Illustration of a black angel found in Aurora consurgens
Black: The History of a Color, by Michel Pastoureau is one of the most fascinating books I have read in recent months. There are moments in life when the need of comforting, enveloping blackness predominates all other needs; this is where I am right now. I was intrigued to learn from Pastoureau’s book that it was the imperial Rome that started to define that colour black in negative terms. Previously, it was a color much revered:
“As the color of night and darkness, as the color of the bowels of the earth and the underground world, black is also the color of death. From the Neolithic, black stones were associated with funeral rites, sometimes accompanied with statuettes and objects very dark in color. The same is true in the historical periods throughout the Near East and in pharaonic Egypt. Yet this chthonic black is neither diabolical nor harmful. On the contrary, it is linked to the fertile aspect of the earth; for the dead, whose passage to the beyond it ensures, it is a beneficial black, the sign or promise of rebirth. That is why among the Egyptians the divinities related to death were nearly always painted black, like Anubis, the jackal-god who accompanies the dead to the tomb; Anubis is the embalmer-god and his flesh is black.
Anubis, the Tomb of Tutenkhamun reconstructed at a Berlin exhibition
Similarly, the deified kings and queens, ancestors of the pharaoh, were generally represented with black skin, a color that was not the least bit depreciatory. In Egypt the negative, suspect color was red rather than black: not the admirable red of the solar disc as it rose or set, but the red of the forces of evil and the god Seth, murderer of … Osiris and a great destructive force.”
I happened to watch A Space Odyssey 2001 yesterday. I was quite captivated with Kubrick’s ingenious use of the colour black symbolism. First the movie starts with a long shot of a completely dark screen (there are also similar intermissions throughout the movie), then there are amazing long shots of the dark mantle of night enveloping our little fragile Earth like a powerfully protective Black Coat – an emblem of Mahakala, the powerful protector of Dharma in Buddhism; and finally, most importantly, a mysterious black monolith mystifies both our humanoid ancestors and our technologically evolved human successors.
The black monolith turns out to be a force equally primal, overpowering and mystifying regardless of the level of technological development of those confronted with it. The people of the future in Kubrick’s vision are startlingly dry and emotionless, though. I was perplexed, and quite outraged, to be honest, that a great space expedition of what for Kubrick was a distant future did not include any women. There were five men on the ship and a computer called Hal, who was the most emotional member of the crew. I see the black monolith as a representation of the shunned feminine, which of course does not exhaust its rich symbolism. As a meaningful synchronicity, a strikingly similar black monolith jumped to me yesterday from the pages of Jung’s Red Book:
In the part of the Red Book entitled “Descent into Hell in the Future“ we find the following fascinatingly dark passage:
“I see a gray rock face along which I sink into great depths. I stand in black dirt up to my ankles in a dark cave. Shadows sweep over me. I am seized by fear, but I know I must go in. I crawl through a narrow crack in the rock and reach an inner cave whose bottom is covered with black water. But beyond this I catch a glimpse of a luminous red stone which I must reach. I wade through the muddy water. The cave is full of the frightful noise of shrieking voices. I take the stone, it covers a dark opening in the rock. I hold the stone in my hand, peering around inquiringly. I do not want to listen to the voices, they keep me away. But I want to know. Here something wants to be uttered. I place my ear to the opening. I hear the flow of underground waters. I see the bloody head of a man on the dark stream. Someone wounded, someone slain floats there. I take in this image for a long time, shuddering. I see a large black scarab floating past on the dark stream. In the deepest reach of the stream shines a red sun, radiating through the dark water. There I see-and a terror seizes me-small serpents on the dark rock walls, striving toward the depths, where the sun shines. A thousand serpents crowd around, veiling the sun. Deep night falls. A red stream of blood, thick red blood springs up, surging for a long time, then ebbing. I am seized by fear. What did I see?”
He saw the Stone amidst blackness.
The nigredo or blackness, the initial stage of the alchemical process, is the original dark chaos (massa confusa) with all the elements swirling around together or it may also indicate a state of separation, in which the elements are in separated condition. If the latter is the case, a union of opposites is called for: male and female lay together to produce a third. This third product of their union (lesser coniunctio) must die, leading to a period of mourning: the nigredo. The next stage is the washing which “leads direct to the whitening (albedo), or else the soul (anima) released at the ‘death‘ is reunited with the dead body and brings about its resurrection, or again the ‘many colours‘ (omnes colores) or ‘peacock’s tail‘ (cauda pavonis), lead to the one white colour that contains all colours. At this point the first main goal of the process is reached, namely the albedo … highly prized by many alchemists as if it were the ultimate goal. It is the silver or moon condition, which still has to be raised to the sun condition. The albedo is, so to speak, the daybreak, but not till the rubedo is it sunrise. The transition to the rubedo is formed by the citrinitas, though this… was omitted later. The rubedo then follows direct from the albedo as the result of raising the heat of the fire to its highest intensity. The red and the white are King and Queen, who may also celebrate their “chymical wedding“ at this stage.“ (C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, CW vol. 12, pp. 231-232).
Depiction of the Ouroboros found in Aurora consurgens
The arrangement of the stages does not mean that the goal of every alchemist was the white and red tincture or the hermaphrodite that contains both. Some of them defined their goal as lapis philosophorum (philosopher’s stone), which was very ambiguously defined: it was identified with prima materia as the means of producing the gold, but the gold was also identified with the philosopher’s stone. This ambiguity is an extraordinary value of alchemy to me, which I see in the wisdom and illumination achievable in every stage of the process. I choose to rest in Black for now:
“It is then the black earth in which the gold of the lapis is sown like the grain of wheat … It is the black, magically fecund earth that Adam took with him from Paradise, also called antimony and described as a ‘black blacker than black.‘“
C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, CW vol. 12, p. 327