“Alchemy As Autobiography”
“The Fundamentals of Alchemy”

Janet Muff, MSN, RN

MARCH 2020

Teresa Oster MSW, MS, CJSSF board member

There are many alchemical texts. What drew you to ‘converse’ so many years with the Atalanta fugiens text and it’s fifty emblems or images?

JANET MUFF: I plan to answer this question in my evening presentation on “Alchemy as Autobiography.” But the background story is that C. G. Jung was never mentioned in the psychiatric nursing department at Columbia University where I got my graduate degree; the focus there was strictly on Freud and ego psychology. So, given my background in nursing/medicine, when I first learned about Jung I thought that his interest in alchemy and flying saucers was way off the grid. Way off! What changed my mind and how the Atalanta fugiens insinuated itself into my life is part of the story I’ll tell. The other part will be how studying alchemy has shaped my understanding of human nature and why I think it’s so relevant, not just for psychology, but for life.


What do you mean by your being “in conversation with” this material?

JANET MUFF: By being ‘in conversation” I mean that the Atalanta fugiens (and other alchemical manuscripts to a lesser extent) are always present for me. It’s hard to get away from them when you’re teaching four seminars on alchemy, but that’s another story. The images and ideas are so much a part of my inner “card catalog” that they show up spontaneously when I’m talking with patients, pondering family issues, watching the news, and so forth. In the middle of whatever’s happening, an image will come to mind and I’ll think, “Oh, I see. This (whatever it is) is related to Emblem 27.” The arrival of the image orients me to the dynamics and the possible meaning of whatever’s happening. In this situation, alchemy brings understanding to something in my life. And it works the other way too. Something will happen in my life, or I’ll observe something or read something, and will realize that this sheds new light on one of the Emblems, allows me to see it in a new way, gives it a new meaning. It’s a continual dialectic process.


Why are images and metaphors key to working with alchemical texts?

JANET MUFF: Alchemy itself is a metaphor for what happens in human nature. The Psyche and the body function alchemically and they speak in an alchemical language. But we haven’t learned to think in those terms. We think of alchemy as some sort of esoteric pseudo-science that disappeared because “real” science emerged and claimed its territory. It doesn’t occur to us that alchemy is happening all day, every day in our reactions, appetites, emotions, longings, dreams and so forth. Wherever there’s a dynamic, there’s alchemy. And about alchemical images: the manuscripts that make up the major alchemical canon all have images; that’s what draws people to them. No one wants to sit down and read a bunch of stuff that doesn’t make sense. But when you look at an alchemical image, if you have a sense of what alchemy is about, then often you’ll see the correspondence with what’s happened in your life. It’ll be very familiar. It helps to orient you, to locate you in a particular process.


Did your early work as an RN influence your interest in alchemical ‘medicine’?

JANET MUFF: As I said above, my nursing background had a negative influence. I thought the whole alchemical thing was bogus and a real mistake on Jung’s part. Had I known more about his descent in those early days, or caught a glimpse of the images from the Red Book, I’d have gone scurrying back to safe ego-psychology territory. It took the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and time spent in the school of hard knocks to give me an experience of alchemy and a profound appreciation for its value.


You were born in India, an ancient culture. Has that background affected your interest in alchemy?

JANET MUFF: Oh, this is a big question, and the best way to answer it is with stories and pictures. If someone were to ask me this during a presentation, we’d take a detour. I’d tell them about a dream several years ago that brought together my childhood home in India, the 19th Emblem of the Atalanta fugiens, and music. I’d explain that the people in my Thursday evening seminar spent more than six months working on that emblem and that dream. Not because I planned it that way, but because the door opened to a huge imagination and we all went down the slippery slope. Or I’d tell them about being in the bathtub a couple of months ago and looking up at the few photos I have from my childhood, hanging on the wall there, and realizing with a shock the alchemical significance of one of them. I’ve lived in this house for 41 years. Those photos have been there all this time. I see them every night because my nightly bath is a religious event. So, how could I not have noticed that? So to answer your question: my time in India hasn’t affected my interest in alchemy; it generates its own alchemy. India shaped me. It’s in my cells, my heart, and my imagination. When the cells are doing whatever cells do, and when the heart is beating and the imagination is active, then alchemy is happening. So, the India “material” in me is always being worked and is always releasing images and new ways of understanding things.


Would you say that alchemy is meant to be personal work, the struggle of individuation? You mention eros and enmity in your description of the workshop.

JANET MUFF: The dynamics of life are the alchemical process happening all day long. We can understand alchemy only though our own personal experiences, not from reading books. And yes, I mentioned eros and enmity. There are more “fires” in alchemy than we can count, but the most important ones – the ones that get the alchemical process going – are eros and enmity. Love and hate come rushing into our lives, upsetting our equanimity, inviting all sorts of shadow shenanigans, and changing us in ways we’d never have imagined. That’s alchemy.

What I haven’t said here is that I plan to give a drive-by version of the Atalanta fugiens sequence so that people can see the process unfold. First Maier (the author) sets up the archetypal opposites that are behind the whole alchemical process. Then, to keep you from getting carried away, he reminds you to keep your day job. Then the fires of eros and enmity that have been building in the background put in an appearance and your life gets completely disrupted. After that you’re doing ups and downs; you want to move forward but something holds you back. Because your ground’s been given a good shake, all the stuff that’s been buried there begins to emerge and you have a decision to make: will you take the exploration further or not. It’s a very common story. We’ve all been through it, probably countless times. But it helps to see the pictures and hear the story.


Why was alchemy so important to Jung?

JANET MUFF: From the Jung’s epilogue to Liber Novus, (The Red Book) 1959:
“I worked on this book for 16 years. My acquaintance with alchemy in 1930 took me away from it. To the superficial observer [The Red Book] will appear like madness. It would also have developed into one, had I not been able to absorb the overpowering force of the original experiences. With the help of alchemy, I could finally arrange them into a whole.”


Who are some of your favorite Jungian colleagues who have also written and presented on alchemy?

JANET MUFF: Personal friends: Joe McNair, Stan Marlan, Gus Cwik and many, many writers.

Headshot of Janet Muff, MSN, RN, Jungian Analyst

Janet Muff, MSN, RN, is a senior analyst and faculty member of the C. G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles and of the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts. She has been studying the Atalanta Fugiens for more than twenty years. Through the two-way “conversation” that has developed during that time, the events in her life have brought understanding and meaning to this alchemical manuscript and, in return, the manuscript has brought understanding and meaning to her life and analytic work.


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c/o Richard Chappell
20533 Biscayne Blvd Ste 104
Aventura, FL 33180-1529

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As a Not-For-Profit organization we exist because of the generosity of our friends, volunteers and donors. None of the work that we do would be possible without you.