The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts

Ancient philosophers often referred to a hierarchy of the cosmos as fire, air, water, and earth. References to this framework can be found throughout many ancient texts such as those written by Plato (c.425 – c.347BCE) and Aristotle (c.384–322BCE). 

Empedocles (c.494 – c.434BCE) is sometimes credited as being the inventor of the four elements, however, it’s more probable he is just the oldest, clear Greek record of the theology. Pythagoras (c.570 – c.495BCE) predates Empedocles and there are subtle references to the elements in his work. Likewise, we know from Aristotle that Anaxagoras (c.500 – c.428BCE) knew of the four elements. (Aristotle insists that there are five elements but I’ll leave that story for another blog). 

Zoracasterian’s claim they have references to the four elements that pre-date the Greeks, hence, it is from the Persians that the Greeks became aware of the “sacred” elements. Given that the Babylonians had devised the Zodiac by 1500BCE, and the twelve constellations are subdivided into the four elemental groups this is more than likely to be the case. 

Nevertheless, it is in Empedocles’ poem On Nature that we have an eloquent expression of earth, water, air, and fire as the roots of life. Below are a couple of quotes: 

And first the fourfold root of all things hear! — White gleaming Zeus, life-bringing Here, Dis, And Nestis whose tears bedew mortality.

Empedocles & Leonard, c.450BCE/1908CE, Verse 6

I will report a twofold truth. Now grows The One from Many into being, now Even from the One disparting come the Many, — Fire, Water, Earth and awful* heights of Air

Empedocles & Leonard, c.450BCE/1908CE, Verse 22

* In this context the term awful is best interpreted in the antiquated definition of: “Inspiring awe; filling with profound reverence, or with fear and admiration; fitted to inspire reverential fear; profoundly impressive” (Merriam, 1913)

To conceptualize Empedocles’ hierarchy, here is a visual: 

Empedocles further indicates that the root elements of earth, water, air, and fire relate to everything in the world, which can be described in the harmonised terms of form, life-force, soul, and spirit, and in turn, these relate to minerals, plants, animals, and humans:

From the bottom-up, minerals represent form that can exist in non-living material, examples being sand, dirt, and rocks, i.e. minerals of the physical earth. In living forms, minerals move up to the next root level in which minerals are blended with a life-force, e.g. plants and trees. Animals are forms that have a mineral and life-force component, plus a soul. Human beings are at the top of the hierarchy because their composition includes minerals, a life-force, soul, and spirit – spirit also represents mind, therefore, human cognition is the distinguishing feature between humans and animals. 

According to creation mythology – as reflected in Empedocles (Verse 22) where he describes the One as creating the Many –  the hierarchy began top-down with spirit creating soul, then the dyad of spirit and soul created life-force, and the triad of spirit, soul, and life-force created form. 

Empedocles specifies that Zeus, Hera, Nestis (aka Persephone), and Aidoneus (Hades first name) are representatives of the root elements fire, air, water, and earth respectively. I.e., Zeus is fire/spirit/intellect – the all powerful creator god, Hera is air/soul/emotion, Nestis/Persephone is water/life-force/energy – the essence of form, and Aidoneus/Hades is earth/form/physical matter – form. By following this code, mythologies can be read on a symbolic level. 

The Greek language, and many others, is gendered, hence, it is logical that categorisations of symbolic codes developed around dualities of the spoken word.

The tradition of personifying spiritual concepts is evident across mythologies, as notable in the Greek influences of first century poet, Ovid. (43 BC – 17/18CE). Ovid was a Roman scholar who blended Greek and Roman influences by writing poems that included the names of Gods and Goddesses from both traditions). His description of the elements echo Empedocles sentiments that were written nearly five hundred years earlier:

It was a rude and undeveloped mass, that nothing made except a ponderous weight; and all discordant elements confused, were there congested in a shapeless heap

Ovid & Moore, c.15CE/1922/ 2017, Verse 5

The fiery element of convex heaven leaped from the mass devoid of dragging weight, and chose the summit arch to which the air as next in quality was next in place

Ovid & Moore, c.15CE/1922/ 2017, Verse 21

From the above quotes, it is evident that Ovid identifies a similar train of through to Empedocles in which all the elements are reported as coming from the One, as expressed in ‘all discordant elements confused, were there congested in a shapeless heap’. Followed by the ‘fiery element’ emerging first, then the ‘air as the next quality’. However, rather than referring to Zeus as a ruling force of fire, Ovid refers to Jove as having this power. Likewise, other Roman deities replace some of the Greek characters.

In both Empedocles’ and Ovid’s (and other Greeks like Plato and Aristotle) descriptions, fire/spirit are represented as masculine and air/soul as feminine, thus it can be asserted that these were standard methods of defining spiritual theology in narrative contexts. Gendered descriptions of water/life-force and earth/form are a little more nuanced and ambiguous. 

The concept of the four elements can be identified beyond Greek and Roman spheres in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Aquinas, 1947; Habashi, 2000; Mirsky, 2004; Murata, 1989). Interestingly, an element of secrecy surrounding the four elements has been maintained for thousands of years. Subsequently, lack of understanding of the beliefs and structure behind ancient texts has led to many misinterpretations of the elements, from being interpreted as literally representing fire, air, water, and earth, through to their personifications as Gods and Goddesses being viewed as evidence to support patriarchal values.

Neglecting creative figurative speech in ancient verses has lead to the forming of institutionalised beliefs in of so-called archetypes which misrepresents the original philosophies. Psychoanalytical principles are a bit like saying all dogs are male (like in German, der Hund) and all cats female (die Katzte; German). Just as there are male and female dogs and cats, so too the masculinity and femininity in Spirit and Soul does not relate biological men and women. On the whole the genderizations of spiritual concepts are arbitrary; Fire, Air, Water, and Earth don’t have real genders.

In sum, the secret to interpreting ancient myths does not lie in trying to decipher outer features of symbolism, rather, meaning is best inferred by recognising the underpinning theology. The four elements (or five as Aristotle and others assert) is an underlying belief system within Ancient Greek mythology. This concept can be extended to other theological systems, however, generalization needs to be conducted with care so as to avoid overlooking subtle differences between religions, cultures, and timeframes. 

Bibliography

Aquinas, T. (1947). Summa Theologica. https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/15471/documents/2016/10/St.%20Thomas%20Aquinas-Summa%20Theologica.pdf

Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). The Internet Classics Archive | On the Heavens by Aristotle. Classics.Mit.Edu. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/heavens.html

Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). The Internet Classics Archive | On the Soul by Aristotle. Mit.Edu. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/soul.2.ii.html

Empedocles, & Leonard, W. E. (1908). The fragments of Empedocles; In Internet Archive. Chicago : The Open Court Publishing Company. https://archive.org/stream/cu31924028975923/cu31924028975923_djvu.txt

Habashi, F. (2000). Zorocaster and the theory of the four Elements. Bull. Hist. Chem, 25(2). http://acshist.scs.illinois.edu/bulletin_open_access/v25-2/v25-2%20p109-115.pdf

Kenney, E. J. (2019). Ovid | Roman poet. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ovid-Roman-poet

Merriam G. & C. (1913) “awful” in Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, http://www.websters1913.com/words/Awful, Accessed 10 November 2020.

Mirsky, Y. (2004). Feminine images of God. Www.Academia.Edu. https://www.academia.edu/9090667/Feminine_Images_of_God

Murata, S. (1989). Masculine Feminine Complementarity in the Spiritual Psychology of Islam. Www.Academia.Edu. https://www.academia.edu/27941952/Masculine_Feminine_Complementarity_in_the_Spiritual_Psychology_of_Islam

Ovid & Moore, B. c.15CE/1922/ 2017. Ovid, Metamorphoses 1 – Theoi Classical Texts Library. Theoi.com. https://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses1.html
Translated by Brookes More, 1922.

Plato. (360 B.C.E.). Plato, Republic, Book 1. http://Www.Perseus.Tufts.Edu; The Annenberg CPB/Project provided support for entering this text. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D1

Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969.

‌Schweizer, E. (1988). Slaves of the Elements and Worshipers of Angels: Gal 4:3, 9 and Col 2:8, 18, 20. Journal of Biblical Literature, 107(3), 455–468. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267580

Waxman, O. B. (2018, June 21). Where Do Zodiac Signs Come From? Here’s the True History Behind Your Horoscope. Time; Time. https://time.com/5315377/are-zodiac-signs-real-astrology-history/

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