Many philosophies and worldviews have a set of classical elements believed to reflect the simplest essential parts and principles of which anything can consist or upon which the constitution and fundamental powers of everything are based. Most frequently, classical elements refer to ancient concepts which some science writers compare to the modern states of matter, relating earth to the solid state, water to liquid, air to gaseous and fire to plasma. Historians trace the evolution of modern theory pertaining to the chemical elements, as well as chemical compounds and mixtures of chemical substances to medieval, and Greek models. Many concepts once thought to be analogous, such as the Chinese Wu Xing, are now understood more figuratively.
In classical thought, the four elements earth (γῆ), water (ὕδωρ), air (ἀήρ), and fire (πῦρ) frequently occur; sometimes including a fifth element or quintessence (after "quint" meaning "fifth") called aether (αἰθήρ) in ancient Greece and akasha in India. The concept of the five elements formed a basis of analysis in both Hinduism and Buddhism. In Hinduism, particularly in an esoteric context, the four states-of-matter describe matter, and a fifth element describes that which was beyond the material world. Similar lists existed in ancient China and Japan. In Buddhism the four great elements, to which two others are sometimes added, are not viewed as substances, but as categories of sensory experience.
Cosmic elements in Babylonia
In Babylonian mythology, the cosmogony called Enûma Eliš, a text written between the 18th and 16th centuries BC, involves five gods that we might see as personified cosmic elements: sea, earth, sky, wind. In other Babylonian texts these phenomena are considered independent of their association with deities, though they are not treated as the component elements of the universe, as later in Empedocles.
The ancient Greek belief in five basic elements, these being earth (γῆ), water (ὕδωρ), air (ἀήρ), fire (πῦρ) and aether (αἰθήρ), dates from pre-Socratic times and persisted throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, deeply influencing European thought and culture. These five elements are sometimes associated with the five platonic solids.
Plato characterizes the elements as being pre-Socratic in origin from a list created by the Sicilian philosopher Empedocles (ca. 450 BC). Empedocles called these the four "roots" (ῥιζὤματα, rhizōmata). Plato seems to have been the first to use the term "element (στοιχεῖον, stoicheion)" in reference to air, fire, earth, and water. The ancient Greek word for element, stoicheion (from stoicheo, "to line up") meant "smallest division (of a sun-dial), a syllable", as the composing unit of an alphabet it could denote a letter and the smallest unit from which a word is formed.
In his On Generation and Corruption, Aristotle related each of the four elements to two of the four sensible qualities:
- Fire is primarily hot and secondarily dry.
- Air is primarily wet and secondarily hot.
- Water is primarily cold and secondarily wet.
- Earth is primarily dry and secondarily cold.
One classic diagram (above) has one square inscribed in the other, with the corners of one being the classical elements, and the corners of the other being the properties. The opposite corner is the opposite of these properties, "hot – cold" and "dry – wet".
Aristotle added a fifth element, aether, as the quintessence, reasoning that whereas fire, earth, air, and water were earthly and corruptible, since no changes had been perceived in the heavenly regions, the stars cannot be made out of any of the four elements but must be made of a different, unchangeable, heavenly substance.
The Neoplatonic philosopher, Proclus, rejected Aristotle's theory relating the elements to the sensible qualities hot, cold, wet, and dry. He maintained that each of the elements has three properties. Fire is sharp, subtle, and mobile while its opposite, earth, is blunt, dense, and immobile; they are joined by the intermediate elements, air and water, in the following fashion:
The elemental system used in Medieval alchemy was developed primarily by the Persian alchemist Jābir ibn Hayyān and rooted in the classical elements of Greek tradition. His system consisted of the four Aristotelian elements of air, earth, fire, and water in addition to two philosophical elements: sulphur, characterizing the principle of combustibility, "the stone which burns"; and mercury, characterizing the principle of metallic properties. They were seen by early alchemists as idealized expressions of irreducibile components of the universe and are of larger consideration within philosophical alchemy.
The three metallic principles—sulphur to flammability or combustion, mercury to volatility and stability, and salt to solidity—became the tria prima of the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus. He reasoned that Aristotle’s four element theory appeared in bodies as three principles. Paracelsus saw these principles as fundamental and justified them by recourse to the description of how wood burns in fire. Mercury included the cohesive principle, so that when it left in smoke the wood fell apart. Smoke described the volatility (the mercurial principle), the heat-giving flames described flammability (sulphur), and the remnant ash described solidity (salt).
A Greek text called the Kore Kosmou ("Virgin of the World") ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus (the name given by the Greeks to the Egyptian god Thoth), names the four elements fire, water, air, and earth. As described in this book:
And Isis answer made: Of living things, my son, some are made friends with fire, and some with water, some with air, and some with earth, and some with two or three of these, and some with all. And, on the contrary, again some are made enemies of fire, and some of water, some of earth, and some of air, and some of two of them, and some of three, and some of all. For instance, son, the locust and all flies flee fire; the eagle and the hawk and all high-flying birds flee water; fish, air and earth; the snake avoids the open air. Whereas snakes and all creeping things love earth; all swimming things love water; winged things, air, of which they are the citizens; while those that fly still higher love the fire and have the habitat near it. Not that some of the animals as well do not love fire; for instance salamanders, for they even have their homes in it. It is because one or another of the elements doth form their bodies' outer envelope. Each soul, accordingly, while it is in its body is weighted and constricted by these four.
According to Galen, these elements were used by Hippocrates in describing the human body with an association with the four humours: yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), blood (air), and phlegm (water).
Tattva – Mahābhūta
Wŭ Xíng (五行)
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The system of five elements are found in Vedas, especially Ayurveda, the pancha mahabhuta, or "five great elements", of Hinduism are bhūmi (earth), ap or jala (water), tejas or agni (fire), marut or pavan (air or wind), vyom; or shunya or akash (aether or void). They further suggest that all of creation, including the human body, is made up of these five essential elements and that upon death, the human body dissolves into these five elements of nature, thereby balancing the cycle of nature.
According to one of the principal texts of Hindu philosophy, the Tattwa Kaumudi authored by Vacaspati in the 9th century A.D., the Creator used akasha (aether), the most "subtle" element, to create the other four traditional elements; each element created is in turn used to create the next element, each less subtle than the last. The five elements are associated with the five senses, and act as the gross medium for the experience of sensations. The basest element, earth, created using all the other elements, can be perceived by all five senses – hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell. The next higher element, water, has no odor but can be heard, felt, seen and tasted. Next comes fire, which can be heard, felt and seen. Air can be heard and felt. "Akasha" (aether) is the medium of sound but is inaccessible to all other senses.
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In the Pali literature, the mahabhuta ("great elements") or catudhatu ("four elements") are earth, water, fire and air. In early Buddhism, the four elements are a basis for understanding suffering and for liberating oneself from suffering. The earliest Buddhist texts explain that the four primary material elements are the sensory qualities solidity, fluidity, temperature, and mobility; their characterization as earth, water, fire, and air, respectively, is declared an abstraction – instead of concentrating on the fact of material existence, one observes how a physical thing is sensed, felt, perceived.
The Buddha's teaching regarding the four elements is to be understood as the base of all observation of real sensations rather than as a philosophy. The four properties are cohesion (water), solidity or inertia (earth), expansion or vibration (air) and heat or energy content (fire). He promulgated a categorization of mind and matter as composed of eight types of "kalapas" of which the four elements are primary and a secondary group of four are color, smell, taste, and nutriment which are derivative from the four primaries.
Just as a skilled butcher or his apprentice, having killed a cow, would sit at a crossroads cutting it up into pieces, the monk contemplates this very body – however it stands, however it is disposed – in terms of properties: 'In this body there is the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property, & the wind property.'
- Sahasrara (Crown): Time/Space/Balance/Gravity/Cosmic/Universal/All-Elemental
- Ajna (Third Eye): Nether/Darkness/Shadow/Death/Poison/Black Magic
- Vishuddhi (Throat): Aether/Light/Life/Lightning/Electricity/Energy/Magnetism
- Anahata (Heart): Air/Wind/Magic/Sound/Music
- Manipura (Navel): Fire/Heat/Flame
- Svadhisthana (Sacral): Water/Ice/Snow/Steam/Fog/Mist
- Muladhara (Root): Earth/Rock/Nature/Soil/Metal/Wood
In Bön or ancient Tibetan philosophy, the five elemental processes of earth, water, fire, air and space are the essential materials of all existent phenomena or aggregates. The elemental processes form the basis of the calendar, astrology, medicine, psychology and are the foundation of the spiritual traditions of shamanism, tantra and Dzogchen.
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche states that
physical properties are assigned to the elements: earth is solidity; water is cohesion; fire is temperature; air is motion; and space is the spatial dimension that accommodates the other four active elements. In addition, the elements are correlated to different emotions, temperaments, directions, colors, tastes, body types, illnesses, thinking styles, and character. From the five elements arise the five senses and the five fields of sensory experience; the five negative emotions and the five wisdoms; and the five extensions of the body. They are the five primary pranas or vital energies. They are the constituents of every physical, sensual, mental, and spiritual phenomenon.
The names of the elements are analogous to categorised experiential sensations of the natural world. The names are symbolic and key to their inherent qualities and/or modes of action by analogy. In Bön the elemental processes are fundamental metaphors for working with external, internal and secret energetic forces. All five elemental processes in their essential purity are inherent in the mindstream and link the trikaya and are aspects of primordial energy. As Herbert V. Günther states:
Thus, bearing in mind that thought struggles incessantly against the treachery of language and that what we observe and describe is the observer himself, we may nonetheless proceed to investigate the successive phases in our becoming human beings. Throughout these phases, the experience (das Erlebnis) of ourselves as an intensity (imaged and felt as a "god", lha) setting up its own spatiality (imaged and felt as a "house" khang) is present in various intensities of illumination that occur within ourselves as a "temple." A corollary of this Erlebnis is its light character manifesting itself in various "frequencies" or colors. This is to say, since we are beings of light we display this light in a multiplicity of nuances.
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The Chinese had a somewhat different series of elements, namely Fire, Earth, Metal (literally gold), Water and Wood, which were understood as different types of energy in a state of constant interaction and flux with one another, rather than the Western notion of different kinds of material.
Although it is usually translated as "element", the Chinese word xing literally means something like "changing states of being", "permutations" or "metamorphoses of being". In fact Sinologists cannot agree on any single translation. The Chinese elements were seen as ever changing and moving – one translation of wu xing is simply "the five changes".
The Wu Xing are chiefly an ancient mnemonic device for systems with five stages; hence the preferred translation of "movements", "phases" or "steps" over "elements."
In the bagua, metal is associated with the divination figure 兌 Duì (☱, the lake or marsh: 澤/泽 zé) and with 乾 Qián (☰, the sky or heavens: 天 tiān). Wood is associated with 巽 Xùn (☴, the wind: 風/风 fēng) and with 震 Zhèn (☳, the arousing/thunder: 雷 léi). In view of the durability of meteoric iron, metal came to be associated with the aether, which is sometimes conflated with Stoic pneuma, as both terms originally referred to air (the former being higher, brighter, more fiery or celestial and the latter being merely warmer, and thus vital or biogenetic). In Taoism, qi functions similarly to pneuma in a prime matter (a basic principle of energetic transformation) that accounts for both biological and inanimate phenomena.
In Chinese philosophy the universe consists of heaven and earth. The five major planets are associated with and even named after the elements: Jupiter 木星 is Wood (木), Mars 火星 is Fire (火), Saturn 土星 is Earth (土), Venus 金星 is Metal (金), and Mercury 水星 is Water (水). Also, the Moon represents Yin (陰), and the Sun 太陽 represents Yang (陽). Yin, Yang, and the five elements are associated with themes in the I Ching, the oldest of Chinese classical texts which describes an ancient system of cosmology and philosophy. The five elements also play an important part in Chinese astrology and the Chinese form of geomancy known as Feng shui.
The doctrine of five phases describes two cycles of balance, a generating or creation (生, shēng) cycle and an overcoming or destruction (克/剋, kè) cycle of interactions between the phases.
- Wood feeds fire;
- Fire creates earth (ash);
- Earth bears metal;
- Metal collects water;
- Water nourishes wood.
- Wood parts earth;
- Earth absorbs water;
- Water quenches fire;
- Fire melts metal;
- Metal chops wood.
There are also two cycles of imbalance, an overacting cycle (cheng) and an insulting cycle (wu).
Japanese traditions use a set of elements called the 五大 (godai, literally "five great"). These five are earth, water, fire, wind/air, and void. These came from Indian Vastu shastra philosophy and Buddhist beliefs; in addition, the classical Chinese elements (五行, wu xing) are also prominent in Japanese culture, especially to the influential Neo-Confucianists during the Edo period.
- Earth represented things that were solid.
- Water represented things that were liquid.
- Fire represented things that destroy.
- Air represented things that moved.
- Void or Sky/Heaven represented things not of our everyday life.
Western astrology and tarot
Western astrology uses the four classical elements in connection with astrological charts and horoscopes. The twelve signs of the zodiac are divided into the four elements: Fire signs are Aries, Leo and Sagittarius, Earth signs are Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn, Air signs are Gemini, Libra and Aquarius, and Water signs are Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces.
In divinatory tarot, the suits of cups, swords, batons/wands, and discs/coins are said to correspond to water, air, fire, and earth respectively.
The Aristotelian tradition and medieval Alchemy eventually gave rise to modern scientific theories and new taxonomies. By the time of Antoine Lavoisier, for example, a list of elements would no longer refer to classical elements. The classical elements correspond more closely to four of the states of matter: solid, liquid, gas and plasma.
Modern science recognizes classes of elementary particles which have no substructure (or rather, particles that are not made of other particles) and composite particles having substructure (particles made of other particles).
- Classical elements in popular culture
- Elemental (Renaissance alchemy)
- Five elements (Chinese wǔ xíng)
- Five elements (Hindu mahābhūta) and Four elements (Buddhist mahābhūtāni)
- Five elements (Japanese godai)
- First principle (Pre-Socratic arche and Aristotelian substratum)
- First principle (Chinese qì and Japanese ki)
- Overview of the fundamental interaction
- First principle (Prima materia in Alchemy)
- Periodic table of the elements (Modern science)
- Philosopher's stone (Middle Ages and Renaissance alchemy)
- Phlogiston theory (History of science)
- Fundamental interaction (Quantum Mechanics)
- State of matter
- Table of correspondences (Magic and the occult)
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- Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794), in Classic Chemistry, compiled by Carmen Giunta
- Paul Strathern (2000). Mendeleyev's Dream – the Quest for the Elements. New York: Berkley Books.
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- Section on 4 elements in Buddhism
- The Kore Kosmou or Virgin of the World. www.sacred-texts.com for Ancient Egypt Elements