The Four Elements – The Alchemy of Balance

Empedocles, in his Tetrasomia,  was the first to propose four elements, fire, earth, air, and water, which he called the four “roots” (ῥιζὤματα, rhizōmata), and Plato seems to have been the first to use the term “element (στοιχεῖον, stoicheion)” in reference to them. These were the ideas of philosophers rather than experimental scientists in the modern system. Still, the writings of Aristotle perpetuated this system for almost two thousand years and because of this the classic four elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water played an integral role in alchemy. The concept of elements could be said to have given rise to one of the most fundamental ideas of later alchemy. This was the principle that the properties of a substance depend on what it is made of. This in turn led to the concept that altering the properties could transform the substance, the basis of the operations of alchemy.

Michael Sendivogius (1566–1636) was a Polish alchemist, philosopher, and medical doctor. As with many akchemists he worked on the practical side and developed ways of purification and creation of various acids, metals and other chemical compounds. He discovered that air is not a single substance and contains a life-giving substance, 170 years before the scientific identification of oxygen. His writings reveal the way the alchemists viewed the Four Elements. “There are four common elements 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.” The “deeper element” is the archetype and “chaos” is of course the the Prima Materia.

To the alchemists, the Four Elements are those fundamental archetypes within matter and are symbolic of their metaphysical qualities. According to Empedocles, Fire and Air are “outwardly reaching” elements, reaching up and out, whereas Earth and Water turn inward and downward. In his view, and that of later alchemists, the elements are not only material substances but also spiritual essences. As archetypes, the elements must be experienced to be understood. Empedocles associated each element with a god, as a way to express this. “Hera rules the fruitful earth,” he wrote. “Hades the central fire, Zeus the luminescent air, and Persephone the mollifying water.”

Aristotle (350 BC) further developed the theories of Empedocles by explaining them in terms of their qualities. In his view, the elements arose from the interplay of the ideal (or archetypal) properties of hotness and coldness, and dryness and wetness. Fire (dry and hot) and Water (wet and cold) are polar opposites, as are Earth (dry and cold) and Air (wet and hot). Wet and dry are the primary qualities. Wet (moistness) is the quality of fluidity or flexibility, which allows a thing to adapt to its external conditions, whereas Dry (dryness) is the quality of rigidity, which allows a thing to define its own shape and bounds. As a consequence Wet things tend to be volatile and expansive, since they can fill spaces in their surroundings, whereas Dry things are fixed and structured, since they define their own form. Aristotle predicted that one material could be transformed into another by altering the mix of its archetypal elements and their qualities.

The symbols used by the alchemists for the elements show their archetypal origins. The symbol for Fire is an upward-pointing triangle. Fire with its hot and dry qualities is the most volatile element and seeks to ascend. Water is a downward-pointing triangle, since Water with its cold and moist qualities seeks to condense or descend. Fire and Water are the two purest elements. Air and Earth are considered to be more material versions of them. Thus, the symbol for Air is the upward-pointing triangle of Fire with a horizontal line through it. Air is hot and seeks to ascend, but itis also moist, and the moist  component blocks the full ascent of the Fire principle, which is  indicated by the horizontal line. Thus Air is suspended in time and space, caught between the extremes of the Above and the Below. Earth is the downward-pointing triangle of Water with a horizontal line through it. Earth is cold and seeks to descend, but its dry component blocks the full descent of the Water principle, which is again indicated by the horizontal line. Thus Earth is also suspended in time and space. It is what the alchemists would call the least volatile or most fixed of the elements.

Another Greek philosopher, Hippocrates (400 BC), added his own twist to the theory of the elements by applying them to human psychology. He viewed the elements as bodily fluids he called “humors”. In Hippocrates’ system, Fire is associated with the choleric humor of yellow bile, which is carried in cholesterol as a bi-product of digestion and energy transformation in the body. Aristotle would say the Choleric force is hot and dry. Choleric people therefore tend to be energetic, active, moving, “on-fire”, and enthusiastic. Water is associated with the phlegmatic humor of phlegm, which is found in the clear fluids of the body carried by the lymphatic system and secreted by the mucus membranes. The phlegmatic person is cold and wet in Aristotle’s terms and is often moody and brooding. They tend to let their feelings guide them.  

1638 Frontispiece of Burton's Anatomy of MelancholyAir is associated with the Sanguine humor of the blood, which distributes oxygen throughout the tissues of the body. The word “sanguine” refers to a ruddy complexion in which the blood flows close to the skin. Interestingly, Hippocrates had no idea that the blood distributes “air” through the body, yet he made the connection using ancient esoteric doctrines and his own intuition. Sanguine people tend to be very changeable, sometimes a little irritable yet basically optimistic. They were hough to have high of personal integrity. According to Aristotle, such people are hot and wet in their elemental qualities. Earth is associated with the melancholic humor of black bile, which probably refers to waste products associated with digestion such as the stools, from which useful energy has been removed leaving only the dregs of matter behind. Melancholic people tend to be apathetic, passive, sluggish and stubborn. Since Earth is the principle of structure and materialization, the melancholic humor is dominant in the person who focuses on physical reality and tends to be rigid and skeptical. Aristotle’s terms, such people are cool and dry.

It is easy to see Carl Jung’s theory of personality types is derived from the humors of Hippocrates. The four basic Jungian types are each associated with a humor: feeling (Fire, Choleric), thinking (Water, Phlegmatic), intuition (Air, Sanguine), and sensation (Earth, Melancholic). By combining the polarities of introversion (a person focused on inner feelings and thoughts) and extroversion (a person focused on outer relationships and external objects), Jung developed eight personality types. We also see evidence of the four humors in the personality variables in the popular Meyers-Briggs test and in  the Luscher Color personality profile. In this system the Fire color red is has the qualities of excitement, activity and self- confidence, and the Water color blue is associated with relaxation, satisfaction and self-moderation. The Air color yellow has qualities of free-thinking, change, and self-development. Finally, the Earth color green is associated with solidity, persistence, and self-respect.

Balancing the Elements

Jung saw the Four Elements as archetypes existing in the collective unconscious and thus present in everyone. Jung considered Fire and Air the active, masculine elements and Water and Earth the passive, feminine elements. In alchemy, as in psychology, the goal is to develop a balance of the elements within the individual.  Even Empedocles noted that those who have near equal proportions of the Four Elements are more intelligent and have the truest perceptions of reality. Personal transformation is dependent upon balancing the elements within the psyche, and the deeper relationships of the elements (whether they oppose or complement one another) determine whether we are basically happy and balanced or develop neuroses, phobias, and other psychological disturbances.

All the elements originated by impressing the qualities of hot and cold, moist and dry on the First Matter, and one element could be changed into another by altering these qualities. When the qualities of moist and cold are imposed on the First Matter, the element Water results. If we boil Water, it is changed into Air (steam) by the replacement of cold wth hot. According to Jung, when two opposing elements encounter each other in the personality or are brought to the surface in a situation, there are three possibilities: 1) they may generate psychic energy; 2) they may neutralize each other; or 3) they may combine or unite. In alchemy and psychology, the third case is the desired one, for the union of opposite elements is the Conjunction of Opposites (Coniunctio Oppositorum), the creation of a higher unity and transcendence of the conflicting polarities.  




About angela1313

I am a cat lover, a writer, and an artist who is finally making time to work on my art.
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6 Responses to The Four Elements – The Alchemy of Balance

  1. You do well to write on this such a difficult subject. i’ve read Jung on Alchemy & some of Paracelsus’s texts, Gnosticism & Hermeticism & god knows what, but though i have held intentions to write something on it i never managed to find my entrance in.
    i always enjoyed the logical deductions of the ancients & the propositions their instinct & observation, combined, discovered.


    • angela1313 says:

      I find more and more about the modern world to be quite souless, for lack of a better word. I think this is what compels me to write on things like alchemy. That book I read years ago Alchemical Psychology just seemed to speak a language I related to and it really helped me work on myself. I think the ancients are to often dismissed as “unscientific” and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed them as I have.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Don’t think it fair to say the contemporary world is soulless. There are plenty of people fighting for causes, for changes that are essential to the betterment of society.
        Though i enjoy the thinking of the ancients as a curiosity, i don’t think they act as a good precedent to what is happening currently. i don’t think any time, even the early 20th C. is a precedent for now. We are learning a lot on the move & if you scratch the surface of our culture you’ll find plenty of good minds with fascinating, important ideas. Don’t give up on us yet, we are still learning.


      • angela1313 says:

        There are good people out there workg hard to make things better. Perhaps it’s because I am living between the culture of Washington DC and a very backward area . I was more positive when i lived where things were a little more progressive. Thanks for reminding me.

        Liked by 1 person

      • i feel i have to say something to people older than me as it seems sometimes so offhand to just say everything is crap now, but young people, in large volumes, my generation, do care about things. We are not the only ones with cell phone habits, our parents have them too. i had got very angry with my father when i was last in England: i can only visit for short periods & my father spent quite a bit of our time together, gawping at his phone, playing some silly, mindless game. Even when i told him he seemed to think his behaviour harmless. i wasn’t playing a game, i wanted to drink with my dad & chat. This is an exception perhaps, but i’d hazard we aren’t the only ones won by tech. Thanks for keeping an open mind.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. angela1313 says:

    I can always be swayed by argument if it’s civil and logical. It doesn’t even have to be well expressed. I do try to keep my mind open and a good sharp poke by a friend is always appreciated if it seems like the doors are closing. Sorry your Dad seems to have caught the bug, I don’t have to travel quite so far to see my Dad but it’s still not very often and I wish he’d use email more. He’s even reluctant with the phone, which is an oldfashioned land line. He has no smart phone, no gadgets, no games, just his desktop.


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