Note: For our American readers, colour is how everyone else spells color. Yeah, I prefer color myself, but given the history of alchemy, I’m going to go with the English on this one.
Colour and light are so common that we take them for granted. It wasn’t until the world’s last great magician, who was also the world’s first great scientist, published Opticks: or, A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light in 1704 that humanity started understanding something those of us with sight take for granted, even in our dreams: light and colour, colour and light.
Now, any discussion of light quickly breaks down into paradoxes; reflected light acts different than emitted light (this is why stars twinkle, and planets don’t, and why the color white is a combination of all of the other colours, when emitted, and the absence of all other colors when reflected). Compounding the paradoxical nature is a bizarre observation; the double slit experiment shows that light acts light a particle when ‘asked’ to but is just as comfortable acting like a wave when ‘asked’ to.
There’s something even more perturbing about light; photons are emitted when electrons are excited, ‘jump’ up, and ‘fall’ down. So where do they come from?
When Richard Feynman was posed this question by his father, his answer ran along the lines of “Damned if I know!”
His father whimsically responded, “And that’s why we helped send you to grad school?”
Incidentally, Feynman shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his work on QED, quantum electro-dynamics, which among other things, dealt with light…
Back to that old curmudgeon and alchemist, Sir Issac Newton:
You can’t talk alchemy without talking colour symbolism.
A good example is the Splendor Solis, 22 plates that record the procedure of manufacturing the Philosopher’s Stone in rich, vivid, colourful symbolism. The Stone, if you’re not familiar, is the goal of both Physical and Spiritual Alchemy.
Now there are many colour associations in alchemy – some are historical (purple, for instance, has long been associated with royalty) – some are astrological (an example of this would be the association of gold with the Sun). But when it comes to the Great Work, the Magnum Opus, the formation of the Philosopher’s Stone, there are a few, very established colour phases, which is what we’re going to examine:
I’ve indented the phases that are not recorded in the earliest sources, though that doesn’t mean that they aren’t important parts of the transformation that alchemy promises. However, classically, there are three primary phases: Black, White and Red, or in Latin, Nigrido, Albedo and Rubedo; the Peacock’s tail, which contains all colors, and the Citrinitas, or yellow phase, are secondary phases.
It should be noted that these operations occur in a flask, also called an alembic; for physical alchemy, the meaning should be clear. For spiritual alchemy, the symbolic meaning of the flask varies; it can be viewed as the alchemist’s body, or even as her psyche, take your pick.
NigridoThe Black Phase):
Before anything can be built up, it must be broken down. This applies to the prima materia, the source material, be it chemical or psychic.
While many cultures have negative associations tied to the color black (Islam being an exception, where white is considered an impure colour), there are no such connotations for the alchemist about the Nigrido stage; it is merely the first stage in the Great Work, the dissolving of the self/ego complex.
It is probably a fair observation that in cultures without spiritual safe-guards, or even safe-guardians (shamans, priestesses, lamas, et. al.), the spontaneous occurrence of Nigrido may be labeled as a nervous breakdown, or even psychosis.
Hopefully, alchemical texts can act as a refuge; this certainly was the case for C.G. Jung, whose own Nigrido lasted over two years, and resulted in his alchemical masterpiece, the Red Book.
Peacock’s tail (the Prismatic Phase):
For anyone doing meditative work, there can be flashes of insight, so vivid that the alchemist may believe she has “arrived”. However, these visions are fleeting, and the more one tries to cling to them, they quicker they disappear. For the spiritual alchemist, this is the Peacock’s tail; beautiful, but ephemeral.
There is always the danger of chasing the Peacock’s takes, akin to mistaking the map for the terrain. This is one of the great pitfalls for the spiritual alchemist.
Albedo (The White Phase):
When the dust settles, it’s time to cleanse the body and the soul. Nigrido is chaotic; everything is in ruins. Even if one has had the vision of the Peacock’s tail, before moving forward, the psychic debris from the first stage needs to be washed away.
This is the point of Albedo; it’s also where we get the word ablution, the washing away of impurities.
Inflated ego complex? Check.
Messiah complex. Double check.
Fear, anger, insecurity, neurosis, addiction? Time to say goodbye to our old friends.
Time to be absolved.
Citrinitas (The Yellow Phase):
From silver to gold, from lunar (reflective) consciousness to solar (affective) consciousness, this is the moving outwards phase in the alchemist’s journey. She has broken down her psyche, cleansed what she didn’t need (of course, she still has her Shadow; the difference is she now recognizes it, and can even work with it) and is ready to step forward into the light, so to speak.
This is the yellowing phase, and it is the stage the precedes self-actualization, individuation, the Magnum Opus, or Samadhi.
Once again, take your pick.
Rubedo (The Red Stage):
It’s tricky to talk about something you don’t know firsthand. Nigrido is something I’ve experienced, multiple times. I’ve chased that damned Peacock’s tail all too often. There have been moments of absolution in my life, sometimes bordering on the sublime experience of transformation.
For a moment.
Am I individuated?
Here’s a hint: if you think you are, you probably aren’t.
And if you go around saying you are, you definitely aren’t.
(one of my children is an aspiring psychologist, and while my Shadow is gleefully blowing through his inheritance, at least I’ve left him with that pithy gem).
It seems to me that the Rubedo is a constantly moving target, and it means different things to each of us as we age.
It’s a process of ever-becoming, ever pathfinding. If you’re playing it right, the red stage becomes the journey, destination, parts unknown.
To loop back to the late, great Richard Feynman:
What’s the Rubedo?
Damned if I know!
Black to Rainbow, Rainbow to White.
White to Yellow, or Silver to Gold.
And finally, the Red of the crucible, the burning moment when and where we are (continuously) reforged.
In short, the journey of a lifetime.
These are the colors of the Great Work, the Magnum Opus.
This is the quest for the Holy Grail that hides within each of us.
In short, these are the Colours of Magic.
What’s left to say?
The take-away, as I’m fond of saying… Only one thing:
Safe journeys, fellow travelers; sometimes, the road gets rough…
And that, my friends, is often a good sign that you’re on the path…