Great Work

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The term Great Work (magnum opus) is a term used in Hermeticism and in certain occult traditions and religions such as Thelema.[1] The Great Work signifies the spiritual path towards self-transcendence in its entirety. This is the process of bringing unconscious complexes into the conscious awareness, in order to integrate them back into oneself.[2] Accomplishing the Great Work, symbolized as the creation of the Philosopher's Stone, represents the culmination of the spiritual path, the attainment of enlightenment, or the rescue of the human soul from the unconscious forces which bind it.[3]

In Hermeticism[edit]

Eliphas Levi (1810–1875), one of the first modern ceremonial magicians and inspiration for the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, discussed the Great Work at length, expanding it from the purely alchemical towards the more spiritual:

Furthermore, there exists in nature a force which is immeasurably more powerful than steam, and by means of which a single man, who knows how to adapt and direct it, might upset and alter the face of the world. This force was known to the ancients; it consists in a universal agent having equilibrium for its supreme law, while its direction is concerned immediately with the great arcanum of transcendental magic... This precisely that which the adepts of the middle ages denominated the first matter of the Great Work. The Gnostics represented it as the fiery body of the Holy Spirit; it was the object of adoration in the secret rites of the Sabbath and the Temple, under the hieroglyphic figure of Baphomet or the Androgyne of Mendes.

He further defined it as such:

The Great Work is, before all things, the creation of man by himself, that is to say, the full and entire conquest of his faculties and his future; it is especially the perfect emancipation of his will.[4]

In Alchemy and Psychology[edit]

The famous Alexandrian alchemist Zosimos described the purpose of alchemy as the perfection of the alchemist such that they could come into contact with the divinity within themselves[5], which in alchemy is represented as the Philosopher's Stone.[6] In daoist alchemy, the accomplishment of the Great Work is called the cultivation of the elixir, and deals with the same idea, which is realization of the innate divine nature within.[7] The daoist alchemical process is meant to take the practitioner from a state of doing to a state of non-doing, in which they can realize their own divine nature.[8] This divine nature is called the Great Ultimate, which signifies a complete totality which lacks nothing and contains everything.[7] In western alchemy, the Great Ultimate is symbolized by the Ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail. This symbol shows the infinite nature of the divine, which has no beginning or end and is in constant change but never loses or gains anything.[6] The path to attainment of the Great Work, or union with the Great Ultimate is described through alchemical metaphor. The physical techniques of transmuting metals, dyes, and alloys in alchemical texts serve as an allegory for internal, psychological processes.[5] The alchemical idea that a metal must be reduced to its most basic form in order to be transmuted into gold is an allegory for the psychological idea that the rigid personality must be broken down to its basic form in order for any transformation of the personality to occur.[5] This idea of first breaking something down and then reconstructing it is also described by the alchemical maxim Solve et Coagula, meaning dissolve and recombine, and it serves as a central tenant of the Great Work.[6] The idea is further reinforced by the alchemical image of the phoenix, which dies and then is reborn from its ashes.[9] Alchemy is known as the art of transformation, and this formula of Solve et Coagula is the underlying formula of transformation. This deals with transformation in the physical world, but it also deals with the transformation of the self. The Solve stage of the work of the transformation of the self occurs when the conscious ego meets the unconscious. The unconscious is much larger than the ego, and because of this the ego begins to dissolve. During this stage of the inner alchemical work, the old, rigid personality ceases to function when it is met with the vastness of the unconscious. This experience can lead to great confusion and fear, in what the alchemists call the phase of Nigredo, or blackness. This period of blackness during which the ego is dissolved is painful, but necessary for any growth to occur. After the ego is broken down through confronting its shadow, it can then be re-formed in a new way, which is represented by the alchemical process Coagula.[9]

There is another perspective of the path to the accomplishment of the Great Work. Whereas the previous perspective deals with duality as a vehicle to transformation of the personality, this perspective deals with the transcendence of duality altogether, in order to unite with the Great Ultimate. The daoists say that the perfection of the Great Ultimate, whose nature is unity, is obscured by Yin and Yang, or duality.[7] Thus, the accomplishment of the Great Work (which is the restoration of the wholeness of the Great Ultimate), occurs from the unification of opposite principles, which are represented in daoism as Yin and Yang.[10] This same idea of the uniting of opposite principles is seen in western alchemy as well, where the attainment of the Great Work is described as the unification between the sulphur (which represents the masculine principle) and salt (which represents the feminine principle). It is also seen in yogic science as well, which describes the unification of the masculine channel for life energy, called the pingala, with the feminine channel, called the ida.[5] In western alchemy this unification of opposites is called coniunctio, which is the alchemical marriage, or union of opposite principles which leads to the creation of the Philosopher's Stone, a metaphor for accomplishing the Great Work.[5] The esoteric, internal meaning of uniting opposites lies in the transcendence of perceived dualities within the psyche. In ego formation, some things are rejected, and pushed into the unconscious, whereas others are accepted and allowed to be a part of the conscious self. Because of this, a split in the psyche occurs, where the Self becomes dissociated from its shadow. The alchemical process is the process of undoing this split by integrating what has become made unconscious with the conscious self, and thus becoming whole. This is the essence of self-realization - the realization that all is a part of the self, and there is nothing outside of the self. It only appears that way because it has been made unconscious.[6] This is the essence of alchemy - the unification of the conscious with the unconscious so that the self can become whole.[9]

In Thelema[edit]

Within Thelema, the Great Work is generally defined as those spiritual practices leading to the mystical union of the Self and the All. Its founder, author and occultist Aleister Crowley re-iterated the idea of the unification of opposites, saying in his book Magick Without Tears:

The Great Work is the uniting of opposites. It may mean the uniting of the soul with God, of the microcosm with the macrocosm, of the female with the male, of the ego with the non-ego."[11]

Although the Great Work can describe specifically the moment of union between the self and the divine, it can also deal with the spiritual process in its entirety. Crowley also speaks on the Great Work as the conscious process of spiritual growth. He Crowley described his own personal Great Work in the introduction to Magick (Book 4):

In my third year at Cambridge, I devoted myself consciously to the Great Work, understanding thereby the Work of becoming a Spiritual Being, free from the constraints, accidents, and deceptions of material existence.[12]

The aspect of conscious devotion to the Great Work is very important.[13] By purposefully, consciously turning inward and choosing to pursue self-realization, the seeker seals themself in their very own vas hermeticum, their very own alchemical vessel. This attitude of deliberate turning within is necessary for the Great Work. By consciously devoting oneself to the Great Work, and therefore sealing oneself within one's own vas hermeticum, the inner heat of psychic struggle which is generated from this aids in the dissolution of ego boundaries and the integration of what is unconscious.[14]

Within the system of the A∴A∴ magical Order the Great Work of the Probationer Grade is considered to be the pursuit of self-knowledge to, as Crowley said in The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, "obtain the knowledge of the nature and powers of my own being."[15] However, Crowley continues, the Great Work should also be something that is integrated into the daily life of all:

I insist that in private life men should not admit their passions to be an end, indulging them and so degrading themselves to the level of the other animals, or suppressing them and creating neuroses. I insist that every thought, word and deed should be consciously devoted to the service of the Great Work. 'Whatsoever ye do, whether ye eat or drink, do all to the glory of God'.[15]

Although Crowley often discussed the idea of "succeeding" or "accomplishing" in the Great Work, he also recognized that the process is ongoing. From his Little Essays Toward Truth:

The Quest of the Holy Grail, the Search for the Stone of the Philosophers—by whatever name we choose to call the Great Work—is therefore endless. Success only opens up new avenues of brilliant possibility. Yea, verily, and Amen! the task is tireless and its joys without bounds; for the whole Universe, and all that in it is, what is it but the infinite playground of the Crowned and Conquering Child, of the insatiable, the innocent, the ever-rejoicing Heir of Space and Eternity, whose name is MAN?[16]

This idea of an endless Great Work is also seen within classic alchemical perspectives. The idea of circumambulation, represented by the Ouroboros (a snake swallowing its own tail), suggests an endless cyclical process of first dissolving and then re-creating the personality, refining it each time. This idea is also seen in depth psychology as it is related to alchemy, where the Self continually, cyclically faces what it has repressed in order to integrate what has been repressed into itself.[17]

The term also appears in the Benediction at the end of Crowley's Gnostic Mass, where the Priest blesses the congregation with the words:

The LORD bring you to the accomplishment of your true Wills, the Great Work, the Summum Bonum, True Wisdom and Perfect Happiness.[12]


  1. ^ Redgrove, Herbert Stanley, Alchemy: Ancient and Modern, Section 43: Bernard Trévisan[permanent dead link], Copyright 1999, by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia
  2. ^ Swan, Theresa (2010). "INCORPORATING ALCHEMY INTO CONTEMPORARY THEORIES OF TRANSFORMATION: TRANSPERSONAL EMBODIMENT THROUGH THE CONIUNCTIO". California Institute of Integral Studies. line feed character in |title= at position 52 (help)
  3. ^ Gupta, Serena (2015). "Fire in the depths of Kundalini yoga and alchemy: A depth psychological guide to transformation". ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.
  4. ^ Lévi, Éliphas (1968). Transcendental Magic: its Doctrine and Ritual. Arthur Edward Waite (trans.) ([Rev. ed.] ed.). London: Rider.
  5. ^ a b c d e Gupta, Serena (2015). "Fire in the depths of Kundalini yoga and alchemy: A depth psychological guide to transformation". ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.
  6. ^ a b c d Swan, Theresa (2010). "INCORPORATING ALCHEMY INTO CONTEMPORARY THEORIES OF TRANSFORMATION: TRANSPERSONAL EMBODIMENT THROUGH THE CONIUNCTIO". California Institute of Integral Studies. line feed character in |title= at position 52 (help)
  7. ^ a b c century., Zhang, Boduan, active 10th century-11th (1987). Understanding reality : a Taoist alchemical classic. Liu, Yiming, 1734-1821., Cleary, Thomas F., 1949-. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0585323855. OCLC 45843050.
  8. ^ Hendrischke, Barbara (2016-12). "New Publications On Daoist Internal Alchemy: Golden Elixir Press". Religious Studies Review. 42 (4): 235–240. doi:10.1111/rsr.12637. ISSN 0319-485X. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  9. ^ a b c Cesarotti, William (2011). "Tending the Fire: The Alchemy of Psychotherapy". ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.
  10. ^ Fabrizio., Pregadio (2005). Great clarity : Daoism and alchemy in early medieval China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-1429415996. OCLC 77000587.
  11. ^ Crowley, Aleister. Magick Without Tears, "Letter C." New Falcon Publications, 1991. ISBN 1-56184-018-1
  12. ^ a b Crowley, Aleister; Mary Desti; Leila. Waddell (2004). Magick:Liber ABA, Book 4, Parts I-IV. Hymenaeus. Beta (ed.). York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser. ISBN 9780877289197.
  13. ^ Gupta, Serena (2015). "Fire in the depths of Kundalini yoga and alchemy: A depth psychological guide to transformation". ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.
  14. ^ Swan, Theresa (2010). "INCORPORATING ALCHEMY INTO CONTEMPORARY THEORIES OF TRANSFORMATION: TRANSPERSONAL EMBODIMENT THROUGH THE CONIUNCTIO". California Institute of Integral Studies. line feed character in |title= at position 52 (help)
  15. ^ a b Crowley, Aleister. The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, Penguin, 1989. ISBN 978-0-14-019189-9
  16. ^ Crowley, Aleister. Little Essays Toward Truth. "Man." New Falcon Publications, 1991. ISBN 1-56184-000-9
  17. ^ Swan, Theresa (2010). "INCORPORATING ALCHEMY INTO CONTEMPORARY THEORIES OF TRANSFORMATION: TRANSPERSONAL EMBODIMENT THROUGH THE CONIUNCTIO". California Institute of Integral Studies. line feed character in |title= at position 52 (help)