I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the beautiful mythological creature the phoenix and all that it embodies symbolically about death and rebirth. This reminded me of a paper I wrote in my Alchemy and the Hermetic Tradition class in grad school back in 2011. I analyzed a piece of art through an alchemical lens and explored the symbolism of it in relation to depth psychology. I can’t remember now what led me to select this particular piece of art to examine, but it’s an exciting image that offers a lot of reminders about the experience of the underworld and the journeys we all undergo in our movement towards self-awareness. I struggled to wrap my brain around some of the concepts of alchemy, but the way Professor Evans Lansing Smith approached it from a perspective of depth psychology (a key aspect of our program at Pacifica) helped me interpret some of the symbolism. Ultimately, because the material in this course was more challenging for me, I was very proud of this paper, which is included below.
Cosmic Chaos & Individuation
Through the branch of depth psychology, alchemy holds a significant presence in modernity. Though originally rooted in the quest for the elixir of life and the turning of other elements into gold, alchemy offers a wide range of metaphors and imagery for the psychology of the individual. Carl Gustav Jung revived the study of alchemy and integrated it into his own seminal work: “Through the study of these collective transformation processes and through understanding of alchemical symbolism I arrived at the central concept of my psychology: the process of individuation” (Jung, Memories). Individuation, “the attainment of the self,” is an important concept in depth psychology and in personal understanding and growth (Jung, Archetypes 106). The woodcut “Tableaux du temple des muses” by Michel Marolles (see fig. 1), duplicated in Johannes Fabricius’ Alchemy: The Medieval Alcehmists and their Royal Art, presents an image of the complex process of individuation (21). An analysis of this woodcut brings to life the various components contained in the process of individuation and allows for a richer understanding of the relationship between alchemical images and psychology.
The most powerful feeling projected from “Tableaux du temple des muses” (hereafter referred to as “Tableaux”) is chaos. As Fabricius’ caption indicates, the image depicts “the cosmic chaos unloosened by the initial procedures of the alchemical work” (21). This chaos is also representative of “man [being] overwhelmed by ideas and concepts from within, symbols and images” as they may appear in art and in dreams (von Franz 27). There are many significant symbols embedded in this woodcut, and close examination reveals the way they all work together to represent the early stage of individuation, which is akin to alchemical work. Though individuation is, by its very definition, something personally “unique” (von Franz 69), universal qualities that are always involved, and these are depicted in the “Tableaux.” Furthermore, although individuation implies “psychological totality” and “wholeness” (Fabricius 13), the steps to attaining it contain “the spirit of darkness” (Jung, Archetypes 251) akin to “real dangers of the alchemical art” (Fabricius 20).
The symbols in the “Tableaux” portray the role of opposites, signify the conscious and the unconscious, and present the four elements pertinent to alchemy. The wind gods, several animals (including the ram, scorpion, and scarab), Sagittarius the Archer, coniunctio, and the egg of the philosophers, each representative of alchemy and individuation, are also among the significant emblems depicted. Like the beginning of individuation, the initial foray into alchemical work “is characterized by feelings of frustration, bewilderment, dissociation, and disintegration” (Fabricius 20). The “Tableaux” visibly inspires all of these feelings. Furthermore, this “initial encounter” for the alchemist is involved with the “prima materia” (the primary material all things come from), which, according to the work of Jung, “may be conceived as a symbolic expression for an initial psychic situation he terms the ‘meeting with the shadow’” (Fabricius 20, 22). While facing the shadow is difficult, there can be no development, change, or rebirth without this opposition.
The primary goal for the alchemist is to find the elixir of life, to attain immortality. As von Franz explains “the hope for immortality . . . went at that time into alchemy, which explains how the imagery of the process of individuation got projected into this problem” (76). The psyche quests for rebirth and immortality as well, though not in such a literal manner. The process of individuation requires a certain type of psychic death, allowing the transformation from one form of self to a new form of self. According to Glen Slater, there is a certain “paradox in individuation: you are growing more into your uniqueness and character, but at the same time, paradoxically, you’re feeling more connected to the human story as a whole.” This connection to and participation in the interconnectedness of life is one way the individual spirit gains immortality.
Undergoing the parallel processes of alchemy and individuation on the quest for immortality essentially require a trip into the underworld, which is depicted in the chaos and darkness of the “Tableaux.” The individual must face this chaos and persevere or become trapped. The presence of opposites in the “Tableaux” reveals the struggle in this underworld battle. To begin with, images of both the conscious and unconscious are present. This is seen in the image of the moon eclipsing the sun, in the dominating presence of fire and water, and in the union of the coniunctio. Furthermore, art itself contains a union of opposites “because they [pictures] are created out of a collaboration of consciousness with the unconscious” (Abt 33). The conscious and unconscious are constants in everything we create, and in this particular image, they are especially formative. The image was created from the conscious and unconscious of Michel Marolles, it depicts the interplay between conscious and unconscious, and it is being analyzed through a method that inarguably is itself influenced by the conscious and unconscious. Indeed, all thought “[comes] from the unconscious, for without its cooperation you cannot produce anything” (von Franz 31). We cannot escape the conflicts in opposition or the power of the unconscious (and why would we really want to, for it is a great source of creativity and vitality), but an image such as the “Tableaux” can help us to understand and embrace them.
Symbols of the conscious and unconscious and of opposites in the “Tableaux” serve to demonstrate an important aspect of the hero journey, a motif demonstrated through the personal journey encountered in the processes of alchemy and individuation. As a part of this journey, “The hero . . . discovers and assimilates his opposite . . . either by swallowing or being swallowed” (Campbell, Hero 108). The “Tableaux” is filled with symbols that serve as reminders of this danger of being consumed by the underworld. The symbol of the moon eclipsing the sun in the image provides further representation of the underworld as the unconscious. In addition being representative opposites, the moon and sun also depict the unconscious and conscious, respectively (Abt 35; von Franz 100; Fabricius 25). This small symbol in the busy woodcut may at first be difficult to recognize (it appears in the top left quadrant of the image and above the lion), but the same symbol is clearly identified by Fabricius in M. Merian’s Emblema as “the new moon eclipsing the sun” (see fig. 2).
Since the moon “governs the life of the unmanifest world” (Fabricius 25), it is appropriate that the moon in the “Tableaux” covers the sun, which has “no darkness, no death in it” (Campbell, Pathways 102). The sun has no power in this underworld realm of the unconscious. Furthermore, “it seems to be an archetypal event that the sun, the fireball, must go down or be dissolved in order that the renewal of the personality can become possible” (K.R.H. Frick, Splednor Solis qtd. in Abt 91). Night, darkness, and moon rule over this process of transformation seen in the early stages of the alchemical process and individuation. The presence of these symbols is further indication that we are dealing with an underworld realm.
Though the prominent moon is the primary planetary symbol in the “Tableaux,” the power of the sun, and the consciousness, is present in other symbols. The scarab (located to the right center of the image) is associated with consciousness, “the rising sun, and “resurrection” (von Franz 88). The rebirth of the individual at the completion of individuation is indeed representative of resurrection. In the “Tableaux,” the scarab faces a ram, another symbol of the sun (Fabricius 26). The symbol of the ram also characterizes the “primal fire and water, which may both create or destroy” (26); therefore, the ram itself is yet another symbol of opposition. The tension of opposition between the unconscious and conscious is maintained by all of the symbols in this evocative woodcut.
Through the “Tableaux,” fire and water surround the sun, moon, rams, and scarab described above. The water, which holds the alchemical representation of the “the prima materia” (Fabricius 226), is perhaps the most visually present symbol of the unconscious in the “Tableaux.” Furthermore, water itself is also another demonstration of opposites because it can “nourish all living beings” (von Franz 244) or “[drown people] in the unconscious” (101). Deep knowledge is contained in the unconscious (100, 101), and it is in undergoing this transformative process of alchemy or individuation that one can access it. The “Tableaux” truly captures the complexity of this process, and while the woodcut seems purely chaotic at first, each symbol is purposive.
Significantly, the “Tableaux” constantly reminds its viewers of the dangers in alchemy and individuation. This should not be discouraging for it also points to the profundity contained in undergoing such a transformative process. Although the unconscious is the dominating theme depicted through the images, it is important that images of the conscious are included as well, for if the individual is not conscious of individuation, “the individual [will become] cruel and hard towards his fellow creatures” (von Franz 264). It is only in being “conscious” of this “process” that one can attain “the philosopher’s stone” (264) or individuation. One must let a part of the self die in order to individuate, to be reborn.
Opposing the other ram in the top right quadrant of the “Tableaux” is a scorpion, “the only creature that can kill itself by a sting from its own tail” (Fabricius106). It is through this act that the scorpion activates a “power of regeneration” (106). This powerful creature “is endowed with the primal energies of creation,” something individuals can access if they surrender to the painful process. In the Rosarium, the scorpion is also identified as the “fiery form of the true water” (qtd. in Fabricius 106). The continual integration of elements in the “Tableaux,” primarily fire and water, serve as reminders of the power and presence of transformation. The scorpion itself can undergo a transformation wherein it becomes an archer, another “fiery sign” (Fabricius 121).
In alchemy, the archetype of the archer is depicted in Sagittarius the Archer. (Fabricius identifies this symbol on page 121 of Alchemy). The symbol of the Archer also “embodies a profound dualism and tension” through the “duality” of its human and animal nature (121). Sagittarius is positioned in the lower left quadrant of the “Tableaux” just above the image of coniunctio. The Archer seeks change and new ideas and is fulfilled simply by the “very act of striving”; he presumes that sublimation, yet another transformative process, “is its own goal” (121). Sublimation is also another attribute of the moon (110). The Archer and the moon in the “Tableaux” both symbolize that individuation is its own goal.
The key themes of transformation and opposites are further represented in the “Tableaux” in the symbol of coniunctio, the practice of coitus that is another necessary alchemical component. Coniunctio itself is a union of opposites with “two possibilities: either the unconscious swallows consciousness . . . or the conscious destroys the unconscious with its theories” (von Franz 164). The danger of the process of alchemy and individuation is a very real one, but so are the rewards. When one perseveres through the difficulties, individuation and rebirth are possible. The position of coniunctio under the Archer possibly represents the Archer’s “desire to transform instinct into spirit” (121) continuing to place emphasis on the spiritual and transformational components of alchemy, indicative of the individuation process. Finally, coniunctio brings “warm and cold together [where] fire has to be put out by fire” (von Franz 251). The continual presence of both fire and water points to the transformational capabilities in these elements: “by parting with the dry and cold qualities, fire and water can become air; by parting with the hot and fluid qualities, the same elements can give rise to earth” (Fabricius 8). The symbols in the “Tableaux” continually denote opposition and transformation. Though all four elements are not present in the image, the possibility for each is contained.
The wind gods in the “Tableaux” may be encouraging this development of the elements as they each blow on the fire and its smoky clouds. There are four wind gods featured, and this number holds an archetypal significance that Jung designates as representative of the Self (Abt 129), the key figure in the chaotic descent pictured. According to Abt, “the number four can . . . point to a need for a union of divergent opposites by the act of becoming conscious or it can point to the realization of the inborn unity of the opposites” (129). Perhaps the four wind gods here represent both. The image, wrought with opposition, especially through symbols of the conscious/unconscious dynamic, is pointing to the importance of gaining consciousness of the unconscious and accepting the unity of opposites. It is suitable for the symbolic representation of four to point to two opposite meanings in this chaotic underworld image.
Another significant number depicted in the “Tableaux” is the number nine. The other symbols (excluding the four wind gods) appearing within in the fire and water essentially create nine different scenes (including the ram and the scorpion, the ram and the scarab, the archer, and the coniunctio). This “temple des muses,” therefore, brings to mind Apollo who “was accompanied by the Nine muses” (Abt 50). They “represent the totality of human knowledge,” an important aspect of the unconscious discussed above. Furthermore, the number nine is indicative of a “creative, transformative and unifying dynamism that seems to be mysteriously connected to the development of human consciousness” (50). As discussed, the symbols present in the “Tableaux” continually focus on the conscious and unconscious, and the analysis of the symbols reveals the importance of being conscious of the unconscious in the development of individuation.
In position above the archer in the “Tableaux” rests the egg of the philosophers, the key to surviving alchemical endeavors and individuation. So small in the scope of this multifarious image, it can easily be missed, but it is an important component as “retrieving the philosophical egg is . . . equivalent to reviving one’s primal state” (Fabricius 94). This primal state, a part of the unconscious, is activated in the underworld, in this beginning stage of individuation, and in alchemical transformation. When the egg reaches its perfect stage, it “contains the whole scheme of creation in potential” (131). The egg is representative of the positive outcome that can be achieved if one pushes through the fires of the unconscious to access renewal and rebirth.
In Jung’s analysis of images collected in his The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, vol. 9, he examines other illustrations representative of the beginning stage of individuation. He explains that “[i]t would be desirable to know what happens [after the beginning stage] . . . But, just as neither the philosophical gold nor the philosophers’ stone was ever made in reality, so nobody has ever been able to tell the story of the whole way” (617). Powerfully, the presence of the egg in the “Tableaux” alludes to what is next: rebirth of the self.
A woodcut by B. Schwan (see fig. 3), also reprinted in Fabricius’ Alchemy, depicts “an alchemist cutting the white stone and releasing its winged creature of rebirth” (129). Through its potential to create, the egg contains alchemy’s powerful symbol of rebirth: the phoenix. It is important to remember that in beginning of the process of individuation, the self may be temporarily lost. However, von Franz indicates that this process that “begins in chaos . . . ends with the birth of the phoenix (the new personality)” (271). The presence of the egg in the “Tableaux” is the greatest image of reassurance and rebirth; it offers a glimpse at what comes after one survives this frenzied underworld experience.
This examination of “Tableaux du temple des muses” reveals the roles of conscious and unconscious processes in alchemy and individuation, the risk of undergoing these processes, and their potential reward. Certain symbols were the focus of analysis in consideration of the scope of this project. Further research could reveal the significance of other alchemical symbols present in the “Tableaux” including the lion, the sheep, the bear, and the snake. The chaos represented in the “Tableaux” is, as discussed, only representative of the beginning of individuation, not the outcome. Von Franz reminds us that “self-knowledge is a bitter experience at the beginning” (90). The alchemical process and individuation are not simple tasks, and they should not be. Without pushing the self to the edge of its limits, down in the depths of the unconscious and the underworld, there is no room for growth. The images and ideas presented in alchemy perhaps had their most profound effect in deepening Jung’s awareness of self. Through this, he identified the process of meeting the conscious and unconscious in individuation, itself a significant development in the field of depth psychology. Jung’s developments have maintained a lasting impact, and his incorporation of alchemy has provided insight and rich imagery that is vital to understanding of the complexities of individuation.
Abt, Theodor. Introduction to Picture Interpretation According to C. G. Jung. Zurich: Living Human Heritage Publ., 2005. Print.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972. Print.
— Pathways to Bliss. Novato: New World, 2004.
Fabricius, Johannes. Alchemy: the Medieval Alchemists and Their Royal Art. Great Britain: Diamond, 1994. Print.
Jung, C. G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Vol. 9. [Princeton, N.J.]: Princeton UP, 1980.
— Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Pantheon, 1963. N. pag. Google Books.
Slater, Glen. “Class Lecture 1.” Jungian Depth Psychology. Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria. 13 Apr. 2011. Lecture.
Von Franz, Marie-Louise. Alchemy: an Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology. Toronto: Inner City, 1980. Print.