After the whitening of the albedo comes the last phase of the Great Work: the red phase, or reddening.
The white phase consisted of an intense process of purification, in which all the rotting decayed matter that had died during the nigredo was thoroughly cleansed of impurities. What was left was then considered clean but also very sterile, incapable of producing new life and lacking animation.
The purpose of the red phase was to make the matter come alive again. This process was initiated with the completion of the last phase of the albedo, conjunction, which was known to alchemists as “the marriage of the sun and moon.”
The rubedo continues this work of uniting opposite energies or elements until the Great Work has been completed.
The first process in the red phase of alchemy is known as fermentation, where the alchemist receives visions and other types of inspiration that will ultimately guide them to the end of the Great Work.
This is followed by a long process known as distillation, in which the alchemist is tasked with separating “the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross.”
The final phase, coagulation, marks the completion of the Great Work and the creation of the Philosopher’s stone.
After calcination and dissolution, the third phase of alchemy is known as separation. In practical or laboratory alchemy, it is the process of extracting what is left over and still has value from calcined and dissolved remains. This is then carried forward into the next phase for further processing through heating, filtering, and sifting through the material.
During the nigredo, the ego is broken down, burnt down by fire and then dissolved in the waters of our psyche. As this happens, the person undergoing this process starts to become more aware of the complex material within, and is often surprised to find that much of it is contradictory, at odds with other psychic elements and with the conscious personality.
The third phase of the alchemical process involves the close examination of these psychic contents. Using the power of the logical mind, we engage in a reasonable examination of ourselves to determine what represents our true self, and what is merely an ego adaptation that has arisen as a reaction to challenging circumstances in the outer world.
Like the others before it, this process can be painful, as it often means recognizing the ways in which we have become inauthentic, betrayed ourselves in order to fit in and please others, or have even hurt others in an attempt to protect our self-concept, our illusions around who we think we are (or should be).
The final end towards which we work in this stage is the recovery of our higher selves. We seek nothing less than reconnection to what in some traditions has been known as our Holy Guardian Angel or True Will. This part of us is discussed by Carl Jung as the Self (with a capital S, in contrast to our smaller ego-based self).
James Hillman has elaborated on this further in his book The Soul’s Code, where he refers to it as our personal daimon (as did Plato and Plotinus before him). This is the part of us that transcends our current circumstances, or even this physical incarnation. It comprises our immortal soul, the part of us that is eternal, and which carries the seeds of our destiny into this physical existence when we are born, and guides us through the twists and turns of our individual fate as time goes on.
Ultimately, the process of separation we engage with here seeks to leave behind the parts of ourselves that are inauthentic. We detach ourselves from the ego structures we once built up to protect ourselves, in order to be reunited with the core of who we truly are.
doing anything to fill the narrow, trembling void between
self and shame.
One day I stopped running, and my shame
she turned, and came to me.
She took me over and she held me down
in soft savage embrace,
when I finally caught my breath and
dared to look at her straight in
tender eyes, I saw more beauty and more
goodness and more
grace than I’d ever found
in years of wild flight.
This is what it means in alchemy to “find the gold in the shadow.” To be able to look within at all of what is hidden, to see and to know the self in its fullness without fear, no matter what may come—that’s the moment when we first die, and when we are first born.
“We know that the mask of the unconscious is not rigid—it reflects the face we turn towards it. Hostility lends it a threatening aspect, friendliness softens its features.” —Carl Jung
Don’t be afraid to change direction. It might be that you end up finding a friend in what you once feared.
This morning I woke up from a very difficult dream. I had spent most of the night crying in my sleep. Here’s what happened:
In my dream my dad and my brother were going to all these different events and giving speeches about everything that was wrong with me and why I deserved to be rejected. I sat at all of them, trying to plead with them and convince them otherwise. No one listened to me, and I cried as I saw them give speech after speech on everything that was “bad” and “wrong” about me.
Oddly enough, my mom was by my side at every one of these events with me. Sometimes in their speeches they would briefly mention how bad and wrong she was too, although the focus was mostly on me.
When I woke up, I felt very upset and saddened by what I had experienced over the course of the night.
What really stood out to me, though, was how my mom was on my side at every point during this dream. It’s really not like her to stand by me (in fact, she would have been the most likely of any of them to give a speech like that attacking me).
So I had to ask myself, what could this apparently small detail mean? I was sure it was significant.
Pretty quickly, it occurred to me that maybe it was my unconscious trying to show me the way my anima and animus related to each other.
The anima/animus was a concept developed by Carl Jung which in a sense, describes the anima as the part of our psyche which can be thought of as being “feminine.” The anima is associated with the unconscious, the body, and our feeling and emotional states, as well as our desires and needs.
The animus, on the other hand, is believed to be the part of our psyche which analytic psychologists associate with the masculine. The animus is thought to relate to our conscious mind, our rational thought processes, as well as order, reason and logic.
Although most of us within a given culture will tend to have these basic conceptions of what our anima/animus are like, the way that they actually present themselves within a given individual’s psyche is highly personal, dependent on life experience and unconscious psychic material.
I think this dream was trying to show me the way that my inner masculine or conscious mind relates to my inner feminine, or emotional/feeling part of me.
I saw how my masculine side was in fact very abusive to the feminine parts of me. The “rational” conscious side tends to dominate and hurt the emotional feeling side. It has all of these unrealistic expectations about how things “should” be, and it punishes and hurts the parts of me that refuse to comply.
I began to see how I have internalized the roles that I saw my mother and father play. I introjected their beliefs and patterns of behavior, and in turn had my inner masculine/feminine adopt the same roles within myself.
One of the unhealthy ways in which this has manifested for me has been that I have very little ability to care for myself. I refuse to listen to what my body is telling me, or to accept what I am feeling.
Instead, I tell myself: “No. You need to work harder. You don’t deserve to rest until you’ve done better. You don’t deserve anything until you’ve achieved what I tell you to. Not until you stop being bad.”
This usually results in me forcing myself to do what I don’t want to do. I hurt myself this way because I’ve long believed that’s the only way to “discipline” the parts of me that are “wrong” and “bad.” These bad parts are always the feeling parts, that part of me which has needs and desires and wants to rest and feel okay.
I’m starting to understand that my animus does not necessarily possess some kind of truly evil intent toward the anima. The attitude of my animus, in fact, reflects the very same beliefs which my father has held toward my mother. He has always tried to “help” her, but in a way that reflects some pretty toxic underlying beliefs about her (and possibly about women in general).
My mother has been perceived, in his eyes, as being: unintelligent, even stupid; incompetent and incapable; crazy, confused and irrational; and even bad, wrong, and unwilling.
This, in turn, is perceived as requiring his need to act to control and dominate and coerce her into “seeing the truth” and accepting the superiority of his more rational and “right” values and ways of being.
Even though this is obviously insulting, selfish and even maybe abusive, I can see that there is a genuine belief that he is doing his best to “protect” and “provide” for her. It is based on a perceived inferiority on the part of the feminine in general and my mother in particular.
Just as my father treated my mother, my “thinking” conscious self now treats my unconscious (my body, my feelings and my desires) in very much the same way.
It seems to genuinely believe in the fundamental “wrongness” of my feminine or feeling side. As crazy as it might seem, it wants to protect it, and it does so the only way it knows how: by bullying it into doing what it thinks is “right.”
The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the conflict.”
I’m starting to understand how this impacts my relationships, as well. If I can’t have my inner parts of myself relate to each other in a way that is positive and healthy, I’ll never be able to have a relationship that is any better.
If I don’t do anything to shift the roles inhabited by my anima and animus, then I will continue to recreate these same roles in all of my romantic relationships that I may enter in the future.
This dream seemed to be the way my unconscious was trying to get me to see what I needed to change in myself before I could move beyond these patterns in my life.
I can see now that I must begin to make these changes starting from within. I know and trust from experience that if I can do this, then the problems I’ve experienced in the outer world will begin to shift naturally as a result of the changes in my inner world.
Most tarot decks in use today, including the Rider-Waite, contain a standard number of 78 cards, which is then split into two sections: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana.
The word “arcana” itself means “a deep or profound secret.” It is thought that each of these cards contains symbolic imagery revealing a powerful hidden meaning. These cards are meant to convey, through a pictorial language, the secret mysteries of the universe and our place within it.
The Major Arcana contains 22 cards, numbered from 0 to 21, all of which go beyond the more common, quotidian concerns represented in the 56 cards of the Minor to touch on the archetypal dimensions of our spiritual development.
Furthermore, we can look to the Major Arcana not simply as a set of 22 isolated archetypal ideas, but rather, as a mythic or heroic journey, one that each of us may choose to undertake as a route to greater self-knowledge and realization.
We can start by turning our attention to the first of these cards, The Fool. It is interesting to note that although this is the first of the series, it does not carry the numeral 1, but 0.
As we will see in greater detail in our next post dedicated to this card, the Fool likely carries the number 0 because it is representative of pure potential. As a symbol of the unmanifest, the Fool contains all possibilities within himself.
In some sense, the Fool exists outside of the trajectory represented by cards 1 through 21 of the Major Arcana. We can even think of the Fool as being the hero of the Major Arcana’s series of transformations. For it is the Fool which takes a leap of faith, from a place of unrealized potential into a life of action and consequence.
In fact, there are many commentators who have even called this series of 22 cards “The Fool’s Journey.” It is wise to keep in mind, however, that this is not merely a story about the Tarot’s naive protagonist. It is not the tale of a character in a land far from us; it is in fact our story, describing a journey each of us must go on as individuals on our way to greater awareness and self-actualization.
We all start out like the Fool, inexperienced and filled with boundless optimism, dazzled by the seemingly infinite options which glitter like stars on the horizons of our futures.
Each of us, like the Fool, takes a similar leap of faith into what is to come. As we move forward in time, each of us makes choices, acting on decisions that lead us through certain doors, decisions which simultaneously will close certain others.
Some sources, such as modern mystery school Builders of the Adytum and noted author Rachel Pollack, divide the Major Arcana into three distinct series containing seven cards each. Each series of seven represents three distinct stages or levels of experience and development: the conscious, the subconscious, and the superconscious.
Cards 1 through 7 describe our journey through the first stage of our conscious development. This first set of seven depicts the archetypal influences and developmental milestones we must master and achieve in order to be effective in the outer world of material achievement.
In the next set, cards 8 through 14 represent a turning inwards, where we must come face to face with elements of our subconscious minds and integrate them into our being to achieve further wholeness. We come into contact with what has as of yet remained latent beneath the surface of our daily experience.
“True, whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face. Whoever goes to himself risks a confrontation with himself….
The meeting with oneself is, at first, the meeting with one’s own shadow. The shadow is a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well. For what comes after the door is, surprisingly enough, a boundless expanse full of unprecedented uncertainty….
It is the world of water, where all life floats in suspension; where the realm of the sympathetic system, the soul of everything living, begins….
All those who have had an experience like that mentioned in the dream know that the treasure lies in the depths of the water and will try to salvage it.” — from C.G. Jung CW 9
Here, we must face the primal, chaotic life energies that constitute our subconsciousness. This experience can be deeply shocking and even terrifying, especially for a culture as unprepared to deal with these deep and powerful currents of psychic energy as the hyper-rational, patriarchal capitalist culture of today.
Finally, the last set of cards numbered 15 through 21 show the development of what both B.O.T.A. and Pollack describe as “superconsciousness”, or what some might call the transpersonal level of psyche. This level transcends the purely personal experience to encompass a union with the spiritual, universal and archetypal level of existence. In this stage, we move beyond our personal, individual life stories and connect with the mystery of the infinite, that which is greater than ourselves.
“We know that the mask of the unconscious is not rigid–it reflects the face we turn towards it. Hostility lends it a threatening aspect, friendliness softens its features.”
–from C.G. Jung CW 12
It is here where we come into contact with what we might call cosmic consciousness. This is a level of development reserved to those who are brave and willing enough to take a leap of faith into the vast unknown.
It is interesting to note that the great majority of the human figures represented in these 22 cards are displayed in static, unmoving positions, almost as if they were posing for a portrait.
Only two cards portray figures in movement: Key 0, the Fool, and Key 21, the World.
This is likely meant to suggest a certain similarity between what is represented by the Fool and the World. Indeed, we find that the symbolic imagery represented in the World portrays our experience when we find that we have successfully traversed the various tests, challenges, and opportunities for growth shown in each of the previous cards of the Major Arcana.
Having integrated all of these lessons, we arrive at the World, liberated from our previous patterns, our illusions, and our limitations. We have freed ourselves from any inner restrictions and defense mechanisms, much of which had arisen as attempts to protect our ego from the incursions of a seemingly dangerous outer world.
When this happens, we find ourselves once again in a state of pure openness to the world, where we can experience a true receptivity and responsiveness to our experience as it arises moment-by-moment.
This is a state very similar to that of the Fool. Once again, we find that we are open to the fullness and totality of the world around us, at one with our environment and all that is. We have come full circle to once again embody pure potential and limitless possibility.
However, this state is in many ways much more powerful. Arriving at the World, we have gained the capacity to combine the wisdom of experience with a child-like sense of wonder, awe and joy. We are able to move beyond dualistic concepts and achieve union with what is beyond ourselves.
The purpose of this transcendent spiritual union with the Divine is not to escape our material and embodied physical existence, but to transform it. We are meant to use our higher spiritual consciousness in service of the mundane.
In true alchemical fashion, the purpose of this spiritual ascension is to bring what is gained above back down to perfect the world below.
“It rises from the Earth to Heaven, and descends again to Earth,
Thereby combining within it the powers of both the Above and the Below.”
–The Emerald Table
As we have seen, Major Arcana of the Tarot provides a profound symbolic representation of the soul’s journey from innocence to awareness. Although the Tarot is indeed a dynamic and powerful tool for divination, it is far more than that. The Tarot contains a profound message of transformation and redemption for those who have eyes to see it. We can use it as a tool for study, for quiet reflection, or for meditation on the archetypal principles underlying each of these 22 cards. If we can bring an attitude of intention, openness and receptivity to our work with these cards, the Tarot can be one of our best guides on the often labyrinthine journey of return to our highest selves.
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
According to Richard Tarnas, the archetypal is the spiritual and energetic. It was originally experienced by human people as “Gods” and “Goddesses,” and described in terms of mythologies.
The archetypal is about the essences and qualities that transcend the human.
These ideas were later expounded upon in Ancient Greece, with the philosophies of Plato and Plotinus, among others. They were forgotten for many years until their recovery by the likes of Nietzsche, Freud, and Carl Jung.
Jung’s depth psychology explored the idea of the archetypal pleroma, the pantheon of archetypal energy, both within and without. It was Jung who recognized that we are in psyche. It informs not only us but all of nature. This is what is meant by the Anima Mundi, or world soul.
It was through myths that man tried to understand and convey its experience of this world soul. Myth, as well as dreams, are the narrative form of archetypal energy. According to Tarnas, this is how the cosmos pours its consciousness through us humans. The archetypes are thus the mediators of the cosmos, the way the Anima Mundi often speaks to us directly of its secrets.
Plotinus says that astrology is like a script that the soul of the sky is writing. Meaning is something that extends and permeates through all levels of reality and existence. We are living in a pan-psychic universe, and if we wish to, we can be active participants with this consciousness or sentience.
The cosmos gives us guidance on how we can participate constructively. The archetypes don’t “cause” human affairs or outer events to occur in some mechanistic way. Instead, it is open to our human participation.
It is as if the universe or nature is providing us with symbols or guideposts regarding the qualitative meaning of our unfolding. We can choose to participate actively in our own evolution by noticing and following the signs provided for us by the macrocosm.