The Ancient Greek Esoteric Doctrine of the Elements:


© 1998, John Opsopaus


Introduction to the Elements

The discovery of the Four Elements is generally credited to Empedocles, a fifth century BCE Greek from Sicily. Although he is commonly considered one of the founders of Western science and philosophy,
Peter Kingsley has presented convincing evidence that it is better to view him as an ancient Greek "Divine Man" (Theios Anêr), that is, a Iatromantis (healer-seer, "shaman") and Magos (priest-magician). In his own time he was viewed as a prophet, healer, magician and savior. His beliefs and practices were built on ancient mystery traditions, including the Orphic mysteries, the Pythagorean philosophy, and the underworld mysteries of Hecate, Demeter, Persephone and Dionysos. These were influenced by near-Eastern traditions such as Zoroastrianism and Chaldean theurgy. Empedocles, in his turn, was a source for the major streams of Western mysticism and magic, including alchemy, Graeco-Egyptian magic (such as found in the Greek magical papyri), Neo-Platonism, Hermeticism and Gnosticism. The Tetrasomia, or Doctrine of the Four Elements, provides a basic framework underlying these and other spiritual traditions. (See Kingsley's Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition, cited at the end of this article, for more on the Empedoclean tradition; a review is also available.)

The Elements or Roots

Empedocles did not call his four principles "elements" (stoikheia), but "roots" (rhizai) or even "root-clumps" (rhizômata). This is significant because Empedocles belonged to the tradition of Root Cutters (Rhizotomoi) or herbal magicians, and especially because he applied his theory to develop the doctrine of occult sympathies in plants (
Kingsley 299).

Empedocles used a variety of words for each of the Roots, and from their range of meanings we can get some idea of his conception of the Elments. (I capitalize words such as "Earth" and "Element" to distinguish the magical or spiritual concepts from the mundane ones.) For Earth he also used words meaning land, soil and ground. For Water he also used words meaning rain, sweat, moisture, sea water and open sea. For Air he also used clear sky, heaven, firmament, brilliance, ray, beam, glance, eye, splendor, mist and cloud. (This inconsistency between bright clear sky - aithêr - and misty clouds - aêr - will be explained when we discuss Air.) For Fire he also used flame, blaze, lightning, sun, sunlight, beaming and East. (See Wright, p. 23, for a table of the Greek terms.)

However, Empedocles makes clear that the Elements are more than just material substances. He introduces them as Gods (fragment 7 Wright = DK31B6, my translation):

Now hear the fourfold Roots of everything:
Enlivening Hera, Hades, shining Zeus,
And Nestis, moistening mortal springs with tears.
As was common practice with Divine Men, Empedocles gave his students knowledge in riddles to help develop their abilities, and this seems to be one of those riddles (ainigmata). Even in ancient times there was debate and differing theories about the correspondence between the Gods and Elements, but Kingsley (Part I) seems to have solved the riddle, as will be explained later. To avoid undue suspense I will reveal the solution here: Zeus is Air, Hera is Earth, Hades is Fire and Nestis (Persephone) is Water.

Empedocles' equation of the Roots with deities show that he conceived of the Elements as more than material substances (or states of matter). It is better to think of them as spiritual essences (modes of spiritual being), which can manifest themselves in many ways in the material and spiritual worlds (they are form rather than content, structure rather than image). Some of these manifestations will be explored when we consider the individual Elements; here I will mention a few to indicate the possibilities.

Most obviously there are the macrocosmic manifestations of the Elements, for example, the land, the sea, the sky and the sun. They are also connected with the sublunary spheres: Heaven, Earth, Abyss (the subterranean water) and Tartaros (the subterranean fire). There are also microcosmic manifestations, for example, as components of the human psyche (mental, astral, etheric and physical bodies), which will be discussed later. The Elements also represent the stages in various processes of growth and transformation (embodied, for example, in the alchemical Rotation of the Elements), such as the stages in the Ascent of the Soul in Chaldean Theurgy (Divine Invocation), also discussed later.

Finally, from the standpoint of Jung's psychology, the Elements (like the Gods) are archetypes; because they are structures in the collective unconscious, they are universal (present in all people). As archetypes, they are beyond complete analysis; they can be "circumscribed but not described"; ultimately they must be experienced to be understood. Nevertheless Empedocles and his successors (especially Aristotle) did much to illuminate the nature of the Elements and their interrelationships (and I will be leaning on their discoveries). Since much of the meaning of the Elements inheres in their interrelationships, I'll begin with the Elements in general before turning to Earth specifically.

The Powers or Qualities

If we want to understand the Elements as spiritual entities, we must go deeper than metaphors based on material substances; we must grasp their essences. This was first accomplished by
Aristotle in the century following Empedocles, who based his analysis on the four Powers (Dunameis) or Qualities, which were probably first enumerated by Empedocles. This double pair of opponent Powers, Warm versus Cool and Dry versus Moist, are the key to a deeper understanding of the Elements. Like the Elements, they must be understood as spiritual forces rather than material qualities (warm, cold, dry, moist).

The Powers manifest in as many ways as the Elements. The Pythagoreans identified one of the most important of these, a natural progression that can be called the Organic Cycle. The first phase of growth is Moist: spring rains, pliant green shoots, rapid growth. The second phase is Warm: summer sun, flourishing individuality, mature vigor. The third is Dry: autumn leaves, inflexible stems, stiffening joints. The fourth is Cool: winter chills, loss of identity, death. This cycle is also the basis for one form of the alchemical "rotation of the elements," from Earth to Water to Air to Fire and back to Earth. Although the Organic Cycle can be found throughout nature, Aristotle discovered the deeper essence of the Qualities, which reveals their spiritual nature, as we'll explore in detail when we consider the individual Elements.

Relations Between the Elements

The relation between the Powers and the Elements is represented in the well-known Elemental Square or Square of Opposition (
see figure). (It is most common to place the Elements at the corners and the Powers between them, but it is better to place the Powers at the corners, since they are absolute, and the Elements between them, since they are mixtures of the Powers.) The Square shows that Earth is Dry and Cool, Water is Cool and Moist, Air is Moist and Warm, Fire is Warm and Dry.

Aristotle further explains that in each Element one Power is dominant. Therefore Earth is predominantly Dry, Water predominantly Cool, Air predominantly Moist, and Fire predominantly Warm. The dominant Power is the one in a counterclockwise direction from the Element in the Square of Opposition; thus the arrow by each Element points to its dominant Power. The vertical axis represents the active Qualities (Warm, Cool), the horizontal represents the passive (Moist, Dry). The upper Elements (Air, Fire) are active, light and ascending, the lower (Water, Earth) are passive, heavy and descending. The Elements on the right are pure, extreme and absolutely light (Fire) or heavy (Earth); those on the left are mixed, intermediate and relatively light (Air) or heavy (Water). The absolute Elements exhibit unidirectional motion (ascending Fire, descending Earth), whereas the relative Elements (Air, Water) can also expand horizontally. The Organic Cycle (the cycle of the seasons) goes sunwise around the square.

Unlike the chemical elements, the spiritual Elements can be transformed into each other, but only in accord with laws discovered by Aristotle (see Gill). Understanding these laws is a prerequisite to transforming and combining them in their various manifestations. In brief, one Element can be transformed directly into another only if they share a common Quality (and are thus adjacent, not opposed on the Elemental Square). For example, Water is transformed into Air when the Water is acted on by a larger quantitiy of Air, since the Water's Coolness is "overpowered" by the Air's Warmth; the common Moist quality is retained through the transformation. This process is reversible, since Air can be transformed back into Water by acting upon it with sufficient Water.

Direct transformation between opposed Elements is impossible. Thus Water cannot be transformed directly into Fire, since they have no common Quality to give continuity to the process, but the Water can be transformed indirectly by changing it first into Air or Earth. This occurs when the Water is acted upon by a larger quantity of Fire. We can move around the Square, but not across it.

Raymon Llull (c.1229-1315), known as "Doctor Illuminatus," extended the Aristotelian analysis by explaining how two Elements can act upon each other. Whenever we have similar quantities of two Elements with a common Quality, the Element in which it's not dominant is "overcome" or "conquered" by the one in which it is. For example, when Water combines with Earth, the Earth is overcome, because they are both Cool, but Coolness dominates in Water. Therefore, the result will be predominantly Cool, with an additional Quality of Moistness, which makes it Watery. Llull's analysis leads to a Cycle of Triumphs, which is shown by the arrows on the Elemental Square. Thus Fire overcomes Air, Air overcomes Water, Water overcomes Earth, and Earth overcomes Fire. Notice that in each triumph (except the last), the more subtle Element overcomes the grosser Element.

Aristotle (see Gill) also explained a process by which two opposed Elements can be irreversibly transformed into a third. For example, if Fire acts on a mixture of Earth and Air, these two opposed Elements will be transformed into Fire, which takes its Dryness from the Earth and its Warmth from the Air. The transformation is irreversible, although some of the Fire could be transformed back into Earth and, separately, some of the Fire back into Air. This process cannot be used to transform two adjacent Elements into a third, for example Fire and Air into Water or Earth. If we kept the Fire's Dryness and the Air's Wetness, we would have contradictory Qualities; if we kept the Fire's Warmth and the Air's Warmth, the result would be neither Wet nor Dry. In both cases the result is impossible (either by the law of noncontradiction or by the law of the excluded middle). (The other two possible combinations of Qualities yield Air and Fire, in which case there is no transformation.)

Finally, whenever we have two opposed Elements acting upon each other, they tend to neutralize, leading to a result that is weakly one or the other. However, the essence of the alchemical Great Work is a proper unification of opposed Elements (especially Fire and Water), a Coniunctio Oppositorum (Conjunction of Opposites) in which they form a higher unity, rather than annihilating each other; this will be discussed when we come to Water and Fire.

Before proceeding to a detailed consideration of the individual Elements, it will be worthwhile to consider some of the meaning embodied in the familiar Elemental Signs (as shown in the figure of the Elemental Square). The triangles represent the active Power (Warm or Cool) in each Element. The elemental signs of Earth and Water have in common the pubic triangle, because these Elements are traditionally feminine and more passive, since they have in common the contracting, uniting Cool Power (see below on Coolness); the downward triangle also shows these elements are descending (Water and Earth fall). Conversely Air and Fire have the phallic triangle, because they are traditionally male and more active, since they have in common the expanding, separating Warm Power (discussed with Air); the upward triangle shows these elements are ascending (Air and Fire rise). Thus the Stoics associated the analytic, masculine Elements with Word (Logos) and the synthetic, feminine Elements with Matter (Hulê). Finally, in the elemental signs for Air and Earth, the crossbar represents a denser or grosser (less subtle) form of the Element, as Earth is of Water, and Air of Fire.

Click here to continue on to Earth


  1. Aristotle, De Generatione et Corruptione (On Coming-to-be and Passing-away), II.2-3, especially lines 329b7-331a6. (the Elements and Powers or Qualities)
  2. Kingsley, Peter, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition, Oxford University Press, 1995. (principle source)
  3. Gill, Mary Louise, Aristotle on Substance: The Paradox of Unity, Princeton University Press, 1989. (combination and transformation of Elements)
  4. Llull, Raymon, Tractatus Novus de Astronomia, 1207. (combination of elements)
  5. Wright, M. R., Empedocles: The Extant Fragments, Yale University Press, 1981. (fragments of Empedocles, with interpretations)

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Last updated: Fri Apr 30 13:52:41 EDT 1999