The four elements are the base fabrics and energetic forms with which many holistic herbal healing traditions enrooted their systems and methods including Traditional Western Herbalism. There are many variations of elemental theory to be found throughout history within almost all healing traditions across the world. Ayurveda in India, Chinese traditional medicine, Greek medicine and the European alchemical tradition are just some of the ancient methodologies that incorporate these elemental energies in various arrangements. In ancient Europe, the definition, identification and origin of the four element theory is attributed to Greek philosopher from Sicily, Empedocles about 440 B.C. and was later expounded upon by Aristotle. Modern herbalism was most notable influenced by elemental philosophy by the Swiss physician Paracelsus who based his medical theory on this canon.
The four elements are Earth, Water, Air and Fire with each corresponding to the scientific phases of matter; solid/Earth, liquid/Water, gaseous/Air and radiant or plasma/Fire. The plasma/radiant/combustion phase is the most obscure and least dense of the four material forms.
“Empedocles believed that all in all, nature consisted of four elements, or "roots" as he termed them. These four roots were earth, air, fire, and water. All natural processes were due to the coming together and separating of these four elements. For all things were a mixture of earth, air, fire, and water, but in varying proportions. When a flower or an animal dies, he said, the four elements separate again. We can register these changes with the naked eye. But earth and air, fire and water remain everlasting, "untouched" by all the compounds of which they are part. So it is not correct to say that "everything" changes. Basically, nothing changes. What happens is that the four elements are combined and separated--only to be combined again.”~ Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World
There is also a fifth element that was included by Aristotle as he interpreted the material substances, the Ether/Aether or Quintessence. This element is not, however, thought to be Earthly or solid but, instead, the divine essence or, as the alchemists called it, the prima materia or first matter from which all forms are created and to which all forms are unified and ultimately return. In studying the original attributes of the four elements,it seems to me, that Aristotle actually separated Ether out of Fire as many of Fire’s ancient qualities resonate with what is now considered Ethereal. Matter, in terms of chemistry, is a physical substance that occupies space. Ether is that space and has sometimes been called “Spirit”. Some traditions exclude the Ether as an objective Earthly quality and only consider the four elements as primarily significant, although the invisible forces of life are always considered in some form (except maybe in modern science). Some traditions only use three elements; Earth, Water and Air and consider Fire to be a separate entity that acts on the other three. Sometimes Fire is placed before Air on the spectrum of density, and some traditions further divide the elements into minor sub-categories and patterns.
The four elements exist purely and balanced in the Ethers but are inextricably bound to each other when condensed into form with each not only having an effect the other, but each required to be present in some ratio in all material structures including human, animal, plant and mineral. Fire is thought to effect or transmute all other elements. Everything that exists on Earth is a combination of the elements and so each being that we consider to be a separate entity is, in actuality, an arrangement of the same exact forces of nature that occur in a diverse range of complexities.
“None of the four elements is unchangeable. They may pass into one another through the medium of that quality which they possess in common. Thus fire can become air through the medium of heat; air can become water through the medium of fluidity, and so on. Another example often cited to show that matter is composed of these four elements is the following. If water in a container is subjected to fire, it becomes air (vapor) and earth (the dissolved residue remaining).”~ Zoroaster and the Theory of the Four Elements, Fathi Habashi, Laval University
In scientific terms, the elements can be observed based on measurements that determine mass, volume and density and how these properties relate to space and time. The measurements are based on atomic and molecular proximity which is dependent upon the laws of attraction and repulsion. Basically, without getting into a quagmire of physics, the closer the molecules are to each other establishes the state that they project. Earth is the densest of elemental patterns and corresponds to the solid phase of matter. Water is to liquid, Air is to gas Fire is the least dense and equivalent to the plasma phase of matter although some alchemical traditions place Fire before Air.
The four elements can be divided into the two archetypal, primal forces or base patterns of the universe; feminine and masculine. Also known as Yin and Yang, these are not the same as the anatomical categories of male and female but the polar creative powers that interact to produce motion, change and innovation in material and non-material reality. Certainly the female body symbolizes the feminine archetype and the male the masculine, but each of us contains both in different proportions. The Yin elements are Earth and Water and are the most dense, most manifest and least volatile of the four. The Yang elements are Air and Fire and these are less dense, more active and materially liberated and transcendent.
The feminine or Yin elements have an inward and downward motion. Yin is often symbolized by the receptive nature of the moon and anything that can contain and reflect light or power. Femininity is also immanent and/or indwelling as the spirit moves into matter and takes on a relationship to form. The masculine or Yang elements are more volatile, less material and have an upward and outward motion. The dominant masculine quality is active instead of reflective and liberates spirit from matter.
Another traditional correspondence of the elements is to sacred geometry and the Platonic solids that are represented by the 5 primary shapes of physical matter: Earth=Cube, Water=icosahedron, Air=octahedron, Fire=tetrahedron, and Ether =dodecahedron. Each element can be identified in a myriad of systems and methodologies as a universal pattern that formulates life including astrology, psychology, and herbal energetics. As each element takes its place in the physical world the Vital Force pulses throughout each and all simultaneously communicating the essence of the heart of the world.
The Vital Force
“The Light of Nature...is the Secret Candle of God, which He hath tinned in the elements: it burns and is not seen, for it shines in a dark place.” ~ Thomas Vaughan, Lumen de Lumine
The Vital Force or Vitalism is the doctrine that an invisible power courses through all that is alive, animating matter with intelligence, energy, identity and instinct. The Vital Force is self-organized, self-directed and evolutionary. The Vital Force quickens substance and inspirits matter in all of its manifestations and exists within all of the elements. Its doctrine has been entirely discredited by modern science, which is quite ironic because the very cornerstone of scientific theory and biomedicine was built on the work of Vitalist philosophers, inventors and theorists. Vitalism goes back at least as far as ancient Egypt and was developed into medical doctrine by Greek philosophy. Hippocrates credited the vital force as the natural, inherent healing quality of his patients and called it physis. A word that later evolved into physician. The Vital Force was integrated into various philosophies and from then on, until the past several decades, and informed all branches of scientific study including chemistry. Louis Pasteur himself conducted experiments regarding fermentation that led him to conclude that fermentation was a “vital action”.
The Four Qualities
The Four Elements as expressed in Greek medicine formed the basis for Aristotle’s energetic qualities from which he decreed the four elements were derived. His concept of material energy was concerned with four qualities; Hot, Cold, Wet and Dry that, he surmised, combined themselves to compose the four elements. Here we begin to see the basic premise of the Traditional Western Herbal system that enabled the Greek physicians to classify patterns. From the four qualities the four humors were determined as their physiological correspondence in the human body. The four humors were qualities of the blood; Black Bile (Earth), Phlegm (Water), Blood (Air), and Yellow bile (Fire) that were designed based on the four qualities and the four elements. Each humor presents itself in temperamental or constitutional traits with each person having one or the other that predominates and is observed and determined by physical, emotional and behavioral patterns. The four temperaments or humoral constitutions are Melancholic, Phlegmatic, Sanguine and Choleric.
Each person or living being contains all of the elements in various arrangements but, as there is one humoral temperament that is dominant, there is also, usually, one dominant element that becomes the substance for the unique energetic architecture of each individual. In other words, an Earth element person will exhibit many Earth qualities that belong to their inherent nature and are in just relation to the other element. Each of us has a proportion of each element that is distinctive to only us and when these are in balance we are healthy, creative and are able to facilitate our own resilience. Balance does mean equal because one is often more present or dominant, but instead it means that we are in dynamic equilibrium where the elements within us are aligned with our true nature. Disease, discomfort or imbalance occurs when there is excess or deficiency of one or more elements in relation to our inherent nature and the influence of external variables including weather patterns, geographical location, societal inputs and relationship dynamics.
Elemental Character and Qualities
Earth is the most solid/dense form of matter and one of its main functions is to separate, distinguish, and fuse forms along with anchoring energy. Without Earth there would be no structure for life to exist in. Earth as an element is considered to be the stable force that holds our bodies in a fixed form being felt by the senses as hard and heavy. Earth is produced by the qualities of cold and dry and is chemically expressed in the form of carbon. Carbon is the basic component of matter in combination with other elements that together form molecules. Earth is necessary to establish boundaries within which the other elements may be held. It corresponds to all physical structures and is represented by our physical body, bones, teeth, connective tissue, cartilage, liver, spleen, the intestines, abdomen and skin. In people it is observed as the melancholic temperament and creates the humor of black bile. In terms of taste, sweet is the indicator of Earth as sweet indicates highly nutritious substance. The Earth element provided the nourishment, minerals, and carbohydrates needed to make energy. Earth element people are reliable, grounded and can focus easily on the task at hand. They are usually of large build and easy going. Earth is signified by the root chakra and places value on the necessities of daily life, the importance of security, and the creation of infrastructure for life’s projects and expressive endeavors. These types can be stubborn, resistant to change and immovable when out of balance. Excess Earth can appear as an obsession with material accumulation and emotional rigidity. Physically we may see diabetes (too much sweetness), constipation, stagnant lymph, calcifications, depression, tumors and arthritis. Deficient Earth can appear as un-groundedness, anxiety, lack of focus, and overspending. Physically we may see digestive issues due to leaky gut (reduced intestinal boundary), dampness, muscle wasting, lethargy, low blood sugar, excessive sweating, fluid loss from tissues.
Plants that fall under the category of Earth include: Milky Oats, Burdock Root, Nettles, Comfrey, Coltsfoot, Dandelion, Plantain, Yarrow, and many trees, roots, barks
Water is lighter and less dense than Earth but still downward bearing except in its vapor/steam form which requires fire to generate. One of its main functions is that of movement and transport. Water is magnetic and is so considered the universal solvent as it is capable of binding with many other elements. It is the carrier of minerals, especially salt. Water is always drawn to salt and salt draws water. Water is lifted upwards by the heat and evaporation of Fire. It falls back to Earth down through Air. It is perhaps the strongest of the elements and according to Phyllis Light:
“Water always wins. Even though it is without form, a liquid, there is no force stronger on this planet. Whether moving slow or fast, water gets its way. It erodes mountains, cuts channels into solid rock, creates canyons, and can cause massive destruction of man-made objects.”
Water’s qualities are cold and wet and, in its pure form, it is chemically composed of Hydrogen and Oxygen (H2O), but it likes to collect other trace elements, such as salt, as previously mentioned. It also takes three major sub-forms: frozen, liquid and steam. Its humoral correspondence is phlegm and its constitutional correspondence is the phlegmatic temperament. People who are water types will appear to have medium build, soft skin and an overall “softness” of form with a tendency to gain weight easy and retain water. They are strongly influenced and in tune with their emotions, the emotions of others, and are usually highly intuitive. The organ systems that fall under the influence of the Water element are the kidneys, the urinary tract, mucus membranes and lymph. It resides in the 2nd chakra and so is also a major component of the reproductive system, hormones and is held by the pelvic “bowl”. Excess can appear as edema, sinus and lung congestion, excessive urination, infections of the urinary tract, congestive heart failure and high blood pressure. Deficiency can be seen in stagnant lymphatics, dry skin, lack of affect, emotional coldness, moodiness and impatience.
Plants that fall under the category of Water are: Violet, Marshmallow, Calendula, Mugwort, Evening Primrose and all stems.
Air moves upwards and out and is an active, masculine, yang force. It is the initializing power that carries the Earth and Water through Fire and into the Ethers. Air inspires, opens and enlightens matter with breath and movement. Air feeds Fire with its swirling, changeable elemental current and corresponds to the gaseous phase of matter. Chemically Air is made up of mostly nitrogen, some oxygen and several other gases. It is considered a “volatile” element because it is changeable, action oriented, and intellectual as it represents the “mind” of the Earth. The mind creates the ideas and dreams that can then be materialized into the substance of Earth and Water. It is invisible and yet can exert pressure, motion and still allow substances to rise. The qualities of Air are hot and moist, the taste is sour (some traditions say bitter and astringent), and the humoral manifestation is that of Blood that elicits the constitutional temperament is Sanguine. Air type people are generally of slender build with angular features. They are intellectual, have sensitive nervous systems, and are usually quite articulate and/or communicative. The physical structures that correspond are the brain, nervous system, lungs, adrenal glands, large intestine, and joints. The Air element is associated with the heart chakra and its electromagnetic field making the heart our primary organ of perception. In excess, Air can appear as stress, anxiety, mental illness, high blood pressure, asthma, insomnia, and digestive upsets. Deficient Air can result in adrenal fatigue, depression, muscle weakness, and lack of motivation.
Plants that fall under the category of Air: Skullcap, Borage, Chamomile, Valerian, Blue Vervain, Mullein
Fire is the “great transmuter” and the least dense of the elements, although, some philosophies place Air as the least dense and I think there are good reasons for both placements. In terms of the chemical phases of matter, it is usually believed that Fire most closely corresponds to the plasma phase. Moving from solid to plasma we start with solid when atoms are arranged in a closely ordered pattern and they can’t move or are “fixed”, as a liquid the atoms are still close but they can move around each other. During the gas phase there is even more space between atoms and during the plasma phase they are at a similar proximity but they are charged with so much energy from the extreme heat that their electrons break free. This enables them to carry electricity and generate magnetic fields. In nature, examples of plasmas are lightening and our beloved Sun. Fire’s power is that of vivification as it descends from the Ethers. It is a masculine or Yang energy and is the transmuter and mediator of all of the other elements. Its qualities are hot and dry, it exhibits absolute lightness, and its pattern is expressed by the Choleric temperament. The humor representative of Fire is yellow bile and it is associated with the bitter taste. Fire people are passionate, creative and quick-tempered. They are often individualists and have access to a high level of energy. Organ systems associated with Fire are the heart, blood, immune system, gall bladder, eyes and spine. Excess Fire can appear as anger, fever, inflammation, rashes, acid reflux, autoimmune disease, high blood pressure, hyperthyroid, and nervousness. Deficiency can appear as low energy, anemia, low libido, hypothyroid, parasites, hypothyroid, lack of inspiration, and adrenal fatigue.
Plants that fall under the category of the Fire element are: all flowers, Hawthorne, Motherwort, Garlic, Angelica, and Ginger
“The Magi in their wisdom asserted that all creatures might be brought to one unified substance, which substance they affirm may, by purifications and purgations, attain to so high a degree of subtlety, such divine nature and occult property, as to work wonderful results. For they considered that by returning to the earth, and by a supreme magical separation, a certain perfect substance would come forth, which is at length, by many industrious and prolonged preparations, exalted and raised up above the range of vegetable substances into mineral, above mineral into metallic, and above perfect metallic substances into a perpetual and divine Quintessence, including in itself the essence of all celestial and terrestrial creatures.” - Paracelsus, The Aurora of the Philosophers
Ether is the first and last element and is the culmination, synergy, and pure balance of the other four elements. It is the substance that exists before and after material form, is shapeless, and seemingly ambiguous. Ether or Aether has been often left out of many elemental theories or been identified as a non-elemental faculty. This is not the same as the chemical substance diethyl ether but is the luminiferous or light-bearing Ether, also called the Quintessence, that was proposed by Aristotle. It was conceived as the space within which electromagnetic waves could pass through. Electromagnetic forces are a merger of both masculine/electric and feminine/magnetic energy that is beyond the duality Yin and Yang but is instead the unity of the two. The Ether exists within each element and all phases of matter as the radiant pulse that generates the individual infrastructure of each. It contains all the qualities of hot/cold/damp/dry as they exist in a state of equilibrium as does it contain all four humors and temperaments. Ether moves within and between elements as well as inhabiting both the seen and unseen worlds. It is associated with the nervous system, our “felt” sense, heart resonance, our “sixth” sense, the soul, brain, and physical unity wherever it occurs. Excess of Ether is demonstrated when someone spends too much time in the “Ethers” or dreamtime. They may become nervous, ungrounded, dissociated and lack presence. The electromagnetic field of the heart can be unbounded, open, and receive too much ethereal information for the nervous system to facilitate. Deficiency can appear as a lack of connectedness, lack of meaning, rigidness, hyperfocus on detail, trust issues, dullness, lack of affect and imbalance in any or all of the other elements.
Plants that fall under the category of Ether: Ghost Pipe, Entheogens, Mugwort, Sage, Cedar, Sacred Basil, Cannabis and all seeds
There are infinite correspondences that were not touched on here. The elements are the raw materials of life and so are found in every cell, molecule and atom. Increasing our awareness of the presence of each element and the ratio of each in ourselves and other living forms and structures can improve our self-understanding and self-healing potential. It’s also important to understand that the elements exist in a living, dynamic system and so are never fixed of static but always in motion and varying degrees of change. Although many medicine, philosophical and spiritual traditions use different arrangements or representations for elemental forces I have found mostly resonance between them. Further study of other wisdom traditions such as Ayurveda, Chinese Medicine, Alchemy and even modern science has, for me, created a greater depth of understanding and comprehension of the character of the material patterns and I have not perceived them as contradictory. However, the most highly informative study of the elements, in my opinion, is the direct experience of them in nature, foods, plants, and feeling both sensual and emotional. Observing the elemental patterns in our daily lives is the most profound interaction that we can have with these universal forces of life.
For further reading and resources:
- Vitalism, by Matthew Wood
- The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, by Matthew Wood
- Culpepper's Medicine, by Graeme Tobyn
- The Four Elements, by Margaret Gullan-Whur
- The Four Elements, by John O'Donohue