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Spiritual Alchemy and Personalization of Myths

Alchemy has a reputation of being an eccentric, pseudo-scientific discipline, based on superstitious ideas, wrapped in futile attempts to achieve eternal life and turn ordinary metal into gold. However, modernity breathed into it a completely new, redefined existence that offered radically different interpretations of its symbolism and potential meaning behind it. When psychology emerged as a new discipline, in the latter half of the 19th century, individuals like Carl Gustav Jung delved into the ancient mythological beliefs and magical systems to present them in a new light. No longer were they viewed as a superstitious remnant of antiquated, ignorant times, but their roles were repurposed for the contemporary world by proposing a hidden, metaphorical meaning. According to Jungian thought, alchemy itself was less a proto or pseudo-chemistry, and more a root of modern psychology and the alchemical symbols stood as expressions of psychological transformations (von Franz, 2006, p. 7). The following article will present the 19th-century incorporation of the ancient tradition of alchemy into a viable system for modern humanity, and the foundation for the emerging science of psychology. It will explore the manners in which these approaches are still popular, especially through personalization and individualization of mythology, how this attitude affects contemporary storytelling and its major criticism.

The Forever-Altering Myths

Whether or not ancient people literally believed in their mythologies is beyond modern comprehension. There is little to no information on how people of the past would have perceived their religious stories, and what is available showcases a diversity of thoughts. However, the cultural relevance of those mysterious tales whose original intent and interpretation are often hidden from posterity has remained intact through the adaptation process. As human societies experience shifts in knowledge, beliefs, or context, the older layers must be redefined and adjusted to the new realities to survive. Alchemy, a long-forgotten discipline, was rejuvenated in the 19th century as a focus of interest for the new discipline of psychology. The famous quest for eternal life and the transformation of metal into gold, alongside the complicated symbolism of alchemical writings and illustrations, became a map for the inner transformation of the individual. Many mythical and legendary stories were viewed similarly, as models for the human journey to self-discovery and spiritual deliverance. 

Figure 1: Alchemical art (n.d.). Alchemy Website.
Figure 1: Alchemical art (n.d.). Alchemy Website.

Individuation, the God-man,  and the Collective Unconscious 

The process of individuation and the idea of the collective unconscious, as Jung’s famous concepts, owe a lot to his studies of alchemy. According to him, particularly in his famous work “Psychology and Alchemy” (Jung, 1944), alchemical fantasies were often similar to motifs reappearing in human dreams and visions, therefore, he saw them as potentially being linked to the collective unconscious. “The non-chemical, symbolic content of alchemy is thus of eminent importance for the history of depth psychology” (von Franz, 2006, p. 16). Mythology played a huge role in Jung’s theories as well. For instance, he comparatively analysed the first man Adam, or the concept of the god-man, and his mythical equivalents to support his psychological interpretation and the link to the alchemical process. A small part of his ideas deals with the letters of Adam’s name and their connection to different elements (von Franz, 2006, p. 18). This attempt to read old tales as a metaphor for a spiritual journey was an endeavour shared by social scientists of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as artists and esotericists, and gradually, it became a part of the common consciousness. 

The East and the West-an Alchemical Exchange

Many believe alchemy as it is known today was imported to the West from the East and South, whether through the mysteries of Isis and Osiris—embalming, fragmentation, death and resurrection—and the Muslim, particularly Sufi, awareness of the so-called feminine elements within a man. The religious eros, as a particular approach to devotion, partially inspired troubadour poetry and courtly romance of the Western Middle Ages (Von Franz, 2006, pp. 17-27). Therefore, love and marital metaphors were often present in alchemical discourse, which encouraged some authors and esotericists to connect it to other spiritual doctrines and practices, especially those concerning sexuality, like tantra. For instance, Mircea Eliade described the alchemical process as a spiritual technique that aimed toward the liberation of the autonomous spirit (Eliade, as cited by von Franz, 2006, p. 22). He also suggested the motif of incest in mythology represented a conjunction of the conscious and the unconscious. Tantric yoga was a field of interest that he often compared to the alchemical wedding, believing there is a link, at least a metaphorical one, between the traditions. 

Figure 2: Collective Unconscious (n.d.). Lampmagician.
Figure 2: Collective Unconscious (n.d.). Lampmagician.

The Individualization and Universalization of Myths: A Cautionary Tale 

The simplest definition of the term individualization is the separating process between the individual and their foundational collective: family, clan, society and dominant cultural norms. Not in the sense that a person ever completely abandons their roots, but becoming an individual implies creating a unique stance towards one’s culture of origin. According to Jung, fragmentation is a normal state for the self. For him, everyone was fragmented and in quest for their soul essence (Jeffrey, 2024). 

The most popular theory based on the individuation process must be Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, a concept from his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Campbell, 1949). The book relies on a superstructure of the so-called monomyth and suggests a formula that almost every fairy story or myth follows. Modern people know the hero’s journey mostly through Hollywood storytelling since many movies and TV shows follow the template in one way or another. However, Campbell’s theory was criticized on multiple fronts. Besides being accused of oversimplification, the author’s Eurocentrism also created blind spots. Campbell interpreted many stories out of their original context and selectively focused on elements that suited his ideas while neglecting others. He “projected Anglo-Western storytelling and cultural values onto Indigenous mythic narratives, which in fact have very different storytelling norms and serve a very different purpose to the individualistic striving for self-fulfilment which he identified as the key to all storytelling” (Hambly, as cited by McDonough, 2022).

Ethnographic evidence suggests the concept of the individual self as separated from the clan is a modern and primarily Western attitude (McDonough, 2022). This doesn’t suggest that a separate subject in non-Western cultures or pre-modern periods didn’t exist but was simply valued differently. Rituals, whose background mythic stories represent, were often not about the individual but collective journey. The myth is the script of the ritual, aimed not to initiate the individual into selfhood, but to mould them into the collective system. According to film director and writer Glenda Hambly, Campbell’s hero’s journey “is individual, and the knowledge he gains is self-generated“ (Hambly, as cited by McDonough, 2022). She argues that Campbell's interpretation is rooted in Western tradition and the dominant psychological focus on selfhood, which often ignores the actual context and possibly different readings of the story. (Hambly, as cited by McDonough, 2022). The individualized Campbellian hero isolated from the community and context was appealing to his postwar readership by immortalizing the „seemingly timeless archetype for America’s unique brand of “rugged individualism.” (Bond, Christensen, 2021).

Figure 3: Hero's Journey and Hollywood Storytelling Scheme (n.d.). Studiobinder.
Figure 3: Hero's Journey and Hollywood Storytelling Scheme (n.d.). Studiobinder.

Further criticism of Campbell lies in the manner his ideas are still used. Sarah E. Bond and Joel Christensen explore potentially exploitative uses of Campbellian narrative, like the one of the popular author Jordan Peterson, who relies on it to justify a harmful approach to traditional gender roles with an addition of the heroic discourse in its own right: offering this view as a salvation of the Western world which is in desperate need of saving (Bond & Christensen, 2021). The Western civilisation's attitude toward mythology has been oscillating in the last centuries. The long, winding road to Empiricism and Enlightenment, which started during the Renaissance period has led to demythologization (Meletinski, 2002, p. 6). However, the 19th and 20th centuries brought a renewed interest in mythology, a brand new mythologization of life through modern literature. Myths were now eternally living principles, neatly tied to the ritual and ceremonial life rather than simplified manifestations of the alleged lack of knowledge of the ancient humans (Meletinski, 2002, p. 7). Mythologism, as a modern phenomenon, was a reflection of the Burguois cultural crisis, which was seen as a civilizational crisis (Meletinski, 2002, p.7). This resulted in general disappointment in positivism and progress. Similarly, today's Western crisis is also often seen as a degeneration of the whole civilization, and people like the mentioned Jordan Peterson attempt to propose quasi-mythological schemes, like the Campbellian narrative as the world's only hope (Bond & Christensen, 2021). Perhaps the best way to talk about the monomyth and the Hero’s Journey is not in the context of understanding the real meaning between ancient myths, or, at least their official written versions that have survived to this day, but as a tool of making sense of modern authorship, a well-beloved formula of writing modern movies, novels, comics, and TV shows.

A female-centric version of the monomyth, called the Heroine’s Journey was introduced in the 1990s by Maureen Murdock, with similarities but also slight deviations (Murdock, 1990). However, Murdock didn’t use her idea to promote the universality of female-centric myths, but to help women who needed psychotherapeutic treatment. Clarissa Pincola Estes’s book Women Who Run With Wolves is a similar project. The author analyses fairy tales with female protagonists not to suggest a universal female psychology and explanation for all stories about women or myths, but to utilize mythic and fairy tale storytelling to help women patients (Estes, 1992). The Heroine’s Journey, although sometimes present in popular stories, is primarily focused on the process of healing the inner wounds caused by a patriarchal system. Murdock describes the feminine journey as healing and soul-searching and the masculine as outward-oriented (Murdock, 1990, p. 5).

The psychological and individualized usage of mythology is not harmful in itself. It can be often useful, however, should not be mistaken for ethnographic evidence. Rather than as evidence for the universal interpretation of ancient cultures, the stories should be studied within the context of contemporary storytelling formulas or self-improvement. 

Figure 4: Grigorjev, H.D. (n.d.). Archetypes. This Jungian Life.
Figure 4: Grigorjev, H.D. (n.d.). Archetypes. This Jungian Life.


Myths are crucial stories for cultural creation and represent a complex collective experience of the communities that made them. Although today they are mostly known in written forms, for many societies around the world, as well as those in the distant past, they were the scripts for the rituals, which served to bring culture into reality. Through rituals, people enlivened their abstract concepts, beliefs, and worldviews. Many of those rituals were eaten over time, but some versions of the stories remained, leaving modern people with a particular challenge to keep mythology relevant. During the 19th and 20th centuries, disciplines in progress, like psychology and anthropology, had to find a way to incorporate ancient stories, sometimes even bizarre to the modern eye, into the study of humanity. One of the popular approaches that is widely spread is the psychologization of mythology, or in other words, the personification of myths. Through the popular mainstream formulas, like the Hero’s Journey, it is easy to assume universality and highlight self-actualization as the outcome, while ignoring ethnocentrism. Modern societies tend to justify myths by turning them into metaphors for inner development. In itself, it is nothing unusual. As cultures change, ancient concepts get recontextualized, redefined and transformed to stay important. However, this creates a specific peril of colonization in retrospect. People impose their current views onto those who lived in completely different contexts but also weaponize the supposed universality to confirm the alleged eternity of an idea.

The eccentric doctrine of alchemy particularly challenged people of the modern era, inspiring a brand-new interpretation of so-called spiritual alchemy, which explained alchemic symbology as a complex system of spiritual techniques that illustrate the inner journey. As such, spiritual alchemy and, by extension, mythology, formed the basic source for the development of modern psychology that remains prevalent to this very day. Still, both psychology and anthropology deal with colonial roots due to their inception in the 19th century. Both Jungian and Campbellian theories have valid critics, and although still popular and valuable to modern storytelling, should not be mistaken for an actual accurate interpretation of the meaning behind ancient myths. 

Bibliographical References

Bond, E.S., Christensen, J. (2021). The Man Behind the Myth: Should We Question the Hero’s Journey? Los Angeles Review of Books.

Campbell, J. (2009). Junak s tisuću lica. Jesenski i Turk. Zagreb. (Original work published in 1949, Pantheon Books). 

Estes, C.P. (2008). Žene koje trče s vukovima. Mitovi i priče o arhetipu divlje žene. Algoritam, Zagreb. (Original work published in 1992). 

Jeffrey, S. (2024). The Individuation Process: A Beginner’s Guide to Jungian Psychology. Ceo Sage.

Jung, C.G. (2015). Psihologija i alhemija. Kosmos-Nova knjiga. Beograd. (Original work published in 1944, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol 12). 

McDonough, M. (2022). Joseph Campbell, History, and Antisemitism: Critiquing the Hero's Journey. Free Range.

Meletinski, E. M. (2002). Poetika na mitot. Tabernakul. Skoplje. (Original work published in 1976).

Murdock, M. (1990). The Heroine's Journey. Woman's Quest for Wholeness. Boston, Mass, Shambhala. New York.

von Franz, M.L. (2006) Corpus Alchemicum Arabicum. Living Human Heritage Publications. Zurich. 

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Alchemical art (n.d.). Alchemy Website. Alchemical and Hermetic Emblems.

Figure 2: Collective Unconscious (n.d.). Lampmagician.

Figure 3: Hero's Journey and Hollywood Storytelling Scheme (n.d.). Studiobinder.

Figure 4: Grigorjev, H.D. (n.d.). Archetypes. This Jungian Life.


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