and manna to sustain the ego's wellbeing.

In subsequent posts I will bring in some quotes from alchemical texts that help illustrate this.  I also hope anyone else interested will feel free to contribute and discuss the issue here.

Yours,
Matt
You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.

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Matt Koeske

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Re: The Alchemical Nigredo
« Reply #1 on: September 27, 2007, 11:32:30 AM »
The Nigredo was often referred to as the Raven's or Crow's Head.

From the Pretiosissimum Donum Dei (Most Precious Gift of God) also called (in the version of some of the quotes below) the Mirror of the Philosophers:
Quote
Our matter is a Virgin. Its mother has conceived nothing. Come here, my beloved above all; we will help one another and bear a new son, who is not like his parents. This is a king with a red head, black eyes, and white feet. This is the magistery.  [The blackening/nigredo is what this "new son" sees with; the nigredo is thus equated with insight, consciousness, vision . . . not unconsciousness.]

. . .

The putrefaction of the Philosophers is the head of the Crow a blackness transparent and shining.

. . .



Here find the bodies in putrefaction, and becoming black earth, and when you see your matter made black like this, rejoice for that is the beginning of the work.

. . .

Therefore burn our Brass with easy fire as the hen doth nourish the egg until the body thereof be constituted or made and the tincture be drawn out, for thou shalt not draw it out all at once, but that a little, and a little may come out every day until it may be made complete in a long time. I am black of white, and red of white, and citrine of red, and certainly I am a true sayer and not liar. And know ye that this red of the art is the Crow which in the blackness of the night and in the clearness of the day flyeth without wings. Of the bitterness in his throat the colour is taken, from his body the redness, and from his back pure water. . . .  Behold I have expound it to you, truly when it is first black, we call it the cave of the science which is not without blackness, for it is the tincture which we seek, for in every body we give or put colour, which thing was hidden in his brass, as the Soul in man's body. Therefore dear Son, when thou art in thy work, see first thou have the black colour, and then art thou sure thou dost putrefy and proceedest the right way, patience and tarrying be necessary in our work. O Blessed Nature and blessed is thine operation, for of imperfect thou makest perfect with true putrefaction, which is black and obscure.

. . .

The Raven’s Head

What is over the materia are dark clouds, fog, or smoke. This earth arose above the water in another vessel, from the base of the vessel, and there awaken worms. [i.e., from the putrefaction, "spontaneous generation" occurs]

. . .

And as we have seen and touched with great labours and business, we have known this only thing perfect to the white and to the red, and we could never find other things where the perfection consisteth to the true transmutation of bodies and perfect preparation, but to be destroyed so made black for ever. Therefore be thou busy to thine operation in all his degrees patiently continuing decoction until such time the tincture be come out in black colour upon the water, and when thou seest the blackness appear in the said water, know thou all the body to be liquefieth . . . .

. . .

The Black Ravenshead

That is the black and stinking earth of the wise, wherein awaken worms. There one swallows the other; there one thing destroyed is the other thing born. Then this earth is at the bottom of the vessel, and wholly dissolves itself in the water as before.

Here it is asked how long it takes to turn the stone black, and what the sign is of the right decomposition. I answer: when the black color appears, then is the same darkness a certain sign of the right putrefaction and decomposition of the stone, but when the darkness wholly disappears, then is it a sign that the stone has wholly decomposed and putrefied.  [The text goes on to suggest the blackening takes roughly 40 days . . . as in the 40 days and 40 nights spent in the wilderness].

. . .

The Head of the Crow
Oil of Philosophers.

 

Here is our new black Son born, and the name of him shall be called Elixir. The black earth and feculent is turned into Argent vive as it was afore and dissolved in the colour of oil, and then it shall be called oil of Philosophers.

. . .

Gold is dissolved that he may be reduced unto his first matter, that is that it may be made truly sulphur and Argent vive [Sulfur and Mercury or Sol and Luna]. For then we may make most best silver and Gold when it is converted into the matter of them. Therefore it must be so well washed until it be true Sulphur, and Argent Vive, for according to the Philosopher they be the very true matters of metals [note the process begins with gold here, not lead . . . and from gold, the prima materia is derived through separation into its elemental Opposites and recombination in solution]. Therefore he that can wed a wife, and get her with child and mortify and quicken again the kinds of generations, and can cleanse and bring in light, and to separate the shine thereof from blackness and darkness, shall be of most great dignity.

. . .

Take black: blacker than black, for divers and many colours shall appear in it, and the virgins milk shall be made white, and our Son now revived shall be made an overcomer of the fire and excelling tinctures or colours, the cloud ascendeth from the Sea, and the rain upon the earth, for every heavy and dense or thick body falleth or slippeth to his centre. Argent vive sublimed from brass of the which all things be, is a clear water and a true tincture, which putteth away the shadow of ye brass, for it is white sulphur which only maketh brass white which the spirit is held that he can not fly, know that the neck of the vessel is the head of the Crow which you shalt kill, and thereof shall be brought forth a dove, and after that a phoenix. Be you fortunate or happy the whole science both to the white and to the red with these few words.  [Here we can see clearly the the White and Red Stones are seen to follow directly from the "head of the Crow", the "black, blacker than black" that is the true prima materia of the Work.]



[In the emblem above the "head of the crow" rises out of the flask as the liquid below turns white in a cyclical process of sublimation and condensation.  This could be rooted in the material process of ash and residue burning off of the mixture and adhering to the inside of the upper part of the flask as it cools.  "Killing" the head of Crow could be related to a removal of this residue . . . maybe even a breaking off of the neck of the flask where the residue adhered.  The head of the Crow, then, is related to the Extraction of the Soul in the Rosarium sequence, emblem 7.]



. . .

The black clouds descendeth unto the body from whence they came out and there is made connection between the earth and water and is made ashes.

The crow is black, the Dove is white, the Phoenix burneth herself that she may procreate or bring forth an other of the ashes. [The Phoenix is a symbol of the Red Stone, and thus it is suggested that the ash and blackness are a form of the "unborn" Phoenix.]

. . .

To calcine is no other thing then to dry and to turn in to ashes. Therefore burn it without fear, until it be ashes, which when it is so thou hast mixed it well. Despise not these ashes but give it them the sweat that they have cast out, and when the water is all drank up and turned into earth within certain days will be done. In this vessel shall appear all ye the colours of the world, when the humidity is dried up. Therefore let it stand certain days upon easy fire until it be done as aforesaid. That which goeth from him put again upon him until all be fixed and will no more go from him for ye fire, that is the blackness which is separate from the body let it be reduced upon the body from whence it came out and be made on body.

[See also: http://www.fuocosacro.com/pagine/1/dunum%20dei.htm form the series of emblems in color.]


« Last Edit: September 27, 2007, 11:40:13 AM by Matt Koeske »
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Matt Koeske

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Re: The Alchemical Nigredo
« Reply #2 on: September 27, 2007, 01:29:06 PM »

From the Theatre of Terrestrial Astronomy by Edward Kelly:

Quote
Of the Preparation of Mercurial Earth

Know that out of all metals a perfect Medicine can be made, which can transmute the remaining metals into gold and silver; for out of the perfect metals you get, by proper separation of elements, the Salt of Nature, otherwise Ore of the Philosophers, by some called Philosophical Lili, without which the work of the Sages cannot be accomplished. For Art presupposes a substance created by Nature alone, in which Art assists Nature and Nature assists art.


Of the Solution of the Sun with Mercurial Water

It should be noted at this point that the Tincture is not found otherwise than in gold. This may be understood from the parable of Bernard, who says that the Sun, on entering the bath, first of all puts off his golden robe. For what the eagle is among birds, the lion among beasts, the salmon among fishes, the Sun among planets, such gold is among metals. In it are the red and white tincture, because it tinges, transforms, and illumines all bodies. For gold is made out of the substance of the most subtle living Mercury, and out of pure, red, fixed, self-cleansed Sulphur, which tinges, and contains in itself, the soul, which is called the form of gold, and by some Sages the Ferment of Philosophers. This soul of gold with its heat digests and tinges its substance, and imparts to it its form, so that through its mediation the day begins to dawn. To corrupt the gold, to dissolve and volatize it while still preserving its form is our great object, as it is also our grand labour. [We seen here again that the prima materia is likened to gold.]


Of the Preparation of the Earth, or Moon of the Sages

When the soul of gold has been separated from its body, or when the body, in other words, has been dissolved, the body of the Moon should be watered with its proper menstruum, and reverberated, the operation being repeated as often as necessary, i.e., until the body becomes subtle, broken up, pure, dissolved, coagulated. This is done, not with common fire, but with that of the Sages, and at last you must see clearly that nothing remains undissolved. For unless the Moon or Earth is properly prepared and entirely emptied of its soul, it will not be fit to receive the Solar Seed; but the more throughly the earth is cleansed of its impurity and earthiness, the more vigorous it will be in the fixation of its ferment. This earth or Moon of the Sages is the trunk upon which the solar branch of the Sages is engrafted. This earth, with its water, putrefies and is cleansed; for heat, acting on a dry substance, causes whiteness. Azot and fire wash Laton, or earth, and remove its opacity.  [Here the "earth" that is emptied of its soul is related to the Nigredo.  This "emptying (or extraction) of soul" is a parallel to what I've been calling the "Heroic Sacrifice", the sacrifice of dependency on the Self made by the ego.]

. . .


Of the Blackness or Raven's Head by means of which the copulation of Sun and Moon takes place

The second conjunction is of three, viz., body, soul, and spirit; and these three we must make one. For as the soul is the bond of the spirit, so the body must also join to itself the soul, which can only be after putrefaction; for nothing can be improved if its form has not previously been utterly destroyed. The signs of this are a black colour and a fetid smell. For heat, acting on moisture, produces blackness, which is the sign of the perfect mingling of the substance with a specific form. For solution and putrefaction begin with a fetid smell, and the process gradually develops, and therefore the Raven's Head is called a deadly poison. The odour is rather intellectually than sensuously perceptible. The blackness must precede whiteness. For putrefaction begins with solution, but does not end with it. The second solution of the more perfect stone is better than the first, because the more it develops, the more the stone is subtilized. Our whole magistery, then, is based on putrefaction; for it can come to nothing, unless it is putrefied.


Of the Peacock's Tail

Our substance, according to the Sages, has a red head, white feet, and black eyes. The beginning of our work is the Black Raven, which, like all things that are to grow and receive life, must first putrefy. For putrefaction is a necessary condition of solution, as solution is of birth and regeneration. This putrefaction is not impure, but a commixtion, in their smallest parts, of earth with water, and water with earth, till the whole body becomes one. The red male must be digested in union with his white wife, till both become dry - for otherwise no colours will appear. When the dry principle acts on the moist, flowers of all the colours of a Peacock's Tail begin to spring up in the Sage's vessel. Sometimes the vessel will seem inwardly covered with gold, which is a sign of the action of the male seed, of Sulphur, on the female menstruum, or Mercury, one mingling with the other as the result of their conflict. As the moisture is gradually dried up, these shifting coloure give place to a settled whiteness.


Of the White Tincture

Having treated of the matter, the mode of procedure, and of the regimen of the fire, I proceed now to the description of the composition of the white and the red Stone. The blackness becomes whiteness very slowly; the operation must be gradual, as a fierce fire would burst the vessel, and mar our work. As the Mercury becomes white, our white Sulphur becomes incombustible, containing the poison, whose whiteness is like the whiteness of alabaster. The whole magistery takes place in one vessel, and with one fire, viz., the dry and moist elementary fire of the matter, till it is all dissolved again and again, and conagulated and thickened into a mass of a clear snow-white colour, which, when cool, becomes like a hard gum. The decoction, however, must be continued till the Eagle is revived (or vitrified), and becomes a crystalline stone which melts, tinges, and coagulates Mercury and other imperfect metals into pure silver. This white tincture, or elixir, is also called the Virgin's milk, the everlasting water, and water of life, because it is as brilliant as white marble; it is also called the White Queen, who by increasing the fire becomes the Mighty King, the white transforming into yellow and saffron, and at last into a deep ruby colour.

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Matt Koeske

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Re: The Alchemical Nigredo
« Reply #3 on: September 27, 2007, 01:46:08 PM »
 

Photographs of modern gold refining using aqua regia (the acid mixture that dissolves gold and is sometimes equated with the Green Lion of alchemy).  Note the black solution.  This is no doubt the process from which the alchemists derived their symbolism regarding the nigredo.





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Matt Koeske

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Re: The Alchemical Nigredo
« Reply #4 on: September 27, 2007, 02:34:38 PM »
 
From the First Gate (Calcination) of George Ripley's Twelve Gates:

Quote
This under the moisture of the Moon,
And under the temperate heat of the Sun,
Your Elements shall be incinerated soon,
And then you have the mastery won.
Thank God your work was then so begun,
For there you have one true token,
Which first in blackness will be shown to you.

That token we call the Head of the Crow,
And some men call it the Crow's bill,
Some call it the ashes of Hermes tree,
And thus they name it after their will,
Our Toad which eats his fill of the earth,
Some name it by that which it is mortified,
The spirit with venom intoxicated.


But it has an infinity of names, I say,
For it is named after each thing that is seen to be black,
Till the time it waxes white,
Then it has names of more delight,
Called after all things that be full white,
And the red likewise after the same,
Of all red things does take the name,

You are now within the first gate,
Of the Castle where the Philosophers dwell.
Proceed wisely that you may win,
And go though more gates of that Castle.
This Castle is round as any bell,
And gates it has yet eleven more,
One is conquered, now to the second go.


From the Fifth Gate (Putrefaction):

Quote
And likewise unless the matter putrefy,
It may in no way truly be altered,
Neither may thy elements be divided kindly,
Nor the conjunction of them perfectly celebrated,
That thy labour therefore be not frustrated,
The privitie of our putrefying well understand,
Before ever you take this work in hand.


And Putrefaction may thus be defined, after philosophers sayings,
To be the slaying of bodies,
And in our compound a division of things three,
Leading forth into the corruption of killed bodies,
And after enabling them unto regeneration,
For things being in the earth, without doubt,
Be engendered of rotation in the heavens about.

And therefore as I have said before,
Thine elements commixed and wisely coequate,
Thou keep in temperate heat,
Eschewing evermore that they be not incinerate by violent heat,
To dry powder, unprofitably rubificated,
But into powder black as a crow's bill,
With heat of the Bath or else of our dunghill.

Until the time that ninety nights be passed,
In moist heat keep them for any thing,
Soon after by blackness you shall espy,
That they draw close to putrefying,
Which after many colours you shall bring,
With patience easily to perfect whiteness,
And so thy seed in his nature will multiply.

. . .

Therefore at the beginning our stone thou take,
And bury each one in other within their grave,
Then equally between them a marriage make,
To lie together six weeks let them have their seed conceived,
Kindly to nourish and save,
From the ground of their grave not rising that while,
Which secret point doth many a one beguile.

This time of conception with easy heat abide,
The blackness showing shall tell you when they die,
For they together like liquid pitch that tide,
Shall swell and bubble, settle and putrefy,
Shining colours therein you shall espy,
Like to the rainbow marvellous to sight,
The Water then beginneth to dry upright.

For in moist bodies, heat working temperate,
Engenders blackness first of all,
Which is the assigned token of kindly Conjunction,
And of true Putrefaction: remember this,
For then perfectly to alter thou can not miss,
And thus by the gate of blackness thou must come in,
To light of Paradise in whiteness if you wilt win.

« Last Edit: September 27, 2007, 02:58:48 PM by Matt Koeske »
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Matt Koeske

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Re: The Alchemical Nigredo
« Reply #5 on: September 27, 2007, 03:30:26 PM »

From Aurifontina Chymica, 1680 :

Quote
You must expect to have it exceeding Black, within 40 days after you have put your Composition into the Glass over the Fire; if it be not black, proceed no further, for it is unrecoverable: it must be as black as the Ravens Head, and must continue a long time, and not utterly to lose it during five months.

If it be Orange colour, or half Red, within some small time after you have begun your Work, without doubt your Fire is too hot; for these are tokens that you have burnt the Radical humour and vivacity of the Stone.

Know ye not, that you may have Black or anything mixed or compounded together with moisture: But you must have Black which must come and proceed of Perfect Metalline Bodies, by a real Putrefaction, and to continue a long time.

As for the colours of Blew and Yellow, they signifie that the Solution and Putrefaction is not yet perfectly finished, and that the colours of our Mercury are not yet well mingled with the rest.

The Black aforesaid is an evident sign, that in the beginning the Matter and Composition doth begin to purge it self, and to dissolve into small Powder, less than the Motes in the Sun; or a glutinous Water, which feeling the heat, will ascend and descend in the Glass: at length it will thicken and congeal, and become like Pitch, exceeding Black; in the end it will become a Body, and Earth, which some call Terra foetida; for then by reason of the perfect Putrefaction, it will have a scent or stink like unto Graves newly opened, wherein the Bodies are not thorowly consumed. Hermes doth call it Terra foliis, but the proper name is Leton, which must be blanched and made white.
This blackness doth manifest a Conjunction of the Male and Female, or rather of the four Elements.
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Matt Koeske

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Re: The Alchemical Nigredo
« Reply #6 on: September 27, 2007, 03:51:40 PM »

From the Waterstone of the Wise, 1619:

Quote
. . . .  At first the earthly Body of the Sun is totally solved, and decomposed, and robbed of all strength (the Body, which was first of a muddy impurity, changing to a coal-black colour, called by the Sages the Raven's Head, within the space of forty days), and is thus despoiled of its Soul. The Soul is borne upward, and the Body, being severed from the Soul, lies for some time, as if dead, at the bottom of the still, like ashes. But if the fire is increased, and well tempered, the Soul gradually descends again in drops, and saturates and moistens its Body, and so prevents it from being completely burned and consumed. Then, again, it ascends and descends, the process being repeated seven times. The temperature you must keep at the same point from beginning to end. Haste slowly - for it is of the greatest importance that the influence of the fire should be brought to bear gently and gradually. . . .

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Re: The Alchemical Nigredo
« Reply #7 on: September 27, 2007, 03:54:51 PM »
 
From Adventures of an Unknown Philosopher, 1646 by Jean Albert Belin:

Quote
Corruption

After you have prepared the elements, you must submit them to the mineral power, to be differently mingled and altered, that according to their diverse mixtures and alterations the mineral virtue may chase away all foreign tinctures. The diverse imperfect colours which are in this subject being drawn out, until you see the crow's head appear, which is a mark of perfect corruption, for Art desires to kindle a true tincture, either of white or of red, by the means of the soul which being air and fire tinged either into white or red, having the whiteness of the air and the redness of fire. Now Art cannot communicate these two tinctures, but after having exterminated the others and arrived at black of the blackest, under which is whiteness, and under the white is red, for you cannot pass from one extreme to another without passing by the middle, nor mount up to the highest step without passing on the lower. Consider then wherein corruption does consist; extinguish the foreign colours by a different alteration and mixture of the elements, make them go into mourning for a sign of death, which shall be to you an assured token of an approaching life. Corrupt boldly to the end you may ingender; this operation is not too dangerous, only take care not too much press the Matter by the * lance [force] of fire; fourty days or thereabouts will let you see the issue.

. . .

When you shall see the crow's head, take your cuttle-axe, for you must cut it off and put the dove in its place. . . .
You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.

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