Understanding Stages In Alchemy Using Tarot

Transformation Tarot
Transformation Tarot

ALCHEMY AND TAROT: How to connect to the symbols and images in your deck.

Alchemical work was, and is, a rigorous mental and physical process. As incorporated into esoteric traditions, alchemy demands special qualities and virtues from those who intend to practice the Opus, the Work. Aloneness is often part of the requirement, because we usually experience a sense of aloofness or isolation from those we love and we must recognize this sense of separateness while still trying to integrate ourselves to every day realities and the need to live in harmony with our surroundings. The Great Work requires integration of inner and outer qualities in ourselves and our ability to keep the secret of the Opus. In other words, as we seek congruence and integration of inner and outer worlds, we must honor the inner silence, amid the turmoil of the transformation. Much of this psychological preparation reflected in alchemy still holds true for us today when we embark on our own search for wholeness. Whether using psychotherapy or soul retrieval, or quietude in meditation and contemplation, we must connect to something outside of ourselves that takes us out of one level and into another level of consciousness.

Alchemical processes of transformation and the psychic operations leading to individuation and integration of the opposites in our Self take place all the time, if we just learn to get out of the way. We all experience psychological stages that demand that we let go, burn, dissolve, regroup, restructure our thoughts and dispositions. The constant dissolution and coagulation is what characterizes alchemy as a whole. We can cry our eyes out, we can try to dissolve our ego with tears or inexplicable incendiary anger, but we better know how to put ourselves back together or else we might end up sick or hopelessly lost. It is important to go through the necessary operations to transcend the issue at hand by recognizing the problem or challenge, look at the ways that we might be blocking energies of change in our lives, and accept the challenge of change as a blessing. Death and rebirth is an important cycle in our lives, no matter how difficult this might be.

When we consciously engage in any kind of transformative work, our road to individuation becomes easier and more accessible. This is not an easy task. It takes tremendous personal commitment and self-discipline. Let’s look at some traditional alchemical stages and see if we can use the rituals in our own personal soul work:

Nigredo and Albedo are the two most common mental states we find in alchemy. Nigredo, blackness, is the heavy and black psychological state ruled by the metal lead and the restricting energies of the planet Saturn. This is the psychological state triggered by despair, deep sadness, loss, separation. Although nigredo relates closely to mortification and putrefaction, this state is present at the beginning of any process that demands of us action and purging or rescuing a part of our lost self. Any shadow work, any work that we consciously undertake to take back or rescue parts of our soul, has a nigredo aspect to it.

Albedo refers to a state of purification or whitening resulting from breaking down the prima materia (the matter that we are trying to transcend) into undifferentiated elements by using any of the alchemical processes. This is a purification process that sometimes takes several “washings” (or distillation) and that might entail further operations, such as a symbolic death and rebirth (Key 13) or a complete reversal of the way we used to think or act (key 12); or a sudden reckoning that completely dislodges us (like Key 16). In fact most of us reach, through much trial and error, an albedo stage that allows us to outgrow many situations or conflicts by entering a more mature level of awareness.

Most people go through life alternating between nigredo and albedo and never attempting to reach the last two stages called for in alchemy. Frankly, you get to where you need to go at any given moment. You must bare (and bear) what you can afford to; it is your life. There is no rush. You have other lifetimes to work these kinks out. And, if you believe in the concept of "parallel lives" then you know that at some level of beingness you are already closer to individuation and wholeness.

If we consciously continue with the alchemical processes, we might experience a third stage called the citronitis or yellow stage, which is usually associated with fermentation, the spiritization of the matter or substance. This yellow stage is the first hint that personal transmutation or the making of gold is finally within our reach. (See Dennis Hauck, The Emerald Tablet: Alchemy for Personal Transformation, p. 232.)

The fourth mental stage, rubedo, signals the birth of a new psychological attitude or approach to our lives. The color red serves to remind us of this new birth. In some alchemical texts we find a red rose, for example, to signal this purified and perfected mental stage. I like to visualize this rubedo state as the flower, the red rose, that comes out of any major transformational work.

The sequence of operations required to complete the Great Work is elusive at best. Calcinatio is usually designated as the first operation, perhaps because of its connection to fire as the primal energy and itsnuminous symbology. Chemically, calcinatio entails the intense heating of a solid to eliminate all water and any other elements that would volatilize it. Jung assigned fire to the libido; thus, calcinatio is performed on “the primitive shadow side, which harbors hungry, instinctual desirousness and is contaminated with the unconscious.” (See Edinger)

Active imagination is important at every stage, not only in the way we identify the prima materia but also in how we engage the operations. We must establish a direct dialog with a part of our self we are denying or suppressing, or we should try identify which psychic energy needs to be purified and put in the bottle or alchemical vessel to be subjected to the process. How we manage this internal dialog will determine our level of success. In calcinatio, for example, we are actually frustrating instinctual desires; but as we grow older there are other energies that we need to purify, or distill, so we must burn the nonessential. In fact, all these processes are going on all the time within us.

After the element of fire we have water through the process called solutio. Solutio allows us to liquefy or dissolve the rigid and static parts of the personality which resist change. This is usually where most of our personal challenges are processed and transmuted. Chemically, solutio represents the capacity of mercury to dissolve or amalgamate with gold or silver, an essential quality we need in order to reach higher levels of awareness as we consciously proceed with the opus magnum. Solutio allows the return of differentiated matter to its original undifferentiated state, a regression that symbolizes a return to the womb. On the other hand, solutio could also be experienced as dismemberment or fragmentation, so the best way to express it would be as some sort of dissolving of matter, where a part of our persona, personality or ego is dissolved and eventuality re-structured. The usual “solvents” that cause dissolution are strong emotions such as love, lust, extreme anger or deep personal loss. I find dissolution or solutio in my work more often than calcinatio, as a deep emotional need in many clients. It could very well be my own approach. After all, fire and water dissolve and bring us back to essentials. But one (fire) subjects us to a more dramatic and radical transformation because there is something about water that calls for gradual, going with the flow kind of, movement that we just don’t get with fire energies.

Solutio is usually followed by coagulatio, by some kind of solidifying, fixity or reconstituting of the ego. Interesting enough, both solutio (water) and coagulatio (earth) are “female” elements or principles and both can symbolize the beginning and the end of the Opus.  Dissolve and coagulate, solutio and coagulatio, are constantly going on within ourselves. But coagulatio at lower transformational or developmental levels is just another fixation, a concretization that can be just a temporary or (even worse) a quick fix that eventually leads to a return to solutio or to sublimatio.

In coagulatio the ego has an opportunity to reconstitute itself, improve, become more resilient and move forward into a higher level of awareness. Coagulatio is associated with the images of creation, with the world of manifestation in Qabalah and with Mother Earth. At its highest potential, coagulatio could become the last operation in alchemy, as is the case in Hermetism: “The body is made spiritual and the spirit is made corporeal. Coagulation transcends both heaven and earth and produces a new incarnation that can survive in both realms.” (see Dennis William Hauck, The Emerald Tablet, p. 272)

Sublimatio, which turns matter into air by volatilizing and elevating it, is a mental process we use daily, anytime we try to gain a new perspective into anything we are dealing with by separating ourselves from the object of inquiry and looking at it from a distance. Sublimatio helps us establish a new relationship with a challenge or issue we cannot understand first hand. In psychoanalysis sublimatio allows us to name our fears and to bring clarity to a given situation. By doing so it lifts us and helps us release the heavy weight that so often is followed by blackness or nigredo. The sense of release and elevation of sublimatio is always connected with clarity and new levels of awareness. This is the alchemical operation that releases the spirit from matter and helps bring levity and lightness to our load.

In truth, I believe that most of these processes happen to us unawares, especially at first. I imagine that our guides and teachers eventually tire of our neglect or indifference or just plain denial and they take the matter (of our soul) into their own hands. For me, alchemy represents one of our most basic and useful transformational archetypes. In modern times, alchemy as a transformational tool symbolizes our “Path of Return” to the unity of the Self and the realization of “at-one-ment.”

Learn to use the tarot cards to help you identify how you are feeling a given situation or challenge at any given moment. Use the cards to understand your psychic field, the archetypes ruling your mind or the event or the energies around the various persons involved; find strategies to reach an albedo or resolution. Ask the cards what needs to be done, what are you avoiding; what needs clarification; how you are deceiving yourself. Dare to ask, write down the cards your receive and take the time to link the energies in the spread with your own psyche, with your own heart, with your subconscious. Be humble, be open, and like the High Priestess would remind us, we must be still, we must dare, we must access knowledge in complete fluidity, in silence, without any hidden agenda or expectations, and with an open heart. This is how we search for Truth.

All of us either choose or are given the challenge to walk in the dark in order to reach higher awareness. Through fires of anger or desperation and tears of anguish and fear we learn to name our dragons. Only then can we bring in the candle of albedo that can light our path, if only for a few steps along the way, until we stumble again in the dark and consciously reach out for the new prima materia that we need to redeem through the Great Work of transformation and alchemy.

Transformation Tarot
Transformation Tarot


Alchemical images from Michael Maier's Atalanta Fugiens, 1618
from Manly P. Hall's collection, PRS