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Introduction to the elements

Updated: Aug 14, 2018

Fire, Air, Water, Earth and Spirit (aetheric space). The five elements, what are they? what are their properties and how do they influence our lives? The universe as we know it are composed of a combination of all these elements. Once we understand what the elements are and how they work, we can begin to learn how to use the aid of the elements and their alchemical properties to create our reality.

"Earth my bones, water my blood, air my breath, fire my passion and spirit my soul"

All things that have been created came into existence through the effects of the elements. In oriental teachings these 5 elements are often known as the "Tattvas" when we speak of the elements we are not referring to the physical aspect of an element but rather the symbolic, energetic and alchemical properties of the elements. What I mean by this is when I mention "fire" not only am I talking about the reddish-orange roaring flame that you use to cook your broccoli, but I am also talking about anger, about passion, the heat emitted by your body, about action and destruction. These are all related to what "fire" could represent. This symbolic aspect of the elements are what we shall be discussing here today.

Fire (Tejas)

From cooking your dinner to keeping you warm. The element of fire has been a tremendous help to humanity throughout the ages. It has the power to both create and destroy. Cooking is an example of its creative power and a forest fire an example of its destructive capabilities. It is hot to touch and causes an increase in temperature of whatever it comes in contact with. Fire also produces its own form of light. Where there is fire there is light. These are some of the physical properties of fire.

Now moving onto its alchemical properties, fire is an active element its fundamental properties being that is heat and expansion. We know its active because if we look at a flame it moves and is roaring, alive with vigor. This activeness is displayed in the alchemical symbol for fire which is an upward pointing triangle, the triangle points upwards as fire roars upwards and to symbolise it being an active element. Fire is seen in alchemical symbolism as a masculine principle due to the energy of fire being "projective" in nature. When I mean projective I mean fire 'releases energy' and how this is linked to the masculine principle is because the archetypal male energy is projective in nature (the male releases sperm which is a form of energy which is the creative principle in the process of creation).

If we want to find fire in our body we can bring our awareness to the heat which is constantly being emitted from our body. In hermetic philosophy the elements are associated with certain segments of the human body, the head is associated with fire as all fiery aspects take place in the head, this is why someone who has a short-temper is called a "hot-head".

There are even certain emotional states that are associated with the element of fire. Some of the so called negative emotional states may include anger, quick-temper, hate and vengeance. A few of the positive emotional states include activity, determination, daringness, courage, passion and enthusiasm. All our emotional states can be associated with an element. In the yogic tradition, fire is strongly associated with the primal energy which usually lies dormant in the base of one's spine known as "Kundalini" commonly called the "inner fire" and awakening of this energy is one of the many goals of certain types of yoga.

Water (Apas)

Colourless and odorless, water is one of the necessities for life. The earth and our bodies are composed of 70% of this fluidic element. Some of the properties of water are that it is adaptable, it can take the shape of any container it is put into and slip into tiny cracks. Water does not create its own light but reflects light and is cohesive. A very interesting trait of water is that unlike the other elements it can exist in three states solid, liquid or gas (ice, water or vapour). We can see that water is life-giving, nourishing and preserving while at the same time like fire having both a positive and a negative side, water can also be divisive, fermenting and decomposing. The fundamental nature of water is cooling and contraction. We can see that fire and water are polar opposites.

The alchemical symbol for water is a downward pointing triangle. The triangle is pointing downwards because water is a passive element and water in general is under the influence of gravity and is held downwards. It is a passive element because if water is kept in a glass it would remain still if it is left alone. This is in contrast to fire which is active and roaring while water sits still. Water is a dense element whereas fire is not hence why the symbol for fire is an upward pointing triangle. Water is associated with the feminine principle due to its "receptive" nature. Water absorbs energy. If you put sugar into water it becomes sugar-water, if you put salt into water it becomes salt water. In this manner water is receptive because it takes in and absorbs the energy of whatever is put in contact with it unlike fire. Due to this receptive nature water is often associated with creativeness and intuition.

The segment of the human body that is associated with the element of water is the abdomen due to its many functions in the regulation of the fluids of the body. We can also associate the element of water with our blood and the flow of energy within our body. Subconsciousness is associated with water due to the subconscious minds receptive and reflective nature it is like water unlike fire which is associated with the conscious "active" mind. Memory is another association with the element of water.

Negative emotional states associated with water include indifference, cold-heartedness, acquiescence, carelessness, shyness, defiance and apathy. The positive states include ardency, compassion, tranquility, peace, forgiveness, tenderness and modesty. The prana (or life force) in our body is often depicted as a form of liquid or water. What is interesting is the solid form of water which is ice is the "elemental earth aspect" of water as it is in its densest solid form (qualities of elemental earth) while water in its liquid form is that of "elemental water aspect", when water is in gaseous or vapour form it is water in its "elemental air aspect" and finally prana could be linked with water in its plasma form or "elemental fire aspect".

Air (Vayu)

A colourless invisible element existing all around us. Another necessity for life on earth because if there was no air containing oxygen and prana we would be unable to breath. This element has obtained the warmth of fire and the moisture of water. Air like water has a life-giving property and like fire can be very destructive.

The alchemical symbol for air is an upward pointing triangle with a horizontal line going through it. The upward pointing triangle suggests like fire it is a masculine active force and therefore it is in motion. Air exists between the heavens and the earth less influenced by the power of gravity.

In hermetic symbolism air is often associated with thoughts and the intellect. When you are deep in thought you have you "head in the clouds" a typical reference to the element of air. Air can be associated with communication as thoughts are your form of 'inner communication' and your way of communicating between the conscious and unconscious mind. The segment of the human body associated with the element of air are the lungs and chest this is due the the function of the lungs and chest in the act of breathing which deals with air.

The negative emotional states associated with this element include thoughtlessness, gossip, boastfulness, self-conceit and wastefulness. The positive states are diligence, joy, proficiency, propensity to work, optimism and kindheartedness.

Air unlike fire, water and earth is the least tangible and least visible of the 4 elements (excluding spirit).

Earth (Prithvi)

The densest of all the elements and the most stable and solid foundation is that of the element of earth. Earth is composed of the three other elements and the reciprocal action of fire air and water would result in earth. Earth is what we refer to as the material world and the element of earth is associated with anything that forms a solid foundation like our physical body. Any form of material benefit including finances, career and status is linked with the element of earth. This is so because these things can create a "solid foundation" in what we call physical existence and elemental earth is all to do with solid foundation and stability. Groundedness is another association with the element of earth not just material groundedness but mental and emotional included.

The alchemical symbol of earth is as expected due to its density a downward pointing triangle with a horizontal line passing through it. Elemental earth is passive as it is solid and completely stable. It is linked to the feminine principle (like) water due to its receptive nature. Unlike water it is receptive to a lesser degree but yet earth still absorbs energy. Another reference to its archetypal feminine energy is why we call it "Mother earth".

The segment of the human body linked with the element of earth are the bones as it is the body's stable foundation and the most dense organ in the body.

Negative emotional states linked with elemental earth are laziness, being easily offended, irresponsibility, melancholy, ponderousness and inconsistency. The positive emotional states include respect, perseverance, thoroughness, soberness, prudence, punctuality, patience and conscientiousness.

Spirit/Aether (Akasha)

The eternal spirit, the purest element that is present within everything. It is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. When you combine the 4 primary elements of fire, air, water and earth you get the alchemical "quintessence" known as Spirit or Aether. If we were to associate the "creator of the universe", the "source" that primordial being to an element it would be that of spirit.

The symbol often used for spirit/aether is a wheel. This typically because spirit is eternal and encompasses all just like a wheel that spins for ever and ever.

There is no segment of the human body which is associated with spirit because spirit encompasses all spaces of our body. Our soul, our aspect of consciousness is composed of this ethereal element. Spirit is consciousness itself. The consciousness of the source.

The symbolism of the elements goes much beyond what has been presented in this article, this is just an introduction. Careful study of these powerful symbols will reveal many correlations between the elements and our individual lives and even how these elements have always influenced us in many ways.

Now that we have a certain understanding of the alchemical properties of these elements we can begin to move onto learning how to use the aid of the elements to manifest our desires and create our reality. In the next article we shall be discussing a technique to create our reality using the element of water.

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