Most people have had some exposure to the Greek classical elements theory of earth, air, fire and water. These were considered the building blocks of all matter and the basis of medieval understanding of how matter works and interacts. Aristotle gave characteristics to the elements; air is primarily wet and secondarily hot, fire is primarily hot and secondarily dry, earth is primarily dry and secondarily cold and water is primarily cold and secondarily wet. This was the origin of the theory of humors.
Hippocrates develped a correlation of the elements with four bodily fluids. Fire was associated with the choleric humor of yellow bile. Water was associated with phlegm. Air was linked with blood and earth with black bile. Before Paracelsus it was mainly believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of the four humors, and therefore the cure was to remove whatever was excess, This was the idea behind blood letting. Where did the idea of these fluid humors originate? An interesting idea was suggested by Robin Fåhræus (1921), a Swedish physician who devised the erythrocyte sedimentation rate. (The erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR or sed rate) is the rate at which red blood cells sediment in a period of one hour. It is a common blood test, and is a non-specific measure of inflammation) He thought the four humours were based upon the observation of blood clotting in a transparent container. When blood is drawn in a glass container and left undisturbed for about an hour, four different layers can be seen. A dark clot forms at the bottom (black bile). Above the clot is a layer of red blood cells (blood). Next is a whitish layer of white blood cells (phlegm). The top layer is clear yellow serum (yellow bile).
It was actually alchemists (both European and Muslim) who played an important role in switching this thinking to one where outside forces can be to blame, and therefore outside substances (medicine, tonics, elixirs, etc.) can be the cure. The balance of humors went beyond physical illness though. It was also thought to impact mental health and personality types. Theophrastus and others developed a set of characters based on the humors. Those with too much blood were sanguine. Those with too much phlegm were phlegmatic. Those with too much yellow bile were choleric, and those with too much black bile were melancholic. Nicholas Culpeper, the herbalist (1616–1654) disregarded the idea of fluids as defining human behavior. Philosophers Maimonides (1135–1204) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), psychotherapist Alfred Adler (1879–1937), and physiologist Ivan pavlov (1849–1936) all theorized on the four temperaments and contributed to modern theories of personality.
Obviously, the Four Elements of the alchemists are not our everyday ideas of earth, water, air, and fire. “There are four common elements,” wrote Polish alchemist Michael Sendivogius (1566-1636), “and each has at its center another deeper element which makes it what it is. These are the four pillars of the world. They were in the beginning evolved and molded out of chaos by the hand of the Creator; and it is their contrary action which keeps up the harmony and equilibrium of the mundane machinery of the universe; it is they, which through the virtue of celestial influences, produce all things above and beneath the earth.” Sendivogius is speaking of the fundemental archetypes which underly the elements. As archetypes, the elements are beyond any rational explanation and must be experienced to be understood. Personal experience of things was and is a fundamental operating principle in alchemy.
In the view of Aristotle, the elements arose from the interplay of the ideal (archetypal) properties of hotness and coldness, and dryness and wetness. Fire and Water are polar opposites, as are Earth and Air. Wet and dry are the primary qualities. Wet is the quality of fluidity, which makes it adaptible. Dry is the quality of rigidity, which allows a thing to define its own bounds. Aristotle predicted that one material could be transformed into another by altering the mix of its archetypal elements and their qualities. You can see where this figured into alchemy.
The symbols used by the alchemists for the elements have a lot to say about their archetypal origins.
The symbol for Fire is an upward-pointing triangle. Fire, hot and dry, is the most volatile element and seeks to ascend. The symbol for Water is a downward-pointing triangle, since Water, cold and moist, seeks to descend or condense. Fire and Water are the two purest elements, and the other two elements of Air and Earth are considered to be more material versions of them.
This gives the symbol for Air as the upward-pointing triangle of Fire with a horizontal line through it. Air seeks to rise, but its moist component blocks the full ascent of Fire, thus the horizontal line through the triangle. Air is suspended in time and space, between the Above and the Below. The symbol for Earth is the downward-pointing triangle of Water, also with a horizontal line through it. Earth is cold and dry and wants to sink, but its dryness impedes the full descent of the Water aspect, indicated by the horizontal line. Earth is suspended in time and space and is the most fixed or immovable of the alchemical elements.
Carl Jung’s theory of personality types is clearly derived from the humors. In Jungian psychology there are four basic personality types; feeling, thinking, intuition and sensation. Each can be associated with an element and humor, feeling with Fire and the choleric type, thinking with Water and the phlegmatic type, intuition with Air and Sanguine type, and sensation with Earth and the melancholic type. By combing these with the polarities of introversion and extroversion, he developed a system of eight personality types. The popular Meyers-Briggs test also echoes the four humors expressed as personality.
Personal alchemy combine the language of alchemy with the tools of psychology to transform the self to a higher, more integrated and complete version. The goal of both disciplines is to reach a balance of the elements within the individual. When we intergrate the opposing forces within us, rather than let them war with one another inside us, wecan transcend much of what makes us unhappy or leaves us feeling incomplete and unfulfilled. Understanding the four humors can be a valuable tool in this process.