Alchemical Psychology: Why does it matter?

backgrounds-world-fantastic-wallpapers-70497One of Hillman’s last gifts to us before his death, Alchemical Psychology, is perhaps one of the most important contributions to Jungian thought because it sheds light on the importance of alchemical metaphors for the soul’s journey. For many followers of Jung, myself included, the difficulty of penetrating the alchemical mysteries in order to grasp Jung’s fascination with it, has been a daunting and mysterious task. Hillman’s book brings many fresh and meaningful insights to this arcane subject matter, and allows us to glimpse behind the veil. I feel he peels away the layers, using poetic but modern language, unlike Jung, whose language and train of thought is often very dense and labyrinthian.

One of the ideas that Hillman throws into question is the whole notion of the goal of individuation, one of the sacred tenets of Jungian depth psychology.  He feels that inherent in this concept is the idea of the goal as something to be obtained – the end product of a linear process that proceeds through stages.  If one were to become fully ‘individuated’, totally at one with the Self, or fully enlightened – to use an Eastern metaphor – then one would have achieved the goal – or as it is imagined in alchemy – one would have attained the gold or the treasure of the highest value.

Hillman asks, why does the psyche invent goals? And what do goals do for the soul? Hillman quotes Jung as saying, “ The goal is important only as an idea; the essential thing is the opus which leads to the goal: that is the goal of a lifetime.” In other words, Hillman explains, the goal-idea serves primarily to impel the psyche into the opus.

“ We shall have extraordinary and marvelous goals, like gold and pearls, elixirs and healing stones of wisdom, because then we shall be motivated to stay the course, that via longissima called a lifetime. Were the goal not imagined as gold, the highest value possible, were the goal not healing, were redemption and immortality not promised in the image at the outset, who would risk the leaden despair, tortured mortifications, ageing putrefactions, the sludge, and the corrosive fires? An inflated vision of supreme beauty is a necessary fiction for the soul-making opus we call our lifetime.”

In exploring the image of the pearl as the goal, he addresses the notion of the materia prima, another fundamental precept in alchemical language. In this particular image, the sand in the oyster shell is the material prima – the ‘worthless gritty bit we call a symptom or problem, (which) when worked on constantly, slowly becomes coated. An organic process turns the bit of grit into a coagulated jewel. The work goes on in the depth of the sea, where light does not reach, inside the hermetically sealed oyster. Then it must be fished up and pried loose, extracted. It is not enough to have a pearl in the depth of the sea, not enough to be gifted with riches and blessed with talents. For they may remain there, still sealed away in the oyster when we are sealed away in the coffin. It is a ‘goal hard to attain’ – it must be worked at as does the oyster, and it must be dived for, deep into the dissolving waters.”

Hillman tells us that concealed jewels or hidden treasure are of no use to the world.  As we do our own soul work, we also must bring these gifts into the world.

“Rather than emphasis upon the closed vessel as the modus for self-knowledge, we are to ‘freely give.’ Revelation. If the goal is an idea that motivates the opus all along the way, then ideas of display and exposure must lead the mind. Extraverted display not as the last stage of a long process of introverted secrecy; instead, disclosure. Man revealed is man known; as if self-knowledge were only truly that in the act of revealing that self.”


This is an extraordinary statement – self-knowledge is only truly that when we reveal the self, when we ‘truly give’ of ourselves to the world.  Jung tells us that alchemy has two main purposes, “the rescue of the human soul and the salvation of the cosmos” – in other words, they go hand in hand. He goes on to say “……From the alchemical perspective the human individual may be a necessary focus but cannot be a sufficient one; the rescue of the cosmos is equally important. Neither can take place without the other. Soul and world are inseparable: anima mundi.”

Watch this stunning video of earth from the astronauts’ perspective: