Many philosophies and worldviews have used a set of archetypal classical elements, most developed sets of the simplest essential parts and principles of which anything consists or upon which the constitution and fundamental powers of anything are based. There are several approaches (Ancient, Medieval, and Modern), the most frequently occurring theories of classical elements are held by the Ancient systems of thought. In use as an explanation for patterns in nature, the word element refers to a substance that is either a chemical compound or a mixture of chemical compounds (as in the Chinese Five Phases), rather than a chemical element of modern physical science.
The most frequently occurring theory of classical elements, held by the Hindu, Buddhist, Japanese and Greek systems of thought, is that there are five elements, namely Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and a fifth element known variously as space, Idea, Void quintessence or Aether (the term "quintessence" derives from "quint" meaning "fifth").
In Greek thought, the philosopher Aristotle added aether as the quintessence, reasoning that whereas fire, earth, air, and water were earthly and corruptible, since no changes had been perceived in the heavenly regions, the stars cannot be made out of any of the four elements but must be made of a different, unchangeable, heavenly substance.
The concept of essentially the same five elements was similarly found in ancient India, where they formed a basis of analysis in both Hinduism and Buddhism. In Hinduism, particularly in an esoteric context, the four states-of-matter describe matter, and a fifth element describes that which was beyond the material world (non-matter). Similar lists existed in ancient China and Japan. In Buddhism the four great elements, to which two others are sometimes added, are not viewed as substances, but as categories of sensory experience.
The concept of the four classical elements in the Western tradition originates from Babylonian mythology. The Enûma Eliš, a text written between the 18th and 16th centuries BC, describes four cosmic elements: the sea, earth, sky, and wind.
The Greek classical elements (Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and Aether) date from pre-Socratic times and persisted throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, deeply influencing European thought and culture. The Greek five elements are sometimes associated with the five platonic solids.
Plato characterizes the elements as being pre-Socratic in origin from a list created by the Sicilian philosopher Empedocles (ca. 450 BC). Empedocles called these the four "roots". Plato seems to have been the first to use the term "element (stoicheion)" in reference to air, fire, earth, and water. The ancient Greek word for element, stoicheion (from stoicheo, "to line up") meant "letter", as the composing unit of an alphabet and the smallest unit from which a word is formed.
According to Aristotle in his On Generation and Corruption:
One classic diagram (above) has one square inscribed in the other, with the corners of one being the classical elements, and the corners of the other being the properties. The opposite corner is the opposite of the these properties, "hot - cold" and "dry - wet". Of course, some of these qualities are predicated on a Mediterranean climate; those living further north would be a lot less likely to describe air as being hot, or earth as being dry.
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).
The pancha mahabhuta, or "five great elements", of Hinduism are [Shristi] or bhumi (earth), ap or jala (water), agni or tejas (fire), marut or pavan (air or wind), or akasha (aether). Hindus believe that the Creator used akasha, the most "subtle" element, to create the other four traditional elements; each element created is in turn used to create the next, each less subtle than the last. Hindus believe that all of creation, including the human body, is made up of these five essential elements and that upon death, the human body dissolves into these five elements of nature, thereby balancing the cycle of nature set in motion by the Creator. Each of the five elements is associated with one of the five senses, and acts as the gross medium for the experience of sensations. According to Hindu thought, the basest element, Earth, was created using all the other elements and thus can be perceived by all five senses - hearing, touch, taste, scent, and sight. The next higher element, water, has no odor but can be seen, tasted, heard, and felt. Next comes fire, which can be seen, heard and felt. Air can be heard and felt. "Akasha" (ether)is the medium of sound but is inaccessible to all other senses.
In the Pali literature, the mahabhuta ("great elements") or catudhatu ("four elements") are earth, water, fire and air. In early Buddhism, the four elements are a basis for understanding suffering and for liberating oneself from suffering. The earliest Buddhist texts explain that the four primary material elements are the sensory qualities solidity, fluidity, temperature, and mobility; their characterization as earth, water, fire, and air, respectively, is declared an abstraction—instead of concentrating on the fact of material existence, one observes how a physical thing is sensed, felt, perceived.
The Buddha's teaching regarding the four elements is to be understood as the base of all observation of real sensations rather than as a philosophy. The four properties are cohesion (water), solidity or inertia (earth), expansion or vibration (air) and heat or calorific content (fire). He promulgated a categorization of mind and matter as composed of eight types of "kalapas" of which the four elements are primary and a secondary group of four are color, smell, taste, and nutriment which are derivative from the four primaries.
The Buddha's teaching of the four elements does predate Greek teaching of the same four elements. This is possibly explained by the fact that he sent out 60 arahants to the known world to spread his teaching; however it differs in the fact that the Buddha taught that the four elements are false and that form is in fact made up of much smaller particles which are constantly changing.
Just as a skilled butcher or his apprentice, having killed a cow, would sit at a crossroads cutting it up into pieces, the monk contemplates this very body -- however it stands, however it is disposed -- in terms of properties: 'In this body there is the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property, & the wind property.'
In the philosophy of the seven chakras there are correspondences to the five elements as shared by both Hinduism and Buddhism as well as two other elements:
In Bön or ancient Tibetan philosophy, the five elemental processes of earth, water, fire, air and space are the essential materials of all existent phenomena or aggregates. The elemental processes form the basis of the calendar, astrology, medicine, psychology and are the foundation of the spiritual traditions of shamanism, tantra and Dzogchen.
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche states that
physical properties are assigned to the elements: earth is solidity; water is cohesion; fire is temperature; air is motion; and space is the spatial dimension that accommodates the other four active elements. In addition, the elements are correlated to different emotions, temperaments, directions, colors, tastes, body types, illnesses, thinking styles, and character. From the five elements arise the five senses and the five fields of sensual experience; the five negative emotions and the five wisdoms; and the five extensions of the body. They are the five primary pranas or vital energies. They are the constituents of every physical, sensual, mental, and spiritual phenomenon.
The names of the elements are analogous to categorised experiential sensations of the natural world. The names are symbolic and key to their inherent qualities and/or modes of action by analogy. In Bön the elemental processes are fundamental metaphors for working with external, internal and secret energetic forces. All five elemental processes in their essential purity are inherent in the mindstream and link the trikaya and are aspects of primordial energy. As Herbert V. Günther states:
Thus, bearing in mind that thought struggles incessantly against the treachery of language and that what we observe and describe is the observer himself [sic.], we may nonetheless proceed to investigate the successive phases in our becoming human beings. Throughout these phases, the experience (das Erlebnis) of ourselves as an intensity (imaged and felt as a "god", lha) setting up its own spatiality (imaged and felt as a "house" khang) is present in various intensities of illumination that occur within ourselves as a "temple." A corollary of this Erlebnis is its light character manifesting itself in various "frequencies" or colors. This is to say, since we are beings of light we display this light in a multiplicity of nuances.
The Chinese had a somewhat different series of elements, namely Fire, Earth, Water, Metal and Wood, which were understood as different types of energy in a state of constant interaction and flux with one another, rather than the Western notion of different kinds of material.
Although it is usually translated as "element", the Chinese word xing literally means something like "changing states of being", "permutations" or "metamorphoses of being". In fact Sinologists cannot agree on one single translation. The Chinese conception of "element" is therefore quite different from the Western one. The Western elements were seen as the basic building blocks of matter. The Chinese, by contrast, were seen as ever changing and moving forces or energies—one translation of wu xing is simply "the five changes".
The Wu Xing are chiefly an ancient mnemonic device for systems with five stages; hence the preferred translation of "movements", "phases" or "steps" over "elements".
In Taoism there is a similar system of elements, which includes metal and wood, but excludes air, which is replaced with qi, which is a force or energy rather than an element. In Chinese philosophy the universe consists of heaven and earth, heaven being made of qi and earth being made of the five elements (in the Chinese view, the attributes and properties of the Western and Indian Air element are equivalent to that of Wood, where the element of Ether is often seen as a correspondent to Metal). The five major planets are associated with and named after the elements: Venus 金星 is Metal (金), Jupiter 木星 is Wood (木), Mercury 水星 is Water (水), Mars 火星 is Fire (火), and Saturn 土星 is Earth (土). Additionally, the Moon represents Yin (陰), and the Sun 太陽 represents Yang (陽). Yin, Yang, and the five elements are recurring themes in the I Ching, the oldest of Chinese classical texts which describes an ancient system of cosmology and philosophy. The five elements also play an important part in Chinese astrology and the Chinese form of geomancy known as Feng shui
The doctrine of five phases describes two cycles of balance, a generating or creation (生, shēng) cycle and an overcoming or destruction (克/剋, kè) cycle of interactions between the phases.
There are also two cycles of imbalance, an overacting cycle (cheng) and an insulting cycle (wu).
Japanese traditions use a set of elements called the 五大 (go dai, literally "five great"). These five are earth, water, fire, wind/air, and void. These came from Buddhist beliefs; the classical Chinese elements (五行, go gyô) are also prominent in Japanese culture, especially to the influential Neo-Confucianists during the Edo period.
The concept of the classical elements proved extremely persistent in Europe, lasting through the Middle Ages to the early modern era. Just as the Aristotelian dogma was related to the Greek world view, the idea of classical elements in the Middle Ages 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.
The elemental system used in Medieval alchemy was developed by the Arabic alchemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber). His original system consisted of seven elements, which included the five classical elements found in the ancient Greek and Indian traditions (aether, air, earth, fire and water), in addition to two chemical elements representing the metals: sulphur, ‘the stone which burns’, which characterized the principle of combustibility, and mercury, which contained the idealized principle of metallic properties. In following events, this changed into eight elements, with the Arabic notion of the three metallic principles: sulphur to flammability or combustion, mercury to volatility and stability, and salt to solidity.
This theory became popular among European alchemists after the Latin translations of the 12th century, and was adopted in 1524 by the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus, who reasoned that Aristotle’s four element theory appeared in bodies as Geber’s three principles. Paracelsus saw these principles as fundamental, and justified them by recourse to the description of how wood burns in fire. Mercury included the cohesive principle, so that when it left in smoke the wood fell apart. Smoke described the volatility (the mercury principle), the heat-giving flames described flammability (sulphur), and the remnant ash described solidity (salt).
Modern scienctific theories eventually replaced the Aristotelian model and medieval Alchemy. A recognised initiator of modern chemistry is Robert Boyle, who posited strict adherence to the principle of theories relying on experiments only and revived atomism (though note that Descartes' entirely non-empirical deduction of chemical principles dominated Western academic science until well after Boyle's death).
Prior elemental taxonomies can be roughly reduced to the modern states of matter, and also (to a lesser extent) the periodic table of elements and the concept of combustion (fire). For example, the ancient elements of Earth, Water and Air, could in part be represented by the three states of matter; Solid, Liquid and Gas. The ancient element of fire would then be the energy absorbed or released during a phase change or a chemical reaction. Modern scientific concepts similar to the ancient ideas of fire would be Light, Heat, Energy and Temperature.
More recently, the subatomic particles have come to represent classes of elementary particles, which are particles with no substructure (particles that aren't made of other particles), and composite particles, which are particles with substructure (particles that are made of other particles). Elementary subatomic particles are divided in three classes: quarks and leptons (particles of matter), and gauge bosons (force carriers, such as the photon).
Elementary particles of the Standard Model include six different types of quark ('up', 'down', 'bottom', 'top', 'strange', and 'charm'), as well as six different leptons ('electron', 'electron neutrino', 'muon', 'muon neutrino', 'tauon', 'tauon neutrino'), four force carriers ('photon', the W and Z bosons, gluons), as well as the Higgs boson.
The five ancient classical elements are used to the present day by esoteric movements such as neo-paganism, astrology and tarot. In Western astrology the concept of the four classical elements has survived from antiquity up until the present. The twelve signs of the zodiac are divided into the four elements: Fire signs are Aries, Leo and Sagittarius, Earth signs are Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn, Air signs are Gemini, Libra and Aquarius, and Water signs are Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces. Most modern astrologers still view the four classical elements as a critical part of interpreting the astrological chart. Since the advent and victory of modern chemistry, the classical elements are not regarded as substances in the physical meaning, but instead as a kind of esoteric states of the psyche.
In divinatory tarot, the suits of cups, swords, batons, and coins are said to correspond to water, air, fire, and earth respectively.
The image below has two squares on top of each other. The corners of one are the classical elements. The corners of the other are the properties.