The Ancient Greek Esoteric Doctrine of the Elements:


© 1998, John Opsopaus


The Cool and Dry Powers

We have seen (in the
Introduction) that Earth is Dry and Cool, with Dryness dominating, therefore I will begin the discussion of Earth with a more detailed explanation of its Powers. (It will become apparent that they have a much broader meaning than implied by the names "dry" and "cool.")

Aristotle explains that the Dry power gives things their shape, their rigid structure. Thus we may identify the Dry power with form and say that it is formative, determining and solid. In a psychological context Dryness is associated with stubbornness, purpose, dependability, practicality and authority. Because of its rigidity, the Dry Power is unreceptive, inflexible, manipulative, commanding, arguing, domineering, strict, and tends to oppose circumstances. In general, Dryness is concrete and grounded.

The Warm power, according to Aristotle, separates things (e.g. by evaporation or distillation), and therefore its opposite, the Cool power has the effect of uniting them. In essence, Coolness is mixing, joining, synthetic, and relating; in a psychological context it is loving, undiscriminating, indecisive, careless, nurturing, sympathetic, cooperative and creative. Further, whereas the Warm power is expanding, the Cool power is contracting, absorbed, and inward-directed; psychologically it's associated with concentration and quietude. Because of its tendency to join together, Coolness is stable, steadfast and enduring.

The Essence of Earth

Now we may apply our understanding of the Powers to the element Earth. The Cool and Dry powers represent passive mixture and rigid structure, so Earth is passive form-imposing (like a mold into which clay is pressed or wax is poured); we may call it structuring, Therefore, Earth is the root of structure (inflexible synthesis), materialization (stable synthesis), the physical world, crystallized energy, and the psychological qualities of realism and pragmatism.

Earth represents essentially inert matter (because of the dominance of Dryness); it is primarily fixed, whereas all the other Elements have some mobility. Thus Earth corresponds to the material body of living things, which must be animated by the other Elements in order to be alive. Also, elemental Earth is associated with the time from the Autumn Equinox (peak of Dryness) to the Winter Solstice (peak of Coolness), i.e., our Autumn, which is primarily Dry (the dominant quality of Earth). The foregoing analysis shows that Earth is better pictured as cold, dry ash or as hard crystal than as moist, warm loam. (The latter image is more suited to the mixture of Water and Earth, as will be explained when we come to Water.)

Hera the Earth Goddess

Peter Kingsley argues persuasively that Empedocles associated Earth with Hera. One reason is that Empedocles calls Hera "enlivening" (pheresbios, literally, "life-bringing"), which was a traditional epithet of Earth Goddesses (including Gaia and Demeter). One might expect Earth to be associated with Hades, but in Greek the Earth (Gaia, Khthôn) is mythically and grammatically feminine, which makes it more likely to be associated with Hera. (When we discuss Water we'll see why Earth isn't associated with Nêstis, the other Goddess mentioned by Empedocles.) The later, Stoic theory of the Elements associates Earth with Hades, but this has little mythological support, because the Greeks associate Hades with the alien Underworld, not the familiar Earth. Furthermore, the Stoic theory is based on a correspondence between Hera and Air, which seems plausible (Hera is the wife of the Sky God), but has other problems that we'll see when we discuss Air. (In contrast, Diônê, sometimes called Zeus's "first wife," is a Sky Goddess; indeed Her name is a feminine form of "Zeus.")

As discussed above, one of the primary characteristics of Earth is its stability. Therefore, Hera is the protectress of the stable family and home, and the family in turn is the stabilizer of the social order. Furthermore, Hera is a fertility Goddess since She provides the stable foundation of procreation and of the survival of the species, which differs from the less predictable fertility of Aphrodite or Pan.

In this way She is responsible for the fertility of people, but "enlivening Hera" is also responsible for the fertility of the earth, and therefore is connected with Gaia, Demeter and other Earth Mothers. Thus the marriage of Zeus and Hera corresponds to the union of Heaven and Earth; they unify the opposed elements Air and Earth. (Zeus and Hera are the Lord and Lady, which is what Hêrôs and Hêra mean in Greek.) Hera renews Her virginity each year by bathing in the spring Kanathos at Nauplia; so also, the Elemental Square shows us that Water leads Earth around the (sunwise) cycle of the seasons.

Plutarch (On Isis and Osiris) says that Demeter is the same as Isis, who is called the Recipient, Preserver, Distributor, Material Principle, Gentle Nurse, All-receptive, Earth and Matter; She is the Seat and Place of Generation, and Receptive of Every Form of Generation. Thus, Isis and Osiris are the Preserver and the Creator, like Hera and Zeus. They correspond to the soil of Egypt (Isis) and the Nile (Osiris), which makes the land fertile. So also the opposites Dryness and Moisture are the dominant Powers of the Elements governed by Hera and Zeus (Earth and Air).

Air and Fire ascend, and Water descends, but Earth is fixed at the bottom; it is secure, the solid foundation of being. Therefore the Tarot suit of Pentacles (or Coins) is associated with Earth, since the ground of stable being is Earth and, more generally, substance (as in "a man of substance"). (The only offspring of Hera and Zeus, the Scepter-bearer, were Ares the Sword-bearer and Hebe the Cup-bearer.) In processes of emanation, Earth is the material Effect of the Unification (Air) of the creative Impulse (Fire) with its Object (Water), which is summarized in four-letter name of Jove: IOUE. This emanation is represented in the Tarot court cards, in which Earth corresponds to the Pages (or Princesses). (This is discussed further in the Pythagorean Tarot, in the discussions of the suits and the court cards.)

The contrast between the immobile Earth and the mobile Elements Water, Air and Fire exhibits a 1+3 structure typical of many spiritual and divine quaternities. Jung explains that "the fourth represents an incommensurable other that is needed for their mutual determination," which is precisely the role played by Earth among the Elements.

The special status of Earth is also apparent in the myth of how the three brothers, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, divided the world among themselves after They defeated the Titans. Poseidon rules the sea (Water), Zeus rules the sky (Air), and Hades rules Tartaros (Fire), but the Earth is held in common between them. All three recognize the sovereignty of Earth.


In conclusion, Earth is the spiritual principle of stable but inflexible synthesis, the passive imposition of form, and the foundation of physical being. The Element is associated with Hera, as protectress of the stable foundation of fertility, and with the Earth Goddesses Demeter and Gaia.

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  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. Plutarch, Isis and Osiris. (Isis & Demeter)
  4. Wright, M. R., Empedocles: The Extant Fragments, Yale University Press, 1981. (fragments of Empedocles, with interpretations)

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Last updated: Sun Jan 24 13:37:34 EST 1999