The Secret of Nigredo

Fourteen figures are knotted together in agony, entangled in fear and pain. Life blood, libido, is draining away. They are packed together in a small space as if underground. Suppressed, depressed and isolated, this is the black feeling of nigredo. Only the moon, quiet witness, eye of compassion, is able to penetrate here. In alchemy, nigredo is the first stage of the work and corresponds to the encounter with the shadow. (1)

Artwork: In the underworld, P. van Rensburg

The alchemists projected their psychic processes onto the materials that they engaged with. In their work they described the process of individuation as a circular ongoing process: Mercurius as the Self is the beginning and the end, the dragon biting its own tail; as dragon he devours himself and dies, to rise again as the lapis. (2)

The process goes through phases of blackening, whitening, yellowing and reddening. Viriditas or greening sometimes appeared after nigredo, indicating progress and hope. (3) The blackening is resolved into ‘whitening’ by the ‘washing out’ of the personal complexes, to bring about the capacity for objectivity. (4) The final stage is the colourful cauda pavonis, or the peacock’s tail of differentiated affect.

Loneliness and seclusion mark the early phase of the work. Of this, the Shulamite, unconscious anima of the alchemist, said: “I am alone among the hidden; nevertheless I rejoice in my heart, because … under my blackness I have hidden the fairest green.” (5)

Jung said: “The state of imperfect transformation … does not seem to be one of torment only, but of positive hidden happiness. [One finds not only] deadly boredom and melancholy, but an inner partner, a relationship like a secret love, a hidden springtime when the green seed sprouts from the barren earth.” (5) In the slow arduous work with the analyst, the draining away of the energy gradually becomes a rhythmic ebb and flow, and inner growth appears as the tree of Life.


  1. CW12; 41
  2. CW12; 404
  3. CW12; 333 – 4
  4. R. Ramsden, Alchemy Seminar: The birth of the divine child as fruit of the philosophical tree, the Lapis; Cape Town, 2012
  5. CW14; 622 – 3