All matter is composed of the five elements - the four base elements of earth, air, fire, and water and the elusive fifth element of aether. These are philosophical elements, which are rarely found in their pure form in nature. Most substances are mixtures of multiple elements. Wood, for example, contains fire (which can be released through combustion), air (you can hear it hissing its escape when the wood is burned), water (which can be removed in the process of charcoaling), and earth (the ash that is left behind when the wood is burned). Fire and water are the purest elements, and if allowed would disappear into the Above, while Water would be absorbed into the Below.
The four base elements only exist below the Lunar Sphere, and each of the elements has a sphere to which it naturally gravitates. Beyond the Lunar Sphere is only aether, which fills the space between the stars and provides the sea in which planets orbit. Each of the elements has three primary characteristics -- temperature, moistness, and shape.
The Four Elements
Water is composed of cold and moist icosahedral (a 20-sided solid) corpuscles. Water rises above earth but sinks beneath air. It represents coolness, contraction, and mutability. Water provides substances flexibility and nourishment. In human beings, it represents the subconscious mind. The symbol of Water is a triangle pointed downward, representing its desire to descend because of its cold and moist qualities.
Air is composed of moist and hot octahedral (an 8-sided solid) corpuscles. Air rests below fire and above earth. It is penetrating diffuse and moveable. In human beings, it represents the self-conscious mind. The symbol for Air is an upward pointing triangle with a horizontal line through it. The upward triangle represents that it is hot and seeks to ascend but the moist component blocks its full ascent.
Fire is composed of hot and dry tetrahedral (a 4-sided solid) corpuscles. Being the lightest, this element resides just under the moon's sphere. Fire encompasses radiance, expansion, warmth, and light. In human beings, it represents the super-conscious mind. The Universal Fire is diffused everywhere and radiates from the sun throughout all of creation, while the Particular Fire is implanted in each object. The symbol for Fire is a triangle pointing upward, representing its desire to ascend because of its hot and dry qualities.
Earth is composed of dry and cold cubic (a 6-sided solid) corpuscles and is the densest of the elements. The sphere of earth sits at the heart of Corthis and all the other spheres exist above it. Earth represents stability, inertia, and solidity and gives substances their strength and form. In human beings, earth represents the physical body. The symbol for Earth is a triangle pointed downward with a line through it. The downward triangle represents that Earth is moist and seeks to descend but its dry component blocks its full decent.
Aether (sometimes called mana or quintessence) is neither hot nor dry nor cold nor moist and is composed of dodecahedron (a 12-sided solid) corpuscles. Aether flows through all the spheres in a process called the Golden Chain of Trismegistus. This rare element is the source of all life in Corthis, but the element itself is seemingly incapable of change. Its most noticeable characteristic is that while the four base elements move in straight lines aether naturally moves in circles.
Aether is the root of all life and exists in all living things. Furthermore, the more aether that infuses matter, the more sentient that matter becomes becomes. Generally, a tree has more aether than a rock, an animal has more aether than a tree, and a human has the most aether of all. Aether can naturally pool into non-standard locations, such as a tree or even a mountain lake. When this happens, the matter awakens into sentience and take a spirit form called an aetherling or a manitou.
The Elemental Square of Opposition
Because the elements are defined by two qualities out of a total of four, they form a square of opposition. Elements that share one of their qualities are considered adjacent to each other, while those that are diagonal from one another on the square are considered opposed.
The inherent opposition of the elements causes matter to move through the Square of Opposition in the dynamic Rotation of the Elements. The opposing qualities, hot and cold and moist and dry, try to move toward each other but cannot do so directly because matter cannot move diagonally on the Square. Instead, matter cycles in a clockwise manner. The Rotation of the Elements begins with the process of adaptation (Water), continues with expansion (Air), then production (Fire), and finally falls into retraction (Earth). Alchemists use the Square of Opposition and the Rotation of the Elements to change matter from one element to the other. Elemental Water cannot be made into Fire without first passing through Air.
Alchemists saw the Rotation of the Elements reflected in many places in nature: the seasons of spring (adaptation), summer (expansion), fall (production), and winter (retraction); ages of humans (childhood, youth, maturity, and old age); and plants (seed, sapling, tree, rotted husk). The Rotation of the Elements can also be applied to less tangible ideas, such the cycles in art movements and the rise and fall of nations.
Another aspect of the Square of Opposition is the Cycle of Triumphs. Whenever two elements share a common quality, the element that is the dominant in that quality overcomes the other. Water is dominant in Cold. Air is dominant in Moist. Fire is dominant in Hot. Earth is dominant in Dry. So according to the Cycle of Triumphs, Fire overcomes Air, Air overcomes Water, Water overcomes Earth, Earth overcomes Fire.
The last and most sinister aspect of the Square of Opposition is the Retrograde Rotation. It is possible to go backward (counter-clockwise) through the square. Moving in this direction, the alchemist must sacrifice one element to give life to another, for Fire lives in the death of Earth, Air lives in the death of Fire, Water lives in the death of Air, and Earth lives in the death of Water. Pushing backward against the natural flow of the Rotation of Elements is extremely taxing and requires the use of negative imagery, philosophy, and energy. Repeated use of the Retrograde Rotation can unbalance the alchemist, leading to insanity and death.« Return to the Almanac Index