The Doctrine of The Four Elements and its Significance in Herbalism
“He who does not know them, / the elements, / their power / and properties, / would not be master / over the spirits”. Johann Wolfgang v. Goethe
For two thousand years, the ancient Doctrine of The Four Elements was the dominating system of thought of the Occident. But unlike Chinese or Ayurvedic medicine, which are based on similar perceptions, the Occidental art of healing pays scant attention to the Doctrine of the Elements although they are the fundament of important healing methods like herbal medicine, spagyrics, medical astrology or humoral medicine. Old herbals and the texts of Hildegard and Paracelsus or the therapeutical conceptions of Anthroposophic medicine only become really transparent through the Doctrine of the Elements.
Picture 1: Jesus amidst the four elements. His posture indicates the magical gesture “As above, so below”. He is standing on the earth in which the elements are manifesting themselves physically. Miniature from Bartholomaeus Anglicus: De proprietatibus rerum, 15Jh.
This ancient conception of the world is mainly familiar with a qualitative approach to nature which has almost completely become lost in the matter-orientated medicine of our days. The anthroposophist, E.M. Kranich, formulated the difference to the now prevailing materialistic view of the world with the words, “The elements are a process of vital interaction of qualities, which can only be understood spiritually. If one is occupied with the elements, one will be placed in vital events; with regard to matter one faces an object quote. Thus, the emphasis placed on matter in thinking alienates man from nature and thus from himself. Thus, it is certainly a mistake to smile at or even to deny one’s own tradition because as a holistic view of the world, the Occidental Doctrine of the Elements is indeed of help and is also suited to recognise the true nature of disease processes and healing remedies.”
From Philosophy to Humoral Medicine
“Thus listen to the four root forces first of all things: Zeus, the shining one and Hera, the life-giver, as well Aidoneus and Nestis, who lets earthly springs flow through her tears”, Empedocles of Agrigento.
Ideas on the working of the primal forces go back to the ancient philosopher, Empedocles of Agrigento (5th century before Christ). He called them fire, water, air, and earth; only Plato spoke of elements.
Aristotle added a fifth element to this system, called quintessence or ether. It is the unification of the four primal forces as well as their origin and perfection. As a spiritual principle, however, we find them in all appearances. It is the unification of the opposites: fire and water, Sun and Moon, male and female, knowledge and love. Releasing the quintessence from nature and using it as a remedy is the secret art of alchemy.
Aristotle also introduced the qualitative distinction of the elements (warmth, cold, dryness, humidity). “Each element has two specific properties of which it owns the first one exclusively for itself; through the second, however, it is connected with the following element as through a medium. The fire is warm and dry, the earth is dry and cold, the water is cold and wet, the air is moist and warm” (Agrippa v. Nettesheim).
The respectively first named property forms the primary quality of an element; consequently, fire would be rather hot than dry, earth more dry than cold, water more cold than wet, and air more moist than warm.
Polybos, son-in-law of Hippocrates, developed the Doctrine of the Four Humours (humoresque = fluids) from the Doctrine of the Four Elements, and a therapy system, which builds up on it, the Humoral Medicine. According to this system, health corresponds with a harmonious distribution of the four humours (eucrasia), resp., of the elements: blood (air), mucous (water), black bile (earth), and yellow bile (fire). Illness, on the other hand, is a wrong mixing of fluids (dyscrasia), resp., the dominance of a fluid or of an element. According to ancient concepts, therapy takes place by emptying the surplus fluid (“materia pecans” = guilty matter).
Picture 2: The Four Temperaments. Museum of the History of Medicine, Zurich.
The Greek physician, Galenos (129 to 199 A.D.) also applied the Doctrine of the Four Humours to emotional processes. The wrong mixing of humours leads to the creation of the four temperaments: melancholia (earth; melanos = black, chole = bile), sanguine type (air; sanguis = blood), phlegmatic person (water; phlegma = steam), choleric type (fire; chole = bile). After the decline of Rome, Arabic physicians like Avicenna developed the Doctrine of the Elements further. Through the crusades, the knowledge went back again to Europe and considerably influenced the medicine of the Middle Ages. In the Late Middle Ages and in Renaissance, the Doctrine of the Elements experienced its last heyday. Finally, its decline started in modern times that has continued up to the present day.
The Elements and their Properties
“This is the root and basis of all bodies, natures, powers and wonderful works; he who knows these properties of the elements and their mixes will accomplish wonderful and astonishing things without difficulty and will be a master of natural magic”, – Agrippa v. Nettesheim.
The character of the elements is already shown in their symbols: A triangle pointing upwards has fire and air, this shows their masculine power. On the other hand, water and earth have a triangle pointing downwards; it points out their passive female power. Thus, the elements are in polar alignment, similar to the Yang Yin system in Chinese medicine. Fire (Yang) and water (Yin) form the basic polarity of the elements. In alchemy, their weight is symbolically the same. The air element connects these two basic forces with each other. The result of the interaction of these three forces is the manifestation in the earth element.
Hermes Trismegistos gave a pictorial description of the creative interaction of the elements,”His father is the sun (fire), his mother is the moon (water), the wind (air) has carried it inside its belly, his nurse is the earth”.
Assignments to the Elements
Besides body fluids and temperaments, amongst others, also organs, disease processes and healing agents (in particular plants) are assigned to the elements.
Here, one differentiates e.g., between a dry fever (fire) and a fever with sweat (air). Acute diseases are fiery/airy, chronic diseases on the other hand are earthy/watery. Of the organs for example heart and bile are fiery, liver and lymph are watery, kidney and hormone system are airy, and lungs and locomotor system are earthy.
Herbs with a healing effect strengthen self-perception and self-awareness (fire), healing plants of the liver regenerate the organism (water), kidney remedies affect our sphere of feeling (air), and remedies of the lungs strengthen the physical constitution (earth). Agrippa von Nettesheim assigned the plant parts as follows, “For the plants, the roots belong to the earth because of their density, the leaves to the water because of their juice, the blossoms to the air because of their fineness, the seeds to the fire because of their creating spirit.
First of all, fire was created by the world spirit from darkness and floods everything with light and warmth. It is the ruling system after the primordial chaos of creation. Fire is the active creative principle -, the intuition, potency, power, and the will to exist. For man, it is the knowledge of himself (mental body), his fire of love, his enthusiasm, lust and awareness.
Picture 4: The deities of the fire element manifest themselves with thunder and lightning. William Blake, 1794.
Character: warm – dry; radiant; burning, active.
Alchemy: sulphur; all processes where heat is used.
Kind of awareness: intuition
Organs: heart, arteries, bile, muscles, defence reactions.
Fluids: yellow bile.
Taste: sharp, burning, bitter, warm, astringent
Smell: biting, herbaceous, aromatic, warm, balsamic, intensive.
Plant signature: maturing, transformation of the flowering power into seed. Hardening principle; formation of hard wood (cinnamon bark, oak, barberry). Transformation of the leaf principle into needles or thorns (barberry, sloe, thistles, conifers). Formation of bitter substances, pungent substances (partly also air), fatty and essential oils (olive, sunflower, rosemary, vermouth). Colour forming: yellow, orange, rot, purple.
Effect: heating and drying, stimulating, toning, defence enhancing, germ-killing, frequently emmenagogues and circulation stimulating; in cases of chronic conditions.
Constitution: syphilitic; oxygenoid, hypertonic-plethoric, athletic.
Excess of Fire = Lack of Water: dominance of yellow bile = choleric and extrovert temperament, frequently with tendency towards violence, also against oneself; impatience, violent temper, ruthlessness. Acute and hot diseases with simultaneous dryness. Cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure, stroke, sclerosis (also earth), and inflammatory coronary conditions. General inflammations with heat and reddening and only scant formation of secretion, e.g., dry bronchitis, inflammation of the gall bladder (stone formation, also earth), inflammation of the liver, gastritis (ulcer shows transition to earth). Septic fevers; leukocytosis.
A Chinese scholar of the 11th century wrote about the nature of the water element, “Of all elements, the sage should choose water as his teacher. (…) Water conquers by yielding; it never attacks but always wins the last battle”.
The germinal force of all things lies in water. It has the power of nutrition and of growth. It is female, passive, and it permeates everything.
It is life, feelings, love for nature, tenderness, compassion. Water is the principle of form and growth of life, it is the body of formative forces (= picture of power) or the etheric body of the anthroposophists, by means of which regeneration and energy buildup takes place.
Picture 5: Moon goddesses represent the regenerative and female power of the water element. Georges Rouault, 1895.
Character: moist – cold, mobile, forming, passive.
Alchemy: passive Mercury, putrefaction, condensation.
Kind of Awareness: imagination, mediality, fantasy.
Organs: liver, gonads, skin, mucous membranes, lymph, body fluids.
Taste: stale, insipid, slimy, putrid.
Smell: permeating, like carrion, putrid, stale, and sweaty, like pheromones.
Plant signature: germination; flow of plant fluids. Soft and juicy herbs, with succulent and aqueous leaves (agave, aloe, houseleeks, – survival principle in the fire element. Growth at wet locations (willow, birch); water and bog plants (water lily, sundew). Nocturnal plants (queen of the night; primrose willow). Formation of mucilage, moisture reserve. Colour forming frequently white, pink, pale yellow.
Effect: cooling and moisturizing, anti-inflammatory, regenerating, sedating, frequently antiallergic; in cases of acute suffering.
Constitution: lymphatic, hydrogenoid; allergic diathesis (anergy).
Excess of water = lack of fire: Dominance of phlegm = phlegmatic, introvert temperament; weak willpower, indecisiveness, lacking in independence, apprehensive. Permanent fatigue, tendency of perspire (cold), poor circulation (permanent shivering), hypotonia, weakness of the connective tissues. Lymphatism with a tendency to water retention. All symptoms get worse under cold and damp weather conditions. Tendency to mucilage (chronic sinusitis, bronchitis). Recurrent diseases, tendency for infections (often also earth). Mycoses. Tendency to tumor formation and cancer. Status after shock. Obesity.
…….to be continued
by courtesy of the Journal ‘Naturheilpraxis’
1From the work, “Über die Natur”; Zeus is the etheric fire, Here the earth, Aidoneus the invisible air and Nestis the water.
2The hexagram, the unification of fire and water, is the symbol of quintessence.
3Egyptian adept, who is put on a level with Thot, the god of wisdom and creator of alchemy in the Hermetic tradition.
Selection of Literature
Arroyo Stephen: Astrologie, Psychologie und die vier Elemente; Hamburg 1989
Böhme, Gernot / Böhme, Hartmut: Feuer, Wasser, Erde, Luft; München 1996
Daems, Willem F.: Mensch und Pflanze; Schwäbisch Gmünd, 1988, Junius, Manfred M.: Praktisches Handbuch der Pflanzen-Alchimie; Interlaken 1982
Kranich, Ernst M.: Die Formensprache der Pflanze; Stuttgart 1976
Madejsky, Margret / Rippe, Olaf: Heilmittel der Sonne; München 1997
Müller, Ingo W.: Humoralmedizin; Heidelberg 1993
Nettesheim, Agrippa von: Die magischen Werke; Wiesbaden 1983
Paracelsus: Sämtliche Werke, Aschner Ausgabe; Anger 1993