Gary Tomkins BA Hons., Dip.

Individual Psychotherapy,
Counselling & Supervision
in Frome and Somerset.

07812 544542 (Mob)



The following descriptions and interpretations of the images in the Rosarium Philosophorum are not meant to be definitive. My intention is to stick to the image, and where appropriate expand my interpretations with those of Jung, McLean, Fabricius and Schwartz-Salant among others. It should be noted that each of these authors make their own interpretations and have their own views of the woodcuts, and consequently they are sometimes at variance with one another. I have done my best to combine these, highlighting differences where appropriate without hopefully complicating the explanation.



We are the beginning and first nature of metals,
Art by us maketh the chief tincture.
There is no fountain nor water found like unto me.
I heal and help both the rich and the poor,
But yet I am full of hurtful poison.


The opening woodcut is called The Mercurial Fountain. The title describes a fountain that is volatile or changeable, in our case capable of bringing about change or transformation. Mercury implies the life-force, it vivifies spirit and physical things. Mercury the metal, or quicksilver, in its natural state is a liquid, with a fluidity not normally associated with metal. The God Mercury, or his Greek equivalent Hermes was messenger to the Gods so traveled readily between all three worlds, Olympus, home of the Gods; The World, home of mortals; and Hades, home of the Dead. Brother to Apollo, Hermes had to be a trickster and used non-rational ways to upset his Solar-rational order fixated sibling. He was the God of cross roads - where two places meet. Through union with Aphrodite he fathered Hermaphrodite, a key figure on our journey.

The text below the picture is as if the Mercurial Fountain itself is speaking, with promises of profound rewards and warnings of potential danger. I have elucidated the fountain's speech below by paraphrasing each line.

“We are the beginning and first nature of metals ”

You and the fountain share similar qualities and the outcome may be a return to one's essence.

“Art by us maketh the chief tincture.”

By work, or artistry between you and the fountain, a stable and healing substance can be produced.

“There is no fountain nor water found like unto me.”

This is the only way that such a transformation can or will occur.

“I heal and help both the rich and the poor,”

The fountain declares it can heal and aids all, whatever their standing or status.

“But yet I am full of hurtful poison.”

This will be no easy journey, it may hurt or possibly kill.

This first picture in the series, by way of introduction, stands in its own right and encapsulates the whole series. It shows a fountain set upon three legs - lion legs according to Fabricius (1976) p19. Rising from, or penetrating, this circular basin is a phallic like pillar. Crowning this pillar is what looks like a lotus shaped flower perhaps symbolic of perfection. Mounted on the pillar are three spouts from which liquid pours. These three liquid streams are labeled in Latin, and translate as the Virgin's Milk, the Spring of Vinegar and the Aqua Vitae. The first two are representative of the Lunar-feminine and Solar-masculine forces in their purest form and the third is the water of life associated with Mercury. These liquids pour into the circular base, presumably mixing therein. No clue is given as to the source of these liquids. I see them as a recycling of the liquid collected in the basin below, differentiation therefore occurring in the rising, reflecting the alchemical dictum solve et coagula (separate and join together), the repetition being key to the process. However McLean, aware of what is to come, highlights the lack of connection these liquids have with Above, or the upper realms.

“Thus we have here a picture of the unintegrated soul realm of man. The three streams pour down from the heart centre into the lower soul world, but are cut off from a balanced direct connection with the upper soul, the realm of the soul that can touch upon the spiritual.” [McLean (1980)]

He sees that the picture reflects things as they are at the outset, that there is no recycling, that the three vital juices of life flow endlessly into the basin. Just as the image gives no clue as to the source of these liquids, neither is there any illustration as to how the fountain manages to empty itself, if at all.
The bowl, or basin, is inscribed “unus est mercurius mineralis, mercurius vegetablis, mercurius animalis” implying the fountain is triple and one, that all three of the classical physical states are inhabited by the one, Mercurius. The basin is adorned with six diamond shaped symbols representing, according to Jung, the other six known planets (not including Mercury) at the time of the woodcuts creation.

Looking down on the fountain are the Sun and Moon, as if over-lighting this process. The Solar and Lunar forces, and the tension between them, could be seen to be fuelling the process, providing the energy that drives the fountain.

Between the Sun and Moon is a six-pointed star, similar to the four in each of the corners of the illustration. The four give solidity to the image and possibly represent the four classic elements, fire, earth, air and water. The fifth star, would be the fifth element of ether or spirit and this is borne out by it being replaced by a dove, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, in the subsequent two images. The placement of the Star between the Sun and Moon, and their apparent ignorance of its presence implies the Star's influence is more mysterious and unseen. The placement between, might imply that the Star, is a product of the Sun and Moon or a mediator between them. Possibly the star is Mercury.

Above the three astral bodies, Sun, Moon and Star is a double-headed smoke or steam breathing serpent. The steam descends, enshrouding and possibly polluting the purity of the four elements/stars that offered such stability. Steam or smoke due to its obscuring quality is often associated with being unable to see, being blind or unconscious and is therefore linked with the starting place, and alchemically, the prima materia. Intriguingly though, the steam seems to form two pillars framing the whole picture giving an odd sense of containment. Serpents, in their ability to shed their skin, point to death and re-birth. In true transformation as the fountain implied, death is a real possibility, but what is meant here is not literal death but psychological death, the death of who the individual believes they are. If this two-headed serpent is meant to be Neheb-ka, one of the original primeval gods of Egyptian mythology, then as guardian to the underworld his place here would not be too surprising. His name translates as “He who yokes/harnesses the spirit or vital spark (ka)” and it is this act that McLean points out is missing from the fountain with its streams not reaching heaven. Alternatively if this two-headed serpent is Binarius, it “represents the anti-worlds in the mad areas of the psyche. And the Kwaikutl myth of Sisiutl further amplifies this image, demonstrating that experiencing the confusion, fear and mindlessness of the annihilating anti-worlds can lead to vision, to being able to “see,” a sacred goal of working with the prima materia” [Schwartz-Salant (1998) p161]. Finally the sexual connotation of the serpent(s) can not be overlooked at it can be possible that sexual enrgy fuels this process along with the concomitant risk of a regressive move back to unconsciousness.

What is clear though is that we are dealing with some form of union, a theme further emphasised by the two heads signifying the ability for two “mind sets”, or ways of understanding the world to exist simultaneously. The serpent nature points to the possibility of transformation through the shedding of skins, akin to a cycle of death and re-birth. The triple inscription “animalis, vegetablis and mineralis” is repeated by the double headed serpent showing that the serpent and the fountain “are two aspects of the same phenomena, the way that spirit and matter are two sides of the same coin. The one is felt through the mental-spiritual realm, the other through embodied life and the somatic unconscious, the subtle body... two major human modalities of perception and cognition [that] are not joined in a rhythmic harmony as they must be.” [Schwartz-Salant (1998) p162].




The second woodcut shows a King on the left, and a Queen on the right, standing on the Sun and Moon respectively. They tentatively hold each others' left hands and proffer a single double-headed flower to each others' faces with their right hands. From above a white bird (presumably a dove) presents another single-headed flower, cutting across the crossed pair of the King and Queen, at their intersection.

“The two give each other their left hands and this can hardly be unintentional since it is contrary to custom. The gesture points to a closely guarded secret, to the “left hand path,” as the Indian Tantrists call their Shiva and Shakti worship. The left-hand (sinister) side is the dark, the unconscious side.” [Jung (1946) p49. CW para 410]

To me this is a more personified version of the Mercurial Fountain. Here we can see some of the elements of the first woodcut separated and re-presented in human form. The couple show a maturity in that they are crowned and their garb depicts them as rich, having achieved a degree of material security in the world. In psychological terms this implies that a certain level of personal development needs to have been achieved to enter into this process of transformation.

At the outset of the work we are looking for the prima materia. Whilst some authors, Jung and McLean (see above) see this as a chaotic beginning to the whole of the process, a state of primary unconsciousness, alchemical texts see the creation of the prima materia as a significant achievement in itself.

In order to familiarise ourselves with these figures, an excursion into the psychology of anima and animus is necessary.
Jung saw the figures as representative of the anima and animus of a male Adept (skilled person) and a female Soror (sister) respectively. Their Royal nature expressed ‘like real royalty, their archetypal character; they are collective figures common to large numbers of people'. That the figures stand upon the Sun and Moon, as representatives of the divine Solar-Masculine and Lunar-Feminine forces suggests they are infused with these archetypal forces from below. Later we are to know them as Sol and Luna, and as such they represent twin facets of an individual soul incarnated in one human body. This definition would be outside of Jung's psychology at the time of writing the Psychology of Transference, in that anima and animus are not exclusive to one sex and are not always unconscious, detached or outside of us (as archetypes are so often seen). This would be more in line with Hillman's notion of ‘syzygy', built upon Jung's later writings.

“I suspect that the archetype behind the ego of Western culture as it has issued into ego psychology would reveal itself as the animus, that in fact ego is an animus idea. An animus that loses its soul (anima) connection, that posits itself as independent of the syzygy, is ego. The ‘weak ego' would be the one affected by the syzygy with anima, and ‘strengthening the ego' would mean strengthening the animus. Ego may be heroic in ‘content', but as a psychic ‘function' it derives from animus, enacting particular projections of anima. As a function of the syzygy, ego cannot have a valid identity of its own. If this conjecture were borne out, then we might be able to rearrange much of our psychic furniture. We might structure the psyche without ego, letting the concept drop out and experience in its place the imaginal constellations playing through various mythological pairings.... ‘Anima or animus consciousness' would mean recognising the kind of unconsciousness in any particular constellation, its archetypal other side. ‘Ego consciousness would refer to what Jung calls the “monotheism of consciousness”, the single minded viewpoint of the individual “I”, where the other is lost sight of and which results in literalism. Thus, ego consciousness is an unconsciousness of psychic actuality.
Psychic actuality is such that “the two figures are always tempting the ego to identify itself with them” (Jung CW16 para 469). The identification of the conscious ego personality with one of them seems to be the archetypal role the ego is bound to play, since “neither anima nor animus can be constellated without the intervention of the conscious personality (ibid.) Because they always appear together, it logically follows that the “intervention of the conscious personality” is actually an enacting of anima or animus, the other half.
This is most difficult to recognise because in the conscious personality of the ego is where Jung locates our darkest spot. Sol, the alchemical image of ego consciousness, is itself a “dark body”, "light without and darkness within”, a “relatively constant personification of the unconscious itself” in “the source of [whose] light there is darkness enough for any amount of projections” (Jung CW14 para 129).
Although the conscious personality is relatively constant, it is nevertheless subject to the sudden eggressions of intrapsychic projections. However because of its constancy, these projections, which the ego calls its attitudes, decisions, and positions, are extra-durable, their very constancy making them extra hard to see through. But it is in that opaque spot that we must look for the actual unconscious. The prima materia is ego.
.... These torturing incursions of soul into spirit and spirit into soul are the syzygy in action. This is the coniunctio.
... The syzygy says that where soul goes there goes spirit too. Their syzygy illumines imagination with intellect and refreshens intellect with fantasy. Ideas become psychological experiences, and experiences become psychological ideas. The job is to keep spirit and soul distinct (the spirit's demand) and to keep them attached (the demand of the soul).” [Hillman (1985) p179-183]

I think it is more helpful to describe these personifications of masculine and feminine by their orientation. Animus is the active, masculine, yin, Solar, and as such orientates itself upwards to Heaven, Above, or more accurately is orientated by the transcendent Spirit, and is portrayed here when embodied as the King, and is called Sol. The anima is the receptive, feminine, yang, Luna and is orientated downwards by, or bound in, the Earth, the Below, matter or the Chthonic, and when embodied represented here as the Queen, and called Luna. Animus and anima are two aspects of soul personified. Animus and anima are two personifications put out by the Self with masculine and feminine characteristics that more readily manifest themselves in males and females due to the biology of their sexes. In this way we each have two souls, an animus oriented towards Spirit and an anima oriented towards Soul. Given the ego's proclivity is to identify with one of these souls, we only experience or sense the other one.

Patrick Harpur, speaking through the characters in his novel, Mercurius, with the licence this affords, and drawing on Jung's later work Mysterium Coniunctionis (p300 and 537) offers some further possible clarification - “Jung bit the bullet, bravely concluding that “it may well be a prejudice to restrict the psyche to being in the body”. In fact there may be a ‘psychic “outside of the body”, a region so utterly different from “my” psychic space that one has to get out outside oneself.... in order to get there”. He recognises that it is an historically recent and culturally limited prejudice to separate ‘inner' and ‘outer'. (At best we can say that the distinction is simply a contemporary spatial metaphor, analogous to Above and Below.) He can no longer, for example call the Anima Mundi or world-soul a projection of the collective unconscious onto the world. He might just as well say that the collective unconscious is an introjection of the Anima Mundi. Actually, the two realms - inner and outer, psychic and hylic (i.e. physical) - are mutually dependent and may even be ‘identical somewhere beyond our experience'.” [Patrick Harpur (1990) p347] and in relation to Mercurius “Jung calls the Anima Mundi ‘the feminine half of Mercurius. He might just as well have called the Spiritus Mundus, the masculine half.... Mercurius is assigned either gender at different times in the course of the Great Work; but as prima materia and Philosophers Stone, he or she represents respectively the unity of being before gender arises and union of opposites where both genders are synthesised in the hermaphrodite. He uses the capitalised Spirit - to signify the androgynous Mercurius who is both prior and subsequent to “its” division into masculine and feminine aspects represented by Sol and Luna, King and Queen...” [Patrick Harpur (1990) p463]

For the sake of sticking close to the images, the name Sol will be used to represent the Solar-King-Male-Masculine-Animus personification of the soul oriented to Spirit-Heaven-Above oriented figure and the name Luna for the Lunar-Queen-Female-Feminine-Anima personification of the soul oriented to Soul-Earth-Below.

Returning to the King and Queen image, Jung saw the flowers as “referring to the four elements of which two - fire and air - are active and two - water and earth - passive, the former being ascribed to the man and the latter to the woman.” [Jung (1946) p49 CW para 410]
Here we see the opposites at play, as they use flowers, symbolic of nature's ability to attract, to flirt with one another. The couple seem to be involved in a mutual display of what they see as their superior qualities - Sol being ascribed fire and air with his tendency to detachment, and the realms of intuition and thinking; Luna, water and earth with her tendency for attachment through feeling and sensation. The couple are virtually rubbing their opposites' faces in their particular elements. At the same time, and less consciously to the couple, their left-handed handshake indicates that an unconscious touching or intimacy is also occurring simultaneously.

Mediating between the two is the Dove. The Dove, as representative of the Star, and like the star in the first woodcut, comes between these two opposing factions, dividing and uniting them depending on need. In this sense the Star and Dove have affinities with the attributes of Hermes-Mercury role as Zeus's messenger, armed with an authority to communicate between, divide, unite or restrain these warring divine powers. Mercury is the facilitator of relationship. The Dove's flower does not interpose itself into the left-handed handshake but lightly touches the man's left wrist as if in blessing of this act, perhaps with some balm to soothe the male's active forces.

This blessing of the left-handed handshake, which Jung saw as incestuous, goes against the superego dominated attitudes suggested by the court clothes. The Dove, probably Mercurius, blesses the breaking of the taboo. Fabricius believes the whole series to be a reversal of psychobiological development. At this point he sees the adolescent stuck in the Oedipus complex having emerged from latency where the urge to murder the father and have sex with the mother were neutralised. Breaking the incest taboo, undoes the Oedipus complex, by bringing the archaic psyche to consciousness as the twin taboos of incest and parricide are broken. Francois Martin-Vallas neatly clarifies Jung's use of of the term incest -

“At play here is something much more akin to an autonomous impulse than to a wish,...its objective is a return to an undifferentiated state, as if the task were to overcome the drive in order to resolve the tension, not by discharging it, but by dissolving its source. Yet, from the outset Jung had had the intuition that this impulse could act as the harbinger of a development, that it was not merely about returning from a living to an inanimate state, but about letting the impulse run to the point where it encounters once again whatever had led it initially from an inanimate to a living state.... it is about getting beyond life in order to retrieve that part which was unable to be born and which therefore had remained in wait for birth. [Francois Martin-Vallas (2008) The Transferential Chimera II]



In the third woodcut, the process has moved on as the couple have lost their court clothes and are now naked. They are seeing beyond or through each others' personas. They are seeing the ‘naked truth' of each other. The disappearance of their courtly clothes suggests their culturally determined, superego normalised behaviour has gone, bringing a more personal and intimate relationship without pretence. This change in intimacy is illustrated by the new arrangement of flowers. The left-handed handshake has gone, and they grasp each others' proffered branches which now only have a single flower. Sol's flower stem is still in his right hand and in some coloured variants of the picture its head is red. In his left hand he holds the head of the Luna's flower. She holds her flower stem in her left hand, the head of which is white and in her right hand she holds Sol's flower head. Jung saw this change in the flower heads compared to the last woodcut as “two elements have each paired off, presumably with their opposites, for according to alchemical theory each element contains its opposite within it”. [Jung (1946)]. Schwartz-Salant (1998) p167 sees the reduction of the couples flowers from two, to one head, as them having overcome their resistance to relating - Luna's ambivalence and Sol's tendency towards splitting.

Given the greater intimacy and receptivity or openness, shown by the respectful holding of each proffered flower head, rather than shoving them in each others faces, I wonder if this shows a refinement in their knowledge of each other, of their opposite or shadow sides. Schwartz-Salant sees the re-arrangement of flowers as signifying that “they have been separated from their passion of incest, whose energies can now be more openly shown, to each other” [Schwartz-Salant (1998) p166]. In this sense Sol would be offering husbandry, power, control, murder, rage, aggression, action, will and Luna sex, love, compassion, passivity, nurture, reflection, love.

“One cannot enter creatively into an interactive field without doing harm unless one is able to accept the often shocking awareness of one's unconscious, shadow qualities which can accompany the process and disrupt one's narcissistic equilibrium.” [Schwartz-Salant (1998) p168]

This is what they are offering to each other, in the form of the red and white flowers, and manifests later in the series as the red and white stones.

"If the ego is afraid to make the passover, preferring to clutch at what it has always known, then psychological and physiological symptoms will break out. These the ego has to deal with, for learning the meaning of these symptoms and situations is what leads to the new level of awareness and a new harmonious balance between consciousness and the unconscious. So long as the consciousness is afraid to open itself to the “otherness” of the unconscious it experiences itself as the victim. Once it is able to open itself to the new life flowing through, it becomes the beloved. To be a victim is to be raped; to be beloved is to be ravished. Ravishment unlike rape, involves the integration of unconscious contents so that instead of being overpowered by “higher” or “greater” forces (i.e. archetypal contents), one enters into a loving relationship with them. Ravishment can only be experienced when the ego is a sufficiently strong container to receive the dynamic energy bursting through. Paradoxically, that point can only be reached when the ego is strong enough to be vulnerable enough to surrender." [Marion Woodman (1982) p160]

The Dove is still present, mediating or facilitating the meeting, although the star has disappeared. Edinger (1994) p50 surmises the reason for the (six pointed) star's disappearance being due to it having translated itself into the now fully formed six pointed arrangement of the flowers held between the figures and the dove. This would imply that whilst the dove is still necessary, the transpersonal forces represented by the star have become more tangible and constellated in the relationship. Schwartz-Salant delimits these “transpersonal forces” as the destructive or narcissistic forces that the couple are now more conscious of.

Above Sol, Luna and the Dove are scrolls inscribed with words spoken by each of them. Sol says “O Luna, let me be thy husband”, whilst Luna states “O Sol, I must submit to thee”. Schwartz-Salant (1998) p167 sees Sol and Luna's words as injunctions to overcome their resistance to relating. The Dove's words are “It is the spirit which vivifies” and according to Fabricus (1976) p34 “the two roses of the dove have been transformed into the multifoliate rosa mystica. This is the rose symbolising the unio mystica of love on the ‘spiritual' level of incest.”

“Freud regarded the [Oedipus] complex as part of the personal unconscious, and its psychological structure as belonging to the sphere of infantile sexuality. His psychotherapeutic aims were to “dissolve” the Oedipus complex and so free the mature personality from its infantile and irrational fixations and psychodynamics.
Jung, on the other hand, regarded the Oedipus complex as a dynamic unconscious structure pointing toward the experience of rebirth, transcendence and God. “To me incest signified a personal complication only in the rarest cases. Usually incest has a highly religious aspect, for which reason the incest theme plays a decisive part in almost all cosmogonies and in numerous myths. But Freud clung to the literal interpretation of it and could not grasp the spiritual significance of incest as a symbol. I knew that he would not be able to accept any of my ideas on the subject.” Jung (1961) p167 ....Jung's departure from Freud in 1913 on the Oedipus complex was followed by Otto Rank's in 1925 on the same question. Jung's insistence on the patterns of rebirth embedded in the Oedipus complex, and the mythical-archetypal perspective hiding in its unconscious dynamics of regression was confirmed by Rank's theories.....“At the back of the Oedipus saga really stands the mysterious question of the origin and destiny of man, which Oedipus desires to solve, not intellectually, but by actually returning into the Mother's womb. This happens entirely in a symbolic form, for his blindness in the deepest sense represents a return into the darkness of the mother's womb, and his final disappearance through a cleft rock into the underworld expresses once again the same wish tendency to return into the Earth Mother.” (Rank as quoted by Mullahy Oedipus Myth and Complex p168-9.) [Fabricius (1976) p37]

At this stage, other alchemical texts offer crucial guidance as to how to proceed given that the superego culturally defined taboos have been broken and the archaic psyche opened up.

“Nature be your guide; follow her with your art, willingly like a footman.
For you will err if she is not your companion on your way.”


“Guard Mars with your sword, that Venus does not turn into a whore”


“He who would be initiated into this art and secret wisdom must put away the vice of arrogance, must be devout, righteous, deep witted, humane towards his fellows, of a cheerful countenance, and a happy disposition, and respectful withal. Likewise he must be an observer of the eternal secrets that are revealed to him. My son, above all I admonish thee to fear God who seeth what manner of man thou art and in whom is help for the solitary, whosoever he may be.” [Jung (1946) p74 CW para 450]

Such admonitions point to the vulnerable state of the work and the dual nature of Mercurius, that he can also be dangerous and deceptive. The stripping of personas has exposed us to the dark recesses of the instinctual unconscious, triggering primitive defence mechanisms against persecution/paranoia, devouring and annihilation.

No physical intimacy is actually yet occurring which points to the importance of not acting out the sexual tension. The mercurial fire now roaring has brought the work to its dynamic but also unpredictable and frightening state of transformation.
It is this physical/sexual tension of frustrated opposition that generates the heat that brings the personal complexes to the fore. Physical intimacy or aggression, at this stage would be a premature collapse of the distance between the two, spoiling the work. This is the reason for the “injunction” against touching, sexual (and violent) in psychotherapy. To literally touch would be to mistake these largely unconscious processes, or psychic moves for actual reality. The move to physical enactment and sexual intimacy between therapist and client is not so much a demonstration of unresolved personal complexes in the therapist, but a misunderstanding of the movements of the soul. However the enforcement of an unconsidered introjected superego backed injunction against such physical intimacy is not the way ahead, as this simply denies what is going on, effectively repressing it, and whilst sexual abuse is avoided, soul abuse is enacted. The therapist needs to work with their own and primarily the others, affects, and their relation to one another, but not act on them. This is a fine line to walk, but the only way to proceed is to avoid getting caught in identification with either of the opposites. 

The lifting of the received morality, that exposes the instinctual sexual and destructive drives, can bring forth both symbols of ominous sexual fantasies and predatory or cruel animals. Alchemists refer to this as too much sulphur, the inner fire of Mercurius. These can be sublimated, or defended against by the uptake of abusive power positions, a compulsive wish to return to the womb or obsessive sado-masochistic/submissive-domination sexual fantasising, all so that the acceptable self-image may be maintained. Alternatively, such a regressive absorption of ego back into Self, can lead to megalomaniac fantasies and feelings of godliness (inflation). Here a glimpse is caught of the goal but it is an error to not recognise it as a deceptive reflection.

“The alchemical attitude attends to the transformation of various union states through both a solar and lunar consciousness. Lunar consciousness can be too undifferentiated, too unformed, too imaginative in an undisciplined way, and overly empathic; solar consciousness can be too penetrating, too destructive of the sensitivity of the watery lunar creation, and fixated upon being “right” rather than submitting to relatedness, body awareness, and the demands of a larger whole. Reconciling these two forms of consciousness is necessary to create a relationship that can survive as a living and functioning entity amidst negative emotions and especially abandonment threats. [Schwartz-Salant (1998) p176]



Sol and Luna, still naked, have descended into a hexagonal bath, along with the Dove holding the branches in the same configuration. The Sun and Moon have disappeared. The hexagonal shape possibly reflects the double-trinity, the three forces and their shadow sides. The size of the bath, especially in relation to the subsequent image implies a tight containment, possibly the womb if we view the movement psycho-biologically in reverse.

The image as a whole possibly reflects that of the Mercurial Fountain, the bath being the basin and our three representatives with their flowers, the spouts. If this is the case then the liquid in the bath, would correspond to the combination of Solar, Lunar and Star forces known as Mercurius's or Mercurial, water. Jung, extends this

“the liquid is Mercurius, not only of the three but of the “thousand” names. He stands for the mysterious psychic substance which nowadays we would call the unconscious psyche.” [Jung (1946) p79 CW para 453]

Like Mercury's effect on silver and gold, an amalgam is made, the couple do not penetrate each other and form a new substance, they are a combination or blend.

The Rosarium proclaims this liquid as the “aqua-foetum”, the fetal water and that it contains everything it needs. The similarity in the Latin ‘fetal' and ‘fetid' has caused some confusion in the literature especially as ‘fetid' water is relevant to the Green Lion later in the series. Jung even quotes the text of the Rosarium to say “of the water: “This stinking water contains everything it needs.” Jung consciously and deliberately transposes the Green Lion's “aqua foetida” (fetid water) onto the bath's “aqua foetum” (fetal water), describing the latter as “meaningless”. Jung seems to run ahead here, moving away from the image. Fetal water also contains everything it needs, however unlike fetid water it lacks the ability to devour and kill itself. The implication would be that at this stage of the work there is nothing that needs to devour and kill itself as the water is sufficient unto itself.

The Royal couple are now caught between the rising Mercurius in the bath and the descending Mercurius represented by the Dove. 

The bath, or bathing implies a dissolving or washing off of the personal complexes that have previously accreted themselves to the individuals and been brought to the fore by the unconsummated heat of sexual tension, or the tension of the opposites in the preceding woodcuts. In practice, “dealing with projections at this stage can destroy the awareness of the field, while too much fusion, which interpretation can help to separate, can also undermine the process”. [Schwartz-Salant (1998) p169]. Bathe, not wash and don't scrub might be the directive. By saying that no action by the therapist is needed, other than interpretation (where fusion is occurring) he points to the fact that interpretation is the act of dissolving what does not belong i.e. what has attached and causes inappropriate attachments. Otherwise the fetal water alone is sufficient. Schwartz-Salant is saying that the projections, the putting out of parts of oneself onto another, are not to be addressed at this stage as they are fetal, nascent. To address them would kill them, they are not meant to be immersed in “fetid” water.

Our figures remain personifications of their particular unconscious constellations but have got past their initial antagonisms and “egotistical” displays, divested themselves of their culturally defined behaviour (court clothes) and other personal complexes, (i.e. those attitudes acquired through inter, or intra-psychic projections that they believe are their own, but are not really, that they have been dirtied by and can be washed off).

If we were to see our figures as having divested themselves of their personas, lost their egos and washed off any remaining personal complexes, leaving collective archetypal purity we would have been caught in the reflected light of the goal. This is not a reduction to archetypal purity but the pairing down to the individual's essence as manifested in Sol and Luna. A subtle but crucial difference.

“But the union state is often far from blissful.... as [the opposites in union] oscillate in a field with its own rhythm, and in which neither the engulfment of fusion nor the threat of abandonment... is dominant. Rather, throughout the process the recognition that the combining of psyches also incurs states in which fusion, loss, and madness are intertwined within the vicissitudes of passion, acts as a powerfully transformative container.” [Schwartz-Salant (1998) p173-4]





O Luna, by means of my embracing and sweet kisses,
Thou art made beautiful, strong and mighty like as I am.

O Sol, thou art to be preferred before all light,
But yet thou needest me, as the cock does the hen.

The fifth woodcut, also called “Coniunctio”, or “Coitus”, shows Sol and Luna in sexual intercourse in a pool of water, or lake, surrounded by hills. Sol is on top of Luna and she embraces him with arms and legs. A little Sun and Moon seem to have been placed as indicators to confirm this arrangement of Sol on Luna. This arrangement indicates it is the male or solar forces that are active, dominant or working on the passive, submissive lunar forces. This is confirmed in their accompanying declarations, wherein Sol proclaims he will transform Luna, making her beautiful, strong and like him through his embracing and kisses. This is no idle boast that Luna is made more beautiful, as practical experience shows, that actual physical changes can occur through psychological therapies. The hen becomes more attractive. She whilst praising him, lets him know that he needs her “as a cock needs a hen” i.e. sexually, however the metaphor is weak, a cock needs a hen but not any one particular hen. Despite Sol's promise to beautify through embracing, the picture shows Luna doing the embracing.

The man made bath has now become a natural pool, lake or sea contained within hills showing how the unconscious has expanded to its natural limits becoming the collective unconscious, without artificial, unnatural or developmental structures or constraints. Luna is lying in, or immersed in her own source. The Dove, and the flowers, have disappeared, their mediation no longer needed. We have gone beyond fusion to penetration, by one of the other. We have gone beyond washing and bathing to dissolving in the mercurial waters of the sea. It is the ability to physically penetrate, and be penetrated along with the willingness to be dissolved that allow change. Psychological interpretation is redundant here. Sol penetrates Luna. Luna is penetrated by Sol as they bathe in the vast mercurial waters of the collective unconscious.

The sexual metaphor can not be avoided. The dissolving is so great that the experience of penetration leads to a sense oceanic oneness. The limits of the experience are the natural borders of the psyche, without which there would be no experience, and there can be no greater experience. This parallels the experience of the womb, where the embryo is mature enough, but small enough to experience life in the fetal waters as oceanic, rather than constrained by the woman made boundaries of the womb as in the previous woodcut. Sol and Luna have no sense of themselves or the other, they are one.

By going into himself and becoming his own egg, the alchemist has become his own hatcher, achieving bi-sexuality and self-propagation. Maturationally, this stage represents the final achievement of adulthood where states of mind usually disowned by collective life - notably the emotions and dangers of incest and, in a larger sense, passion are made more conscious.


Here lie the King and Queen dead.
The Soul is separated with great grief.

The prima materia having been achieved in the preceding woodcuts, this picture heralds the beginning of the nigredo, or blackening phase with its associated processes of mortificatio and putrefaction. Sol and Luna having merged into one hermaphrodite, lies inert or dead in a rectangular sepulchre filled with mercurial water. The two figures have become one, each losing half of their body but not their head in the transformation. And Mclean notes “that this union of the male and female energies (in woodcut 5) produces the hermaphrodite, and does not give rise to the conception and birth of a separate 'soul-child' as in some other versions of the alchemical process. In the Rosarium process, the union of these two energies is entirely contained within the being of the operator, and does not produce an independent 'soul-child'. [McLean (1980)]

The two heads look away from one another but share one crown, there is no longer two or dual consciousness, just one shared consciousness. In the shift from hexagonal bath to lake or sea, to rectangular coffin, one of our double-trinity pairings containing the process has been lost. The Dove's absence is experienced as the absence of spiritual insight and with the container shrinking physical movement is further restricted. There is nowhere to run, no place to hide. The loss and death theme is affirmed in the associated text, however it is the Soul that is being described as having separated. The Dove's absence was not noticed in the conjunction of the previous woodcut but now it is felt. If it is "the spirit that vivifies" then its departure mortifies. The loss of spiritual perspective, removes the energy that was generated in the tension of the opposites allowing for the experience of soul. With no reference points and no sense of self, the dis-orientation and lack of direction can make both client and therapist think about giving up the work. The loss or separation from the experience of soul is a great grief, a kind of post-coital depression wherein the vastness of nature's boundaries in the form of the lake or sea, shrink down to those of the man made sepulchre. The experience of orgasm, le petit-mort (the little death), parallels the process involved in these last two woodcuts. Alchemical processes in practice often do not follow an ordered sequence, or even progression but conunctio followed by mortificatio can be relied on. The incredible physical and psychological tension generated by the inter-play of the opposites is released in orgasm, inter-personal boundaries evaporating leaving psyches to combine in a participation mystique dissolving the ego. This dissolution of the ego is experienced as a loss of I; death. Being so merged, there is no I, and with no I there is no relationship. 

Edinger suggests this negative experience is usually (and appropriately) avoided in the first half of life with the individual returning to the start of the woodcut series. This woodcut depicts getting what one thought one wanted only to discover it was the wrong thing all along, or, the frustration of not getting something you wanted and accepting that, rather than hunting in pastures new. To give up on flip-flopping between the opposites and to see the operation behind them means that you are no longer their victim but at the same time you lose the energy that has propelled you through life - the dynamo of the ego has broken.

“From the middle of life onward, only he remains alive who is ready to die with life. For in the secret hour of life's midday the parabola is reversed, death is born. The second half of life does not signify ascent, unfolding, increase, exuberance, but death, since the end is its goal. The negation of life's fulfilment is synonymous with the refusal to accept its ending. Both mean not wanting to live; not wanting to live is synonymous with not wanting to die. Waxing and waning make one curve." [Jung CW 8 The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche para 800 quoted in Fabricius (1976) p109] 

This lifeless Hermaphrodite is not the finished product and the couple do not yet know that through their union a conception has occurred. After death comes the rotting, the putrefaction, out of which new life comes. The Rosarium encourages us “When you see your matter going black, rejoice: for that is the beginning of the work.” [Fabricius (1976) p102]

"this death is an interim stage to be followed by a new life. No new life can arise, say the alchemists, without the death of the old. They liken the art to the work of the sower, who buries the grain in the earth: only to awaken to new life.” [Jung (1946) p95 CW para 46]. (I again suspect Jung's comment is premature in its reference to the sower, and is more appropriate to woodcut 13 when something will have been consciously achieved that can be sown.)


Here the Four Elements are separated,
And the Soul is most subtly severed from the Body.

Little has changed in our picture, the conjoined Sol and Luna still lie dead in the sepulchre, however above, a small male figure seems to be ascending in front of a cloud. Mclean in his commentary, sticking to the image sees “a masculine soul element separates from the dying hermaphrodite, and rises upwards in the soul towards the realm of the Spirit, as indicated by the clouds above." [Mclean (1980)]. Through this active penetration of the inner feminine by the masculine polarity of the soul, this aspect of the inner life has achieved a certain ability to ascend within the inner world to the realm of the Spirit. Our couple may be joined at the hip, and be of one consciousness, but something of their unconscious male and female forces remains differentiated. The masculine forces penetration and union with the female forces, and subsequent death has enabled a youthful, possibly innocent aspect of Sol as represented by the small boy to separate and ascend. His ascension to a cloud implies immersion in the Heavenly realms of Spirit. The title impregnation or extraction, implies that the boy is extracted from the hermaphrodite and the impregnation is his arrival in the cloud. The implication of the Rosarium is that the equivalent feminine forces remain in the husk of the bi-sexual hermaphrodite's body for further transformation in the mercurial waters. 

It is important to remember that we are talking of processes going on in the unconscious, and the conscious experience is likely to be quite removed from, but effected by, this underlying process

“This picture corresponds psychologically to a dark state of disorientation... This collapse and disorientation of consciousness may last a long time... demanding the greatest patience, courage and faith on the part of both doctor and patient.” [Jung (1946) p105 CW para 476.] 

Salant-Schwartz describes how analyst and analyst might be with, and be effected by this process. “[They] need to remember or discover that a union state has preceded the nigredo. The Rosarium insists a great mystery is at work during the most difficult of stages. For now the soul, the agent of linking [anima] and psychic reality [animus], is being renewed, even while the field experience itself is barely tolerable.... Both people experience being in parallel universes; no meaningful connecting is possible......The analyst and analysand must suffer the pain of non-linking and total absence of heart-connection. [Schwartz-Salant (1995) p179]

The text describes that the four elements are separated here. Psychologically this means all four functions, thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition must be identified and engaged at this stage, if this state is to pass. The image and McLean only differentiate and employ the two masculine functions - thinking and intuition. There is also, according to the text, a need for the feminine functions of feeling and sensation to be recognised, differentiated and employed. This “differentiation” in itself is a masculine/animus activity beyond thinking. The ascent has allowed access to the higher function of intuition, a more direct, less processed or defensive form of thinking. The prolonged immersion of Luna in the mercurial waters has deepened feeling into a more direct or intimate connection to matter or Earth in the form of sensation. The move into intuition allows for a more direct access to Spiritual awareness or sight and the move into sensation provides a more direct access to an instinctual or somatic awareness. As Jung warns of the dry masculine (i.e. thinking based on dispensed knowledge) “At this stage books are best avoided or destroyed lest your hearts be rent asunder.” [Jung (1946) p115]


Here the dew falleth from heaven,
And washeth the black body in the sepulchre.

Also known as “Falling Dew”, and “Ablution”, our homonculus or young male has disappeared presumably into the cloud which now appears to be falling down in the form of a dew upon the still inert hermaphrodite body below. “This results in a spiritualization of the feminine lunar element of the soul, through a washing or purification of this aspect of the soul forces lying in the unconsciousness. The hermaphrodite needs to be cleansed both by the waters of the sea of the unconscious and by the higher conscious spiritual rain. This is the Ablution or Purification.” [McLean (1980)]

McLean importantly points to the dual washing that is taking place, from above by the heavenly dew, and from below in the waters of the collective unconscious. This is the beginning of the albedo or whitening phase of the process. The divine dew falling from heaven washes the impurities from the hermaphrodite in the tomb. The development of Sol's differentiative function in the previous woodcut provides a greater capacity for psychological analysis and reflection enhanced by the newly differentiated and accessed functions. The Rosarium says “if you will not clean the impure body and make it white and give back to its soul you will have accomplished nothing in this magistery.” The ego is the body of the psyche. It is a purification of the dead ego by the divine dew. The ego is to be purified from contamination with the unconscious.

“The mundificatio-purification is an attempt to discriminate the mixture, to sort out the coincidentia oppositorum in which the individual has been caught. The rational man, in order to live in this world, has to make a distinction between ‘himself' and what we might call the ‘eternal man'. Although he is a unique individual, he also stands for ‘man' as a species and thus he has a share in all the movements of the collective unconscious. The eternal truths become dangerously disturbing factors when they suppress the unique ego of the individual and live at his expense. [Jung (1946) p131 CW para 502] 

“the alchemists endeavour to unite the corpus mundum, the purified body, with the soul is also the endeavour of the psychologist once he has succeeded in freeing the ego consciousness from contamination with the unconscious. In alchemy the purification is the result of numerous distillations; in psychology too it comes from an equally thorough separation of the ordinary ego-personality from all inflationary admixtures of unconscious material. [Jung (1946) p106 CW para 503]

The heavenly dew is also seen as the tears that come with the active entry into depression and the transition of bitterness to acceptance. If the masculine forces are absent, the husk of the body is exposed to the full feeling of the feminine forces. Sometimes in alchemy this is portrayed as a male in a grave chained to, and wrapped in the coils of the serpent snake of the dark feminine. The instruction to the alchemist is to leave him there until he turns to blood, as with no insight, he is doomed to return and be hurt by the feminine time and again until the poison is revealed.


Here the Soul descendeth from on high,
And revives the putrefied body.

The young male figure who ascended to heaven now dives back down out of the clouds towards the tomb where the still inert but now purified body is capable of housing him.

“the male facet of the soul returns from its sojourn in the higher spheres and reunites with the hermaphrodite husk..... New life returns to the feminine lunar element of the soul, which having been through this inner death process, this descent into the primal darkness of the unconscious, has gained a kind of victory over the death forces working in the unstructured soul forces.” [McLean (1995)]

McLean stays true to the image of a boy descending, whereas Schwartz-Salant, Fabricius, Jung and Edinger see the descending figure as a bi-sexual homonculus. Beside the tomb are two raven-birds looking at each other, one stands on the ground, the other is in the ground with only its head showing or is simply only a raven's head. Whilst birds are a common alchemical symbol, ravens are associated with death, decay and terror. The raven's head is specifically described as a deadly poison, and when this appears the body can receive the returning spiritised aspect of Sol, the spiritus, that ascended in woodcut 7. The spiritus breathes new life into the corpse. If the raven is in fact buried, this avian pair could be an indicator as to the state of the process, the masculine half has been transformed, fledged, capable of flight, the other feminine half is unredeemed, buried, trapped in matter.

Schwartz-Salant experiences this stage as providing a more stable sense of linking along with a renewal of awareness of the ‘third area' (the area between therapist and client) as a space with its own process and mystery. In other words, and as I see it, due to the continued purification and washing by the heavenly dew of the combined body, both client and therapist are both sufficiently (as denoted by the raven's head) subtly attuned in their bodies, or somatic consciousness, to be able to experience the unique space opened between them, without that space collapsing. Further the return of the spiritus into the body brings “a new capacity for imaginal insight... a capacity for vision that was no longer disembodied”. [Schwartz-Salant (1998) p194]


10. The New Birth: Rebis

Here is born a noble and rich Queen
Whom the wise men liken unto their daughter

She increaseth and bringeth forth infinite children
Which is immortal pure and without spot
The Queen hates death and poverty
She excels both Silver and Gold and precious stones
And all medicines both precious and base
There is nothing in this world like unto her
For which we render thanks to Immortal God


This woodcut is also known as the “white coniunctio” or “Lunar rebirth”. The Hermaphrodite, now winged has risen, and stands upon the moon, floating above the ground. The figure holds a chalice with three snakes (or one three-headed snake) in its right hand, the male side. On the female side, in its left hand it grasps another snake. The tomb has gone, as has the buried raven or raven's head, however the single fledged raven remains. To the left, is a moon tree with 13 moon flowers.

In practical alchemy this is seen as the achievement of the ‘white stone', the completion of the whitening (albedo) stage or the inner experience of the white stone.

The lunar forces have been mastered, given a foundation that is rooted in change as is demonstrated by the figure standing on the Moon. The floaty nature of the experience is illustrated by the figure (and moon) floating above the ground, it is not earthed. The return of the spiritus has revivified the body of the hermaphrodite, its spiritual quality giving it angel-like wings. The ability to move vertically, to rise up and look down, to gain perspective, imagine and reflect has been secured.

Fabricius describes the Hermaphrodite's wings as swan's wings, the swan being a classical emblem of the albedo. Swans being white and winged implies Spiritual and transcendent, whilst Leda's mythological union with a Swan implies a divine union. Jung however declares that “the unfledged bird has disappeared: its place taken by the winged rebis” [Jung (1946) p153 CW para 533]. He also states the raven is a synonym for the Devil, and launches into an extended liturgy about the monstrosity of the hermaphrodite. Jung's condescending attitude to the “immaturity of the alchemist's mind”, and his religious bigotry as he proclaims “Christian figures are the product of Spirit, light, and good, the alchemical figures are creatures of night, dark, poison and evil” displays his deeply engrained prejudices. He even cites a second version of the Rebis, having instead of the Raven a pelican plucking its breast for its young as a more Christ like synonym. Jung's distortions continue as he sees the Moon tree as a Sun and Moon tree. The thirteen moons may well point to the lunar year, this after all is a celebration of the feminine. To me, the Raven may well be the Devil, but it shows the Devil standing to one side, unintegrated. Likewise the three snakes in the Chalice could refer to the Holy Trinity that the male half has contained within the Grail, whilst the female half holds, and is fully aware of, the one snake, The Virgin Mary, who remains uncontained. Either Jung's own denial of sexuality, or his reaction to Freud's emphasis on sexuality, means that sexuality is omitted from his interpretations, just as the Virgin Mary, even as a virgin who was immaculately conceived, was omitted by Christianity.

This is not the end of the work, as Jung purported and Edinger perpetuated. Jung did in an interview in 1954 redeem himself, saying that

“In the state of ‘whiteness' one does not live in the true sense of the word. It is a sort of abstract, ideal state. In order to make it come alive, it must have ‘blood', it must have what the alchemists called the rubedo, the ‘redness' of life. Only the total experience of being can transform this ideal state into a fully human mode of existence. Blood alone can re-animate a glorious state of consciousness in which the last trace of blackness is dissolved, in which the devil no longer has an autonomous existence but rejoins the profound unity of the psyche. Then the opus magnum is finished: the human soul is completely integrated.” [McGuire and Hull 1977 p229]

Schwartz-Salant sums up the therapeutic position as signified by the Rebis.

“At this point, analyst and analysand have achieved something of great value, hard-won through many trials of the nigredo. In alchemical language, however, the Rebis is still watery, fluid, and easily lost. With this stage, analyst and analysand believe that union can be regained, both as an internal state and as a field quality. In a sense the first nine woodcuts are a process leading to the creation of faith in a conjoined process that can be used and respected.
Most significantly, the Rebis signifies an interactive field quality of kinship. Kinship denotes that special condition in which abandonment and loss still exist, but are no longer major issues, and a fundamental trust in the presence of the other has stabilised. Moreover, in kinship with another person, the other takes us in, cares about us in a reflective way that is undaunted by narcissistic needs and envy. ... Although the Rebis has a very positive quality of linking opposites, creating the energy of kinship, and representing a shared self within the interactive field, it can dissolve under the impact of the passions; and without the integration of a wide range of desires this image can degenerate into a dangerous fusion state.” [Schwartz-Salant (1998) p194]

"In terms of individuation Fabricius describes the whitening of leaden blackness into silvery light as "the nigredo of middle age depression running its course somewhere between the ages 30 and 40 as it is finally resolved in the silvery re-birth of middle age..... Shakespeare (King Lear 5:2) ‘men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither, ripeness is all.” [Fabricius (1976) p131-2]


1. Introduction.

3. Woodcuts 11-20.
4. Synthesis, Citrinitas, Psychotherapy And Conclusion.



Gary at Independent Practitioners Network Conference - Exeter 2001