Solutio constitutes one of the major alchemical operations, each one a center of an elaborate symbol system. The operation of solutio is one of the major procedures in alchemy directly tied to one of the four classical elements. One text says, “Solutio is the root of alchemy.” Another says, “Until all be made water, perform no operation.” In many places the whole opus is summarized by the phrase “Dissolve and coagulate.” Just as calcinatio pertains to the element fire, coagulatio to the element earth, and sublimatio to the element air, so solutio pertains to water. Basically, solutio turns a solid into a liquid. The solid appears to vanish into the solvent as if it had been totally Carrying absorbed. It would seem to have vanished. Water is both an alchemical element, and a component in the process of the solutio.
Solutio symbolism is rich and varied. The solutio is a way of dislodging stuck complexes and also the solutio is linked to chemical liquefaction. All that is stuck is put in solution to allow movement. It is used to symbolize softening or melting processes. It is representative of dissolution, dispersal, and even dismemberment. It is about the containment of a lesser thing by a greater. It can be the return to the primal state or womb Solutio is about rejuvenation, immersion in the creative energy flow, and as its word root implies, the solution of problems. It is also symbolic of a purification ordeal. These various aspects overlap and mingle in a single experience.
For the alchemist, solutio was the process by which the differentiated matter returned to its original undifferentiated state. the prima materia. Water was thought of as the womb and solutio was the return to the womb for rebirth. The idea of prima materia came from the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers and according to Thales of Miletus water is the original material out of which the world is created. Interestingly, many modern scientists see evidence for the beginning of life in the ocean.
The alchemists thought that a substance could not be transformed unless it were first reduced to the prima materia. One text says, “Bodies cannot be changed except by reduction into their first matter.” This procedure corresponds to what takes place in psychotherapy. The fixed, static aspects of the personality allow for no change and . They are established and sure of their rightness. For transformation to proceed, these fixed aspects must first be dissolved or reduced to prima materia. This is done by the analytic process, which examines the products of the unconscious and questions the established ego attitudes.
Alchemical recipes for the solutio operation give us a picture of a descent into the unconscious, which is the maternal womb from which the ego is born. It is the prima materia prior to the differentiation of the elements by consciousness. Some texts describe the procedure as a very pleasant process. There are others which express it much more negatively.
The solutio has a twofold effect: it causes one form to disappear and a new regenerated form to emerge. The dissolution of the old one is often described in negative imagery and is associated with the nigredo. For instance, Philalethes says: “The blackness becomes more pronounced day by day until the substance assumes a brilliant black color. This black is a sign that the dissolution is accomplished”.
An immature ego may find it pleasant to surrender to containment in a blissful regression; however, at a later stage of development the prospect of solutio will generate great anxiety because the hard won state of ego autonomy is being threatened with dissolution. It can take a lot of faith and courage for the person to stick with it through the experience of dissolving, In life they might be ceasing to believe what they have believed, losing jobs, lovers, direction, certainties, capacities. This is where the alchemist needs to surrender to the work, surrender to the process.
We are thus brought, finally, to the ultimate in solutio symbolism, the idea of the water that is the goal of the process. Several terms are used for this liquid version of the Philosophers’ Stone. The personal ego is dissolved into its constituent psychic elements by the sulphurous waters of the collective unconscious. Dreams about solutio often involve waterfalls, tsunami waves, oceans, and being pulled into water.
The greater solutio is an encounter with the Numinosum, which both tests and establishes the ego’s relation to the Self, that is, solutio comes from the Self. Numinosum is a word Jung used repeatedly. He may have borrowed it from Otto, possibly perhaps the original German text had this Latinized version of “numinous.” In his essay “Psychology and Religion” Jung provides a definition of numinosum:
“… a dynamic agency or effect not caused by an arbitrary act of will…. The numinosum— whatever its cause may be—is an experience of the subject independent of his will…. The numinosum is either a quality belonging to a visible object or the influence of an invisible presence that causes a peculiar alteration of consciousness….”.
In Jung’s thinking the numinosum is both a quality inherent to an object or an experience that comes over a person, often inadvertently. What is worth saving in the ego is saved and what is not worth saving is dissolved and melted down in order to be recast. An ego that is willing to undergo this process will not resist it and will experience diminishment as a prelude to the transformed personality of a whole and integrated self.