The Ancient Greek Esoteric Doctrine of the Elements:


© 1998, John Opsopaus

The Essence of Air

As has been explained in the articles on the other Elements, the characters of the Elements can be understood in terms of four spiritual Powers: Earth is Dry and Cool, Water Cool and Moist, Air Moist and Warm, Fire Warm and Dry (see the
Elemental Square). In each of the Elements the first Power dominates the second, and so in Air the dominant power is the Moistness, the power to conform to external circumstances. Since Moistness was discussed in detail in our discusson of Water, we turn now to Air's other power, Warmth.

According to Aristotle (who gave the first systematic analysis of the Elements), Warmth is the power of separation. More specifically, it causes things of the same kind to join, so each seeks its own; in this way it causes a separation of things of different kinds. Conversely the Cool power unites things of different kinds. Cool and Warm are fundamentally the Powers of Love and Strife (Philia and Neikos), associated with Aphrodite and Ares, and they are the primary agents of change in the cosmos according to Empedocles (the fifth century BCE magician-philosopher who gave us the doctrine of the Four Elements). They are the more active powers (as opposed to Moisture and Dryness, which are more passive), with Coolness giving its power to the "feminine" elements Earth and Water, and Warmth to the "masculine" elements Air and Fire.

Since Warmth represents the power of separation, it is the cause of all processes of differentiation, discrimination and development of form. It also leads to dissociation and opposition, and the cyclic motion between opposing principles. Because it is an active power of separation, Warmth is expansive, outward directed and energetic in its effects; it is the cause of change. When we put these qualities in a psychological context, we find that the Warm power is associated with the ability to discriminate, analyze and judge, and so it is connected with justice, honesty and critical thinking. Personalities with the Warm quality tend to be skillful, goal directed, diligent, authoritative, strong, energetic, selective, decisive, conscientious and leaders. However, the tendency to active separation can also lead them to be selfish, remote, intolerant, chauvinistic, judgmental, aloof, divisive, willful and domineering.

In Air the Moist power is dominant, although the Warm power is the more active. Thus, in thinking about Air it is more accurate to visualize warm, moist breath rather than cool, dry breezes. The Moist quality represents flexibility and the Warm power causes differentiation; therefore elemental Air represents active change of form (transformation). In a psychological context, Air corresponds to nimble analysis, flexible discrimination, and therefore to ideas, intellect, thinking and knowledge. Thus the Tarot suite of Swords corresponds to the element Air. (The "intellectual" qualities of Air are discussed more later.)

Zeus, Lord of the Air

In the Introduction to the Elements we saw that Empedocles associates the Elements with four Gods (see figure): Hera (Earth), Persephone (Water), Zeus (Air) and Hades (Fire), so we will explore the correspondence between Zeus and Air. Of course, Zeus is in origin a Storm God, and therefore associated with the turbulent air; His gift is the fertilizing rain, the Moisture from the Air. Zeus is also known for shape-shifting (i.e., transformation, active change of form), and He exhibits most of the personality qualities that we have seen to be characteristic of Air.

In Empedocles' system, Zeus and Hera, who rule on Olympus, correspond to the opposed elements Air and Earth; Hades and Persephone, who rule in the Underworld, correspond to the opposed elements Fire and Water. Therefore Zeus and Hera represent the Marriage of Heaven and Earth (see part I on Earth for Hera as an Earth Goddess).

We find a similar mythological complex in Egypt. For example, in a letter to the Delphic Priestess Clea, Plutarch (c.50-c.120 CE), who was High Priest at Delphi, explained that Osiris and Isis correspond to the Nile and Egypt, or more generally to Moisture and the Earth, the Moist and the Dry. Likewise Zeus and Hera correspond to the Moist and the Dry, for Zeus's element is Air, which is predominantly Moist, and He brings the fertilizing rains, but Hera's element is Earth, which is predominantly Dry. Secondarily, Air and Earth are Warm and Cool, respectively, that is individuating and uniting; life springs from this conjunction of opposites.

Further, according to Egyptian myth, Osiris united with Nephthys, who then bore Anubis, who was raised by a foster-mother (Isis); likewise, in Orphic doctrine Zeus united with Persephone, who then bore Dionysos, who was raised by nurses. Each myth tells of a union of the Moist elements Air and Water (sky and the abyss) to yield a God who is equally at home in Heaven and the Underworld. (See "Water" for more about Isis, Nephthys and Anubis.)


Like many spiritual teachers, Empedocles appears to have given his students riddles (ainigmata) to work on, and the correspondence between the Elements and the four Gods Hera, Persephone, Zeus and Hades appears to be one of these. From ancient times to our own, many solutions have been proposed, but Peter Kingsley's seems to be best (see his
Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic, part I), and it is the one we use in these articles.

Although Kingsley's solution, in which Air = Zeus, is most likely correct, the ancient Stoic solution, in which Air = Hera, is interesting and worth exploring to understand Air better. This solution is based on a pun; since "H" is not written as a letter in ancient Greek, "Hêra" and "Aêr" (which means Air) are anagrams of each other: `HRA and 'AHR. Of course the Hera = Air equation is supported also by the observation that She is wife to the Sky God (although She in not in Herself a Sky Goddess). (Part I on Earth presents the evidence in favor of Kingsley's Hera = Earth equation.)

The confusion is partly a result of the evolution of ancient Greek. In Empedocles' time aithêr seems to have been the most general word for air, and aêr referred more specifically to damp, misty air. Eventually, aêr became the more general term, and aithêr was interpreted as a special kind of air, the bright, luminous sky above the clouds. Therefore aithêr came to be thought of as more akin to Fire than to Air. Eventually, when Plato developed the concept of the fifth, celestial Element (commonly known as the Quintessence or "Spirit" nowadays), it came to be called aithêr, and the word aêr was reserved for the Moist but Warm element that we call "Air."

Although Aristotle considered Aêr to be Warm, for the Stoics it was Cool. Therefore, Aêr, the cool lower air could be contrasted to Aithêr, the fiery upper air; and Hera could be assigned to earthly Aêr (Cool, feminine) while Zeus was given celestial Aithêr (Warm, masculine). Therefore, Zeus and Hera can be viewed as complementary Sky God and Goddess, although this does not seem to be Empedocles' intention. (In the Stoic system Hades must be assigned to Earth; but we will see in "Fire" why that is His element.)


Dionysos, the son of Zeus and in many ways a second Zeus (and destined to succeed Him), was associated with Air by Proclus, a Pagan philosopher of the fifth century CE. We can understand this as follows. The principal Gods in the Mysteries and in the Pythagorean Tradition are Dionysos and the Trinity of Persephone, Demeter and Hekate. We have seen (in
Water and Earth) that Persephone and Demeter correspond to Water and Earth, respectively, and we will see that Hekate corresponds to Fire, which leaves Air for Dionysos, as for His father. (Compare also the Orphic Quaternity discussed in "Water.") Similarly, Plutarch equates Dionysos (Air) with Osiris, Earth with Isis, Water with Nephthys, and Fire with Typhon. The assignment of Air to both Zeus and Dionysos may seem troublesome, but it reveals a mystery, for it will come to pass that Dionysos, the "Higher Zeus," is assigned to Aithêr, the "Higher Air" or Fifth Essence.

Air as a Mediating Element

A fundamental principle of Greek philosophy and alchemy is that a Conjunction of Opposites requires some mediating factor, a mean to unite the extremes. Air is an important mediating Element because it unites the opposites Fire and Water, the key alchemical process (
discussed with Fire). Here I will simply observe that Air can mediate between them because it has Warmth in common with Fire and Moisture in common with Water, so it forms a bridge between them. This mediating role is also central to the process of emanation represented by the Tarot court cards (King, Queen, Knight, Page), and symbolized by IOUE, the name of Jove: Air represents the Union of the Impulse (Fire) with its Object (Water), which leads to the Effect (Earth). (Earth is the other mediating element; the mediating or mixed elements have crossbars in their signs.)

In the Pythagorean tradition, a Harmonia (fusion of parts) is required to join unlike things together, and conversely every Harmonia presupposes an opposition. (In myth, Harmonia is the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, and the Derveni Papyrus, which is an interpretation of Orphic scriptures, explains that Zeus, as Divine Aêr, brought Harmonia into the cosmos.)

Since Air is predominantly Moist, we also need to investigate Moisture as a mediating Power. Moisture is the common Power of Air and Water, and therefore it links them together. However, Air is also connected with Fire, for they are both Warm, and Water is also connected with Earth, for they are both Cool. Therefore, the Moist Radical (embodied in Air and Water) makes an indirect connection between the extremes Fire and Earth. In Platonic terms, the Moist elements unite Form (Fire) and Primary Matter (Earth). Therefore, alchemists call the Moist Radical the Ferment of Nature because it connects extremes of Light and Matter (light & shadow, heaven & earth). Further, Sun, Moon and Earth correspond to Fire, Moisture and Earth, for the Moon is an intermediary, reflecting the light of the Sun to Earth.

We find the same three principles in the cosmogony of Anaximander (6th cent. BCE), who is credited with discovering the opposed Powers, Warm and Cool, Moist and Dry. In the beginning the Unlimited (the Prima Materia) produced the Gonimon (Generative Thing), which created the opposites Warm and Cool and the Moist Power capable of uniting them. The Warm elements are Fire and Air (heaven and sky), the Cool are Water and Earth (sea and land). The Moist elements Air and Water form the bridge that connects the extremes. The resulting union of the Warm and Cool gives birth to all living things. In the Orphic version it is Eros (Love) that unites Heaven and Earth and gives birth to Gods and mortals. (See below on Primal Air.)

In alchemical terms, the Moist Radical is Mercury (Quicksilver), which joins Sulfur (the Fiery principle) and Salt (the Earthy principle). From a psychical perspective, Mercury (Spiritus, Spirit) joins Salt (Corpus, Body) and Sulfur (Anima, Soul). (See below for more on "Spirit.") Thus Mercury is a mediator, and in mythology we find Him as the messenger between Heaven and Earth. As the guide of travelers, Mercury (Hermês) is the Interpreter (Hermêneus) and Boundary Crosser who facilitates bridging differences; He is the Spirit Guide (Psychopompos) who leads us between this world (Earth) and the Netherworld (Fire).

Air, the Spiritual Element

The connection between Air and the soul is reflected in many languages; the Greek words psyche (i.e. psukhê), aura and pneuma, and the Latin words spiritus, anima and animus all refer primarily to breath or wind but secondarily to the soul. Also, in Hebrew we have rûah and in Sanskrit, prâna, with similar double meanings.
For example, in the Greek tradition Anaximenes (6th cent. BCE), who considered Aêr the first principle of everything, said that it is the stuff of breath and soul, and therefore the principle of life, sensation and reaction. Also, the Pythagorean Diogenes of Apollonia (5th cent. BCE) identified the soul with Warm (and therefore active, moving) Air and said, "People and other animals live by breathing air, and this is for them both soul and intelligence."

Air's power as a mediator means that it has an essential role as the Spirit (or Mediating Soul), which unites the Mind (or Higher Soul) with the body. (Since the English words "spirit," "soul," "psyche" etc. have a variety of meanings and are used in different ways in different traditions, please beware that I may not be using these terms in the way you're used to; I'll try to make my meaning clear.) For example, Empedocles says the Breath-Soul or Spirit (Psukhê, associated with Air), unites the Body (Sôma) with the Principle of Motion (Kinêtikê). Pythagoras is credited with the idea that the Breath-Soul is a Harmonia (conjunction of opposites). (Recall also Mercury as the mediator that unites Sulfur and Salt.)

Why is this mediation necessary? In "Water," I said that Water + Earth constitutes the Primal Mud, the "gross body," which is potentially alive, but not animate. On the other hand, Fire is the principle of action, the efficient cause of all motion, but it cannot act directly on Primal Mud (for they are opposed, Primal Mud being predominantly Watery). However, Air can mediate between Fire and Primal Mud, because it has Warmth (active differentiation) in common with Fire, and Moisture (flexibility) in common with Water. Thus Air is the active Spirit, which operates on the passive structure of Earth and the flexibility of Water. We may say that Air conveys the Fiery Power and facilitates its embodiment. In general, as mediator, Air transmits powers and influences, and therefore Air is the vehicle of coordination and communication (see below, "Air, the Governor"). Thus the Stoics attributed to Heraclitus (6th-5th cent. BCE) the idea that the soul is an Exhalation or Warm Vaporization (Anathumiasis) from bodily moisture; as we might say, the Fiery Soul evokes the Breath Spirit from the body's Primal Mud to be the means by which the two can unite. So also, as mentioned in "Water," Prometheus molded human bodies from Earth and Water, and gave Heavenly Fire to them. But they were not complete before Athena breathed Air into them.

The Spirited Soul

Ancient Greek sages often divided the soul into three parts, an idea credited to Pythagoras. Although there are variations in classification and terminology, they are roughly: (1) Mind or Intellect (Nous), (2) Spirited Soul (Thumos) and (3) Nutritive Soul (Epithumia), which reside in the head, breast and belly, respectively. (There is a more systematic correspondence with the seven chakras, which is beyond the scope of this article.) I have already discussed the Nutritive (or Vegetative) Soul in the discussion of
Water, for Water gives the power of growth and development to lifeless matter (Earth), and I will discuss the Mind with Fire; here our concern is the Spirited Soul and its vehicle, the aerial or spirit body.

The Spirited Soul is responsible for feeling and sensation (both of which are actively discriminating yet conformable to outer circumstances, that is, Warm and Moist). Because of its expansive Warmth, the Spirited Soul reacts to feeling and sensation and is therefore also the source of fortitude, courage, the emotions and opinion. It includes the "irrational will" or "animal will" (for we share the Spirited Soul with all the animals, but not with plants; however we share the Nutritive Soul with all living things). In the Greek tradition, the Spirited Soul is often believed to be mortal (subject to dissolution) like the body (whereas the Mind is considered immortal).

The Spirit Body

In the Neoplatonic doctrine of the Vehicles (Okhêmata) of the Soul, each part of the soul has a corresponding "vehicle" (okhêma) or body; in addition to the easily perceivable gross body (corresponding to Earth + Water), there are two subtle bodies: the aerial body (Air) and the radiant body (Fire). The Spirit (Pneuma) is carried by the spirit body (soma pneumatikon, okhêma pneuma) or aerial body (sometimes incorrectly called the aetheric or astral body). Therefore the aerial body transmits the powers of the higher soul to the body and vice versa; it is responsible for the functioning of the five senses and conveys the motions of life; that is, it governs animate motion and active perception. Thus the spirit body is closely connected with the nervous system.

The Spirited Soul is anchored in the Phrenes (roughly, "breast"), which refers to the lungs and heart together, and so when our Spirits are aroused in love or anger or fear, we feel it in our Phrenes. The Spirit is considered the point of balance in the soul, the "inner sun" that rules the other planets in our souls. Further, the spirit body assimilates Pneuma (Spirit, Prâna, the universal life force) from the Sun and infuses it into the gross body, for Pneuma is the source of life and of the integrity of the living form; it is the active energy of the self. Since breathing draws Pneuma into the Phrenes, in the Ascent of the Soul of Chaldean Theurgy, breathing exercises are used in the stage corresponding to the Spirited Soul.

Air, the Governor

The aerial body's connection to the nervous system reminds us that because Air is Moist and Warm, it has the power of flexible discrimination. Therefore Air is associated with information and communication (and hence with the Tarot suit of Swords); as an active principle, Air is associated with computing.

The Aerial Spirit's role as a subtle, invisible governing faculty was recognized in ancient times. For example, Diogenes of Apollonia says, "It seems to me that that which has intelligence is what people call Air (Aêr), and that all people are steered (kubernasthai) by this, and that it has power over all things. For the very thing seems to be a God and to reach everywhere and to dispose all things and to be in everything." (It is significant that the word he uses for "steered," kubernasthai, is related to kubernêtikos, meaning "skilled in steering or guiding," which is the origin of our term cybernetics, referring to the principles of intelligence and governance in animals and machines. Air is the Cybernetic Element.) Diogenes' statement also suggests that Air plays a role in the World Soul (Psukhê tou Pantos) as well as in individual souls, and that is our next topic.

The World Soul

The Pythagoreans say that there is a divine respiration in the cosmos, and that by its cyclic breathing of the Unlimited, the World Soul infuses Limit into it, and thereby creates Number and Determinate Time (Khronos). The ordered cosmos came to be through Air, for it is the element that separates things and thereby creates divisions and distinctions; thus it puts Limit into the Unlimited. However, although Air separates things as individuals, it also unites them into a higher, spiritual unity.

I have already mentioned that Anaximenes considers Air to be the First Principle (Arkhê) of the cosmos; it is infinite, eternal, ever-moving and divine; he calls Air the Father of the Gods (which recalls Zeus's common title: Father of Gods and Humans). Anaximenes also says, "Just as our Breath-Soul (Psukhê), being Air (Aêr), governs us, so Spirit-Breath (Pneuma) and Air (Aêr) encompass the whole cosmos." This suggests that the governance of the cosmos is accomplished by the Spirit-Breath of the World Soul. Indeed, Philemon says that Air, who is called Zeus, knows everything done by Gods or mortals, because He is everywhere at once. So also Empedocles points to the God's subtle nature: "He is a Spirit-Mind (Phrên), holy and ineffable, and only Spirit-Mind, which darts through the whole cosmos with its swift thoughts." (Note that the term translated Spirit-Mind, Phrên, is the singular of Phrenes, Breast.) Here again we see Air as a medium of communication and governance, but on the cosmic scale.

However, just as we all breathe the same Air, and the Air in my breast is continuous with that in yours, so also the World Soul is continuous with individual souls (an idea we also find in the Upanishads, where Brahman, the World Soul identified with Prâna (Breath), is identical to Âtman, the individual Life-breath). As the nervous system integrates the activities of individual organs to work for the sake of the organism, so the Air binds our individual souls into one World Soul. Microcosm and macrocosm unite.

Primal Air

Once we understand Air's role as a World Soul, we are not too surprised to see it taking a central role in cosmogony, the birth of the universe. We looked at
Anaximander's cosmogony when we considered Air as a mediating element. Also Anaximenes (6th cent. BCE) says that Air, the first principle of everything, produced Water and Earth (the Primal Mud) by condensation and Fire by rarefaction. I will describe briefly several other examples, which will illustrate Air's place in the cosmos.

Philo of Biblos (64-140 CE) translated a "Phoenician History," which was supposed to have been written by Sanchuniathon before the Trojan War (which is not unlikely) and to be based on Egyptian scriptures attributed to Thoth. According to this myth, in the beginning there was a Primal Wind, a breath of mist and darkness (i.e. Aêr); also there was Môt, the muddy chaos of Erebus (khaos tholeron Erebôdes), that is, the formless Primal Mud. The Primal Wind fertilized itself and became Desire (Pothos, perhaps corresponding to Semitic Rûah, which means Breath but also connotes Desire). Further, Môt became the Cosmic Egg, and the cosmos was born when Desire opened the Cosmic Egg (as also in the Orphic cosmogonies), which led to a separation of the Elements.

According to Eudemus (4th cent. BCE), the Phoenicians who lived in Sidon also believed that the universe was born of Air. In the beginning was Time (Khronos), Desire (Pothos) and Fog (Omikhlê). Desire and Fog united, giving birth to Aêr and Aura (Moving Air).

We find similar ideas in the cosmogony attributed to Môkhos of Sidon, also supposed to have lived before Trojan War. The universe began with Aithêr and Aêr, who united to engender Ulômos, whose name means Eternity. Ulômos fertilized Himself to produce the Cosmic Egg and Khrûsôros the Opener, the Divine Craftsman who cracked the Cosmic Egg. He corresponds to Love or Phanês in the Orphic account and to the Demiurge (Craftsman) in Plato's Timaeus.


We have seen that Air is the element of transformation, for it is Moist (flexible) and Warm (differentiating). It is primarily associated with Zeus Lord of the Air, but secondarily with Hera His consort and Dionysos His son. Air is important as a mediating Element, which can unite Fire and Water; similarly the related Moist Radical is a mean uniting the extremes Fire and Earth. Air is the most spiritual element, for it corresponds to the Spirit Breath and Spirited Soul, which unite the mind and body. Air also constitutes the cosmic breath, which unites our individual souls into the universal World Soul.

Click here to continue on to Fire

Principal Sources

  1. Kingsley, P., Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition, Oxford University Press, 1995. (principal source)
  2. Majercik, Ruth. The Chaldean Oracles: Text, Translation, and Commentary. E. J. Brill, 1989. (vehicles & ascent of soul)
  3. Mead, G. R. S., The Doctrine of the Subtle Body, Kessinger reprint, n.d.
  4. Pernety, A.-J., An Alchemical Treatise on the Great Art, Weiser, 1995, Part 1. (Moist Radical)
  5. Plato, Timaeus. (tripartite soul)
  6. Plutarch, Isis and Osiris. (Elements & Gods)
  7. Tansley, D. V., Subtle Body: Essence and Shadow, Thames & Hudson, 1977.
  8. West, M. L., Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient, Oxford University Press, 1971. (Cosmogonies of the Sidonians and Môkhos)
  9. West, M. L., Hesiod Theogony: Edited with Prolegomena and Commentary, Oxford University Press, 1966. (Sanchuniathon's Cosmogony)
  10. West, M. L., The Orphic Poems, Oxford University Press, 1983. (Cosmogonies of the Sidonians and Môkhos)
  11. Wright, M. R., Empedocles: The Extant Fragments, Yale University Press, 1981.

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