Harry Potter and the Alchemy of Love

One of the dominant themes of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is love: romantic love between two characters, platonic love between two friends, parental love between an elder and a child, and inter-species love between a human and a creature or being from another species. Throughout the series, Rowling treats love as a force beyond all others that will always triumph over evil. Within the alchemical process, key stages of the work, such as the rubedo or the coniunctio, symbolize the union between gold and silver to produce the Philosopher’s Stone, similar to Carl Jung’s outline for the process of individuation. The theme of love in Harry Potter is emphasized between the contrast between Harry and his arch-nemesis, Lord Voldemort, who is completely unable to love. The entire story parallels The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz, a Renaissance allegorical story that symbolically describes the separation and spiritual death in preparation for the divine union. The Philosopher’s Stone in both cases is the experience, psychic, spiritual or otherwise, of the reader, strengthened by Harry’s defeat of Voldemort’s horcrux, made possible by the energy of love in his life.

“The alchemical mysteries of marriage involve the metaphorical transformation of molecular compounds, which are reduced to bare elements, and then reunited to produce the philosopher’s stone” (Smith 86). The process of transformation parallels the mythological hero’s journey: The elements of the prima materia are separated from each other, and then are thrown through the ordeal of the opus, or experimentation trying to unite substances that will produce something new, and then the boon of the perfect union and rebirth as the philosopher’s stone.

To understand why the coniunctio holds such transformative energies, I begin with the story of love described by Plato in his Symposium: Once upon a time, humans were ball-shaped with four arms and legs and two faces. There were three types of people, each corresponding to a heavenly body: male of the Sun, woman of the Earth and androgynous of the Moon. One day, the ball people decided to attack the gods, who retaliated by splitting them apart, leaving them with two arms and legs and one face. The goal of humans has since been to find the lost genuine companionship, or popularly known as "soul mates," so ancient is this desire it “is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature” (Plato 27). Thus, love is an essential part of the human experience and a catalyst for wholeness.

The psychoanalytic revolution defines the wholeness of love as a union of unconsciousness and consciousness. Carl Jung defines the love-center of the psyche as anima/animus. The anima is the unconscious feminine aspects of a man, the masculine aspects of a woman, or the appropriate aspects of a transgendered individual. The key is that it is the opposite masculine/feminine identity of one’s conscious masculine/feminine identity. Without proper guidance into the psyche, the unconscious projects itself into our conscious world. Because of these projections, the energies inherent in the unconscious are transferred onto the person or object, temporarily becoming equated with it. Transference is temporary, according to Jung, because eventually the conscious will awaken to the unconscious, and the wily energies can be kept under control. The anima/animus is seeking the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage of opposites: male/female, conscious/unconscious, Sol/Luna, symbolized in alchemy by the coniunctio. This is an essential part of the individuation process or hero’s quest, because without it, psychic forces can remain out of control or the Philosopher’s Stone as a psychic boon will never be purified.

Before the opus can get to the coniunctio, the prima materia must first be isolated. For Harry Potter, as he is our literary prima materia, this involves separating him from his non-magical ("muggle"), mundane existence. Initially, the "prima materia [is] thought of as a composite, a confused mixture of undifferentiated and contrary components requiring a process of separation" (Edinger 183). To isolate and purify its components, the prima materia undergoes a separatio. The chemical components that make up a substance provide complexity; the separatio provides simplicity, a sort of tabula rasa on which to project the work. The mythic hero must be separated from his or her homeland in order to fulfill the hero’s task and find the boon. For the reader or participant engaged with the myth, this literary separation is housed within the psyche, crucial to fulfilling the psychological need of the hero’s journey. Harry’s journey from the muggle to magical world each school year symbolizes the separation all individuals undergo during the course of individuation. At the end of each foray into the psyche, the individual must return to the real world, until the opportunity arises that they can permanently enter the magical world, i.e., they can follow their bliss without the threats of a "schizophrenic crack-up" (Campbell, "Hero’s").

Once the factors are isolated, the prima materia then undergoes a mortificatio, a death that removes any lingering ties to its original form and forces it into a liminal state of being and non-being. Edward Edinger associates this with the first stage of the "coloring process," the nigredo, or blackening (147). This spiritual death is more intense than the separatio, because it prevents the prima materia from reverting to its original state. This is necessary prior to the coniunctio because the contamination of original substances can prevent a successful union with new substances. This is played out beautifully at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Harry, on the threshold of his greatest adventure to date, breaks up with his girlfriend, Ginny Weasley, because he needs to concentrate on saving the Wizarding world for “some stupid, noble reason” (Rowling, Half 646). They are prevented from being together because of Lord Voldemort and the trail of horcruxes he has left behind. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows follows Harry through his horcrux hunt. Beginning with the fourth book of the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry witnesses a death of someone important. In Deathly Hallows, he has to experience his own death – relatively late in the game – to achieve the necessary degree of maturity in order for the mortificatio to take.

The remainder of the "coloring process," the albedo and rubedo, help transition the newly blackened prima materia into the coniunctio. The entire process is played out in the "King’s Cross” chapter of Deathly Hallows:

Voldemort challenges Harry to face him in the Forbidden Forest away from his friends and supporters. This is one of Harry’s many separatios: he is separated from all things with which he both consciously and unconsciously identifies himself. His separation is further accented by opening the Golden snitch, a small, winged golden ball used in the sport, Quidditch. The Golden Snitch is Harry’s Cosmic Egg, "the alchemist’s vessel of transmutation in which the birth of the Philosopher’s Stone takes place," because his first awakening occurred when he realized he had extra-special flying abilities (Abraham qtd. in Granger 98). Inside the ball, Dumbledore hid a ring that could temporarily resurrect the dead. Among the resurrected were Harry’s parents and father-figures. Their ghastly presence foreshadows the liminality Harry must experience as he advances through his mortificatio/nigredo.

When he confronts Voldemort, Harry is struck with the killing curse, avada kedavra, described as instant death by blinding green light (fire). Harry finds himself in a liminal state that resembles London’s King’s Cross station, his threshold between the muggle and magical worlds, thus making King’s Cross a threshold between life and death. There is an ugly baby-like thing crying in pain, and Harry’s dead professor, Albus Dumbledore, is sitting nearby. The ugly baby-thing is a piece of Voldemort’s soul lodged within Harry’s psyche, a dark pollutant that Harry needs to absorb and acknowledge in order to release him from its powers. The nigredo is associated with death because the blackness resembles rot. Dumbledore’s name, Albus, is derived from the same root word as albedo and the cleansing he provides Harry during this final conversation between the two is Harry’s albedo. Harry learns from Dumbledore that he has the power to choose to live because of the nature of his death as a willing sacrifice to save his friends. The option to choose is made possible because of the horcrux Harry did not realize he carried. As long as Harry lives, the piece of soul lives. Harry is faced with a cross road option, similar to the alchemical symbol of the cross, which Carl Jung describes as a symbol for wholeness: "Submission to a fundamental contrariety of human nature amounts to an acceptance of the fact that the psyche is at cross purposes with itself. Alchemy teaches that the tension is fourfold, forming a cross which stands for the four warring elements" (Jung 143). Harry’s dilemma is to live or die. He has suffered his whole life because of Voldemort; however, he also has grown into the hero figure by necessity of his connection to him. Harry realizes that dying, while "the next great adventure," would give Voldemort the upper hand in the fight (Rowling, Sorcerer 297). The death of the hero means the death of ego and consciousness, and thus the shadow (Voldemort) would have power in the conscious sphere: Campbell’s projected "schizophrenic crack-up." The alchemical quarternity manifests in this chapter as King’s Cross represents the meeting point between the cross roads of Harry and the cross roads of Dumbledore as they manifest in Harry’s psyche. Harry, as well as readers of his adventure, not only have to sort out Harry’s liminality, but also Dumbledore’s. This is his final goodbye.[1] Harry chooses to live, but Voldemort’s soul dies. Harry’s rubedo involves the integration of this psychic connection to Voldemort, then letting the piece of soul go.

Similarly, the adventure of Christian Rosencreutz involves separation, mortificatio, and nigredo. One day, after prayers, Christian Rosencreutz receives an invitation to a royal wedding by way of a vision of a woman standing on a globe, surrounded by stars and animals, holding a golden trumpet and several envelopes. Christian, not wanting to miss such an opportunity, leaves his house, headed for the castle where the wedding is to be held. It should be noted that the outfit he dons for the wedding is full of red and white. He arrives at the castle, and is led about by a Virgin. This same Virgin weighs all the guests of the wedding and selects Christian for marriage and a banquet is held in his honor, with gold and silver dishes. After a day of exploring the castle and some evening theatrics, he follows the Virgin into a great hall, where he watches funerary preparations for six beheaded people. He follows the pallbearers into the lower area of the castle and finds a strange vault, inside of which is a tomb of a dead King and Queen covered with mysterious inscriptions. They lead him back up and onto a ship flying twelve flags representing the signs of the zodiac and he is married. Then, the wedding party took the Order of the Golden Stone, thus becoming Knights of the Golden Stone.

Christian, the prima materia, must first be broken down. In its initial state, the prima materia is “thought of as a composite, a confused mixture of undifferentiated and contrary components requiring a process of separation” (Edinger 183). This can be done by water, by fire, or by any other transformative method that can separate the pieces from the whole. In Christian’s case, he receives a wedding invitation. An element is isolated to undergo the work (Christian is selected for the wedding) and the opus, the alchemical work¸ can get underway. This element is exposed to all the natural elements, especially fire, water, and air, to temper and purify it before it is combined with other elements. While the processes themselves have their own names, this can be summed up by the “coloring process” of nigredo, albedo and rubedo. The nigredo is the blackening process, and is often associated with death, rot, and burning by fire. This stage alters the prima materia so greatly that it is no longer able to return to its original state. The albedo, or whitening, is a cleansing and a purification process that washing away all of the soot and grime of the nigredo. The rubedo is the infusion of life, associated with blood or sulphur, into the white element to resurrect it and product the Philosopher’s Stone (which can be either red or gold). In the allegory of Christian, it is necessary for him to participate in the funeral in order for his original state to die (nigredo). His return to the surface and to the ships cleanses him and washes away the decay (albedo). The rubedo is often associated with a marriage, pictured as the marriage between Sol (sun) and Luna (moon), the White King (Christian) and Red Queen (princess), sulphur and quicksilver. This union will produce the philosopher’s stone, which is allegorized as a hermaphrodite.

Love is a necessary emotion for all humans because it connects people with each other. The first experience of a child is, usually, the love of the mother. Harry Potter lived with his mother one year before her death and is therefore capable of love, but he never experienced it while living with his foster parents, the Dursleys. Because of his cruel upbringing, Harry is able to distinguish behavior because he never appreciated the cruelty of the Dursleys. On the other hand, Voldemort’s mother suffered from strong animus transference, such that she died shortly after Voldemort was born of a broken heart. Her heart was entwined with a neighbor who refused to acknowledge her existence. She bewitched him into loving her and kept him under the spell for almost a year, a dangerous amount of time to keep one under enchantment. She releases him from the spell, and he is so appalled, he leaves her pregnant and refuses to speak to hear, possibly forgetting what occurred when they were together. She, however, in her delusion, was convinced that he learned to love her and would stay with her, and if not, then he would stay for their child. When her plan backfired, she carried the child to term, and left him at an orphanage, and died. Voldemort was unable to learn to love.

J.K. Rowling gives Harry a special power, the "power of love" that protects him from harm, especially by Lord Voldemort, who is incapable of understanding love. This power comes from a deeply magical protection placed on Harry when his mother sacrificed herself to protect him from Voldemort. Harry later repeats this when he likewise sacrifices himself for his schoolmates and teachers. The scene of his sacrifice helps exemplify the alchemical process, although the entire series is full of such incarnations; this paper doesn’t allow time to cover them all. After returning to the world of the living, Harry, still believed dead, is carried to the battlefield in front of Hogwarts. Voldemort attempts to curse one of Harry’s classmates, but he is unharmed, as are other targets of curses. At a crucial moment, Harry jumps up, alive, and rallies his classmates and professors. The battle continues, and Harry and Voldemort dual one-on-one. None of the good side is harmed while several Death Eaters are. One-by-one, contaminating elements, Death Eaters, are removed from the process, until only Harry and his arch-nemesis remain. Harry turns Voldemort’s curse back on himself, killing him, and leaving Harry is free to love without constraint. The Epilogue of the seventh book shows Harry as an average father, married to his true love, sending his middle son off to school for the first time. His coniunctio is represented literally by his marriage to Ginny Weasley. Harry advanced from Plato and the separation to lovers, Rowling brings them together, skipping over most of the unnecessary romance in favor of Harry’s epic adventure.

The coniunctio brings together two different substances to create something beautiful. The first substance, the prima materia undergoes a strenuous process of purification before the coniunctio can be initiated. The second substance is brought into the coniunctio already purified. The stories of Harry Potter and Christian Rosencreutz exemplify the alchemical process, emphasizing that transformation does not come easy. The transformative process ushers a person into a new state, often of wholeness and fulfillment, symbolized in alchemical literature as the Philosopher’s Stone, which is believed to give its possessor infinite life and wealth. As a symbol for a psychological or mythological process, the Philosopher’s Stone is equated with the goal of the individuation process or the hero’s journey. This approach is sometimes discounted because the psychological approach purports to reconcile the ego with the unconscious, both personal and collective. As Titus Burkhart argues, “[t]he alchemist’s ‘fountain of youth’ in no wise springs from an obscure psychic substratum; it flows from the same source as the Spirit” (9). Similarly, John Granger, a noted Potter-scholar, describes alchemy as “the means, in conjunction with the Mysteries of the Church … that [the alchemist] could regain [his lost spiritual] capacity; the substance changing from lead to gold was his soul and the riches he would glean were spiritual riches” (50-51).

Regardless of whether the images of alchemy come from a psychological or a spiritual realm, the projection onto the opus comes after the manual manipulation of chemicals. That alchemy can be interpreted in a modern sense as a primarily psychological or spiritual process is a testament to the disparity between the spirituality and the science. The story of Harry Potter demonstrates that there are multiple perspectives to any story, and all are equally valid in a given situation. The series is told from his perspective and often his adventures occur because he misunderstood his own perspective without exploring others.

Love is both a psychological and a spiritual process. In order for love to succeed, one has to have a degree of self-love as well as a connection with the other party. The alchemical process gives us both: It can be seen as a pathway towards self love and individuation, but it also fuses together the two parties. Love cannot restore Plato’s globular people, but it can instill the same emotional response. Harry Potter’s story shows the process leading up to the coniunctio, while Christian Rosencreutz takes the experience to its culmination with the creation of the hermaphrodite, who is as complete and fulfilled as Plato’s original people. Achieving the Philosopher’s Stone is a life-long dream that may never be attained, but once it is, it is only the starting point.

Works cited

  • Burckhardt, Titus. Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul. Louisville: Fons Vitae, 1997.
  • Edinger, Edward F. Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy. La Salle: Open Court, 1985.
  • Granger, John. Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader. Wayne: Zossima P, 2007.
  • “The Hero’s Adventure.” Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. PBS. 1988. DVD. Wellspring Media, 2005.
  • Jung, C.G. The Psychology of Transference. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. New York: Bollingen, 1966.
  • Plato. Symposium. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989.
  • Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic, 2007.
  • —–. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2005.
  • —–. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1997.
  • Smith, Evans Lansing. Sacred Mysteries: Myths About Couples in Quest. Nevada City: Blue Dolphin, 2003.
  • Yates, Frances A. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. London: Routledge, 1972.

[1] Few of the fans wanted to acknowledge his death, despite Rowling’s comments that dead is dead. This chapter serves as a final goodbye.

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