The Elements are the Fundamental Division in Nature
Numerous astrological and metaphysical books give the impression that the Elements are more fundamental than the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, because the Signs can be broken down into groups of four elements. Identification of the Triplicities with the four Elements appears, however, relatively recent: the Twelve-Sign Zodiac existed more than 1,500 years before Aries, Leo and Sagittarius became the Fire Signs.
Why 4 Elements?
The first mention of the four Elements in the West comes from the Pythagoreans. Pythagoras left no writings, and secondary sources of his life and teachings by later authors are often biased. Living in the mental climate of the 6th Century BC, Pythagoras is said to have studied in Babylon, perhaps the source of the doctrine of Four Elements. The Pythagorean world was composed of four Elements, four seasons, while life had four stages. In the following century, Empedocles first taught that each human being is likewise composed of the same four Elements. The Elements exist both without and within. They were later combined into systems incorporating the concepts of hot, cold, moist and dry with the four humors of Hippocrates.
The Pythagoreans highly esteemed the number Four. The figure 4 basically forms a cross, and the cross or square naturally represent fourness. The square and cross are artifices of mind, there are no straight lines in nature because we live on a sphere. We live in the circle of our horizon on which we impose the four points of the compass to orientate ourselves. Two pairs of opposites make fourness. The square or cross in the circle forms a mandala, and figures of this kind seem universal: the cross of matter and the circle of infinity which comprise our planetary glyphs. Groups of four come in many forms: the four Tarot suits. The four horsemen of the apocalypse, the four Evangelists, the four cardinal virtues, the four letters of God’s name “the Tetragrammaton.
The 4 Elements in the History of Philosophy and Science
The power of the four elements can be seen implicitly in the pantheons of the earliest civilization, in deities of sea, Moon, Sun and flame, Earth and wind. The Elements, individually and collectively, have also provided a fruitful source of metaphor. Mythology has numerous elemental figures like the Watery Deity Okeanos and Tethys. The classical Greek Pantheon derived ultimately from the marriage of Heaven and Earth, Ouranos and Gaia. Zeus ruled the sky, Poseidon the Waters, and Hades the depths of the Earth. The Sumerian triad Anu, Enlil and Ea or Enki, ruled respectively sky, Earth and Waters. Marduk in Babylon, Hephaestos, Greek God of volcanoes, and the Persian Ahura Mazda are all Fire gods. The deification of the physical Elements embody the life principles which the Elements themselves symbolism.
This association of deities with the four elements was formalized in the fifth century BCE, in the writtings of the Greek philosopher Empedocles of Acragas (c. 495-c. 435 BCE). In his work Tetrasomia Empedocles wrote : “Now hear the fourtfold Root of everything : Enlivering Hera, Aidoneus, bright Zeus, And Nestis, moistening mortal springs with tears.” Empedocles selected four archai for his four roots: air, fire, water, and earth. Ancient and modern opinions differ as to whether he identified air by the divine name Hera, Aidoneus, or even Zeus. Empedocles’ roots became the four classical elements of Greek philosophy.
By the 6th Century BC the pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece were defining the nature of the physical universe, although earlier mythological connotations echo through their theories, with the Elements inspiring almost religious awe. By singling out one supreme Element from which the rest derive, some of these philosophers perhaps afford a glimpse of their own psychological inclinations
Philolaos, the fifth century BCE Pythagorean philosopher wrote on the fourfold ordering of the elements to the four segment of the zodiacal circle. This may have been the first association of the circle. This may have been the first association of the circle in quarters with the elements, and also emphasises the symbolic relevance of the symbol for planet Earth, being a circle with an equalarmed cross dividing it into four quarters. These four quarters thus equate to the four elements which the planet is comprised of.
The Pythagoreans associated the elements with the natural cycle, trying the qualities of the elements to the seasons of plant growth. Thus we see the process beginning with Moisture, the springf rains which encourage rapid growth, producing the green shoots as plants growth towards the sun. This leads to the second phase of Warmth, where the summer sun encourages growth (through photosynthesis) to maturity. The third phase is Dryness, the leaves of autumns and the stiffening of steam. Finally the fourth phase is Cool, the chills of winter, death and retreat into the earth ready for the cycle to begin again. This relationship between the four elements and the four qualities was well known, and is clearly illustrated in Simon Forman’s sixteenth century alchemical work Of the Division of Chaos: “Then out of this Chaos, the four elements were made: Heat and cold, moist and dry, in like wise, Which are the beginning of all creatude wide, That under the globe of Luna abide.”
Other great philosophers subsequently applied themselves to the clarification and expansion of this doctrine. Aristotle in the fourth century BCE expounded further on the elements as spiritual essences, concentrating on their qualities in his work De Generatione et Corrupione. A few decades later, in his Timaeus, Plato postulated a different view of the four elements, suggesting that the elements were instead changeable as manifested qualities of the primary matter of the universe.
The stoics held a different view of the four elements, attributing only one quality each to them rather than the two suggested by Empedocles, Aristotle and Plato. They declared “Fire is the hot element, water the moist, air the cold, earth the dry.” These two somewhat different views would between them influence the early Christian theologians like Athenagoras, Aristides and Eusebius and Eusebius and Jewish philosophers like Philo and Josephus. Even though both schools of thought were influencial, and permeated the views of the time, they did not go off on the tangent seen in Gnosticism, where the elements were divided into good and evil.
Ptolemy makes no reference to the Elements in his writings on Astrology. He speaks of the trigons, or triplicites, but does not connect them with the Elements. He describes the planets in terms of the qualities hot, cold, moist and dry. Mars for example, is hot and dry, which, in the traditional system of correlation (see figure 1), would correspond to Fire. Manilius and later Fimmicus refer to the four Elements in philosophical terms, as the basic components of the world and of humankind, but do not link them to astrological factors.
The link between the Elements and Astrology begins with the four humors of Hippocratic Medicine. The Hippocratic writings of the 6th century BC had already related the four humors to the qualities (see figure 1). By Ptolemy’s time or just after the humors had been likened to the four Elements.
The notion that the universe is composed of the four Elements is by no means universal. Certainly the Four Elements play an important role both in the Indian tradition, and the European tradition derived from ancient Greece via Rome and Arabia. Whether the doctrine passed from West to East or East to West, or possibly came from a late Babylonian tradition and spread both ways, it forms no part of the known ancient mythological heritage of Mesopotamia. The Chinese system employs five, and sometimes six Elements, with no Air, but includes Wood and/or Metal. Elsewhere a fifth element sometime transcends, unites, or gives birth to the usual four “Hindu aether” or the “alchemist’s quintessence” in China all five Elements rank equal. The Orient uses a subtler, pentangular framework to view the elemental composition of the universe than the four-square vision of all points west. Sets of four, like the four directions, are common all over the world, but not the Western Four Elements, the four roots, as Empedocles called them, of the Western world’s view. In the illustration here, the humors and reasons related to the qualities established in the Corpus Hippocrericum (5th Century BC) with the Elements and planets later attributed to them.
The Christian view of the body put forward by the eartly Christian theologians was that it was comprised of the four elements with the fift element (aether) being the animating soul. This Christian view the very much the one which would continue through the centuries into the western esoteric traditions and the various schools of magic working withing it.
By the middle Ages the planets had been allotted to the Elements. But the first references to Fiery, Earthy, Watery, Airy signs appear in the work of Nostradamus, so the matching of triplicites with Elements may be a product of the Renaissance. One German source from as late as 1495 describes Taurus, Aries and Virgo as Earthy Signs. Venus was also generally considered a Watery planet and Jupiter Airy, though neither planet rules a Sign now of those Elements.Sources give inequitable accounts of the four temperaments: Fiery, Earthy, Airy and Watery.
The Greek spiritual alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis attributed the elements to the four cardinal points in his classic third century CE work Upon the Letter Omega. The attribution of the four elements to the four directions remained constant for many centuries, with Fire in the east, Air in the south, Water in the west and earth in the north. This can be seen through to at least the eighteenth century, where the Key of Solomon records that “the spirits created of fire are in the East and those of the winds in the South.”
It would be Eliphas Levi in the mid nineteenth century with his writings who clearly switched the attributions of Air and Fire, giving Air as being attributed to the East and Fire to the South. “It must be borne in mind that the special kingdom of Gnomes is at north that of Salamanders at the south, that of Sylphs at the east, and that of Undines at the west.” This attribution was picked up by the Hermetci Order of the Golden Dawn, and has become the standard attribution in nearly all of the Western Esoteric Tradition.
The Chinese system employs five, and sometimes six Elements, with no Air, but includes Wood and/or Metal. Elsewhere a fifth element sometime transcends, unites, or gives birth to the usual four “Hindu aether” or the “alchemist’s quintessence” in China all five Elements rank equal. The Orient uses a subtler, pentangular framework to view the elemental composition of the universe than the four-square vision of all points west. Sets of four, like the four directions, are common all over the world, but not the Western Four Elements, the four roots, as Empedocles called them, of the Western world’s view.
In Goethe’s play Faust Part 2, set mostly in classical Greece, the philosophers Thales and Anaxagoras debate the relative power of Water and Fire. Goethe clearly sides with Thales’ non-violent Water and Anaxagoras, the more violently-inclined proponent of Fire, fond of volcanic eruptions, suffers defeat. Knowing this, it is interesting to note that Goethe’s own horoscope shows five planets and the Ascendant in Water.
The Element Based View of the World in Magic
The four elements of Air, Fire, Water and Earth exist as spiritual essences, as philosophical concepts, as energy states and as tangible physical reality. When we work with elements we are returning to the building blocks of magic, rooting our feet in the physical world to effect positive vhange, whether that be in our psyches, our lives or our environment. Because of their immediate and solid presence in the natural world, the four elements are the simplest forces to work magic with. However, this simplicity does not indicate a lack of power, rather it is a tangible purity of being which we can touch and learn to control. In mastering the four elements within and without the magician is learning to master himself, bringing the external forces of the natural world and the internal forces of his existence into harmony.
We can see the awesome destructive power of the elements when they are isolated (or out of balance), such as tidal wave, earthquake or forest fire. This emphasis on the power of the elements demonstrates a simple truth about them, which is their physical reality. Unlike other forms of magic, elemental magic draw on powers which are immediately to hand. Our world, and everything on it, is made up of four elements.
Whenever we travel on the face of the earth, if we are on land we are in touche with the Element of earth. Likewise we are always in touch with the element of air, which surrounds us and keeps us alive. We are rarely far from water, whether it be the sea, a river, or even the piping which brings water into the home. Fire is also nearby, but in a slightly different way. Natural fire is beneath the earth, in the molten core within the planet, and the lava which spews out of volcanoes when they erupt. Fire can be created in the strike in the strike of a match or by many other methods. So when we perform elemental magic, we drawn on forces which are always in contact with us (air and earth), or are easily located or collected (water) or created (fire).
Working with the four elements is the foundation of practical magic. Learning to understand the qualities and powers of the four elements enables the magician to recognise their presence in the different parts of their being, from the physical to the emotional, mental, spiritual. This is followed by focusing the will to control and direct the power of the elements, a skill which develops through experience and understanding gained in practice.
The use of elemental energy may range from powering of charms or sigils and the charging of spells, to the transformation of the psyche, and the creation of elementaries (thought-forms). In the past forms of the four elements were also commonly used for other purpoes such as being the physical mediums for divination. Each of te elements were also commonly used for other purposes such as being the physical mediums for divination. Each of the elements has associated qualities making them partiularly suited to magick with specific applications, so for example when creating a talisman or ritual to improve fertility the best element to work with would be the element of Earth, or to ensure exam success the most suitable element would be air.
Once established, the fourfold system of the elements became the foundation for the western traditions of magic, and also influenced the spirituality of the developping religions. Whilst the influence of the four elements on religion has decreased over the centuries, the converse is true with magic, and the four elements have become, if anything, even more important in the practice of magic. This is largely due to the fact that the four elements represent the building blocks of form and the transformative actions of force. Like we have previously see, Empedocle expressed the view that the four elements were not only the building blocks of the universe, but also spiritual essences. He equated the sources of the elements to deities, giving divine origins to the elements. We must note that Empedocles did not call his four principles ‘elements’ (stoikheia), but rather he used the terms ‘roots’ (rhizai) and ‘root-clumps’ (rhizotomoi) and created his theory in the process of developping a doctrine of occult sympathies in plants.
As physical and spiritual realities, the four elements are around us at all times, and they are constantly interacting. The method of their interaction is one of transformation or domination. The principles of this interaction were originally laid out by the Greek philosopher Aristotle., and then subsequently developped many centuries later by the Spanish mystic Raymon Lull (1229-1315 CE).
The interaction depends on the quantities of the elements and also whether they share qualities or not. Elements which do not share common qualities can also not be transformed into each other. They can only be dominated or overcome by the element which is present in a greater quantity. In an equal quantity they effectively neutralise each other. Thus the polarities of fire and water, and of earth and air, cannot be transformed into each other. In the right circumstances the conjunction of opposites may lead to a greater whole, and this one of the fundamental principles of physical alchemy.
When two elements with a common quality interacts, the element which is present in a greater quantity will overcome. The lesser quantity element. For example air and water are both moist, but if a greater quantity of air acts on a smaller quantity of water, the warmth of the air would overcome the coolness of the water, i.e. it would evaporate. This process is reversible – if the air containing a smaller quantity of water came into contact with a greater quantity of water, the water held in the air would become water again, i.e. it would prcipitate (rain) or condense.
Aristotle observed that when two opposing elements are acted upon by a third element, the third element can drawn a quality from each of the two opposing elements and transform tem into itself. Thus earth and air are in opposition, but if e.g. they were acted upon by fire, the fire would draw the warmth from air and the dryness from the earth and tranform them into itself.
Effectively we can see that the earth would provide the physical fuel and the air would provide the correct sustenance (oxygen) to enable the fire to grow.
Raymon Lull observed that if elements which share a quality combine in equal measure the element in which that quality is dominant will overcome the other element. Thus fire will overcome air, air will overcome water, water will overcome earth, and earth will overcome fire. In each instance the more subtle element overcomes the less subtle element, with the exception of earth, which overcomes fire.
The Elemental Rulers
The first reference to a group of elemental rulers is found in Liber Juratus in the thrirteenth century, where they are called elemental angels or dominators. These are Cherub (air), Seraph or Nathaniel (fire), Tharsis (water) and Ariel (earth). The same four beings are subsequently referred to by Agrippa in his Three Books of Occult Philosophy, as well as in The Magical Calendar and in the Semiphoras and Shemhamphorash of King Solomon in the same role. In the Key of Solomon the four names are used in one of the Jupiterian pentacles, for protection from all earthly perils. Significantly they are set in an equalarmed cross in a circle, in the symbol of planet Earth, with a verse from Psalm 22 :16-17 around the edge. We use these names as part of the elemental pentacle design to good effect, as will be seen subsequently.
The names may seem somewhat confusing, as Cherub is also the name of a type of angel, and Ariel has several attributions, though these do include the appropriate rulership of the triplicity of zodiacal Earth signs. However the use of confusing names is also seen with those promoted by Eliphas Levi in his books for elemental kings, which have moved into popular usage. These are Paralda (air), Djin (fire), Nicsa or Niksa (water) and Ghob (earth). The name Djin is clearly drawn from the Arabic Djinn, the fire spirits popularized in the West as genie. Kiksa derives from nixie, the treacherous German shapeshifting water spirit found in folklore. The king of the Gnome was called Gob in medieval tales, hence the name Ghob for the king of the Earth elementals. The name Paralda however does not seem to have any precedent in earlier mythology or folklore.
The different names for the elemental rulers does not indicate a separate set of beings, rather they are groups of names for the same beings. This is significant, as through the centuries different magicians and groups have found names through experience which work for them. Whether the magician prefer the names from Liber Juratus, or the names given by Levi, or another set of names is a matter of personal preference.
What is important witn the elemental rulers is their role as directors of the energy of their elements. An elemental ruler is hugely powerful compared to a simple elemental being. The lowest level Elemental beings are simply creatures, with a specific purpose and little intelligence. The elemental rulers are usually visualised in human or semi-human form, recalling the words of Frederich Fouqué in his novel Undine (1811): « You must know, my sweet one, that there are beigs in the elements which look almost like you (children of men) but do not let you glimpse them very often. »
The Elemental Entities in Magic and Folklore
An elemental is a mythological being first appearing in the alchemical works of Paracelsus in the 16th century. The elemental beings are powerful and primal, they are the pure essence of the physical forms of matter in its diversity. As such they should be treated with respect, although you should also bear in mind that elemental beings vary in their type, and many are single-minded creatures embodying the power of their element. This single-mindedness is both their strength and weakness, for it can provide huge amounts of energy, but it tends to be inflexible.
Traditionally, Elemental beings are of four types:
Gnomes, earth elementals
Undines, water elementals
Sylphs, air elementals
Salamanders, fire elementals.
The exact term for each type varies somewhat from source to source, though these four are now the most usual. Most of these beings are found in folklore as well as alchemy; their names are often used interchangeably with similar beings from folklore. The sylph, however, is rarely encountered outside of alchemical contexts and fan media.
The basic concept of an elemental refers to the ancient idea of elements as fundamental building blocks of nature. In the system prevailing in the Classical world, there were four elements: fire, earth, air, and water. This paradigm was highly influential in medieval natural philosophy, and Paracelsus evidently intended to draw a range of mythological beings into this paradigm by identifying them as belonging to one of these four elemental types.
However although they were not called elementals or saganae (meaning ‘elements’) until the works of Paracelsus in the Middle Ages, we can see that the same beings were previously described in the ancient world. Iamblichus in his classic fourth century CE work Theurgia discussed daimons (spirits), and introduced the idea that they could be elemental in nature, and did not maintain a physical corporality in the same way as man.
This concept was developed by Proclus in the fifth century CE, who divided the daimons (spirits) into five classes of being, rulers of Fire, Air, Water, Earth and the Underworld, thus providing an elemental division by kingdom which would evolve into the worldview espoused by Paracelsus.
The medieval view of elementals expressed by Paracelsus in his classic work Liber de nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus was that they often appeared in human form, and frequently lived among men. A reason for this was that they did not have a soul, and if they married a human they gained a soul, and likewise any offspring with a human would automatically have a soul. This was discussed in another major work regarding elementals, the ‘fictional’ Le Compte de Gabalis by Monfaucon De Villars(1670), which was later heavily plagiarised by Giuseppe Francesco Borri in his La Chiave Del Gabinetto (1681). These books were describing elemental beings who could appear in human form, which should not automatically be equated to the term elemental, which is a term we prefer not to use, to avoid confusion. Other writers would support Paracelsus, often quoting his work wholesale or paraphrased, as in this case from Thomas Rudd in the seventeenth century, when he wrote: “Iamblichus saith, they are not men, because they walk spiritually; they cannot be spirits, because they eat, drink, and have flesh and blood; they are therefore a peculiar Creature, and form their double nature they are made one mixture as any compounded matter of sweet and sour, or like two colours under one species.” The desire for a soul suggested by Paracelsus is an interesting idea, as it goes some way to explaining the willingness of elemental creatures to respond to the call for aid from a magician. For surely they would not come and assist if they did not get something from the interaction? So perhaps as is suggested by De Villars, repeated exposure to magical work may also go some way toward assisting the evolution of elemental beings, for it would be arrogant to assume that ony we as humans are striving to evolve further.
The argument is that in gaining a soul an elemental creature gains immortality, immeasurably extending its long life span. Medieval texts suggested that a humanoid elemental creature had a lifespan of several hundred years, as described in the sixteenth century De Subtilate Rerum of Hieronymus Cardanus: ”On August 12, 1492, at two o’clock in the afternoon, there appeared to my father, when he had just said his prayers, seven men in silk garments in the Greek style. They wore purple half-boots and shining carmine red shirts. Their stature was unusually large. The heads of the spirits were uncovered and they looked to be approaching the age of forty although they themselves affirmed that they were over two hundred years old. When asked who they were, they replied that they were air spirits which arose in the aire and dissolved into it once again, though they were able to prolong their lives to three hundred years.” Over the years we noticed that there does not seem to be any extant conjurations for the elementals in magical texts spanning many centuries. This point is also made in the book A Rosicrucian Notebook: “And we need hardly wonder at the scarcity of genuine Rosicrucian writings on the transmutation of metals when, generally speaking, no instructions have come down to us for summoning the elemental spirits.” In fact the example of working with elementals given in books are in works of fiction, such as Le Compte Gabalis (1670) and The Pirate (1821) by Sir Walter Scott.
Thre prayers of the elementals given by Eliphas Levi in his work Transcendental Magic are not actually directed toward the elementals, but rather they are from the elementals to God. These take their form fom the prayer of the salamanders is a paraphrased copy.
Probably one of the most famous piece of literature featuring the elemental creatures is Goethe’s Faust which unites all the different types of elemental spirits in a charm. “Salamanders, burn and glow; Water-spirits, twine and flow; Up, ye sylphs, in aether blue; Earthly goblins, down with you. He who could not win consent From each subject, element, Could not govern at his will Spirits, be they good or ill. Salamanders, mix in flame; Sylphs, shine out in meteor beauty; Goblins, help to do our duty. Incubus, Incubus, Make the spell complete for us.”