Prima Materia


The stone is below thee, as to obedience;
above thee, as to dominion;
therefore from thee, as to knowledge;
about thee, as to equals.
- Rosinus ad Sarratantam Episcopum: Magus Philosophus

The prima materia is the basis of the alchemical opus which, according to Jung (1967), “represents the unknown substance that carries the projection of the autonomous psychic content” (p. 317). Under philosophical influence, essentially Alchemy stated in its doctrine that metals, like human beings, had body and soul, with the soul as a finer form of corporeality, therefore the soul or primitive stuff (prima materia) was common to all metals, and in order to transmute one metal into another they had to produce a tincture of its soul – extracting its prima materia, or original essence. Because the substance emanates from the individual, and is unique to each, it is impossible to specify; i.e., as Jung (1967) summarizes, for one it was Quicksilver, “for others it was ore, iron, gold, lead, salt, sulphur, vinegar, water, air, fire, earth, blood, water of life, lap[is, poison, spirit, cloud sky, dew, shadow, sea, mother, moon, dragon, Venus, chaos, microcosm”; in Ruland’s lexicon there are no less than fifty synonyms (p. 317). For Komarios it was “Hades”; in Olympiodorus the “accursed of God” contained in the black earth; in the “Consilium coniugii” it is the “animal of earth and sea,” “man,” or “part of man,” (hair, blood, etc…); for Dorn it was “Adamica” as Paracelsus limbus microcosmicus; while for others it was the “fiery and perfect Mercurius”, the true hermaphroditic “Adam and Microcosm”; for Hermes Trismegistus it was the “orphan”; for Mylius it was the elementum primordiale as the “pure subject and the unity of forms” in which any form may be assumed; in the Rosarium it is the radix ipsius (root of itself) (Jung, 1967, pp. 319-320). The definitions range from chemical to mythological to philosophical in nature, and while in function unique to each alchemical treatise – physical or psychic – the synonyms all point to the same goal: the extraction or realization of the primal, purified, original matter (psychologically, the Self). Hoghelande (“De alch. diff.,” Theatr. chem., I, pp. 198f.) says:

They have compared the prima materia to everything, to male and female, to the hermaphroditic monster, to heaven and earth, nobody and spirit, chaos, microcosm, and the confused mass [massa confusa]; it contains in itself all colors and potentially all metals; there is nothing more wonderful in the world, for it begets itself, conceives itself and gives birth to itself (Jung, 1967, p. 319).

As all things are in a state of Becoming, subject to constant change, one can say we live in a state of ordered chaos. Hence the prima materia being compared to the massa confusa, or original chaos. It seems strange that the Essence, or goal of the opus is to reach the original, undifferentiated state, synonymous with Chaos, yet perfect in its sublimity; it’s like the Tehom of Genesis, or the material which preceded the Creation, above which the Spirit hovered. If one is to look at the Soul or Spark of an individual, that thing within oneself that is multi-faceted yet complete, autonomous in that it exists outside of consciousness, yet is itself consciousness, one can see that the alchemical process as a projected psychic operation represents the reformatting of psychic contents, re-emerging unconscious processes, and purifying them: giving the individual a representative manifestation of their Original self with which they may communicate, in a sense, and strive towards an individuated, realized state. If the prima materia is this arcane substance that is available to all, within all, and is all, as a chaotic perfect thing, it gives one the sense of harboring an ability to, like G-d (in whose Image we’re made), mold their Self accordingly. It’s the building block of the metal as it is the foundation of the individual.

The Mercuriual dragon of Greek alchemy gave rise to the idea that the prima materia was the Unum, Unica, Res, or Monad. In writing of Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica, Forshaw (2005) states:

The monas forms the O of the alchemical word “AZOTH,” a favourite word with the Paracelsians, given that Paracelsus had written the Liber Azot sive de Ligno et Linea Vitae. The word “Azot” (or Azoth) is formed of the first and last letters of the three matrix languages — Latin A and Z, Greek A (alpha) and V (omega), and Hebrew b (aleph) and L (tau) — and as such encapsulates the whole alchemical work, the transformation of prima materia into ultima materia. Azoth is described by Khunrath as the “sharpest Acid” (Acetum acerrimum) of the wise, the association with acid presumably being the reason for the appearance of the word “Azoth” on the pommel of Paracelsus’s sword, suggesting its ability to cut, anatomise, or reduce all things to their primal state. Its presence on the breast of the Hermetic bird, with Dee’s hieroglyph as the central O, emphasises the significance of Dee’s monas as one of the central analytical and synthetic tools of theoretical alchemy (p. 260).

The primamateria, furthermore evolved into a symbol of the Self as the Lapis/Christ: denoting the end-product of the process, “called lapisphilosophorum, elixirvitae, aurumnostrum, infans, puer, filiusphilosophorum, Hermaphroditus,” and according to Jung (1967): “this filius […]was regarded as a parallel of Christ. Thus, by an indirect route, the alchemical fish attains the dignity of a symbol for the Salvator mundi. Its father is God, but its mother is the Sapientia Dei, or Mercurius as Virgo. The filiusphilosophorum (or macrocosmi), otherwise the lapis means nothing other than the self” (p. 127). The prima materia is the “magnet of the wise”, which “is to draw the wonder-working fish to the surface,” is a process which can be taught, handed down from Master or Adept to Neophyte, and the content of this secret teaching is the real arcanum of alchemy: the discovery or production of the prima materia. The numerous names given to the primamateria show that it was not a definite substance, rather it was an intuitive concept for an initial psychic situation, symbolized by such terms as the above mentioned, and the following: water of life, cloud, heaven, shadow, sea, mother, moon, dragon, Venus, chaos, massa confusa, Microcosmos, etc… (Jung, 1967, 155).

Thus the doctrine can be consciously acquired through divine inspiration, passed on from a teacher to a student, and learned through the alchemical operations. Like the magnet or fish, it is an instrument which provokes out of the individual their “truth”; freeing from the imprisonment of one’s body their true, original nature. It’s like a divine gift from the Holy Spirit, a revelation of sorts. Therefore the treasure hidden in the prima materia is not an object (despite being found both within and without the individual – i.e., projected into a material, envisaged in the self), rather it is an experiential phenomena of a learned subject, for Jung (1967) says that the “treasure of the doctrine and the precious secret concealed in the darkness of matter are one and the same thing” (p. 255). Secrets such as these are due to the existence of unconscious projections.

Such projections provide the individual with a means of experiencing the contents, as the alchemical procedure is undergone by the adept; through coming to terms with the “truth” inherent in oneself, one is able to permute and transmute, to perfect the Art, and produce the lapis. For the lapis is none other than the full understanding and utilization of one’s Self. Just as the central idea of the lapis Philosophorum signifies the self, so the opus with its countless symbols illustrates the process of individuation, the development of the self from an unconscious state to a conscious one. That is why the prima materia, (like Azoth) stands at the beginning of the process as well as at the end. God therefore can be discerned through the Self, in the process and procedure of alchemical transmutation, whereby one realizes one’s own God-nature, and witnesses via the projection of unconscious contents the imago Dei extending from, originating within, and available to the Self; the stone is the transformation of the Self, through which one is transformed, and that which is self-created as Transformation.

Here we note the fundamental importance of Self-knowledge; as expectations of the work should be applied to the ego. The doctrine formulates or is dependent upon one’s inner experience, for the secret is first and foremost his “true self, which he does not know but learns to know by experience of outward things,” (Jung, 1967, p. 163). This is not studying one’s ego, however using one’s ego and transformation through study of the Art, study of the Collective & Personal Unconscious – to understand or experience the One, “firmament of Olympus” as unconscious made conscious via the subjective experience of transformation. This objective knowledge of the self is what the alchemist means when he says: “No one can know himself unless he knows what, and not who, he is, on what he depends, or whose he is [or: to whom or what he belongs] and for what end he was made.” As Jung (1967)  remarks, the distinction between “quis” and “quid” is crucial: “quis” has an unmistakably personal aspect and refers to the ego, while “quid” is neuter, predicating nothing except an object which is not endowed even with personality (p. 163). It is not the subjective ego-consciousness of the psyche that is meant, but the psyche itself as the unknown, unprejudiced object that still has to be investigated. This is the difference between knowledge of the ego and knowledge of the self. Furthermore, Jung (1967) states that

Man knows only a small part of his psyche, just as he has only a very limited knowledge of the physiology of his body. The causal factors determining his psychic existence reside largely in unconscious processes outside consciousness, and in the same way there are final factors at work in him which likewise originate in the unconscious. Freud’s psychology gives elementary proof of the causal factors,  Adler’s of the final ones. Causes and ends thus transcend consciousness to a degree that ought not to be underestimated, and this implies that their nature and action are unalterable and irreversible so long as they have not become objects of consciousness. They can only be corrected through conscious insight and moral determination, which is why self-knowledge, being so necessary, is feared so much (p. 165).

It is dispositio hominum – human attitude – that makes the stone, changes the natures, etc…for “All those who have all things with them have no need of outside aid” – Morienus Romanus – and this is the transformation brought about by the coniunctio (Jung, 1967, p. 166). The stone is in psychic relationship to man: the adept can expect obedience from it, however it exercises dominion over him; the stone is “knowledge”; it is internal and external, cultivated and experienced; it is the “spiritus rector” of our fate; the essence of individuation; ego contained in archetype of the self; therefore, the self “cannot be localized in ego consciousness, but acts like a circumambient atmosphere to which no definite limits can be set, either in space or in time” (p. 168). For Morienus the stone is implanted in man by God, the laborant is himself the prima materia, the extraction corresponds to divisio or separatio of alchemy, and “through his knowledge of the stone man remains inseparably bound to the self. The procedure…[is] the realization of an unconscious content” (p. 168). Ignoring this process, e.g., not teaching fairy-tales to children, which enables the archetypal or apperceptive concepts to be canalized, internalized, or apprehended unconsciously, inculcates religious ideas as instrumental and integrated symbols, without which such content resultantly is intensified to pathological proportions (p. 169). Finally, for Dorn the Opus is an apocatastasis – restoring “an initial state in an “eschatological” one; like individuation – whether Christian or a satori Zen, or a psychological process of development “in which the original propensity to wholeness becomes a conscious happening” (p. 169). The Self of alchemists is not in the Ego but outside; despite being paradoxically within & without Man (as a Whole), thus the union of opposites is only possible when the Adept has become One himself; for the stone is a “projection of the unified self” and a “transcendent unity”, a supraordinate totality (p. 170). This is the veritastheoria & arcanum in matter; for the truth shines in us but is not of us; it is sought not in us, “but in the image of God which is in us” – hence transcendent centre in man is the God-image (p. 171).





Forshaw, Peter J. “The Early Alchemical Reception of John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica”. AMBIX, Vol. 52, No. 3, November 2005, 247–269 . Pdf..

Jung, C.G.  Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1977. Print.

Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in

Alchemy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1977. Print.

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