Classical elements in popular culture

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Classical elements have been frequently used in pop culture in genres such as fantasy, literature,[1] film, humor,[2] television, video games, comic books, toys and even music.[3][4] Typically a character or characters are linked to one or more of the four classical elements (air, water, earth and fire) common to most ancient philosophies (particularly the Greek, Hindu, Buddhist and Japanese or Chinese traditions), either through special powers granted, ability to mimic the element, or other means. Sometimes a fifth element is included, such as aether (also known as Quintessence), void, as was the case in the movie The Fifth Element, something else altogether. Light and/or darkness are also often portrayed as elements in addition to the classical four or in place of any of them.


The classical elements and their use in literary history have served as the subject of various published books. In The Elements: Earth Air Fire Water (How Artists See), Colleen Carroll examines "how the four elements have been depicted in works of art from different time periods and places."[5] In Legends of Earth,Ice,Fire and Water, Eric Hadley and Tessa Hadley provide a "collection of myths and legends from different parts of the world about the four basic elements without which life would not be possible."[6] According to Publishers Weekly, in Earth, Fire, Water, Ice, Mary Hoffman and Jane Ray collect "snippets of factual information, myths, stories, poems and musings in this fascinating volume about the four classic elements."[7]

The reception of the classical elements by scholars and mainstream critics varies considerably, largely depending on the medium and/or use of the classical elements. For example, the classical elements have served as significant plot elements in the various Mortal Kombat fictional universes. Blaze, a fire elemental, appears in multiple Mortal Kombat games, including as the end boss in the most recent game. The film Mortal Kombat: Annihilation features Elder gods based on the four elements, which are mentioned chastisingly in Christian reviews.[8]

Notable examples[edit]

The Alchemy Index[edit]

The Alchemy Index is Thrice's fifth studio recording, a four-disc concept album that was split between two releases, the first in October 2007 and the second in April 2008. The band originally planned to release four discs at once, each disc with six tracks representing one of the four classical elements: Fire, Water, Earth, and Air.

Recorded in guitarist Teppei Teranishi's house in Orange, "Alchemy" is full of experimentation. Inspired by Radiohead, Botch, Pelican and ISIS among others, Thrice has produced an effort that can be blisteringly heavy and melodically serene, as evidenced by the sludgy baritone guitar work of "Fire" and the sampled drums, synthesizers and piano on "Water." Kensrue said "Earth," recorded to sound as if the listener was in the room where it was being played, features acoustic guitars, upright bass, banjos, piano, tambourine and some horns. Air, the singer said, is the most dynamic and ties the other three records together.[9]

The final song on each disc is written in the form of a sonnet, depicting the relationship of man with each of the particular elements. Each of these songs is in iambic pentameter, with a concluding rhyming couplet. These final couplets also contain the same vocal melody and chord progression as each other, although they are in different keys. The artwork for the Album was designed by Dustin Kensrue.

Fantastic Four[edit]

In the comic book series Fantastic Four, each of the four characters have powers that relate to the Greek elements. The two most obvious links are the Human Torch (whose fire control power is best expressed through the image of him as a burning man) and the Thing (who resembles a living being of rock and stone). Mister Fantastic, while not having water-based powers, does have a fluid form. The Invisible Woman's powers of invisibility and force fields evoke the unseen forces of wind and air. This is especially true in Neil Gaiman's Marvel 1602, where the Invisible Woman is both permanently invisible and weightless.[10][11]


  1. ^ Juliet Heslewood, Jane Lydbury, Hugh Marshall, Tamara Capellaro, and Alison McNeill, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water (Oxford University Press, USA, 1989).
  2. ^ See the MacBook Earth, Water and Fire
  3. ^ Don Dupont and Brian Hiller, Earth, Water, Fire, Air: A Suite for Voices, Narrator and Orff Instruments (Memphis Musicraft Publications, 2005).
  4. ^ New Album: Francis M - Earth Wind Fire Water
  5. ^ Colleen Carroll, The Elements: Earth Ice Fire Water (How Artists See) (Abbeville Press, 1999).
  6. ^ Eric Hadley and Tessa Hadley, Legends of Earth, Ice, Fire and Water (Cambridge University Press, 1985).
  7. ^ Mary Hoffman and Jane Ray, Dutton Juvenile; 1st American ed edition, 1995).
  8. ^ Tyson Gibson, "Review of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," Christian light on Entertainment.
  9. ^ Pirani, Niyaz (2007-10-15). "Thrice gets in touch with its elements on its new project". The Orange County Register. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  10. ^ Douglas Wolk (1 July 2008). Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Da Capo Press, Incorporated. p. 96. ISBN 978-0-7867-2157-3.
  11. ^ Philippe Mayaux; Jean-Pierre Bordaz (2007). Philippe Mayaux: à mort l'infini. Éditions du Centre Pompidou. ISBN 978-2-84426-330-8.