The Elements as an Archetype of Transformation:
An Exploration of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire
The completion of this study involves multiple components. In terms of the written portion of the study, the elements and their relations are developed on the basis of the work already mentioned in the literature review, and out of phenomenological observations of the elements in their natural setting as well as of their ‘inner’ character via the a Goethean phenomenological method (see Appendix B for explicit details on this methodology and how it is used for this study). The Goethean phenomenological method is the most appropriate for this study because of its unique ability to weave together subjective and objective aspects of experience. A study such as this one could conceivably be approached entirely theoretically – that is to say, from the perspective of purely logical relations between the elements. The Goethean method, however, requires a complex, open-ended dialogue between theory and application; in Goethe’s words, the phenomenon IS the theory. That is to say, the Goethean methodology is designed to lead one to the state in which the apparently outer phenomenon (percept) is brought together with the apparently inner phenomenon (concept) in such a way that they are intimately united into a single whole. The percept and the concept are then found to be the expression of two sides of a single, underlying reality. In the process, both the percept and the concept can be mutually modified –percepts lead to new or more insightful concepts, while new concepts reveal more subtle perceptual aspects of the phenomenon which would otherwise remain unconscious.
The elemental cycle is then applied to a variety of situations with varying depth, followed by a discussion of modifications, clarifications, and further developments of the theoretical aspects. Further insight is gained via an examination of the experience of volunteers who are familiar with the basic workings of the elemental cycle and who have applied it to an area/phenomenon of their choice. Finally, after a review and application of the elemental cycle, the whole body of work is distilled into a practical guide to using the elements, with actionable suggestions for further work that the reader may immediately take up if desired.
The entire study itself is organized and written using the elemental cycle as a guide. Each major section works according to the nature of an element, including within it a complete sub-cycle from Earth through Fire, providing an additional layer through which the reader may contact the ‘gesture’ of each element their relations, as well as acting as an in-depth (although tacit) example of how the cycle may be applied to the writing of a long document. The elemental aspects of the text itself are indicated with their alchemical symbols in the margins to this end.
The “research population” for the above will include volunteers from the communities of which I am already a part or have access to, including online communities. Additionally, my population (from which I attempt to gather ‘data’) could be said to include various non-human elements (according to the Goethean phenomenological method noted in the appendix) such as the conceptual, psychological, and social realms, as well as that of the natural world itself.
While many of the terms used in this study will be taken from their respective historical traditions, their usage will not strictly conform to any particular historical text or personage, but (apart from terms here defined) will be developed in the context of the study. Although potentially helpful, no special background in alchemy or Western hermeticism is required for an understanding of the principles discussed – the text is meant to be understandable on its own grounds.
Transformation: The word transformation is used in the text in a liberal sense, essentially synonymously with ‘change’. That is to say, transformation is characterized by two distinct states of a phenomenon separated and joined by an intermediary process. The process is paramount and is inseparable from the phenomenon itself (autopoiesis and evolution both play a role). Therefore, for the purposes of this paper, “transformation” will refer to any event of any type (inner, outer, singular, collective) which undergoes a change from one qualitative state to another. This usage is about as general as it is possible to be, in order to be able to account for the widest range of situations. For example, under this definition, the following are understood as transformations: a seed into a flower, a change of heart, a government’s decision to go to war, reading a book, a process within projective geometry, the Hero’s Journey, and interpreting a dream. Levels of transformation are acknowledged and will be dealt with in the text.
Archetype: This word essentially means “original pattern”, but additional connotations are implied when used in the present study. In addition to its universal and psychological aspects (pointed out nicely by Jung), the archetype is understood as signifying a subtle ontology – a logos of being. In this sense, an archetype is not seen as a ‘concept’ in the normal sense, but rather like an active organizing principle which ultimately has – is – indistinguishable from being, in the same sense that one implicitly attributes the thoughts and actions of another human to their particular being. Although this understanding is embedded in our very language, viz. “human being”, its significance takes the form of what Goethe would call an ‘open secret’; “Human being” is esoterically a verb. Pondering this leads one towards recognizing the nature of the term archetype as used here. With this in mind, we recognize that it is something of a misnomer to speak of an archetype as a thing. More accurately, an archetype is the signature of a particular being appearing – as it always must – within (and as) the processes of things.
Symbols for the elements: The most commonly found symbols for the elements in alchemy are as follows:
Standard symbols for the Elements
However, an alternate usage exists, which switches the symbols for Earth and Water:
Modified symbols for the Elements
The modified version of the elemental symbols will be used in this text. Each usage has its own etiology. Justification for the modified usage of the symbols is presented in Chapter 7, a note is made here specifically to clear up any potential confusion for readers who may have encountered the standard versions of the symbols.
It could be possible to approach the topic of the archetypes of transformation from any number of perspectives, but this study is geared towards the traditions that were largely active in the West, particularly alchemy and the hermetic tradition. It should be noted that the esoteric traditions of the East have much to say about the way in which transformation occurs, and many striking parallels exist between Eastern and Western wisdom. Alchemical traditions of great depth have been a part of both Indian and Chinese systems for millennia. For example, the Indian tradition of alchemy, Rasayana (Path of the Juice), is a subset of Ayurveda, a health science, and is concerned mainly with formulaic preparations promoting youth and rejuvenation.
In China, an active alchemy flourished as early as the fourth century B.C.E. This alchemy, based in Taoism, had both an outer aspect (wei-tan) and an inner aspect (nei-tan). The outer aspect dealt with drugs, herbs, and other external substances, while the inner aspect dealt with transformations of the inner life force itself through various practices. In this respect then, the inner aspect of the Taoist alchemy has many similarities to the esoteric traditions of Qabalah and Tantra. Ultimately these two aspects of Taoist alchemy cannot be regarded as separate, but rather as two sides of the same wisdom, a wisdom whose expression in the Tao Te Ching is quite salient for the present study:
The Tao gives birth to One.
One gives birth to Two.
Two gives birth to Three.
Three gives birth to all things.
All things have their backs to the female
and stand facing the male.
When male and female combine,
all things achieve harmony. (Laozi & Mitchell, 2000)
Here we have the prima materia and its resulting expression in the various objects of the world, formed by the various elements. The harmony is achieved by virtue of the uniting of the male and female principles – a transformation via purification of the separate elements into a unity. This verse is like a condensed version of major principles recognized in the Western alchemical tradition. Many more similarities could be expressed, but for the purposes of this study, the underlying stream will be that of the tradition of alchemy as it evolved in the West. At least one scholar of alchemy goes so far as to say that “in its essentials, Indian alchemy is the same as Western, and Chinese alchemy, though set in completely different spiritual climate, can throw light on both.” (Burckhardt, 1967, p. 8) 5
5: Back It should be noted that at various points in history much contact existed between East and West, and it would be unreasonable to think that Western and Eastern alchemical traditions evolved purely separately. On another level, it is likely that many similarities may be due not to cross-pollination but rather to the similarity of the ‘terrain’ travelled, regardless of era or culture: hence the 16th century phrase, popularized more recently by Aldous Huxley, the “perennial philosophy”.