A Brief Primer On The Four Elements


To vastly oversimplify history and make things really short, around the 5th century BC some Greek people speculated and hypothesized that the universe was made up of four elements - fire, earth, water, and air. They were absolutely not the only people to have some ideas concerning a number of elements and what their role in the cosmos was, but it was primarily their ideas that had a huge impact on medicine and mysticism in Europe.

In a nutshell, this four element model postulates that everything in the universe is made up of the four elements, fire, earth, water, and air. Things are generally made up of some admixture of the elements, the elements can interact and mingle in complex ways, and under the right circumstances one element can be changed into another. Essentially, the four elements model essentially filled the role that atomic theory fills today.

If you haven't read it already, I suggest reading Writing Historically Accurate European Magic & Witchcraft: A Starting Guide first to establish some historical context. If you don't want to read it right now, then keep in mind that the four elements didn't really feature in folk magic (practitioners were infinitely more likely to invoke Jesus, Mary, or the Holy Trinity than the four elements), but were more relevant to humorism and Hermeticism. Hermeticism became popular in Europe around the Renaissance, and while it dates back to late antiquity, has more in common with Gnosticism than pre-Christian European beliefs. Also, Wicca didn't exist until the 20th century, and itself was largely based on ceremonial traditions like Hermeticism.

A lot of information in this article comes from The Natural Philosophy of Magic. Originally published in 1531, the text is generally representative of ideas that were accepted in the occult world at the time, and it was hugely influential for years. Any information from Paracelsus comes from The Life of Paracelsus. (Unfortunately, not much of Paracelsus's work has been translated into English, so I'm pretty limited on what I can work with.) Anytime the information doesn't come from one of these books, or where these books are sparse on important details, I'll try to include links or otherwise make it clear that the information is from elsewhere.

Please note that none of the sources I'm referencing are politically neutral, let alone altogether politically benign. Their authors may have thought of themselves as enlightened above others, but they were as prone as anyone else to absorbing the biases and prejudices of their cultures, and it often shows. If you decide to look deeper into their works (or into the works of any other old-time mystical authors) keep this in mind so you can avoid reproducing their antisemitism, antiziganism, orientalism, misogyny, queerphobia, classism, etc.

And keep in mind, the information I'm including isn't meant to represent the only information that's valid or that matters, because it's absolutely not. Many different people and cultures had their own perspectives on the elements, and many of the ideas you'll find here are heavily reliant on long-disproven beliefs about the nature of the universe. (Like, we now know that chemical reactions are behind biological and geological phenomena, not Platonic ideals beamed down the heavens; also, humorism is clearly a terrible basis for medicine.) This article is must meant to give you a starting frame of reference. If you're just writing straight-up fantasy, this might be all you need to get going; but if you're trying to tie this into a real time and place, you'll probably need a lot more information.

First uploaded: November 25, 2020.

Table of Contents



The Element of Fire

Nature: Hot and dry
Qualities: Brightness, thinness, motion
Action State: Active
Associated Planets: Sun, Mars
Associated Zodiac Signs: Aries, Leo, Sagittarius
Associated Plant Body Aspect: Seeds
Associated Animal Body Aspect: Vital Spirit
Associated Humor: Yellow bile
Cardinal Direction: South
Opposite Element: Water

Fire was considered a complicated, multifaceted element. The warmth of fire was what allowed life to grow and flourish, and it was therefore associated with vitality and proliferation. But at the same time, too much heat could parch, burn, and kill, and it was therefore associated with pain, destruction, and death. (Some plants were believed to be poisonous due to an extremely cold nature; others due to an extremely fiery nature.) Fire was also associated with the light of God and the power of the Divine, and therefore could ward off evil spirits and lend strength to good ones. It was also associated with geothermal heat and smoke. Fire was considered bold and piercing.

Animal life was believed to have a particular affinity with the element of fire, because animals would die from lack of heat, and warm-blooded bodies grew cold upon death.

I think it's worth noting that by virtue of being linked to life force or life energy, the element of fire is implicitly linked to the soul. The 6th century BC philosopher Heraclitus certainly believed that the soul had a fiery nature. However, it wouldn't be accurate to declare fire the soul element - as you read on, you'll see why it's not that simple.

In the 16th century, Paracelsus postulated the existence of elemental beings he called salamanders, which lived in fire. They were said to live and die much like human beings, but lacked immortal souls, and could not experience spiritual growth. They were said to be long and lean with a fiery shape, and generally unable to interact with humans very much due to their fiery natures.


The Element of Earth

Nature: Dry and cold
Qualities: Darkness, thickness, quietness
Action State: Passive
Associated Planets: Moon, Saturn
Associated Zodiac Signs: Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn
Associated Plant Body Aspect: Roots
Associated Animal Body Aspect: Bones
Associated Humor: Black bile
Cardinal Direction: North
Opposite Element: Air

The element of Earth was believed to be receptive to celestial forces, which when mingled with other elements, essentially catalyzed the development of plants, animals, and minerals as we know them. Or to put it another way, earth + water + celestial influence = fish. Fire was the element that made life grow and spread, and Earth was the element life was formed out of. (And while spontaneous generation like this has long been disproven, the fact remains that heat energy does catalyze many chemical reactions.)

Stones, being heavy and dry, were believed to have an earthy nature.

Paracelsus postulated the existence of earth elementals he called gnomes, which could move around in earth as easily as a human being might move through through air. Paracelsus's gnomes were said to be two spans tall (approximately 18 inches or 46 centimeters), but could expand to the size of giants. As with salamanders, they lived much like humans but lacked immortal souls. These gnomes were said to be generally malicious toward humans. Paracelsus also believed that people with a lot of earth influences from the stars would have success in earth-related careers such as mining. Paracelsus suggested that those who receive fiery influences from the stars would be suited for fire-related careers, but The Life of Paracelsus does not specify which, if any, Paracelsus had in mind. But we might suppose that becoming a chandler, baker, or blacksmith might apply.


The Element of Water

Nature: Cold and moist
Qualities: Darkness, thickness, motion
Action State: Passive/Heavy
Associated Planets: Moon, Saturn, Venus, Mercury
Associated Zodiac Signs: Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces
Associated Plant Body Aspect: Leaves
Associated Animal Body Aspect: The four humors
Associated Humor: Phlegm
Cardinal Direction: West
Opposite Element: Fire

Water was noted as being essential for life, as plants could not sprout and grow without it. It was also associated with spiritual renewal (EG, baptism), and with cleansing and purification. Certain sacred springs were believed to have the power to cure disease.

Water was also considered by some (according to Agrippa) to be the most powerful element, as it could douse fire, flood the land, and ascend up into the air and skies. (Though of course, one might just as well point out that earth absorbs it, fire evaporates it, and air carries it away.)

Metals in general were thought to have a watery nature, as they could be melted into liquid form.

Thales of Miletus considered water to be the first element, as one could easily demonstrate its ability to change form (such as evaporating it into steam) and move around. To Thales, it made sense that such an element could give rise to the rest of existence.

Paracelsus connected the soul with water. He also postulated the existence of water elementals, which he called undines. Undines were said to look very much like human men and women; and like the other elementals, lived much like humans while lacking immortal souls. They were also said to be generally friendly toward humans, and that an undine woman who married a human man would receive an immortal soul. Paracelsus also believed that people with watery influences from the stars would do well in water-related careers such as sailing.


The Element of Air

Nature: Moist and hot
Qualities: Thinness, motion, darkness
Action State: Active
Associated Planets: Jupiter, Venus
Associated Zodiac Signs: Aquarius, Gemini, Libra
Associated Animal Body Aspect: Flesh
Associated Plant Body Aspect: Flowers
Associated Humor: Blood
Cardinal Direction: East
Opposite Element: Earth

Air was thought to be a medium through which the properties or essences of things could be transmitted. Supposedly, air would receive the properties of the celestial bodies and pass them down to everything on Earth; EG, carrying and transmitting the aggressive, fiery nature of the planet Mars down to objects such as thorns, swords, mustard, and onions. If you had a spot where young couples would steal away to for a bit of amorous passion, love would quite literally be left lingering in the air and might affect anyone who breathed it in. Dreams, visions, and what we'd call psychic impressions today supposedly came from things floating in the air thus.

Plants in general were believed to have a particular affinity with the element of air, as they wouldn't grow unless placed outside in the open air. (Likely the real problem as a lack of light. However, it still makes sense to associate plants with air given the role they play in converting CO2 to oxygen.)

Anaximenes of Miletus proposed that air was the first element. He suggested that earth and water were simply condensed air, while fire was created from thinned air. Also worth noting, air is often linked with the soul; the very Greek word for air in motion (pneuma) also means "soul" or "spirit." The same goes for the Latin word anima. And in the Book of Genesis, God brings Adam to life by breathing into his nostrils.

Paracelsus postulated the existence of air elementals, which he called sylphs. Like the other elementals, they lived and died much as humans, but lacked immortal souls. They were said to be tall, strong, and typically friendly toward humans. Unfortunately, The Life of Paracelsus doesn't detail any air-related careers, but we can suppose being a pilot or meteorologist might apply.


Elemental Relations, Discerning Virtues, & More

As listed above, fire was thought of as hot and dry, earth as dry and cold, water as cold and moist, and air as moist and hot. These characteristics were thought to give the elements resonance or discordance with each other, depending on whether they were linked by shared characteristics or not. Thus water and earth had resonance because they were both cold, water and air had resonance because they were both hot, but water and earth had nothing in common and were therefore opposed to each other in this way.

But as there's never just one take on the elements, it's not as simple as "water and earth friends, water and fire enemies." Remember the characteristics I listed under Qualities? Water and fire have resonance with each other through the quality of motion, while water and earth have nothing in common and therefore don't gel on these traits.

If you paid attention to the associations, you may have noticed that even though a general category of things might belong to one element, individual things within that category could belong to other elements as well. Thus blood is both watery and airy, and plant roots are both airy and earthy.

So beyond what's listed above, how might you know what kind of nature things had?

Paracelsus (who spent his own childhood among nature, and was of the view that this made him a superior alchemist and physician) was of the opinion that those who lived in a "natural state" could use their "interior sight" to discern the powers and virtues of things, in addition to being able to recognize their properties from their appearance. (Again, the very dodgy Doctrine of Signatures concept.) Paracelsus claimed that those who lived their lives removed from nature were too caught up in "illusive external appearances" to recognize the properties of things.

One might consider the nature of the object; as stated before, fire was considered bold and piercing. Therefore, thorns and knives might be associated with the element of fire. A bird's wing feathers are for flight, and therefore connect to the element of air. Of course, feathers from ground birds in general might have a more earthy nature, and feathers taken from a rooster in particular might have a more fiery nature, given how roosters are known for their bold, brash natures.

And this brings us back to humorism; as it was believed that good health largely depended on having the four humors in balance, curing an illness was believed to be a matter of re-balancing the humors. Ergo an illness thought to caused by too little fire might be treated by having the patient consume a mix of herbs and chemicals thought to have a fiery nature. Obviously it's a really terrible basis for practicing medicine, but it was still a part of physicians' practice for many years and might be a thing that could come up if you're aiming for a historical feel.


In Closing

Again, this article is not meant to be a final, definitive statement on everything the four elements are and how they should to be used. Rather, it's meant to provide an introduction and overview of how the elements have historically been perceived and used in the context of European history, and to demonstrate that there has always been a diversity of opinion on them.

If you're trying to develop a fantasy magic system or looking for something to flesh out how people in your setting perceive and explain the world, this might be all you need to get started. Working with an actual historical setting will require more research into that specific time and place. 1st century Athens isn't 15th century North Rhine-Westphalia isn't 18th century England, after all.

Whether it helps you build a fantasy magic system or develop a fantastic philosophy system, I hope it helps you. If you liked this, please share it with your friends, and please support me on Patreon!


More onsite pages you might like:

Writing Historically Accurate European Magic & Witchcraft: A Starting Guide
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A Few Things Writers Need To Know About Medieval Feudalism
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