The Transformations of Mercurius in the Hermetic Vessel

The painting “Alchemical Studies V (Homunculus)” is an exploration into how we often suppress or deny unpleasant emotional content. The first stage of the alchemical process calls for us to be introspective and cook our inner conflicts and to bring them to light.

Alchemical Studies V (Homunculus)”, oil on canvas, 120 x 100 cm, 2022

The painting was inspired by the image of “The transformations of Mercurius in the Hermetic vessel” as found in the manuscript “Cabala Mineralis” dated 5245. Carl Jung described the image as a homunculus or “pissing manikin” as an allusion to the urina puerorum or “little boys’ urine,” which itself alludes to the “Philosophical Water” and the first stage of the alchemical process of purification and spiritualization.

The transformations of Mercurius in the Hermetic vessel. The homunculus shown as a “pissing
manikin.” — “Cabala Mineralis” (MS., British Museum, Add. 5245)

Urine was once highly prized as a detergent in washing closes and as the main ingredient in rejuvenating potions. Urine contains ammonia and in the form of sal-ammoniac was used as a solvent to remove impurities in silver, gold, and mercury amalgams. A 15th century manuscript mentions the urine of twelve virgin boys as producing an elixir of which one drop will change any baser metal to gold. [1]

The use of mercury is the quickest, cheapest, and easiest method for extracting gold from crushed ore. Gold adheres to mercury, forming an amalgam, which is heated to vaporize the mercury and isolate the gold. The use of ammonia as a wash dissolves any residual contaminates from the final product.

Mercury doesn’t solidify nor completely liquify. That, combined with its ability to attract gold, made it a magical substance in ancient times. To obtain mercury cinnabar stone (ore) was grinded in a mortar and pestle along with copper shavings and vinegar. When the resulting powder turned into a black paste, droplets of mercury could be seen on the surface.

The product of the black paste was the first step in the alchemical pathway to the philosopher’s stone, where all the ingredients had to be cleansed and cooked extensively to a uniform black matter. This is referred to as the stage of the blackening or nigredo. It is the first stage in the journey of the hero where we are shaken out of our slumber by chaos, depression, despair, disillusionment, etc. It is the grinding of our ego as a process of purification and personal transformation, as represented by the urine of children, who have still retained their innocence and purity of heart.

The magical and transformative power of mercury was personified as the messenger god Mercury/Mercurius. For the alchemists, Mercurius was related to the Holy Ghost, as the life-giving quintessence which holds the elements together. The alchemists also used Mercurius as a symbol of spirit imprisoned in matter, like the character of the Homunculus in Goethe’s Faust, Part Two, where he embodies both the desire of pure spirit to be born into physical form and Faust himself, who wants to be free of the physical form and return to the spiritual. The alchemists’ idea was that the spirit is not permanently imprisoned in physical form and may return to its original and highest spiritual form by undergoing the purification process of the material plane. In this sense, the journey of the hero is the challenging and sublimating process of living on planet Earth.

The alchemical allegory of our transformative journey on Earth is found in the transformation of Mercurius in the Hermetic vessel. It is brought about by heating or cooking our base desires, repressed emotions, and our egoic ideas of ourselves. The distillation of these parts helps us to let go and separate from those parts of us that no longer serve us. In this way, we separate from our old and limited self to make room for something larger than ourselves—heightened consciousness and levels of spiritual awareness.

In a 1938 lecture at the University of Minnesota, Psychologist Otto Rank said “Life in itself is a mere succession of separations. Beginning with birth, going through several weaning periods and the development of the individual personality, and finally culminating in death – which represents the final separation. At birth, the individual experiences the first shock of separation, which throughout their life they strive to overcome. In the process of adaptation, people persistently separate from their old self, or at least from those segments of their old self that are now outlived. Like a child who has outgrown a toy, they discard the old parts of themselves for which they have no further use…. The ego continually breaks away from its worn-out parts, which were of value in the past but have no value in the present.” [2]

The stage of experiencing our spiritual self begins with first achieving individuation, which can be the result of a lifetime of separations and breaking away from our outworn patterns of adaptation. Rank believed that it was precisely this attitude of breaking away or “overleapings” that was responsible for all great creative achievement. [3] When we break away from caring about what other people think of us, we experience our authentic self and the power that comes from pursuing our own path and ways of being where anything and everything is possible.

[1] Thorndike, Lynn, “A History of Magic and Experimental Science, Volume 4” (Columbia University Press, 1934) p. 54.
[2] A Psychology of Difference: The American Lectures [talks given 1924–1938]; edited and with an introductory essay by Robert Kramer (Princeton, 1996) p. 270
[3] Rank, Otto, Art and Artists (Agathon Press, New York, 1968) p. 70

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