Ferdinand Hodler, “Autumn Evening”

Whenever autumn is in full colour, I always remember the alchemical dictum “Nature rejoices in nature, nature conquers nature, nature rules over nature.” In volume 13 of Collected Works, Jung explained it in the following way:

“This principle is pagan in feeling and an expression of nature worship. Nature not only contains a process of transformation—it is itself transformation. It strives not for isolation but for union, for the wedding feast followed by death and rebirth.” (par. 197)

And in the most beautiful and memorable chapter of James Hillman’s Alchemical Psychology, he focuses on yellowing (citrinitas) – the third stage of the alchemical opus, which follows nigredo and albedo and precedes rubedo. On the one hand:

“Yellow signifies a particular kind of change – usually for the worse: withering leaves, aging pages, and long-stored linen, old teeth and toenails, liver spots, peeling skin, indelible stains of food and semen. The process of time shows as a yellowing. The alchemists spoke of it as ‘putrefaction’ and ‘corruption.’ “

And yet, he continues:

“The German gelb and the Latin galbus and galbinus derive from roots meaning radiant and shining, like gold; so the Homeric Achilles and Apollo are yellow-haired, blond, fair, and sunlit. In addition, the most luminous of all hues (least saturated) is yellow and the yellow spot in the middle of the retina is where vision is most acute.”

Paul Gauguin, “By the Stream, Autumn”

There is both godlike perfection and earthly corruption in yellow. And yet the beauty of autumn leaves, their radiance is mesmerizing. Nature rejoices in this moment. It is as if for a moment a normally hidden unconscious lumen naturae (light of nature) became visible. From the scientific perspective, as trees stop producing chlorophyll, their green colour fades and other colours, which had been there all along, are revealed. This pertains especially to the yellow.

The bitter sweet melancholy of autumn may be connected with the meaning of the alchemical stage of yellowing, as Hillman says:

“…during nigredo there is pain and ignorance; we suffer without the help of knowledge. During albedo the pain lifts, having been blessed by reflection and understanding. The yellow brings the pain of knowledge itself. The soul suffers its understanding.

…the yellow brings the pain of further knowledge derived from piercing insights, critical, cruel, the slings and arrows of seeing sharp and true, insights that arrive suddenly together with the fire and fear regarding the cowardice, jealousy, choler, and decay that taints…”

The final stage of the alchemical opus is rubedo, where we bring the results of all the insights of the previous stages into the world. We create and manifest. I have tried to find out why some trees turn red in the autumn and apparently it is a totally different process than yellowing. Some trees actively produce the red pigment in autumn and scientists are not sure why. You can read more about that here. While being human always means suffering under the yellow yoke, not all (only few?) of us reach the rubedo stage of individuation.

But what we see around ourselves in peak autumn are all colours, not just the yellows and the reds; the green is not yet gone, some flowers have not withered, there are plenty of colourful fruit around and the sky can be as azure as in peak summer. Alchemy spoke of cauda pavonis – the peacock’s tail – the radiant colours which appeared all at once, like the white prism breaking into a rainbow. This is by no means an orthodox interpretation, just my own flight of fancy, but I always thought that the stages of the alchemical opus are not necessarily akin to a ladder that the souls climb. In other words, it is not an evolution but an endless transformation and none of the stages are more valuable than others.

Recently I was astounded to find a book, which resonated with my thoughts. I have not finished reading it yet but here is a quote from the Introduction:

“All life, in order to develop, must pass through an irreducible multiplicity of forms, a whole population of bodies that it dons and discards with the same ease as it changes outfits from one season to the next. Every living being is legion. Each one stitches together bodies and ‘selves’ like a seamstress, like a body artist constantly modifying their appearance. Every life is an anatomical fashion show of variable duration. To think the relationship between this multiplicity of forms in terms of metamorphosis rather than in terms of evolution, progress, or their opposites, is not just to free oneself of all teleology. It means also, and above all, that each of these forms has the same weight, the same importance, the same value: metamorphosis is the principle of equivalence between all natures, and the process that allows this equivalence to arise. Every form, every nature, comes from the other and is equivalent to it. They all exist on the same plane. They each have a share of what the others have, but in different ways. Variation is horizontal.”

Emanuele Coccia and Robin Mackay, Metamorphoses

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Lake George, Autumn”

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6 Responses to Autumn

  1. litebeing says:

    Such a fascinating read Monika. I was so struck by the yellow hue in alchemy and some of examples of decay feel so Plutonian to me. I never considered why different trees change to various hues, nor the significance of how flowers and green comingles with rust, burgundy, gold, purple, and brown leaves in autumn. Purple hues are rare in leaves but appear occasionally!

    This fall the trees are mostly yellow green and brown and I long for a more diverse palette. We shall see what happens before autumn ends.
    Cheers to this liminal season. 🙂



    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Linda. We’ve got so many colours around us this year – or maybe I’m noticing it more this year. I have seen the purples, too – very rare and beautiful. I wish I could go to the mountains to see the golden larches, which are supposed to be spectacular. Japanese Autumn leaves festival should be adopted in Europe if you ask me.
      All my best

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ptero9 says:

    Hi Monika,
    I love the idea that yellow, perhaps more akin to a yin style receptivity, precedes the more martial, yang style of red, and of course the connection to death as a transformative aspect of a cycle of rebirthing.
    Hope you’re doing well!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Debra,
      So great to hear from you. I remember your post on yellowing of course. I looked at it again just now and had a thought that yellowing is so much like planets going retrograde. I appreciate this stage a lot and I think you must too since both our Mercurys move backwards.
      Stay well and thank you again

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely post Monika.
    I couldn’t help but think of “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost, which ends:

    Then leaf subsides to leaf.
    So Eden sank to grief,
    So dawn goes down to day.
    Nothing gold can stay.

    Liked by 1 person

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