Alchemy of the Four Elements – Calcinatio – The Alchemy of Fire

Red flames

The classical four elements play a role in alchemy and each of the four elements has its own particular operation. Calcinatio is the fire operation. Solutio is the matching operation for water, coagulatio for earth and sublimatio for air.  As this shows, calcinatio is one of several major alchemical operations, each one a center of an elaborate symbol system.  Most lists of alchemical operations begin with calcinatio. A few authors say solutio comes first. However, the sequence of operations (with one or two exceptions) does not seem to be significant whem alchemy is applied to psychology. Any operation may be the initiating one, and the others may follow in any order. 

The process of calcinatio derives in part from a chemical procedure. The chemical process of calcination entails the intense heating of a solid in order to drive off water and all other constituents that will volatilize. What remains is a fine, dry power. The classic example of calcination, from which it derives its name (calx = lime), is the heating of limestone or slaked lime to produce quicklime, a caustic ingredient used in things as diverse as cement and water purificaion. When water contacts quicklime it has the interesting characteristic of generating heat. This property gave rise to the alchemists belief quicklime contained fire and was sometimes equated with fire itself. Any image that contains open fire burning or affecting substances will be related to the calcinatio. There is a rich and complicated wealth of fire symbolism, including Jung’s demonstration that fire symbolizes libido. 

The wlf devouring the king alchemical illustrationIn The Twelve Keys of Basil Valentine we find the following recipe for calcinatio: “Take a fierce gray wolf, whichis found in the valleys and the mountains of the world, where he roams almost savage with hunger. Cast to him the body of the King, and when he has devoured it, burn him entirely to ashes in a great fire. By this process the King will be liberated; and when it has been performed thrice the lion has overcome the wolf, and will find nothing more to devour in him. Thus our body has been rendered fit for the first stage of our work.”

The calcining fire combines several alchemical themes: calcinatio as cremation, the death and blackness of mortificatio; extraction of essence, separatio; and the making of gold, the goal of the magnum opus.  The dead king is the object of calcinatio and would suggest psycologically there is a major life value around which the personality has been structured is undergoing re-evaluation and refinement.

Alchemical image of the three headeddragon frpm Splendor SolisIn another text the calcinatio is described as follows: “Then take out all the feces which remain in the retort, and are blackish like unto soot, which feces are called our Dragon, of which feces calcinein a fervent hot fireuntil it becomes a white calx, as white as snow.”  Here the matter to be calcined is called “dragon” or “black feces”that is, shadow stuff. The texts above demonstrates the nature of the substance to be calcined. It is called “ravening wolf”, “black feces” , a “dragon”.  These terms tell us that the calcinatio is performed on the primitive shadow side, which harbors hungry, instinctual desirousness and is contaminated with the unconscious. The fire for the process comes from the frustration of these instinctual desires themselves.

The end product of calcinatio is a white ash. This corresponds to the so-called “white foliated earth” of many alchemical texts. It signifies the albedo or whitening phase and has paradoxical associations. On the one hand ashes signify despair, mourning, or repentance. On the other hand they contain the supreme value, the goal of the work. One text says, “Despise not the ashes for they are the diadem of thy heart, and the ash of things that endure.” Another says, “The white foliated earth is the crown of victory which is ash extracted from ash, and their second body.” The ash is the incorruptible “glorified body,” which has survived the purifying ordeal.  Sometimes the result is a vitreous mass; hence there is an overlap between the symbolism of ash and glass.

How can ash, the seeming remains of complete destruction become the symbol of glory and the crown of victory? What turns the ashes of failure into triumph is revealed by the fact that ash is alchemically equivalent to salt. Salt symbolizes Eros and appears in one of two aspects, either as bitterness or as wisdom. Jung wrote “Tears, sorrow, and disappointment are bitter, but wisdom is the comforter in all psychic suffering. Indeed, bitterness and wisdom form a pair of alternatives: where there is bitterness wisdom is lacking, and where wisdom is there can be no bitterness.” 

In another respect, calcinatio is a process of driving off excess water and a drying out of the substance. The classical alchemist working with chemical substances can easity see what he is working with. In psychological alchemy, first the substance must be located.  The unconscious, unacknowledged desire, demand, expectation must be recognized and affirmed. That urge that says “I want” and “I am entitled to this” must be fully accepted by the ego. There can be no effective calcinatio until the ego recognizes the material to be worked with.  In most lives people are provided with plenty of occasions for the calcinatio of frustrated desires. Primitive , undifferentiated desires, implictly assuming they are entitled to fulfillment, when denied become enraged. Reality generates the calcinating fire by challenging or blocking such desires. Ripley says: “Calcination is the purgation of our stone, Restoring also of his natural heat; Of radical moisture it leaveth none”.  The psychlogical alchemist transmutes the energies of the archetypal psyche by purging the murky prmodial water and leaving the substance in its eternal state, restored to its proper healthy energy and functioning. 

The King in the Swea Box alchemical illustraion The King in the Sweatbox Maier, Atalanta Fugiens, (1618)


About angela1313

I am a cat lover, a writer, and an overextended blogger trying to foster for a cat rescue, finish a Master's degree and rehab a fixer upper house i bought.
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