Alchemy and Jungian Psychology
For the last thirty years of his life, alchemy was Jung’s major pre-occupation. Though this fact may seem odd or embarrassing to some, it obliges us, if we call ourselves Jungians, to take it seriously. Jung evidently felt that something about alchemy, above all other possible sources and parallels, including mythology, theology, anthropology, fairy tales or philosophy, made it pre-eminent in what it had to offer to analytical psychology. What most readers find difficult about alchemy, and Jung’s works on it, is its obscurity. This stems primarily from the paradoxical quality of the imagery. Obvious examples are the ‘stone that is not a stone’, the dry water (aqua sicca), the pharmakon that is both medicine and poison. While the imagery that we find in myth and fairy tale makes some sense and hangs together in a comprehensible narrative, that of alchemy feels impossible to grasp. What are we to make of the most important ‘person’ in alchemy: Mercurius? He is at once a liquid metal, an hermaphrodite, ‘our water’, ‘our fire’, the prima materia and ultima materia, the philosopher’s stone, dark and light, visible and invisible, young and old, hard and soft, fixed and volatile. He is the dragon, the lion, the uroboros, the sea, the shadow, the virgo, the fugitive stag, the eagle, the wind, the bride etc. etc. Alchemy feels too often like a quicksand into which the rational mind simply sinks.
Rather than, on the one hand, giving up on it with a shrug, or, on the other, pursuing it under the assumption that it will all click into place like a huge puzzle, a more fruitful attitude to alchemy would be to embrace the very confusion and ego-frustrating chaos of the thing. If we do this we will see that what we have here is not comparable to the stories and images of myth. It is a new thing. Mercurius is not the same as the Greek god Hermes, who took his place in the pantheon of Greek religion and was worshipped, and whose exploits we can read about in the Homeric hymn. Hermes has certain fixed attributes which we see in action in the myths which concern him, but about Mercurius there is nothing we can say without the opposite also being true. The alchemists who formulated these paradoxical ideas seem to be dealing with a new level of understanding, which can only be expressed in this difficult form. It would seem that the alchemists are actually intending to undermine the logical understanding which is the hallmark of ego-consciousness. Cause and effect, subject vs. object, inductive reasoning: these are all frustrated by alchemical understanding.
It is the idea of wholeness that underlies Jung’s concept of the Self and the process of individuation. However, psychic wholeness is a difficult thing to write about. In the 1920’s Jung wrote extensively on the mandala as an image of wholeness, but what was missing from this approach was what Niel Micklem has called ‘the shadow of wholeness’: paradox. As he points out, the idea of wholeness seems at first glance to be trouble free. “But the psychological reality tells a different story; its most important image, the self, reveals it as a source of ambiguity and conflict. It can make or mar, purify or destroy.” Given this, one can see why the study of alchemy became so important to Jung. As we have seen, alchemy’s images do full justice to this paradoxical reality. Mercurius is nothing if not ‘a source of ambiguity and conflict’ who can ‘make or mar, purify or destroy’. Moreover, alchemy’s emphasis on the opus as a process contrasts with, for example, the static quality of the mandala. Jung describes how Mercurius acts in the analytical vessel: “The elusive, deceptive, ever-changing content that possesses the patient like a demon now flits about from patient to doctor and, as the third party in the alliance, continues its game, sometimes impish and teasing, sometimes really diabolical”. As an analogy to the analytical process, alchemy could not be bettered.
Perhaps the most important dynamic of the alchemical opus from the point of view of psychology is the relation of the artifex to the work. Just as psychology must take into account the presence of the human subject (Jung is always reminding us that the human mind is always implicated in the reality that consciousness apprehends as independent of itself) so alchemy shows us an observing, reflecting subject, the alchemist, producing the images in the retort through his own operations. This takes us an important step further than mythological thinking can go. In mythological thought the gods are the true subject. They come into existence and act without the contribution of the human mind: “Man is surrounded on all sides, as it were, by mythological reality,” as Giegerich puts it.
In alchemical thought, by contrast, we have not only the phenomenon of transformation in the retort, but also the adept who works through the operations and observes their result. We have, for example, not only the image of the nigredo, but the attitude of the artifex, (who describes it, for example, as the ‘longed for nigredo’). The philosopher’s stone is not merely out there to be passively received, but something that must be worked toward. Hence Jung’s emphasis on the aspect of the opus in which spirit must be redeemed from matter: “[The alchemist]…reaches the conclusion… that complete assimilation to the Redeemer would enable him, the assimilated, to continue the work of redemption in the depths of his own psyche. It is by virtue of the wisdom and art which he himself has acquired, or which god has bestowed upon him, that he can liberate the world-creating Nous or Logos, lost in the world’s materiality, for the benefit of mankind.”
Naturally, the work of the alchemist can only be half the story. As Jung was fond of saying, nothing can be achieved if not deo concedente. Nonetheless there is a notable contrast here with the Christian attitude, wherein the redemption of mankind is a work attributed entirely to God, in the shape of the saviour, Christ.
Psychologically this balance in alchemy of observation and reflection on the one hand, and engagement on the other, must parallel the analyst’s attitude to his work. For example, in Jung’s descriptions of active imagination we find this characteristic balance of detachment and complete involvement: “Although, to a certain extent, [the active imaginer] looks on from outside, impartially, he is also an acting and suffering figure in the drama of the psyche.”
A similar attitude is required in the analytic vessel. Though it is important for the analyst to be able to engage fully with the patient, and his dream, without detachment it would be impossible for reflection to occur and the result would be a hopeless folie á deux. Needless to say, an attitude of complete clinical detachment, without any empathic feeling involvement, would be equally disastrous.
I have concentrated here on a few points which, for me, stand out as important. There are, of course, numerous other aspects of alchemy which I could with profit have drawn out. I have concentrated on the idea that alchemy provided for Jung a theoria, which served as a theoretical basis for depth psychology.
A second approach, which Hillman has taken up, is to examine the language of alchemy. As he points out, one of the problems which has bedevilled psychology has been the tendency to hypostatise words and concepts which began life simply as metaphorical tools. Freud’s id and ego, Jung’s anima and persona started out as useful new ways of looking at psychological phenomena but rapidly become literalised into abstract and numinous things. Perhaps the most numbing examples are the use of the words ‘Self’ and even ‘unconscious’ as if they referred to definable objects which we can somehow own. Alchemical language, by contrast, allows us to stay close to image: its words are thing-words, image-words, craft-words. It talks of personality in terms of concrete material: salt, sulphur, mercury, and lead. It describes states of soul in terms of events that we can touch and see: albedo, nigredo. When we use these words, and the whole array of sweating kings, dogs and bitches, heavy earths, ascending birds, stenches, urine, and blood, we remain in touch with image and this keeps us in the realm of psyche. Similarly, the operations of the work are all described in concrete terms of enormous variety. In contrast to the abstractions of ‘analysing the transference’, ‘regressing in the service of the ego’, ‘displaced affect’, ‘showing hostility’, and ‘syntonic identifying’, alchemy gives us ‘evaporating away the vaporousness’, ‘calcining’ so as to burn passions down to dry essences, ‘condensing and congealing’ cloudy conditions so as to get hard clear drops from them, ‘coagulating and fixing’, ‘dissolving and putrefying’, ‘mortifying and blackening’. Contrary to popular belief, alchemy is both linguistically precise and metaphorically rich. It supplies far greater precision to our perception in soul work than the dry and windy abstractions of theory can allow.
A third approach, no less valid, concentrates on the parallels between the operations of the alchemical opus and the processes of transformation which occur in the psyche during individuation. In this way we can look at the importance of alchemy for the practice of psychotherapy. What follows is intended to be seen in the light of all three approaches. I propose to examine a particularly rich alchemical image, that of the alchemical fountain in the Rosarium, in an attempt to bring out some aspects of alchemy’s importance for Jungian psychology. I shall go on to look at a dream which contains some of the same themes. This image of the fountain has been described as containing in nuce the whole alchemical opus. I make no claim to exhausting the possible symbolic contents of such a fertile image. I shall concentrate on the aspects which, as I see it, also appear in the dream. This means that I shall not be addressing the number symbolism of the picture, though this is undoubtedly of great importance. It seems sensible to attempt to do justice to one small area rather than sketchily summarise the whole.
The picture portrays a fountain with water flowing from three pipes, labeled lac virginis (virgin’s milk), acetum fontis (vinegar of the spring) and aqua vitae (water of life). The circular basin of the fountain is inscribed thus: Unus est Mercurius mineralis, Mercurius vegetabilis, Mercurius animalis. The outside of the basin bears six lozenges and it rests on three feet, apparently lions’. Around the fountain, in the four corners of the picture are four six-pointed stars. A fifth star appears immediately above the fountain. On either side of this star are the sun and moon, and above it, what appears to be a two-headed serpent, breathing out smoke which descends on both sides of the picture, forming the background to the four stars. Around the serpent are the words, animal, vegetable and mineral. The motto inscribed below the picture reads as follows:
We are the metals’ first nature and only source
The highest tincture of the Art is made through us.
No fountain and no water has my like
I make both rich and poor both whole and sick.
For healthful can I be and poisonous.
It is clear from this verse that the picture is a portrayal of the Mercurial water – the aqua permanens. This water is of the utmost importance in alchemy. As the alchemists frequently say, we should not confuse this fountain or this water with an ordinary (literal) fountain or ordinary (literal) water. This water is the transforming substance par excellence. Jung says, “The philosophical water is the stone or the prima materia itself; but at the same time it is also its solvent…”
Mercurius is always paradoxical and in the shape of the aqua permanens this comes through in its power to both harm and help, heal and kill. It is important to emphasise that it does not sometimes heal and sometimes kill. We are not dealing here with an either/or. The mercurial water is both healthful and poisonous at the same time. This is why Mercurius is portrayed as an hermaphrodite. It is not that he can be male or female. He is both simultaneously. Naturally, this perspective is enormously difficult for ego consciousness to do justice to. It frustrates and annoys us. Nonetheless, it gives us a clue as to the kind of transformation alchemy is concerned with; one that loosens and dissolves our everyday ego structures, and by opening up the deathly nigredo state of ‘not knowing’ allows something new to be born.
The picture of the fountain is like an initial dream in that it foreshadows and summarises the whole opus, which is then amplified in the remaining series of pictures. This is a useful reminder of one aspect of the nature of the psychic image. While it may appear to us as a series of narrative events (first we do this, then we do this, then this happens and… finally we get the philosopher’s stone!), the opus is actually outside of linear time. We encounter the same problem when we look at dreams. Let us say that I dream that I am chased by wolves and then turn to face them, and find a precious box half buried in the dirt. It is a mistake to say, ‘If you turn and face up to your fears, then you will be able to lay hands on something of great value’ because the turning and the finding are the same thing. There is no causal link between the two. So it is that in the image of the fountain Mercurius is poisonous and health-giving at the same time. (“The water of Mercury, also called the never failing fountain, or the water of life, which nevertheless contains the most malignant poison.”) In the linear narrative of the opus, the nigredo phase appears to precede the albedo phase, first death then birth, but in fact the death is the birth. I hope some of this will become more clear as we look more closely at the fountain image. In the mean time, we have to differentiate the different aspects of Mercurius, because it is almost impossible to see them together at the same time.
Let us just remind ourselves about the importance of Mercurius in the alchemical work. He is the divine spirit hidden in the depths of matter, the lumen naturae, the very spirit of life. Speaking of the aqua permanens, Jung says, “What [the alchemists] evidently had in mind was a ubiquitous and all-pervading essence, an anima mundi and the “greatest treasure,” the innermost and most secret treasure of man. There is probably no more suitable psychological concept for this than the collective unconscious, whose nucleus and ordering “principle” is the self” . Mercurius is not only the matter of the work (prima materia) but also all the processes to which this matter is subjected. To summarise then, he is simultaneously the matter of the opus, the process of the opus and the agent by which all this is effected. We can differentiate this into four aspects: First, he is the dark destructive force which kills outmoded states of being, dissolving them into the prima materia, second he is the life-giving elixir that washes, purifies and reanimates. Third, he is the medium of conjunction of Sol and Luna, by virtue of his hermaphroditism. This is what Kelly means when he says, “Unite them [Sol and Luna] through the mediation of Mercury”. Finally, he provides the nourishment for the infant stone that is born from the marriage of Sol and Luna.
For Jung, Mercurius is a projection symbolizing the unconscious itself. More particularly he is, as Grinnell says, “a symbol of the subjective factor, the unconscious as a dynamic energetic substance correlated with other aspects of energy composing the cosmos”. He is then, not only the primordial undifferentiated unconscious which makes up the prima materia, but the very factor which works itself out through a whole series of differentiations. “He appears in the discriminating consciousness working to recreate again a unus mundus.” This is the goal of the whole alchemical work, the hierosgamos, the union of consciousness and the unconscious. In the particular image of the fountain, we see Mercurius symbolizing a constantly renewed and renewing movement of interest and awareness, flowing endlessly in and out of the unconscious. This helps to take us away from a static vision of the unconscious psyche.
The mercurial fountain we are examining has water flowing from three spouts. Here we have an attempt to differentiate three different aspects of the mercurial water. That these are fundamentally identical is shown by the fact that the three spouts of water both originate in the same source and immediately rejoin in the basin below. Let us examine each in turn.
Acetum fontis, the vinegar of the spring
The Rosarium says, “In alchemy there is a certain noble substance… in the beginning thereof there is wretchedness with vinegar, but in the end joy with gladness” . In the Philosophia Maturata we find this: “And thus thou hast the blood of the green lyon, called the Secret Water, and most sharp Vinegar, by which all Bodies may be reduced to their first Matter”. Jung says, “Acetum fontis is a powerful corrosive water that dissolves all created things and at the same time leads to the most durable of all products, the mysterious lapis” . This aspect of the mercurial water is to do with dissolving, penetrating, breaking down. If we are to differentiate the killing, destructive side of Mercurius from the healthy life-giving side, this is where we find it. At the beginning of the work, there must be a reduction to the prima materia, there must be a state of chaos or nothing can start. The parallel in analysis is the early stage in which the structures of differentiation that we have developed over years start to be dissolved. It is invariably experienced negatively, as a painful loss of bearings. The structures which we have erected laboriously around our personality are being dismantled, and not surprisingly this feels like hell. It has been compared to Dionysian dismemberment, and indeed there are parallels between the Dionysian experience and that of the solutio. Dionysus is primarily a liquid moist principle. “Water … is the element in which Dionysus is at home,” says Otto. As we can see in Euripides’ Bacchae, Dionysus works to break down old structures. He does so by encouraging a containment of the ego in a larger psychic vessel. In myth anyone who resists this dissolution of ego structure is subjected to dismemberment and death. In alchemy the solutio often coincides with the nigredo phase of the work. Philalethes says, “The blackness becomes more pronounced day by day until the substance assumes a brilliant black colour. This black is a sign that the dissolution is accomplished”. Poisoned by the penetrating acetum fontis the substance dies, blackens and putrefies. Although the death is necessary, it is nonetheless a harrowing and sometimes dangerous stage of the opus. It requires nothing less than a descent into the unconscious, the matrix or womb of our psychic life. The Rosarium pictures make clear that this death and putrefaction occur at the same time as the conception. As the alchemists were fond of quoting: “Truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Aqua Vitae, Water of Life
Chemically aqua vitae is a distilled alcoholic spirit. Just as such a spirit is popularly supposed to have revivifying powers, so the alchemical aqua vitae revives the blackened dead matter of the nigredo. In a sense, it reverses the effect of the vinegar. Artephius equates the aqua vitae with the dew of grace, which washes and whitens the blackened body of the stone after putrefaction and leads to the albedo. “This aqua vitae, or water of life, being rightly ordered and disposed with the body, it whitens it and converts or changes it into its white colour.”
After the tension, misery and self-loathing of the nigredo state the albedo comes as a huge relief. Jung says, “The loosening up of cramped and rigid attitudes corresponds to the solution and separation of the elements by the aqua permanens… the water is a soul or spirit, that is a psychic “substance,” which now in its turn is applied to the initial material. The situation is now gradually illuminated as is a dark night by the rising moon…this dawning light corresponds to the albedo” . Inexplicably everything begins to seem all right. Hillman says the albedo refers to “feelings of positive syntonic transference, of things going easily and smoothly, a gently sweet safety in the vessel, insights rising, synchronistic connections, resonances and echoes… all leading to the invulnerable conviction of the primacy of psychic reality as another world apart form this world” . Calid equates it with the quintessence: “This is the true aqua vitae of the philosophers; the true spirit so many have fought for, and which has been desired of all wise men, which is called the Essence, Quintessence, Spirit.” In this sense it is the living water Christ identifies with in John’s gospel: “Whoever drinks the water that I shall give him will never suffer thirst any more. The water that I shall give him shall be an inner spring always welling up for eternal life.” It has the power of Christ to resurrect the dead. The psychological implications of this will be examined when we look at the dream.
Lac Virginis, The Virgin’s Milk
The Lac Virginis is the mercurial medium of conjunction for the union of Sol and Luna at the chemical wedding. At the point of conjunction it becomes one with the opposites and so ceases to be known under that name. Moreover, the philosopher’s child, which is born of the union of Sol and Luna, is nourished by virgin’s milk, and this is the food which allows him to grow to maturity. Michael Maier says, “The stone should be fed, just as a child, with the milk of a virgin”. This substance is then something which transforms the opposites, transcending their inevitable conflict, and allowing something new to be born in consciousness. In Jungian psychology it is the apperception of the psychic image, the living symbol, which is behind the operation of what Jung calls the transcendent function. It is only after the full painful experience of living with the tension of the opposites that such a movement can occur. Only then are we nourished by the virgin mother which is the unconscious psyche. It is in accepting the helplessness of our ego-attitude in the face of primordial conflict, and thus admitting our childlikeness, that we open ourselves up to this mothering. The son of the philosophers is the divine child, the Self.
I now intend to examine a dream which features some of these themes, and which will allow me to pursue an analysis of further aspects of the Rosarium fountain, in the context of a living dream image. My intention is not to discuss the personal aspects of the dream, but to draw out and amplify the archetypal motifs which are relevant to the alchemical solutio.
Dream: I am up at the very north of Scotland, at a place called St. Bees, which is a kind of cross between a church and a fortress. I have been here before. I am with some others. We go in. We speak to the priest. I know that there is a font there which must be seen, but it doesn’t seem to be on general display. He agrees to show it to us. He shows us it in a private room. It consists of a round hollow in a rectangular block which is made of an unknown material, a metal that is very hard and cannot be worked or damaged.
The word font comes from the Latin font-em or fontes (baptismi), which literally means fountain or fountains (of baptism). It is a vessel which contains the water to be used in the sacrament of baptism. This rite is closely related to the alchemical solutio in which, a mystery of death and rebirth is accomplished through immersion in the aqua permanens. Baptism consisted originally (and still consists, in some churches) in a total immersion, which symbolizes drowning, and stands for the death and rebirth of the person in a cleansed and rejuvenated form. (Colossians II.12: “Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.”) Eliade summarises the symbolic meaning of baptism thus: “Immersion in water symbolizes a return to the preformal, a total regeneration, a new birth, for immersion means a dissolution of forms, a reintegration into the formlessness of pre-existence; and emerging form the water is a repetition of the act of creation in which form was first expressed” This bears on the psychological aspects of the solutio already discussed, in which ego structures are dissolved into a superior containing viewpoint, associated with the Self. Hence in Christianity baptism is seen as a union of the individual with Christ. (Romans, VI, 3-4: “Know ye not that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death; that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”) The image of baptism thus brings together the deadly, poisonous aspect of the mercurial water as acetum fontis and the life-giving restorative aspect as aqua vitae. The alchemists were happy to take up the image of baptism as one that was suitable for their transformative work. It is specifically identified with the Solutio, “which signifies the total dissolution of the imperfect body in the aqua divina, its submersion, mortification, and burial” .
Another aspect of the baptismal font is its identification with the womb. The immersion in the divine water is also a gestation in the uterus. We find this aspect brought out in the story of Gabricius and Beya where Gabricius is absorbed into the womb of his sister . In Ripley’s Cantilena the old king cries:
“Else I God’s Kingdom cannot enter in:
And therefore, that I may be Borne agen,
I’ll Humbled be into my Mother’s Breast,
Dissolve to my First Matter, and there rest.”
The emphasis here is on the maternal character of the prima materia and indeed of the unconscious psyche. Here vessel, water and process are identical: “One is the stone, one the medicine, one the vessel, one the procedure and one the disposition,” as the Rosarium puts it. The Aurora Consurgens says that the natural vessel is the aqua permanens itself.
The maternal aspect of the font and the aqua permanens was particularly important for the dreamer. He had lost his mother at a relatively early age, and this had contributed for many years to a difficulty in making contact with his feelings. His last dream before that of the font contained an image of the death of his grandmother and her four sons. So the dream appears to signal a transition of the mother image, and the differentiated four functions, onto a new dynamic level: that of the alchemical opus. Here the maternal appears in the vas hermeticum, the baptismal vessel. Artephius wrote that mercury as the bath is called “the vas naturae, the belly, the womb…It is the royal fountain in which the king and queen bathe themselves.” In the context of the dream this must point to a new conscious relation to the mother, the possibility of a return to and immersion in the hitherto cut-off spring of feeling, thus allowing a rehydration of a dessicated emotional landscape. We should also note that the image of baptism incorporates here the aspect of the mercurial water which is imaged as the lac virginis, where the stone as filius philosphorum is nourished by Mercurius as virgin mother.
The church/fortress location redoubles the vessel imagery. The seventh key of Basil Valentine uses the fortress metaphor for the vas Hermeticum: “You must therefore strongly fortify it with three impassible and well-guarded walls, and let the one entrance be well protected.” The vessel keeps the substances sealed in so that there is no danger either of outside elements entering or of the contents escaping. In the context of the dream the meaning would seem to point to the importance of concentrated inner work with a withdrawal from the distractions of the outside world, and this is supported by the fact that the font is kept in a private secret room, not on general display. Theobaldus de Hoghelande says, “The secret of everything and life is in a water… the greatest secret is in water”. As Jung points out, “[The secret] points, in a word, to the presence of an unconscious content, which exacts from consciousness a tribute of constant regard and attention. With the application of interest the continual perception and assimilation of the effects of the “secret” become possible. This is beneficial to the conduct of life, because the contents of the unconscious can then exert their compensatory effect and, if taken note of and recognised, bring about a balance that promotes health.”
Here vessel and stone are one; the font is made out of a substance which “is very hard and cannot be worked or damaged”. This is a common characteristic of the lapis, it refers to the irreducible quality of the Self; all superficial and unnecessary aspects of the personality have been as it were washed away. It is equivalent to the incorruptible diamond body of Chinese alchemy. It relates to a crucial change of attitude which comes about over time through the repeated solution and coagulation of the opus. Gradually ego and self become more closely aligned and this is seen in “a certain immunity to affect and an ability to see the archetypal aspect of existence” . This ‘diamond’ stone is identical to the vessel in that it is created by the very containment of the process. Jung describes something of this sort in the Visions Seminars. He has been talking about the importance of overcoming concupiscentia by putting anima or animus ‘into a bottle’, thus avoiding the danger of possession. Eventually the effect is that “you slowly get quiet and transform, and you will discover that in that bottle grows the stone…or the Lapis. In other words, that solidification or crystallization means that the situation has become habitual, and inasmuch as the self-control, or nonindulgence, has become a habit, it is a stone. The more it has become a habit, the harder, the stronger, that stone will be, and when it has become a fait accompli it is a diamond."
The form of the font in the dream is also relevant here. It is a round container set in a four-cornered block. This would seem to refer to the squaring of the circle, which is a popular image for the transformation of the four elements into the alchemical quintessence or fifth element. This symbolises the opus itself, and the crystalisation of the stone. In Dorn’s view the vessel must be made “by a kind of squaring of the circle.” Jung comments that this is “essentially a psychic operation, the creation of an inner readiness to accept the archetype of the self in whatever subjective form it appears."
Again then, the vas hermeticum and lapis are found to be identical. “It is the lapis itself and at the same time contains it; that is to say, the self is its own container.” Clearly the dream does not say that the lapis or quintessence has been achieved, but it does indicate that, by virtue of the dream-ego being shown the font, there is the possibility for the dreamer of achieving the kind of symbolic seeing (through) which is essential for individuation.
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