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Most of us who delve into the work of Carl Jung have encountered at least something he said about alchemy, that ancient art which Jung single-handedly restored to serious study in our modern age. Many of us know that, in it, he saw parallels with his theory of individuation, lead being transformed into gold, the integration of the Self. Yet, how much do we realize the immense importance of the truths he uncovered with this discovery? Of a surety, the alchemical process is probably the single best description, in metaphorical form, of not only what occurs in the human psyche, but what occurs in Nature in general as the process of soul-making unfolds. The images of alchemy are amazingly robust and accurate in their descriptions of the various stages and psychological modes and processes of the Magnum Opus.
Herein, I will begin several articles in which I will attempt to explore alchemy, as a spelunker would navigate a maze of caverns. The Great Work is an art form that has survived for thousands of years, undoubtedly due to its accurate representation of the processes of the psyche. Its importance in matters of soul must not be underestimated. I plan on beginning with the basics and then delve deeper into alchemy as never before. I will initiate this article with a discussion of one of mankind’s closest companions throughout its history. I refer to fire.
Over two millennia ago, Heraclitus concluded that fire is the element that best describes the operations of Nature. He believed that fire, which he seems to identify with God, or the world process, is the source of all becoming. “It throws apart and then brings together again; it advances and retires. Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed” (qtd. in Wheelwright 70-71). To Heraclitus, fire is the perfect symbol to describe reality.
Following Heraclitus, James Hillman writes that “fire is the first principle, the root metaphor” (Hillman 769). Fire is constantly being transformed, but mysteriously remains the same. Fire descends to us from the heavens in the form of lightning and sunlight, and ascends to us from the core of the earth in volcanic eruptions. Its heat can be of many varying degrees, as well as its intensity. All living things possess heat, thus possessing the fire within. We speak of a “spark” of divinity, of reason, of light within ourselves. But this spark is in all things. From cow dung to an atomic weapon, fire permeates reality. Imaginally, it is a perfect symbol for the ultimate truth of the universe. Gaston Bachelard writes,
Fire and heat provide modes of explanation in the most varied domains, because they have been for us the occasion for unforgettable memories, for simple and decisive personal experiences. Fire is thus a privileged phenomenon which can explain anything. If all that changes slowly may be explained by life, all that changes quickly is explained by fire. Fire is the ultra-living element. It is intimate and it is universal. It lives in our heart. It lives in the sky. It rises from the depths of the substance and offers itself with the warmth of love. Or it can go back down into the substance and hide there, latent and pent-up, like hate and vengeance. Among all phenomena, it is really the only one to which there can be so definitely attributed the opposing values of good and evil. It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell (Bachelard 7).
Fire is the root of alchemy. Without fire, there can be no alchemy, and hence no lapis philosophorum. Fire is to alchemy as blood is to life. Indeed, without the fire within, there can be no life. The alchemist is a Master of Fire, wielding it as the agent of transmutation. Like soul, fire is a mediator between forms. It is found at the level of animal passion, as well as in the heights of spiritual power. It dwells in the heart of Sol, as well as in that of Terra. The alchemist uses her accumulated knowledge of fire in all its modes to transform the strictly human soul into a temple of the gods. During this journey, we will require the light of fire to brighten our path as we explore the dark ways of alchemy.
Hephaestus is the god of alchemy and alchemists are his children. He is the blacksmith of the gods, forging all their weapons and all their finely-wrought works of metal. He forged the winged helmet of Hermes, the magical girdle of Aphrodite, and the chariot of Heilos. Like the alchemists, Hephaestus is a Master of Fire. It was from his forge that Prometheus stole fire and gave it to mankind. The alchemist, however, must avoid Prometheus’ transgression. As Hillman says,
Prometheus does not belong in the alchemical devotio, and the work must always be on guard against the “promethean sin,” stealing the fire for human use (Hillman 379).
The alchemist labors for the love of the Great Work alone. The Promethean spirit labors for ideology, as in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and in ideological capitalism, in general. The Masters of Fire did not seek gold for their coffers. Rather, they were performing the work of Nature, for the alchemical process is not carried out to bring about personal transformation, but the transformation and transmutation of Nature. Christianity bought into the Promethean ideology, as well, believing that personal redemption was paramount. Hillman offers this warning:
Any student of alchemy, any borrower of its tropes for one’s own art or practice, doing the work for one’s own nature, remains Promethean, a secular humanist, a gold digger (Hillman 402).
Alchemists dreamed of the perfecting and redeeming of Nature (matter). Fire was their method of implementation. It is up to us to continue the Great Work and become Masters of Fire. In this way, we can further the creation of the Anima Mundi.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Trans. Alan C.M. Ross. London: Routledge, 1964.
Hillman, James. Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman
Volume 5: Alchemical Psychology, Kindle edition. Dallas: Spring, 2013.
Wheelwright, Philip. The Presocratics. Indianapolis: ITT, 1966.
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