Four element teaching

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The four elements
according to Hubert Elsässer World icon

After the classical element (also four elements theory ) is all being in certain mixing ratios of the four basic elements or "essences" or "root forces", "Earth", "water", "air" and "fire" as the principles of festivals, Liquid, gaseous and glowing consumables.

There is a similar model in Chinese culture called the Five Element Teaching . The five basic elements are metal , wood , earth, water and fire.

The four elements of alchemy

Greek philosophers

Precursors: Thales, Anaximenes and Heraclitus

The Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus (624-546 BC) in Ionia took the view that all substances only represent different aspects of the original substance water, because in his opinion water was available in the greatest quantity. He imagined that the earth floats as a flat disk on water and that water is also present above the hemispherical vault of the sky . His theories were widely accepted, but it was contested that water was the primary substance. In the following centuries, astronomical considerations in Greece also led to the conclusion that the sky was a sphere with the spherical earth in the middle.

Symbols of the four elements

Anaximenes (585–525 BC) - also from Miletus - came to the conclusion that the air is the primordial matter and is compressed towards the center of the universe, whereby the other elements water and earth are created.

Heraclitus (approx. 540–475 BC) from the neighboring city of Ephesus was of the opinion that the constantly changing and changing fire must be the primary material, since everything changes in the universe.


The broadest impact of the classical theory of the elements had its formulation by the Greek natural philosopher Empedocles from Akragas in the 5th century BC. The predecessors of Empedocles only assigned peculiarities to the four elements, which we now assign to the states of aggregation . An example of this is the liquefaction of a gas by pressure in Anaximenes. The fact that solid substances were assigned to the earth element in Empedocles' predecessors, liquid to water and gaseous to air, corresponds to the current concept of states of matter. (Accordingly, plasmas can be assigned to fire.)

This scheme was retained in Empedocles. In addition, Empedocles ascribed a peculiarity to the elements: He assumed that the four elements were eternally existing and unchangeable basic substances which, when mixed, form the diversity of substances.

Even if some of these principles point to modern science, it should not be overlooked that Empedocles first introduced the four elements as gods. However, there is no consensus as to which god he assigned which element. Some authors assume that the fire was assigned to Zeus , the air to Hera , the earth to Aidoneus ( Hades ) and the water to Nestis ( Persephone ), others interpret Empedocles' texts in the sense that Hera was assigned to the earth and Aidoneus to the Air was assigned.

By assigning the elements to deities, the four elements were given additional properties that extend not only into the medical field (cf. humoral pathology ), but also into psychology. Determination, ambition, commitment were assigned to fire. Water is the gentle element, the flexible and soft, the air element is lively, flexible and change-oriented and ultimately earth stands for the solid, rigid and constant. All things thus have a characteristic proportion of the four elements. Feathers are mainly air, stones a high proportion of earth elements. Pumice stone has a lot of air, rock crystal the water element and pyrite has a proportion of fire element. According to this, an individual mixture of these four elements also applies to humans. Illnesses are therefore an imbalance of the elements. The doctor of earlier times treated diseases by adding a missing element through food or medicinal plants, or he derived an excess. Elimination procedures, which are used today by alternative practitioners, were originally based on this idea.

Representation of the 4 elements and their properties

The Empedokleic doctrine of the four elements influenced the four humours doctrine of the Corpus Hippocraticum (in particular De natura hominis , written by the Koi doctor Polybos), on which the development of humoral pathology by Galenus and later doctors such as Avicenna was based.


The four-element theory was further developed by later Greek philosophers . Plato (approx. 428-347 BC) in Timaeus assigned a regular body to each of the four elements and the ether and represented the four elements as a cycle (Tim. 49 bf). Aristotle (384–322 BC) in turn gave the four elements the properties ( primary qualities ) warm / cold and dry / moist and the four elements ( primary qualities ) warm / cold and dry / humid, taking over the teaching of Empedocles described in the didactic poem On Nature , according to the opposing pairs of Zeno based on the postulate of opposites Anaximander referred to ether as the quintessence underlying the other four elements (earth, water, air and fire) .

The Stoics developed the teaching further by introducing the pneuma . The raw pneuma is absorbed through the breath and "cooked" through the fire of the liver, that is, made usable for the body. All elements that are absorbed by the body must first be activated by the fire of digestion (especially the liver), air and fire are among the active elements. Accordingly, air and fire were considered to be active pneuma-like elements and earth and water to be passive elements. Pneuma fulfilled many functions that Aristotle assigned to the ether.

This theory was preserved in this form in Europe over the Middle Ages and remained the determining basis in medicine until the Enlightenment.


The detour via Egypt and Arabia

Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, which after his death in 323 BC. Chr. Broke apart. Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals, had the Muses built a temple, a “museum” in Alexandria , which in its function corresponds roughly to a university . The museum with the library of Alexandria later became a center of scientific research. There, the Greek philosophy combined with the Egyptian theory of applied chemistry. Since knowledge of chemistry was closely linked to religion in Egypt , this had two effects:

  • A spiritual note came into the theory of the elements, the preoccupation with the “subtle matter”, which characterizes the current alchemy in contrast to the current chemistry. The elements were assigned certain characteristic metals; By absorbing the metals or wearing appropriate jewelry, these elemental energies could be transferred to humans. Gold belongs to fire, silver to water, mercury belongs to the air element, and lead belongs to the earth element.
  • Knowledge of alchemy was regarded as secret knowledge ( esotericism ) and people began to write texts about alchemy that were deliberately incomprehensible.

The Arabs occupied Egypt in 641. They took over the chemical knowledge of the Egyptians and developed it further. They called the field of knowledge of the transformation of matter Al-kimiya (from Greek Chemeia). With the contacts of the Arabs in the Mediterranean area and through the Crusades , it came to Europe as alchemy in the 12th and 13th centuries.

From the Middle Ages in Europe

The four elements, allegorical representation by August Essenwein in the Kaiserdom Königslutter (1890)

In the alchemy of the late Middle Ages and early modern times, the four elements and the quintessence as the fifth element play an essential role.

Paracelsus developed a doctrine of the elementals in the 16th century that became very influential.

The four-element theory was adopted from astrology . Each of the signs of the zodiac was assigned to one of the four elements.


The following table gives an overview of the (sublunar) elements and the bodies, properties, signs of the zodiac, elemental beings and cardinal points assigned to them.

element regular body
Zodiac signs
Elemental beings
Compass direction archangel Body juice and temperament symbol
Fire Tetrahedron warm + dry Aries, Leo, Sagittarius salamander south Michael Yellow bile, choleric
earth cube cold + dry Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn gnome north Uriel Black bile, melancholy
air octahedron warm + humid Gemini, Libra, Aquarius sylph east Raphael (Red) blood, sanguine
water Icosahedron cold + damp Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces Undine west Gabriel (White) phlegm, phlegmatic

Today's meaning

Robert Boyle and the Periodic Table of the Elements

The four-element theory was decisive for the chemistry that was called alchemy until the 17th century. Only Robert Boyle led a development, which the present element term ( chemical element , in contrast to earlier, called "Element" philosophical principle) in the periodic table of elements led. Since Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier, elements have been defined as those substances “which cannot be further broken down into other substances using chemical methods”. The separation of the terms alchemy and chemistry goes back to Boyle . So now only the esoteric direction of the material theory is called alchemy. Since the term “element” lost its reference to the physical states of matter, the term aggregate state was re-coined.


In the history of art one comes across numerous allegorical representations of the elements. As with the planets or the days of the week, there are also references to mythological deities for the elements, albeit somewhat more variable. For example, the earth is symbolized by Cybele / Rhea, the water by Neptune / Poseidon, the air by Juno / Hera and the fire by Jupiter / Zeus.

The four-element fountain by the sculptor Hubert Elsässer in Gröbenzell

Comic and film

The comic series about the superhero team Die Fantastischen Vier by the US publisher Marvel Comics also uses the four elements. The team consists of the superheroes Mr. Fantastic ( Mr. Fantastic , water), the thing ( The Thing , Earth), the invisible ( Invisible Girl , air) and the human torch ( Human Torch , fire).

The 1997 film The fifth element , which introduces love as the quintessence, provided a variant . The media origin of this variant is the US animated series Captain Planet (1990–1993), in which five teenage heroes from all over the world combine the elements fire, water, wind, earth and love to fight Captain Planet, the planet's protector to send against the polluters.

The American fantasy animated series Avatar - The Last Airbender (2005-2008) and The Legend of Korra (2012-2014) are further examples in which the four elements play an important role.


Some exponents of esotericism such as Franz Bardon and Rudolf Steiner divide the subtle into several “worlds” of different densities, each of which is divided into five to seven levels. In every world, the four lowest levels bear the names of the elements. Max Heindel makes the same division, but replaces the names of the four elements with the aggregate states.

The theory of elements and the related ideas of natural philosophy are to be demonstrated in the conceptual formation of soul and psyche . This is still linguistically confirmed today in scientific debates about terminological preferences (soul-psyche).

Connection to the Enneagram

The elements fire and water are the landmarks for the Enneagram . The element fire is placed below, the element water above, the element air on the left and the element earth on the right. The left and right sides of the Enneagram are the male and female characters, of which Carl Gustav Jung also speaks - without reference to the Enneagram - in his distinction between animus and anima . The distinction between male and female characters in the Enneagram is described by Claudio Naranjo . The concept of the transition element goes back to Heraclitus . In the classic, ancient four-element theory, however, only fire is assigned the masculine property, and water the feminine property. Air and earth are transitional elements in the original teaching.


  • Isaac Asimov : A Brief History of Chemistry. From flint to nuclear fission. Goldmann, Munich 1969 (Goldmann's yellow paperbacks 2448). Original title: A short history of chemistry.
  • Gernot Böhme , Hartmut Böhme: fire, water, earth, air. A cultural history of the elements. Beck, Munich 1996 ISBN 3-406-41292-0 . Cart. New edition 2004 (Beck'sche series 1565) ISBN 3-406-51067-1 .
  • Danielle Buschinger and André Crepin (eds.): Les quatres éléments dans la culture médievale. Göppingen 1983 (= Göppinger works on German studies , 386).
  • Bernhard D. Haage: Theory of elements. In: Werner E. Gerabek , Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil , Wolfgang Wegner (eds.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , p. 342 f.
  • Wilhelm Strube: The historical path of chemistry. German publishing house for basic industry, Leipzig 1976. Extended edition: Aulis-Verlag Deubner, Cologne 1989. (Bibliography pp. 320–336) ISBN 3-7614-1180-4 .
  • Franz Bardon : The way to the true adept. 15th edition. Bauer, Freiburg im Breisgau 1995, ISBN 3-7626-0004-X ; 19th edition. Rüggeberg, Wuppertal 2001, ISBN 3-921338-30-1 .
  • Max Heindel : The Rosicrucian Weltanschauung or Mystical Christianity. Oceanside, CA, 92049, USA: The Rosicrucian Fellowship; Internet edition 1992. Online version
  • Walter L. Strauss & John T. Spike (Eds.): The Illustrated Bartsch . Abaris Books, New York 1978. ISBN 0-89835-000-X .
  • Ulrich Stoll: The Lorsch Pharmacopoeia . Steiner, Stuttgart 1992. Dissertation 1989 ISBN 3-515-05676-9
  • Hildegard von Bingen: the healing power of nature. "Physika". 2nd Edition. Christiana Verlag, CH-Stein am Rhein 2005, ISBN 978-3-7171-1129-0 .
  • Burkhard Hafemann: Homeopathy and the four elements. Pflaum Verlag, Munich 2010, ISBN 978-3-7905-0992-2 .

Web links

Commons : Four elements  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Bernhard D. Haage, Wolfgang Wegner: Medicine in the Greek and Roman antiquity. In: Werner E. Gerabek , Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil , Wolfgang Wegner (eds.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , pp. 915-920; here: p. 915 f. ( The theory of elements ).
  2. Ingrid Straube: The sources of philosophy are female: From the influence of wise women on the beginnings of philosophy. ein-FACH-Verlag, Aachen 2001, pp. 31-32 ISBN 978-3-928089-29-6
  3. Walter Brocker: The history of philosophy before Socrates. 2nd Edition. Klostermann, Wiesbaden 1986, ISBN 978-3-465-01706-6 .
  4. Egon Gottwein: Presocratic Philosophy
  5. ^ Arthur Fairbanks: Empedocles Fragments and Commentary
  6. ^ Walter L. Strauss / John T. Spike (eds.): The Illustrated Bartsch . New York 1978 -: Numerous depictions of the four elements by various artists from the 15th to 19th centuries in several volumes
  7. a b c d Gernot and Hartmut Böhme: Fire, water, air, earth. A cultural history of the elements. Beck, Munich 1996, ISBN 3-406-41292-0 .
  8. Hildegard von Bingen: Healing power of nature. "Physika". 2nd Edition. Christiana-Verlag, Stein am Rhein 2005, ISBN 978-3-7171-1129-0 .
  9. ^ Hermann Grensemann : The doctor Polybos as the author of Hippocratic writings. Verlag der Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur in Mainz (Commissioned by Franz Steiner Verlag, Wiesbaden), Mainz 1968 (= Academy of Sciences and Literature. Treatises of the humanities and social sciences. Year 1968, No. 2), p. 91-94 ( Empedocleic influence ).
  10. a b Ulrich Stoll: The Lorsch Pharmacopoeia. Steiner, Stuttgart 1992, ISBN 3-515-05676-9 (also dissertation 1989).
  11. ^ Bernhard D. Haage, Wolfgang Wegner: Medicine in the Greek and Roman antiquity. In: Werner E. Gerabek , Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil , Wolfgang Wegner (eds.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , pp. 915-920; here: p. 916.
  12. CG Jung: Archetypes . dtv-Verlag, 1997 ISBN 3-423-35125-X
  13. CG Jung, K. Kerenyi: Introduction to the essence of mythology. Rascher, Zurich 1941.
  14. Bernhard D. Haage: Theory of elements. 2005, p. 342.
  15. ^ Lavoisier: Traité élémentaire de chimie. Paris 1789.
  16. ^ Walter L. Strauss, John T. Spike (Ed.): The Illustrated Bartsch . New York 1978, vol. 56, p. 324 ff.
  17. Claudio Naranjo: Know yourself in the Enneagram - The 9 types of personality . Kösel, Munich 1994, ISBN 3-466-34316-X , page 43.