Working with the Elements

by Dennis William Hauck


The Four Elements


ElementsAccording to the ancients, the First Matter has a fourfold structure which they attributed to the existence of four archetypal forces or elements of creation which they named Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Obviously, the Four Elements of the alchemists are not our everyday ideas of earth, water, air, and fire, which are only the physical expressions of their respective archetypes. “There are four common elements,” wrote Polish alchemist Michael Sendivogius (1566-1636), “and each has at its center another deeper element [the archetype] which makes it what it is. These are the four pillars of the world. They were in the beginning evolved and molded out of chaos [First Matter] by the hand of the Creator; and it is their contrary action which keeps up the harmony and equilibrium of the mundane machinery of the universe; it is they, which through the virtue of celestial influences, produce all things above and beneath the earth.”

Thus, the Four Elements are named for those fundamental archetypes within matter and are symbolic of their metaphysical qualities. As archetypes, the elements are beyond any rational explanation and must be experienced to be understood. French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) concluded that the Four Elements resulted from “material image-making” or “the materialization of imagery” within the One Mind of the universe. He looked at the interaction of the elements from the point of view of what each sought. “Earthly joy is riches and impediment,” he said. “Aquatic joy is softness and repose; fiery pleasure is desire and love; airy delight is liberty and movement.”

In Answers from the Elements, Sufi alchemist Rumi describes the elements as expressions of the love of the universal soul for the divine spirit: “Last night I asked the moon about the Moon, my one question for the visible world, Where is God? The moon says, I am dust stirred up when he passed by. The sun: My face is pale yellow from just now seeing him. Water: I slide on my head and face, like a snake, from a spell he cast. Fire: His lightning – I want to be that restless. Wind: Why so light? I would burn too if I had a choice. Earth, quiet, impregnated: Inside me I have a garden and a bubbling spring.”

The ancient Greeks did a lot of philosophizing about the nature of the First Matter (which they called hyle), and it from that thought the doctrine of the Four Elements emerged. The first philosopher to formalize these principles was Empedocles, a Greek philosopher and healer who lived around 450 BC. In his Tetrasomia ("Doctrine of the Four Elements"), he stated that all matter is comprised of four roots (or elements): Earth, Water, Air, and Fire.

According to Empedocles, Fire and Air are “outwardly reaching” elements, reaching up and out, whereas Earth and Water turn inward and downward. In his view, and that of later alchemists, the elements are not only material substances but also spiritual essences. To show their archetypal power, Empedocles associated each element with a god. “Hera rules the fruitful earth,” he wrote. “Hades the central fire, Zeus the luminescent air, and Persephone the mollifying water.”

The elements were animated through the interaction of two great living energies Empedocles called Love and Strife (Eros and Eris). Love he associated with the goddess Aphrodite, and Strife with the god of war, Ares. This simple view explained nearly every aspect of the world of the Greeks. Love and Strife were primordial gods who predated the gods of Olympus. This idea is very much like the Eastern tradition Yin and Yang, with Yin being the passive feminine energy of Love and Yang being the aggressive masculine energy of Strife. Egyptian alchemists associated the feminine (Love) energy with the Moon and masculine (Strife) energy with the Sun, while European alchemists associated the feminine energy with the Queen and the masculine energy with the King.

Aristotle (350 BC) further developed the theories of Empedocles by explaining them in terms of their qualities. In his view, the elements arose from the interplay of the ideal (or archetypal) properties of hotness and coldness, and dryness and wetness. Fire (dry and hot) and Water (wet and cold) are polar opposites, as are Earth (dry and cold) and Air (wet and hot). Wet and dry are the primary qualities. Wet (moistness) is the quality of fluidity or flexibility, which allows a thing to adapt to its external conditions, whereas Dry (dryness) is the quality of rigidity, which allows a thing to define its own shape and bounds. As a consequence Wet things tend to be volatile and expansive, since they can fill spaces in their surroundings, whereas Dry things are fixed and structured, since they define their own form. Aristotle predicted that one material could be transformed into another by altering the mix of its archetypal elements and their qualities.

The symbols used by the alchemists for the elements have a lot to say about their archetypal origins. The symbol for Fire () is an upward-pointing triangle, since Fire with its hot and dry qualities is the most volatile element and seeks to ascend. The symbol for Water () is a downward-pointing triangle, since Water with its cold and moist qualities seeks to descend or condense. Fire and Water are the two purest elements, and the other two elements of Air and Earth are considered to be more material versions of them. Thus, the symbol for Air () is the upward-pointing triangle of Fire with a horizontal line through it. Air is hot and moist and seeks to ascend, but its moist component blocks the full ascent of the Fire principle, as indicated by the horizontal line in the triangle. Thus Air is suspended in time and space, caught between the extremes of the Above and the Below. The symbol for Earth () is the downward-pointing triangle of Water with a horizontal line through it. Earth is cold and dry and seeks to descend, but its dry component blocks the full descent of the Water principle, as indicated by the horizontal line in the triangle. Thus Earth is suspended in time and space and is what the alchemists would call the least volatile or most fixed of the elements.

Another Greek philosopher, Hippocrates (400 BC), added his own spin to the theory of the elements by applying them to human psychology. He viewed the elements as bodily fluids he called “humors” (see Figure 5). In Hippocrates’ system, Fire is associated with the Choleric humor of yellow bile, which is carried in cholesterol as a bi-product of digestion and energy transformation in the body. Aristotle would say the Choleric force is hot and dry. Choleric people therefore tend to be energetic, active, moving, “on-fire”, and enthusiastic.

Water is associated with the Phlegmatic humor of phlegm, which represents the clear fluids of the body carried by the lymphatic system and secreted by the mucus membranes. The phlegmatic person is cold and wet in Aristotle’s terms and tends to in touch with their feelings and can be moody and brooding. The Water Element is associated with dissolution, diffusion, union, and transformation, and people in whom the Phlegmatic humor is predominant tend to be flowing and flexible, letting their feelings guide them, and oriented toward emotional harmony. 

Air is associated with the Sanguine humor of the blood, which distributes oxygen throughout the tissues of the body. The word “sanguine” refers to a ruddy complexion in which the blood flows close to the skin. Oddly, Hippocrates had no idea that the blood distributes “air” through the body, yet he made the connection using ancient esoteric doctrines and his own intuition. Sanguine people tend to be very changeable and even flighty, perhaps a little irritable yet basically optimistic, and full of personal integrity. According to Aristotle, such people are hot and wet in their elemental qualities.    

Earth is associated with the Melancholic humor of black bile, which probably refers to waste products associated with digestion such as the stools, from which useful energy has been removed leaving only the dregs of matter behind. Melancholic people tend to be apathetic, passive, stubborn, sluggish, rigid yet practical. Since Earth is the principle of structure and materialization, the Melancholic humor is dominant in the person who focuses on physical reality and tends to exhibit the qualities of perseverance, inflexibility, realism, and pragmatism. In Aristotle’s terms, such people are cool and dry.

Carl Jung’s theory of personality types is clearly derived from the humors of Hippocrates. The four basic Jungian types are each associated with a humor: feeling (Fire, Choleric), thinking (Water, Phlegmatic), intuition (Air, Sanguine), and sensation (Earth, Melancholic). By combining the polarities of introversion (a person focused on inner feelings and thoughts) and extroversion (a person focused on outer relationships and external objects), Jung developed eight personality types. In psychology, we also find the four humors expressed as the personality variables in the popular Meyers-Briggs test. In the Luscher Color personality profile, the Fire color red is has the qualities of excitement, activity and self- confidence. The Water color blue is associated with relaxation, satisfaction and self-moderation. The Air color yellow has qualities of free-thinking, change, and self-development. The Earth color green is associated with solidity, persistence, and self-respect.

Jung saw the Four Elements as archetypes existing in the collective unconscious and thus present in everyone. Jung considered Fire and Air the active, masculine elements and Water and Earth the passive, feminine elements. In Jungian psychology, it is the degree of development of each of the Four Elements in our conscious mind balanced with the unconscious retention of the remaining elements that determines our personality and attitude. In other words, this indwelling fourfold structure of our personality originates from the creation of ego out of the chaos of the unconscious, just as the fourfold structure of the universe was created by the action of the One Mind on the First Matter.

In alchemy, as in psychology, the goal is to develop a balance of the elements within the individual.  Even Empedocles noted that those who have near equal proportions of the Four Elements are more intelligent and have the truest perceptions of reality. Personal transformation and individual integration are dependent upon balancing the elements within the psyche, and the deeper relationships of the elements (whether they oppose or complement one another) determine whether we are basically happy and balanced or develop neuroses, phobias, and other psychological disturbances. According to Jung, when two opposing elements encounter each other in the personality or are brought to the surface in a situation, there are three possibilities: 1) they may generate psychic energy; 2) they may neutralize each other; or 3) they may combine or unite. In alchemy and psychology, the third case is the most profound, for the union of opposite elements is the Conjunction of Opposites (Coniunctio Oppositorum), the creation of a higher unity and transcendence of conflicting polarities.


Experiment 2: Balancing the Elements


As we have noted, Aristotle considered the Four Elements as composed of the qualities of hot and cold, dry and moist. All the elements originated by impressing these qualities on the First Matter, and one element could be changed into another by altering these qualities. For instance, when the qualities of moist and cold are imposed on the First Matter, the element Water results, but if we boil Water, it is changed into Air (steam) by substituting the quality of hot for that of cold. In the following experiment in the inner laboratory of our mind, we will work to transform the humors using a procedure the alchemists called the Rotation of the Elements

In this experiment, first try to determine which element (or humor) is predominant within you using the descriptions in the preceding section. Try to be objective and pick only one primary humor that seems to fit you. For help, you might want to take the Meyers-Briggs test or quizzes contained in such popular books as The Four Temperaments by Randy Rolfe (Marlowe & Co. 2002). You may also want to consult a close friend or family member to find out how they would classify you.

Once you have determined your dominant humor, use the ancient Rotation of the Elements procedure to create the perfect balancing humor within you. This procedure is based on Aristotle’s Square of Opposition (see Figure 6), which depicts all the relationships between the qualities and the elements. The elements form a cross within the square, and each element is composed of two qualities shown in the corners of the square. Thus, Earth is dry and cold, Water is cold and moist, Air is moist and hot, Fire is hot and dry. The qualities form a diagonal cross (or “X”) of opposition within the square. Changes in the qualities of the elements causes movement through the square. You could also say that the “strife between opposites'' is the motor of rotation. Cold become hot, hot becomes cold, moist becomes dry, dry becomes moist.

Hot (or heat) in the upper left hand corner is the primary quality, and Fire at the top of the square is the most active element and the agent of transformation. Water at the bottom of the square is the most passive element and represents the agent of coagulation or the current situation. The “natural” circulation of the elements in the square begins with the process of adaptation (Water), and continues through expansion (Air), production (Fire), and retraction (Earth). The same pattern of movement through the elements can be seen in many elemental rotations, including the seasons (winter, spring, summer, fall), the ages of man (childhood, youth, maturity, old age), and the cyclic rise and fall of nations and ideas.

There are four rules that determine movement within the Square of Opposition. First, movement is in a clockwise rotation starting at Fire. This is where the work of alchemical transformation begins. You will notice that as you move through the square, each element follows its dominant quality. Therefore Fire is predominantly hot, Earth is predominantly dry, Water predominantly cold, Air predominantly moist. The turning square is an elemental rotation driven by the qualities: hot on the top, dry on the descending side, cold on the bottom, and moist on the rising side. “It is clear that generation of the elements will be circular,” explained Aristotle, “and this mode of change is very easy because corresponding qualities are present in adjacent elements.''

Second, direct transformation of opposed elements into one another is not impossible. We can move around the square, but not across it. Thus Water cannot be transformed directly into Fire, since they have no common quality, however, Water can be transformed by first changing into Air or Earth. Then, the Air or Earth is transformed into Fire.

Third, the qualities are inversely proportional to each other. That means that the higher the intensity of an earlier quality in the rotation, the greater the rate of increase in the following quality. Or alternatively, the higher the intensity of a later quality in the rotation, the more the preceding quality decreases. For instance, increasing hot increases dry but decreases moist. Or looking at the elements, heat causes Earth to lose its rigidity or dryness and melt (become more flexible or moist), which makes it Water. Further heating decreases the cold of the Water and increases its hot quality, which makes it boil and turn into Air (steam). When Air is heated, its moisture is reduced, and it rises higher into Fire. When Fire becomes cold, it loses its heat and becomes Earth (ashes) again.

Fourth, whenever there are two elements with a common quality, the element in which it is not dominant is "overcome" or "conquered" by the one in which it is dominant. This property is known as the Cycle of Triumphs and was first noticed by alchemist Raymond Lully (1229-1315). For example, when Water combines with Earth, the Earth is overcome, because they are both cold, but cold dominates in Water. Therefore, Water overcomes Earth and the result will be predominantly cold. According to this scheme, Fire overcomes Air, Air overcomes Water, Water overcomes Earth, and Earth overcomes Fire. Generally, the more subtle (or spiritual) element overcomes the grosser (or more material) element.

To balance your dominant element (or humor) find its opposite element on the cross within the square. You want to increase the presence of this neglected element to balance your temperament, however, since they are opposite, you must work through one of the adjacent elements.

For example, if your dominant element is Water and you want to balance it with more Fire in your personality, begin by working with the adjacent element (Air or Earth) for which you feel you have the greatest affinity or with which you are the most comfortable. If you choose the path of Air, you need to work to increase the quality of moist, which means becoming more flowing and allowing emotional energy to surface. If you choose the path of Earth, you need to do the opposite and try to become less flowing and more controlling of emotional energy.

The process is really simple when you work with it awhile. Meditate on the different expressions of the qualities as the alchemists did. The archetypal relationships between the elements are so plainly depicted in the Square of Opposition that it is an amazingly versatile tool for all kinds of transformation. The alchemists used these same relationships and progressed through the Square of Opposition whether they were doing laboratory experiments, producing medicines, or working on their own personal transformation.

It is even possible to work in reverse (counterclockwise) rotation, which is known as the Death Rotation. The alchemist and Byzantine emperor Heraclitus (600 AD) described the process thus: “Fire lives in the death of Earth, and Air lives the death of Fire; Water lives the death of Air, and Earth lives the death of Water.'' In his book Purifications, Empedocles uses the reverse rotation to cleanse the soul of broken promises, crimes against humanity, and other bad karma. The process must be repeated in numerous rebirths and lasts for “thrice ten thousand years.”


The Quintessence


            The Quintessence of the alchemists is often described as the Fifth Element, not because it was considered one of the elements but because it was beyond the elements in both form and function. It was seen as something new and wonderful in creation that transcended the limitations imposed by the Four Elements.

“The Quintessence is a thing,” wrote Isaac Newton, “that is spiritual, penetrating, tingeing, and incorruptible, which emerges anew from the Four Elements when they are bound together.”

            The Quintessence has been described as luminous but invisible to ordinary sight. In medieval alchemy, the term Quintessence was synonymous with the elixir and was thought to contain the same magical ingredient. Like Pythagoras before him, Paracelsus believed the Quintessence is what the stars are made of and that within every living thing there exists a hidden star that was that thing’s Quintessence. Indeed, one of the symbols for the Quintessence is the star. Another symbol is a pentagram inscribed in a circle, dividing it into five equal sections. The pentagram symbol is thought to represent the body of man. Alchemist Benedictus Figulus describes the Quintessence further in his book The Golden Casket:

"For the elements and their compounds, in addition to crass matter, are composed of a subtle substance or intrinsic radical humidity, diffused through their elemental parts, simple and wholly incorruptible, long preserving the things themselves in vigor. Called the Spirit of the World, it proceeds from the Soul of the World [First Matter]. This is the one certain Life filling and fathoming all things, so that from the emanations of sentient beings, there is formed the One Living Machine of the Whole World. This spirit by its virtue fecundates [fertilizes or brings to life] all subjects natural and artificial, pouring into them those hidden properties that we call the Fifth Essence or Quintessence. But this Fifth Essence is created by the Almighty for the preservation of the Four Elements of the human body, even as Heaven is for the preservation of the Universe. Therefore is this Fifth Essence a Spiritual Medicine, which is of Nature and the Heart of Heaven and never of a mortal and corrupt quality that makes all life possible. It is the Fount of Medicine, the preservation of life, the restoration of health, and in this may be the cherished renewal of lost youth and serene health be found." 

Perhaps a picture of the true nature of the Quintessence is beginning to emerge. Often, when one is stymied by the indirect terminology of Western alchemists, it is fruitful to turn to the writings of their Eastern colleagues. In Chinese alchemy, the Fifth Element is Wood, which is a product of the plant kingdom and things that grow. In Taoist alchemy, the Quintessence is known as chi, an unseen energy that flows through the body and can be accumulated and directed in moving meditations such as performed in Tai Chi and Chi Kung. In Tantric alchemy, the Quintessence is the kundalini sexual energy coiled like a sleeping serpent at the base of the spine. In Hindu alchemy, the Quintessence is the spirit of breath known in Sanskrit as prana. This is very similar to the Western concepts of pneuma (Greek) and rauch (Hebrew).

In all these traditions, both East and West, there is only one thing that the Quintessence can be. It is the life force itself. That explains why the alchemists did not consider the Quintessence to be a product of the Four Elements, but a separate principle altogether though which all the elements could be tamed or controlled. Most alchemists believed the Quintessence had nothing at all to do with the Four Elements, but rather emerged from an even more primordial state known as the sacred Trinity or the Three Essentials.



© Dennis William Hauck