Every effort goes with mistakes
as fire goes with smoke.
Therefore one should not give up
the work that corresponds with ones nature
because it is full of defects.
The alchemists often repeat that the entire alchemical work is only one process, requiring only one simple action. This action is named with different terms depending on the point of view one takes. It is called purification, washing, cleaning, warming, cooking, distilling and so on. Some alchemists put all those terms in a seemingly chronological order.
The whole work is nothing but warming, cooking, one of the many symbols to show that the entire alchemical process is nothing but one continued action. You can call it meditation, or clear awareness, but it needs to be done continuously. This is the only way purification of body and soul will result in uncovering the true divine nature of the practitioner.
In the beginning of the work it is called dissolution because the central fire, that has been stirred, is transforming the earth into water. The dissolution is the reduction of the fixed and dry into the essence of water. The fixed has been made fluid. The fluid is also called quicksilver and prima materia or first matter. Pernety (1858) says about the dissolution: “The philosophical solution is the transformation of the fixed root humidity into a watery body. The origin of this dissolution is the volatile spirit which is enclosed in the first water.” One could say that your true consciousness that is always there but kind of hidden in yourself, is working by the action of your will, to bring your everyday consciousness (the fixed) into the unconscious (water). One could also say that you become more aware of what happens inside you, especially your feelings and subtle energies, both of which are often compared with water.
By this continuous warming or cooking, distillation happens. The water evaporates and become more subtle with each cycle of distillation. The vapors cool and condense. The condensed water descends and penetrates the earth. The process is repeated again and again.
After distillation fixation or coagulation happens. Fixation is the inseparable union of the fixed and the volatile, or sulfur and quicksilver, into a matter that that is so durable that it is unassailable to the fire. But in the mean while one continues the warming of the matter.
One can say that the entire process is nothing but warming. The fire needs to be maintained (that is one ‘s attention needs to be kept focused).
The distillation or purification is actually the continuously improving of oneself, to root out, for example, every egotistic action or negative emotion. For this a continuous vigilance and diligence is necessary.
Some alchemists place the planets with each successive stage of the Great Work. Although the distillation remains the same during the entire process, in symbolical terms, the alchemist ascends from the planet Saturn towards the planet Mercury. He starts with Saturn, the coldest and heaviest planet, the traditional evil-doer, the god of time and death. Mercury is the lightest planet and is next to the sun, bathing in the light and warmth of that star. Here the alchemist discovers eternal youth.
When the alchemist thus ascends throughout the planets, he transforms their characteristics in himself. Each planet corresponds with certain psychological characteristics.
The Great Work can be found in its entirety in the Egyptian myth of Osiris. Osiris was a god-king who was locked up in a chest by his brother Seth. Seth is the symbol of the powers of decomposition, the fire that causes putrefaction. The chest is the alchemical ‘vas’, or vessel. The chest was closed with nails and lead (lead is the metal of nigredo, or blackness). Then, Seth threw the chest into the ocean. The ocean is the alchemical water, or the second stage of the Great Work, when the earth has been reduced to water. The ocean itself is a symbol of the prima materia to which the matter has been reduced. The chest eventually washed ashore under a tamarind tree. The tamarind is also a symbol of the second stage, albedo or whiteness, because of its white blossom. Isis, the wife of Osiris finds the chest and brings it back to Egypt. This is the coagulation of condensation. By her magical powers she is able to receive the seed of Osiris and gives birth to Horus. Here the alchemical seed of matter has been found, and a new birth takes place, that of a pure consciousness. Horus is a sun god, thus the light has come through. When Set also finds the chest with the dead Osiris (Osiris is the symbol of the common man that has died) he cuts the body up in fourteen pieces and scatters them around. This again refers to the decomposition and sublimation, that needs to happen again and again, until everything is pure. Isis looks for all the pieces and buries each of them at the spot (the fixation). Only the phallus of Osiris she could not find because an oxyrhinchus fish had swallowed it. This could mean that the sexual power has been transformed into a higher energy, and will nevermore express itself on a lower level. It is said that the lower expression of the sexual drive binds man to the physical world or the world of darkness. The phallus is no longer necessary because Horus has been conceived. Horus represents the reborn man. In his appearance as a child he is called Harpocrates, and corresponds with the boy Mercurius. Horus is also the resurrected Osiris. In alchemical terms, the old King has died and the young King is born.
Osiris is also the universal principle of life. He is the seed, like the wheat berry. The Egyptian would sow wheat berries on mummies, so they would sprout, symbolizing the resurrection of the dead. Osiris was also a god of fertility, and thus he had the name “the Great Green One”. His skin color was often painted green. The alchemists talk about the ‘green seed’ in nature, that is the ‘prima materia’, or green dragon, the fertile energy of life that penetrates everything.