Okay, time for a light hearted analysis of the stages of alchemy using cooking as an analogy. I don’t intend to enter the debate of whether cooking IS or ISN’T alchemy, as an article by Gordon on ‘Rune Soup’ did, because I value E-Prime and consider such arguments essentially a meaningless waste of time that achieves nothing.
Instead I intend to look at the three main stages of the Great Work, Nigredo, Albedo and Rubido. In this article I concentrate on the Nigredo. From the wikipedia article on Nigredo:
Nigredo, or blackness, in alchemy means putrefaction or decomposition. The alchemists believed that as a first step in the pathway to the philosopher’s stone all alchemical ingredients had to be cleansed and cooked extensively to a uniform black matter.
When we approach cooking for the first time, and I mean real cooking, not just sticking some pre-made thing in a microwave, grill or oven, I mean making things yourselves from raw ingredients, we will inevitably make mistakes and burn our food to a cinder. Hell we might still do that with pre-made dishes too. I remember a time an office I was working had to be evacuated because some bright spark left his microwave curry on for too long causing the fire brigade to pay an unexpected visit. No, I was not that bright spark. I did once melt a plastic tray over a chicken because I didn’t realise it wasn’t microwave safe though…
No, it doesn’t look pretty, it tends to disappoint and you can end up choking on too much smoke, but burning things to a state of crispy blackness, exploding things and filling rooms up with the resulting fumes pretty much sums up the nigredo stage of alchemy.
Why? Well to start with the alchemist in this stage lacks knowledge of themselves, and their subject. They need to experiment and make mistakes. They need to try things out, get dirty and basically let loose and have fun. Discover themselves. Some experiments will of course end in smoke, coughing, blackened faces, inedible black lumps and disaster, but others will go alright, some even delight. Through this process of the black work, we discover ourselves, as cooks, alchemists or pretty much anything else really. We face our fear of the unknown, break through the barriers of ‘I am not (good at) this’ and ‘I don’t know if I can do this’ with the battering ram of ‘I will have a go anyway’, and open up whole new experiences of life for ourselves.
Hopefully all the fun of the black stage doesn’t become too addictive, and the alchemist/cook begins to avoid repeating their errors over and over and becomes more familiar with how to achieve those things they truly desire. When they begin to understand that, they progress to the albedo…