The four elements are foundational to almost all Western occult practices. For this reason an accurate understanding of them is essential. The four elements are basically the four forces and substances that create and animate reality. They are fire, earth, air, and water.
Now, we’re going to get one big misconception out of the way right up front. The four elements are not literally fire and water and earth as we experience them. Each element is simply named for the most pure embodiment of that element in our world, which just so happens to be earth, fire, air, and water.
The four elements actually do exist, but it is almost more of a model for how different forces of creation and dissolution come together. In this sense we could analyze anything in terms of of its own four elements. For example, in your body, we might say the air is the air you breathe, the water is your blood, the earth is your flesh, and the fire is your internal heat. We can take a loaf of bread and say that the earth is the grain, the fire is the heat that cooked it, the air is the air inside, and the water is the water that was used in the dough. The wheat also required the four elements to grow, in the sense that it needed air, water, and earth as well as sunlight (fire).
All things are made of the four elements. The elements are united by creative activities into different substances, things, and bodies. When objects are destroyed, they revert back to the four elements. There is no part of the world that we experience where these elements are purely manifested, they are always at least slightly mixed. This means that the bodies that they compose can be shifted back and forth into different elemental states, where one element is dominant.
- Parts of earth may be dissolved in water, and become like water.
- In certain instances this mixture may become hard earth again, like silt in a river or clay
- Water, if evaporated through heat, passes into air.
- Earth (as in wood), when kindled, becomes fire.
- Fire, if extinguished, returns to air.
- The moisture in the air may revert back into water, as in condensation or rain.
- Deep in the Earth, and near volcanoes, that which is molten cools and hardens and becomes earth.
There are many other examples.
Plato didn’t think that all four elements were able to be shifted into one another. He thought that earth was a kind of unique and somewhat ultimate element: it could be transmuted into all of the other elements but would always revert back into earth. Other philosophers did think that all the elements were on equal footing, so to speak.
Every element has two qualities. The first quality is its ultimate quality, kind of like its proper or natural state: this is its primary quality. The second quality is like a lower, shifting quality that causes it to agree or disagree with the other elements.
Fire is primarily hot, it is also dry.
Earth is primarily dry, it is also cold.
Water is primarily cold,, it is also moist.
Air is primarily moist, it is also dry.
You can see that fire and water are opposites, because they share no qualities. All of their qualities are in opposition.
You can also see that fire and earth agree because they share the quality of dryness (like when fire is kindled from a log). Earth and water agree because they both share the quality of coldness (as when clay has a natural affinity to water). Water agrees with air because both share moisture as a quality (water into steam) and air and fire agree because they share dryness as a quality. Earth and air are opposites like fire and water.
This is most easily visualized in this chart:
These elements can be grouped and divided in many ways. For example earth and water are heavy, and fire and air are light. The stoic philosophers also called earth and water passive, while fire and air were active. You don’t need to concern yourself with the more esoteric divisions of the elements yet. For now, memorizing the square chart above will suffice.
It’s worth noting that both Aristotle and Plato suggested the idea of a fifth element: aither, aether in Latin, ether in English, formerly called “quintessence” (in fact this is where the word quintessentially comes from, you can see the Latin word for 5, quinque, right in the front because of the 5 elements). Definitions of ether range from empty space to, much more commonly, a kind of heavenly substance that fills everything. Some people call it spirit, and in the elemental composition of your body it would be your soul or life force. It’s understood that if you say “the four elements” you’re really referring to the five elements.
We’re using the Western system here but it may interest you to know that the five elements system was also used in India, Tibet, and China. In India and Tibet, it is basically the same except for the fifth element which is usually more explicitly “the void” or empty space. In China their system is almost completely different: their five elements are wood, earth, metal, fire and water.
We’ll take an in depth look at each element individually in the next chapter.