Alchemical work was rooted in the philosophy of a gradual but irreversible process of improvement in nature.
The fundamental idea was that Nature was perfectible and that it was in a perpetual process of self-improvement. All metals tend, or wish, to become gold, and they do so over centuries of change. However, man can intervene and quicken the process of natural growth. This human implication into the course of Nature was accompanied by a feeling of sacredness and reverence toward her. This was not inert, inferior matter: but matter hiding the very seeds of divinity. It was by delving deep into the heart of Nature that the alchemist discovered the secrets of Creation and immortality.
In the dry way, the ‘first matter’ – which was usually a metal such as gold, tin orcopper – was immolated by fire, vitriol, antimony or aqua regia. This process wascalled calcination. In the wet way, the same reduction was achieved throughputrefaction (6). The result was dark ashes – hence the first stage of the work was called nigredo (black).
Nigredo was a destructive, sorrowful stage – the moment where an existing thing (a gold piece, for instance) was brought to dissolution. To symbolize this dark moment alchemists often used figurative images like the Black Crow, the Raven or the Toad (7).
Continuing on the right path, often an intermediary state, the so-called ‘Peacock’s Tail’ occurred– an explosion of colors in the flask. Associated with the goddess Venus, the peacock was a beautiful display of all the colors of the work (8).
Mixing other substances in the flask, the blackness of the matter eventually disappeared to make room for a whiteness called albedo. This sudden inversion of colors was a sign that the work was going in the right direction. Albedo was usually portrayed in the form of a White Eagle, Dove or Swan (9, 10). It was also associated with silver, and the moon (11).The whitening was compared to the coming of dawn after a long night, and embodied as a white Virgin (12). This was a moment of rejoicing, of hope; it was a proof that darkness would not last forever.
The next state was citrinitas, yellowing, a stage that many authors after the 15th century tended to suppress, or rather compress into the last one, rubedo. While the albedo represented the moon – or female, citrinitas referred to the sun – or male. The union of male and female (the so-called ‘chemical wedding’) was often a symbol of the Work. From their conjunction the hermaphroditic offspring-philosophical Mercury was born.
This phase –rubedo – was the triumph of the Work: the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone in the form of a transparent red stone. This Stone, often portrayed as a Phoenix, was supposed to perfect anything from metals to human beings, bestowing long life or immortality (13).
The four-stage Work could never have been accomplished without the so-called Philosophical Mercury, which was the unifying spirit enlivening the matter, the divine flow without which transmutation was impossible. Philosophical Mercury was not common mercury, although mercury could be seen as an image of the philosophical one. The purpose of the whole alchemical process was in fact, the fixation –solidification of this elusive spirit, often imagined as a bird. The only way Mercury could be transformed into matter was by passing through the colorful four-phase journey.
As a final note, I should add that the four-stage alchemical Work became the basis of the Jungian psychology of the Self (14). Believing that alchemists in fact did not pursue physical transmutation, but spiritual one, Jung sought to express the process of achieving the Self through alchemical imagery.