Despite my long time fascination with the subject due to my interest in Greek philosophy, the Tarot and alchemy generally I was genuinely surprised by my ignorance that the elemental classifications are utilised in early buddhist scriptures and ideology also. This came to my attention during my recent 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. The four elements to my surprise were discussed at length with regards to their sensorial qualities. They are not understood as actual substances but rather ways of subdividing bodily sensation. When understood correctly one can note the balance of each elemental sensation within the body as an aid to internal contemplation. This blew my mind and so much of my previous study of the nature of these base elements became relevant and helpful to my meditation just as aspects of my meditation immediately began to inform my philosophy and theology.
So I returned to my previous work on the classical elements, a study that has been part of a more longterm project, to develop my own tarot cards. I had long since applied my own alterations to some traditionally held associations to these elements; primarily colour, but I will return to that soon.
With my various reading it seems quite unclear exactly how differing cultures that used these elemental distinctions influenced each other. The accepted view is of course that the four classical elements were “independently proposed by early Presocratic philosophers: water (Thales), air (Anaximenes), earth (Xenophanes), and fire (Heraclitus). Empedocles proposed that they all existed together in fixed quantities from the beginning, mixed and unmixed by Love and Hate.”1 Note: Most people translate the two divine forces which move and mix the elements as Love and Strife.
After this it seems that Plato first introduced the term ‘element’ (it was not a term that Empedocles utilised) in Timaeus where he linked these four elements to four of the five Pythagorean geometric shapes later to be known as the Platonic Solids. Aristotle then added a fifth element, aithêr (aether in Latin, “ether” in English). Our word “quintessence” comes from a Latin expression for this: the “fifth essence.”2 He asserted that the four elements changed and fluxed and so the heavenly bodies could not be made of this stuff but must be made of something timeless: ether. Interestingly, he did not make the association of ether with the fifth Platonic Solid (the dodecahedron).
Aristotle’s positon became the foundation for medieval alchemy, which has in turn influenced modern western magick and its Tarot systems. In tarot the four suits correspond to the four elements: Air (Swords); Fire (Wands, Clubs, Batons); Water (Cups); Earth (Coins, Pentacles).
It seems however that Buddhist teachings on the four elements predates the western tradition. The four properties of bodily sensation that one may observe are cohesion (water), solidity or inertia (earth), expansion or vibration (air) and heat or energy content (fire). Mind and matter was categorised into eight types of “kalapas” (which are often now correlated to subatomic particles) 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.3
In Hinduism, there is an ancient use of three elements: fire, water and earth. Much later there are two additional elements added, namely, air and aether. The following two additions are very likely influenced by the Greek five elements.4 They then however make a simply wonderful addition to the collective ideology by adding an association to the senses that also relates to the order of the elements. “The basest element, earth, created using all the other elements, can be perceived by all five senses – hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell. The next higher element, water, has no odor but can be heard, felt, seen and tasted. Next comes fire, which can be heard, felt and seen. Air can be heard and felt. “Akasha” (ether) is the medium of sound but is inaccessible to all other senses.”5
These are then related to the seven chakras:
- Sahasrara (Crown): Thought/Space
- Ajña (Third Eye): Light/Dark
- Vishuddhi (Throat): Ether/Sound
- Anahata (Heart): Air
- Manipura (Navel): Fire
- Svadhisthana (Sacral): Water
- Muladhara (Root): Earth6
(This further links to my mind with my colour associations below.)
So it is unclear to what extent the various schools of thought have influenced each other but what is clear is that a great deal of this has been derived independently. This is extremely fascinating to me and seems to reasonably suggest that the basic elemental subdivision seems to be an inherently collective categorisation of human perception. It seem then that there is good reason for supposing some inherent pragmatic truth or collective archetypal distinction in understanding the perception of the world in these four ways. Fascinating.
So to return to my changes. I had a couple of intuitive ideas relating to the elements during my first serious investigations of the Tarot:
- Association to four ‘modes of being’. These modes of being are my own concept of ways in which my ego can interact with the world.
- Colour associations of the elements
Four ‘modes of being’
This came as a blinding flash of inspiration but is developed from the various qualities associated with the elements: air is intellectual and relates to thinking; fire is a creative force and relates traditionally to being (unhelpfully broad in my opinion); water is emotional and intuitive and relates to feeling and earth is practical and relates to doing (also unhelpfully broad, I have included my substitutions below). It occurred to me that if one sees oneself in terms of the Tarot tradition, one is ultimately both the Magus and the Fool (another discussion entirely), but the manner in which one interacts with the world can also be subdivided into four, what I am calling the modes of being, and these relate to the elements. As such it can help one understand how to keep a balance in life because the elements should always remain in balance.
The four ways I have subdivided these are as follows:
- Philosopher: Air; Thinking; Intention. Mind.
- Artist: Fire; Creating; Passion; Body.
- Priest: Water; Feeling; Emotion; Soul.
- Consumer: Earth; Utilising; Situation. Matter.
Of particular interest here is the recognition of the necessity for consumption, even on a balanced ‘spiritual’ path. What is important to understand is that it is not because this is the ‘lowest’ element that most people in (certainly in the west) are in dis-ease, but rather that an over abundance of consumption is unbalanced. If we are only ever consumers we are slaved to debt, weighed down by excessive material possessions and become obese. If we are only ever philosophers we have no practicality and do not pay attention to our emotional and bodily needs and so on and so forth. Each mode of being is required and needs to be balanced as a whole. In addition to this each mode of being itself can be more properly undertaken with the awareness of the others. The following words are only by way of example of how these qualities may be applied. Different situations call for different applications but by way of example and explanation:
- Good reasoning (air) can better be done with imagination (fire), compassion (water) and pragmatism (earth).
- Good art (fire) can be better created with intellect (air), emotion (water) and precision (earth).
- Loving one’s neighbour (water) can be better undertaken with awareness (air), passion (fire) and endurance (earth).
- Eating healthily and exercising well (earth) can be better achieved with intention (air), effort (fire) and temperance (water).
I now literally view these as my occupations as it were. These are the modes in which I approach life and when perfectly balanced and interplayed one begins to live ‘well’. So the next of my personal additions to this great tradition of elemental association: colour.
Colour associations of the elements
This area has always been a little hazy. There are colour associations but they are not often explained and they frequently vary. My first Tarot deck was produced in four block colours: red, blue, green and yellow. These are the most common associations. They are commonly associated thusly: air (yellow); fire (red); water (blue); earth (green).
I have struggled to get precise reasons for these associations but they seemed wrong to me. The desire seems to be to let fire, water and earth be related by their most common visual colour relationship and then air gets yellow; I can only assume because it is left over, but I am very open to being presented with a better reason. Indeed, generally speaking, I am extremely interested in more info here so if any one has it please do share because there is little available to defend these common associations.
Let me just take a quick second by the way to be clear that I am NOT saying one association is ‘wrong’ or ‘right’. Associations can be commonplace or rare and they can be useful or not useful, but nothing is categorically right or wrong. So what I am providing here are my associations that I find more useful. Nothing more. One can and should be able to relate different things to different concepts in their mind and not be burdened by the notion of one set of relationships being absolutely correct. Such absolutes are extremely unhelpful. See my article “There are no differences … Maybe” for more on this topic.
In any case I was unhappy with these and had an immediate impulse that water should be green. Why not? Water that appears blue is normally reflecting the air is it not? When one delves into water further is it not, in fact, more closely related to green. Water is more likely to be blue-green than merely just blue and often it is very green – due to algae. Indeed this link between an abundance of water and greenery generally is also important in my thinking. Add to this the fact that green is nurturing, safe and healing it seems to fit better and better with water. I went back to relating blue with air. It is such a strong connection and of course the colour blue often relates to the mind. I then reasoned that earth could well be seen as red with relations to blood, iron, lava/magma and so on. Making fire, yellow (as i often appears to be), seemed reasonable also.
I remained with these connections until my recent discovery of opponent process and the Natural Colour System. I was struggling to find good cause for the acceptance of red, blue, green, yellow as four primary colours. I was trying to work with the notion that the three additive primary colours (r,g,b) and the three subtractive primary colours (cyan, magenta, yellow) could be seen as a set of four. The idea was nice given the additive colours together produce white and the subtractive colours produce black. They also produce each other as tertiary colours (see the diagram below).
I reasoned that although there were six colours in total cyan was a kind of blue which I suppose it is, and that magenta was a kind of red. My main influence being the red, yellow, blue colour palette used by artists which is the practical application of the subtractive colour process. But this is really a precursor to the more accurate cyan,magenta, yellow palette and I could never totally be happy with the fact that magenta is really more of a purple and very different from the full red that yellow and magenta create.
Then came my discovery that whilst these are central to understanding colour processes there where other theories in regards to colour perception!
“While the trichromatic theory of color vision makes clear some of the processes involved in color vision, it does not explain all aspects of color vision. The opponent-process theory of color vision was developed by Ewald Hering, who noted that there are some color combinations that we never see, such as reddish-green or yellowish-blue. Opponent-process theory suggests that color perception is controlled by the activity of opponent systems; a blue versus yellow mechanism, a red versus green mechanism”7and a black versus white. The last two being achromatic and the detection of light-dark variation, or luminance.
The first two sets however give me my four primary perceptual colours. They also give me further links and associations to be applied to my elemental divisions.
The colours that I have come in clear oppositional sets. Blue-yellow and red-green. Not only that but it occurred to me that all along these colours have had masculine and feminine associations. Blue and red are normally perceived as male colours, and yellow and green as female. All that had to be done was to swap my colours of earth and fire. Fire returns to red, a colour it links with very strongly, and earth becomes yellow. Not the strongest link of them all but given that the Tarot suit is coins or pentacles and these are always of course yellow-gold there is an association there. I am sure to find more. I am certain of it. In addition to this, I get to clear sets: the red-green set pairs fire and water together correctly as oppositional and complementary and the blue-yellow set correctly pairs earth and air.
I am of course always open to new ideas and criticism – if any one feels my links are less useful than the traditional ones please do try and convince me. Otherwise I am very happy with my developments, both of which I have drawn on the Elemental Glyph at the very outset of this article. In this image we can see the four elemental and colour associations as well as the polarities of white-black. I have even hinted at the dynamism of this white-black relationship with the suggestion of the yin yang motif. (Note: the image links to a much larger version for closer inspection).
I will continue to build my understanding of this seemingly archetypal interplay of cosmological subdivisions in my Tarot designs, meditation practise, personal development and well everywhere really. I hope this is of some interest or use to those who see the world in a similar vein.
- Ross, Kelley. L. ‘The Greek Elements’. Friesian School, 2009. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- ‘Classical element.’ Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. 2004. ↩
- Op. cit. Ross 2009 ↩
- Op. cit. “Classical Elements”, Wikipedia. ↩
- Op. cit. “Classical Elements”, Wikipedia. ↩
- Cherry, Kendra. ‘What Is the Opponent-Process Theory of Color Vision?’ Psychology. About.com, 2011. ↩