Alchemists have generally divided the Great Work into three distinct phases, referred to by their color: the nigredo (black phase), albedo (white phase), and rubedo (red phase).
In earlier times, some also spoke of the citrinitas (yellow phase) that was said to occur between the white and red phases. However, this term is less frequently used by the more contemporary alchemists of today.
The different colors of alchemy were based on actual, physical alterations in the appearance of the material worked on in laboratory experiments. These colors, however, are also evocative symbolically of the emotional tone which characterizes each phase of the work on a psycho-spiritual level.
In laboratory work, the nigredo is a time when the prima materia begins to decompose or rot. On both the physical and psycho spiritual levels, it contains the lesser phases of Calcination and Dissolution within it. This is the time for the mortification of our very soul, and the time where our spirit most deeply feels the anguish of separation from truth.
The putrefactio is considered to be by far the longest and most difficult phase of the magnum opus. It is a time when we must let all the dross drop away. It is often known as the “dark night of the soul,” describing a time when we are forced to confront all that is dark and difficult within ourselves, and ultimately to let go of our attachment to our shadow, releasing the past.
Here, we are being asked to let go of all within us and outside of us that is false, inauthentic, and not in full alignment with the truth of who we are. This is a truth as it exists on a soul level, far beyond the ego and its limited ideas or illusions about who we “should” be.
It is a process made far more difficult by the resistance and defenses we put up against it. Many of us will resist for years, most often for much longer, remaining unwilling to accept that our lives, as we know them, are over. Few of us are quick to grasp the fact that there is new life waiting for us if we would only let go of the limited vision of existence we usually try so desperately to cling to.
It is only when we become willing to surrender that the alchemical process truly begins. Only when we are willing to die do we have the chance to one day be reborn.