nigredo

The nigredo may be understood as follows:

(a)

A common term for the nigredo is `corvus,' crow or raven, perhaps because it is black and is a carrion eater (fig. 006.12) . The crow appears in Greek mythology in the birth of Asklepios. His mother was Coronis, the crow maiden, who, while pregnant with Asklepios by Apollo, had intercourse with Ischys. This infidelity was reported to Apollo by the crow, who was turned from white to black for bringing the bad news. Coronis was killed for her crime, but the infant Asklepios was snatched from her womb while she was on the funeral pyre

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(a)

AOP Pg 164 (a) FigNo006.12

(a)

The Nigredo

(a)

Mylius, Philosophia reformata, (1622)

TO BE AT HOME IN THE

DARKNESS OF SUFFERING

(a-1)

As Kerényi has demonstrated, the birth of healing power from the nigredo belongs to the archetype of the wounded healer. In Kerényi's words, the myth refers psychologically to the capacity “to be at home in the darkness of suffering and there to find germs of light and recovery with which, as though by enchantment, to bring forth Asklepios, the sunlike healer” ( Kerényi, Asklepios: Archetypal Image of the Physician's Existence, p. 100 )

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(b)

Related to `corvus' is the term `caput corvi,' head of the raven. This in turn is synonymous with `caput mortuum,' dead head. It is not immediately evident why the nigredo should be associated with head symbolism. One reason seems to be the connection between the term `head' and top or beginning. Blackness was considered to be the starting point of the work. A text says, “When you see your matter going black, rejoice; for that is the beginning of the work.” Another text speaks of the work as made up of three ravens: “The black which is the head of the art, the white which is the middle, and the red which brings all things to an end”

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THE HEAD

(c)

The head is the principle thing. A capital offense is the gravest one, involving the loss of one's head. Thus, the connection of the nigredo with head imagery indicates the great importance alchemy attached to this experience. According to one derivation, the word alchemy derives from khem or chemia meaning black and referring to Egypt, the land of the black soil

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(c-1)

Decapitation or separation of the head from the body also belongs to the mortificatio. Jung writes: “Beheading is significant symbolically as the separation of the `understanding' from the `great suffering and grief' which nature inflicts on the soul. It is an emancipation of the `cogitatio' which is situated in the head, a freeing of the soul from the `trammels of nature.' Its purpose is to bring about, as in Dorn, a unio mentalis in the overcoming of the body” ( CW14: par. 14 ), (fig. 006.13)

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(c-1)

AOP Pg 166 (c-1) FigNo006.13

(c-1)

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist

(c-1)

Les Belles Heures du Duc de Berry, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

BEHEADING

(d)

From another standpoint, beheading extracts the rotundum, the round, complete man, from the empirical man. The head or skull becomes the round vessel of transformation. In one text it was the head of the black Osiris or Ethiopian that, when boiled, turned into gold

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CAPUT MORTUUM

(e)

The term, caput mortuum was used to refer to the residue left after the distillation or sublimation of a substance. A text describes this caput mortuum: “What remains below in the retort is our salt, that is, our earth, and it is of a black color, a dragon that eats its own tail. For the dragon is the matter that remains behind after the distillation of water from it, and this water is called the dragon's tail and the dragon is its blackness, and the dragon is saturated with his water and coagulated, and so he eats his tail” [uroboros] ( CW14: par. 244 )

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THE WORTHLESS BECOMES

THE MOST PRECIOUS

(f)

The dead, worthless residue is the stuff of the nigredo phase. The fact that it is called caput or head indicates a paradoxical reversal of opposites. The worthless becomes the most precious, and the last becomes first. This is a lesson that we each must learn again and again. It is the psyche that we find in the worthless, despised place. By the conventional standards of our environment the psyche is nothing, nothing at all

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(g)

A personal example: I feel empty and out of sorts; I sit for hours in my chair seeking my lost libido. What a painful humiliation to be subjected to such catatonic impotence. Even active imagination refuses to function. Finally I get one meager imagea small, black, earthenware pot. Does it contain something, or is it empty like me? I turn it over. One drop of golden fluid comes, which solidifies on contact with the air. That was all I needed! That single drop of solid gold released a stream of associations, and with them, libido. It had come from the black pot, the black head of Osiris, which personified my dark and empty state, a state I despised while I was in it

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ORACULAR HEAD

(h)

The death head also leads into the idea of a dialogue with a head or skull. Jung speaks of the oracular head ( CW14: par. 626 ), which would symbolize the consulting of one's wholeness for information beyond the vision of the ego. The dramatic theme of soliloquy with a skull is a variant of this same archetypal image. The classic example is found in Hamlet. He contemplates Yorick's skull

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(i)

The skull as a memento mori is an emblem for the operation of mortificatio. It generates reflections on one's personal mortality and serves as a touchstone for true and false values. To reflect on death can lead one to view life under the aspect of eternity, and thus the black death can turn to gold (fig. 006.14) . In fact, the origin and growth of consciousness seem to be connected uniquely with the experience of death

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(i)

AOP Pg 168 (i) FigNo006.14

(i)

The Death Head Points to the Cosmic Sphere

(i)

Holbein, The Dance of Death, (1538)

(i-1)

Perhaps the first pair of opposites to penetrate the dawning awareness of primitive humans was the contrast between the living and the dead. Probably it is only a mortal creature that is capable of consciousness. Our mortality is our greatest and our ultimate weakness. And it is weakness, according to Jung, that gave Job the edge over Yahweh:

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(i-2)

What does man possess that God does not have? Because of his littleness, puniness, and defencelessness against the Almighty, he possesses, as we have already suggested, a somewhat keener consciousness based on self-reflection: he must, in order to survive, always be mindful of his impotence. God has no need of this circumspection, for nowhere does he come up against an insuperable obstacle that would force him to hesitate and hence make him reflect on himself ( CW11: par. 579 )

BURIAL RITES

(j)

The earliest forms of religious expressionwhich indicate the first separation of the ego from the archetypal psycheseem to be associated with burial rites. The outstanding example of death as the genesis of religion and consciousness is the elaborate mortuary symbolism of ancient Egypt. This is also clearly the origin of alchemy. The embalming of the dead king transformed him into Osiris, an eternal, incorruptible body. This is the prototype of the alchemical opus, which attempts to create the incorruptible Philosophers' Stone

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(j-1)

The alchemical vessel has been equated with “the sealed tomb of Osiris, containing all the limbs of the god.” The Egyptian mortuary symbolism is the first great witness to the reality of the psyche. It is as though the psyche cannot come into existence as a separate entity until the death of the literal, the concrete, and the physical. The collective unconscious is equivalent to the land of the dead or the afterlife, and a descent into the collective unconscious is called a nekyia because an encounter with the autonomous psyche is felt as a death of this world

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WISDOM CONNECTS WITH DEATH

(k)

Plato explicitly connects wisdom with death. For him, philosophy, the love of wisdom, is quite literally a mortificatio. In the Phaedo he writes

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(k-1)

“true philosophers make dying their profession” ( Plato, Phaedo, 67c-68b, in The Collected Dialogues ). The same can be said of an important aspect of analysis. As we pursue the withdrawal of projections, we make dying our profession

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UNIO MENTALIS

(l)

The ideas of Plato lead directly into Jung's discussion of the unio mentalis in Mysterium Coniunctionis. There he describes the coniunctio as taking place in three stages. In the first stage of this operation soul and spirit are united with each other. The united product is then separated from the body. This separation is experienced as a death

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(l-1)

The unio mentalis corresponds precisely to the Philosophers who make dying their profession. In this preliminary step the “natural man” must be mortified

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WOUNDING DEFEAT

(m)

Encounter with the unconscious is almost by definition a wounding defeat. In Mysterium Coniunctionis we find one of the most important sentences that Jung ever wrote: “The experience of the Self is always a defeat for the ego” ( CW14: par. 778 ). And in another work Jung writes, “The integration of contents that were always unconscious and projected involves a serious lesion of the ego. Alchemy expresses this through the symbols of death, mutilation, or poisoning, or through the curious idea of dropsy” ( CW16: par. 472 )

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LESION OF THE EGO

(n)

This “lesion of the ego” is what is symbolized by the figure of the sun-hero who is lame or has an amputated extremity. It is the meaning of Jason as a monosandolos who had lost a sandal while carrying an unknown woman (Hera) across a river. It is also the meaning of Oedipus whose name means “swollen foot.” I once dreamed that while Jung was giving a brilliant lecture I noticed that his right foot was lame

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