Refer to any website or book and you will find listings of the “stages of alchemy”. These differ markedly. In my experience this is often due to a misunderstanding in the popular literature. People are not differentiating between stages and processes. Quite simply, processes are actions you perform and stages are points in development.
You will often find material listing three stages. However, oringinally and I believe, correctly, there were four stages. I am not alone, in many places four stages are still listed and elaborated on. For over fifteen centuries the four stages of the magnum opus were characterized by the origina colors described by the pre-Christian philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesos. He listed the four as melanosis, leukosis , xanthosis, and iosis. Colour symbolism was important in alchemy, with the changes of color linked with the successive transformations of matter, and the movement from one level of being to another. In addition, alchemical literature often symbolized the stages with other symbols, melanosis by a black raven, leucosis by a white dove, xanthosis by a yellow flower and iosis by a red dragon or phoenix. Later in the 15th or 16th Century the colours were reduced to three, with the yellowing stage falling into disuse. Some feel this was connected to the influence of the central Christian idea of trinity.
More commonly known now by the Latin nigredo (blackening), albedo (whitening), citrinitas (yellowng), and rubedo (reddening), Michael Maier, the sixteenth century author of Atlanta Fugiens described this as a ‘four fold fireball’, and said each fire gets progressively hotter. In other words, each stage involves more effort and struggle than the previous one. Like increasingly difficult levels in a video game alchemy gets harder and harder as you proceed towards the goal.
In each of the stages you are bringing the base material to higher and higher levels of purity. Since the alchemist and his work were closely integrated, these color changes also represented changes in the alchemist’s state of consciousness. Progress through the stages transformed the one doing the work in powerful ways and was said to be at times, highly dangerous.
The processes or operations are the way in which the alchemist works on the material to be perfected. There are many operations described in the various literature on alchemy, often listed as being seven, sometimes twelve, including those of the Mutus Liber, the twelve keys of Basil Valentine, the emblems of Steffan Michelspacher, and the twelve gates of George Ripley. Ripley’s steps are given as:
Calcination Solution or Dissolution Separation Conjunction Putrefaction Congelation Cibation Sublimation Fermantation Exaltation Multipication Projection
In another example from the sixteenth century, Samuel Norton gives the following fourteen stages:
Purgation Sublimation Calcination Exuberation Fixation Solution Separation Conjunction Putrefaction in sulphur Solution of bodily sulphur Solution of sulphur of white light Fermentation in elixir Multiplication in virtue Multiplication in quantity
In a list from the book I like working with, Alchemical Psychology, the operations are given with their Latin names:
Calcinatio (going through the fire) Dissolutio (the effects of water) Separatio (applying discrimination) Conjunctio (two become one without losing either) Distillatio (boiling and condensation) Coagulatio (making it real) Mortificatio (ending) Multiplicatio (the abundance of the heart) Putrifactio (surrender to the transforming power of death) Fixatio (nailed to the earth, nailed to matter, the opposite of volatile) Circulatio (going round and round in circles) Solutio (surrendering in to the a flow of dissolution) Sublimatio (rising above it all)
In each stage of alchemical development most of the operations will be present, although different operations are more important to some stages than others. In albedo, separatio and solutio are important. In citrinitas conjunctio is very important, and in rubedo coagulatio is key. In nigredo there is often an emphasis on solutio and calcinatio. Fromthis you can see how the processes are used in the stages and that the stages are not identical to theprocesses.