Fire’s color is red. Fire is active, masculine, spontaneous, quick, initiating, vitalizing, and energetic. Fire is usually associated with feeling and emotion. Its natural position is above the other elements and it naturally attempts to rise above them. Fire is the boundless and often mischievous part of the nature of things.
Fire has one of the most dualistic identities out of all the elements. Fire can be like the fire of heaven which is luminous, purifying, and nurturing or it can be like the fire of hell that is tormenting and destructive. Fire can both destroy and produce.
Curiously, fire is always obtained from other sources, most commonly from flint, steel, or wood.
It is found in water, as in hot springs, and it is found in the air which we often burn. All animals and living things, even plants, live through the heat trapped inside themselves, and if this heat is removed, they will die.
Fire produces light, which augments the power of good spirits and weakens the power of evil spirits. Almost all religions utilize light and fire in some way. Pythagoras supposedly said: “Do not speak of God without a light”.
Fire is both bright and secretive, and it freely transfers itself to receptive objects that come near it. It matures and refines things, it transforms, it destroys. It has the power to intermingle and unify. It rises and pushes limits.
Substances that are mostly fire are catalytic and reactive.
Water’s color is blue. Water is passive, feminine, receptive, sustaining, subconscious, creative, fluid, and generative. Water is often associated with the subconscious and intuition. It is cold and wet. Water surrounds earth and is surrounded by air. It allows things to be molded, it easily changes shape. It naturally sinks. Anything liquid is mostly the water element.
Water is so necessary that without it nothing can live. Seeds of all kinds need water to become fruitful. Water is so spiritually potent that it may even be used to cleanse someone’s spirit, as in a baptism. Christ says in the Gospel of John, “Unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God”.
Water is often seen as the beginning of all things in mythology and cosmology, and thus water is sometimes seen as the ultimate element. Pliny, for example said that water swallows up earth, extinguishes flame, rises, and stretches forth clouds that block out the heavens, then comes back to Earth as rain, providing the source of all life.
There are many stories of water’s miraculous healing properties. There were often lakes where it was known that an angel would frequently come and touch the surface of the water. The first person to go into the lake after it was touched would be cured of all illnesses. One of these lakes is described in the Gospel of John (5:2 – 4). Nymphs were also said to occupy springs and impart miraculous healing. These stories reflect the healing power of water, which has most likely been used to clean wounds since the dawn of humanity.
There are also stories from antiquity, one recorded by Pausanias, for example, of a priest of Jupiter that would visit a special spring in the mountains of Arcadia during droughts. By making sacrifices and stirring the spring with an oak branch, it is said that a vapor would rise from the spring, and set out to dispense rain over Arcadian lands.
This tale nicely illustrates the mystical and essential nature of water.
Air’s color is yellow. Air is active, masculine, intellectual, ethereal, abstract, and communicative. Air is most commonly associated with thinking. As human thought processes are quick, changeable, and abstract, air is a natural metaphor for them.
Air is above water but beneath fire (in a literal and physical sense). It rarefies, makes things lighter, more delicate, and softer. Imagine the difference between a thick, dense loaf of bread and one with air whipped into it.
In a spiritual sense the properties of air make things better equipped to move through the higher spheres.
Air passes through all beings, and fills all empty spaces on Earth. It receives the influence of the celestial bodies, and communicates it to things and beings on Earth. It is also, perhaps non-coincidentally, the only element that can transmit speech. Air is therefore an element of transference and transportation.
It is recorded in Western occult texts that air retains the impression made on it and carries it for a period of time, like an invisible and temporal footprint. For example, if a man is murdered somewhere, even if the body and evidence are removed, a passer-by will still get a “bad feeling” from the impression left in the air. Today, we know this as a place having a “bad vibe”.
Many ancient philosophers, for this reason, thought that the air could cause dreams, and could also transmit ideas, especially to the mind of one made receptive to them. It has also been posited that the air could be a telepathic medium. Many occultists claim to have successfully transmitted ideas through the air at long distances, Agrippa and Trithemius claim to have done this, for example.
The idea of rainbows and light being transmitted through the air also most likely influenced our ancestors conception of this element.
Perfectly fitting in with the “transportive” theme, wind is also a fundamental aspect of the air element. Air stretches, it expands, rises, and moves towards limits, like a gas expanding to fill its container. Any substance that is normally a gas is mostly air.
Earth’s color is green. Earth is passive, feminine, solid, slow, physical, stable, and grounded. It is normally associated with solidity, fertility, and persistence. It’s often related to the physical body. It is dry and cold.
Some say earth is the foundation of all the other elements. Earth is the center of our experience. Earth receives the celestial rays, and earth nurtures the seeds that later bring forth life.
It is made fruitful by the other elements. It receives all things equally, and therefore it represents a type of equanimity.
The earth brings forth metals, stones, plants, and many animals; it is obviously a type of mother to humanity. The idea that plants and animals, especially insects, were spontaneously generated in the earth was extremely common in ancient times. Plato and Aristotle discussed this, and as late as the 1600s the idea that maggots could spontaneously form in meat was common. In antiquity, it was believed that metals grew in the earth in the same way that we now know crystals grow today. Crystals, a beautiful embodiment of earth, were previously thought to be ice that had permanently petrified under extremely cold temperatures. These ideas of animals, metals, and crystals forming spontaneously in the earth most likely had a big impact on how our ancestors viewed earth as an element.
Earth obviously holds many secrets. The element of earth is naturally stationary, it will return to its position if moved. Our bodies are mostly earth, anything solid is primarily earth.
There are the symbols for each element. They are almost universal in Western occult, and we’ll be using them in this series. I’ll briefly describe an easy way of remembering them here, although their origin appears to be lost to time or semi-arbitrarily conceived. I would guess that they became standardized sometime during the period when alchemy was going more mainstream and paving the way for modern science, sometime after the 1400s.
The symbol for fire is an upwards pointing triangle. This is easy to remember because a flame is kind of triangle shaped, and fire naturally rises.
The symbol for air is an upwards pointing triangle with a horizontal line running through it. It looks kind of like a mountain, which reaches up into the air. The line also moves from left to right, like the wind.
The symbol for water is a downward pointing triangle. This makes it the visual opposite of fire. It also points down, the direction water most naturally moves in.
The symbol for earth is a downward pointing triangle with a horizontal line running through it. It looks like an island sticking out of the water, or like the spade of a shovel poking into the Earth.
The symbol for ether is a circle divided into six or eight sections by evenly spaces diametric lines. You can see this as a wheel, or a sphere with axial lines running through it. This symbol is far less common than the other four. If you used the four triangular symbols anywhere, it would be safe to assume that anyone familiar with Western occult would recognize them. This symbol is less likely to be recognized because it’s vague and used far less often. If the ether symbol is used with the other symbols, people may recognize it.
These four elements form four “perfect” bodies on Earth. These four perfect bodies are stones, metals, plants, and animals. This is basically the animal, vegetable, and mineral subdivision from our modern sciences with the mineral category split into metals and stones.
Each body is a mix of elements, but each body has an element that dominates within it. Because of this we may say that the body, in some ways, resembles the element.
Stones are mostly earth. They’re heavy, they descend, and they’re so hard and dry (features of earth) that they cannot be melted.
Metals are mostly water. They may be melted and made fluid. There is even a metal (mercury, quicksilver) that is liquid at room temperature, though other metals melt above room temperature. They are also sympathetic to cold, like water.
Plants have a natural kinship with air, as they get a substantial amount of their sustenance from air. They are also light, and their nature is somewhat like the air: passive, subtle, yet also powerful.
Animals have a special relationship with the fire element. They live by virtue of the fiery force inside themselves. Like fire, they die if they are extinguished.
Each of these sub-divisions can also be broken down in terms of the four elements. For stones, there are stones that are more earth: these stones are darker and heavier. There are stones that have more of the water element: these stones are waterish, like crystals, beryl, and pearls (people formerly thought that pearls and crystals were made from water – they also resemble water by virtue of being transparent, reflective, etc.). Stones that have more air float and are spongeous, like pumice, and there are fiery stones that we can obtain fire from, like flint.
In metals, there are earthy metals like lead, watery metals like mercury, metals that are sympathetic to and respond to the air like copper and tin, and there are fiery metals that have qualities of fire, such as gold.
In plants we can say that the earthy part is the root and that which grows below the earth. The watery part is the leaves that contain moisture, the airy part is the flower that blooms in the air and is delicate and subtle, and the fire is the seeds which contain the life and multiplying spirit of the plant.
Nature is weird.
In animals the earth animals would be the ones who dwell in the earth, like worms and moles. There are obviously many water animals, like fish and other ocean based animals, there are also obviously animals that partake more of the air such as birds. Animals that have a stronger relationship with fire like in extreme heat and live with minimal water. We can also break down the individual components of an animal and say that the bones are the sustaining framework, like the earth. The flesh, being delicate, is like the air, which it naturally responds to. The fire is the vital spirit of the animal, and the water is the many fluids that are necessary for life, like blood or literal water.
Alchemists and occult practitioners of the past also saw the interplay of the different parts of the human soul in terms of the four elements. Man’s understanding is like fire, in that it has the power to transform and illuminate. Man’s reason is like air by virtue of its subtlety and communicative power. His imagination is like water, in that it is fluid, capricious, mysterious, and healing. His senses are like earth as they are coarse and overwhelmingly physical.
They also saw the senses of man in terms of the four elements: sight is fire, as we can only see by way of illumination, which is a property of fire. Hearing is air, as we primarily hear sounds that are transported to us on the air. Smell and taste are water, as we smell and taste mostly by transported moisture, and our noses and mouths function by virtue of moisture. The sense of touch is obviously earth as it is the most physical and it is used to sense physical objects.
Your nature and changing disposition can also be seen in terms of the four elements: sometimes you are slow and firm like earth, sometimes your watery nature predominates and you are fearful or sluggish and capricious, when an airy and light nature is dominant you are cheerful and amiable. When fire is dominant, you are fierce, angry, and quick – like fire.
Hopefully by this point you can see that the four elements are a way of understanding how different forces relate to each other, come together, and dissipate. It is basically a simple lens for understanding the interplay of harmonious qualities that we see in all aspects of our lives. It may be interesting to you to look at other things, such as the seasons or the characters in a novel you enjoy, in terms of the four elements. For now, we’re going to move on to our next topic: the zodiac.