Re: Air, Fire, Earth, and Water

From: Harvey Newstrom (
Date: Sun Feb 25 2001 - 15:18:06 MST

At 4:35pm +0100 2/25/01, Amara Graps wrote:
>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.

This is an obvious interpretation, except that I prefer to use energy
instead of plasma. The ancients didn't know about plasma. Their
fire included heat and light, and sometimes lightning.

>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.

I'm don't think our brains have a preference for these four elements.
The Ayurveda system has three elements. The Chinese had five
elements. The Greek had four and later five elements. Some American
Indian systems had six elements. There does not seem to be a
universal tie with the four elements that you list. Ancient
proto-scientists merely classified matter into the different types
that they perceived. Remember that the Eskimos have many more
classifications of ice and snow than most cultures.

Air includes all known vapors and gasses. To the ancients, all of
these were detected by smelling or seeing these substances in the
air. They never saw gasses that were not mixed with air.

Fire was pretty much the only energy source they recognized. It
included heat and light. They therefore interpreted body heat as a
form of fire in the body. They saw the sun as being made of fire.
They even interpreted lightning as a form of fire. It obviously had
light, and where it struck ground it left charred remains or started
a fire.

Earth includes all ancient solids. The ground was solid. Stones
were dug up from the ground. Metal was mined from the ground.
Crystals were mined from the earth. Even wood grew out of the
ground. The ancients even interpreted humans as being made from the
earth and returning to the earth. Given the growth of tadpoles in
mud and the common belief in biogenesis, they literally though
animals grew out of the ground.

Water includes all ancient liquids. Except for oils, all of the
ancient liquids were water-based. They could easily distill water
out of these liquids. Therefore assigning all liquids as water made
sense. (They interpreted oil as being a mixture of fire and water,
or burning-water.)

These four classification of everything in the universe down to four
types of matter seems to be more reality-based than psychology-based.
Simple observation showed four types of matter that behaved
differently from each other. There is no need to interpret mystical
reasons for the choice of these four elements. I suspect that the
reality is the reverse. If the physical world is made up of four
states of matter, they might have corresponding states in religious,
philosophical or psychological thought.

>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.

The roots of religion, occult and science all derived from the more
primitive knowledge that was available in ancient times. There is
nothing special about the fact that all history traces back to a
smaller subset of knowledge.

>Here are some of the places I've seen the Four Elements.
>The Kabbalah-ists' perspective, in addition, is that the Universal

Except for the Ayurveda system, most of what you describe is derived
from the Golden Dawn system of magic. This system of magic tried to
coordinate these other systems into a coherent whole. Although the
system is based on the historical understanding of these different
beliefs, it also retroactively determined correspondences between
these systems. This modern reorganization and reinterpretation of
the other systems has since influenced these other systems during the
last century. This gives the impression that all ancient systems are
very much synchronized. Research into the ancient versions of these
systems will show them in a much more primitive state and much less
synchronized than they appear today.

My summary also includes Wicca and Paganism. These belief systems
were very much influenced by early Golden Dawn members. Much of our
modern understanding of ancient systems is really a projection of
these modern beliefs onto ancient practices. Instead of seeing all
of these ancient systems as confirming a single coherent system, I
see our modern understanding of all these systems as being derived
from a single primary source of consolidation, e.g. the Golden Dawn.
Although these different systems seem to be independent-minded, they
all derive from a consistent "canonization" of standard doctrines,
much as the Catholic Church standardized their dogmatic beliefs into
a consistent whole.

Harvey Newstrom <>

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