Magnum opus

Magnum opus

Magnum opus (sometimes Opus magnum, plural magna opera), from the Latin meaning great work, refers to the best, the greatest, most popular, or most renowned achievement of an author, artist, or composer.

The term is also used in several spiritual traditions, such as Qabalah, Thelema, and alchemy, with a complex meaning that mainly refers to the philosopher's stone.

In alchemy

The Great Work (Latin: Magnum opus) is a term which originated in medieval European alchemy which refers to the successful completion of the transmutation of base matter into gold or the creation of the philosopher's stone. It has subsequently been used as a metaphor for spiritual transformation in the Hermetic tradition. Its three stages are:

  • nigredo(-putrefactio), blackening(-putrefaction): individuation, purification, burnout of impureness; see also Suns in alchemy - Sol Niger
  • albedo, whitening: spiritualisation, enlightenment
  • rubedo, reddening: unification of man with god, unification of the limited with the unlimited.

In Kabbalah (Qabalah)

The term "great work" does not exist in classic Kabbalistic texts such as the Zohar or Sepher Yetzirah. However, the concept appears in the writings of Kabbalists throughout the Renaissance:

Do not pray for your own needs, for your prayer will not then be accepted. But when you want to pray, do so for the heaviness of the Head. For whatever you lack, the Divine Presence also lacks.

This is because man is a "portion of God from on high." Whatever any part lacks, also exists in the Whole, and the Whole feels the lack of the part, You should therefore pray for the needs of the Whole. (from a disciple of the Kabbalist R. Israel Baal Shem Tov)

In Hermeticism

Eliphas Levi (1810-1875), one of the first modern ceremonial magicians and predecessor to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, discussed the Great Work at length. He defined it as such:

The Great Work is, before all things, the creation of man by himself, that is to say, the full and entire conquest of his faculties and his future; it is especially the perfect emancipation of his will.

In Thelema

Within Thelema, the Great Work is generally defined as those spiritual practice leading to the mystical union of the Self and the All—"The Great Work is the uniting of opposites. It may mean the uniting of the soul with God, of the microcosm with the macrocosm, of the female with the male, of the ego with the non-ego. According to Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), this is first represented by what he called the "Knowledge and Conversation with the Holy Guardian Angel. From another perspective, he also considered the Great Work to be the pursuit of self-knowledge, to "obtain the knowledge of the nature and powers of my own being." Although Crowley often discussed the idea of "succeeding" or "accomplishing" in the Great Work, he also recognized that the process is ongoing:

The Quest of the Holy Grail, the Search for the Stone of the Philosophers—by whatever name we choose to call the Great Work—is therefore endless. Success only opens up new avenues of brilliant possibility. Yea, verily, and Amen! the task is tireless and its joys without bounds; for the whole Universe, and all that in it is, what is it but the infinite playground of the Crowned and Conquering Child, of the insatiable, the innocent, the ever-rejoicing Heir of Space and Eternity, whose name is MAN?


Although to be true to the Latin, the plural of magnum opus would be magna opera and is likely to be preferred by traditionalists, many dictionaries such as the OED regard magnum opuses as quite acceptable.

See also



  • Crowley, Aleister. Magick: Book 4. 2nd ed. York Beach, Me. : S. Weiser, 1997.
  • ____ Magick Without Tears. Phoenix, AZ : Falcon Press, 1992.
  • ____ Liber CXCVII. Sir Palamedes the Saracen Knight In: "A poetic account of the Great Work and enumeration of many obstacles."
  • Levi, Eliphas. Dogme et rituel de la haute magie, published in English as Transcendental Magic. A.E. Waite, trans.
  • Thelemapedia. The Great Work., 2004. Retrieved April 14, 2006.

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