Alchemical Psychology: Why does it matter?

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backgrounds-world-fantastic-wallpapers-70497One of Hillman’s last gifts to us before his death, Alchemical Psychology, is perhaps one of the most important contributions to Jungian thought because it sheds light on the importance of alchemical metaphors for the soul’s journey. For many followers of Jung, myself included, the difficulty of penetrating the alchemical mysteries in order to grasp Jung’s fascination with it, has been a daunting and mysterious task. Hillman’s book brings many fresh and meaningful insights to this arcane subject matter, and allows us to glimpse behind the veil. I feel he peels away the layers, using poetic but modern language, unlike Jung, whose language and train of thought is often very dense and labyrinthian.

One of the ideas that Hillman throws into question is the whole notion of the goal of individuation, one of the sacred tenets of Jungian depth psychology.  He feels that inherent in this concept is the idea of the goal as something to be obtained – the end product of a linear process that proceeds through stages.  If one were to become fully ‘individuated’, totally at one with the Self, or fully enlightened – to use an Eastern metaphor – then one would have achieved the goal – or as it is imagined in alchemy – one would have attained the gold or the treasure of the highest value.

Hillman asks, why does the psyche invent goals? And what do goals do for the soul? Hillman quotes Jung as saying, “ The goal is important only as an idea; the essential thing is the opus which leads to the goal: that is the goal of a lifetime.” In other words, Hillman explains, the goal-idea serves primarily to impel the psyche into the opus.

“ We shall have extraordinary and marvelous goals, like gold and pearls, elixirs and healing stones of wisdom, because then we shall be motivated to stay the course, that via longissima called a lifetime. Were the goal not imagined as gold, the highest value possible, were the goal not healing, were redemption and immortality not promised in the image at the outset, who would risk the leaden despair, tortured mortifications, ageing putrefactions, the sludge, and the corrosive fires? An inflated vision of supreme beauty is a necessary fiction for the soul-making opus we call our lifetime.”

In exploring the image of the pearl as the goal, he addresses the notion of the materia prima, another fundamental precept in alchemical language. In this particular image, the sand in the oyster shell is the material prima – the ‘worthless gritty bit we call a symptom or problem, (which) when worked on constantly, slowly becomes coated. An organic process turns the bit of grit into a coagulated jewel. The work goes on in the depth of the sea, where light does not reach, inside the hermetically sealed oyster. Then it must be fished up and pried loose, extracted. It is not enough to have a pearl in the depth of the sea, not enough to be gifted with riches and blessed with talents. For they may remain there, still sealed away in the oyster when we are sealed away in the coffin. It is a ‘goal hard to attain’ – it must be worked at as does the oyster, and it must be dived for, deep into the dissolving waters.”

Hillman tells us that concealed jewels or hidden treasure are of no use to the world.  As we do our own soul work, we also must bring these gifts into the world.

“Rather than emphasis upon the closed vessel as the modus for self-knowledge, we are to ‘freely give.’ Revelation. If the goal is an idea that motivates the opus all along the way, then ideas of display and exposure must lead the mind. Extraverted display not as the last stage of a long process of introverted secrecy; instead, disclosure. Man revealed is man known; as if self-knowledge were only truly that in the act of revealing that self.”


This is an extraordinary statement – self-knowledge is only truly that when we reveal the self, when we ‘truly give’ of ourselves to the world.  Jung tells us that alchemy has two main purposes, “the rescue of the human soul and the salvation of the cosmos” – in other words, they go hand in hand. He goes on to say “……From the alchemical perspective the human individual may be a necessary focus but cannot be a sufficient one; the rescue of the cosmos is equally important. Neither can take place without the other. Soul and world are inseparable: anima mundi.”

Watch this stunning video of earth from the astronauts’ perspective:

By |2017-01-17T13:51:32+00:00February 27th, 2014|Carl Jung, Myth and Meaning|46 Comments

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  1. ptero9 February 27, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    Love, love this! What a very rich and thoughtful treatment you give of Hillman’s book and Jung’s ideas.

    I think perhaps that Jung wouldn’t disagree with Hillman and read recently that in his attempt to pass on his ideas, primarily to his school of therapy, Jung used a lot of concepts and shorthand, but to access his understanding and experience of the world, one must read Jung’s works and let them speak, or experience for oneself the richly layered world and the vastness we find ourselves in.

    I would love to reblog this post with your permission.


    • margaretmikkelborg February 27, 2014 at 3:07 pm

      Debra thank you so much for your kind comments….I too have been greatly enjoying your extensive insights into Hillman’s work. I find it so interesting to contemplate the yellowing phase of ‘getting out there’ – I think it is something we are both doing with the blogging! So glad to have met you – virtually!

      • ptero9 March 11, 2014 at 4:19 pm

        Hi Margaret,

        Yes, getting out there, is actually a stretch for me, but one that has returned many gifts and inspires me to dive deeper into the work.

        Are you okay with a reblog of this post? I’d love share it with my readers!

        • margaretmikkelborg March 11, 2014 at 4:39 pm

          Hi Debra,

          Thank you! I would be delighted if you wanted to reblog my post. I think you are doing an amazing job of ‘getting out there’! Keep up the good work! : – ))



          • ptero9 March 12, 2014 at 12:07 pm

            Thank you Margaret! You are very kind. I’m happy to have found somone with such common interests.

  2. Michael March 2, 2014 at 8:56 pm

    I have little to no familiarity with Jung, but statements like this that echo “discoveries” made through completely different channels give me goose bumps. “This is an extraordinary statement – self-knowledge is only truly that when we reveal the self, when we ‘truly give’ of ourselves to the world. Jung tells us that alchemy has two main purposes, “the rescue of the human soul and the salvation of the cosmos” – in other words, they go hand in hand.”

    A Course of Love is a three book series, and the third book is called the Dialogues, and I didn’t find the passage I was looking for that totally nailed this same sentiment. It is in there, but… you will have to take my word for it. I did find this, which is close: “Working with what is in unity [where unity is a state of consciousness in which we do not perceive ourselves as isolated islands] is not work but relationship. you are called to realize your relationship with what is given from unity. It is in that relationship, the relationship between what is and the expression of what is by the elevated Self of form, that the new is created. What is becomes new by becoming sharable in form.” There are a number of italicized words in the original text that make that passage a bit clearer, but the idea is that only by sharing who we are do we fulfill a primary purpose of Creation, which is to make known, or simultaneously to come to know, through sharing in relationship.


    • margaretmikkelborg March 9, 2014 at 3:17 pm

      Thank you Michael for your comments, and for visiting my blog! Yes, isn’t it interesting how these same ideas keep cropping up in different forms and expressions! I think it speaks to the fact that we are indeed in relationship with THAT – that something higher that wants to be seen and known through us. Jung might say these expressions/ ideas keep emerging out of the deep collective unconscious = the sea bed that feeds us all. I enjoyed visiting your blog as well!

  3. ptero9 March 14, 2014 at 10:14 am

    Reblogged this on The Ptero Card and commented:
    A great post on Hillman’s Alchemical Psychology, and particularly the images of the goal. Enjoy!

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  5. camparigirl May 30, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    What a wonderful post! I attended classes at the Jung Institute here in Los Angeles for a couple of years. As a lay person, I was at times handicapped when it came to some of the intricacies of Jung’s work, alchemical mysteries being a case in point. You just made me want to pick up those books again. I owe a huge debt to Carl Jung – I did analysis with a Jungian therapist and the deep work of self knowledge that ensued made me a happier and more self-accepting person. Love your blog.

    • margaretmikkelborg May 31, 2014 at 7:24 pm

      Thank you so much for your feedback! Wonderful to get your feedback. Well I love your blog too and will be keeping an eye on it. Such a wonderful breath of fresh air!!



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  7. amandaseesdreams June 6, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    Dear Margaret,

    Thank you for a really inspiring post. This idea of containment is something that has been weighing heavily on my mind as I see glimpses of major breakthroughs in my own Jungian analysis. The work of Jung and Hillman takes on an incredible meaning when integrated as part of one’s lived experience…the alchemy truly comes alive!!! When I post even little snippets of my progress on dreamrly, it feels so incredibly good to share it with such a warm community as the one we have on WP, yet I am still very protective of the personal process, and have to rely heavily on my instincts and check in constantly to ensure I am not compromising the intensity of the container by spreading the fire wide open too soon – does that make any sense?? I suppose one needs to develop a strong sense of feminine discernment to know what to share when…and realize that in learning to share gracefully, we are adding fuel to the collective fire…which you speak to beautifully here!! Also, I am currently obsessed with the symbolism of the pearl (pearl post has been brewing in my head for some days now) and I almost jumped out of my chair when I saw the incredible treatment you give it here. Thank you so much for your Presence; a future “pearls” post will be greatly influenced by the wisdom I find here!!


    PS. I saw the Overview Effect when it first came out and loved it – it takes one’s breath away! What a creative way to end the post… 🙂

    • margaretmikkelborg June 6, 2014 at 4:57 pm

      Dear Amanda,

      Thank you so much for your very kind comments. Yes I do understand the problem of containment here. I will share ‘my two cents worth’ …..I think often it is better to cook with your own process when you are in the middle of it. I feel the best time to talk about or share one’s process is when it is in the past and you can reflect back on it with some wisdom and perspective. After all when you are holding the container for your own process, it is your associations to the image that matter – not other people’s. Sometimes talking about it too much, other than with your analyst or therapist or guide, can dissipate the energy and/or take you in the wrong direction.



      • amandaseesdreams June 6, 2014 at 9:11 pm

        Thanks for this Margaret. <3
        With gratitude,

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