THE FOUR ELEMENTS
What the Body is Made Of
In classical Greek science and medicine, the Four Elements are the basic constituents of all matter. Everything in the universe is composed of the Four Elements, in varying proportions and amounts. The elemental composition of a substance determines its particular nature and attributes, properties and actions.
The Four Elements are Fire, Air, Earth, and Water. We can see them as embodying the four basic states of matter:
Fire - igneous, incandescent or metamorphic state
Air - gaseous state
Water - liquid state
Earth - solid state
Cosmology of the Four Elements
The Four Elements formed the classical Greek conception of the universe, as follows:
At the center of our world is the Earth, as the planet we live on, the ground and support beneath our feet. Because of Earth's great heaviness and density, all things gravitate towards it.
Running over and around the Earth is Water, in the form of lakes, rivers, and oceans. Water fertilizes and impregnates the Earth, giving it Life.
Over the spheres of Earth and Water is that of Air, the atmosphere in which we live, move and have our being. Air's essence is exchange, contact and movement. All living things need Air to breathe.
And finally, Fire lights up the Sun, Moon, and stars in the celestial firmament. Fire has brilliance and spirit, and symbolizes the Life Force within us.
The human body and each of its constituent parts is also composed of the Four Elements, in varying proportions. The basic distribution and arrangement of the elements in the human body, or microcosm reflects that of the macrocosm of Nature.
Light and Heavy Elements
Two of the elements, Fire and Air, are light, subtle and energetic. Both of these elements have Hot as their primary quality.
Two of the elements, Water and Earth, are heavy, dense and substantial, or gross. Both of these elements have Cold as their primary quality.
Fluidic and Discrete Elements
The two elements having Wet as their secondary quality, Air and Water, are both fluidic in their behavior, taking the shape of their container and rushing in to fill every space or vacuum. Air is hot, light and flows upwards, whereas Water is cold, heavy and flows or sinks downwards.
The two elements having Dry as their secondary quality, Fire and Earth, both have a tendency to separate things and make them discrete. Fire, being Hot, does this in an active, dynamic way, by refining, distilling and transforming. Earth, being Cold, does this in a passive, receptive way, by solidifying, condensing and coagulating.
Extreme and Moderate Elements
Fire and Water are the extreme elements, being purely Yang or Yin in their basic qualities, respectively. Fire is Hot and Dry, whereas Water is Cold and Wet. Because of their extreme qualities, both elements can destroy or overwhelm easily. Fire and Water both embody the Cardinal quality of being able to drive or initiate manifestation and change. In the human body, Fire and Water drive all the metabolic processes.
Air and Earth are the moderate or mixed elements. Air, being Hot and Wet, is fluidic, subtle and Mutable in nature. Earth, being Cold and Dry, is heavy, solid and Fixed in nature.
The Four Elements in the Human Body
Each of the constituent parts of the human body is composed of the Four Elements, in varying proportions. Here is where each of the Four Elements is primarily found in the human body:
Fire: The digestive enzymes and secretions, and all enzymes. Yellow Bile. The Innate Heat of metabolism and the Digestive Fire. The heart, liver and stomach. All active, muscular heat generating tissues; the muscles. The Fire of spirit and intelligence, and the sparkle in the eyes.
Air: The lungs, chest and thorax. All the cavities and open spaces, which allow for movement and function. The blood and the Vital Force it carries. The arteries, which pulsate with Air, or pneuma. All hollow or porous tissues and structures, which are lightened, rarefied and refined by Air: the bones, connective tissue, and membranous structures. Points of exchange and contact: the lungs, kidneys and digestive mucosa.
Water: All the vital fluids of the body, especially the clear fluids: phlegm, mucus, plasma, lymph and serous and interstitial fluids. The kidneys, bladder and urinary tract, which pass superfluous Water from the body. The mucosa of the digestive, respiratory and genitourinary tracts. The lymphatic system. The brain and spinal cord.
Earth: All the dense, solid, deeper, more permanent parts of the body. Bones, joints and structural connective tissue. Nerves, bone marrow and nervous tissue. Teeth and gums. The hair and nails.
Qualities, Actions and Correspondences of the Elements
Each element has certain inherent qualities, which give rise to its properties and actions. Each element also corresponds to a certain humor, temperament and season of the year. The basic correspondences are as follows:
Fire: Hot and Dry. The most active, energetic and volatile element, and the greatest emitter of energy. Light, rising and penetrating. Distilling, refining, extracting, digesting, metabolizing, transforming. Yellow Bile. The Choleric temperament. Summer.
Air: Hot and Wet. The subtlest, most refined element. Flowing and fluidic, filling every vacuum. Exchange, movement and contact. Ascending, lightening, rarefying. Blood. The Sanguine temperament. Spring.
Earth: Cold and Dry. The heaviest, densest, most solid element. Draws, retains, solidifies, coagulates, precipitates, sustains, supports, endures. Black Bile. The Melancholic temperament. Fall or Autumn.
Water: Cold and Wet. The most passive, receptive element, and the greatest receiver and absorber of energy. Flowing and fluidic. Cools, moistens, lubricates, dissolves, cleanses, purifies, sinks downwards. Fertilizes and germinates as the Source of all Life. Phlegm. The Phlegmatic temperament. Winter.
Ether, the Fifth Element
Some Greek medical philosophers include a fifth element, which is Space, or Ether. It is the lightest, subtlest and most refined of all the elements. Plato called it Prima Materia, or the primal source, womb or matrix from which all matter arises and manifests. Ether could be called matter on the verge of manifestation, or the space that allows matter to exist.
Like Earth, Ether is also Cold and Dry in its basic qualities. But contrary to Earth, Ether is extremely light, subtle and mobile. Some say that Ether corresponds to the Nervous humor and temperament, which is the subtle counterpart of the Melancholic temperament and black bile. But for most practical clinical purposes, Ether and its Nervous humor and temperament are subsumed and included under Earth and its Melancholic humor and temperament.