A fifth century BCE Greek from Sicily name Empedocles is credited with the discovery of the Four Elements. The theory is that everything is made up of the Elements of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. At that time however they were not referred to as Elements but “roots,” or even “root clumps.” Even in our modern day these Elements embody the four basic states of matter: Fire, the igneous or metamorphic state; Air the gaseous state; Water the liquid state, and Earth the solid state. For Empedocles Earth, Water, Air, and Fire were used to describe more than just the physical and material substances, they “represent[ed] a basic kind of energy and consciousness that operates within everyone” (The Four Elements, 2004-2014). These Four Elements ended up making their way into almost every ancient culture and belief system, and still continue to do so today.
In the century following Empedocles, Aristotle came up with a double pair of opponent qualities: Warm versus Cool, and Dry versus Moist. These qualities became the key to a better understanding of the Elements and they manifest just as the Elements do. There is a natural progression that can be referred to as the Organic Cycle: “The first phase of growth is Moist: spring rains, pliant green shoots, rapid growth. The second phase is Warm: summer sun, flourishing individuality, mature vigor. The third is Dry: autumn leaves, inflexible stems, stiffening joints. The fourth is Cold: winter chills, loss of identity, death. This cycle is also the basis for one form of the alchemical ‘rotation of the elements,’ from Earth to Water to Air to Fire and back to Earth”(Opsopaus, J., 1998). This cycle is present all over nature, but Aristotle was able to reveal its spiritual nature through the deeper essence of the qualities.
None of the elements are considered to be good or bad. “Unlike the chemical elements, the spiritual elements can be transformed into each other, but only in accord with the laws discovered by Aristotle” (Opsopaus, J., 1998). If there is a shared quality between two of the Elements then one Element can be transformed directly into another, but direct transformation between opposed Elements (like Fire and Water) is impossible. “…Earth is predominantly dry, Water predominantly cool, Air predominantly moist, and Fire predominantly warm…Thus Water cannot be transformed directly into Fire, since they have no common Quality to give continuity to the process, but the Water can be transformed indirectly by changing it first into Air or Earth” (Opsopaus, J., 1998).
The two extreme Elements of Water and Fire (Yin and Yang) represent the union of male and female “where the man by nature of his contributes to the relationship the creative powers of fire [and] the woman contributes the sustaining powers of the element of water, forming a necessary foundation for the active operation of man” (Spiritual Knowledge, 2007).
Human beings exist in nature just as everything else does and therefore the human organism is also made up in some proportion by the Four Elements. “Disruption of the delicate harmony of elements in the human body gives rise to disease, especially by abusing the energy of elements or by blocking it” (Spiritual Knowledge, 2007). The Chakra philosophy which also works with the spiritual Elements focusses on opening and unblocking each of the internal energy centers in order to achieve true health and spiritual enlightenment.
According to which element predominates in someone’s character, they may have a choleric (Fire), sanguine (Air), melancholic (Earth), or phlegmatic (Water) nature. In fact, there are twelve human natures that are known more commonly as the twelve signs of the Zodiac. The Zodiac signs are a mix of different proportions of the Four Elements. In Astrology the Four Elements represent a basic kind of energy and consciousness that operates within everyone. Earth, Water, Air, and Fire each have three signs correlated to their ruling energy.
Here is where each of the Four Elements are found primarily in the human body:
Fire: The digestive enzymes and secretions, and all enzymes. Yellow Bile. The Innate Heat of metabolism and the Digestive Fire. The heart, liver and stomach. All active, muscular heat generating tissues; the muscles. The Fire of spirit and intelligence, and the sparkle in the eyes.
Air: The lungs, chest and thorax. All the cavities and open spaces, which allow for movement and function. The blood and the Vital Force it carries. The arteries, which pulsate with Air, or pneuma. All hollow or porous tissues and structures, which are lightened, rarefied and refined by Air: the bones, connective tissue, and membranous structures. Points of exchange and contact: the lungs, kidneys and digestive mucosa.
Water: All the vital fluids of the body, especially the clear fluids: phlegm, mucus, plasma, lymph and serous and interstitial fluids. The kidneys, bladder and urinary tract, which pass superfluous Water from the body. The mucosa of the digestive, respiratory and genitourinary tracts. The lymphatic system. The brain and spinal cord.
Earth: All the dense, solid, deeper, more permanent parts of the body. Bones, joints and structural connective tissue. Nerves, bone marrow and nervous tissue. Teeth and gums. The hair and nails.
(Osborne, D.K., 2007-2010).
Since everything is created in some proportion by the Four Elements, then that means that herbs also have their own predominate qualities. These qualities can be used to help one to regain their inner harmony and balance. For example if one were too cold a warming herb like ginger or cayenne could be utilized to bring ones internal temperature up. Because of the warming actions of ginger and cayenne one would say that those two herbs possess a higher proportion of the Fire Element in their spiritual make-up.
So how are the herbs helping us to heal our energy imbalances? Some claim that it isn’t actually the herb that is doing the healing, but in actuality the herb is just acting as the bridge to the missing radiation or energy that is required to heal. “Each herb contains in itself some very fine higher vibration which…creates a bridge to the radiation of Light. This higher vibration affects every healing herb in all directions and it manifests on its height, colour of flowers, or on the shape of its leaves, in the colour spectrum of ethereal-matter radiation, and also in the content of substances in an organic plants compounds” (Medicinal Herbs. 2007).
So whether your beliefs lie in Buddhism, Hinduism, the Chakra philosophy, Astrology, Traditional Chinese Medicine or some other ancient school of thought the Four Elements are a good reminder of the connection between all of them. The Four Elements of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire create a connection between every person, plant, and animal and is a wonderful reminder of the importance of synergy and balance. It also reminds you of the destruction that can occur internally and externally when the energy systems are in disharmony. The more conscious one gets about the subtle cues that the Elements are giving us within our own bodies, the better equipped we become to heal ourselves. Whether that is through the use of herbs, food, or even just a walk in the woods there is always a natural method to bring us back to equilibrium – it was what nature always intended.
Opsopaus, J. (1988). The ancient Greek doctrine of the elements [online] last accessed Feb. 15, 2014 at URL http://web.eecs.utk.edu/~mclennan/BA/AGEDE/Intro.html
Astrology. (2004-2014). The four elements [online] last accessed Feb. 15, 2014 at URL http://www.astrology.com.tr/elements.asp
Spiritual Knowledge. (2007). Fire, Water, Air, Earth [online] last accessed Feb. 15, 2014 at URL http://www.spiritual-knowledge.net/articles/fire-water-air-earth.php
Osborn, D.K. (2007-2010). The four elements [online] last accessed Feb. 15, 2014 at URL http://www.greekmedicine.net/b_p/Four_elements.html
Natural Medicinal Herbs. (2007). Medicinal Herbs [online] last accessed Feb. 15, 2014 at URL http://www.naturalmedicinalherbs.net/