The Alchemist’s Preparation. Understanding the difference between alchemical stages, and alchemical operations

Citrinitas? Coagulatio? Solutio? Albedo? What do all these things mean? This is a brief primer, a round up of some of the main terms in alchemy. Beginner alchemists, start here…

If you want gold, identify your lead….

First, what material is going to be changed here? What is the lead which we are going to seek to turn to gold? In alchemical terms we have to ‘identify the prima materia’, i.e. the starting point. In psycho-spiritual work this is likely to be a difficulty which is haunting you, an issue, a circumstance which is baffling you. Ultimately you will discover that it is your state of consciousness – how you are with something. But sometimes it does not look like that at first. Then, and throughout the opus, it is necessary to identify which STAGE the work is at, as well as which OPERATION is being, and needs to be, undertaken.


Alchemy is the science of transformation of matter, and of psycho-spiritual matter. It makes sense that this transformation tends to proceed if not in a totally linear way then certainly along a relatively predictable evolving pathway.

What are the ‘stages’ of alchemy? They are often simply described as

  • Nigredo (the blackening stage)
  • Albedo (the whitening stage)
  • Citrinitas (the yellowing stage)
  • Rubedo (the reddening stage)
IMG_5666 (2)
from the Maiers Emblems – the four fold fireball

Michael Maiers, the sixteenth century author of Atlanta Fugiens described this as a ‘four fold fireball’, and said each fire gets progressively hotter. In other words, each stage involves more energy and tribulation than the previous one – alchemy gets harder and harder as you proceed towards the goal. People often make a mistake about this. They think that the blackening stage of nigredo is so awful that everything thereafter will be a doddle. Not so! There is a relieve when we move in to albedo, certainly, because there is more clarity in the whitening stage, more openness, less density – but more is required of us. The purification needs to be deeper, calling on more of our willingness to surrender, more of our capacity for sacrifice (making holy). It is a white hot fire. Then on to the burning intensity of citrinitas, the stage of insight and blinding realisation. And then finally we descend in to the red fire of rubedo, the hottest fire yet, which is the stage of bringing all this new insight, new material, into being – actual being. This is when you manifest your dreams. And that is hard work, which tests you more than any of the previous stages.

What happens if you can’t stand the increase in heat and you ease off a bit? Well….have you ever played snakes and ladders and landed on the snake on 99? Yes…back down to 2. Alchemy is the same. The process goes on and builds and there are no guarantees.

In each of the stages you are purifying your material more and more completely. What does this mean for psycho-spiritual alchemy? It means that the difficulty or problem which you have defined to work on will be continually refined and redefined, continually represented and repositioned in your emotional life. It will open in depth and breadth to you, and it’s resolution will require increasing amounts of energy from you (the four fold fire ball).


This is where the operations come in. The alchemical operations are the way in which you work on your material – on your issue or problem. There are many operations described in the various literature on alchemy but the main operations are:

  • manuscript2_laboratory17thcent
    The alchemists’ laboratory

    Calcinatio  (going through the fire)

  • Solutio (surrendering in to the a flow of dissolution)
  • Separatio (applying discrimination)
  • Conjunctio (two become one without losing either)
  • Sublimatio (rising above it all)
  • Coagulatio (making it real)
  • Mortificatio (ending)
  • Multiplicatio (the abundance of the heart)
  • Putrifactio (surrender to the transforming power of death)
  • Fixatio (nailed to the earth, nailed to matter, the opposite of volatile)
  • Circulatio (going round and round in circles)

You might need to subject the problem or issue (or yourself….) to a process of dissolving which would involve allowing it (you) to unravel and soften. This process is solutio. It might look like you crying (tears are the water here) or it might look like you losing the thread of what you are doing, losing the plot for a while. It can be very uncomfortable. Sometimes a solutio is a kind of Dionysian whirl of undiscriminated hedonism – the key feature is that it is a ‘coming apart’ of things, in an uncontrollable way. When you are more in command of the ‘coming apart’ it is more of a separation activity, where you are separating this from that – obviously here the energy is different and you are using the airier operation of separatio.

In another example  you might have to let something fall away and be finished. This is the operation of mortificatio. When we are struggling with hanging on to matter, then the operation is more one of putrifactio – sometimes we have to stay in this. We have to make compost, and it smells horrible, and goes all slimy. But we have to allow the process to effect the transformation.

extract from separatio collage

In every stage of alchemy most of the operations will be present, although different operations are important to each stage. So in albedo separatio and solutio are important. In citrinitas conjunctio is very important, and in rubedo coagulatio is prominent. In nigredo there is often a lot of solutio and calcinatio. Dissolving and burning.

Do the operations proceed in a predictable way? Some people say that they do but I am not so sure. People seem to cycle backwards and forwards in their purification operations in all of the stages. You won’t get a conjunctio until the material is pure enough, and some other operations tend not to be primary (for example you are only likely to see a mulitiplicatio, which is connected with the opening of the heart and the appearance of abundance, when you have done considerable work).

There is much more to say about all this so it can be elaborated. One of the things to recognise is when and how someone moves from stage to stage. Another thing to think about it how to facilitate the operations so that they can proceed more smoothly. The operations in dreams are also fascinating as to which see Nigel Hamilton’s book ‘Awakening Through Dreams’ (Hamilton, N. (2014). Awakening Through Dreams: The Journey Through the Inner Landscape. London: Karnac Books.).

Good luck with your opus. FullSizeRender



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