Alchemy and Introversion

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Rembrandt - The Philosopher in Meditation, 1632

Extracts from :

Herbert Silberer

Hidden Symbolism of Alchemy and the Occult Arts

"Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who published his views on the alchemists in the book, “Remarks upon Alchemy and the Alchemists,” that appeared in Boston in 1857, writes very pertinently :

“The work of the alchemists was one of contemplation and not a work of the hands. Their alembic, furnace, cucurbit, retort, philosophical egg, etc., etc., in which the work of fermentation, distillation, extraction of essences and spirits and the preparation of salts is said to have taken place was Man, — yourself, friendly reader, — and if you will take yourself into your own study and be candid and honest, acknowledging no other guide or authority but Truth, you may easily discover something of hermetic philosophy; and if at the beginning there should be ‘fear and trembling’ the end may be a more than compensating peace.”

The alchemist Alipili writes :

“The highest wisdom consists in this, for man to know himself, because in him God has placed his eternal Word.... Therefore let the high inquirers and searchers into the deep mysteries of nature learn first to know what they have in themselves, and by the divine power within them let them first heal themselves and transmute their own souls, ... if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee.

If thou knowest not the excellency of thine house, why dost thou seek and search after the excellency of other things? The universal Orb of the world contains not so great mysteries and excellences as does a little man formed by God in his own image. And he who desires the primacy amongst the students of nature, will nowhere find a greater or better field of study than himself.

Therefore will I here follow the example of the Egyptians and ... from certain true experience proclaim,

"O Man, know thyself; in thee is hid the treasure of treasures."

In the “Clavis Philosophiae et Alchymiae Fluddanae” (published in Latin in 1633), are passages like the following :

“Indeed every pious and righteous man is a spiritual alchemist.... We understand by that a man who understands not only how to distinguish but with the fire of the divine spirit to separate [spagiric art] the false from the true, vice from virtue, dark from light, the uncleanness of vice from the purity of the spirit emulating God. For only in this way is unclean lead turned into gold.”


The term “introversion” comes from C. G. Jung. It means sinking into one's own soul; the withdrawal of interest from the outer world; the seeking for joys that can be afforded by the inner world. The psychology of the neuroses has led to the concept of introversion, a province, therefore, which principally treats of morbid forms and functions of introversion.

The sinking of oneself into one's own soul also appears exactly as a morbid losing of oneself in it. We can speak of introversion neuroses. Jung regards dementia precox as an introversion neurosis. Freud, who has adopted the concept of introversion [with some restrictions] regards the introversion of the libido as a regular and necessary precondition of every psychoneurosis. Jung speaks of

“certain mental disturbances [he means dementia precox] which are induced by the fact that the patients retire more and more from reality, sink into their phantasy, whereby in proportion as reality loses its force, the inner world takes on a reality and determining power.”

We may also define introversion as a resignation of the joys of the outer world (probably unattainable or become troubled) and a seeking for the libido sources in one's own ego. So we see how generally self-chastisement, introversion and autoerotism are connected. The turning away from the outer world and turning in to the inner, is required by all those methods which lead to intensive exercise of religion and a mystic life.

The experts in mysteries provide for opportunities that should encourage introversion. Cloisters and churches are institutions of introversion. The symbolism of religious doctrine and rite is full of images of introversion, which is, in short, one of the most important presuppositions of mysticism. Religious and mythical symbolism has countless images for introversion; e.g., dying, going down, subterranean crypts, vaults, dark temples, into the underworld, hell, the sea, etc.; being swallowed by a monster or a fish (as Jonah), stay in the wilderness, etc.

The symbols for introversion correspond in large part with those that I have described for going to sleep and waking (threshold symbolism), a fact that can be readily appreciated from their actual similarity. The descent of Faust to the mothers is an introversion symbol. Introversion fulfills here clearly the aim of bringing to reality, i.e., to psychological reality, something that is attainable only by phantasy (world of the past, Helen).

In Jacob Boehme (De Vita Mentali) the disciple says to the master,

“How may I attain suprasensuous life, so that I may see God and hear him speak ?”

The master says,

“When you can lift yourself for one moment into that realm where no creature dwelleth, you will hear what God speaks.”

The disciple says,

“Is that near or far ?”

The master says,

“It is in yourself.”

The hermetics often urge retirement, prayer and meditation, as prerequisites for the work; it is treated of still more in the hieroglyphic pictures themselves. The picture of death is already familiar to us from the hermetic writings, but in the technical language there are still other expressions for introversion, e.g., the shutting up in the receptacle, the solution in the mercury of the sages, the return of the substance to its radical condition (by means of the "radical" or root dampness). Similar features in our parable are the wandering in the dense forest, the stay in the lion's den, the going through the dark passage into the garden, the being shut up in the prison or, in the language of alchemy, the receptacle.


Introversion is no child's play. It leads to abysses, by which we may be swallowed up past recall. Whoever submits to introversion arrives at a point where two ways part; and there he must come to a decision, than which a more difficult one cannot be conceived. The symbol of the abyss, of the parting of the ways, both were clearly contained in our parable. The occurrence of the similar motive in myths and fairy tales is familiar. The danger is obvious in that the hero generally makes an apparently quite trivial mistake and then must make extraordinary efforts to save himself from the effects of these few trivial errors. One more wrong step and all would have been lost.

Introversion accordingly presents two possibilities, either to gain what the mystic work seeks, or to lose oneself. In introversion the libido sinks into “its own depths” (a figure that Nietzsche likes to use), and finds there below in the shadows of the unconscious, the equivalent for the world above which it has left, namely the world of phantasy and memories, of which the strongest and most influential are the early infantile memory images. It is the child's world, the paradise of early childhood, from which a rigorous law has separated us. In this subterranean realm slumber sweet domestic feelings and the infinite hopes of all “becoming.”

Yet as Mephistopheles says, “The peril is great.” This depth is seducing: it is the “mother” and — death. If the libido remains suspended in the wonder realm of the inner world the man has become but a shadow for the world above. He is as good as dead or mortally ill; if the libido succeeds however in tearing itself loose again and of pressing on to the world above, then a miracle is revealed; this subterranean journey has become a fountain of youth for it, and from its apparent death there arises a new productiveness. This train of thought is very beautifully contained in an Indian myth:

Once on a time Vishnu absorbed in rapture (introversion) bore in this sleep Brahma, who enthronedon a lotus flower, arose from Vishnu's navel and was carrying the Vedas, eagerly reading them. (Birth of creative thought from introversion.) Because of Vishnu's rapture, however, a monstrous flood overcame the world (swallowing up through introversion, symbolizing the danger of entering into the mother of death). A demon profiting by the danger, stole the vedas from Brahma and hid them in the deep. (Swallowing of the libido.) Brahma wakes Vishnu and he, changing into a fish, dived into the flood, battled with the demon (dragon fight), conquered him and brought the vedas up again. (Prize attained with difficulty.) (Cf. Jung, Psychology of the Unconscious.)

The marvel of the invigoration that can be attained in the successful issue of introversion is comparable to the effect that Antæus felt on touching his mother, the earth. The mother of men, to whom introversion carries us, is the spirit of the race, and from it flows gigantic strength. “This occasional retiring into oneself, which means a return to an infantile relation to the parent images, appears within certain limits to have a favorable effect upon the condition of the individual.”

Of this mine of power Stekel (Nerv. Angst., p. 375) writes:

“When mankind desires to create something big, it must reach down deep into the reservoir of its past.”

Staudenmaier, who has experimented on himself magically to a great extent and has set down his experiences recently in the interesting book, “Die Magie als experimentelle Naturwissenschaft,” thinks he has observed that through the exercise that he carries on, and which produces an intense introversion, psychophysical energies are set free that make him capable of greater efficiency. Specifically, an actual drawing upon the nerve centers unused in the conscious function of the normal man of to-day would be available for intellectual work, etc. So, as it were, a treasure can be gained (by practices having a significant introversion character), a treasure which permits an increased thinking and feeling activity. If Staudenmaier, even in the critical examination of his anomalous functions, can be influenced by them, it would be a great mistake to put them aside simply as “pathological”."


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