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I recall an old cartoon joke which depicts a pair of ancient Greeks standing before a Doric column on which one had just carved the words ‘Earth Air, Fire, Water’. The other one says, ‘That’s an interesting start’. The first one then says, ‘A start! What do you mean a start, that’s it!’
Most classical cultures seem to have started out trying to describe reality using similar semi-abstract, semi-concrete analogies.
Nowadays the word Element has a very precise technical meaning when it refers to a specific type of atom, for example Carbon, and more general colloquial meanings when it can refer to any components of a system, for example an element of chance in a game of cards, or the elements of the environment such as wind and rain, sunshine, temperature and terrain.
However in the classical paradigms the elements implied abstract metaphysical principles which supposedly had some sort of power over, or connection to, actual physical phenomena like rocks, winds, burning substances, and liquids. Humans have a deep propensity to think like this. To understand reality they attribute essences or qualities to phenomena and then imagine that such abstractions have some sort of independent reality.
We cannot really avoid doing this; even our so-called laws of physics consist of such ‘Platonic’ archetypes. We can however strive to derive abstractions and descriptions and attributions which correspond as accurately as possible to our observations of the behaviour of reality.
The elemental archetype theory seems to have two serious flaws. Firstly it generally lacks the concepts of mechanism and dynamics. It provides a more or less static catalogue of reality in which the elements do not really interact except by mixing to produce phenomena which we cannot easily describe as arising from a single element. Some oriental elemental systems do at least make some attempt at a dynamic representation with the idea like water generating wood, wood burning to produce fire, fire acting on stone to make metal, and water condensing on metal, providing a simple idea of mechanism at least. Secondly, the abstract elemental categories try to encompass too much, a concept which means almost everything or at least 25% of it, means almost nothing if it lacks a reasonably tight definition. The category of all phenomena attributed to ‘Earth’ tells us nothing about its contents except that we have associated them together in our imaginations.
The poor explanatory and predictive power of the theory of elemental archetypes has led to its successive abandonment, first in physics, then in chemistry, then in medicine, and only fairly recently in psychology. It has only ever tended to appear referenced in religions when those religions were borrowing the idea from the technical world views of the time.
So why has it persisted in various branches of magic and esoterics?
The short and dirty answer to this question suggests that many contemporary magical and esoteric traditions simply continue to draw their paradigms from now defunct views of reality, somehow imagining that their very antiquity sanctifies them despite their general abandonment in all other fields.
I rather suspect that the Golden Dawn bears heavy responsibility for the re-appearance of the elemental archetypes in contemporary western esoterics. In its attempt at omniscient eclecticism it tried to shoehorn just about every esoteric idea it could get hold of into a neo-kabbalistic grand unified theory that doesn’t really bear close inspection.
An apologist for the retention of the theory of elemental archetypes could perhaps argue that it serves as a tool for the sort of associative or lateral or apophenic thinking style which often underlies creativity. Nevertheless I do feel currently rather annoyed at the prospect of trying to reprogram my imagination with a symbolic system that I dismissed decades ago, in order to penetrate the mysteries of a new system that I have encountered.
Esoteric thought seems littered with concepts which got borrowed from elsewhere, and which got out of hand and led to only weak and ineffective theories.
I strongly suspect that astrology began as a purely calendrical discipline. In ancient times keeping track of the date held great importance for agricultural societies as the temporary vagaries of weather and climate do not give a sufficiently reliable guide to the timing of such critical activities as planting and harvesting. The bureaucracies which supported early empires also required accurate calendars, and to some extent so did their armies. Initially astrology seems to have remained reserved for matters of state, like agricultural and military policy.
Given a tradition of date keeping it would not have taken people long to notice some association between a person’s season of birth and their health characteristics and life outcomes. This effect remains measurable today despite that we can generally now more easily isolate ourselves from the seasonal effects of daylight, food, and temperature fluctuations, (although not from school age entry requirements).
Gradually a system of auspicious and inauspicious date keeping seems to have become combined with a developing astronomical measuring system to create a baroque explanatory scheme with precise and fairly predictable astronomical data linked to ridiculously vague generalisations and prognostications about people’s psychologies and futures. This contemporary form of astrology has no statistically significant predictive power at all, precisely because, like the elements, the astrological categories remain so broad and ill-defined. Its apologists can at best argue that it provides a personal mythology or a possible mental map to play around with imaginatively.
In making or choosing a model of reality we have to start in the middle, in the midicosm of human scale experience. From this we can perhaps abstract some concepts that we can regard as fundamental. Some of these concepts we can apply on a bottom-up principle to try to explain or model our human scale experiences. The theory of atoms works like this, so does the theory of elemental archetypes, but not very well for me at least.
Top-down approaches typically begin with things like Gods with a big ‘G’, however this approach also runs into exactly the same problem as the elemental archetypes scheme, the Gods have to have such a vast and vague and self contradictory sets of attributes that they become objectively meaningless concepts, and instead become imaginative tools for exploring the fluctuations of our own subjective experiences, and rather clumsy ones at that.
The use of both approaches simultaneously seems to lead to the worst of all possible paradigms, or possibly to a fertile confusion. If Gods structure the universe from above and elemental archetypes structure the universe from below, then we seem condemned to eternal vague speculation upon the resulting inconsistencies. (Amusingly this rather mirrors the problem of the almost complete inconsistency of the quantum physics of the microcosm with the general relativity of the macrocosm.)
Alternatively, a sideways approach starting from a bit nearer home in the midicosm has a certain appeal.
The more human scale gods of the classical pantheons resume a fairly complete psychology without the cosmic pretensions of the various monotheist Gods. Stripping these gods and goddesses back to their most basic attributes, reveals deep biological and psychological drives coming up from below to meet the pagan theology in the middle. Thus we have gods and goddesses of Sex and Death, Fear and Desire, Love and War, Ego and Magic, etc etc etc.
Armed with such an idea we can perhaps formulate a mysticism and a magic based on various intents, instincts and drives that we can identify in ourselves. To flesh out (suitably anthropomorphise) such a system we can re-clothe the bare bones with ideas from the classical pantheons for the purposes of invocation and enchantment. This sort of ‘planetary magic’ has remained a staple of occidental magic since classical times. It forms the basis of all varieties of pagan thought from antiquity to the present day.
However we can quite comfortably ignore the actual astronomical planets these days. Venus for example provides an adequate goddess-form of love, and we can add a touch of Aphrodite, Isis, Ishtar, and various others of Her sisterhood to taste. Yet although the planet Venus itself looks beautiful in the springtime sky, conditions there resemble hell, with atmospheric pressure at 300 bar, a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead, and a continuous drizzle of fuming sulphuric acid instead of rain. So we may as well forget about the actual planet and its astronomy, and concentrate on interface with the Venusian archetype within, adding attributes by intuition.
On the other hand the elemental archetypes leave me with a sort of off-white night of the soul feeling, as I can find little that links ‘Water’ with my emotions, the melancholic humours, the geographical direction of west, and constellations designated Pisces and Aquarius which have by now got out of kilter due to the precession of the equinoxes.
Have I missed something here?
I raised these topics with a leading contemporary Mage recently. He suggested that we can regard The Elements as a sort of personal inventory, with earth symbolising the senses, water our emotions, air our intellect, fire our passions and spirit. Using such a scheme we can identify our strengths and weaknesses and maybe decide on making the most of our strengths or remedying our weaknesses.
He also suggested that beyond that, the concept of elemental archetypes has rather more artistic and poetic applications than scientific ones. (I shall now abandon forever my attempts to equate earth, air, fire and water with space, time, mass and energy).
And go with his interpretation.