the nature of the elements

by Moreh

From the dawn of time until today, many have tried to discover the basic building blocks of our world. This series of articles summarizes the perceptions of the greatest minds throughout history on this matter.

early teachings

The Western understanding of the four elements of Fire (), Air (), Water () and Earth () can be traced back to the teachings of Empedocles who lived in the 5th century BC. Empedocles was an initiate in the ancient (Orphic) mystery tradition and was a student of Pythagoras. His teachings were influenced by near-Eastern traditions such as Zoroastrianism and Chaldean Theurgy and Empedocles, in turn, was a source for the later Western Mystery Tradition. Empedocles originally called the Elements the four roots. The following figure shows the motion in the elements between the two polarities of Fire and Water, the intermixing of the four roots, and the descent (from top to bottom) of light into matter.

In addition to the Elements, he discerned the currents of Love and Strife. Love (affinity, sympathy) explains the attraction of different forms of matter and their motion toward order and unity whereas Strife (difference, antipathy) is the current that drives matter to separation and chaos but which at the same time also is the basis for the multifarious forms of matter and individual identities. Love and Strife (comparable to Coolness and Heat) are the primary Agents of change in the world. They are the primary forces that bring about all transformation through their mixing and separation of the Elements. They can be compared with the Pillars of Mercy and Severity. A proper balance of both is necessary for an ordered cosmos.

Behold the sun, warm and bright on all sides,
and whatever is immortal and is bathed in its bright ray,
and behold the raincloud, dark and cold on all sides;
from the earth there proceed the foundations of things and solid bodies.

In Strife all things are, endued with form and separate from each other,
but they come together in Love and are desired by each other.
For from these (elements) come all things that are or have been or shall be;
from these there grew up trees and men and women,
wild beasts and birds and water-nourished fishes,
and the very gods, long-lived, highest in honour.

And these (elements) never cease changing place continually, now being all united by Love
into one, now each borne apart by the hatred engendered of Strife, until they are brought
together in the unity of the all, and become subject to it. Thus inasmuch as one has been
wont to arise out of many and again with the separation of the one the many arise, so things
are continually coming into being and there is no fixed age for them; and farther inasmuch as
they [the elements] never cease changing place continually, so they always exist within an
immovable circle.

(Source: Empedocles)

Empedocles taught that the Elements are more than material substances, although for the understanding of the nature therefore worldly properties are used:

Element Properties
flame, blaze, lightning, sun, sunlight, beaming
heaven, firmament, brilliance, ray, beam, glance, eye, splendor, mist, cloud
rain, sweat, moisture, sea water, open sea
land, soil, ground

Empedocles presented his teachings in beautiful enigmas in order to prevent his students from taking any one aspect of these elements as the final truth. As archetypes, the elements can only be circumscribed but not described. Fire is not just the terrestrial flame. The Practicus Initiation of the GD beautifully underlines the many aspects of the Fire Element through the metaphor of the Kabiri brothers. One can think of the Elements as states of matter (material substances) as well as spiritual essences. Macrocosmic manifestations for example are the sun, the sky, the sea and the land. Exploring the various physical manifestations of the elements can deepen our understanding of their underlying essences. Microcosmic manifestations can be defined as components of the human mind; mental, etheric, astral and physical bodies. The Elements in our personal lives can be related to the following psychological aspects:

Element Positive and negative psychological attribution

burning of the gross by trial and self-criticism, intuition, creativity, willpower, passion, flammable (anger), ambitious

energetic, strong, development and change, ability to discriminate, analytical, intellectual, honest, decisive, judgmental and intolerant, selfish, arrogant, dominant, will imposing

flexibility, pragmatism, receptiveness, gentleness, obedience, conforming, understanding, compassionate, unreliability, lack of self-control and determination, passivity, weakness, overly sensitive

realism, responsibility in work and financial moderation, realization and care of physical health, rigidity, laziness

qualities of the elements

Zoroaster taught there are two primary principles. One is Celestial and associated with the Father, Fire, Light, Warmth, Dryness, Lightness (as opposed to Heaviness) and Swiftness. The other is Terrestrial and associated with the Mother, Water, Darkness, Coolness, Moisture, Heaviness and Slowness. Their powers are primarily Warm and Cold (the dominant powers of Fire and Water). Pythagoras similarly taught that the Cosmos and its harmony result from the union of the Male and the Female, the Light and the Dark, for both are necessary. Neither of these is good or evil, alchemy recognizes that both Light and Dark are divine and deserving of our respect. Spirit needs to be embodied. According to Zoroastrians, the cycle of Light and Dark takes place within Time or Space. Space is not empty or it would not exist. It is full of intangible forces that keep things in harmonic relationship to each other; otherwise, it would all collapse in on itself regardless of the scale. The sub-atomic particles in space appear and disappear thousands of times per second in a scintillating binary dance of on and off, life and death, existence and non-existence. This transcendent Unity differentiates into Light and Dark which alternates within creating harmony and Cosmos.

Anaximander (6th Century BC) is credited for bringing forward the opposed powers of Warm () Cool (), Moist () and Dry (). The Elements each contain two of these Powers or Qualities. Anaximander was the Master of the Milesian School (The Philosophers of Nature) which counted Pythagoras among its pupils. Anaximander succeeded his Master, Thales, who is said to have only been instructed by Egyptian priests (though some believe he was taught by Zoroaster). The Warm elements are Fire and Air (heaven and sky), and the Cool are Water and Earth (sea and land). The union of Warm and Cool gives birth to all living things. The qualities attributed to each Element are as follows:

Element Primary Secondary

These qualities manifest themselves in many ways as Elements and various gradations within the Elements. The Pythagoreans identified one of the most important of these, a natural progression that is called the Organic Cycle. The first phase of growth is Moist: spring rains, green shoots, rapid growth. The second phase is Warm: summer sun, flourishing individuality, mature vigour. The third is Dry: autumn leaves, inflexible stems, stiffening joints. The fourth is Cool: winter chills, loss of identity, death.

For Alchemical processes, it is good to understand how one Element may be influenced or overcome by another. As Raymund Lully explains: If Air and Water are combined, there is two times a moist nature. Since moistness is the primary power of Air, Water is overcome by Air. By analogy Water overcomes Earth, Earth overcomes Fire, and Fire overcomes Air. The Great Work is, in principle, the quest to marry the opposites of Fire and Water to a fifth Element that is outside the realm of the Four Elements: the Quintessence. The creative impulse of Fire (Alchemical Sulphur) working on Water (Alchemical Salt), is brought about with Air (Alchemical Mercury) as a catalyst. The material and fixed effect of this marriage is presented by a new Earth (the Philosophers Stone). The Spirit of Lully, for example, in the first stages lacks aridity and is actuated by circulation over salts, starting with oily salts (warm and moist) and gradually dryer salts (cool and dry) to increase its power to work on minerals. The following paragraphs deal with each of the elements separately.


Central to the character of Earth is its power to give form and to preserve. The Cool and Dry qualities represent passive mixture (cool, connecting) and rigid structure (dry, form imposing). The dominant principle of Dryness is characterized in fixed matter, whereas the other Elements all have some volatility. The cool quality of Earth is a uniting quality. Earth is the crystalline form and material body of life and the foundation of physical beings. The Earth is too rigid and inflexible to support life, but can be given this flexibility by water. In that sense, Earth is better pictured as a cold hard crystal than as a moist warm loam. The Caput Mortuum in Alchemical processes is the grossest form of the Element Earth or, in principle, the Element Earth and its dominant quality of dryness in its purest physical manifestation.


Central to the character of Water is its power to dissolve and to receive. The Moist quality of the Water Element forms part of its receptive and flexible character and presents the dissolving power (passive loss of form) of Water. The dominant Cool quality presents a unifying power. The coolness allows composite entities to unite. The primary cool character of Water can be related to Winter whereas, for example, the primary Moist character of Air can be related to Spring. The essence of water is to mix and cling together while being changeable in shape. The flexibility of Water to reorganize its structure and the passive receptiveness to transformation allow it to be a suitable basis for growth and development. Water is the receptacle and primordial chaos that nurtures the growth and development of life. In Alchemical processes, Water is associated with the vegetative soul. Water, in combination with Earth, is the Primal Mud or Prime Matter which is the basis of the Great Work. The Primal Mud needs to be animated by Air and Fire to become a part of life.


The Elements of Air and Fire constitute the Astral body and soul of life. Earth and Water form the physical body which is animated by a spirit and a soul. Warmth and Moistness are the principles of generation. The Warmth provides the igneous spirit that introduces motion into the inert matter and activates it. In that light, Air can be related to Spring. Central to the character of Air is its ability to conform to external circumstances due to its moistness. Warmth is the power of separation. It will concentrate and unite things that are the same but it will separate all that is different. Warmth is the cause of all processes of differentiation and it leads to the cyclic motion between opposing principles. Warmth is expansive, outward-directed and energetic. As was described above, warmth is the opposite of coolness which is the quality that can unite things with a different nature. The moist quality gives Air its generative quality. In that light, the Element of Air can be compared to warm moist breath rather than to a cool dry breeze. Anaximander taught that Air should be considered the first principle of everything: the breath, the soul and the principle of life.

Pythagoras is credited with the idea that the Breath-Soul is a conjunction of opposites. A fundamental principle in the Western Mystery Tradition is that a conjunction of two opposites requires a mediating factor. In Alchemy, Sulfur and Salt are united by Mercury. This principle is often pictured as the triangle which contains two opposing poles and one uniting one. The Elements Fire and Water have no common Qualities. Air however, has one of the qualities of each Element and can therefore function as a bridge between the opposites.


Central to the character of Fire is its power to separate and create (or break down to) a new form. Empedocles distinguishes Fire as the Agent of action. In physics, Fire corresponds to the energy where the other elements correspond to states of matter - states of lower vibration. Fire strives to actively impose a determinate form on things and therefore represents the creative impulse in all its varieties. Traditionally, four kinds of Fire are distinguished as symbolized by the four sides of the primordial tetrahedron. Below are listed some associations with each of these fires.

1. Son─Źni ogenj
Will, wish, father, fountain and end
Life giving
Three supernals of the Tree of Life
Central, forcing fire into fire

2. Vulcanic/terrestrial Fire
Mind, intention, desire
Tearing away the curtain of matter
Magnetic energy
Left, clothing one fire with another fire

3. Astral Fire
Soul, passion
Vital heat of existence, life of beings
Incorruptible fire, mistress of life
Right, germ of fire

4. Latent Heat
Energy in transit
Heat required for change, heat of transformation
Basal side of the tetrahedron

So the fourth type of fire is closest to what we perceive as warmth. Temperature is basically a state of motion (of molecules) whereas heat is energy in transit. However, energy in transit also changes so it relates to more than just heat. The various degrees of fire that the Alchemist use are related to this fourth type of heat. In the case of the alchemical furnace, it is oftentimes the terrestrial fire that produces this heat.

In relation to the aspect of change, it should be noted that fire plays a central role in the process of evolution and the cycle of rebirth. Fire is purifying; it burns away the transient and the imperfect, thereby freeing the soul and immortalizing it. The Fire in our Souls is akin to the Celestial Fire. Hippocrates says that the soul is an immortal Warmth which sees, hears and knows everything. Most of this warmth is pushed to the outermost sphere where it is called Aither and forms a kind of Fiery World Soul. Our Souls are akin to this Divine Aither that embraces and supports the cosmos but might be likened as well to what Heraclitus calls "a spark of the essential substance of the stars". The Divine Fire is found both outside surrounding us and inside us at the center of our being. Mankind is made up of portions of the cosmos and, in death, like returns to like: the soul goes to heavenly Aither and the body goes to Earth, each returning to its own element. According to the Orphic Gold Tablets, when the soul reaches its destination it should say, "I am a child of Earth and Starry Heaven, but my race is of Heaven alone; this Ye know Yourselves."

Empedocles taught that many Fires burn beneath the Earth, that the Solar Fire was born in the bowels of the Earth and that Volcanic Fire shoots to the heavens and licks the stars. Thus Fire is the highest and the lowest Element. The Celestial Fire mirrors the Central Fire as though in a higher octave. The Celestial Fire is symbolized as a cube. The double cubical alter in GD rituals primarily represents this Celestial Fire above the Central Fire. The Central Fire is also known as the Dark Sun, the Black Sun, the Sun behind the Sun and the Volcanic Sun as Franz Hartmann states in "Magic, White and Black", 1888.

Since Fire is separating (due to its Heat) and inflexible (Dry), the effect of Heat on the Primal Mud is to rarefy the Watery part and to condense the Earthy part. Through its Heat, the Luminous Agent causes separation so the part of the Primal Mud that retains its Moisture becomes Water, and the part that retains its Coolness becomes Earth; thus the two Elements separate.

part 2 of this article

Part 2 of this article will continue with an overview of the Elements in nature, the Elements as understood in Alchemy, and the Elements in chemistry. The matter of the Elements in chemistry will be approached from a different paradigm, from within the context of the following spiral table of elements.

Inner Garden Foundation
P.O. Box 8520, 3542AD
Utrecht, The Netherlands
privacy policy
copyright notice
2010-2022, © Inner Garden

galileo icon