Classical element

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Classical Elements
v  d  e


Water Aether Fire



Water Space Fire


Hinduism (Tattva) and
Buddhism (Mahābhūta)

Prithvi / BhumiEarth
Ap / JalaWater
Vayu / PavanAir / Wind

Japanese (Godai)

Earth (地)
Water (水)
Air / Wind (風)
Fire (火)
Void / Sky / Heaven (空)

Chinese (Wu Xing)

  Water (水)  
Metal (金) Earth (土) Wood (木)
  Fire (火)  



Liquid Informatics Plasma

Many ancient philosophies used a set of archetypal classical elements to explain patterns in nature. These naturally-occurring fundamentals are actually more accurate in being classical states of matter than "elements" as they are defined in modern science. Most notably the four Greek classical elements earth, water, air, and fire correspond approximately with the four states of matter, solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. The fifth Greek classical element "idea" ("quintessence" in Latin; "aether" in Hindu theory; "void" in Japanese theory) corresponds approximately with the non-matter (non-material world) of cyberspace, mathematics, algorithms, and computer programs that run in analog as well as digital computers, regardless of whether their material embodiment is mechanical, pneumatic, hydraulic, optical, electric, or otherwise[1], i.e. a computer program is made of the fifth state of matter even if the computer itself is made of solid matter ("earth"). In the Plato/Aristotle sense, the mind is made of idea (non-matter), whereas the brain in which the mind "runs" is part of the material world (matter).

The Greek version of these ideas dates from pre-Socratic times and persisted throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, deeply influencing European thought and culture.

The approximate consensus among these seven disparate systems of thought is summarized in the following table:

The modern scientific periodic table of the elements and the understanding of combustion (fire) can be considered successors to such early models.

The Five Japanese Elements, earth, water, air, fire, and void, also correspond approximately with these states of matter and non-matter. In fact the first Japanese element represented all solid matter and the second Japanese element represented all liquids, not just water.

The five classical dharmic elements: earth, water, air, fire, and aether also correspond to the five states.


[edit] Tabular overview

Tradition: Solid Liquid Gas Plasma Life 5th/6th
Modern: Solid Liquid Gas Plasma Informatics
Greek: Earth Water Air Fire Idea
Hindu and Buddhist: Earth Water Air Fire Aether
Japanese: Earth Water Wind Fire Void
Chinese: Earth Water Fire Wood Metal
Bön: Earth Water Air Fire Space
Māori: Earth Water Wind Fire Flora Lightning
Other: Earth Water Air Lightning Life Aether

[edit] Hindu, Japanese, and Greek system of five elements

The dominant theory of classical elements, held by the Hindu, Japanese, and Greek systems of thought, is that there are five elements. These five elements were often situated as vertices of a pentagram, in which the five vertices were used to represent the five classical elements (Greek included below):

  • ύδωρ, hydor, water
  • Γαια, gaia earth
  • άήρ, aer, air
  • έιλή, heile, heat (fire)
  • ίδέα, idea or ίερόν, hieron "a divine thing"

The Japanese and Hindu systems use these same five classical elements but use a different name for the fifth element: void in the Japanese system and aether in the Hindu system. "Idea" is the preferred modern term, and lends itself well to the idea that algorithms, software, or other similar "cyberspace" processes be considered as the fifth element [1].

[edit] Classical Asian elements

The concept is far older in Asia[citation needed], and was widely disseminated in India and China, where it forms the basis of both Buddhism and Hinduism, particularly in an esoteric context.

[edit] Classical Dharmic elements

[edit] Classical elements in Hinduism

Main article: Tattva

The pancha mahabhuta, or "five great elements", of Hinduism are prithvi or bhumi (earth), ap or jala (water), agni or tejas (fire), vayu or pavan (air or wind), and akasha (aether). Hindus believe that God used akasha to create the other four traditional elements, and that the knowledge of all human experience is imprinted in the akashic records.

[edit] Classical elements in early Buddhism

Main article: Mahābhūta

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 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. Perhaps the word 'property' has a better connotation now that the word element is used in modern chemistry. The four properties are cohesion (water), solidity or inertia (earth), expansion or vibration (air) and heat or calorific content (fire). He taught that all mind and matter is ultimately 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

[edit] Classical elements in Japan

Japanese traditions use a set of elements called the 五大 (go dai, literally "five great"). These five are earth, water, fire, wind, 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 destroyed.
  • Air represented things that moved.
  • Void represented things not of our everyday life.

[edit] Classical elements in China

Main article: Wu Xing

In Taoism there is a similar system of elements, which includes metal and wood, but excludes air, which is replaced with the non-element 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. The five major planets are associated with and named after the elements: Venus is gold, Jupiter is wood, Mercury is Water, Mars is Fire, and Saturn is Earth. Additionally, the Moon represents Yin, and the Sun represents Yang. 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 doctrine of five phases describes two cycles of balance, a generating or creation (生, shēng) cycle and an overcoming or destruction (克, 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).

[edit] Classical Western elements

[edit] Classical elements in Greece

The Greek classical elements are fire (), earth (), air (), and water (). They represent in Greek philosophy, science, and medicine the realms of the cosmos wherein all things exist and whereof all things consist. The ancient Greek word for element (stoicheion) literally meant "letter (of the alphabet)", the basic unit from which a word is formed.

Plato mentions the elements as of pre-Socratic origin, a list created by the Ionian philosopher Empedocles (ca. 450 BC). Empedocles called these the four "roots"; Plato seems to have been the first to use the term "element (stoicheion)" in reference to air, fire, earth, and water.[2]

Four Classical Elements
  • 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 (right) 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 the these properties, "hot - cold" and "dry - wet"

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).

[edit] Classical elements in Māori tradition

In native Māori tradition, Earth, Water, Wind/Air, Flora and Fire work together respectively. Earth makes water, water makes flora, flora makes air, air makes lightning. Lightning makes fire. Water and Fire are considered opposites, as are Wind and Earth, where Flora is neutral. Each element had two properties:

  • Fire is hot and dry. A Gas
  • Earth is warm and dry. A Solid
  • Flora is lukewarm and wet. A Solid
  • Wind is cool and wet. A Gas
  • Water is cold and wet. A Liquid
  • (Skeptical)Lightning is hot. A Plasma

Earth was said to cause earthquakes, Water to cause tsunamis and floods, Wind to cause typhoons, and Fire to cause volcanoes and firestorms. Flora was the element of serenity, as there was no natural disaster that occurred with flora. Lightning caused thunderstorms and electricity. In modern form it is known as pure energy, or technology.

[edit] Quintessence; the fifth classical element

Some cosmologies include a fifth element, the "aether" or "quintessence." These five elements are sometimes associated with the five platonic solids.

The term "quintessence" derives from "quint" meaning "fifth".

The Pythagoreans added idea as the fifth element, and also used the initial letters of these five elements to name the outer angles of their pentagram.[citation needed]

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.[3].

[edit] The four or five states-of-matter and music

In 1987 composer Robert Steadman wrote a chamber symphony each movement of which musically depicts the characteristics of the ancient Greek elements: fire, water, wind and earth.

Physics-based musical instrument classification is based on the state of matter (classical element) in which the instrument produces the initial sound
Physics-based musical instrument classification is based on the state of matter (classical element) in which the instrument produces the initial sound

Physical organology is a musical instrument classification scheme in which the top-level taxon is the state-of-matter in which sound is initially produced. Quintessence/idea is used to describe instruments that make sound from non-matter, i.e. electrically (analong or digital), algorithmically, computationally, or in cyberspace.

[edit] Classical elements from the Middle Ages to the early modern era

The concept of the classical elements proved extremely persistent. Just as the Aristotelian dogma was related to the Greek world view, the idea of classical elements in the Middle Ages composed a large part of the medieval world view. The Roman Catholic Church supported the Aristotelian concept of aether because it supported the Christian view of earthly life as impermanent and heaven as eternal.[citation needed]

References to the classical elements in early modern literature are frequently found in the work of many writers, including William Shakespeare:

Thou hast as chiding a nativity
As fire, air, water, earth, and heaven can make,
To herald thee from the womb
-PERICLES, from Pericles Prince of Tyre

I have heard
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day, and at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
Th' extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine.
-HORATIO, from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

[edit] Classical elements in Bön

In Bön, the five elemental processes of: earth, water, fire, air and space are the essential stuff of all existent phenomena or aggregates (ref. Skandha). 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 (2002: p.1) comprehensively states:

"...physical 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 (1996: pp. 115-116) rather unfathomably 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 [sic.], 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." (; accessed: Monday January 15, 2007)

In the above block quote the trikaya is encoded as: dharmakaya "god"; sambhogakaya "temple" and nirmanakaya "house".

[edit] Astrology and the classical elements

Astrology has used the concept of classical elements from antiquity up until the present. Most modern astrologers use the four classical elements extensively, and indeed it is still viewed as a critical part of interpreting the astrological chart.

[edit] Tarot divination and the classical elements

In divinatory tarot, the suits of cups, swords, wands (batons) and pentacles (coins) are said to correspond to water, air, fire, and earth respectively. These correspond in the modern deck of playing cards to hearts, spades, clubs, and diamonds.

[edit] Classical elements in popular culture

The classical elements are often used together thematically in modern fantasy, literature, movies, television shows, and comic books. Typically, a magic wielder has the ability to influence one of the elements or can use the elements to affect the world around him or her.

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ a b Natural Interfaces for Musical Expression: Physiphones and a physics-based organology, in Proceedings of the 2007 Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME07), Pages 118-123, New York, NY, USA
  2. ^ Timaeus 48b-c
  3. ^ G. E. R. Lloyd, Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of his Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1968, pp. 133-139, ISBN 0-521-09456-9.

[edit] References

  • Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche (2002). Healing with Form, Energy, and Light. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1559391766
  • Günther, Herbert V. (1996). The Teachings of Padmasambhava. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill. Hardcover.

[edit] External links

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