So I was telling someone about my courses, and I was talking about the Black Work phase, and they asked me if it was Black Magic. I was surprised, because I am so into my own way of seeing things, so immersed in my way of talking about the Great Work that I didn't even see that there was a correlation between the name of my course and Black Magic.
I'm pretty sure my regular subscribers will know, but for any recent additions to the blog, here's a little intro:
When performing the Great Work, alchemists began with raw materials and began refining them through a variety of different processes. The raw materials could be ore containing a precious metal, or chemicals that needed to be refined to be put to industrial use, or they might be plant or animal tissues. No matter what the original material or the processes used, the first stuff they started with, or Prime Materia, underwent a process of dissolving (solve) and then reforming into something else more refined (coagula). Lavanah has been doing a series of Spagyrical (plant alchemy) extraction of the essences of planetary herbs, which can be found at Practically Magic.
Alchemists used "wet" and "dry" methods. Some were immersing the material in strong acids that dissolved it, then reconstituting it through chemical processes. Others set the Prime Materia aside in a controlled environment and then observed it as it decomposed. Others used pure heat at varying temperatures for extended periods of time. As the Prime Materia changed, the Alchemists observed the metamorphosis and recorded their results. They compared notes, and found that four main stages could be identified and classified (generally) according to the color the Prime Materia changed during the process, regardless of the methods used.
The Prime Material would first turn black, as the impurities rose to the surface. Metal oxidized, plants decayed and grew black molds, and when you burn something, the first color it turns is black. This is the Black Work. It's the beginning of the transformation process.
Then the Prime Materia turned white as the carbon turned to ash, or white mold began growing on decaying things. The impurities were refined, dissolved down to their core essence.
Next, the Prime Materia went through a quick succession of color changes, ranging from blue to green like a peacock's tail feather. This is the Green Work. If you heat copper slowly to lower temperatures and then let it cool, you can see it go through the green phase. Higher temperatures yield a dark red. Pretty cool.
Finally, the Prime Materia would turn red, entering the Red Phase. This is the final product, the creation of the Philosopher's Stone. This final material would then be ground up and used.
If you can find a medieval recipe for making red paint out of cinnabar (mercury sulfide), you'll see that it goes through all the color stages of the Work. Some alchemists didn't recognize the Green Work as a separate stage of the Work, and others didn't end up with a red-colored Stone as their final product, but the phases stuck and they work as a classification tool for people performing the metaphorical, esoteric Great Work using themselves as the Prime Materia and Magic to perform the refinement process.
The Great Work of the Alchemists may look like a labratory and a scientist puttering away, but these guys weren't just interested in the chemical process and refined Stone. They were performing these experiments in a spiritual context, looking to find in the natural processes the true manifest Laws of God, and by so doing become closer to him. At each stage of the Work, the Alchemist was observing the transformation of the Prime Materia. As they observed the processes in the controlled environment, and the changes that the materia underwent, they found that they too underwent a purification process by proxy. Just seeing the Prime Materia get refined caused changes in themselves, brought understanding that could be applied to all areas of their life, and made them wise in the workings of the manifest realm.
So there's nothing "black magic" about the Black phase of the Work. It's the beginning of the process, is all.
[Edit: I just read Jow's most recent post on Natural Philosophy, and I think it helps explain what the Great Work is all about. The Great Work is a facet of the thing he's talking about, and the steps we go through in our magical Hermetic approach, or interpretation, are going to result in the same kind of exploration and discovery. Jow's post helps put the Alchemical Work in context.]