Several ancient Classical Element ideas exist. The Greek version of these ideas persisted throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, deeply influencing European thought and culture.
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Classical elements in Greece
The classical elements represent in Greek philosophy, science, and medicine the possible constituents of the cosmos.
Plato mentions them as of Pre-Socratic origin, a list created by the ancient philosopher Empedocles.
- Fire is both hot and dry.
- Earth is both cold and dry.
- Air is both hot and wet.
- Water is both cold and wet.
One classic diagram has two squares on top of each other, with the corners of one being the classical elements, and the corners of the other being the properties. These properties are described as variations of humidity and tempurature, producing a warm and wet Air, a warm and dry Fire, a cool and wet Water, and a cool and dry Earth.
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).
Some cosmologies include a fifth element, the "quintessence," or spirit. These five elements are sometimes associated with the five platonic solids: the sphere, the tetrahedron, the cube, the octahedron, and the icosahedron.
Some have noted that in modern science the general rule is that most visible matter can be classified as either a solid (Earth), liquid (Water), or gas (Air); a fourth element has been detected recently and is often called plasma (Fire). These correspond to the modern-day States of Matter.
Aristotle added aether as the quintessence, rationalizing that whereas Fire, Earth, Air, and Water were earthly and corruptible, the stars were eternal ("aether" is based on Greek for eternity) and were thus not made out of any of the four elements but rather a heavenly substance.
Classical elements in Hinduism
The classical elements in Hinduism are: Bhoomi (Earth), Jala (Water), Agni (Fire), Vayu (Air) and Akasa (Space). Together they were known as Panchabhootha (five elements).
Classical elements during the Middle Ages
The idea of the classical elements was known during medieval times, and, like much Aristotelian dogma, 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. References to the classical elements in medieval literature are numerous and can be seen in the work of many writers, including 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
- 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,
- The extravagant and erring spirit hies
- To his confine
- -HORATIO, from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
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. The elemental rulerships for the twelve astrological signs of the zodiac are as follows:
- Fire -- 1 - Aries; 5 - Leo; 9 - Sagittarius
- Earth -- 2 - Taurus; 6 - Virgo; 10 - Capricorn
- Air -- 3 - Gemini; 7 - Libra; 11 - Aquarius
- Water -- 4 - Cancer; 8 - Scorpio; 12 - Pisces
- Fire — Aries, Leo, Sagittarius - hot, dry, ardent
- Earth — Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn - heavy, cold, dry
- Air — Gemini, Libra, Aquarius - light, hot, wet
- Water — Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces - wet, soft, cold
In Western tropical astrology, there are always 12 astrological signs; thus, each element is associated with 3 signs of the Zodiac which are always located exactly 120 degrees away from each other along the ecliptic and said to be in trine with one another.
Beginning with Aries the first sign which is a Fire sign, the next in line Taurus is Earth, then to Gemini which is Air, and finally to Cancer which is Water -- in Western astrology the sequence is always Fire, Earth, Air, & Water in that exact order. This cycle continues on twice more and ends with the twelth and final astrological sign, Pisces. The following list should allow one to visualize this cycle better:
- 1 -- Aries - (Cardinal Fire): assertively, impulsively, selfishly.
- 2 -- Taurus - (Fixed Earth): resourcefully, thoroughly, indulgently.
- 3 -- Gemini - (Mutable Air): logically, inquisitively, superficially.
- 4 -- Cancer - (Cardinal Water): tenaciously, sensitively, clingingly.
- 5 -- Leo - (Fixed Fire): generously, proudly, theatrically.
- 6 -- Virgo - (Mutable Earth): practically, efficiently, critically.
- 7 -- Libra - (Cardinal Air): co-operatively, fairly, lazily.
- 8 -- Scorpio - (Fixed Water): passionately, sensitively, anxiously.
- 9 -- Sagittarius - (Mutable Fire): freely, straightforwardly, carelessly.
- 10 -- Capricorn - (Cardinal Earth): prudently, cautiously, suspiciously.
- 11 -- Aquarius - (Fixed Air): democratically, unconventionally, detachedly.
- 12 -- Pisces - (Mutable Water): imaginatively, sensitively, distractedly.
Chinese classical elements
In Chinese (Taoism) there is a similar system, which includes Metal and Wood but excludes Air. Different things in nature are associated with the five types. For example, the five major planets were named after the elements: Venus is Metal, Jupiter is Wood, Mercury is Water, Mars is Fire and Saturn is Earth. Also the Moon represents Yin, the Sun represents Yang. Yin and Yang and the five elements are recurring themes in the I Ching, which is strongly related to Chinese cosmology and Chinese astrology.
- Wikipedia (2005). Classical element (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_element). Retrieved February 25, 2005.
- The Proceedings of the Friesian School, Fourth Series: The Greek Elements (http://www.friesian.com/elements.htm)