Alchemical Cycle Logo Master's Thesis:
The Elements as an Archetype of Transformation:
An Exploration of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire

| Table of Contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Appendix A | Appendix B | Appendix C | References | Bibliography

Chapter 1 – Introduction and Background to the Study

“It is by virtue of the constitution of the human soul that questions of knowledge arise when the outer world is perceived.  In the soul’s own impulse to question lies the power to penetrate the perceived world in such a way that it, together with the soul’s activity, brings the reality of the perceived world to manifestation.” – Rudolf Steiner

Situations or events which are undergoing some type of transformation 1 are numberless – indeed, it appears that nothing manifest is exempt from transformation.  The whole extent of the physical universe seems to be in continual flux at every scale, from the very largest scale to the smallest.  But transformation is just as prevalent in the inner world, both from second to second as well as over a whole lifetime.  The absence of truly static situations is a powerful indicator of the dynamism of the universe, but because this dynamism crosses all scales and boundaries, it begs the question: is there an underlying pattern to this transformation, or does transformation actually occur in a variety of ways which share no deeper similarity other than the simple fact of the transformation itself?  In other words, if there are a variety of “laws” which describe accurately transformative events within specific fields, do these laws themselves work according to a higher level of patterning?

The alchemical tradition of the West provides a useful starting point from which to address this question, because the entire discipline revolves around understanding and producing transformation.  The discipline of alchemy is unique in that its development has explicitly dealt with transformation both in the outer physical world as well as the inner, non-physical world of the alchemist’s own soul and consciousness.  By seeking to transform base metals into higher forms, alchemists had to observe outer nature very carefully, with an eye for every subtle change in a substance or process.  The alchemical literature is replete with admonishments to studiously observe the minutest transformations, lest a crucial stage be missed and the work destroyed.  On the other hand, this careful and pain-staking training with respect to the outer world was accompanied by a corresponding awareness of the alchemist’s own inner process of transformation.  It was noted that the processes taking place in the outer physical world within the alembics, pelicans, crucibles, and retorts, corresponded to changes in the alchemist’s own consciousness, and that the techniques used to transform physical substances had exact analogues to equally effective techniques for inner transformation.

Over time, metaphors were developed which explicitly linked the inner and outer transformations, and they often became the basis for the entire teaching of alchemy.  The alchemical language is obscure 2 precisely because it is a language of metaphor; and not simply that, but a language of transformation of those metaphors.    Certainly the process of symbol creation occasionally resulted in obscurantism, but it would be remiss to discard entirely the potential wisdom of the field without first gaining the capacity to distinguish between its ripe and spoiled fruits. 

As Jung so clearly pointed out, these fruits are its metaphors.  They are powerful because their development occurred not solely out of the particular inner life of individual alchemists, but were, in the best fashion of modern science, transmitted and verified externally by the experiments of other alchemists.  At the same time, the alchemists were able to work with the metaphors on an inner level, in which a different sort of verification could take place.  This dual-testing (both inner and outer) led to an understanding that transformations could be characterized accurately by a well-developed metaphorical and visual language, and followed predictable patterns that led through various stages.  Metaphors, in this sense, are like active powers containing symbolic energies by which real transformations can be affected (imagine the power of a country’s flag, for instance).

One of the most powerful metaphors developed by the alchemists in order to understand how situations transform can be found in that of the alchemical “elements”: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. 3  These four elements formed the foundation for the experimental work of the alchemist, and are at first glance eminently practical categories for classifying the various states of matter: solid, liquid, gas, and what we would now call plasma – but this is a modern usage.  A more appropriate understanding recognizes the elements as more akin to forces or powers rather than simply as states of being.  As powers, the elements also related to the inner soul state in which the alchemist successively and repeatedly had to place him or herself in order to successfully complete the “Great Work” – known as the philosopher’s stone.  This philosopher’s stone is a metaphor – which means that it has both an inner and outer reality, neither of which can be taken for granted or understood exclusively.  The development of the philosopher’s stone could only occur through a refinement of the initially untransformed base material of the world – the “prima materia” or black earth, which is simultaneously the alchemist’s own psyche, both conscious and unconscious (Jung, 1967, 1978, 1993) 4, as well as the actual underlying physicality of all the world’s substances.  The prima materia cannot be apprehended directly, but can be fruitfully approached through its manifestation as the four elements, understood qualitatively and archetypally.  As Titus Burckhardt states, “The four elements are simply the primary, and most general, qualities by means of which the amorphous and purely quantitative substance of all bodies first reveals itself in differentiated form.” (Burckhardt, 1967 p. 66)  Within each element the prima materia rests, acting as the inner potential whose activation transforms and purifies the elements into the philosopher’s stone.  Nature, for many alchemists, is at first the uncompleted work of the divine principle, asleep to itself, unable to express its innate divinity (the Gospel of John states that the Logos was “in the world, for the world came into being through it, yet the world did not recognize it”).   The role of the alchemist is then to help in the fulfillment of nature’s potential through the purification of the prima materia of the alchemist’s own soul as well as through actual physical manipulations.  The inner and outer processes are mutually inclusive transformative cognates of each other, and proceed simultaneously. 

The four elements signify the qualitative modes of manifestation that occur along this path, representing “the stages in various processes of growth and transformation.” (Opsopaus, 1998)  As Aristotle indicated with his theory of the elemental cycle, they are linked in a continuous spiral of refinement, from Earth to Water to Air to Fire to a New Earth.  These signposts can be of great use when trying to understand how one event is linked to what came before and after it, because it can provide a context in which the underlying tendencies within the process of manifestation itself occur.  Because the cycle of the elements is an expression of an archetype, it can provide a useful template to understand how change happens in a variety of situations, and can help structure our consciousness so as to align more harmoniously with the underlying archetype of lawful change.  In other words, the elemental cycle facilitates a practical understanding of transformation by putting us in contact with its inner laws, thus enabling effective and efficient action in situations that might otherwise be experienced as confusing, static, or unstable.

Thus, in seeking a way into the original question concerning patterns inherent within transformation, this study explores the workings of the alchemical mandala of the elements Earth, Water, Air, and Fire to see the extent to which they act as archetypal symbols of the transformative process.  The following questions form the basic outline of the issue to be explored: What is the nature of each element?  How does each element relate to the next through a process of transformation?  How do all of the elements together form a complete cycle?  What are the different levels from which this cycle can be understood (material, psychological, archetypal, etc.)?  To what extent does the alchemical mandala help in understanding a variety of transformations from various domains?  How can the alchemical mandala be applied to specific situations encountered in daily life?  What are the strengths, limitations, and weaknesses associated with the application of the alchemical mandala?  Finally, it is hoped that by working with the elements, both theoretically and experientially, their principles can be developed into a practical, communicable tool that can be of service to those working with situations that are under transformation, whether inner or outer. 

Part of the goal of this study is to produce in the engaged reader a change in consciousness with respect to what will at first likely appear to be abstractions – the elements.  In the beginning this type of relationship is to be expected, as the intellect struggles to make sense of the information for the first time.  My goal will be accomplished if the reader is able to have the sense that the alchemical cycle of the elements is not an object for the thinking alone, but can take on the character of a language, in which the words are the carriers of a deeper meaning that requires a heart-felt thinking.  In this sense, then, it is possible to feel that the experience of trying to understand the alchemical mandala is like that of meeting someone for the first time who does not speak the native language.  It is only with an open, flexible interest in the other that their inner world begins to open for us so that we can experience something of the nature of their being.  The alchemical mandala is like a foreign language – strange and abstract at the beginning, but ultimately capable of holding the space for meaning to flow between beings.

The topic of how transformation occurs is well researched in a vast number of specialized areas, from chemistry to economics to psychology.  In each discipline, laws are identified that seem to describe the transitions between the various events identified within the discipline.  For example, in physics, Newton’s Second Law provides an excellent approximation of how a given mass will change its velocity when under the influence of external force.  Such specificity works very well within a given field, where the phenomena in question safely fall within the realm in which the particular laws at work have already been identified.  In other words, the laws of physics work very well in describing how physical systems change, but does not help the therapist, the baker, or the layman, who encounter phenomena of diverse types.  If larger, more subtle patterns of transformation are at work, as the alchemists believed, then their understanding and use would potentially bridge the specificity of the laws of each individualized discipline, acting as a ‘meta-pattern’.  The cycle of the four elements provides just such a potential set of patterns.

In particular, an understanding of the elemental cycle can be of use in a wide variety of ways, due to its universal character; it can be used by the physicist, the therapist, the banker, and the layman alike, because it helps guide and structure what is shared by all of these: human consciousness.  Therefore a study such as this one has the potential to yield real fruits.  Although at present there are many indications that an ‘elemental’ approach to phenomena is both valid and useful (see the literature review for more detail), an understanding of the elements as a cycle through which to understand transformation itself is at best usually only implied, if mentioned at all.  Additionally, most of the present literature involves using the elements as a classificatory scheme to organize a particular area of knowledge.  Only a very few authors explicitly address the philosophical background of elemental theory, and generally do so only briefly.  Because of the tendency for specificity, no modern works attempt to address the possible breadth of application of an elemental theory to a wide variety of situations (although Deborah Lipp’s work begins to approach this).  Therefore much remains to be explored with respect to a theory of the elements in and of itself, and in particular with respect to its potential role as a mediator in human consciousness between our sensory perception of change and our conceptual understanding of change.  Lastly, it does not appear that the elemental cycle has been addressed from a phenomenological standpoint in the way that is attempted here.  This study is therefore an attempt to advance the philosophy and application of the elemental cycle as a tool for the development of human consciousness around situations undergoing transformation.

My personal interest in this topic came about through an unexpected introduction to the alchemical cycle of the elements in a seven month long course taught by Dennis Klocek called “Goethean Studies” (now called Consciousness Studies) in 2001.  This wide-ranging course was profound in a number of ways, but this particular aspect stuck with me, as it had a very unique feature: the more energy and attention I invested in working with the elemental cycle, the more interesting and fruitful it became.  Rather than becoming stale and dry, over the years it continued to lead me towards new insights which proved useful in many areas of my life.  This study serves a dual purpose for me: it provides me with an avenue through which to directly explore the elemental cycle in a rigorous way, while simultaneously acting as a means to consolidate and share the potential fruits that it has to offer.  It is my hope that readers of this study will be able to understand and use the elemental cycle to both understand and affect meaningful, harmonious change in any area of life.

A note should be made here about the Table of Contents.  The somewhat non-standard layout of this document is an explicit demonstration of the application of the elemental cycle to the topic of writing a thesis, and shows one way in which the cycle can be used to communicate a complex, detailed, subtle, and interconnected set of concepts: the alchemical mandala itself.  As such, the particular sections and their ordering naturally arise from the archetype of the mandala of the four elements, and by design provides another way engage with the elemental cycle.  The reader can refer to the “Alchemical Table of Contents” (and the associated elemental symbols included marginally within the text: E = Earth, W = Water, A = Air, F = Fire) as a way to find orientation within the text from the standpoint of the alchemical mandala.  Indeed, attentive readers may notice stylistic differences between the sections – this is a conscious effort on my part to work with the qualities of the element which correspond to each section and is designed to act as an additional tool by which I can communicate the essence of the elements.  In other words, the Earth sections have something of an Earthy style, while the Water sections are more Watery in style, and so on.


1:Back What is meant by transformation is described in the “operational definitions” section below.

2:Back While on the one hand we have part of the alchemical tradition falling into esoteric obscurantism, on the other we have hints of the budding physicalism which was ultimately to more or less replace the entire field of alchemy, transforming its outer aspect into chemistry through the work of Robert Boyle (The Sceptical Chymist) and others.  The alchemy which is the focus of the present research is neither of these, but one that attempts to walk along the dynamically shifting membrane between these two potentials (the Above and Below).  Avoiding the first case means paying attention to the tendency for the metaphorical language to inflate itself into such wide spaces that it loses all applicability, while avoiding the second case means steering clear of the tendency to conflate all symbols with their objects so that ultimately the only thing that remains is an ‘object’ with no subject to perceive its unfolding (see Chapter 5: Limitations and Boundaries for a related discussion).

3:Back The four elements were identified at least as far back as the ancient Greeks; their first overt synthesis finding expression in the works of the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles.  See the literature review for more details on the Greeks.

4:Back Especially Jung, 1978, p. 162.  Jung felt that this correspondence was due to the projection of unconscious contents upon the material world: “This idea is nothing more than an analogy of the animating principle in man which inspires his thoughts and acts of cognition. ‘Soul’ and ‘spirit’, or psyche as such, is in itself totally unconscious.  If it is assumed to be somewhere ‘outside’, it cannot be anything except a projection of the unconscious.” (Jung, 1978, p. 142.)  The present work attempts, in part, to show that we do not need to agree with Jung’s statement that “The world-soul or, in this case, the world-spirit is a projection of the unconscious, there being no method of apparatus which could provide an objective proof of the world’s animation.” (Jung, 1978,  p.142) 

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