35. Thoughts of an elementary nature

The four elements


The elements, as an expression of material nature brought back to its most essential form, are closely related with division thinking. The human effort to reach for a unity (of visibility), by ignoring the pluriform, leaves the last divisions very important. A language is analyzed to sentences. Sentences are broken down to words. Words to letters and letters to an alphabet.

This process was expressed in a more literary way in a poem by Pamela Alexander titled ‘Table of Elements’ (and calligraphically printed by Nancy Leavitt in the ‘Calligraphy Review‘) (GILMAN, 1992):

                                                         Until then

                                                                  We watch

                                                         the planet

                                                                     write its



                                                           in syllables

                                                                  the size of


Knowledge of the elements is about the elementary. In terms of division thinking, it can be interpreted as a search for the final unity, or – in quadralectic terms – a quest to the First Quadrant. Mankind poses the crucial question repeatedly:  Where do things begin or end?

The Greek philosopher Thales, living in Milete around 600 BC, was one of the firsts to provide an answer: water. Other pre-Socratici opted for different features to find the origin of phenomena (SHIBLES, 1971): Anaximander of Miletus  (c. 560 BC) pinpointed the boundless invisibility (infinity) as the ultimate source of unity in nature and stated that all things were infinite. He provided a simple geometrical model based on circles. Anaximenes regarded ‘air’ (mist/vapor) as the starting-point for the cosmic process: heating and cooling resulted in evaporation and condensation. Heraclitus of Ephesus spoke of the Logos (Word) as the root of all things.

Parmenides crowned the search for unity (around 500 BC) with his philosophy of monism, establishing the identity of thought and objects: ‘The only thing that exists for thinking is the thought that it is.’ All these philosophers used an inductive method (working from an assumption) in a speculative-dogmatic way. Creative thinking was more important than proof.

Empedocles (c. 500 BC) returned to quantity. He developed a ‘Theory of Nature’ based on four elements. These parts were indivisible, eternal and immutable. All beings were derived from this basis, and change was merely a rearrangement of roots. The tetradic elementary theory was later described by Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) and Theophrastus of Eresus (372 – 287 BC). These writers and the Church Fathers made the European culture aware of another tetradic world, different from their own ‘Celtic’ heritage.

An important contribution in the study of the elements was made by Isaac (Judaeus), a patriarch of Alexandria between 686 and 689 AD. He wrote a ‘Liber de elementis’ and a ‘Book of Substances’. These books were published in his ‘Opera omnia’, printed in 1515 at Lyons. A biography of Isaac Judaeus was written by Epicopus Mina (in the Coptic language) and recounted the life of this early naturalist (PORCHER, 1974).

The interest in the elementary – and related division thinking – found a rich feeding-ground in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. This city had a long pluriform tradition and encouraged the fourfold way of thinking. LADNER (1983) noted: ‘Symbolism of the number four is particularly prominent amongst the Alexandrine heretical Gnostics of the 2nd Century (Valentines, etc.)’. Philo of Alexandria gave examples in his work ‘De Opificio mundi‘. Philo, living from 20 BC to 50 AD, used allegory to harmonize Greek philosophy and Judaism.

Further to the east, in the belief of the Zoroastrianism, was the four-fold division not unknown as an extension of basic dual concepts. A Sogdic ossuary along the Silk Road, dating from the sixth century AD, symbolized the elements fire, water, earth and air (fig. 230). The Sogdic merchants of the sixth and seventh century provided a cultural link between the countries along the Silk Road from Persia to China, mixing Zoroastrianism with Buddhism. Their language was the ‘lingua franca’ along the route, before Turkish, Chinese and Arab speakers got the upper hand (KLIMKEIT, 1988).


Fig. 230 – A reconstruction of the front of a Sogdic ossuary near Bija-Najmana (Tashkent), from the sixth century AD, gives a representation of the four elements: fire, water, earth and air. In: KLIMKEIT (1988).

The middle of the eighth century was the start of the ‘visible’ part of the European cultural period. The Patristic/Celtic tetradic division was revived by Bede (the Venerable) in manuscripts like ‘De Natura Rerum‘ and ‘De Temporum Ratione‘. These texts treated the calendar, the four seasons, elements and humors). He positioned the four elements in their mathematical dimensions (fig. 231).


Fig. 231 – A scheme of the elements and their interconnections. The sequence is here: Fire (Ignus) – Air (Aer) – Water (Aqua) and Earth (Terra). The illustration – one of the very few in the grandiose standard work of MIGNE’s ‘Patrologia latina’ (1844/64; part XC, p. 195 – 196) – was derived from the ‘Bedae Opera Omnia’ edition (1563) of Hervagius, printer in Basel. JONES (1939) described the edition as ‘notoriously corrupt’. See also:  HENINGER (1977).

A reason for the corruption of text could be found in the inability of a sixteenth century scholar to imagine the full width of tetradic thinking due to the dual character of his own time. Hervagius was not able to see the balanced character of Bede’s original intentions in his concern with opposites and extremes. This misunderstanding (or misinterpretation) was not present in the twelfth century, when the tetradic spirit was very much alive. Elementary thinking reached a peak (fig. 232).


Fig. 232 – A renewed interest in the elementary combinations became evident in the twelfth century, when a hunt for an empirical visibility started in the European cultural history. The initial aim to support the belief in God changed into knowledge for its own sake. After the Renaissance the collecting of empirical data reached their days of glory in the eighteenth century, but ended towards the close of that century into scepticism and revolt. Left: The combinations between the elements and their possibility to cooperate. From an edition of Boethius’ ‘De Consolatione Philosophiae‘. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, Ms Vit. 20.1, f. 54v; end of the eleventh century. Right: Combinations of the elements. Oxford, St.John’s College, MS 17, f. 13, around 1110. In: BOBER (1961).

The four elements were treated in an almost mathematical way, whereby the interrelationships became of prime importance to form a structural framework of nature.  However, there was a change in the air. From the twelfth century onwards the nature of the ‘prima materia‘ was more and more sought (and found) in a rational approach of the ‘forma corporeitatis‘. This deliberate choice aimed at an empirical visibility and at a reduction of the power and influence of invisibility (or intuition). The best and most elegant way to achieve this goal was to reduce the numbers in the initial primary division (of thoughts). Tetradic division – with four, equal visibilities – was gradually replaced by a three- or two-division, to enlarge the material visibility (and gain in worldly power).

The scholar Marius, working in Montpellier (Southern France), wrote between 1150 and 1175 his ‘De Elementis’ (On the Elements). He treated the relation between the elements in a mathematical way (fig. 233) and knew that his doctrine of substance was ‘the key to the whole of philosophy’. What he did, in fact, was to establish a framework for a dynamic approach to nature, based on combinations and their subsequent valuation. DALES (1976) pointed to Eriugena’s ‘De Divisione Naturae’ – in which Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of form was incorporated – the adaptation of Plato’s ‘Timaeus‘ by Calcidius, William of Conches’ ‘Dragmaticon‘ and the ‘Metafysica‘ of Algazel as possible sources for Marius’ work.


Fig. 233 – An illustration from ‘De Elementis’, a book by the twelfth century scholar Marius, copied between 1190 – 1200 in Bury St. Edmunds (British Museum Cotton Galba E. IV). In: DALES (1976).

The manuscript of Marius’ ‘De elementis’ (British Museum Cotton Galba E. IV), written between 1190 – 1200 in Bury St. Edmunds, was a genuine quest to the nature of the elements, without a touch of any magical or animistic notions. The book was written, just like John Scotus Eriugena’s ‘De Divisione Naturae’, as a dialogue between a student and his master. Book II (Liber Secundus) of ‘De Elementis’ treated the combinations of the elements: at first two elements at a time, afterwards three at a time and finally with all four elements. The numbers of (unequal) combinations are respectively 18, 52 and 75. The combinations of elements offer an explanation for the processes in nature. Marius gave as an example the drinking of milk. Milk contains much water and less earth (solids). There is even less air and least of all fire. Therefore, a man is warming pursuant to drinking milk, because the (four) elements aim at equilibrium. No elementary energy or material is lost. It just changed in another form.

The width of (division) thinking with regard to the elements suffered badly in the hands of rationalistic thinkers of later ages. Equilibrium became, in the view of the latter, a balance between two forces, not four. The division of the world into four basic elements had given the scholars a logical and workable model of nature. The ideas were still very much alive in the beginning of the great discovery voyages. There might have been a (dualistic) idea of a flat earth, but there was also a spherical world view, with a round earth amidst water, air and fire (fig. 234).


Fig. 234 – The earth in a sphere of water, surrounded by a sphere of air and fire. This illustration is from Johannes de Sacrobosco’s ‘Sphaera‘ (Venice, 1485/1490). The small booklet by John of Holywood (c. 1195 – c. 1256) was a very influential brochure, since it stated clearly the Ptolemaic universe. It described the earth as a sphere and not flat.  (RANDLES, 1990).

The pivotal point in the European cultural history (1500 AD) was symbolized by the work of Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528). His world, based on practical visibility and direct confrontation, was still familiar with the four elements, but they were treated in a monumental way (fig. 235).


Fig. 235 – The goddess Philosophia is seen here amidst tetradic features. This woodcut by Albrecht Dürer (Neurenberg, 1502) was used as the title page of the ‘Libri Amorum Quatuor’ by the German humanist scholar Conrad Celtis (1459 – 1508). The  book was devoted to German nationalism in the spirit of the number four. Conrad CELTIS – ‘Amores et Opuscula varia‘ (1502), containing the ‘Libri Amorum Quatuor‘. ANONYM (-). De houtsneden van Albrecht Dürer 1471 – 1528.

Albrecht Dürer (his signature is above the lower emblem of the ‘Latinorum Poetae et Rhetores’) designed the title page for a curious book by Conrad Celtis called ‘Amores et Opuscula varia’ (1502), which contained the ‘Libri Amorum Quatuor’. The woodcut, produced in Nüremberg in 1502, was a compilation of quadripartite themes around the goddess Philosophia.

The emblem above the throne incorporates the Egyptian wisdom of Ptlolemaeus and Chaldean insight. Plato represents the Greek wisdom to the right. The lower emblem exhibit Cicero and Virgil as personifications of the Latin ‘poetae et rhetores‘ and to the left is Albertus (Magnus), the symbol of European (German) knowledge. In the corners are the exhaling faces of the four winds: Eurius, Zephyr, Auster and Boreas. Their physiognomy corresponds with the human types, which are associated with the elements fire (Eurus), air (Zephyr), earth (Boreas) and water (Auster) and the temperaments: choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic and melancholic.

The static representation of the goddess Philosophia by Albrecht Dürer reflected a numerological reference to tetradic thinking. The actual width of thoughts had dramatically narrowed towards the Pivotal Point (PP) of the European cultural history (1500 AD). Nationalism and numerology were only two of the symptoms.

Celtis highlighted the four areas of Germania (with illustrations):

—————  1. Hasilina Sarmata                                        east                         aer

—————  2. Elsula Alpina (Ratispona)                       south                       ignis

—————  3. Ursula Galla                                               west                         water

—————  4. Barbara Codonea                                      north                       earth

These areas were described from the viewpoint of ‘Quatuor aetates, anni tempora, mundi plagas et quatuor urb. ger. tetragona, ventos, humores et complexi, coeli signa, qualitates, elementa en colores‘. The chapter ‘Germania Generalis‘ gave an extensive description of Noringberga Quadrifinia (Nürnberg).

The elements were often – like in the given example – used in a motionless way, as relics of the time when tetradic reasoning was actively and dynamic employed (fig. 236). This same stagnation was noted in the alchemical work of the time. There were, for instance, four phases of purification (BURCKHARDT, 1960)(fig. 188):

——————-  1. yellow colouring                  xanthosis

——————-  2. black colouring                   melanosis                nigredo

——————-  3. white colouring                   leukosis                    albedo

——————-  4. red colouring                       iosis                          rubedo

The four colors (red, yellow, black and white) are the elementary colors, which were already known in the classical past. The ‘minima naturalia‘ were characterized by their homogeneity.


Fig. 236 – Four female figures represent the four stages in the alchemical process. They are situated at a background of the four classical elements: fire, air, earth and water. An illustration from Johann Daniel Mylius’ ‘Philosophia reformata’ (1622). This book gave three series of emblems. The first series of twenty eight are unique to Mylius. The second series consisted of a reworking of the twenty emblems of the Rosarium philosophorum sequence, and the third group of thirteen images was a re-engraved version of the Azoth series of Basil Valentine (Adam McLean). In: GOODMAN (1989).

The setting changed around the fifteenth and sixteenth century under the influence of dual thinking: the ‘xanthosis‘ (also called ‘citrinitas‘) was gradually abandoned and the alchemy turned to three processes and their corresponding colors: black, white and red (JUNG, 1953/68).

The Renaissance physician Paracelsus (1493 – 1541), being the most distinguished of the earlier alchemists, centered his alchemical theories around three ‘principia‘ or ‘tria prima‘: salt, sulfur and mercury.

Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691) launched, in his book ‘ The Sceptical Chymist’ (1661), a successful attack on the static aspects of the classical doctrine of the elements. He was careful in his approach and suggested other possibilities, rather than outright criticism. His suggestions – that the ‘Aristotelian’ elements could be cracked like a nut – caused enough alarm to give a serious blow to (static) tetradic thinking. The elements lost their appeal, and also the associate way of thinking.

Marie-Louise VON FRANZ (1966, p. 347) specified, in her commentary to the ‘Aurora Consurgens’, ‘the classical theory of the four elements as largely symbolic, and that it really expressed a projected psychic content – the quaternary structure of the self and its reflection in the four-function structure of ego-consciousness. The quaternary structure is inherent both in the starting point (the preconscious totality) and in the end product (the actualized totality).’ The power over the elements, by either God or man, which was enjoyed for such a long time (fig. 237), disappeared from the human consciousness, just like the dynamic setting of the elements as (symbolic) representatives of certain stages in a tetradic philosophy.


Fig. 237 – God or human being in the center of the four elements was a symbol of the connection with and power over the elements. Fire and air are carried in the hands (with a possible reversal of left and right) and earth and water are the points of support of the feed (also with reversal). This type of illustration is associated with tetradic diagrams from the period of Bede and Isidore of Seville, and also with the diagrams of categorical propositions in the logic van Aristotle. The roots are ultimately found in the (Greek) cross and the connection of the pairs of opposites. Top left: HENINGER (1977); Top right: Woodcut from H. Burgkmair uit: L. Reinman – Practica von warer Erkentnis des Wetters… Zwickau, 1530. Titlepage. In: TEICHMANN (1985); Bottom left: After a woodcut from: H. Welditz. In: C. Plinius Secundus – Historia Naturalis (Frankfurt, 1582). In: SEIBERT (1980). The same figure, but with additions (p. 72), in: BETTEX  (1977); Bottom right: GOODMAN (1989).

The (old) idea of ordering the elements gained new momentum at the end of the eighteenth in the periodical system of the chemical elements. The form of grouping – as proposed by Dmitri Mendelev (1834 – 1907) and Lothar Meyer (1830 – 1895)  – was based on the number of atoms in the core and the electrons moving around it. The different ‘shells’ can only contain a limited number of electrons. This limitation is governed by the numbers 2 and 4 (BINDEL, 1960). The following example gives the distribution of the shells around the core and the number of electrons in the outer shells:

                                   shell            electrons in  outer shell              gas                          total


Period  Ia/b           1   –    2                                2                               Helium                      4

IIa                           3   –  10                                8                               Neon

IIb                           11  –  18                               8                               Argon                        16

IIIa                         19  –  36                              18                              Krypton

IIIb                         37  –  54                              18                              Xenon                      36

IVa                          55  –  86                              32                             Radon

IVb                         87  –   ?                                  ?                                   ?                            64

The list of totals can be divided by four and gives the figures 1, 4, 9 en 16, which are the squares of the figures 1, 2, 3 en 4.


Fig. 238 – This refraction photograph by  an electron microscope illustrates the molecule structure of the element tungsten (symbol W and atomic number 74) with a distinct geometric structure of light-energy (Photo: E. Müller, Pennsylvania State University). In: LAWLOR (1982).

The (chemical) elements – and through them the organization of nature – are in a mysterious way related to the four-fold. The space taken up by the electrons around the core point to a natural law, which is related to a tetradic universe. The photographic representation of electrons in the tip of a tungsten needle (fig. 238) is just an attractive glimpse in a basic type of arrangement.

ANONYM (-). De houtsneden van Albrecht Dürer 1471 – 1528. Chronologisch gerangschikt. N.V. Foresta, Groningen.

BETTEX, Albert (1977). De ontdekking der natuur (Die Entdeckung der Natur). Droemersche Verlagsanstalt Th. Knaur Nachf., München/Zürich; Uitgeverij Septuaginta, Hoofddorp (ICOB CV, Hoofddorp). ISBN 90 6113 028 X

BINDEL, E. (1960). Les Elements spirituels des nombres. Payot, Paris.

BOBER,  Harry (1961).  In Principio.  Creation Before  Time.  In: MEISS,  Millard  (Ed.) (1961).  De Artibus Opuscula XL.  Essays in Honor of Erwin Panofsky. Vol. I. New York Univ. Press, New York.

BURCKHARDT, Titus (1960). Alchemie. Sinn und Weltbild. Walter Verlag, Olten/ Freiburg im B.

DALES,  Richard C.  (1976).  Marius:  On The Elements. A Critical Edition and Translation.  University of California Press,  Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-02856-2

FRANZ,  von,  Marie-Louise (Ed.)(1966).  Aurora Consurgens. A Document attributed  to  Thomas  Aquinas on the Problem  of  Opposites  in  Alchemy. Bollingen Series LXXVII, Pantheon Books, New York. LCCC 65-10405

GILMAN,  Karyn Lynn (Ed.) (1992). Poem ‘Table of Elements’ by Pamela Alexander. In: Calligraphy Review. Winter 1992. Vol. Nine. Number Two.

GOODMAN, Frederick (1989). Magic Symbols. Brian Trodd Publishing House Limited, London. ISBN 1 85361 022 4

HENINGER, S.K. (1977). The Cosmographical  Glass. Renaissance Diagrams  of the Universe.  The Huntington Library,  San  Marino,  California.

JONES,  Charles W.  (1939).  Bedae Pseudepigrapha. Scientific Writings  Falsely Attributed to Bede. Ithaca, New York/London.

JUNG, Carl G. (1953/1968).  Psychology and Alchemy. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung,  Vol.  12. Bollinger Series XX, New York. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London. SBN 7100 1642 5

– (1953/1968). The Spirit Mercurius. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung,  Vol. 13. Bollinger Series XX, New York. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

KLIMKEIT,  Hans-Joachim (1988). Die Seidenstrasse: Handelsweg und Kulturbrücke zwischen Morgen- und Abendland.  DuMont Buchverlag,  Köln. ISBN 3-7701-1790-5

LADNER, Gerhart B. (1983). Images and Ideas in the Middle Ages. Selected Studies in History and Art (2 Vol.). Edizioni di storia e letteratura, Rome.

LAWLOR, Robert (1982). Sacred Geometry. Philosophy and Practice. Thames and Hudson, London.

MIGNE, J.P. (1844/64). Patrologiae cursus completus sive bibliotheca  universalis … omnium s.s. patrum… Series secunda in qua prodeunt  patres… ecclesiae latinae… (= Patrologia latina; PL.), Paris.

PORCHER, E. (Ed./tr.)(1974). Vie d’Isaac. Patriarche d’Alexandrie de  686  à  689 par Epicopus Mina (texte  copte).  Ed. Brepols, Turnhout, Belgique. Patrologia Orientalis. Tome XI, fasc. 3, no. 54. R. Graffin/ F. Nau.

RANDLES,  W.G.L.  (1990). The Evaluation of Columbus ‘India’ Project  by Portugese and Spanish Cosmographers in the light of  the Geographical  Science of the Period.  In:  Imago Mundi 42 (1990),  King’s College, London.

SEIBERT, Jutta (1980). Lexikon christlicher Kunst. Themen. Gestalten. Symbole. Herder, Freiburg/Basel/Wien. ISBN 3-451-18667-5

SHIBLES,  Warren A. (1971). Models of Ancient Greek Philosophy. Vision Press Ltd., London.

TEICHMANN, Jürgen (1985). Wandel des Weltbildes. Astronomie, Physik und Messtechnik in der Kulturgeschichte. Deutsches Museum/Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH., Reinbek bei Hamburg. ISBN 3 499 17721 8

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