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 4 - The Theory of the Elements, cont.

The Elements in Isolation


Speaking of oxidation brings us finally to the element of fire.  It is easy to think of fire as flames, but this is only one aspect of fire.  It may be more properly termed warmth, as this is its most defining characteristic, and because we do not have any clear visual associations with such a word that may arbitrarily limit our exploration to a particular area.  Indeed, one of the most important qualities of warmth is its inability to be contained or limited; any time two objects of different temperature come into contact, warmth spontaneously flows from the hotter object to the cooler.  This is one way of understanding the second law of thermodynamics.

Fire - FlowersWarmth is the least definable of all the elements.  It is the least formed, having no definitive boundaries.  The lack of boundaries for warmth is different than that for the air.  Air as an element is at the edge of the influence of gravitational forces, but still falls under their sway (gravity, after all, is the primary force that holds our atmosphere on the Earth).  This fact points to the materiality – however slight – of the air.  Thus air still forms boundaries made by the lower elements of earth and water.  Warmth, on the other hand, will move through any boundaries composed of the three lower elements.  It is uncontainable by physical matter, and by its nature moves actively from place to place in an attempt to harmonize every difference in temperature.  Indeed, in order to block the movement of warmth, the most effective method is to try and create a vacuum boundary; yet even then, warmth can be carried in the energy of light, which has no problem crossing a vacuum.

The way warmth moves is not random, but is always indicative of some underlying process.  Where any medium (of earth, water, air, or some combination) is actively changing, we find that warmth makes its appearance.  The motion of our muscles produce prodigious warmth, and the relative warmth and coolness of fluids is generally the source of their convection (as in the differential heating of land vs. water, light vs. dark objects, etc.).  In other words, the signature of warmth is activity, and we could even say that all activity is the signature of warmth.  The most important and obvious indicator of this is the Sun.  The primary physical way in which the Sun interacts with the Earth is by transmitting its own warmth to us through its fiery rays.  The heat energy from the Sun fuels almost every life process on the Earth, and drives a host of cycles as well – all those that are dependent upon seasonal and diurnal rhythms.  Warmth, actually, can be considered to be the most fundamental ‘element’ required for the activity of life, as without it there simply could be no basis upon which the necessary life-processes (metabolism, movement, etc.) could operate.  Even the life forms that may have evolved completely without the aid of direct energy from the Sun could only have done so because of the warmth energy available in the sub-oceanic heat vents.  We shall return to the Sun in a moment.

When considered on the microcosmic scale, we find warmth as heat energy – which is simply a measure of the average activity of the molecules, i.e. their motion and vibration.  So even at the smallest scales, we cannot find any particles of warmth – there is no substance to warmth; it is rather the activity of substances.  For this reason it is difficult to ‘pin down’ warmth as an element, which is exactly one of its important characteristics: its dynamism

The energy of warmth itself is necessarily constantly in motion, but this motion is always involved with the changing of whatever substance the warmth is moving within.  In other words, warmth actively affects change whenever it is present – where there is no change, warmth is least present.  In physical reality this is observed when techniques are employed to slow down the motion of atoms (for example in an ultra-cold gas).  The slower the atoms, the colder the temperature, until almost all motion stops at a temperature known as absolute zero (-459° Fahrenheit, or 0° Kelvin), where only the tiniest amount of internal energy remains.  What is interesting is that there is always some warmth left; it cannot be eradicated, and it therefore literally permeates every part of the entire universe – there is even energy for activity available in the coldest, most matter-free places, i.e. the deepest vacuum of interstellar space, out of which whole particles of regular matter can momentarily come into existence.  Indeed, the very fabric of space and time seems positively filled with energy!  We therefore cannot separate warmth in a substantial way from any of the other elements – it is present within them all.  Furthermore, all activity is in some way connected with differences in warmth – its movement from place to place, its transmission from one object to another, its dispersal or concentration.  Every engine on the planet somehow utilizes an energy differential to create work. 

Warmth is creative – it is the source of change.  As fire, we see that once engendered, a fire will expand and continually renew itself if the conditions are favorable.  It is self-engendering, self-creative.  As Hoffmann perceptively states: “Fire ‘lives’ by virtue of the substance that it destroys, but that substance is not causing it, only allowing it to become active.” (Hoffmann, 2007 p. 57)  And we can see that the destructive act of fire is just a more obvious and violent way in which warmth affects transformation.  In the case of burning, the activity of fire is a simultaneous combining and separating – elements are taken apart and recombined into new forms; burning transforms elements, and in the process gives off heat and light 10.  Such a burning process also takes place in the cell in processes known as cellular respiration (a slow burning), where a variety of methods yield usable energy for cellular function through the transformation of other elements.  The creative processes of life are in a real and deep sense warmth-based.

Warmth processes have the tendency, in their role as transformers, to render into a state of higher levity any aspects that have the potential to be transformed in this way.  Other aspects are solidified out of the process and rendered back into a state of gravity.  For example, when burning a log in a fireplace, a good portion of the log ends up going out the chimney, having transformed from its original state into a form that is able to move against the force of gravity.  At the same time, what is left in the fireplace is not the original log, but all the parts of the log that could not be thus changed, although they also are transformed: into an ash.  In the process of digestion, part of the food is transformed into the energy of movement, feeling, and thought (levity) while the rest is slowly solidified (gravity) and readied for expulsion.

All of the other elements are dependent upon warmth, which is the primary agent for the change in a substance from solid to liquid (melting), liquid to gas (evaporation), and gas to plasma (ionization); these are known as phase changes, where the state of matter changes from one manifestation to another 11.  Obviously, of all the states of matter, the plasma state most exemplifies the element of fire.  Indeed, the flame of a fire is a plasma.  When examining the nature of the fire element, we must therefore look closely at what plasmas have to tell us.

Plasma is a unique state of matter in which a gas (generally) is ionized.  This means that there is enough energy (often provided by heat, but also of light) present in the gas to tear the electrons away from their atoms, yielding a sea of ‘free’ electrons.  The atoms, sans one or more electrons, are now known as ions – hence the term ionization.  It is interesting to note that the word ‘ion’ was coined by the great experimentalist Michael Faraday from the Greek root meaning “to go”.  Not only is the word itself synonymous with ‘activity’, it is also in participle form (non-finite verb), thus actually meaning “going” - i.e. the name refers not just to activity, but is even itself in an active form!

Plasmas, although similar to gases in some important ways, are quite unique and display a number of special properties, such as high electric conductivity (so high that in many circumstances it can be treated as if it were infinite) ("Plasma (physics)," 2007), high heat conductance, as well as responsiveness to electromagnetic fields, i.e. light.  All the lower elements are responsive to light, primarily inasmuch as the light is able to transmit heat energy into the substance.  Generally substances are selective in their ability to absorb such energy, and are not equally responsive to all frequencies.  Plasmas, on the other hand, are much more directly and easily affected by all electromagnetic fields.  Discovered by Sir William Crookes in his ‘Crookes tube’, what we now call plasma Crookes termed “radiant matter”, ("Plasma (physics)," 2007) and plasmas are everywhere associated with radiance, with the actual production of light.  In fact, we come into contact with man-made plasmas every day in the form of neon lights and plasma display screens.

Although plasmas are less common than the other elements on the Earth, many natural sources do exist.  Lightning of all kinds is plasma, as are the auroras that frequent the Earth’s Polar Regions, and of course regular old flames.  Lesser known plasmas that are not quite as well understood take the form of ‘sprites’, ‘elves’, and ‘jets’ – all high altitude atmospheric effects related to lightning in which light assumes particular forms and colors.  Yet even though plasma is relatively rare on the Earth, it is by a large margin the most common phase of matter in the rest of the universe, considered by mass as well as by volume.  Approximately 99.9% of the total mass in the universe is in the form of plasma.  (Mullen, 1999)  This is primarily because all stars, including our Sun, are made of plasma, as are nebulas and even the space between the stars.

Just as the Earth has a mineral nature in its crust, a watery nature in its oceans, and an airy nature in its atmosphere, the Earth has a fiery nature as well.  As might be expected, the Earth expresses its fiery nature in the space above its atmosphere.  Scientists speak of three marginally distinct but overlapping areas called the ionosphere, the plasmasphere, and the magnetosphere 12 – all three of these are characterized in large part by the activity of the plasmas that they contain.  Moving outward from the Earth, the ionosphere is the uppermost region of the atmosphere, marked by the fact that it contains plasmas – Ionospheregases ionized primarily by the radiant energy of the sunlight.  The ionosphere (~50 – 400 km above the Earth’s surface) smoothly fades into the plasmasphere (also known as the inner magnetosphere) which is an area of relatively low-energy plasma extending as much as 2-6 Earth-radii (~6300km) from the Earth’s surface.  The magnetosphere itself is the region around the Earth in which activity is dominated and organized by the Earth’s magnetic field.  The magnetosphere is very large compared to the Earth, and takes a comet-like shape centered around it, ranging from about 10 Earth-radii on the Sun-side, to 15 Earth-radii on the sides and as much as 200 Earth-radii in the tail region.

Image from:

A number of interesting phenomena associated with these regions around the Earth bring to light some of the qualities of the fire element in nature.  These three Plasmasphereinterpenetrating layers are in constant flux.  They consist primarily of plasma with varying temperature, density, and rhythmic movements (daily, seasonal, as well as in rhythm with sunspot cycles).  The plasma of the ionosphere is in large part created through the ionization of the Earth’s upper atmosphere by sunlight (primarily UV and x-rays).  Although the Sun is the largest single contributor to the ionization of the Earth’s atmosphere, the plasmas on and near the surface of the Earth in the form of lightning also play a role.  The heat energy of lightning can add ionization directly, while some of the light produced by lightning can actually precipitate plasma that is further out in the magnetosphere into the ionosphere. 13

A photo of the Earth’s plasmasphere in UV light (30.4 nm) from 6 Earth-radii and from above the 73° N magnetic latitude. Image credit: Sandel, B. R., et al., Space Sci. Rev., 109, 25, 2003.

The Earth is embedded in continuous streams of plasma emitted from the Sun.  This “solar wind” moves at approximately 500,000 miles per hour, and contains about ten atoms per cubic inch of space near the Earth.  The plasma layers around the Earth are in a continual dynamic dance with the plasma from the Sun, the boundary of which is formed by the Earth’s magnetosphere.  The activity of the plasma in the three layers is an expression of the interplay of the fire-processes of the Earth and of the Sun.  The streaming solar wind would be deadly to surface life – molecules necessary for life will absorb its high energy and vibrate so strongly as to break apart 14; our magnetosphere protects us from these particles, deflecting much of the solar wind.  At the same time, some of the particles are actually trapped by the magnetosphere and funneled in towards the magnetic poles of the Earth, resulting in the fantastic plasma-display in the sky known as the auroras.

Thus we see a strong connection between Magnetosphere-Plasmaspherethe Earth’s outer “fire-layer” and the activity of the Sun.  Indeed, the very magnetosphere of the Earth itself is thought to be continually generated only because heat processes at the core of the Earth spin the liquid iron there in a convection process.  A mirror process occurs in the plasma of the Sun, which has its own very strong magnetic field.  In other words, we can show that the fiery layer surrounding the Earth is created by processes which require both the Earth’s inner-fire processes and the fire-processes of the Sun – and the original heat energy for both the Sun and the Earth came from the same rotating, collapsing gas and other trace matter that formed our solar system.

An artist’s rendering of the Earth’s plasmasphere and magnetosphere.  Image courtesy of NASA:

The ionosphere/plasmasphere/magnetosphere trio is thus a dynamic expression of the mixing of the warmth energy of the Earth and the warmth energy of the Sun.  We cannot isolate the fire of the Earth, but must consider it only in the context of the entire surrounding field of warmth in which the Earth is embedded.  This is a signature of the fire element, in which the greater context becomes a dominating feature.   Processes that at first seem small or independent suddenly become manifestations of global patterns, of higher-order dynamic activities which structure and relate all of the seemingly independent, disconnected phenomena, creating a monumental whole which operates according to its own set of inner principles, but into which all of the lower phenomena are embedded in a coherent, integrated, and dynamic fashion.


An artist’s rendering of the interaction between the Sun’s plasma wind and the Earth’s magnetic field and plasmasphere. Image courtesy NASA:

Elements as Facts

Below is a summary list of qualities of the elements so far discussed, derived from the behavior of the physical elements, but also with clear metaphorical implications.

Resistant to change
All surface
Indifference to other elements

Wave forms
Formative forces/forming

Internal layering/boundaries
Polarity (opposite, complement, reciprocal)

Affects change
Greater context

So far we have encountered the elements through their appearance in their various forms in the natural world.  In this sense, we have examined the elements as facts, as more or less independent bits of isolated information – an Earth exercise.  As Hoffmann points out, this Earth cognition is a physical thinking, in which the objects under consideration are experienced not just as “separate from and alien to oneself but … as separate from each other.” (Hoffmann, 2007 p. 26)  Our next task will be to bring to light some of the connections between the elements and their relations to each other, while at the same time examining how they appear in less overtly ‘natural’ forms.


10: Back For example, one possible chemical expression of burning is:
This is another way of saying that Fuel + Air yields Carbon Dioxide, Water, Nitrogen, Heat, and Light.  What you want to notice is that heat (ant light!) are not represented chemically by any single element.

11: Back Modern physics has identified ‘new states’ of matter, so that at the coldest end we should add Fermionic and Bose-Einstein condensates before we arrive at solids, liquids, and gases, with plasmas taking up the hot end.

12: Back The magnetosphere is also connected to the ionosphere through heating effects due to electrical currents between the two which are seasonal in nature (i.e. related to the Sun). (Odenwald, 2004b)

13: Back Additionally, the plasma in the two Van Allen radiation belts is separated by a less energetic ‘Slot Region’.  It has recently been confirmed that lightning on the Earth helps to create a “plasmaspheric hiss” which serves to evacuate this region of energetic particles. (Odenwald, 2004a)

14: Back This is a real concern for astronauts!

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