image from the Particle Adventure

The Four Elements

From Ancient Greek Science
and Philosophy to Poetry

copyright 1998 by Tracy Marks
According to the Empedocles, a Greek philosopher, scientist and healer who lived in Sicily in the fifth century B.C., all matter is comprised of four  "roots" or elements of earth, air, fire and water.   Fire and air are outwardly reaching elements, reaching up and out, whereas earth and water turn inward and downward. 

In his Tetrasomia, or Doctrine of the Four Elements, Empedocles described these elements not only as physical manifestations or material substances, but also as spiritual essences. He associated these elements with four gods and goddesses - air with Zeus, earth with Hera, fire with Hades, and water with Nestis (believed to be Persephone): 

Now hear the fourfold roots of everything:
Enlivening Hera, Hades, shining Zeus
And Nestis, moistening mortal springs with tears.

In Empedocles' philosophy, the interaction of the four elements is influenced by the relationship between the two great life energies of Love and Strife: 

Empedocles explained that there are two great living forces in the universe, which he called Love (Philotês) and Strife (Neikos) and assigned to Aphrodite and Ares. According to Hesiod, the Goddess Love and the God Strife, offspring of Night (Nux), were ancient deities, predating the Olympians. The original golden age was the Reign of Aphrodite, when all things were united and Love permeated the length and breadth of the well-rounded cosmic sphere. But Strife, as the River Styx surrounding the Sphere, broke its Unity, and cleaved the One into Many. It divided the four elements, which ever since combine and separate under the opposing actions of Love and Strife to produce the changing world with its manifold objects and qualities. As Heraclitus said, "Through Strife all things come into being." Empedocles said that Strife also divided the one immortal soul of Love into many individual souls, each comprising both Love and Strife in some proportion; these immortal souls are reborn time and again into mortal bodies, which are animated by mortal souls compounded from the four elements.
from Exercise for Unity by Apollonius Sophistes

Empedocles explains the nature of the universe through the interaction of two governing principles, Love and Strife, on four primary elements. Unlike his predecessors, Empedocles claims that there are four elements in the universe; air, fire, earth, and water. Particular and indestructible, these elements foreshadow later developments in atomic theory by philosophers such as Leucippus and Democritus. Earlier philosophers believed that the quality of matter depends on the quantity of a particular element.....

Empedocles adds a moral dimension to his argument by associating Love with good and Strife with evil. The influence of each principle waxes and wanes in a cycle of opposition that Empedocles calls "The Vortex." At the beginning of time, Love completely dominated the universe. As a consequence, the four elements were unified into a sphere and segregated according to their type-- a quarter of the sphere was water, a quarter was air, and the remaining half was divided equally by earth and fire. However, with the introduction of Strife "The Sphere" was gradually dissolved, slowly scattering the elements throughout the universe. The complete dissolution of The Sphere was achieved by the eventual predominance of Strife. However, Love began to gather strength again, causing the elements to congregate in clusters, and thereby creating life. Eventually, the elements will form a second unity, a second "Sphere," and the cycle will reset.
from Empedocles of Akragas by Jesse Weidman:

Empedocles' philosophy was influenced not only by Pythagoras, but also by the ancient Greek mystery traditions, which included the Orphic mysteries and the underworld cults of Hades, Hecate, Demeter, Persephone and Dionysos. In his own thinking and writing, and in works and practices of the alchemists, neoplatonists and gnostics that further developed his theories, the four elements are not only material and spiritual forces, but also facets of a human being. Their varying combinations result in different personality types. 

Since we know that Carl Jung (1), one of the founders of modern psychology, studied mystical literature and alchemy, we can easily conclude that his conceptualization of intuition, sensation, thinking and feeling as the four basic archetypes or components of personality is clearly a derivation of Empedocles' ancient theories about fire, earth, air and water. Jung focused initially on the polarities of introversion (directing one's attention inward toward thoughts, feelings and awareness) and extroversion (directing one's energy outward toward people, actions and external objects), combining each polarity with predominances in thinking, feeling, sensing and intuiting, to develop eight basic personality types. 

The four personality variables of the Meyers-Briggs test (and its offshoots, the Keirsey test and the DDLI) (2) also appear to be a further development of this psychological philosophy. 

Most philosophers and alchemists also believed that the four elements exhibited itself in man as four varying natures and that one was more prevalent in each individual than the other three. An individual leaned more to one particular type rather than possessing equivalent amounts of all four. Empedocles said that those who have near equal proportions of the four elements are more intelligent and have the most exact perceptions.
from The Four Elements by Charlie Higgins

Another Greek philosopher/scientist who subscribed to the idea of four personality types was the physician Hippocrates. Rather than consider them to be "roots" or elements, he viewed them as bodily fluids or humors. Fire is akin to his conceptualization of blood (active, enthusiastic), earth to phlegm (apathetic and sluggish), air to yellow bile (irritable, changeable), and water to black bile (sad, brooding). 

In his online Bibliotheca Arcana, John Opsopaus includes several articles on The Ancient Greek Doctrine of the Elements. Here, he discusses theories related to the four elements as developed by both Empedocles and Aristotle. As further developed by Aristotle in his Metaphysics, these elements all arise arise from the interplay of the properties of hotness and coldness, and dryness and wetness. Fire (dry and hot) and water (wet and cold) are opposites, as are earth (dry and cold) and air (wet and hot). Each of the opposites was considered to have existed in an ideal form, apart from earth and in a mixed impure form, on earth: 

Aristotle explains that Moistness is the quality of fluidity or flexibility, which allows a thing to adapt to its external conditions, whereas Dryness is the quality of rigidity, which allows a thing to define its own shape and bounds. As a consequence Moist things tend to be volatile and expansive, since they can fill spaces in their surroundings, whereas Dry things are fixed and structured, since they define their own form.

Opsopaus points out the various associations made to the Four Elements by Empedocles and his Greek followers,  as well as their development in western mysticism, alchemy (3) and Jungian psychology: 

Most obviously there are the macrocosmic manifestations of the Elements, for example, the land, the sea, the sky and the sun. They are also connected with the sublunary spheres: Heaven, Earth, Abyss (the subterranean water) and Tartaros (the subterranean fire). There are also microcosmic manifestations, for example, as components of the human psyche (mental, astral, etheric and physical bodies).... The Elements also represent the stages in various processes of growth and transformation.... Finally, from the standpoint of Jung's psychology, the Elements (like the gods) are archetypes; because they are structures in the collective unconscious, they are universal (present in all people). As archetypes, they are beyond complete analysis; they can be "circumscribed but not described"; ultimately they must be experienced to be understood.
from The Ancient Greek Doctrine of the Elements byJohn Opsopaus

Earth, for example, is cool and dry, passive and rigid, a principle of structure and materialization. Psychologically, it is therefore predominant in persons who focus extensively upon physical reality, and who may tend toward qualities such as perseverance, inflexibility, realism and pragmatism. 

Water, however, was originally the Primordial Chaos, associated with dissolution, union and transformation, and therefore with the goddess Persephone, who rules over death and rebirth in the Underworld, and whose lessons bring both tears of grief and tears of joy. Psychologically, water is likely to be the predominant element in people who tend to be flowing, flexible, oriented toward harmony or union, and inclined toward deep feeling. 


The Greek theories of the four elements, originally developed by Empedocles and expanded by Aristotle, have had a significant influence upon many traditions stretching into the 20th century - spiritual schools based upon alchemy, astrology, Jungian psychology (with its correspondences to thinking, feeling, intuition and sensation), Meyers-Briggs personality theory, and even Luscher's four-color personality profile. According to many mystics and transpersonal psychologists today, individual psychological and spiritual development is indeed related to the presence of and relationship ( the love/ harmony/ union or the strife/ opposition/ separation ) between the elements within the psyche. When two opposing elements encounter each other, they may neutralize each other, or according to alchemy and Jungian thought, lead to Coniunctio Oppositorum, the Conjunction of Opposites, a form of higher unity and transcendence of polarities. 


copyright 1998 by Torrey Philemon

The four elements:
Fire, earth, air and water.
Let them be your guides.

Singed by light and fire?
Like a moth drawn to the flame?
Then let the past burn.

Craving heat and warmth?
Fleeing from winter's cold? Wrap
Yourself in blankets.

Hemmed in by steep walls?
Locked doors? Wait. Look toward the roof.
There is a ladder.

Buried underground?
Weighted down by life's demands?
Dig roots into soil.

Scattered by the wind?
Let yourself be blown apart.
You will become whole.

Flying far too high?
Lost sight of the earth? Glide on.
Wing your way toward God.

Battling with fog?
Do not resist. Cling to the
Ground or soar above.

Dragged underwater?
Sink deep. Surrender to grief.
You will rise again.

Empedocles of Akragas by Jesse Weidman
Introductory Chemistry: Greek Theory and Roman Practice
Plato's Timeus
The Five Platonic Solids
Aristotle Metaphysics 985a
The Elements
The Four Elements
Exercise for Unity
Mensionization Complementation: The Four Elements
Elemental Astrology
The Four Elements Chart Cross Cultural Comparison
Four Elements Art Gallery (Angela Billodeau)

Articles copyright 1998 by John Opsopaus
The Ancient Greek Doctrine of the Elements 
The Ancient Esoteric Doctrine of the Elements 
and The Rotation of Elements

Images on this page
The Four Elements image from
Four button image adapted from Laren's Pagan Graphics

(1) See also:
Jung Web
C.J. Jung
Jungian Personality Test

(2) See also:
the alt.psychology.personality newsgroup and its archives:
DDLI Personality test files
DDLI support
Association for Psychological Type
and Modern Theories of Personality

(3) See also:
The Alchemy site
The Gnosis Archive


This page is
copyright 1998 by Tracy Marks (alias)
Go to: Tracy Marks's Greek Mythology Site

Since April 3, 1997,  you are visitor Greek Mythology