The Seven Stages of Spiritual Alchemy and What They Mean

Spiritual alchemy is an ancient occult practice that seeks to liberate the soul from its attachment to matter. Let’s have a look at what each of the seven stages entails.

Aug 12, 2021By Thomas Ellison
spiritual alchemy david teniers alchemist painting occult
The Alchemist by David Teniers the Younger, 1643-45, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

 

Spiritual alchemy is an ancient practice with the goal of spiritual transformation, not material. On the other hand, alchemy was an occult science and a forerunner to modern-day chemistry. It began during the medieval period and sought to transmute base metals, such as lead, into gold. Alchemy was practiced by people who wanted to attain material wealth and those who sought a universal elixir for immortality.

 

Spiritual alchemy, then, is an ancient philosophy that uses the metaphor of transforming metals into gold for attaining spiritual enlightenment. It is used to achieve contentment, harmony, and awareness by liberating one’s essence from one’s acquired personality. The personality contains the inauthentic part of the self, including one’s beliefs, concepts, opinions, wounds, fears, and phobias. In this way, the transmutation of lead into gold functions as a metaphor for the process of self-actualization and spiritual rebirth. Let’s take a closer look!

 

Spiritual Alchemy, Stage One: Calcination

thomas norton ordinall alchemy illustration
Illustration from The Ordinall of Alchem by Thomas Norton, c.1550-1600, via The Ferguson Collection at The University of Glasgow

 

Calcination, the first stage of spiritual alchemy, is also known as the black stage. The color black represents chaos, that which is hidden and buried, and the material of the unconscious. It also refers to the Materia Prima, which is the idea in occult sciences that all matter in the universe emerged from an original, primitive base.

 

Calcination refers to the burning of the Materia Prima until it is transformed into ash. In a spiritual sense, it refers to breaking with our worldly attachments, the desire for status, wealth, and the need to solidify our identity. It’s not to say these things are wrong, but according to the process, the development of a higher level of consciousness and the refinement of the spirit is hindered by these attachments.

 

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Calcination also refers to the burning off of all of the superfluous elements of ourselves that no longer serve us. We are purified by fire, and the hardened and dead parts of ourselves have burned away. All that has calcified in ourselves is removed in a similar way to how hardened plaque buildup on teeth can be removed. Our preconceived notions about our identity and our beliefs are put to the test in the calcination stage. Our ideologies and neuroses begin to lessen their grip on the persona, enabling one’s true spirit to awaken.

 

The calcination stage has been likened to the Dark Night of The Soul. This sixteenth-century poem describes the journey of the soul to unification with God, whereby our former worldview is dismantled, and we undergo a kind of existential crisis. The beginnings of spiritual development are typically arduous since our former ties of identification are no longer valid, and we come face to face with the void.

 

Stage Two: Dissolution

antonio neri perfect nature microcosm painting
Perfect Nature of the Microcosm by Antonio Neri, from Tesoro Del Mondo, 1599, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

The second stage of spiritual alchemy involves dissolving the ashes in water. Water could be interpreted as a symbol for the unconscious, which contains the hidden parts of ourselves of which we are afraid and up until now have not been explored. Dissolution can be understood as the stage in which we free ourselves from our inauthentic and acquired sense of identity.

 

In Chemistry, dissolution refers to the dissolving of solid material, such as salt dissolved in water. It can be understood in Jungian terms as the dissolution of the ego. Since the dissolution stage takes water as its symbol, it is also associated with intense emotions, as water often symbolizes the reservoir of emotions we contain within. The dissolution stage involves the outlet of repressed emotions from traumatic events that we have pushed down in our psyche. It can be a very cathartic step as we free ourselves of past painful experiences.

 

Stage Three: Separation

william fettes douglas alchemist painting
The Alchemist by Sir William Fettes Douglas, 1855, via Alchemy Website (part of The Ferguson Collection at The University of Glasgow)

 

In the separation stage, the pure essence is extracted from the rest of the mixture. As the first two stages were associated with fire and water, separation is related to the air element. In a spiritual sense, it can be understood as separation from one’s habitual thought processes or emotional trigger responses in order to step back and distinguish our essence from our acquired personality.

 

Separation is a very liberating stage where we can free ourselves of resentment towards ourselves and others. It is a kind of liberation from negative emotions. By doing so, we can become aware of our true feelings. We separate ourselves from our inauthentic selves and step closer to our essential or higher self. The separation occurs when we no longer identify with the character we have been playing, but rather we become the awareness itself. Awareness of our own thoughts, feelings, and desires, but without identifying with them or becoming attached to them.

 

The separation stage is a kind of detachment from our old skin. After the emptiness and suffering in the first stage of calcination, and then the fearful stage of dissolution where hidden emotions emerge, the separation stage comes as a welcome relief as we experience the stillness of being separated from our inferior and inauthentic qualities.

 

Stage Four: Conjunction

spiritual alchemy robert fludd anima mundi illustration
Anima Mundi, from Utriusque Cosmi Historia by Robert Fludd, 1617-21, via Alchemy Website (part of The Ferguson Collection at The University of Glasgow)

 

Conjunction refers to the process of combining the elements from the previous three stages. In a sense, we see what still remains within us, which is of value, and then begin to combine these elements to form one’s authentic self. After the first three stages of purification by fire, water, and air, our disparate elements are brought together under the earth element. We begin a process of embodiment as the spirit begins its process of materialization.

 

We begin to feel unified in body and soul, but we are still drawing together the different strands of our true self, and we are not yet finished. Polarities cease their conflict and come together, such as male and female, body and soul, spirit and matter. Harmony is achieved between the different elements of our being. The attributes typically associated with the feminine, such as intuition and emotion, unify with those attributes conventionally associated with the masculine, such as intellect and logic.

 

Stage Five: Putrefaction/Fermentation

spiritual alchemy david teniers alchemist painting
The Alchemist by David Teniers the Younger, 1643-45, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Putrefaction, or fermentation, is the fifth stage and describes the decay of one’s old self and the rebirth of one’s true self. The first four stages involved discarding our old, inauthentic self and drawing together the authentic elements within us. At this stage, however, we catch a glimpse of a more refined, authentic self. This stage can be likened to the rebirth of the phoenix from its own ashes.

 

The process can be split into two: putrefaction and spiritualization. Putrefaction is the rotting away of our former selves as the superfluous is let go. Putrefaction can be a difficult stage and can involve strong feelings of depression or despair since we fear losing our identity, which is associated with our old self.

 

Spiritualization, meanwhile, gives great relief as we begin to see the world in a new and luminescent way. It involves letting go of those parts of ourselves that no longer serve us in our present life, and, as a result, this step can be accompanied by blissful feelings of inner peace and contentment.

 

Stage Six: Distillation

spiritual alchemy splendor solis illustration
Splendor Solis (The Splendour of the Sun), via The Ritman Library, Amsterdam

 

The distillation stage is the stage when all of the impurities are removed, and there is nothing left but the essence. In Chemistry, distillation involves boiling and condensation to separate components and is commonly used in desalination. A liquid is boiled until it evaporates, and as the steam condenses, the essence is liberated from the matter. It marks the point at which our essence becomes spiritualized. In others words, in spiritual alchemy, distillation is a metaphor for the actualization of one’s spirit.

 

In Jungian terminology, this stage also involves the assimilation of any shadow aspects into our true self. It is the distillation of one’s true self and represents a step up in consciousness as our core identity is freed from any inferior elements. At this stage, the ego has ceased dominating behavior as we begin to hear the voice of our soul. It also marks the point at which the conscious and unconscious aspects of the self are brought into harmony.

 

Stage Seven: Coagulation

occult joseph wright derby alchymist painting
The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771, via Derby Museums

 

The final stage is coagulation, which describes the process of solidification where one’s essential self becomes whole. Coagulation refers to the process by which a liquid, typically blood, solidifies. It occurs when we are cut in order to form a scab. In spiritual alchemy, coagulation involves the solidification of our true self and can be likened to healing from a wound as we feel ourselves to be independent and complete.

 

Coagulation involves the complete unification of polarities: spirit and matter, body and soul, masculine and feminine, to form a single whole. In this final stage, one’s higher self emerges, and it can be likened to the point when the gold cools and solidifies.

 

Spiritual Alchemy, The Occult, & Art

spiritual alchemy karena karras genesis painting
Karena A. Karras, Genesis by Karena A. Karras, 2005, via Alchemy Website (part of The Ferguson Collection at the University of Glasgow)

 

Since the medieval period, some of the most imaginative and surreal artworks have taken spiritual alchemy and the occult as their subject. Artists have been inspired by the alchemical process and occult practices, particularly for their symbolic potency and the richness of meaning. Moreover, the links between different worlds, such as the spiritual and material, the conscious and the unconscious, the sensual and the scientific, make spiritual alchemy the perfect subject for painting.

 

Several notable historical figures were drawn to the alchemical practice, including Paracelsus, Hermes, and Carl Jung, who all found value in the emancipatory potential of spiritual alchemy. Spiritual alchemy was also taken as a subject by many artists from the medieval period to the present day. Alchemical symbols can be found in many works of art, such as the Tarot cards.

 

Spiritual alchemy is also a great larder of symbols, motifs, and themes that artists have accessed and interpreted in their own ways. Karena Karras is an excellent example as she merges human and animal, ghostly and corporeal, with alchemic motifs and vibrant use of color to create otherworldly dimensions. In summary, spiritual alchemy is a seven-stage process of spiritual renewal and transformation that uses the occult science as a metaphor. Outside of the realm of hard science, it has had a significant impact on painting and illustration, psychology, and spirituality.



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By Thomas EllisonThomas works as a writer and lives in Leeds UK. He has a BA and an MPhil in Literature with a focus on poetry. In his spare time, he makes music and has interests in the Tarot, the I Ching, and visual art.