Aug 02 2013

Meditations on Sol Niger, part III

‘Mr. Makepeace, do you really turn lead into gold?’

‘No, of course not. No one can do that. But if people think you’re foolish enough to try, they don’t bother to look at what you’re really doing. They leave you in peace.’

– Philip Pullman, Lyra’s Oxford

blacksunStanton Marlan, in Part I of this series, is quoted as calling the Black Sun a “paradox.” I have found it to be an elusive and enigmatic symbol. Indeed, I have found very little written on the image proper. Most sources will mention it, and then segue into a discussion of its properties, or more often, the alchemical processes associated with it – mortificatio, nigredo,, “blackening.”

In alchemy, nigredo, or “blackening” is a beginning stage in the alchemical opus. From nigredo, we move to albedo (“whitening”), and finally to rubedo (“reddening”). An interesting exercise is to look for alchemical processes in unlikely places, such as pop culture, or lowbrow humor. I can’t help but wonder at the alchemical possibilities of the old “What’s black and white and red all over?” jokes we used to tell as children. Sadly, the punchlines are about as cryptic as alchemical manuscripts (“a penguin with diaper rash,” “a panda with sunburn,” or “a nun with a bloody nose,” to name but a few) and don’t easily surrender their secrets!

The idea behind nigredo is that the old substance must die, in order to be reborn (first, purified via albedo, and then coming into its own in rubedo). This dying process is the mortificatio. Titus Burckhardt, in his book Alchemy (1997), describes the process as follows:

At the beginning of every spiritual realization stands death, in the form of ‘dying to the world.’ Consciousness must be withdrawn from the senses and turned inward. As the ‘inner light’ has not yet risen, this turning away from the outward world is experienced as a nox profunda (p. 186).

Lest this not sound intense enough, Jungian psychologist Edward Edinger (1994) reminds us that

Mortificatio is the most negative operation in alchemy. It has to do with darkness, defeat, torture, mutilation, death, and rotting. However these dark images often lead over to highly positive ones – growth, resurrection, rebirth – but the hallmark of the mortificatio is the color black (p.148).

Coupled with the mortificatio is the putrefactio, the rotting of the dead body.

Feces, excrement, and bad odors refer to the putrefactio. The common dreams of neglected or overflowing toilets which plague puritan minded people belong to this symbolism. Odor sepulcorum (the stench of the graves) is another synonym for putrefatio…worms accompany putrefaction…(p. 157).

Given this abundance of less-than-cheerful imagery, one is led to wonder why one would wish to embrace this process. Edinger righly points out that “one rarely chooses such an experience” (p. 172).

Yet from the darkness, comes light. In fact, as we will find out alter on, one cannot actually see light, except within the context of darkness. In addition, from death (literal or figurative) comes life. As a physical organic body decomposes, it feeds and nourishes all manner of life, from bacteria, to the aforementioned worms, to predators. The “fertilizer” we put in our gardens is simply a euphemism for shit and decaying matter.

At this point in the imagined dialogue, my friends might begrudgingly concede that I have a point, and after this quick glance into the darkness, return to the light once more.  After all, solar consciousness is very attractive. Things have never been accused of going “bump” in the day.

But let us return to the darkness, utilizing “lunar” consciousness to go gently into that good night, to see a number of points of view. I agree with Stanton Marlan when he says

…alchemical texts have traditionally spoken of [the] renewal as a transition from the blackness of the nigredo to the whiteness of the albedo, but I believe we have to be careful not to interpret this white outcome of the alchemical process in terms of literal color since there is a tendency in modern culture to see white and black as opposites. The whiteness of the albedo is simultaneously a developmental step in a series of alchemical processes and the illuminating quality intrinsic in the blackness of the nigredo process. The whiteness that the alchemists speak of is not a whiteness separate from blackness. On the contrary, to understand the ‘renewal’ that ‘follows’ the nigredo, one must go beyond simple dichotomies and see into the complexity of the blackness itself (2005, p. 99).

Edinger places the blackness as relative to the shadow in Jungian psychology. “The blackness, when it is not the original condition is brought about by the slaying of something” (1994, p. 150). I think this is accurate to a degree, but only part of a much larger picture. Nigredo is a process. One could argue that shadow parts of ourselves are created when we selectively “kill” potential aspects of ourselves in favor of other potentials. Yet to restrict our interpretation of the darkness to shadow is to severely inhibit ourselves, and our understanding of the Black Sun. As Marlan states,

…darkness historically has not been treated hospitably and…has remained in the unconscious and become a metaphor for it. It has been seen primarily in its negative aspect and as a secondary phenomenon, itself constituting a shadow – something to integrate, to move through and beyond. In so doing, it’s intrinsic importance is often passed over. This attitude has also been perpetuated in alchemy, which places darkness at the beginning of the work and sees it primarily in terms of the nigredo. Yet in its usage of the black sun there is a hint of a darkness that shines (p. 12).

We need to follow the dark light of the Black Sun through all of the fractal layers of the holographic reality to truly appreciate its power. Psychological alchemy may play an important part in the process of individuation, yet if alchemy is truly “above” as well as ‘below,” then there is a larger spiritual component as well. While alchemical processes can be found in just about every spiritual system, in the next installment of this series, I would like to turn to Sufism (as a matter of personal bias) to explore these ideas further.


Burckhardt, Titus. (1997). Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae.

Edinger, Edward F. (1994). Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy. Chicago: Open Court.

Marlan, Stanton. (2005). The Black Sun: The Alchemy and Art of Darkness. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.

(to be continued)


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