Black Blacker than Black

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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:

black

“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.

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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.

monolith1

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:

Red Book Image 2

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?”

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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).

Aurora-dragon (1)

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

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34 Responses to Black Blacker than Black

  1. Viv says:

    I really must somehow scrape together the money to buy a copy of The Red Book with the pictures. I have the readers’ edition only.
    Coincidentally, I am posting about darkness tomorrow. Slightly different angle but related.

    • Zarah says:

      It seems to be in the air … I’m also writing a post about my (positive) experiences with darkness at the moment, and another blog I follow posted about Shadow aspects yesterday.

      • Viv says:

        It’s that time of year. Mine is mostly about Samhain, but touches on how we need darkness as well as light.

      • Hi Zarah, good to hear from you again and I assume you are writing in German. You are really motivating me to try and get a firmer grip on that language.
        My best,
        Monika

    • Yes, I am surprised there are editions without images. I think Jung would not approve at all. Thank you for taking the time to comment here.

      • Zarah says:

        Dear Monika,

        yes, I’m writing in German, but maybe I will open an English blog and have more quotations in it, so I don’t have to write everything myself. Your blog shows me that quotations from literature can also be inspiring and not everything has to be original. 😉
        If you want to improve your German, that’s great, but you should do it to be able to read the original works of the great ones, like Goethe, Rilke, Heine, or C.G. Jung. Germany used to be the country of poets and philosophers, so there’s lots of great stuff to discover.

        Meanwhile, I’m sure you will enjoy this mythic poem by Rilke – I just discovered it today:
        http://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/orpheus-hermes-eurydice-death/

        And you might also like Matrignosis, the blog of Jungian scholar Jean Raffa: http://jeanraffa.wordpress.com/. She writes a lot about synchronicity, symbols, dreams and of course C.G. Jung.

        Re: darkness, I am just reading “And there was light” by Jacques Lusseyran. He lost his eyesight when he was eight years old, only to discover that the light was still there – inside of him. It’s a fascinating read, and I will try to put some of it in my post.

        All the best,
        Zarah

      • Dear Zarah,

        I think the line between”original” and “not original” is a very fine one. I sometimes spent more time and invest so much heart and love selecting my quotes than on actual “creative” writing. It is that I read so much that I feel the need to share what I have collected. I have been in love with Rilke for a long time and this year I got his poems in a new English translation by Edward Snow. In his books, he also includes the originals in German. With German I do have a very difficult relationship: as you know, I live in a German speaking country but I actually go out of my way to avoid speaking it. Reading is not very hard but it gives me very little pleasure, I must admit. But I promise I will read your post. 🙂

        About Jean Raffa – she is also an inspiration to me and I never miss her posts. I even reblogged one in the past: http://jeanraffa.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/feminine-power/

        Thank you so much for being here and commenting.

        Monika

  2. Fabulously insightful Monika.. Loved how you pieced this together and especially loved those early paintings depicting the Ouroboros .. A fascinating subject.. Many thanks… Sue

  3. litebeing says:

    I really enjoy how you take prose and images from possibly ( but not always) disparate sources and have them intermingle together in your articles. Fascinating that black was not originally viewed as derogatory. Next on the list is left. Why is it viewed as negative?? This book seems very unique and rich with inherent wisdom.

    xxoxo Linda

    • Dear Linda, good idea to explore the left and maybe I will. I know Jung connects it to the unconscious. And the unconscious has always been viewed as sinister threat. The left is connected with the moon, the right with the sun, etc.
      Thank you for your appreciation. I feel in my case I wait for the ideas to connect in my unconscious. After they do, they emerge as a sort of a whole. Then I just write them down.

  4. ptero9 says:

    Dear Monika,

    Wonderful stuff! The fear and shunning of the dark, black fertile places harkens back to the Western preference of the solar active forcefulness which overcomes the dark and the night. “Just do it.” Although we cannot live without the polarity between dark and light, black and white, we can seek to understand these forces that are the backbone of existence.

    Perhaps by seeking understanding, we may differentiate these wholes, or totalities of existence and see the tension of opposites less as conflicts and more as symbiosis at play.

    “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.”

    Mythologically speaking, the shunning or conquering of the dark through the archtypal masculine, “active principle,” is very apt for the modern, western, conquering, heroic stance towards the feminine, in which she is brutalized, unseen, neglected, or ripped apart, forced to reveal her secrets; her unseen power still unrecognized as a vital creative force. Perhaps the more so when one must always bring a flashlight shining the little beam of light (consciousness?) on each little thing that catches your eye, rather than allowing for quiet patience that sitting in the dark reveals of all that the darkness holds. Perhaps I am being too harsh here…

    We can be spelunkers, but can also we be the cave?

    Much love,
    Debra

    • Dear Debra, before writing this I read your alchemical post on black because I did not want to repeat your ideas, but I guess it cannot be avoided and it is a good thing, actually. One of those days I will eventually read the Alchemical Psychology.
      I loved what you said about always bringing the flashlight. Such a beautiful metaphor.
      Much love,
      Monika

  5. Great post. Interesting that the negative association with the color black started with the Romans (we have so much to thank them for – lol). Also, I feel that the Enlightenment period bolstered this view, the unenlightened being ignorant, in the dark, etc. Finally, regarding 2001, you make some great observations and I agree with them. Personally, I just found the film to be painfully slow, although I appreciate the influence it had on film as an art form. Personally, I think A Clockwork Orange was Kubrick’s best film 😉

    Cheers!

    • Hi Jeff, ok, I admit some parts of the movie were excruciatingly dull – specifically, all the dialogue between the men. It was so stilted. You are also right about darkness and the Enlightenment. The book delineates that further on, and before that there is a good chapter on Christianity and the witches, the devil, etc, which came all to be associated with black and darkness.

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  7. Fascinating stuff. I too blogged on darkness, using a fragment of a poem by Wallace Stevens–“Downward into darkness on extended wings.” I see that darkness (blackness, shadows) as fertile ground, the mysterious Other we must be willing to explore in order to grow. Your posts are always such a pleasure to read, and so thought-provoking. Thank you

    • Dear Deborah,
      Your warm words mean a lot, as you understand well how a positive response warms every writer’s heart. I actually remember your post and the poem by Stevens. I guess my radar for darkness related writing is well tuned.
      Warmly,
      Monika

  8. Dearest Monika.

    Like others I am fascinated at how I wrote a post at the same time as you about similar topic, in my case Carl Jung’s Liber Novus and his connection of alchemy to individuation through the Axiom of Maria. I felt more of an intuitive connective thought to the One, Two, Three, then from the Third the One and the Four, and reading your illumination of this has brought it to life for me in a much deeper sense. Your writing went directly to the heart and I am grateful for understanding its essence more intimately thanks to you. I cannot stop thinking about how much this connects with Osiris and Isis- even though I have written about this before, your description just made the connections more enlivened or ensouled for me. As you know, the word alchemy has a meaning of the black, with association to the black fertile soul of the Nile river valley. You and I began a deeper dialogue back in the day when I wrote about the Osiris and Isis asteroids through astrology, and I am not sure if you remember but you shared this symbology with me:

    Monolith: In the Egyptian system of hieroglyphs, the monolith is a determinative
    sign associated with the name of the god Osiris and signifying ‘to last’. In
    the myth, Osiris was slain by Set (or Typhon) and put together again by Isis. The
    ceremony performed in commemoration of this event included the erection of a
    monolith (a symbol of lithophanic unity) as a sign of resurrection and life eternal
    (19), or of unity counterbalancing multiplicity, fragmentation and disintegration
    (this, in turn, being a symbol of the world of phenomena ‘fallen’ into the multiplicity
    of the diverse—space—and the transitory—time). The monolith, because
    of its shape and position, possesses other secondary meanings alluding—as in
    the case of the menhir—to the masculine, the solar and the procreative principle.

    You further connection to the film “2001” is ingenious and an apt analysis that compelled me to find a couple of short sections of the film to re-watch on the Internet containing the monolith. Very interesting indeed, how the vision of the monolith is connected to the use of bones as tools leading to technological attempts to control nature. I agree with you that there is a theme of the “shunned feminine.”

    love,
    Gray

    • Gray, this is uncanny synchronicity with the Red Book. It is really like a Book of Revelation that deserves to be studied and commented on endlessly, I feel. When it was released I attended a mindblowing exhibition dedicated to it here in Zurich. Seeing the images in a larger scale the size of a painting was amazing. Also, I completely forgot we communicated about the monolith before. You are so right – the monolith may refer to the One through the axiom of Maria. But also important, on the other hand, is its solar and masculine symbolism, which brought on the technological progress. Thanks for deepening my understanding of all of this.
      Gratefully,
      Monika

  9. Reblogged this on Nataraj Express and commented:
    Another amazing post by Symbol Reader about the hidden meaning and symbolism of Black.

  10. Boogeywookie says:

    What an outstanding post SR – I was alerted to your wonderful blog by a link shared in Kim Falconer’s horoscope email. Thank you for the inspired connections you drew regarding male and female energies in Kubrick’s ‘2001’. Only last fortnight I saw the same film again. I applaud you for working through and embracing the black times you are experiencing.

    Namaste
    BW

  11. Thank you for this. Fascinating to think about black with all of these intersecting realities. And now the space behind the white letters in your comment section seems endlessly deep.

  12. I especially find Jung’s idea of the ‘massa confusa’ here interesting and evocative.

  13. Zarah says:

    Dear Monika,

    so you don’t read German because you hate it – not because you don’t understand it? I wasn’t aware of that. I actually feel blessed to understand both German and English in this lifetime. There are so many treasures to be found. Tried to learn Arabic and Finnish too, but I wasn’t successful there. *sigh* I can’t wait for the day when we all will communicate telepathically. 🙂

    I haven’t finished my “darkness” article yet but I posted a short one on the power of silence, with a quote from Knud Rasmussen about what he learned from an old Inuit woman, which I just happened to find looking up something else. (Yes, I don’t look for my quotes – I find them. 😉 And you are right, the heartfelt way you present your findings, with those wonderful images, is also very original and inspiring. )

    Many blessings
    Zarah

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