Monday, September 13, 2010

Lecter series - unified analysis - part 36: Alchemy's 'Great Work'


The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosophers' Stone by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771. [Image from the Wikipedia 'Alchemy' page, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.]

In part 35 of the analysis we observed that one of Hannibal Lecter's goals is to become Mercurius. According to Carl Jung, alchemists equated Mercurius with the philosopher's stone, which was the central symbol of the mystical terminology of alchemy, symbolizing perfection, enlightenment, and heavenly bliss. The discovery of the philosopher's stone was known as the Great Work.[a]

The Great Work (Latin: Magnum opus) is a term which refers to the successful completion of the transmutation of base matter into gold or, as indicated above, the discovery of the philosopher's stone. It has subsequently been used as a metaphor for spiritual transformation in the Hermetic tradition. It originally had four stages:

1. nigredo (-putrefactio), blackening(-putrefaction): corruption, dissolution
2. albedo, whitening: purification, burnout of impurity; the moon, female
3. citrinitas, yellowing: spiritualization, enlightenment; the sun, male
4. rubedo, reddening: unification of man with god, unification of the limited with the unlimited

After the 15th century, many writers tended to compress citrinitas into rubedo and consider only three stages. However, it is in citrinitas that the chemical wedding takes place, generating the Philosophical Mercury without which the philosopher's stone, triumph of the Work, could never be accomplished.[b]

In the framework of psychological development (especially for followers of Jungian psychology) these four alchemical steps are be taken as analogous to the process of attaining individuation.[c] Let us examine the four steps in greater detail.

1. Nigredo, or blackness, in alchemy means putrefaction or decomposition. The 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. In psychology, Carl Jung (a student of alchemy) interpreted nigredo as a moment of maximum despair, that is a prerequisite to personal development. The nigredo is also associated with chaos, melancholia, and the encounter with the psychological shadow.[d]

2. Albedo - following the harrowing, chaotic nigredo, it is necessary for purification provided by the albedo which is literally referred to as ablutio; the washing away of impurities by aqua vitae. Jung equated the albedo with unconscious contrasexual soul images; the anima in men and animus in women. It is a phase where insight into shadow projections are realized, and inflated ego and unneeded conceptualizations are removed from the psyche.[e]

3. Citrinitas literally referred to "transmutation of silver into gold" or "yellowing of the lunar consciousness", and in alchemical philosophy stood for the dawning of the "solar light" inherent in one's being, and that the reflective "lunar or soul light" was no longer necessary. In Jungian terms, citrinitas is the wise old man (or woman) archetype.[f]

4. Rubedo is a Latin word meaning "redness." In an archetypal schema, rubedo would represent the Self archetype, and would be the culmination of the four stages. The Self manifests itself in "wholeness," a point in which a person discovers his or her true nature.[g]

We will soon see how the topic of alchemy applies to the Hannibal Lecter movies.

a. Wikipedia, 'Philosopher's stone'. Web, n.d. URL =
b. Wikipedia, 'Magnum opus (alchemy)'. Web, n.d. URL =
c. Ibid.
d. Wikipedia, 'Nigredo'. Web, n.d. URL =
e. Wikipedia, 'Albedo (alchemy)'. Web, n.d. URL =
f. Wikipedia, 'Citrinitas'. Web, n.d. URL =
g. Wikipedia, 'Rubedo'. Web, n.d. URL =


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