Lesson 8) Order of Operations
Here we are now at the penultimate lesson of the year. I absolutely cannot believe this year flew by so fast and we're almost done with this chapter of the lovely art of alchemy. That being said, your final is coming up. After reading this lesson, there will be a review assignment along with the assignment accompanying this week's topic. If you do well on the review, you're sure to do well on the final!
We will be going over several things today, so be sure to take good notes!
The twelve operations are relevant in both physical and spiritual alchemy. In practical alchemy (which is another way of saying physical alchemy), they are common laboratory processes seen in experiments and we will be looking at them from a physical aspect in a future year. However in the context of Hermetic alchemy, they make up twelve stages of the Great Work. There have been several different variants of this twelve stage process, such as narrowing it down to seven or extending it to fourteen, however, you can always trace it back to these twelve main operations. By taking these twelve operations and applying them to the human mind, you could say that alchemists were the first psychologists. The order of the processes are hardly consistent throughout history so you may order these however you prefer to. Without further ado, let’s get into what the operations are.
Calcination is the triggering fire operation that starts it all. It's associated with Aries and it literally means "reduced to bone by burning." Other symbols include phoenixes, crucifixion, funeral pyres, scenes from hell, and torture by fire. Heat is generated by the fire of our own consciousness and life experiences. In result, one's "inner moisture and volatility" dries up, which represents losing emotional and physical energy as they mature. When we are heated and mature by the natural forces of existence, we tend to lose contact with our life force. This is a process that happens whether you like it or not. It lasts throughout our life as we mature and go through our own obstacles. By the time people reach their middle age, many of them feel like they have lost a precious part of their being and are living inauthentic lives. Alchemists saw calcination as a loss of spirit within a person. As you age, your mental energy decreases while darkness or depression eats away at your life.
Incineration is another process that is closely related with calcination. It's the process of converting a substance into ashes through the use of a powerful fire (calcination). It's symbolized by the zodiac sign Sagittarius.
The transformation of a substance by immersing it in water or another liquid is called dissolution (also written as solution). The zodiac sign it's associated with is Cancer and common symbols include tears, floods, lakes, quicksand, melting, clay pots, glass vessels, and cauldrons. Dissolution breaks down the corrupted and artificial structures of personality by dunking it into the dark depths of the unconscious. It's not a happy place. Sleeping dragons and monsters guard great, powerful treasures within this forbidding realm. The energies within the unconscious are known as "the water which does not wet the hands." This water isn't necessarily water, but rather inner voices, dreams, visions, odd feelings, and rejected energies that exist with us simultaneously in our everyday life. Dissolution occurs because of the loss of control that happens through calcination; however, direct confrontation with the energies can result in the surrender of stubborn beliefs and a process known as projection which comes much later.
Separation is the operation of dividing, breaking, or cutting down substances to retrieve their basic constituents or essences. Separation's cipher is the astrological sign of Scorpio. The Egyptians associate Scorpio with a descent into the underworld in order to bring back knowledge of universal truths. Other symbols include knights wielding swords, double-edged axes, dismemberment, the splitting of the Red Sea, and apocalyptic imagery. When speaking psychologically, separation is when you rediscover and isolate your inner self. You lift yourself out of the quagmire of your broken personality and recognize your true self. Incineration and dissolution broke your personality down into the most basic traits and desires, making it easier for you to look within and separate out the unwanted subconscious elements. It requires a certain amount of objectivity and honesty about your strengths and faults. The whole purpose of separation is to preserve what is genuine, removing the contaminating influences, and keep it safe for further transformation. Let the real you shine through.
At this point in the process, you're left with the most genuine and essential parts of the matter. Conjunction (or congelation) is taking those saved elements and combining them into a new compound or a pure substance. In terms of the four aspects, you can use conjunction to create a union of fire, air, and water to produce a purified or reborn earth element. Taurus is associated with conjunction because the bull was used by the Egyptians to symbolize fertility and growth. Some other symbols are double-chambered furnaces, rams, satyrs, embraces, chains binding opposing entities, and two streams coming together to form one stream. Hermetically, conjunction is the process of uniting the opposing parts of our personality. Conjunction is the prerequisite to progressing further in alchemy. It's the completion of the work in the Below realm of matter and the beginning of the work in the Above realm of energy and spirit. It's also often called the pivotal operation in alchemy and most failures occur here both spiritually and in the lab. The product of conjunction needs to be cultivated in order for it to survive.
Putrefaction (digestion) is actually the first step of fermentation. The end of this operation is signaled by the peacock's tail feather, as we have learned earlier in the year. Alchemists designated putrefaction the astrological sign Leo. The Egyptians associated Leo with the lion-headed Sun god Sekhmet. The symbols representing putrefaction in art are typically coffins, graves, worms, dung beetles, skeletons standing over coffins, birds descending from a pitch black sky, or just death in general. The actual process is when the matter is allowed to rot and decompose. It's a darkness that can be considered different from Nigredo because alchemists considered putrefaction to lead to the birth of a completely transformed inner self.
The ancients considered fermentation, the chemical breakdown of substances by microorganisms such as bacteria and yeasts, a miracle of nature. That was how the Egyptians were able to make mead and wine and how the Chinese were able to make cheese and yogurt. Capricorn is the sign that reigns over fermentation since it's an Earth sign that represents the most basic and highest natural instincts. Alchemists even believed that Capricorn encompassed the entire Great Work from beginning to end as Capricorn is the first sign of the year. This meant one symbolic alchemical year lasted from Capricorn to Capricorn. Fermentation is represented by the color green and other symbols such as the Emerald Tablet, gardens, the green lion, green gemstones, grapevines, sowing, rebirth, and two birds nesting in a tree. Psychologically, fermentation is the introduction of new life in the inner presence created during conjunction. Remember how the peacock's tail feather symbolizes entering the astral world and experiencing colorful visions? Fermentation is also started by these colorful visions that involve a higher form of imagination called the True Imagination. Alchemists believed that the visions from True Imagination were representations of a higher spiritual reality.
Moving on, distillation is the boiling and condensation of a solution to increase its concentration and purity. Alchemists chose Virgo to represent this process. It's often associated with flowers in bloom, fountains, water wheels, dew, rain, snow, unicorns, doves, owls, pelicans, winged serpents, the green lion eating the sun, and the ouroboros. It's a process of spiritizing that involves repeated separation and recombination of the spiritual aspects of the personality with the unrefined thoughts and emotions of the personality. It sounds like a lot, but it's a natural process that can be observed by paying attention to our everyday thoughts. In order to complete this process, one must be conscious of it going on and pursue it until its completion. Meditation is often used as a tool to raise the content of the psyche to the most objective level possible so it can be free from the emotional energy that tends to control our behavior.
Sublimation is a type of distillation in which no liquid is involved, but the solid material gives off vapors that condense directly into a pure powder at the top of the distilling tool. Alchemists considered sublimation a superior form of distillation that was a straight shot to the Philosopher's Stone. Its astrological cipher is Libra.
Coagulation (also known as fixation) is the process where the body is made spiritual and the spirit is made physical. This produces a new incarnation that can survive in all realms. Coagulation is symbolized by Gemini, the divine twins that the alchemists associate with the Rebis. Other symbols include gold, a set of scales, the Holy Grail, and an egg-shaped stone. However, the most common symbol is the phoenix. The phoenix is sometimes referred to as the Ortus, which means "the rectified one." Actually, the phoenix and the Emerald Tablet are closely related. There is a myth that both originated in the ancient land of Phoenicia. There are some Egyptian writings that refer to the Emerald Table as the phoenix. The Egyptians also related the phoenix to their own sacred bird, the Bennu, which symbolized the completely spiritized self that rose up from the lower nature of the soul. On a personal level, the phoenix is a representation of the resurrected personality that manifests during coagulation. You can almost call it a new body. This body is called the body of light, otherwise known as the Ultimate Matter (Ultima Matter) of the soul.
Two more operations are conducted during coagulation in order to actually complete it. The first process, projection, is the extension of our thoughts or emotional energy into the world at large. Later in the process, this isn't necessarily bad. However, in the early stages, projection is very dangerous. Let's take a look at anger. When we are angered or feeling revolted by things we see in the world, that means that energy with the same negative quality is being harbored within us subconsciously. We can express it externally, however, that energy causing the anger is hidden from ourselves. If left without any sort of control, these psychic energies can accumulate to tremendous amounts just waiting to burst at any second. In a physical sense, projection is the actual process of transmuting lead into gold, making it the final goal in laboratory work. It's also associated with Pisces, the twelfth sign in the zodiac.
The other operation is multiplication, the act of increasing the quantity or volume of something. Physically, this means that the powers of the Philosopher's Stone can be magically multiplied. It provides the raw material for the Elixir of Life and Panaceas. Multiplication is often associated with the astrological sign of Aquarius.
That concludes the twelve operations. The chart below neatly compiles all twelve with their ciphers, the seven classical planets, and their corresponding metals and archetypes. The zodiac section orders the operations according to the occurrence of the astrological signs. The order of the chart is how I personally prefer the operations to be in from beginning to end, but as I said before, the order of operations is hardly consistent and you may order them anyway you like.
Grab a chart as you head out, don't forget to do your review, and there is an extra credit essay available if you wish to tackle it. Happy studying and I'll see you next week for the final!