Prima materia, first matter, the raw material of nature and people as well, is where the work of alchemy begins. In alchemy prima materia or first matter is the ubiquitous starting material required for the magnum opus and the creation of the philosopher’s stone. It is the primitive formless base of all matter, the primordial chaos before anything is created. Alchemical writers used similes both to describe the universal nature of the prima materia and to conceal it’s “true name” according to occultist Arthur Edward Waite. Since the prima materia has all the qualities and properties of elementary things, the names of all kinds of things were assigned to it. Martin Ruland the Younger lists more than fifty synonyms for the prima materia in his 1612 alchemical dictionary. His text includes justifications for the names and comparisons. Waite lists an additional eighty four names. The names for prima materia reflect the same ambiguity as the alchemical process partly because alchemists held personal definitions of prima materia, many definitions even contradicted one another. They range from lead, iron, gold, quicksilver, salt, sulphur, vinegar, water, fire, earth, water of life, blood, poison, spirit, clouds, sky, dew, shadow, sea, mother, moon, dragon, Venus, microcosm, and so on.
Besides these definitions, which are partly chemical and mythological, there are the philosophical ones which have deeper meanings. For instance, in the treatise of Komarios one finds the definition of “Hades.” Dorn, student of Paracelsus, said prima materia was “Adamica,” which coincides with Paracelsus’ “limbus microcosmicus”. Limbus is a strip or border, and microcosm refers to man. This points to a belief in some sort of edge or barrier around the human self and possibly the idea that this naming of the prima materia indicates a further territory to be expanded into. This finds a parallel in psychologist William James’ “fringe of consciousness”.
Alchemists assumed man could complete the work of the prima materia because he possessed a soul. Since the soul came from God, therefore, man was capable of doing God’s work. The alchemical process of moving from the prima materia was to emulate God’s own work of creation, restoring that which man had spoiled. Since the prima materia is also suposed to be the philosopher’s stone, this also demonstrated the stone is without beginning or end. This carries over to the alchemical psychology of C. J. Jung and others of like mind.
In Jungian psychology, aslo known as analytical psychology, individuation is the developmental process of the undifferentiated unconscious, in which innate elements of personality, the components of the immature mind, and a person’s life experiences become, if the process is successful, integrated over time into a well-functioning whole. The key point is, this process happens whether the person s aware of it or not. The more self-awareness we have the more likely will be the success of the process. This is very difficult for children, at the mercy of the adults around them. A person who has heard from a very young age their judgement is faulty and their choices all wrong can wind up subconciously making decisions that fulfill this description of who they have been led to believe they are, as happened to a good friend of mine.
In personal alchemy, when looking for our prima materia all we need to do is look for the messy places in our life. Always late, disorganized, or accident prone? These are signals from the unconscious of inner chaos, signs we have aspects of the process that have not succeeded in smoothly integrating. The prima materia is within us, lead waiting to be turned into gold. Each of us will have a different name for it, as the ancient alchemists did, beause each of us has different personality elements, different memories and life experiences. Nonetheless, if we follow the example of those same alchemists and truly dedicate ourselves to the Great Work we can rectify these chaotic feelings and experiences into a balanced and satisfying life.