One of the most interesting yet seldom acknowledged images that crop up in alchemical manuscripts is that of the black sun. For those unfamiliar with alchemical symbology in general, the pairing of two words qualitatively irreconcilable may seem very bizarre. How can a source of omnipresent physical light that sustains organic life all over our planet be linked to the colour black or to the concept of darkness in general? The answer to this question lies in the near-perfect conditions that must subsist on the planet for life to take root. These, as we all recognize, are dependent on the relative position of the Earth to the primary source of heat, our sun. Coming too close scorches and reduces everything on the Earth’s surface to cinders; alternatively, veering too far spurs a detrimental drop in temperature that coats it in thick layers of inimical ice. The environments of our two closest neighbours–Mars and Venus–both substantiate this theory. We also know that anomalous activity on the surface of the sun generates bursts of radiation (i.e. solar flares) that kill off those organisms unable to adapt to a spontaneous shift in environmental conditions. This dangerous and lethal potentiality latent in the solar sphere is called the black sun, a cosmological phenomenon dealt with at length by Stanton Marlon in his wonderful book, The Black Sun: The Alchemy and Art of Darkness.
Closely allied to the black sun are the nigredo and the caput corvi, phases of the alchemical opus inexplicable connected to darkness, excruciating pain, and suffering. Nigredo, as we should recall from the articles on transpersonal psychotherapy, is about an encounter with those facets of being that exist within the concentric sphere of the Self in an unacknowledged, unconscious state. Jung branded these aspects of the total personality one’s shadow. Confronting one’s own shadow is usually a fearsome experience. Just like an excess of heat extirpates life and causes an alchemical vessel holding the matter to be worked on to burst, so too does a complete identification of the ego with conscious contents spur the materialization of archetypal and transpersonal forces which penetrate the frontiers of personal consciousness and overturn the soul’s existing harmony and order. When this happens, one might feel like a mortal hero or heroine being seared alive by the fiery breath of a colossal dragon; an Egyptian Osiris being dismembered by the hands of the evil Seth; an intoxicated Dionysus being torn to shreds by a group of Maenads entranced and deaf to the reason of consensual waking consciousness; or a Christ bearing the collective burdens of humanity by suffering a chain of flagellations and subsequent death by crucifixion. What the language of these mythical constituents is telling us is that there can be no corruption without dissolution, no light without the darkness, no victory without defeat, and no form or establishment of form without the pre-existence of a formless prima materia.
Understood from a psychological vantage point nigredo is imminent when the ego-self can no longer contain the violent influx of transpersonal forces and when a growing number of phenomena and facts can no longer be explained away or reconciled with one’s existing archetypal model of reality. This happens again and again over the course of one’s lifetime; there is no limit to the amount of nigredo persons might suffer in their plight to individuate and become everything that the nisus embodied by their personal psychic dowry decreed they should become. In the alchemical nigredo, our personality loses its fundamental unity and we are reduced to the sum of our parts. Some of these parts will enter into temporary conflicts and oppositions with one another, initiating a tug of war in the psyche that stretches the membrane of the ego in disparate directions. The ebbs and flows of transpersonal power can be so overwhelming and disorientating at this time as to incite genuine feelings that one is descending into madness or losing his or her grip on reality. Thankfully, all psychospiritual processes are heeded by hope, an omnipresent source of wisdom that any plunge into darkness is temporary and will soon be succeeded by healing and the reestablishment of fundamental harmony within the soul. Transcendence from the paranoia, anxiety, and madness associated with nigredo consciousness is probable when faith in the healing power of the Self has not been forsaken. This makes mental suffering all the more bearable, or so we’re led to believe!
The image of the black sun can also be connected with the concepts of death and defeat in the Narcissus myth. Orientated to the field of psychological inquiry, the beautiful youth Narcissus himself personifies an inflated ego about to yield an acidic surplus of transpersonal energy which will gradually penetrate its archetypal blueprints and dissolve them completely. As expounded in the renowned classical tale, these corrosive agents do not come from entities, circumstances, or interactive fields that stand without; nobody, not even the beautiful water nymphs, can activate a powerful enough thought-desire, emotion, or eros-fire within the young man as to dissolve his internal mechanisms and structures. Narcissus remains unmoved by anything from the phenomenal world that is not of his own inherent nature. In the end, the agent of dissolution comes from a spiritual space within, from intercourse with his own self. Peering onto the surface of a calm, limpid lake one day he catches sight of his own reflection and becomes enamoured of it. Desire for a physical form can be so overpowering as to spur behaviours and actions not indigenous to a particular personality. In Narcissus’s case the impulse to get up close and personal with his own likeness could not be resisted and cost him his life; keeling over for a closer look at himself, he plunges into the water and drowns. Hence, from a psychological viewpoint, we might say that eros-fire or love has sparked a nigredo that dissolves Narcissus consciousness so that a greater, more comprehensive consciousness might emerge from its putrefying remains. The narcissistic youth had to die so that a much nobler, intricate, and three-dimensional personality, perhaps a sly magician or a valiant hero, can emerge and inherit the transmuting terrain.
From what we know about different states of consciousness, the propensity of the unconscious to express itself using leitmotifs from the natural world cannot be overlooked. What we find in most cases is that images are codified into a symbolic language unique to the consciousness footprint of each individual before being projected onto the nocturnal slate of mentation. A stream of images flowing forth from the unconscious through active imagination, hypnagogia, or dreams speaks only about the present condition of the psyche. Any other tool of analysis we might gravitate towards in our plight to derive meaning or understanding is purely speculative. For instance, stealing personal property from a close relative could connote anything from the manifestation of new insights into existing problems to an undisclosed desire for vengeance against the respective personage for a perceived wrongdoing. The interpretation derived depends entirely on the sum of conscious and unconscious thoughts with which the personal ego is preoccupied at that point in time. This is why the best interpretation of any dream is best given by the dreamer himself. Who knows you better than you know yourself, right?
Having said that, there are certain images or phantasmagorias that possess identical or at least analogous meanings for the individuals of any one culture. Undoubtedly, the most dreaded of these is the black sun. Vivid, disturbing, and sometimes lucid dreams are a primary symptom of the arrival of the black sun in the little solar system of one’s present, self-conscious personality. The harbingers of this distressing state are many in form and number, and can emerge from the unconscious depths either as literal renditions of a physical black sun shining in the blue sky or as subtle metaphors involving faeces, foul odours, the death of organic life, and lamentations for a living or deceased relative. Images of rotting flesh, graves, overflowing toilets, and the presence of worms and other organisms involved in the decomposition of organic matter are also indications that the black sun has risen. Marlon has specified in his book that the appearance of the black sun in dreams sometimes precedes a major life transition or the manifestation of a terminal illness. In this way, it acts like the great star Sirius whose heliacal rising from the eastern horizon heralds the coming of a new dawn. (As a transition to the sphere of eternity, physical death is also an aurora of sorts.)
One of the most striking depictions of the alchemical black sun is to be found on the second plate of the third sequence of illuminating paintings known as the Splendor Solis (c. 1532-1535). Here, the black sun is portrayed as a black orb from which an infinite crown of golden-orange rays emanate. It ascends over an irradiated town nested amidst a bountiful countryside that is itself divided into three dunes. Climbing higher and higher along the invisible rungs leading to the pinnacle of heaven, the sun’s rays pierce the rose-tinted wisps of cloud overhead but also the dense folds of earth in which vegetative and mineral life gestate. Indeed, the fire of life coming from the centre of the solar system is the same one that churns in the centre of the earth. This dual fire indicates that inner and outer and above and below are one reality. Perusing the vicinity of the aurora, one can see that the terrain is semi-translucent; the shape of the sun’s orb is clearly illuminated behind the meandering path which connects the horizon to the adjacent mounds of the countryside. A close examination also reveals the incongruous nature of the image; the fecundity and fruitfulness of the green hills and meadows closest to the horizon are juxtaposed by a foreground dominated by a desiccated watercourse. What confuses the issue further is that a bed of young shrubs and plants have miraculously sprouted from amid the dust. Finally, a cluster of dead tree stumps situated on the mound furthest from the horizon and around the bank of the watercourse serve as reminders that the ancient land from which they once sprouted is periodically atrophied by natural cataclysms and upheavals.
So what exactly is being depicted here? Taking all the aforementioned observations into consideration, the answer that best fits is one that regards the entire plate as something of an emblematic reminder that each growth in individual and collective consciousness is a crisis in self-esteem. It’s telling us that higher consciousness–a concept that concurrently embodies vital life force, dynamic systems of operation, and mentation–is the glorious child of a cosmological contradiction where death and regeneration are indivisible aspects of creation. This isn’t just an unshakable law of psychological distillation; it’s one that defines all processes of creation. Looking at life as a purely physical process, we might say that the periods of depression signifying a necessity for planetary evolution have come through anomalous climactic changes to the Earth’s atmosphere. The major catalysts for these extreme, hostile periods whereby existing orders of plant and animal life suffer decimation and fossilization and new potentialities for expression are realized come from above in the form of meteorites and solar flares and from the Great Below in the guise of volcanic eruptions, continental drifting, earthquakes, and periodic orbital wobbles. As an agent of transmutation, change is coming from the celestial and subterranean planes, from regions above and below.
The same is true for the individuating Self; when the coagulated personal myth and archetypal vision of the prevailing ego can no longer contain a proliferating mass of factual information and data about the phenomenal world, transpersonal powers existing without but operating from within the totality of the psyche are spontaneously activated. Extreme or excess conditions in the ego (i.e. severe inflation of thought-desires) are the reason for its sublimation. At this point the old ‘form’ of the personality is dismantled; the outmoded psychic projections are subsequently destroyed; the shadow aspects are reconciled with elementary projections the Self deems worthy of being saved; and the remaining thought-forms are reintegrated into a newer and more inclusive ‘form’ or wider personality. Of course, the acquisition of this newly illumined state wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for the combined action of the outer interactive field and the emotional phantasmagorias irrupting from the unconscious on the conscious ego. Our new psychic constitution is thus a combined gift from the nourishment of inner and outer planes of reality, from the Great Above and the Great Below.
By the same token the fiery essence within our own psychic core is the same one powering the cosmic animal known as Mother Nature, the Earth, the solar system, and the entire universe. Everything that exists has come about through the action and interaction of this prime, intangible substance whose true form has never been comprehended or seen, and whose theorization has been honoured under a host of names like ether, fire, odic force, mercury, mesmeric fluid, qi, and prana. Sadly, variant levels of ignorance, egocentricity, and narcissism prevent most of us from ever awakening to the fact that everything in the cosmos is interconnected and imbued with some degree of sentience. Straddling this esoteric conceptualization entirely, the plate conveys a consciousness or state of being that is delicately poised between the forces of creation and destruction in addition to the active and passive principles of generation; to gain traction in moving forward, life must go backwards first. From the contradictory nature of the natural imagery we gain a sense that for any sentient entity, the auric illumination of the present co-exists alongside the whole gamut of painful putrefactions endured in the past. The phenomenon, the decor tells us, is universal, embracing the physical, biological, and psychospiritual dimensions of existence. Just as the contemporaneous bionetworks of the Earth thrive atop subterranean depths enfolding the fossilized remains of prehistoric life forms, so too does the psychic patina of a fully-formed adult personality embody the fossilized memories of prenatal, childhood, and teenagehood incarnations buried deep within the darkened caverns of one’s personal unconscious. Thus, the plate is an ode to the animistic and primeval belief that Great Above and Great Below and planes of reality perceived as inner and outer by the human mind are all reflections of cosmic laws originating from the inexplicable One. Between the horizon and the second mould of lush vegetation the semi-translucent earth reveals a black sun with a very human physiognomy, suggesting that there is a numinous creative intelligence that has ordered the phenomenal world and its constituent elements.
Perhaps, then, there is a reason to the cosmos. What do you think?