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Twelve Operations

 
Some alchemical manuscripts mention twelve operations, although they are not always given in the same order or name. Actually there is only one operation, and that is the purification of the alchemist himself. The different operations are only aspects and different ways of describing this one process.
The twelve operations are sometimes compared with the twelve signs of the Zodiac. The Zodiac is used as a symbol for progression of the Great Work. There is also a connection to the Twelve Labors of Hercules. Hercules is sometimes portrayed in alchemical iconography. The hermetic Philosophers were well versed in Greek mythology, and thus one needs to read up on the stories of these Twelve labors because they are all symbolic for inner, spiritual work that a candidate for the spiritual path needs to undergo.
Here is an example of twelve operations in the Philosophical, that is, the hermetic sense, just to give you an idea about the terminology the alchemists used. The description is taken from the 18th century Dom Pernety's Dictionnaire mytho-hermétique. I am also giving my interpretation of their symbols applied to the spiritual process the hermetic Philosopher or Alchemist goes through.
Calcination: reduction of the bodies to their first principles without destruction of their seed virtues.
When discovering the inner self, like in meditation, this is by very nature a reduction of bodily awareness, and becoming more aware of the more subtle energies that are the foundation of our lives.
Coagulation: the inseparable union of the fixed and the volatile into one mass that is so fixed that it can withstand the most violent fire, and that it can communicate its fixedness to the metals that it transforms.
Although dissolving and coagulation is a cyclic process, coagulation is often taken in terms of the final fixation of the volatile. in other words, the mind has been refined to such an extent, that the awareness of our divine essence has become permanent, it has become so 'fixed' that nothing can throw us off anymore.
Fixation: fixating the volatile is an ongoing process that starts from the moment of Blackness throughout Whiteness, and with Redness fixation has attained its maximum degree.
Fixation is very similar to coagulation, but it is usually taken in the sense of continuous dissolving and fixation from the very beginning to the end. It is becoming ever more aware of our inner mind and divine essence and making it part of our every day life.
Dissolution: the reduction of a body to its primal matter, or elemental principles.
Turning our awareness aware from every life and the physical body towards the inner energies.
Digestion: almost all the operations can be reduced to to the term digestion, because this is what happens during the entire time in the vase. Digestion is basically a term used to make a tincture.
Digestion is transformation from one substance to an other in order to obtain something more useful. Thus the energies encountered in our inner world
Distillation: when the volatile ascends it has in itself the fixed that will fix the volatile afterwards. It is a continuous circulation.
'Fixing' is like holding the awareness. When one becomes aware of the more subtle energies in one mind, by 'distilling' the lower everyday consciousness to more subtle consciousness, one needs to hold this higher awareness.
Sublimation: Purification of the matter by means of dissolution and reduction to its principles. It is a purification and making more subtle of all terrestrial and heterogeneous parts, and giving them a perfection from which they were deprived, or rather to release the chains that kept them in prison and prevented them from growing.
Our everyday consciousness is really very immature and limited to conditioned reflexes, instincts, programs. Therefore it needs to be sublimated, being dissolved to its underlying energies, and purifying them, so they can become perfect, which, in essence they already are, but they were obscured by a lot of imputrites.
Separation: the effect of the dissolution of the body by its solvent. This separation happens when the matter becomes black; then the separation of the elements begin. That blackness changes into vapor; this is the earth that becomes water. That water condenses and falls back onto the earth, and makes it white; that whiteness is the air. After whiteness redness comes, that is air that becomes fire. This separation is not different from the dissolution of the body and the coagulation the spirit.
With meditation, awareness separates itself from the bodily consciousness. The first thing you experience when you close your eyes is blackness. When discovering the inner world at the beginning, their energies are like water compared to earth(=body). When refining your inner world, your experience will become more and more subtle, and the Hermetic Philosophers compared this transition in terms of the elements, from earth to water to air to fire.
Incineration: action where more and more mercury is added to the matter which is becoming sulfur, be it to multiply it, be it to make the perfect elixir.
A term not often used, but applied to the end process, when divine awareness has become totally fixed into the body.
The following three terms relate to a process after the Great Work has been done. It is veiled in very symbolic language, but often it seems that there are talking about physical substances. as very few alchemists have ever completed the Great Work, only they know truly what they are talking about. In general it seems that these adepts are able to use the divine energy and multiply it for the purpose of imbuing other people or substances, for healing and for actual physical transmutation of metals. I am giving you the description from the Dictionnaire mytho-hermétique but as I am not an adept I cannot give you an interpretation.
Fermentation: Which the Philosophers call properly fermentation, is the elixir operation. It does not suffice to complete the big work, to push the work to the red color. The practice of the stone, d' Espagnet tells us, finishes itself by two operations; the first one consists in creating sulfur, the other is about making the elixir, and this last one is done by fermentation. The projection will be in vain if the stone is not fermented. The work at the red color phase is a sulfur or a very subtle earth, very warm and dry; she hides in her interior very abundant natural fire, that has the virtue to open and to penetrate the metal bodies, and to render them similar them to herself; by which it has gotten the name the name of father and of masculine seed. But from this sulfur it is necessary to create a second one, that next will be able to be multiplied into infinity. This sulfur multiplies itself from the same matter of which it has been created, by adding a small part of the first one, and fermenting this all with the red or white yeast, according to the intention of the Artist.
Multiplication: operation of the Great Work during which the powder of projection is being multiplied, be it in quality, or quantity into infinity according to the liking of the Artist. It consists in redoing the already done operation but with more exalted and perfected substances, and not with the previous rough materials. The entire secret, according to a Philosopher, is a physical reduction into mercury and a reduction in its primal matter. to this effect, the philosophers take the matter cooked and prepared by Nature and reduce it into its first matter, or philosophical mercury, from which it was taken.
Projection: The Hermetic Philosophers call their projection powder, a powder which is the result of their Art, that they project in very small quantity onto the imperfect metals in fusion, by means of which they get transmuted in gold or silver, according to the degree of its perfection. One needs to know that in the projection the entire metal on which one projects the powder, will not transmute completely in silver or gold, if the powder was not well purified before it was thrown in the mix.
  

 

Example of different operations:

Operations


An example of different operations, this time there are fourteen:

Tree of Alchemy