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Air (classical element)

Classical Elements
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Water Aether Fire



Water Space Fire


Hinduism (Tattva) and
Buddhism (Mahābhūta)

Prithvi / Bhumi — Earth
Ap / JalaWater
Vayu / PavanAir / Wind
Agni / TejasFire
AkashaAether .

Japanese (Godai)
Earth (地)
Water (水)
Air / Wind (風)
Fire (火)
Void / Sky / Heaven (空) .

Life Force / Electricity

Chinese (Wu Xing)

  Water (水)  
Metal (金) Earth (土) Wood (木)
  Fire (火)  

In traditional cultures, air is often seen as a universal power or pure substance. Its fundamental importance to life can be seen in words such as spirit, inspire, expire, and aspire, all derived from the Latin spirare ("to breathe").


Greek and Roman Tradition

Air is one of the four classical elements in ancient Greek philosophy and science. According to Plato, it is associated with the octahedron; air is considered to be both hot and wet. The ancient Greeks used two words for air: aer meant the dim lower atmosphere, and aether meant the bright upper atmosphere above the clouds.[1] Plato, for instance writes that "So it is with air: there is the brightest variety which we call aether, the muddiest which we call mist and darkness, and other kinds for which we have no name...."[2] Among the early Greek Pre-Socratic philosophers, Anaximenes (mid-6th century BCE) named air as the arche (first principle of the world). As it grows warm and rarefied, air becomes fire; as it cools and condenses it becomes water, then earth and rock.[3] A similar belief was attributed by some ancient sources to Diogenes Apolloniates (late 5th century BCE), who also linked air with intelligence and soul (psyche), but other sources claim that his arche was a substance between air and fire.[4] Aristophanes parodied such teachings in his play The Clouds by putting a prayer to air in the mouth of Socrates.

Air was one of many archai proposed by the Pre-socratics, most of whom tried to reduce all things to a single substance. However, Empedocles of Acragas (c. 495-c. 435 BCE) 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.[5] Plato (427-347 BCE) took over the four elements of Empedocles. In the Timaeus, his major cosmological dialogue, the Platonic solid associated with air is the octahedron which is formed from eight equilateral triangles. This places air between fire (four triangular sides) and water (twenty triangular sides), which Plato regarded as appropriate because it is intermediate in its mobility, sharpness, and ability to penetrate. He also said of air that its minuscule components are so smooth that one can barely feel them.[6]

Plato’s student Aristotle (384-322 BCE) developed a different explanation for the elements based on pairs of qualities. The four elements were arranged concentrically around the center of the universe to form the sublunary sphere. According to Aristotle, air is both hot and wet, and occupies a place between fire and water among the elemental spheres. Aristotle definitively separated air from aether. For him, aether was an unchanging, almost divine substance that was found only in the heavens, where it formed celestial spheres.[7]

In ancient Greek medicine, each of the four humours became associated with an element. Blood was the humor identified with air, since both were hot and wet. Other things associated with air and blood in ancient and medieval medicine included the season of spring, since it increased the qualities of heat and moisture; the sanguine temperament (of a person dominated by the blood humour); hermaphrodite (combining the masculine quality of heat with the feminine quality of moisture); and the northern point of the compass.[8]


The alchemical symbol for air is an upward-pointing triangle, bisected by a horizontal line.

Indian Tradition

Main article: Vayu

In Hinduism, Vayu (Sanskrit वायु ), also known as Vāta वात, Pavana पवन (meaning the Purifier)[9] , or Prāna, is a primary deity, who is the father of Bhima and the spiritual father of Lord Hanuman. As the words for air (Vāyu) or wind (Pavana) it is one of the Panchamahābhuta the "five great elements" in Hinduism. The Sanskrit word 'Vāta' literally means "blown", 'Vāyu' "blower", and 'Prāna' "breathing" (viz. the breath of life, cf. the *an- in 'animate').

In Indian tradition the element Air is also linked to Shani or Saturn and the north-west direction.

Chinese Tradition

Air is not one of the traditional five Chinese classical elements. Nevertheless, the ancient Chinese concept of Qi or chi is believed to be close to that of air. Qi (spelled in Mandarin Pinyin romanization), pronounced IPA: [tɕʰi], also ch'i (in Wade-Giles romanization) or ki (in Japanese romanization), is a fundamental concept of traditional Chinese culture. Qi is believed to be part of every living thing that exists, as a kind of "life force" or "spiritual energy". It is frequently translated as "energy flow", or literally as "air" or "breath". (For example, "tiānqì", literally "sky breath", is the ordinary Chinese word for "weather"). In Mandarin Chinese it is pronounced something like "chee" in English, but the tongue position is different. (See Media:Difficult Sounds.GIF.) The concept of qi is often reified, however no scientific evidence supports its existence.

The element air also appears as a concept in the Buddhist religion, which has an ancient history in China.

Some modern occultists equate the Chinese classical element of wood with air.[10]

In Modern Magic

Ceremonial Magic

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, founded in 1888, combined ideas from many different sources including Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, the angelic system of 16th-century magician John Dee and his assistant Edward Kelley, Hermetic Qabalah, and recent archaeological discoveries of Egyptian and Greco-Roman magic and religion.[11] Thus air and the other Greek classical elements were incorporated into the Golden Dawn system despite being considered obsolete by modern science. Theoricus (2=9) is the elemental grade attributed to air; this grade is also attributed to the Moon and the Qabalistic sphere Yesod.[12] The elemental weapon of air is the dagger, which must be painted yellow with magical names and sigils written upon it in violet.[13] Each of the elements has several associated spiritual beings. The archangel of air is Raphael, the angel is Chassan, the ruler is Aral, the king is Paralda, and the air elementals (following Paracelsus) are called sylphs.[14] Air is considered to be active; it is represented by the Man and the symbol for Aquarius, and it is referred to the upper left point of the pentagram in the Supreme Invoking Ritual of the Pentagram.[15] Many of these associations have since spread throughout the occult community.

In the Golden Dawn and many other magical systems, each element is associated with one of the cardinal points and is placed under the care of guardian Watchtowers. The Watchtowers derive from the Enochian system of magic founded by Dee. In the Golden Dawn, they are represented by the Enochian elemental tablets.[16] Air is associated with the east, which is guarded by the First Watchtower.[17]


Air is one of the four elements appears in many neopagan traditions. Wicca in particular was influenced by the Golden Dawn system of magic. Gerald Gardner, one of the founders of Wicca, was in contact with Aleister Crowley and incorporated elements of Crowley’s works into Wiccan rituals.[18] Many practicing Wiccan traditions therefore use attributions inspired by the Golden Dawn, but there are many variations as well. Common attributions include:

  • The cardinal direction of east.
  • Yellow, or pastel colors. (Some associate air with green or even a light blue.)
  • The wand or the athame.
  • Woodwind instruments.
  • The suit of Swords in the Tarot Minor Arcana. (Some Wiccans associate air with the suit of Wands, as the ritual wand is often associated with air.)
  • Mind, intellect, consciousness, study, communication.
  • The alchemic notion of Azoth.
  • Sunrise, childhood, spring, beginnings.
  • Incense.
  • Birds, insects, flying creatures.
  • Masculine energy.
  • Many gods and goddesses, including Aradia, Athena, Hermes, Mercury, Nuit, Shu, Thoth, and Zeus.

Many Wiccan Traditions place air in the North and Earth in the East.

Astrological Personalities

People born under the astrological signs of Libra, Gemini and Aquarius are thought to have dominant air personalities. Air personalities tend to be cool like the wind.

Other Traditions

Enlil was the god of air in ancient Sumer. Shu was the ancient Egyptian god of air and the husband of Tefnut, goddess of moisture. He became an emblem of strength by virtue of his role in separating Nut (sky) from Geb (earth). He played a primary role in the Coffin Texts, which were spells intended to help the deceased reach the realm of the afterlife safely. On the way to the sky, the spirit had to travel through the air, as one spell indicates: "I have gone up in Shu, I have climbed on the sunbeams."[19]

In East Asia, wood is sometimes seen as the equivalent of air and is represented by the Azure Dragon, known as 青龍 (Qīng Lóng) in Chinese, Seiryuu in Japanese and Cheong-ryong (청룡, Hanja:靑龍) in Korean. Air is represented in the Aztec religion by a snake; to the Scythians, a yoke; to the Hindus and Greeks, a sword[citation needed]; and in Christian iconography, as mankind.

See also


  1. ^ W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 1, pp. 466, 470-71.
  2. ^ Plato, Timaeus, ch. 27, p. 83.
  3. ^ Guthrie, History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 1, pp. 115-16, 120-32; Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy, pp. 77-80.
  4. ^ Guthrie, vol. 2, pp. 362-81; Barnes, pp. 289-94.
  5. ^ Guthrie, vol. 2, pp. 138-46. Guthrie suggests that Hera is the safest identification for air.
  6. ^ Plato, Timaeus, chap. 22-23; Gregory Vlastos, Plato’s Universe, pp. 66-82.
  7. ^ G. E. R. Lloyd, Aristotle, chapters 7-8.
  8. ^ Londa Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex?, p. 162.
  9. ^ The Book of Hindu Imagery: Gods, Manifestations and Their Meaning By Eva Rudy Jansen p. 68
  10. ^ Donald Michael Kraig, Modern Magick, p. 115.
  11. ^ Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon, pp. 72-83.
  12. ^ Israel Regardie, The Golden Dawn, pp. 154-65.
  13. ^ Regardie, Golden Dawn, p.322; Kraig, Modern Magick, pp. 149-53.
  14. ^ Regardie, Golden Dawn, p. 80.
  15. ^ Regardie, Golden Dawn, pp. 280-286; Kraig, Modern Magick, pp. 206-209.
  16. ^ Doreen Valiente, The Rebirth of Witchcraft, p. 64.
  17. ^ Regardie, Golden Dawn, p. 631.
  18. ^ Hutton, Triumph of the Moon, pp. 216-23; Valiente, Witchcraft for Tomorrow, p. 17.
  19. ^ Bob Brier, Ancient Egyptian Magic, p.128.

References and Further Reading

  • Barnes, Jonathan. Early Greek Philosophy. London: Penguin, 1987.
  • Brier, Bob. Ancient Egyptian Magic. New York: Quill, 1980.
  • Guthrie, W. K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. 6 volumes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962-81.
  • Cunningham, Scott. Earth, Air, Fire and Water: More Techniques of Natural Magic.
  • Hutton, Ronald. Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 2001.
  • Kraig, Donald Michael. Modern Magick: Eleven Lessons in the High Magickal Arts. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1994.
  • Lloyd, G. E. R. Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of His Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.
  • Plato. Timaeus and Critias. Translated by Desmond Lee. Revised edition. London: Penguin, 1977.
  • Regardie, Israel. The Golden Dawn. 6th edition. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1990.
  • Schiebinger, Londa. The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
  • Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. 3rd edition. 1999.
  • Valiente, Doreen. Witchcraft for Tomorrow. Custer, Wash.: Phoenix Publishing, 1978.
  • Valiente, Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. Custer, Wash.: Phoenix Publishing, 1989.
  • Vlastos, Gregory. Plato’s Universe. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Air_(classical_element)". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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