The Alchemy web site on

The Alchemical Vessel as Symbol of the Soul

Adam McLean

As students of the hermetic tradition we all recognise that the alchemical work takes place on many different levels - the physical work with substances, the experience and manipulation of etheric forces, the interior work on the soul, as well as the spiritual and planetary/cosmic aspects of alchemy. These different facets of the work interpenetrate and overlap each other. Indeed, in a sense, if we are to make any progress in alchemy, we must pursue the different facets concurrently, paralleling interior development with experience of the outer work. One symbol that belongs to all these different realms of this work is that of the alchemical vessel. In this article I would like to outline some ways in which we can use this symbol in our inner exercises.

The tradition of interior development in alchemy, is pursued by mirroring the transformations and processes of alchemy within our soul. As with any esoteric practice, this internalising of alchemical operations can produce disturbing patterns in the powerful psychic energies that we evoke through inner work, unless we find some means of containing these energies. In the tradition of ritual ceremonial magic the operators normally use an opening and closing ritual that acts as a structure to contain and safely dissipate the energies raised through their work. Similarly, in many traditions of meditation, an opening and closing exercise (sometimes based on breathing rhythms) helps to anchor and reconnect the meditators with their normal state of consciousness, so as not to leave them rather dissociated and dangling somewhere in between the outer and interior worlds. In our inner work with alchemical processes we will find the symbol of the alchemical vessel an invaluable means for containing the interior energies and allowing them to unfold within us in a controlled and positive manner. So in a sense, the alchemical vessel can be a protective interior symbol, just like the circle of the ceremonial magician, or the astral temple of a working esoteric lodge, or the breathing exercises of a meditation tradition.

The energies evoked by working with alchemical processes, as I have said, can be powerful and disruptive forces in the psyche, and a direct inner encounter with these transformative energies is not to be had instantaneously. Only through long and repeated interior work do we come to directly experience these energies in their primal and most fundamental form. The initial encounters are usually ephemeral and overlain with emotional currents. Only if we have the patience of alchemists tirelessly repeating interior experiments, brooding over our inner flask, will we attain even a glimpse of the goal of alchemical transmutation. It is therefore important that we understand the nature of the alchemical vessel so that we have some indication of how to use this in our inner work.

We should come to see that symbols are actually patterns of energy. In an exoteric sense this is so, for obviously any symbol held in our consciousness is manifested as an electro-chemical plexus in the neuron net in our brain. However, esoterically on the deepest level, a symbol is the pattern of etheric energy underlying its various different forms. When we meditate on a symbol we will find it shape-shifting and manifesting its different appearances, and through this can come to grasp that the true nature of the symbol is its energy pattern.

There are many different forms of vessel described and depicted in the alchemical literature and emblematic engravings. There are a seeming multiplicity of forms of retort, pelicans, water baths, alembics, cucurbites, stills, etc. However, in the interior work we will find that all these different outer manifestations of the apparatus reduce to three archetypal forms - which we can call the CRUCIBLE, the RETORT and the STILL.

The Crucible is essentially an open vessel, a dish, a mortar, or a cauldron, open to the outside world yet capable of containing material. Substances and energy patterns can be put into the crucible and be acted upon by some agent, and some part of this substance can also be drawn off or removed so enacting a kind of purification. This is often pictured as taking place through the application of heat. In outer terms, an ore is placed in the crucible, which is then heated, the metal forms itself out of the ore and various impurities are given off into the air, or a slag is skimmed off the surface of the metal. Thus the primal substance, the ore, is transformed into new pure metal. The essence, however, of this type of vessel and the inner operations undertaken in it, is that it is open. A transformation can be undertaken because certain energies (or impurities) are allowed to escape or dissipate. Heating is not essential to this archetypal alchemical process. Acting on a salt with an acid to produce an effervescence or release of gases, is another outer example of this process, or the slow precipitation or crystallisation of a solid out of a mother liquor.

When we internalise the crucible in our souls we picture a vessel within our being which is open, allowing impurities or unwanted facets of the work to pass out or to dissipate away, as well as substances and forces to enter in from the universal spiritual. In this sense the crucible in our souls is a chalice, the lower part of which contains and holds a substance or constellation of forces while its upper part is open to universal spiritual influences. Unwanted energies can be allowed to safely flow out of our crucible and dissolve in the universal flow, and in the other direction energies can be gathered from the spiritual and allowed to descend to the bottom of our interior vessel.

This process can be a gentle and slow flowing one, or alternatively one can heat up our inner crucible through generating powerful currents of emotional energy, forcing and pressing for some transformation to occur. Indeed, once we become experienced in using these techniques, we can readily consciously evoke both of these phases, the active fiery phase and the gentle cooling, precipitation or crystallisation, and in a particular working these can be applied alternatively to create a polarity within the interior experience, that greatly helps the work to come to some conclusion.

Thus we normally undertake such exercises by placing some pattern of symbolic energy into our inner crucible, then opening ourselves to the particular transformations that can be evolved by this exercise - calcinations, purifications, crystallisations, dissolvings, etc. I hope to write further on the inner nature of these alchemical processes in a later issue of the Journal.

The Retort in this archetypal case is a sealed flask. In this interior work we picture our soul as entirely sealed off from both the outer world and the universal spiritual realm. When we undertake this exercise we must have everything we need within the sphere of our inner retort, and for the duration of this work we are entirely self-contained and rely on inner change to take place within the components or forces we have within our being at that time. We have to work to bring about a transformation in these inner patterns, without relying on external forces. It is thus very important if we are to undertake such interior exercises in a positive way with any hope of any satisfactory results, to prepare ourselves and place in our inner retort all the energies and symbols that are necessary for the process. Thus working this particular exercise requires some degree of preparation.

The retort exercise is especially valuable for working towards the interior synthesis of polarities. We place the polarised patterns of energy bound up, say, in some particular set of symbols, into our interior flask, seal it up, and allow them to fully unfold, interpenetrate, and come to a new synthesis. The most common symbol of this in alchemical writings is the man and woman in a flask, uniting and giving birth to a child. So the obvious forces to work with through this exercise are our masculine and feminine components. Through putting these patterns of symbolic energies into our inner retort and calling up the manner in which they manifest and resonate within our beings we can bring about an encounter with these psychic components and make them meet in a positive way. Other polarities we might try to work with are our logical thinking and emotional intuitive facets, or body and spirit, even our awe of the spiritual light and our fear of the deep darkness of matter, or the processes of life and death, and growth and decay.

We should try to experience the retort as a womb or matrix in which the process of gestation or new birth arising out of primal components, can safely take place in us. If we work with this retort exercise over a period of time, we will begin to feel the importance of this space in our souls, and value it as a creative interior workplace. The alchemical processes that go on in this retort usually involve the meeting of polarities, such as Separation and Conjunction, or of Dissolving and Coagulation. Sometimes we find our inner retort will go black, and nothing seems to happen for an extended period, but if we persevere some change will eventually be seen - perhaps at first merely a glimmer - which over a number of repetitions of the exercise might give rise to some new inner experience. At other times the retort will be full of movement and iridescent play of colours and ever changing forms, and here we must wait for some solid and substantial ground to arise in the shifting patterns, upon which our inner experience can grow. A symbol or pattern of energy often experienced at this stage is the tree or flowering plant within the space of the interior retort. Another symbol structure is that of the bird rising and falling in our inner world.

The final interior vessel I would like us to consider is that of the Still. When we try to experience our inner world though this symbol, we should have a sense of extracting an essence out of one of the interior processes, purifying and gathering it within our being so that it becomes an inner source we can touch upon at will. This alchemical operation to some extent corresponds in our everyday outer consciousness to the way in which an experience of coming to an understanding of some aspect of our world can entirely transform our way of interacting with it. For example, our initial reaction to a new piece of technology or an unfamiliar task, is tentative and fraught with difficulties we project upon this device or task. If we can eventually understand just how the device works or gain a picture of the movements needed to accomplish the task, then our way of using the device or of undertaking the task becomes entirely transformed.

Similar processes take place in respect to our interior life through the exercises of inner distillation, though this works on a more subtle plane. Here we take some particular positive quality of our being, such as our creativity, or our sensitivity to others, or our ability to think deeply and clearly, and we find some symbols that capture (or at least envelope) the essence of this quality. We then place these into our interior Still and in our meditation begin to allow these symbol patterns to flow together. At some point in the inner work, we should sense some essence of this process begin to rise out of and separate itself from the specific symbols and feelings connected with this quality. If we encourage this process we can have the inner experience of elevating this essence and allowing it to collect in the upper part of our soul. It then becomes a Tincture.

If, say, we choose to work upon our creativity through this exercise, we place into our interior Still, our understandings of the source of our creativity, picturings of our previous creations or our work in progress, memories of the emotional currents associated with our creative experiences, more universal symbols of creativity, and so on. In a meditative work on this facet, which will take many sessions to bring to fruition, we evoke all this material in our interior Still and attend closely to the processes and changes taking place there. For example, at one point we will experience the 'polarity flipping' of various symbols. We might, say, initially believe our creative impulse lies entirely in the quest for some ideal form, and experience this ideal image flipping (instantaneously interchanging) with its antithesis, some ugly shapelessness, or cycle of metamorphoses, producing disturbing patterns within our being. This stage will eventually resolve and we will find some symbol or feeling-perception that captures the essence of our creativity (or whatever we have chosen to work with) emerging out of the meditative material. If we nurture and sustain this essence, then we can allow it to rise up within our soul and we will feel it remaining as a kind of tincture in our inner world. If this tincture becomes fixed within our being then we can later draw upon it at will. What we find then is that a part of our inner forces retains an echo of all the meditative work we undertook at that time, and we can reconnect with this reservoir whenever we wish. So in the case of creativity, once we possess this inner tincture, then if we have some difficulties (or a block) over some particular piece of creative work, we will find that evoking the inner tincture of this experience, will put us deeply in touch with the ground of our creativity and may enable us to resolve our present problem.

Of course, such exercises are never entirely completed, as we ourselves are changing all the time in response to ongoing experiences, but working with our interior Still will be found invaluable in putting us in touch with the sources of our positive qualities. In alchemical terms the processes associated with the Still include those of Distillation, Exaltation, Fixation, Projection, Multiplication, Quintessence, etc.

I hope these few indications might help us to see how the philosophy and symbolism of the ancient alchemists can still be effectively used today, as a vital living force for the inner spiritual transformation of our souls. The 'open secret' of alchemy is that we must, like the alchemists of old, experience our inner world as these alchemical vessels. Then our inner life will be tinged and transformed with a new richness of spiritual experience.