Alchemy has been called a “proto-chemistry”, but it also had a spiritual nature. Scholars such as C.G. Jung made profound studies about alchemy, finding in it apowerful archetypal symbolism which could give people the possibility of transforming themselves in a deep way. The first step, as they say, it’s the hardest. Human beings reach their free will through self-discovery, but we don’t try to self-discover ourselves until our situation has become so painful that we don’t have any other way than to recreate ourselves. We don’t accept that we must transform our life until we hit rock bottom. This is called the Dark Night of the Soul. This is a process describing a crisis of faith, or of meaning, in which every value in our life is questioned, losing its weight. One feels as if one was wandering in deep, dark labyrinths, without any exit on sight. This process is called in alchemy the nigredo, the black phase.
In alchemical treatises, this phase is represented with images of ravens, skulls, skeletons and dead bodies. The black phase represents the death of the ego, the limited personality of man, and allows for a deeper contact with one’s personality’s core, the self. Suffice to say, this is a process which not many people go through voluntarily, since it requires that one’s ideas and preconceptions about the world are brought down. The Arcanum XVI of the tarot, The Tower, illustrates in a dramatic way this process. This is a symbolic and initiatorical death through which every person seeking to recreate themselves must pass. Historian of religion Mircea Eliade explores this theme extensively in his book “The Forge and the Crucible”, where he writes about this kind of alchemical death is
“The reduction of all substance to the prima materia [primal matter], to the masa confusa [confused mass], which corresponds –in a cosmological place- to the primordial situation, to chaos. Death represents a return to the formless, a reintegration of Chaos.”
This type of experiences are marked by a loss of meaning in life. Psychologically, a crises of the ego happens. The ego must then adapt to its new situation, or die. We witness this type of situations (either in our lives or in those around us) when a relationship breaks up, be it a romantic relationship, when someone is fired from their job, or we cut communication with a loved friend. The ego falls back to the original chaos, from which it must arise again by overcoming its catastrophe, or die in order to stop feeling pain. Ancient alchemists gave great importance to this phase, in which one can experience the deepest darkness related with the blackness of spiritual death. Eliade writes that
“This kind of experiences translate into Saturnian symbolism, into melancholy. The figure of Chronos-Saturn represents the Great Destroyer that is Time and, thus, both death (putrefaction) and rebirth”.
This death must be understood from a symbolic perspective. Because of its symbolic meaning, there is a possibility of a resurrection of the individual. From the fragments of the destroyed ego arises a new ego, renewed by its traumatic experience, and now closer to its core, the self. This is associated with the later phases of the alchemical process, of which Eliade writes that
“The phase following the nigredo, the leukosis [or] the albedo, correspond to a ‘resurrection’ which translates into the appropriation of certain states of consciousness which are inaccessible to the mundane condition. The two following phases, the citrinitas and the rubedo, which crown the alchemical opus and lead to the Philosopher’s Stone, further develop and fortify this new initiatorical consciousness.”
The Ouroboros is a Greek word meaning “tail devourer,” and is one of the oldest mystical symbols in the world. It can be perceived as enveloping itself, where the past (the tail) appears to disappear but really moves into an inner domain or reality, vanishing from view but still existing.
The ouroboros has several meanings interwoven into it. Foremost is the symbolism of the serpent biting, devouring, or eating its own tail. This symbolizes the cyclic Nature of the Universe: creation out of destruction, Life out of Death. The ouroboros eats its own tail to sustain its life, in an eternal cycle of renewal. It is sometimes depicted in a lemniscate shape (figure eight) as well.
The Serpent biting its own tail is first seen as early as 1600 years BC in Egypt as a symbol of the sun, and represented the travels of the sun disk. From there it moved to the Phonecians and then to the Greeks, who gave it its name, Ouroboros, which means devouring its tail.
In mythology, the Oroborus is a symbol representing the Milky Way galaxy. Myth refers to a serpent of light residing in the heavens. The Milky Way is this serpent, and viewed at galactic central point near Sagittarius, this serpent eats its own tail. Many ancients used the galaxy to calculate cosmic and earth cycles.
It is found in Gnosticism and alchemy representing cyclical natural life and the fusion of opposites. It also symbolizes the transcendence of duality and was related to the solar God Abraxas, and signified eternity and the soul of the world.
In alchemy, it represents the spirit of Mercury (the substance that permeates all matter), and symbolizes continuous renewal (a snake is often a symbol of resurrection, as it appears to be continually reborn as it sheds its skin.), the cycle of life and death, and harmony of opposites. As a symbol of the eternal unity of all things, the cycle of birth and death from which the alchemist sought release and liberation. It unites opposites: the conscious and unconscious mind. Alchemically, the ouroboros is also used as a purifying glyph.
The alchemical textbook, Chrysopoeia (gold making) of Kleopatra contains a drawing of the ouroboros representing the serpent as half light and half dark, echoing symbols such as the Yin Yang, which illustrates the dual nature of all things, but more importantly, that these opposites are not in conflict. The book is mainly centered around the idea of “one is all,” a concept that is related to hermetic wisdom.
The Ouroboros appears in many other cultures and settings as well…the Serpent Jormungand of Norse legend, one of the three children of Loki and Angrboda, grew so large that it could encircle the world and grasp its tail in its teeth. It guarded the Tree of Life, and is often depicted as an ouroboros.
The Aztec serpent God Queztacoatl was depicted similarly, and Chinese alchemical dragons have both similar shapes and meaning.
In Hindu, you have the dragon circling the tortoise which supports the four elephants that carry the world.