Many philosophies and worldviews have a set of classical elements believed to reflect the simplest essential parts and principles of which anything consists or upon which the constitution and fundamental powers of anything are based. Most frequently, classical elements refer to ancient beliefs inspired by natural observation of the phases of matter. Historians trace the evolution of modern theory pertaining to the chemical elements, as well as chemical compounds and mixtures of natural substances to medieval, Islamic and Greek models. Many concepts once thought to be analogous, such as the Chinese Wu Xing, are now understood more figuratively.
- 1 Ancient classic element systems
- 2 Elements in Medieval alchemy
- 3 Modern elements
- 4 Elements in western astrology and tarot
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Ancient classic element systems
Wind Sea Fire Sky Earth
Air Water Aether Fire Earth
Vayu Ap Akasha Agni Prithvi
Wood (木) Water (水) Earth (土) Fire (火) Metal (金)
Air (風) Water (水) Void (空) Fire (火) Earth (地)
Air Water Aether Fire Earth
Air Water Aether Fire Earth Sulphur Mercury Salt
In classical thought, the four elements Earth, Water, Air, and Fire frequently occur; sometimes including a fifth element or quintessence (after "quint" meaning "fifth") called Aether in ancient Greece and India. The concept of the five elements formed a basis of analysis in both Hinduism and Buddhism. In Hinduism, particularly in an esoteric context, the four states-of-matter describe matter, and a fifth element describes that which was beyond the material world. Similar lists existed in ancient China and Japan. In Buddhism the four great elements, to which two others are sometimes added, are not viewed as substances, but as categories of sensory experience.
Classical elements in Babylonia
The concept of the four classical elements in the Western tradition originates from Babylonian mythology. The Enûma Eliš, a text written between the 18th and 16th centuries BC, describes five cosmic elements: the sea, earth, fire, sky, and wind.
Classical elements in Greece
The Greek classical elements (Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and Aether) date from pre-Socratic times and persisted throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, deeply influencing European thought and culture. The Greek five elements are sometimes associated with the five platonic solids.
- Hellenic Physics
Plato characterizes the elements as being pre-Socratic in origin from a list created by the Sicilian philosopher Empedocles (ca. 450 BC). Empedocles called these the four "roots" (ῥιζὤματα, rhizōmata). Plato seems to have been the first to use the term "element (στοιχεῖον, stoicheion)" in reference to air, fire, earth, and water. The ancient Greek word for element, stoicheion (from stoicheo, "to line up") meant "smallest division (of a sun-dial), a syllable", as the composing unit of an alphabet it could denote a letter and the smallest unit from which a word is formed.
According to Aristotle in his On Generation and Corruption:
- Air is primarily wet and secondarily hot.
- Fire is primarily hot and secondarily dry.
- Earth is primarily dry and secondarily cold.
- Water is primarily cold and secondarily wet.
One classic diagram (above) has one square inscribed in the other, with the corners of one being the classical elements, and the corners of the other being the properties. The opposite corner is the opposite of these properties, "hot - cold" and "dry - wet".
Aristotle added aether as the quintessence, reasoning that whereas fire, earth, air, and water were earthly and corruptible, since no changes had been perceived in the heavenly regions, the stars cannot be made out of any of the four elements but must be made of a different, unchangeable, heavenly substance.
Classical elements in Egypt
A Greek text called the "Kore Kosmou" or "Virgin of the World," ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus (the name given by the Greeks to the Egyptian god Thoth), names the four elements fire, water, air, and earth. As described in this book: "And Isis answer made: Of living things, my son, some are made friends with fire, and some with water, some with air, and some with earth, and some with two or three of these, and some with all. And, on the contrary, again some are made enemies of fire, and some of water, some of earth, and some of air, and some of two of them, and some of three, and some of all. For instance, son, the locust and all flies flee fire; the eagle and the hawk and all high-flying birds flee water; fish, air and earth; the snake avoids the open air. Whereas snakes and all creeping things love earth; all swimming things--love--water; winged things, air, of which they are the citizens; while those that fly still higher--love--the fire and have the habitat near it. Not that some of the animals as well do not love fire; for instance salamanders, for they even have their homes in it. It is because one or another of the elements doth form their bodies' outer envelope. Each soul, accordingly, while it is in its body is weighted and constricted by these four."
According to Galen, these elements were used by Hippocrates in describing the human body with an association with the four humours: yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), blood (air), and phlegm (water).
Classical elements in India
Classical elements in Hinduism
The pancha mahabhuta, or "five great elements", of Hinduism are kshiti or bhūmi (earth), ap or jala (water), tejas or agni (fire), marut or pavan (air or wind), vyom or shunya or akash) (aether or void). Hindus believe that all of creation, including the human body, is made up of these five essential elements and that upon death, the human body dissolves into these five elements of nature, thereby balancing the cycle of nature.
Hindus believe that the Creator used akasha (ether), the most "subtle" element, to create the other four traditional elements; each element created is in turn used to create the next element, each less subtle than the last. The five elements are associated with the five senses, and act as the gross medium for the experience of sensations. The basest element, earth, created using all the other elements, can be perceived by all five senses - hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell. The next higher element, water, has no odor but can be heard, felt, seen and tasted. Next comes fire, which can be heard, felt and seen. Air can be heard and felt. "Akasha" (ether) is the medium of sound but is inaccessible to all other senses.
PANCHAMAHABHUTAS ACCORDING TO BRAHMAJNANA:
According to Rigveda 1.10.90-15 Purusha is the seat of seven hidden weapons and seven kinds of energies.
According to Manu Smriti 1.19 Purusha is made of seven Purushas. According to 1.20 the nature of these seven Perishable Purushas is determined by their position in the Purusha and the nature of each is a modification of the nature of the preceedring Purusha. It is not mentioned any where who these seven Purushas are and their position within the Purusha. However, mastery of Vedic meditation and an analysis of Vedic hymns would make it clear that they are the following.
1. Shunya/ Dreaming force/ Indra
2. Vayu/ Illusory force/ Shakti
3. Agni/ Voluntary force/ Brahma
4. Jala/ Semi voluntary force/ Vishnu
5. Earth/ Involuntary force/ Shiva
6. Status altering force/ Shani
7. Compulsive force/ Yama
Vishnu's association with water is well known. Also, Brahma originates from his navel. Brahma's association with the hip/ genital region too is well known. Shiva has to be associated with chest because he is part of Trimurti and thus must lie next to Vishnu.
Thus, Panchamahabhutas refer to the first five of the seven basic forces our life is made of.
In the Pali literature, the mahabhuta ("great elements") or catudhatu ("four elements") are earth, water, fire and air. In early Buddhism, the four elements are a basis for understanding suffering and for liberating oneself from suffering. The earliest Buddhist texts explain that the four primary material elements are the sensory qualities solidity, fluidity, temperature, and mobility; their characterization as earth, water, fire, and air, respectively, is declared an abstraction—instead of concentrating on the fact of material existence, one observes how a physical thing is sensed, felt, perceived.
The Buddha's teaching regarding the four elements is to be understood as the base of all observation of real sensations rather than as a philosophy. The four properties are cohesion (water), solidity or inertia (earth), expansion or vibration (air) and heat or energy content (fire). He promulgated a categorization of mind and matter as composed of eight types of "kalapas" of which the four elements are primary and a secondary group of four are color, smell, taste, and nutriment which are derivative from the four primaries.
The Buddha's teaching of the four elements does predate Greek teaching of the same four elements. This is possibly explained by the fact that he sent out 60 arahants to the known world to spread his teaching; however it differs in the fact that the Buddha taught that the four elements are false and that form is in fact made up of much smaller particles which are constantly changing.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1997) renders an extract of Shakyamuni Buddha's from Pali into English thus:Just as a skilled butcher or his apprentice, having killed a cow, would sit at a crossroads cutting it up into pieces, the monk contemplates this very body — however it stands, however it is disposed — in terms of properties: 'In this body there is the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property, & the wind property.'
In the philosophy of the seven chakras there are correspondences to the five elements as shared by both Hinduism and Buddhism as well as two other elements:
- Sahasrara (Crown): Thought/Space
- Ajña (Third Eye): Light/Dark
- Vishuddhi (Throat): Ether/Sound
- Anahata (Heart): Air
- Manipura (Navel): Fire
- Svadhisthana (Sacral): Water
- Muladhara (Root): Earth
In Bön or ancient Tibetan philosophy, the five elemental processes of earth, water, fire, air and space are the essential materials of all existent phenomena or aggregates. The elemental processes form the basis of the calendar, astrology, medicine, psychology and are the foundation of the spiritual traditions of shamanism, tantra and Dzogchen.
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche states thatphysical properties are assigned to the elements: earth is solidity; water is cohesion; fire is temperature; air is motion; and space is the spatial dimension that accommodates the other four active elements. In addition, the elements are correlated to different emotions, temperaments, directions, colors, tastes, body types, illnesses, thinking styles, and character. From the five elements arise the five senses and the five fields of sensual experience; the five negative emotions and the five wisdoms; and the five extensions of the body. They are the five primary pranas or vital energies. They are the constituents of every physical, sensual, mental, and spiritual phenomenon.
The names of the elements are analogous to categorised experiential sensations of the natural world. The names are symbolic and key to their inherent qualities and/or modes of action by analogy. In Bön the elemental processes are fundamental metaphors for working with external, internal and secret energetic forces. All five elemental processes in their essential purity are inherent in the mindstream and link the trikaya and are aspects of primordial energy. As Herbert V. Günther states:Thus, bearing in mind that thought struggles incessantly against the treachery of language and that what we observe and describe is the observer himself, we may nonetheless proceed to investigate the successive phases in our becoming human beings. Throughout these phases, the experience (das Erlebnis) of ourselves as an intensity (imaged and felt as a "god", lha) setting up its own spatiality (imaged and felt as a "house" khang) is present in various intensities of illumination that occur within ourselves as a "temple." A corollary of this Erlebnis is its light character manifesting itself in various "frequencies" or colors. This is to say, since we are beings of light we display this light in a multiplicity of nuances.
The Chinese had a somewhat different series of elements, namely Fire, Earth, Water, Metal and Wood, which were understood as different types of energy in a state of constant interaction and flux with one another, rather than the Western notion of different kinds of material.
Although it is usually translated as "element", the Chinese word xing literally means something like "changing states of being", "permutations" or "metamorphoses of being". In fact Sinologists cannot agree on one single translation. The Chinese conception of "element" is therefore quite different from the Western one. The Western elements were seen as the basic building blocks of matter. The Chinese, by contrast, were seen as ever changing and moving forces or energies—one translation of wu xing is simply "the five changes".
The Wu Xing are chiefly an ancient mnemonic device for systems with five stages; hence the preferred translation of "movements", "phases" or "steps" over "elements."
In Taoism there is a similar system of elements, which includes metal and wood, but excludes air, which is replaced with qi, which is a force or energy rather than an element. In Chinese philosophy the universe consists of heaven and earth, heaven being made of qi and earth being made of the five elements (in the Chinese view, the attributes and properties of the Western and Indian Air element are equivalent to that of Wood, where the element of Ether is often seen as a correspondent to Metal). The five major planets are associated with and named after the elements: Venus 金星 is Metal (金), Jupiter 木星 is Wood (木), Mercury 水星 is Water (水), Mars 火星 is Fire (火), and Saturn 土星 is Earth (土). Additionally, the Moon represents Yin (陰), and the Sun 太陽 represents Yang (陽). Yin, Yang, and the five elements are recurring themes in the I Ching, the oldest of Chinese classical texts which describes an ancient system of cosmology and philosophy. The five elements also play an important part in Chinese astrology and the Chinese form of geomancy known as Feng shui
The doctrine of five phases describes two cycles of balance, a generating or creation (生, shēng) cycle and an overcoming or destruction (克/剋, kè) cycle of interactions between the phases.
- Wood feeds fire;
- Fire creates earth (ash);
- Earth bears metal;
- Metal collects water;
- Water nourishes wood.
- Wood parts earth;
- Earth absorbs water;
- Water quenches fire;
- Fire melts metal;
- Metal chops wood.
There are also two cycles of imbalance, an overacting cycle (cheng) and an insulting cycle (wu).
Japanese traditions use a set of elements called the 五大 (go dai, literally "five great"). These five are earth, water, fire, wind/air, and void. These came from Buddhist beliefs; the classical Chinese elements (五行, go gyô) are also prominent in Japanese culture, especially to the influential Neo-Confucianists during the Edo period.
- Earth represented things that were solid.
- Water represented things that were liquid.
- Fire represented things that destroy.
- Air represented things that moved.
- Spirit represented things not of our everyday life.
Elements in Medieval alchemy
The elemental system used in Medieval alchemy was developed by the Arabic alchemist Jābir ibn Hayyān and others. His original system consisted of the four classical elements found in the ancient Greek traditions (air, earth, fire and water), in addition to two philosophical elements: sulphur, ‘the stone which burns’, which characterized the principle of combustibility, and mercury, which contained the idealized principle of metallic properties. The three metallic principles: sulphur to flammability or combustion, mercury to volatility and stability, and salt to solidity. became the tri prima of the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus, who reasoned that Aristotle’s four element theory appeared in bodies as three principles. Paracelsus saw these principles as fundamental, and justified them by recourse to the description of how wood burns in fire. Mercury included the cohesive principle, so that when it left in smoke the wood fell apart. Smoke described the volatility (the mercury principle), the heat-giving flames described flammability (sulphur), and the remnant ash described solidity (salt).
The Aristotelian tradition and medieval Alchemy eventually gave rise to modern scientific theories and new taxonomies. By the time of Antoine Lavoisier, for example, a list of elements would no longer refer to classical elements. The classical elements correspond more closely to four states of matter: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma.
Modern science recognizes classes of elementary particles which have no substructure (or rather, particles that aren't made of other particles) and composite particles having substructure (particles made of other particles). The Standard Model of quantum mechanics defines three classes of elementary subatomic particles: quarks and leptons (matter-like particles) and gauge bosons (energy-like force carriers). Quarks are divided into six types: up, down, top, bottom, strange and charm; and leptons are similarly divided into six types: electron, electron neutrino, muon, muon neutrino, tau and tau neutrino. The types of force carriers include: photon, W and Z boson, gluon and some quantification of a Higgs boson.
Elements in western astrology and tarot
Western astrology uses the four classical elements in connection with astrological charts and horoscopes. The twelve signs of the zodiac are divided into the four elements: Fire signs are Aries, Leo and Sagittarius, Earth signs are Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn, Air signs are Gemini, Libra and Aquarius, and Water signs are Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces.
In divinatory tarot, the suits of cups, swords, batons/wands, and discs/coins are said to correspond to water, air, fire, and earth respectively.
- First principle (Pre-Socratic arche and Aristotelian substratum)
- First principle (Chinese qì and Japanese ki)
- Five elements (Chinese wǔ xíng)
- Five elements (Hindu mahābhūta) and Four elements (Buddhist mahābhūtāni)
- Five elements (Japanese godai)
- Elemental (Renaissance alchemy)
- Philosopher's stone (Middle Ages and Renaissance alchemy)
- Phlogiston theory (History of science)
- Periodic table of the elements (Modern science)
- Quantum mechanics (Modern science)
- Table of correspondences (Magic and the occult)
- General information
- Paul Strathern (2000). Mendeleyev’s Dream – the Quest for the Elements. New York: Berkley Books.
- ^ Francesca Rochberg (December 2002). "A consideration of Babylonian astronomy within the historiography of science". Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 33 (4): 661–684. doi:10.1016/S0039-3681(02)00022-5.
- ^ "Timaeus". http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Plat.+Tim.+48b.
- ^ G. E. R. Lloyd (1968). Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of his Thought. Cambridge Univ. Pr.. pp. 133–139. ISBN 0-521-09456-9.
- ^ Dan Lusthaus. "What is and isn't Yogacara". http://www.acmuller.net/yogacara/articles/intro-uni.htm.
- ^ Majjhima Nikaya. "Kayagata-sati Sutta". p. 119. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.119.than.html. Retrieved 2009-01-30.
- ^ Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche (2002). Healing with Form, Energy, and Light. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications. p. 1. ISBN 1559391766.
- ^ Herber V. Günther (1996). The Teachings of Padmasambhava (Hardcover ed.). Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill. pp. 115–116.
- ^ Wolfram Eberhard (1986). A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols. London: Routledge and Keegan Paul. pp. 93, 105, 309. ISBN 0710201915.
- ^ Norris, John A. (2006). "The Mineral Exhalation Theory of Metallogenesis in Pre-Modern Mineral Science". Ambix 53: 43. doi:10.1179/174582306X93183.
- ^ Strathern, 2000. Page 79.
- ^ Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794), in Classic Chemistry, compiled by Carmen Giunta
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