Air (classical element)
Tattva – Mahābhūta
Wŭ Xíng (五行)
Air is often seen as a universal power or pure substance. Its fundamental importance to life can be seen in words such as aspire, inspire, perspire and spirit, all derived from the Latin spirare.
Greek and Roman tradition
Air is one of the four classical elements in ancient Greek philosophy and science. According to Plato, it is associated with the octahedron; air is considered to be both hot and wet. The ancient Greeks used two words for air: aer meant the dim lower atmosphere, and aether meant the bright upper atmosphere above the clouds. Plato, for instance writes that "So it is with air: there is the brightest variety which we call aether, the muddiest which we call mist and darkness, and other kinds for which we have no name...." Among the early Greek Pre-Socratic philosophers, Anaximenes (mid-6th century BCE) named air as the arche. A similar belief was attributed by some ancient sources to Diogenes Apolloniates (late 5th century BCE), who also linked air with intelligence and soul (psyche), but other sources claim that his arche was a substance between air and fire. Aristophanes parodied such teachings in his play The Clouds by putting a prayer to air in the mouth of Socrates.
Air was one of many archai proposed by the Pre-socratics, most of whom tried to reduce all things to a single substance. However, Empedocles of Acragas (c. 495-c. 435 BCE) selected four archai for his four roots: Air, fire, water, and earth. Ancient and modern opinions differ as to whether he identified air by the divine name Hera, Aidoneus or even Zeus. Empedocles’ roots became the four classical elements of Greek philosophy. Plato (427-347 BCE) took over the four elements of Empedocles. In the Timaeus, his major cosmological dialogue, the Platonic solid associated with air is the octahedron which is formed from eight equilateral triangles. This places air between fire and water which Plato regarded as appropriate because it is intermediate in its mobility, sharpness, and ability to penetrate. He also said of air that its minuscule components are so smooth that one can barely feel them.
Plato's student Aristotle (384-322 BCE) developed a different explanation for the elements based on pairs of qualities. The four elements were arranged concentrically around the center of the universe to form the sublunary sphere. According to Aristotle, air is both hot and wet and occupies a place between fire and water among the elemental spheres. Aristotle definitively separated air from aether. For him, aether was an unchanging, almost divine substance that was found only in the heavens, where it formed celestial spheres.
In ancient Greek medicine, each of the four humours became associated with an element. Blood was the humor identified with air, since both were hot and wet. Other things associated with air and blood in ancient and medieval medicine included the season of spring, since it increased the qualities of heat and moisture; the sanguine temperament (of a person dominated by the blood humour); hermaphrodite (combining the masculine quality of heat with the feminine quality of moisture); and the northern point of the compass.
The alchemical symbol for air is an upward-pointing triangle, bisected by a horizontal line.
In Hinduism, Vayu (Sanskrit वायु ), also known as Vāta वात, Pavana पवन (meaning the Purifier), or Prāna, is a primary deity, who is the father of Bhima and the spiritual father of Lord Hanuman. As the words for air (Vāyu) or wind (Pavana) it is one of the Panchamahābhuta the "five great elements" in Hinduism. The Sanskrit word 'Vāta' literally means "blown", 'Vāyu' "blower", and 'Prāna' "breathing" (viz. the breath of life, cf. the *an- in 'animate').
Air is not one of the traditional five Chinese classical elements. Nevertheless, the ancient Chinese concept of Qi or chi is believed to be close to that of air. Qi (Mandarin pronunciation: [tɕʰî]; spelled qì in Pinyin romanization and ch'i4 in Wade-Giles) or ki (in Japanese romanization), is a fundamental concept of traditional Chinese culture. Qi is believed to be part of every living thing that exists, as a kind of "life force" or "spiritual energy". It is frequently translated as "energy flow", or literally as "air" or "breath". (For example, "tiānqì", literally "sky breath", is the ordinary Chinese word for "weather"). In Mandarin Chinese it is pronounced something like "chee" in English, but the tongue position is different. (See Media:Difficult Sounds.GIF.) The concept of qi is often reified, however no scientific evidence supports its existence.
The element air also appears as a concept in the Buddhist religion which has an ancient history in China.
People born under the astrological signs of Gemini, Libra and Aquarius are thought to have dominant air personalities. Air personalities tend to be kind, intellectual, communicative and social; however, they can also be selfish, superficial, vicious and insensitive to other people's emotions.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, founded in 1888, incorporates air and the other Greek classical elements into its teachings. The elemental weapon of air is the dagger which must be painted yellow with magical names and sigils written upon it in violet. Each of the elements has several associated spiritual beings. The archangel of air is Raphael, the angel is Chassan, the ruler is Aral, the king is Paralda, and the air elementals (following Paracelsus) are called sylphs. Air is considerable and it is referred to the upper left point of the pentagram in the Supreme Invoking Ritual of the Pentagram. Many of these associations have since spread throughout the occult community.
In the Golden Dawn and many other magical systems, each element is associated with one of the cardinal points and is placed under the care of guardian Watchtowers. The Watchtowers derive from the Enochian system of magic founded by Dee. In the Golden Dawn, they are represented by the Enochian elemental tablets. Air is associated with the east, which is guarded by the First Watchtower.
Enlil was the god of air in ancient Sumer. Shu was the ancient Egyptian god of air and the husband of Tefnut, goddess of moisture. He became an emblem of strength by virtue of his role in separating Nut from Geb. He played a primary role in the Coffin Texts, which were spells intended to help the deceased reach the realm of the afterlife safely. On the way to the sky, the spirit had to travel through the air as one spell indicates: "I have gone up in Shu, I have climbed on the sunbeams."
- W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 1, pp. 466, 470-71.
- Plato, Timaeus, ch. 27, p. 83.
- Guthrie, History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 1, pp. 115-16, 120-32; Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy, pp. 77-80.
- Guthrie, vol. 2, pp. 362-81; Barnes, pp. 289-94.
- Guthrie, vol. 2, pp. 138-46. Guthrie suggests that Hera is the safest identification for air.
- Plato, Timaeus, chap. 22-23; Gregory Vlastos, Plato’s Universe, pp. 66-82.
- G. E. R. Lloyd, Aristotle, chapters 7-8.
- Londa Schiebinger, p. 162.
- The Book of Hindu Imagery: Gods, Manifestations and Their Meaning By Eva Rudy Jansen p. 68
- Donald Michael Kraig, Modern Magick, p. 115.
- Israel Regardie, The Golden Dawn, pp. 154-65.
- Regardie, Golden Dawn, p.322; Kraig, Modern Magick, pp. 149-53.
- Regardie, Golden Dawn, p. 80.
- Regardie, Golden Dawn, pp. 280-286; Kraig, Modern Magick, pp. 206-209.
- Doreen Valiente, The Rebirth of Witchcraft, p. 64.
- Regardie, Golden Dawn, p. 631.
- Hutton, pp. 216-23; Valiente, Witchcraft for Tomorrow, p. 17.
- Bob Brier, Ancient Egyptian Magic, p.128.
References and further reading
- Barnes, Jonathan. Early Greek Philosophy. London: Penguin, 1987.
- Brier, Bob. Ancient Egyptian Magic. New York: Quill, 1980.
- Guthrie, W. K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. 6 volumes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962-81.
- Cunningham, Scott. Earth, Air, Fire and Water: More Techniques of Natural Magic.
- Hutton, Ronald. Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 2001.
- Kraig, Donald Michael. Modern Magick: Eleven Lessons in the High Magickal Arts. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1994.
- Lloyd, G. E. R. Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of His Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.
- Plato. Timaeus and Critias. Translated by Desmond Lee. Revised edition. London: Penguin, 1977.
- Regardie, Israel. The Golden Dawn. 6th edition. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1990.
- Schiebinger, Londa. The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
- Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. 3rd edition. 1999.
- Valiente, Doreen. Witchcraft for Tomorrow. Custer, Wash.: Phoenix Publishing, 1978.
- Valiente, Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. Custer, Wash.: Phoenix Publishing, 1989.
- Vlastos, Gregory. Plato’s Universe. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975.
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