The Slime of the Small World

Depth psychologists are fond of alchemy, the medieval philosophical chemistry that concerned itself with transmuting base matter to its valuable essence. For centuries, the most sought-after goal of Western alchemy was to produce the philosopher’s stone, symbolic of perfection and enlightenment. The idea was to put substances through a series of transmutations to make the stone, which was both the product and the agent of the transmutation, the change that makes the stone possible. Efforts to discover the stone were called the Magnum Opus, “great work.”

The modern appreciation of alchemy’s symbolism owes a debt to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who saw in its images and stages many expressions of the individuation process by which a person becomes able to live his own life. James Hillman believed that the language of alchemy “is itself therapeutic.” I think so, too, because when I read alchemical texts and look at medieval drawings and explanations of the process, I realize meaning. Every little bit of meaning distilled from an insight or experience expands consciousness; growth occurs.

The Great Work, or Magnum Opus, was sometimes expressed through the colors of its processes, which I explained briefly in The Affliction of the Soul  as being melanosis (blackening, the nigredo), leukosis (whitening, the albedo), xanthosis (yellowing, the citrinitas), and iosis (reddening, the rubedo) (CW 12, para. 333). This process is depicted in the diagram below.

Alchemical Process, Alex Sumner.

Overview of the Alchemical Process
Source: Alex Sumner (2005). Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition, No. 9, Vol. 1.

Another way of expressing the work was through its chemical processes. Alchemists identified at least seven, and often as many as 12 stages of the process: Calcination, coagulation, fixation, dissolution, digestion, distillation, sublimation, separation, incineration, fermentation, multiplication, and projection. If you’re at all a symbolic or imaginal thinker, you’ll see why alchemical language is, as Hillman believed, therapeutic. Such words articulate our actual experience of the sublime self in a mundane world. They help us make sense of things.


Let us begin with calcination, the first stage in the great work of transformation. “Calcination” comes to us from the Latin calx, which is rooted in the Ancient Greek khaliks, meaning “pebble.” From this same word we get those for limestone, chalk, and finish line. Its cousins include the Proto-Indo-European root *(s)kel-, meaning “to bend,” and the Greek skelos, or “leg,” along with the basis for the word “heel.” Calculus is a derived word, thus the calculi of cousins pebble, stone, reckoning, or calculating. Think of how annoying it is to get a pebble in your shoe, or how you berate yourself when your area of weakness, your Achilles’ heel, is dangerously exposed. These suggest how common yet how uncommonly difficult calculi can be.

Just as we amplify images and ideas during dream interpretation, so too can we use amplification as a magnifying lens through which we can get a more detailed idea about calcination. Since we’re dealing with words and not images here, let’s consider the fossil record in lowly, commonplace limestone. I read with interest that most caves are formed beneath limestone, because limestone is partially soluble and therefore erodes through the acids in ground water. Because it is readily available, easily accessible, and easy to cut, limestone is very common in architecture—the Great Pyramids are built of limestone, as are many European medieval churches and castles.

Limestone is suggestive of the prima materia, the first form of something, its most base beginning. It’s recognized in everyday communications through clichés, metaphors, and slang, the common language of our most base nature. Alchemists gave this prima materia at least 50 different names, among them ashes, lead, Saturn, found-in-filth, confusion, milk, dung, urine, the tomb, the coffin, hell, and (my personal favorite) slime of the small world. It is everywhere and seen everywhere, but usually goes unnoticed and is thus suggestive of the unconscious psyche.

Being a fanciful sort of person, I sometimes fashion myself as a spelunker of the psyche. This romantic and inflated idea of the Indiana Jones-type quest belies its mundane initiation: Whatever depths we plumb begin with dirt, and lots of it. We dig and dig, and hit sandstone, and limestone. One alchemist said, “Visit the interior of the earth. Through purification thou wilt find the hidden stone.” The thing that is worthless, common, and cheap is the hidden stone right under our feet. This is the thing of greatest value, yet it’s out there for anybody to see. This is why most folks don’t see it.

What’s the Matter?

Symptoms we experience are the stone in potentia, yet are often initially discounted or ignored. “What’s the matter with you?” people ask. We get into the matter when we begin to ask ourselves the same question. These depressions, anxieties, compulsions, headaches, knots in the stomach, irritations, petty and not-so-petty arguments—that’s where the gold is. This is because the only way the psyche has of speaking its distress is through our symptoms. In fact, the word psychopathology actually means “the speech of the suffering soul.” We should let our symptoms speak.

Unfortunately, most folks want to silence their symptoms because they believe their symptoms are the problem. Most people go into therapy to get rid of symptoms, not to mine for gold by listening to their soul’s pain. Accordingly, many (if not most) mainstream therapists work with clients and insurance companies to eradicate symptoms. Sadly, they destroy the gold while they’re at it. They “throw the baby out with the bath water” for failure to “get to the heart of the matter.”

There’s truth in these clichés, treasure buried in the dirt so commonplace. Joseph Campbell said, “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” Perhaps by stopping where we stumble, we will know where to dig for buried treasure: X marks the spot.


Hillman, James (2010). Alchemical Psychology. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, p. 10.

Medieval alchemy drawings courtesy of The Alchemical Web Site, Adam McLean.

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