The Elements as an Archetype of Transformation:
An Exploration of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire
More so than any other tradition, religion, philosophy, or discipline, that of alchemy deals with images in a way that is fundamental. Certainly alchemy does not have a monopoly when it comes to images – either in their formation or meaning. But the alchemical tradition exemplifies the use of images not just as pictures of various elements, but rather as instantiations of processes which simultaneously call for transformation in the imaging subject while providing the key for that very transformation. Thus alchemy is rife with images, symbols, mandalas, and other visual content which aim at being much more than static carriers of facts. From the beginning, alchemists understood the nature of the logos through the help of images, and they expressed themselves in images. We must not narrowly restrict our understanding of “image” to the realm of “pictures” or other physiologically visual phenomena. Rather, image, alchemically understood, is a strange sort of djinni existing on many levels at once, moving freely between the above and below, the inner and outer, serving as an actual link between these seemingly disparate worlds. At first we see simply an old lamp or bottle (we may say: a flask). But this flask contains a heavenly being in embryo, waiting to be called forth through a particular process – a process that inevitably leads towards transformation. Like Aladdin, our task is to uncover the process behind that which at first appears as the simple word: “image”. We must open this flask, the image, and examine it carefully, for like everything else, it is in a process of continual evolution. In so doing, we will discover a variety of masks worn by the image, and if we pursue these transformations actively we ourselves will be transformed.