Explore the Symbols of Calcination
The first step of alchemy’s seven operations feels hot, cramped, threatening, vulnerable, and trapped. In this level, the alchemist burns away the dross, leaving nothing but bone, a symbol of the incorruptible body. This first operation is called calcination. The symbols associated with this alchemical stage are the metal lead, the planet Saturn, and the sign of Aquarius. The tarot cards are the Magician, Strength, and the Devil. In this post, we’ll explore the symbolism of alchemy’s first operation, calcination, to better understand how to light the fire of your own transformation.
Many of the following sections offer questions to guide you in your own alchemical process. You can think about these topics, journal your answers, and/or meditate on how they can help you achieve your goals. Of course, the best way to use these questions is to pull a tarot card for each one!
Please join us via Zoom on the first Saturday of the month in 2023 for Tarot and the Seven Stages of Alchemy at the Greater Seattle Tarot Meetup. Check Joy Vernon Astrology * Tarot * Reiki on YouTube for recordings of select Tarot and Alchemy meetups.
Calcination means to burn away to a fine white ash.
The first step is to find the bones (calx) of the unredeemed matter, the part that cannot be destroyed. The challenge of finding that indestructible material stirs up an extraordinary sense of loss, particularly the loss of identity.
Saturn is not only the furthest of the visible planets, it is also the slowest moving. You could say that it seems to hobble along like an old man at the outer perimeter of the solar system.
Saturn, like its metal lead, is heavy and dense. As the outermost planet and boundary of the visible solar system, it is cold and represents limitations. In the body, Saturn rules the bones and the melancholy temperament. The skeleton holds us upright, and likewise Saturn governs things that provide structure. It represents the father, time, old age, depression, and death. Generally, Saturn is serious and likes discipline, rules, diligence, and responsibility.
Saturn (the World tarot card) rules the zodiacal signs of Capricorn (The Devil) and Aquarius (The Star), while Libra (Justice) is its exaltation.
Saturn’s symbols include a lame leg, crutches, hourglass, and a scythe.
Questions for Saturn’s Role in Calcination
- What limitations hold you back from your objective?
- If you could choose a support, what would it be?
- How much time will you commit to your success?
Lead is heavy and dense, soft and malleable, and has a low melting point. It is stable, and in fact, any metal of greater atomic weight exhibits radioactive decay, which only regains stability when it returns to lead.
Lead ore, galena, is silver gray with a bluish tint. Galena naturally occurs with silver and gold. The production of lead from galena creates so much silver as a byproduct that processing of galena ore is the main source of silver. Galena also naturally occurs with pyrite, fool’s gold. It has a cubic cleavage pattern, similar to salt, which in alchemy we associate with the body.
Ironically, the lead in crystal causes it to be more clear and sparkly.
Lead has many symbols related to Saturn. Of the seven planetary metals, lead is the slowest conductor of electricity and heat, so it’s cold. Lead is poisonous and accumulates in the bones. Ammunition, made of lead, is a symbol of death.
Lead is an example of the prima materia, the starting material for any alchemical operation. Whatever you want to transform is compared to lead. We seek to engage and morph these qualities toward our desired result.
Questions for Lead’s Role in Calcination
- What is your starting point?
- What heavy, intractable thing must be transformed so you can reach your goal?
The Magician, Strength, The Devil
Oswald Wirth’s 7 x 3 Tarot Layout
The first column of the 7 x 3 tarot layout places the Devil at the Salt or body level, Strength at the Mercury or spirit level, and the Magician at the Sulfur or soul level. (The soul and spirit levels are switched from Wirth’s labels to match the more common alchemical symbolism.) According to Oswald Wirth’s description of the layout, the top level is the cause, the intermediate level the action the cause takes, the the lowest level the object of the action. In this case, the Magician is the cause, Strength is the action, and the Devil is the object of that action.
Column 1: The Magician, Strength, and the Devil
The Magician initiates a process of integrating above, which he reaches up to, and below, which he points to. This is the basic alchemical axiom, “as above, so below.” The Magician is the cause, the thing that acts. The action itself is Strength. Strength demonstrates purity, illustrated by the woman in the white dress, over passion, the red lion. Her action is to tame, control, or, more precisely, regulate the balance of these energies. The Devil is the object of the action. It represents the energy itself, the alchemist’s fire which will burn away the dross. This destructive fire is absolutely essential to the process, even though it has the potential to flare out of control.
Please note that if instead of the Golden Dawn order, VIII Strength and XI Justice, we use the more traditional Tarot de Marseille sequence, VIII Justice and XI Strength (as numbered in the Oswald Wirth tarot trumps pictured here), we achieve a similar interpretation. If Justice were in middle position of the first column, the verb would become to balance, to equilibrate, to harmonize or, perhaps, to make right.
In order to achieve the ultimate goal of linking above and below, we must carefully balance or regulate the infernal fires to perfectly burn away what is superfluous while maintaining what is essential.
Questions for the Calcination Tarot Cards
- When considering the transformation you desire, what links you to this goal?
- How can you regulate or make right your level of intensity toward this goal?
- What needs to be burned off?
- What desires fuel your motivation?
Thema Mundi and the Seven Stages of Alchemy
Most authors align the seven operations of alchemy to the seven planets. Unfortunately, they don’t all do it the same way. It’s common to see the planets aligned in the Chaldean order (from slowest to fastest), as shown in the Azoth image above. This order starts with Saturn (black ray at bottom center), then moving clockwise, places the Sun in the middle and ends with the Moon. I’ve read many eloquent arguments ascribing this sequence to the alchemical stages. However, the bottom line is that the alchemical process starts with lead (Saturn) and ends with gold (the Sun). And that is not the Chaldean order. As a matter of fact, it derives from the Thema Mundi.
The illustration on the right elegantly lays out the planets by speed but also takes into consideration the signs they rule. The Sun matches up with Leo, while the Moon rests in Cancer. Then, following the order of speed for the remaining planets, we see that Mercury rules the two signs flanking the Sun and Moon, then Venus the next two, and so on. If we start our alchemical process with Saturn in its home sign of Aquarius, 180 degrees opposite the Sun, we can trace the order of planets counter clockwise. Saturn/Aquarius, Jupiter/Pisces, Mars/Aries, Venus/Taurus, Mercury/Gemini, Moon/Cancer, and arriving at our ultimate goal, the Sun in its sign of rulership, Leo. The symbolism brilliantly lines up with the seven alchemical stages, as charted below.
Alchemy and the Age of Taurus
Not only does this order match the planets and signs logically to the stages, it also adds a very interesting dimension by highlighting the fixed signs. This cycle starts with the fixed sign of Aquarius, moves through the fixed sign of Taurus, and ends with the fixed sign of Leo. The other modes have only two representatives each. It brings to mind the Age of Taurus, associated with wealth, comfort and permanence, some of the external goals of alchemy. Massive stone tombs were popular at the time, with religions focusing heavily on death and rebirth. This compares to the basic transformation metaphor of alchemy. Much more importantly, working both inwardly and outwardly, the alchemist’s opus was to fix the volatile.
Calcination: Aquarius in the Thema Mundi
Aquarius is the winter solstice in the Age of Taurus. It is the time of cold and dark, qualities associated with both Saturn and lead. The Sun, alchemical gold and our ultimate goal, is at its weakest at the winter solstice. It is here that we start our process.
Aquarius is theoretical, idealistic, and offers a utopian vision. But ruled by Saturn, Aquarius must first destroy everything in order to build from a completely new foundation, like razing a piece of land before new construction.
Aquarius is associated with the public or general populace, in contrast with Leo, which represents the king or ruler. Without a ruler, rules, or a guiding principle, the people devolve into lawlessness and destruction. In mythology, this is the cause of the flood, which is associated with the sign of Aquarius (see Deucalion and Pyrrha).
Questions for the Role of Aquarius in Calcination
- What is your vision?
- What ruler do you bow to?
- Do you have guidelines in place for you to reach your goal?
Meditation: Who are you?
If you’re going through a personal calcination phase, this meditation can help. Sometimes it seems like nothing works, like you’re losing who you are. This can be a devastating experience. But it is the first step on your journey to solar gold. Rather than let your circumstances, external situations, or other people define you, try this meditation. By refusing to identify with anything that is not essential to your being, you burn away the excess and unnecessary parts of your personality, discovering instead what is absolutely primary about you. This process can involve serious soul-searching. But when done honestly it reveals your incorruptible self.
- Consider your identity, all the things that make you YOU.
- Now, slowly imagine taking away anything that your identify with that could be lost in your life. If your home is taken, your work, your family and friends, keep imagining anything that is important to you being taken away.
- Continue this process until you discover something that can never be taken from you.
If you have any thoughts or questions, please share in the comments. Did you find some gold in this article? Please let me know that too! And please join us next month for dissolution!