The story of the four elements: fire, earth, air and water, goes back to Ancient Greece where philosophers were speculating about the nature of the physical world. These four elements later became associated with the four humours of Classical medicine.
Then their spiritual dimension was described in the 16th century by philosopher and astrologer, Paracelsus who spoke of the elementals. And in the 20th century psychologist C.G. Jung related the four elements to the four functions of the human psyche.
Jung’s work has led to greater understanding of how the four elements relate to the 12 signs of the zodiac. We explore this in another article.
Empedocles 494 – 434 BCE
But our story begins in Ancient Greece with Empedocles who, according to Aristotle, was the first to suggest the theory that the world could be reduced to four elements: fire, earth, air and water. These elements could not be created nor destroyed, only their proportions rearranged and put together in different ways. These ideas were to hold sway for the next 2000 years.
Classical Elements and the four humours
The philosophy of the four classical elements spread throughout the Roman empire, around the Mediterranean and all across Europe. It became the basis of medical science in the Middle Ages thanks to the writings of Greek doctor and philosopher, Galen (129 – 210 AD) who was a follower of Hippocrates (of the Hippocratic Oath).
Galen related the four elements to the four humours of the body: yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), blood (air) and phlegm (water). Good health was regarded as a balance of the humours and treatment was to help the patient to stay in or return to their own personal state of balance.
We still use the terms of the four humours to describe different character types: choleric, melancholic, sanguine and phlegmatic.
This story is told in Passions and Tempers, A History of the Humours by Noga Arikha. (NY: HarperCollins. 2007)
This from her website:
“The four humours were first mooted in the 5th century BC, in Greece.
Each one corresponded to an element and a quality. The Pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles established the fourfold division of the universe; and since humans are part of the universe, the division applied to us too.
The first, legendary (but probably real) doctor, Hippocrates was also active in this period, and he took on board this idea.
The system endured in the West for an extraordinarily long time. Other versions of it still exist in other parts of the world. The western system specifically, on which Passions and Tempers focuses, was passed on to posterity first by the Hippocratic writings, assembled into a corpus in Alexandria, Egypt, at the height of that city`s reign, in the 3rd century BC.
It was then revised, analysed and consolidated by the Greek-speaking Roman doctor Galen of Pergamon, who lived in the 2nd century AD and wrote a prodigious number of books. Medicine remained in a sort of stasis for centuries after this – give or take a few important discoveries, especially within the Arabic-speaking world, thanks to which most of the classical knowledge, medical and otherwise, was passed on.
But variations and breaches appeared with the advent of the Renaissance, when it became possible to dissect human cadavers again, and when the original texts of antiquity arrived in Europe from Turkey. Once one could look inside the body, the old humours began their transformation. But they endured within medical practice and ordinary beliefs.”
However, it was only men who were allowed to attend university where the theory of the four humours was taught. Women healers (called wise women or witches) continued with their time-tested use of herbal remedies. The fascinating history of the role of women in medicine can be read here:
Old Wives’ Tales by Mary Chamberlain. Published by The History Press. (2010).
Ibn Sina 980 – 1037
Ibn Sina was a Persian philosopher and doctor, also known by his Latinized name of Avicenna. His work on the four humours is contained in his five-volume encyclopaedia “The Canon of Medicine” which was used as standard textbook throughout the middle ages, even up till the 18th century. This magnum opus also provided the basis for Unani, the traditional Muslim system of medicine which is still followed in the Middle East and in India where it is practised alongside Ayurvedic medicine.
Wikipedia describes traditional systems of medicine as pseudo-medicines and groups them with fringe science and conspiracy theories. Readers are advised to be aware of this bias and to check out other online resources where possible.
Paracelsus 1493 -1541
At the time of the German Renaissance in the 16th century, Swiss doctor, alchemist and astrologer, Paracelsus largely rejected the theory of the 4 humours, but through his alchemical research explored the relationships between matter and consciousness describing four elemental beings, each corresponding to one of the four elements:
Brownies or Gnomes corresponding to Earth
Undines or Mermaids corresponding to Water
Sylphs corresponding to Air
Salamanders corresponding to Fire.
Then the Tarot…
As well as the 22 cards of the major arcana with its archetypal images of the Fool, the Magician, the Lovers, the Hanged man, etc., there’s the minor arcana, consisting of four suits: swords, wands, cups and pentacles. Each suit is associated with one of the classical elements as follows:
Swords with Air
Wands with Fire
Cups with Water
Pentacles with Earth
The history of the Tarot is subject to much speculation but it is generally agreed that the four suits of the minor arcana gave rise to the four suits of the ordinary playing cards, also known as the Poker deck, or in some countries as the French deck.
Spades from Swords from Air
Clubs from Wands from Fire
Hearts from Cups from Water
Diamonds from Pentacles from Earth
Scientists no longer regard the four elements of the Ancient Greeks as the building blocks of the physical world. We have the periodic table of 118 elements that starts with Hydrogen and Helium and carries on past Strontium and Gold, Radium and Uranium to the artificial elements that may only exist for less than a fraction of a second. Then within these atoms science has discovered protons, neutrons and electrons, which are in turn composed of even smaller particles known as quarks. Welcome to the quantum universe!
Likewise, illness and disease are no longer seen as the result of an imbalance of humours in the body. And bloodletting (with or without leeches) is no longer seen as a cure-all.
But the four elements have not been totally abandoned. They have found a home in psychology and provide the basis of Carl Jung’s theory of Psychological Types.
C.G. Jung 1895 -1961
Swiss psychologist and follower of Sigmund Freud, Jung took the four elements of Mediaeval thought, and mapped them onto his understanding of the human psyche. He described them as four functions: Earth is the sensing function (the concern with physical sensation). Water is the feeling function (to do with emotional evaluation). Air is the thinking function (the rational and intellectual processes). And Fire Jung described as intuition (direct perception without the senses).
For me and for many other astrologers, this typology fits well with our concept of the four elements as we discuss in another article.
Myers-Briggs Personality Types
Jung’s typology also lives on in the work of American authors Katharine Cook Briggs (1875 – 1968) and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers (1897 – 1980) in their personality test known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This test takes the Jungian parameters of Introvert / Extravert, Sensing / Intuition and Thinking / Feeling and adds the parameter of Judgment / Perception.
The four elements live on in this modern, widely-used personality test that categorises people as belonging to 16 unique types according to the above criteria.
The Four Elements and Astrology
But when it comes to personality, astrology is by far the most subtle and sophisticated system to describe the uniqueness of each human individual as well as providing a symbolic schema to make sense of the complexity of human interaction.
In addition to the four elements that relate to the sun’s position in one of the 12 signs of the zodiac, we have the rising sign, the positions of the moon and the planets and if you really want to get down and dirty there are the goddess asteroids, the centaurs and the ever-growing menagerie of Trans-Neptunian Objects.
Check out Astrology and the Elements where we explore the relationship between the 12 signs of the zodiac and their associated elements.
And here a comparison between the western system of 4 elements and the Chinese system of 5 elements.
Earth, water, fire and air
Met together in a garden fair,
Put in a basket bound with skin,
If you answer this riddle,
you’ll never begin.
From “Koeeaddi there!” by The Incredible String Band.