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Great Work

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The Art by Lady Harris

The Great Work (Latin: Magnum opus) is an alchemical term for the process of working with the prima materia to create the philosopher’s stone. It has been used to describe personal and spiritual transmutation in the Hermetic tradition, attached to laboratory processes and chemical color changes, used as a model for the individuation process, and as a device in art and literature. The magnum opus has been carried forward in New Age and neo-Hermetic movements which sometimes attached new symbolism and significance to the processes.

The work of the Alchemist is to discover how to accomplish the mutations which are necessary to his art. He knows the principle of sublimation. He knows the cycles of recapitulation that have to be used because gradually he sees that alchemy is only a symbolic representation of the entire process of universal activity. Everything is part of the same great pattern, and this pattern unfolds as we become capable of understanding it. The pattern is never more nor less, but our relation to it is forever changing as a result of personal growth.

Finally the individual through an intuitive process forms a reunion with the divine part of himself. Having formed this union with the divine part of himself, he then goes on to the further steps of the great transmutations, finding himself gradually lifted up into the hierarchies of life but never, however, for personal gain, never for glory, never for
wealth, and never to escape pain. The pains and sufferings we have are the impairments which by our own policy we know no better. They are processes of growth that Nature has presented to us for contemplation and which we must face, whether they are happy or not.

In time we find the part of alchemy in the great universal plan of things. We find the planet Itself is in a state of constant alchemical transformation. We know that the solar system is moving from one level of evolution to another and the whole cosmos is coming more and more into perfect harmony with its own rules. The different forms of life
have a tendency as time goes on to be absorbed into higher forms of life. It is not that sometime our planet will disappear or go forever and we will cease because of it, but that evolution is a growing, and when we outgrow the experiences that we sire facing in the twentieth century, we will no longer be subject to the confusion and sorrow of these experiences.

We have to solve problems. The alchemist’s problem was to solve the mystery of himself. He had to find ways to outgrow his own limitations and various systems have been advanced by that. Religion and philosophy have attempted the same thing and science will someday attempt it because science will have instruments by means of which many of the great mysteries of antiquity can be solved. Regardless of the motive behind it or the methods used, the solution is the gradual transformation called transmutation, multiplication, and finally projection of the great work.[1]

Prima materia

In alchemy and philosophy, prima materia, materia prima or first matter (for a philosophical exposition refer to: Prime Matter), is the ubiquitous starting material required for the alchemical magnum opus and the creation of the philosopher’s stone. It is the primitive formless base of all matter similar to chaos, the quintessence or aether. 

The Alchemical Process

It is perfectly true that the alchemist seeks to transmute the baser metals into gold. When he speaks of the seven metals, however, he means something other than the common products of the mine. Thus George Ripley warns his readers (in his Compound of Alchyrnie) against fruitless experiments with various substances, including “meane Mettalls dygged out of the Myne.” And the other sages make the same distinction, speaking always of “our” Mercury, “our” Sulphur, “our” Gold and Silver, so as to make it plain that they are mentioning something peculiar to the Hermetic operation. The alchemical metals bear the names of the sun, moon, and the five planets known to the ancients, as follows:


In many alchemical texts and formulas, the astrological symbols of the heavenly bodies named above are used to represent the metals. Elsewhere in the instruction issued by the School of Ageless Wisdom we have explained the correspondence of these planets to seven “interior stars” located within the human organism. The seven stars are the same as the seven chakras, or lotuses, of the Yoga philosophy. They have been identified with seven centers of the human nervous system, as follows:

The transmutation of the baser metals into gold is the process whereby the vibratory action of these interior stars is so modified that the lower rates of vibration are transmuted, (literally, “changed across”) and sublimated, or lifted up. This transmutation of the subtle force which works through the seven interior stars or alchemical metals has a triple consequence. It leads to spiritual illumination. It enables the perfected adept to exercise powers that remain latent in most men. It gives him perfect bodily health. The adept’s health is the result of the perfect combination of all the chemical and electrical energies whose coordinated activities maintain the form and functions of his physical body. This state of radiant vitality is communicable. When it is attained, the alchemist can project his own rate of vibration upon other persons, and by inducing a similar rate in their etheric bodies, can heal their diseases. The alchemist’s mental and spiritual vibration is also communicable. By projecting his own state of consciousness upon the mind of another, he can raise the level of that person’s consciousness.[2]

Art source: Alchemical and Hermetic Emblems

Alchemy, then, aims at a state of consciousness that is reflected into the physical plane as perfect vibratory equilibrium. That equilibrium already exists in nature, and it is the business of the alchemist to manifest it through his own personality. Thus we are told that equilibrium is the basis of the Great Work, and admonished by all books on Hermetic practice to ”imitate nature.”

The higher, perfectly balanced state of personality is none other than the “new mind” of the injunction: “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” It is a new understanding of life, based upon a new kind of first-hand experience. Yet alchemy is not exclusively concerned with consciousness. What is aimed at in the performance of the Great Work is more than a belief, more than a state of mind, more than a metaphysical realization. When we say that the Great Work unfolds a new kind of consciousness, we mean you to understand that he in whom this unfoldment takes place is thereby enabled to express all the powers that go with it. He does actually find himself able to command the spirits of the elements, the subtle forces whose interplay of activity produces all the appearances of the physical world. This command enables him to transform his corruptible body into a body incorruptible. By this same mastery he also exerts over the physical forms in his environment such control that he can alter their appearance, and even change their atomic structure, by raising or lowering their rates of vibration. Thus the alchemical mastery does, in the end, enable its adepts to perform actual physical transmutations.

The fact is that alchemy is really a Western variation of what Hindus call Yoga.

Alchemy; The Western Yoga

We have already called attention to the identity between the alchemical metals and the chakras of the Yoga system. We have also shown the remarkable similarity of thought and expression between the Emerald Tablet and a passage from the Katha Upanishad. We may continue these parallels considerably beyond these beginnings.
Fundamental in Hermetic science is the doctrine that all things whatsoever are manifestations of three principles, called SULPHUR, MERCURY, and SALT. They are not the common physical substances. Their names indicate three ways in which the One Thing manifests itself. One of these may be identified by a quality like a quality possessed by sulphur. Another has characteristics like those of quicksilver. The third has properties which resemble those of salt.

Sulphur or brimstone bums easily, and has choking fumes. It has been associated for centuries with the fires of hell, and with the soothing passions which those fires typify. Mercury is liquid and flowing, and the surface of each globule of this metal is a mirror reflecting its environment. Its rapid movement, like that of a living creature, accounts for the name quicksilver, in which “quick” means both living and rapid, as we may see from the French argent vive, literally, “living silver.” Salt crystallizes in perfect cubes, which have been types of earth since the time of Pythagoras; and its property is to arrest dissolution, or disintegrative chemical change. The quality of sulphur, then, is fiery and passionate. That of mercury is vital and reflective. That of salt is arrestive and binding.Compare these alchemical doctrines with the Yoga teaching. Hindu philosophers declare that three qualities, or gunas, enter into the composition of all things. Wherever there is a form, there are the three qualities. Their names are Sattva, Rajas, and Tarnas. In the fourteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita, the characteristics of these three qualities are fully described. There we are told that Rajas is the embodiment of desire, and the producer of thirst and relish; that it ties the ego through attachment to action; that from it are born such things as greed, initiation of action, energy in great worldly achievements, unrest, and thirst. We learn also that Sattva is illuminative; that it is transparent, or light-transmitting, that it ties the ego through attachment to happiness and knowledge; that when it is dominant there is the illumination of knowledge at every gate of the body, and thus the senses and faculties attain the fullest manifestation of power. Finally, Tamas is said to be born of insensibility; to tie up the ego by means of heedlessness, laziness, sleep; to veil the power of discrimination; to be the cause of spiritual blindness. We might represent these three qualities by three English words: Desire-force (Rajas); Intelligence (Sattva); Inertia (Tamas). The same three words could be used in place of sulphur, mercury, and salt.

Again, the alchemists recognize five underlying phases of manifestation, or five classes of expression for the One Thing. The first of these is the Quintessence, or Fifth Essence, so named because it is a fifth thing, extracted in the alchemical operation from the four grosser elements. Yet Hermetic writers are agreed that this Quintessence is really the root or source of the four elements, Fire, Water, Air, and Earth.

Their teaching exactly parallels that of the Yogis, who call the five classes of expression the five Tattvas. These are: Akasha (Quintessence); Tejas or Agni (Fire); Apas (Water); Vayu (Air); Prithivi (Earth). Furthermore the Yogi philosophy definitely states that the five Tattvas are the subtle principles of sensation; that each Tattva has its own peculiar property; and that there is a cyclic ebb and flow of the Tattvas, in regular sequence, through all things and creatures.One of the most important Yogic practices aims at control of this cyclic flow of the Tattvas. Similarly, in Alchemy, we hear of the Wheel of the Elements, with the Quintessence at the center.It is illustrated in Key 10 of Tarot, Concerning it Ripley writes:

“But first of these elements make thou rotation, And into Water thy Earth turn first of all;
Then o f thy Water make Air by levigation;
And Air make Fire; then MASTER will I thee call Of all our secrets great and small:
The Wheel of Elements thou canst turn about, Truly conceiving our writings without doubt.”
–Compund of Alchymie, Sec. I: 17

The preparation for the practice of yoga is the same in all essentials as the preparation for the practice of al- chemy. Evil tendencies are to be overcome, and positive virtues developed. The gross functions of the body are to be purified, and then comes the finer purification of the interior centers. The object of all these yoga practices is precisely that which is mentioned by Basil Valentine, namely, that the yogi’s body “may be transmuted into a holy temple of God and purged from all uncleanness.”
Again, the fire of alchemy is said to be a secret fire, which is often compared to a serpent or dragon. Likewise in yoga, the active principle of the operation is a fiery force coiled in the Saturn center at the base of the spine. It is known as Kundalini, the coiled serpent- power.
The aim of all yoga practice is to raise this serpent- power, stage by stage, through the seven chakras which we have identified with the alchemical metals. Thus the practice of yoga is really a process of sublimation, which lifts up and brings into active manifestation the hidden powers of the sub-conscious life of man. In other words, yoga calls forth the powers of the Osirian “underworld.” In alchemy we have exactly the same kind of practice. Finally, Paracelsus, like the rest of the sages, tells his readers that the Great Work is performed by the aid of Mercury, and that the only other agencies entering into the art are the powers of the sun and moon. In like manner, the yoga system recognizes two agencies. One, hot and fiery, is called Prana or Surya (Sun).The other, cold and moist, is named Rayi, and is always termed the lunar current.

Yoga Philosophy:

All things are expressions of one fundamental energy.

All things combine three qualities:
SATTVA Wisdom RAJAS Desire-force T AMAS Inertia

There are five modes of expression:


There are seven principles of vehicles of action called lotuses or chakras:
MULADARA (base of spine)


MANIPURA (Solar plexus)

ANAHATA (Cardiac plexus)

VISUDDHI (Throat center)

AJNA (Pituitary body)

SAHASRARA (Pineal gland)

There is a secret force, fiery in quality, which is to be raised from the lower chakras to the higher ones. The Sun (Prana), Moon (Rayu), and Sattva ( Wisdom ) are the three main agencies of the work of the yogis.



“All things are from one, by the mediation of one.”

All things combine three principles:
MERCURY (Wisdom)

SULPHUR (Desire-force)

SALT (Inertia)

There are five modes of expression:






There are seven principle substances to be transmuted termed metals or planets:

MARS (Iron)

JUPITER (Tin)SUN or SOL (Gold)

VENUS (Copper)

LUNA (Silver)

MERCURY (Quicksilver)

The lower metals, or their essences, are to be raised in to the forms and essences of higher ones by sublimation.
All alchemists agree that the Great Work is performed through the power of the Sun and Moon, aided by Mercury.

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[1]. MANLY P. HALL. LECTURE #322: ESOTERIC ALCHEMY The Transmutation of Attitudes.

[2]. Paul Foster Case, The Hermetic Alchemy; Science & Practice. 

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