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Classical element

Many ancient philosophies used a set of archetypal classical "elements" to explain patterns in nature. The word "element" in this context either refers to a state of matter (e.g. solid/earth, liquid/water, gas/air, plasma/fire) or a type of energy or force (as in the Chinese Five Phases), rather than the Chemical elements of modern science.

The Greek Classical Elements (Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and Idea) date from pre-Socratic times and persisted throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, deeply influencing European thought and culture. The Hindu and Japanese also had essentially the same five elements: the four states-of-matter, plus a fifth element to describe that which was beyond the material world (non-matter). The concept is far older in Asia[citation needed], and was widely disseminated in India and China, where it forms the basis of both Buddhism and Hinduism, particularly in an esoteric context.

The modern scientific states-of-matter, and, to a lesser extent, also the periodic table of the elements and the concept of combustion (fire) can be considered successors to such early models.

By contrast the Chinese had a somewhat different series of elements, namely Fire, Earth, Water, Metal and Wood, which were understood as different types of energy in a state of constant interaction and flux with one another, rather than the Western notion of different kinds of material.


Tabular overview

Tradition: 1st (Earth) 2nd (Water) 3rd (Air) 4th (Fire) 5th (Life) Higher (Celestial/Other)
States of matter: Solid Liquid Gas Plasma None None
Greek: Earth Water Air Fire None Aether/Idea
Latin: Earth Water Air Fire None Quintessence
Hindu and Buddhist: Earth Water Air Fire Aether/Sound Light/Time, Thought/Space
Japanese: Earth Water Wind Fire Consciousness Void
Chinese: Earth Water None Fire Wood Metal
Bön: Earth Water Air Fire None Space
Neo-Paganism: Earth Water Air Fire Lightning/Spirit Dark, Light

Hindu, Japanese, and Greek systems

The dominant theory of classical elements, held by the Hindu, Japanese, and Greek systems of thought, is that there are five elements, namely Fire, Earth, Air, Water and a fifth element known variously as Idea, Void "quintessence" or Aether (the term "quintessence" derives from "quint" meaning "fifth"). In Greek thought the philosopher Aristotle added aether as the quintessence, reasoning that whereas fire, earth, air, and water were earthly and corruptible, since no changes had been perceived in the heavenly regions, the stars cannot be made out of any of the four elements but must be made of a different, unchangeable, heavenly substance.[1]. The Greek Pythagoreans used the initial letters of these five elements to name the outer angles of their pentagram.[citation needed]

The Greek names of the elements are as follows:

  • Γαια, gaia earth
  • ύδωρ, hydor, water
  • άήρ, aer, air
  • έιλή, heile, heat (fire)
  • ίδέα, idea or ίερόν, hieron "a divine thing"

These five elements are sometimes associated with the five platonic solids.

The Japanese and Hindu systems use these same five classical elements but use a different name for the fifth element: void in the Japanese system and aether or akasha in the Hindu system. "Idea" is the preferred modern term, and lends itself well to the idea that algorithms, software, or other similar "cyberspace" processes be categorized as belonging to the fifth element. In other words, just as the mind belongs to Idea, even though the brain is a mixture of solid ("Earth") and liquid ("Water"), software also belongs to Idea even though the hardware it runs on, i.e. silicon chips, etc., is made from solid ("Earth") matter.[2]

The fifth Classical Element (Idea) may be further sub-divided into living and non-living. For example, the mind is an example of a living form of Idea whereas computer software is an example of non-living Idea.

Classical elements in Greece

The Greek classical elements are fire (), earth (), air (), and water (). They represent in Greek philosophy, science, and medicine the realms of the cosmos wherein all things exist and whereof all things consist. The ancient Greek word for element (stoicheion) literally meant "letter (of the alphabet)", the basic unit from which a word is formed.

Plato mentions the elements as of pre-Socratic origin, a list created by the Ionian philosopher Empedocles (ca. 450 BC). Empedocles called these the four "roots"; Plato seems to have been the first to use the term "element (stoicheion)" in reference to air, fire, earth, and water.[3]

  • Air is primarily wet and secondarily hot.
  • Fire is primarily hot and secondarily dry.
  • Earth is primarily dry and secondarily cold.
  • Water is primarily cold and secondarily wet.

One classic diagram (right) has one square inscribed in the other, with the corners of one being the classical elements, and the corners of the other being the properties. The opposite corner is the opposite of the these properties, "hot - cold" and "dry - wet"

According to Galen, these elements were used by Hippocrates in describing the human body with an association with the four humours: yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), blood (air), and phlegm (water).

The concept of the classical elements proved extremely persistent in Europe, lasting through the Middle Ages to the early modern era. Just as the Aristotelian dogma was related to the Greek world view, the idea of classical elements in the Middle Ages composed a large part of the medieval world view. The Roman Catholic Church supported the Aristotelian concept of aether because it supported the Christian view of earthly life as impermanent and heaven as eternal.[citation needed]

In Western astrology the concept of the four classical elements has survived from antiquity up until the present. The twelve signs of the zodiac are divided into the four elements: Fire signs are Aries, Leo and Sagittarius, Earth signs are Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn, Air signs are Gemini, Libra and Aquarius, and Water signs are Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces. Most modern astrologers still view the four classical elements as a critical part of interpreting the astrological chart.

In divinatory tarot, which originated in its present form in medieval Europe (though its roots may go back much further), the suits of cups, swords, wands (batons) and pentacles (coins) are said to correspond to water, air, fire, and earth respectively. These correspond in the modern deck of playing cards to hearts, spades, clubs, and diamonds.

Classical elements in Hinduism

Main article: Tattva

The pancha mahabhuta, or "five great elements", of Hinduism are khsiti or bhumi (earth), ap or jala (water), agni or tejas (fire), marut or pavan (air or wind), and byom or akasha (aether). Hindus believe that God used akasha to create the other four traditional elements, and that the knowledge of all human experience is imprinted in the akashic records.

Classical elements in early Buddhism

Main article: Mahābhūta

In the Pali literature, the mahabhuta ("great elements") or catudhatu ("four elements") are earth, water, fire and air. In early Buddhism, the four elements are a basis for understanding suffering and for liberating oneself from suffering.

The Buddha's teaching regarding the four elements is to be understood as the base of all observation of real sensations rather than as a philosophy. Perhaps the word 'property' has a better connotation now that the word element is used in modern chemistry. The four properties are cohesion (water), solidity or inertia (earth), expansion or vibration (air) and heat or calorific content (fire). He taught that all mind and matter is ultimately composed of eight types of 'kalapas' of which the four elements are primary and a secondary group of four are color, smell, taste, and nutriment which are derivative from the four primaries.

The Buddha's teaching of the four elements does predate Greek teaching of the same four elements. This is possibly explained by the fact that he sent out 60 arahants to the known world to spread his teaching, however it differs in the fact that the Buddha taught that the 4 elements are false and that form is in fact made up of much smaller particles which are constantly changing.

Classical elements in the Seven Chakras

In the philosophy of the Seven Chakras there are correspondences to the five elements as shared by both Hinduism and Buddhism as well as two other elements:

  • Sabasrara (Crown): Thought/Space
  • Anja (Third Eye): Light/Time
  • Vishbuddha (Throat): Ether/Sound
  • Anabata (Heart): Air
  • Manipura (Navel): Fire
  • Svadhistbana (Sacral): Water
  • Muladhara (Root): Earth

Classical elements in Japan

Main article: Five elements (Japanese philosophy)

Japanese traditions use a set of elements called the 五大 (go dai, literally "five great"). These five are earth, water, fire, wind, and void. These came from Buddhist beliefs; the classical Chinese elements (五行, go gyô) are also prominent in Japanese culture, especially to the influential Neo-Confucianists during the Edo period.

  • Earth represented things that were solid.
  • Water represented things that were liquid.
  • Fire represented things that destroyed.
  • Air represented things that moved.
  • Void represented things not of our everyday life.

Classical elements in Bön

In Bön or ancient Tibetan philosophy , the five elemental processes of: earth, water, fire, air and space are the essential stuff of all existent phenomena or aggregates (ref. Skandha). The elemental processes form the basis of the calendar, astrology, medicine, psychology and are the foundation of the spiritual traditions of shamanism, tantra and Dzogchen.

Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche [4] comprehensively states:

"...physical properties are assigned to the elements: earth is solidity; water is cohesion; fire is temperature; air is motion; and space is the spatial dimension that accommodates the other four active elements. In addition, the elements are correlated to different emotions, temperaments, directions, colors, tastes, body types, illnesses, thinking styles, and character. From the five elements arise the five senses and the five fields of sensual experience; the five negative emotions and the five wisdoms; and the five extensions of the body. They are the five primary pranas or vital energies. They are the constituents of every physical, sensual, mental, and spiritual phenomenon."

The names of the elements are analogous to categorised experiential sensations of the natural world. The names are symbolic and key to their inherent qualities and/or modes of action by analogy. In Bön the elemental processes are fundamental metaphors for working with external, internal and secret energetic forces. All five elemental processes in their essential purity are inherent in the mindstream and link the trikaya and are aspects of primordial energy. As Herbert V. Günther [5] rather unfathomably states:

"Thus, bearing in mind that thought struggles incessantly against the treachery of language and that what we observe and describe is the observer himself [sic.], we may nonetheless proceed to investigate the successive phases in our becoming human beings. Throughout these phases, the experience (das Erlebnis) of ourselves as an intensity (imaged and felt as a "god", lha) setting up its own spatiality (imaged and felt as a "house" khang) is present in various intensities of illumination that occur within ourselves as a "temple." A corollary of this Erlebnis is its light character manifesting itself in various "frequencies" or colors. This is to say, since we are beings of light we display this light in a multiplicity of nuances." [6]

In the above block quote the trikaya is encoded as: dharmakaya "god"; sambhogakaya "temple" and nirmanakaya "house".

Classical elements in China

Main article: Wu Xing

In Taoism there is a similar system of elements, which includes metal and wood, but excludes air, which is replaced with the non-element qi, which is a force or energy rather than an element. In Chinese philosophy the universe consists of heaven and earth, heaven being made of qi and earth being made of the five elements. The five major planets are associated with and named after the elements: Venus is gold, Jupiter is wood, Mercury is Water, Mars is Fire, and Saturn is Earth. Additionally, the Moon represents Yin, and the Sun represents Yang. Yin, Yang, and the five elements are recurring themes in the I Ching, the oldest of Chinese classical texts which describes an ancient system of cosmology and philosophy. The five elements also play an important part in Chinese astrology and the Chinese form of geomancy known as Feng shui

The doctrine of five phases describes two cycles of balance, a generating or creation (生, shēng) cycle and an overcoming or destruction (克, kè) cycle of interactions between the phases.


  • Wood feeds fire;
  • Fire creates earth (ash);
  • Earth bears metal;
  • Metal collects water;
  • Water nourishes wood.


  • Wood parts earth;
  • Earth absorbs water;
  • Water quenches fire;
  • Fire melts metal;
  • Metal chops wood.

There are also two cycles of imbalance, an overacting cycle (cheng) and an insulting cycle (wu).

Modern Western approaches

The five classical elements continue to be important as a way of explaining the world in modern Western thought, even if they have been discarded by modern science. Some of the different systems that continue to use the five elements are esoteric movements such as neo-paganism, astrology and tarot, and movements in music and popular culture generally. Others have drawn similarities between the classical elements and innovations within modern science.


In neo-Paganism, it is believed that all living things are a part of nature. Neo-Pagans and Wiccans use the Classical Greek elements in Celtic, Egyptian, and Mediterranean rituals to summon the power of the divine forces in nature.

Element: Light Dark
Fire: Hearth Volcanic Eruption
Water: Rain Deluge
Earth: Gems/Land Earthquake
Air: Air Tornado
Lightning: Life Thunder storm

But beyond that the idea is that one may only find peace at mind after understanding the elements outside ones "self". Along with that it is a belief that the "Divine Presence" in this world is a spirit with both male and female duality. also on a darker point of neo paganism the occult rush of the 60's (which produced many false gurus) did focus mostly on the Dark or evil side of Magick instead of the more calm and peaceful Wicca. [7] Typically, a magic wielder has the ability to influence one of the elements or can use the elements to affect the world around him or her.

Modern science - states of matter

Some theories state that the classical elements should more accurately be described as being classical states of matter than "elements" as they are defined in modern science. To this way of thinking the four Greek classical elements earth, water, air, and fire correspond approximately with the four states of matter, solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. The fifth Greek classical element "idea" ("quintessence" in Latin; "aether" in Hindu theory; "void" in Japanese theory) corresponds approximately with the non-matter (non-material world) of cyberspace, mathematics, algorithms, and computer programs that run in analog as well as digital computers, often referred to in information theory as a state of low entropy. Regardless of whether their material embodiment is mechanical, pneumatic, hydraulic, optical, electric, or otherwise , a computer program can be thought of as made of the fifth state of matter even if the computer itself is made of solid matter ("earth"). In the Plato/Aristotle sense, the mind is made of idea (non-matter), whereas the brain in which the mind "runs" is part of the material world (matter).

Classical Elements in sound and music

  Physical organology is a musical instrument classification scheme in which the top-level taxon is the state-of-matter in which sound is initially produced. [2] [8][9][10]

Quintessence/idea is used to describe instruments that make sound from non-matter, i.e. electrically (analong or digital), algorithmically, computationally, or in cyberspace.

An acoustic transducer converts between sound that occurs in one of the four elements, and the fifth element, e.g. a microphone converts sound in Air to sound in Idea (informatics). A hydrophone converts sound in Water to sound in Idea/informatics, etc..

These four classes of transducer are as follows:

  • geophones convert sound in Earth to sound in Idea, or vice-versa;
  • hydrophones convert sound in Water to sound in Idea or vice-versa;
  • microphones convert sound in Air to sound in Idea, whereas loudspeakers convert sound in Idea to sound in Air;
  • ionophones convert sound in Fire (Plasma) to sound in Idea or vice-versa.

In 1987 composer Robert Steadman wrote a chamber symphony each movement of which musically depicts the characteristics of the ancient Greek elements: fire, water, wind and earth.

Classical elements in popular culture

Main article: Classical elements in popular culture

The classical elements are often used together thematically in modern fantasy, literature, movies, television shows, and comic books.

See also


  1. ^ G. E. R. Lloyd, Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of his Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1968, pp. 133-139, ISBN 0-521-09456-9.
  2. ^ a b Natural Interfaces for Musical Expression: Physiphones and a physics-based organology, in Proceedings of the 2007 Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME07), Pages 118-123, New York, NY, USA
  3. ^ Timaeus 48b-c
  4. ^ Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche Healing with Form, Energy, and Light, p.1, Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1559391766 2002
  5. ^ Günther, Herbert V. (1996). The Teachings of Padmasambhava, pp. 115-116, Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill. Hardcover 1996
  6. ^; accessed: Monday January 15, 2007
  7. ^
  8. ^ Robert Steadman.Lifelines: AQA GCSE Music (Rhinegold Publishing, ISBN 1-90617-806-2)
  9. ^ Chris Duffill & Rob Steadman.Lifelines: Edexcel AS Music Technology (Rhinegold Publishing, ISBN 1-90617-804-6)
  10. ^ Chris Duffill & Rob Steadman.Lifelines: Edexcel A2 Music Technology (Rhinegold Publishing, ISBN 1-90617-805-4)
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Classical_element". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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