Air, Fire, Earth, and Water

From: Amara Graps (
Date: Sun Feb 25 2001 - 08:35:55 MST


I've explored a line of thinking regarding the four ancient

       Air, Fire, Earth, and Water.

The context I've considered is that the symbols of these four
elements have a very _old_ place (many thousands of years) in
humans' lives and these four elements are still used today. In a
scientific sense, Earth, Water, Air, and Fire are not bad symbols
for the four states of matter -- solid, liquid, gas, and plasma.

I'm intrigued by the widespread use of these symbols. As metaphors.
The fact that they've been successfully in use for thousands of
years, makes me wonder why our brains appear to have a preference
for organizing or categorizing the world with these elements.
Complementing the categorizing aspect is an "integrating" aspect:
some religious/spiritual practices use the symbols of the four
elements to show how one can live a more balanced/integrated life.

Some Greek history

The idea of everything being formed of these four elements
was first developed by the Greek philosopher Empedocles of Sicily.
Empedocles explains the nature of the universe through the
interaction of two governing principles, Love and Strife, on the four
primary elements. Earlier philosophers believed that the quality of
matter depends on the quantity of a particular element. For example,
Anaximenes asserts that air is the primary element in the universe,
condensing to form heavier matter such as water, and rarefying into
fire. However, Empedocles argues that the quality of matter depends
exclusively on the *ratio* of its elements. A stone, for example, is
stone because of a unique ratio of air, fire, earth, and water.
Empedocles explains differences in living matter using the same
argument; muscle is formed by a different combination of elements
than, say, bone or fat. His preoccupation with ratio illustrates the
strong influence of Pythagorean philosophers.
(from this Empedocles literature page:

I suppose the line of thinking that first led me to this was
Aristotle's teleology, and then I kept noticing these four elements
having a large role in a number of religious, holistic, occultic and
new-age practices today.

Here are some of the places I've seen the Four Elements.

The signs of the 12 signs of the zodiac are broken down into the
elements of Fire, Earth, Air, and Water.

"I am that I am" --> IHVH in Hebrew
Pentacles/Disks; element Earth and last 'H' in IHVH
Cups: element Water and first 'H' in IHVH
Swords: element Air and letter V of IHVH
Rods/Wands: element Fire and letter I of IHVH

The Kabbalah-ists' perspective, in addition, is that the Universal
Tree of Life, the numbered cards, can be divided into into themes
of the above ('Four Worlds' ... Plato?) which corresponds to the
'analysis of man':
1-> Fire
2,3 -> Water
4-9 -> Air
10 -> Earth
Court cards too:
Knight of Wands -> Fire of Fire
Queen of Wands -> Water of Fire
Prince of Wands -> Air of Fire
Princess of Wands -> Earth of Fire

They use the four elements to categorize rituals of every kind, so
that under each of the elements you can find suitable 'ingredients'
to use in particular practices. Some of the 'ingredients' (my word,
not theirs) listed in each of the Four Element are: Direction,
Rules, Time, Season, Colors, Tools, Jewel, Incense, Plants, Tree,
Goddesses, Gods, Spirits., So for example, if your desired ritual
requires that you do it at a particular time, and you know that you
want to encourage the "Air" element in your ritual, then you go to
the table of correspondences, and see "Dawn" as the appropriate
time. Their list of correspondences is really amazing. I don't know
where it comes from, but it appears to be very old.

Ayurveda is an ancient (originating ~5,000 years ago) Indian
healing/holistic system that has three parts: 1) Healing illness, 2)
Prevention of disease and 3) Longevity or age reversal. For the
Ayurvedans (is that a word?), they left out the element "Earth"
(maybe it was implicitly obvious to them...), and instead, have
built their holistic practice around the other three. The basic view
of Ayurveda is that all of life (people, food, animals, nature, the
universe, and diseases) are combinations of three energy-elements:
Air (called Vayu or Vata), Fire (called Pitta), and Water (called
Kapha). When these elements are balanced, one is healthy. Illness is
defined as an imbalance of these elements; all disorders excesses of
one or more element. So therefore, this system not only addresses
physical health, it also addresses aspects of daily life: family,
work, community, etc., and incorporates the three elements that way.


In Geroge Lakoff's book: _Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things:
What Categories Reveal About the Mind_,
he states that bodily experience adds to the basic-level of

\begin{quote} (pg. 302)
"The existence of directly meaningful concepts -- basic-level
concepts and image schemas -- provides certain fixed points in the
objective evaluation of situations. The image-schematic structure of
bodily experience is, we hypothesize, the same for all human beings.
[...] The consideration of certain gross patterns in our experience
-- our vertical orientation, the nature of our bodies as containers,
our ability to sense hot and cold, our experience of being empty as
opposed to filled, etc. suggests that our experiences is structured
kinesthetically in at least a gross way in a variety of experiential

Cognitive models derive their fundamental meaningfulness directly
from their ability to match up with preconceptual structure. Such
direct matchings provide a basis for an account of truth and
knowledge. Because such matching is "internal" to a person, the
irreconcilable problems in the objectivist theories do not arise in
experientialist theories.

In domains where there is no clearly discernible preconceptual
structure to our experience, we import such structure via metaphor.
Metaphor provides us with a means for comprehending domains of
experience that do not not have a preconceptual structure of their
own. A great many of our domains of experience are like this.
Comprehending experience via metaphor is one of the great
imaginative triumphs of the human mind. Much of rational thought
involves the use of mataphoric models. Any adequate account of
rationality must account for the use of imagination and much of
imaginations consists of metaphorical reasoning."

And a couple of related quotes regarding Metaphor:

"Understanding a thing is to arrive at a metaphor for that thing by
substituting something more familiar to use. We say we understand an
aspect of nature when we can say it is similar to some familiar
theoretical model."
(Julian Jaynes in _The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of
the Bicameral Mind_, pg. 52, 53)

"Scientific knowledge, like religious knowledge, is a set of
metaphors for a reality that can never be completely described or
comprehended. Religion becomes dogmatic when it confuses the
metaphor with the thing itself. Metaphors themselves are not
contradictory or antithetical; many can be true at once. They point
to something behond themselves; they are separate lights beaming at
the sam spot. (Starhawk in _The Spiral Dance_, pg. 219)

With regards to two of the above spiritual "systems" I noticed that
the oldest (many thousands of years) systems: Wicca and Ayurveda,
have no Jesus, no Moses, no Buddha... no *Leader*, in other words.
And the religious practices in these systems focus on the individual
being 'complete' by building from the 'inside', and not depending on
outside agents.

Here is a quote I saw from the Wiccans regarding 'the within'

"Each of us embodies the divine. Our ultimate spiritual authority is
within, and we need no other person to interpret the sacred to us.
We foster the questioning attitude, and we honor intellectual,
spiritual and creative freedom."
(Starhawk in _The Spiral Dance_, pg. 6)

This note is a bit of a ramble with some interconnected ideas that I
found interesting. Have a good Sunday.


Amara Graps email:
Computational Physics vita: finger
Multiplex Answers URL:
"Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the
future of the human race." -- H. G. Wells

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