By the light of the silvery moon…..albedo is the whitening stage of alchemy. How do we recognise it, how do we work with it, and what are its dangers? Although we are often mightily relieved to move out from the dreadful clutches of nigredo in to the white, imaginative, open, diaphanous, cleansing rising of albedo, it can be a time of seduction. Sometimes linked with anima, the albedo stage needs an attentive consciousness if we are to proceed with our opus…..
It is important in alchemy not to be seduced by the simplistic. Alchemy is rarely clear or straightforward. Why would it be? It is the science of transformation – of transmutation – at a mysterious and subtle level. Accordingly I am loathe to offer simple formulae or even offer too much of a clear signpost. But here is one which might be useful – nigredo tends to be a time of concrete thinking, and albedo can be observed as a time of more imaginative thinking, more ‘as-if’ thinking. So in albedo we can begin to understand things at a metaphorical level, and so life and experience opens up. Even the gravest and darkest traumas, the most difficult aspects of life begin to be translucent, transparent even, available to be thought about, rather than just endured. This is albedo.
A really simple relational example of this can be seen in the shift of expectations in relationships from ‘you should be more loving, giving, and unconditional towards me and I will be angry and upset if you are not’ (the mother transference), to ‘I feel upset when I don’t experience you as unconditionally loving and giving towards me – that is interesting isn’t it’ (being able to think about it, see the symbol). Less prosaically, the ‘feeling’ of something might move from being overwhelming, swamping, impossible, to being a flow within which we are carried (albeit sometimes faster than we are enjoying….).
Albedo is the whitening stage of alchemy, classically said to come after the nigredo has closed (often with the appearance of the many-coloured, many eyed peacock’s tail wherein perception is multiplied and opened), and before the great yellow opening of the arms of the sun – Sol – in citrinitas. Albedo is whiteness, silveriness, reflective, the time and location of imagination and receptivity. It is not a worldly part of the transformative cycle, but a diaphanous, moonlit time of seemings. It can be a cold time (if you are cold, freezing cold, you might wonder if you are going through an albedo).
For a therapist, the work in albedo may be different from the work in nigredo. In nigredo we are seeking the purification of quite base energies, in other words we are working with relatively real, obvious, surface emotions and reactions and struggles. In albedo we work much more with the meanings of things. The therapy can become reflective, more wondering, less intensely focussed on the struggle of the ‘pain quotidian’ and more inward focussed. James Hillman says ‘the doves cure the tongue of its nigredo talk’ and ‘the doves teach trust in the sudden word’.
What is the shadow of the albedo stage? what are its dangers? To become too cold, too rigid, to forget that there are many colours, many shades inherent in the imagination. The popular insult that someone is an ‘Ice Maiden’ is a useful way of thinking about this. The Ice Maiden can not be penetrated by love. She remains a maiden, a virgin, and in terms of alchemy that means that the sun will not get in. No sun, no gold. The urge of the albedo towards an intense and pure clear whiteness must not harden in to rigidity. The fire of the ice – its intense burning longing towards purity must stay flexible, must remain in the heart, and must be able to yield to the sun. In practical terms? Get over yourself. Your insights, your inner eye, your release from the struggle of the day to day as you rise on the white wings of the albedo – all this is a perspective only, and it does not belong to you. It is lent to you. If you try to hold on to it it will become fixed, loose its capacity to fly, turn to glass (the alchemists call this vitrification and you might see the warning signs of images of glass in dreams….), and shatter in to fragments. Alchemy is a high risk game.
As always, the way to traverse this dangerous stage of the work is to remember that the ‘gold’ that alchemy offers is not personal wealth or status, but something that is placed profoundly in service. If I may draw on the Christian imagery here – the teaching is that we are chosen, we are blessed, we are incarnated, we are broken, and we are given as spiritual food for others. So for a successful albedo, stay in the heart, stay open, and as the reflective imagery opens itself to your consciousness surrender yourself to be taken by it, offer yourself over to the transformation.
This is the best poem I know about the traps of albedo, depicting what can go wrong with the process, the vitrification I have written of here. It is by Sylvia Plath, who did indeed, in the end, shatter.
The Moon And the Yew Tree
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place.
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply can not see where there is to get to.
The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky —
Eight green tongues affirming the Resurrection
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.
The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it, and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness-
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.
I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars
Inside the church, the saints will all be blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness. Blackness and silence.