“Magnum Opus” or “great work”; this is what ancient esoteric alchemists called the philosopher’s stone – the much sought after material that would cure the sick, give you eternal life and turn any metal into gold. Couldn’t possibly exist, right? As an actual substance that makes you immortal and transforms plain metal into gold it is doubtful, though we do know that many alchemists put their blood, sweat, and tears into trying to make it (there even exists online Isaac Newton’s recipe for the substance); However as a very deep and meaningful spiritual practice that has been used by Hermetic alchemists for hundreds of years, that is no question.
The reason that alchemists called the philosopher’s stone the magnum opus was because they considered it to be their life’s goal; the end all be all for them to achieve, if they achieve it at all. It being the perfect material, it could easily be compared to the perfect being. It is not something you expect to achieve, but you work towards it every day regardless. That is the spiritual way to look at the philosopher’s stone. You at your current self are a base metal, and then you go through the alchemical process, and come out gold.
This alchemical process has gone through many changes throughout the ages, but I want to look at how it started, which is with four stages based on colors. The first stage is nigredo, or blackening. In practical alchemy this involves the decomposition of the materials to their base forms and becoming cleansed; this can be compared to shedding your psychological ego, and coming to terms with your inner demons. That can be things you have done in the past, or things that have been done to you.
Next comes albedo, or whiteness. After the difficult work of spiritual death in nigredo, you go through a cleansing, and become as a new person would. You feel freed from your past self and are happy to move forward and take on new things. New things may awaken in you that were hidden by your ego before.
Then you will experience citrinitas, or yellowing. After opening yourself to opportunities, you will go through a spiritual awakening. You will become wiser and stronger emotionally to handle the challenges that life throws at you. This process will likely take longer than the others, as it can take some people years to truly become wise; and for some they may get stuck in this step or any other step for that matter.
Finally there is rubedo, or redness. The physical philosopher’s stone was associated with the color red, and this step is symbolic of the completion of the magnum opus. After all the steps you went through – shedding your old self, becoming cleansed of those impurities, and having a spiritual awakening, you will reach wholeness with yourself. This is the great work in spiritual terms. It is a daily process, and there may be times when you have to take a step back and begin again, but you have a whole lifetime to reach a state of wholeness.
This self-work permeates through many alchemic and Hermetic teachings, and influenced the work of many great men such as Isaac Newton and Carl Jung, and that is why it still permeates parts of western sub-cultures and even pop-culture even today. However, I feel that many have lost this important spiritual process that was so core to alchemy, and it doesn’t require any materials or magick, just self-work and dedication.