In alchemy, nigredo, or blackness, means putrefaction or decomposition. Many alchemists believed that as a first step in the pathway to the philosopher’s stone all alchemical ingredients had to be cleansed and cooked extensively to a uniform black matter. Nigredo, or blackness, in the alchemical sense, means putrefaction, and decomposition. By the penetration of the external fire, the inner fire is activated and the matter starts to break down or putrefy. The body is reduced to the primal matter from which it originally arose. This process is also called ‘cooking’. In chemical alchemy, the black earth is closed up in a vessel or flask, and heated to break it down into this primal matter.
In psychological alchemy “The head of the Raven” is another traditional name for the nigredo. It corresponds to the encounter with the shadow. The shadow is the inner darkness within us all. The ego, the part of your makeup that yells “me!” and the shadow must eventually be reconciled. All the personal flaw we struggle with and punish ourselves for come from your conscious experience of conflict between conscious and unconscious drives. The unconscious must be brought up into the light and the ego must reconcile with and accept it. This requires that ego to be broken down, forced to give up it’s myopic view of self. The Self, symbolized as a dragon, devours itself and dies, only to rise again when the work is perfected.
Carl Jung is known for his inspiration by alchemy. For Jung, ‘the rediscovery of the principles of alchemy came to be an important part of my work as a pioneer of psychology”. As a student of alchemy, he and his followers compared the “black work” of the alchemists (the nigredo) with this process of integrating the shadow and the ego. Jungians interpreted nigredo in two main psychological senses. The first sense represented a the initial state, in which the subject is still unaware of the unconscious.
In the second sense, the nigredo is part of the process of individuation and is a subjectively experienced process of the person’s painful new awareness of his shadow. It could be described as a moment of maximum despair, that is a prerequisite to personal development. The term became a metaphor “for the dark night of the soul, when an individual confronts the shadow within”. Only later, after much work, would come “an enantiodromia; the nigredo gives way to the albedo…the ever deepening descent into the unconscious suddenly becomes illumination from above”.
Enantiodromia is a word and concept borrowed by Jung from the ancient Greeks (ἐνάντιος, enantios – opposite and δρόμος, dromos – running course) to descibe a principle that the superabundance of any force inevitably produces its opposite. Similar to the principle of equilibrium in the natural world, in that any extreme is opposed by the system in order to restore balance. It also reflects the primal operation in the Taoist view of the natural world, the flow of yin and yang in humans and nature.
People who are not willing to look within and evaluate the source of their feelings and beliefs stay stuck in the nigredo. Whatever things are happening in the outer world, and you do not have sufficient mastery of the forces withing you or understandng of your internal conflicts, those outer forces can become unmanageable. Depression, psychosomatic aches and pains, and even organic diseases can manifest from this. Addressing the external symptoms can aleviate some of the effects but the unment needs of the subconscious, the seething of the shadow within, tend to make dealing with life”s demands very difficult. Your energy is being hijacked by the unfulfilled subconscious, leaving the ego frustrated, discontent, and wondering why life progress is so difficult. The rectify this the opposing parts of the psyche must be integrated, or we spend all out time in the nigrado, the darkness, and never more on.