Introduction to the Rotation of the Elements
Everything in the universe comes into being through the interaction of two forces, called the polarities. The four elements arise from the interplay of these forces. According to the philosophies of alchemy and the four elements, by the changing proportions of these polarities, one element transforms into another. Alchemists call this the rotation of the elements. Each transformation of one element into another pivots around three points, which the alchemists called the three principles or essences. In alchemy, the one divides into two, the two proportion themselves into the four, which hinge on the three. From this rotation, all things arise, and the mundane perfects into the spiritual.
A video on this same topic is at the end of the article.
Polarity: Love and Strife
Polarity is masculine/feminine, day/night, above/below, outer/inner, directive/receptive, waxing/waning, and all contrasting pairs. But perhaps more specifically, they are contrasting pairs that need each other. That work together in their opposition. Greek philosopher Empedocles (c. 490—430 B.C.E.) envisioned two opposing forces as the coming into being and going out of being of the cosmos. He called these forces Love and Strife. Love brought things together. Strife broke them apart. The interplay between these two forces created everything. If they didn’t interact, for instance, if Love dominated and everything became one unity, then there was no more coming into being. Likewise, if Strife won and everything was separate from everything else, then creation also stopped.
The Roots: The Four Elements
The primary materials that Love and Strife worked with were the four roots of being, what we now call the classical elements: Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. To understand how the four elements work, it’s useful to look at how they fit into the map of the universe.
In the Ptolemaic cosmos, alternatively called the geocentric model, the earth and the elements form the center of the universe. One way to visualize the cosmos is as a series of concentric rotating spheres, each of which turns separately from the others. At the center is the earth. The spheres of the elements surround it. Water surrounds Earth, then Air, then the outward most element is Fire. The next sphere holds the Moon. Beyond that we follow the traditional planets in order of speed. Mercury is the next circle, then Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and finally Saturn. Beyond Saturn circles the constellations of the zodiac. Beyond that is the primum mobile, or prime mover, which causes the other spheres to turn. Outside of the primum mobile is the Empyrean heaven, which is the throne of the Divine.
Each of the heavenly bodies moved predictably in its orbit. But the sublunary elements were less steady. Fire and Air both strove toward heaven, trying to break free of their assigned plane and expand upward. They both express the active polarity. On the other hand, Earth and Water sank downward, contracting inward toward the center. These two elements reflect the receptive polarity.
The Qualities of the Four Elements
Aristotle advanced the theory of these building blocks and assigned qualities to them. Because heat rises, Aristotle understood Fire to be the lightest element. He assigned it the qualities of Hot and Dry, with Hot being its dominant quality. Air is primarily Wet and secondarily Dry. Due to the heaviness of moisture, it hangs lower than Fire. Water is predominantly Cold but also Wet. Rather than spreading beyond its boundaries like Air, it instead contracts, filling the shape of whatever it’s in. In fact, Water pools or follows an existing channel. Finally, Earth was Dry first and then Cold. It is the most dense and stable of the elements.
Rotation of the Elements
Although Empedocles saw the roots as combining and breaking apart to form the animals, vegetables, and minerals around us, he considered Love and Strife to motivate these interactions. In contrast, Aristotle conceived of the elemental qualities themselves as driving their transformation from one thing into another. In fact, Hot and Cold were the primary transformers. When heated, a solid can become liquid. If heated more, it becomes gas. Likewise, when a gas is cooled, it returns to liquid, and liquid cooled regains the solid state. So hot and cold, or really heat alone via the increase of and decrease thereof, caused transformation. The element fire, predominantly hot, was the transformer.
But ultimately, each element transformed into the other. Cold and wet water heated up into hot and wet air. Air dried out into fire. Hot and dry fire cooled to earth. Cold and dry earth was the hardest to change, the least likely to transform. Like the Wheel of Fortune, the elements could be seen as moving through this circle of becoming. Air was above and earth below. Fire or heat elevated things. Water or cold brought them down. These pairs themselves are opposites. Contrary things by nature are separate, under the jurisdiction of Strife, and therefore must be brought together, healed, through Love. Alchemists said that “Water must become fiery; fire liquid; earth must become weightless; air solid.”
This fifth point which centered the four directions was called the quintessence. As they spun around the circumference of the wheel of change, it became obvious that the pairs of opposites desired to collapse into this healing, balanced hub.
The Elements are Tricksy
The elements are consistent in their qualities and predictable in their functions. They don’t change by themselves. The rotation they undergo is due to external variables, for instance, the universal metamorphosis of Love and Strife, the outside increase or reduction of heat, or the art of the alchemist, etc. But despite the philosophical purity of the elements, due to the wavering of human understanding, we see another mutation of these materials.
Fire Becomes Air
Fire, for instance, correlates to the burn of desire. Its symbol is flame. It is the alchemist’s Sulfur, the yellow of the Sun. Fire is the Soul as it yearns for the Divine. It is the essence of the plant, the volatile oil. Of course, volatile means “to fly,” and we see the how Fire can become Air.
Air Becomes Water
Following suit, birds, clouds, the sky, or the stars in the heavens are symbols of air. Air is “thought” in its supreme form of intellect and reason. Air is Mercury, the god of language and writing, but also the solvent of the alchemists. It is spirit as in “life force,” but also spirit as in “liquor.” It is the menstruum, the solvent, which extracts the pure essences of the plant material. Although we understand that air is wet first and hot second, it has nevertheless transformed into Water.
Water Becomes Earth
Water is the prima materia, the saline solution from which all life comes. As an expression of the alchemist’s Salt, it is both the basic form of existence, and that form’s inability to maintain its shape against the vicissitudes of change around or within us. We relax into the container life gives us instead of standing up, holding our own, claiming the form that is ours. But even as water relates to Salt, Salt in turn is the body, the bones. Salt is the Earth when moisture dissipates.
Earth Becomes Fire
As solid and dependable as earth is, is not exempt from this process. Earth is rocks and dirt. It is the world around us, the full collection of flora, fauna, and mineral. Earth is the raw material of the alchemist’s experiment. It is even the dregs and waste products that are discarded. But earth, solid, unchanging, eternal, is first and last. The material is purified down to the bone, but its basic quality, its core identity, is always maintained. In the alchemical process, both soul and spirit are separated from the body. Each is purified multiple times in various ways. They are recombined, then purified again. Ultimately, we arrive at the ideal expression of unity, the incorruptible form. This is the philosopher’s essence, the stone. It is the Divine embodied; form spiritualized. And Earth is nothing but Fire.
The Three Alchemical Principles are the Pivot Point
- Fire = Desire = Soul = Sulphur = Volatile Oil = Air
- Air = Intellect = Spirit = Mercury = Menstruum = Water
- Water = Materia = Body = Salt = Bones = Earth
- Earth = Death = Dirt = Stone = Resurrection = Fire
In alchemy, the three principles or essences — Sulfur, Mercury, and Salt — are key to the process of change; their overlap is the pivot point from one element into the next.
Meanwhile, the stone is both the first material, the initial substance that undergoes transition, and also, in a higher octave, the final perfected form.
The Shield and Egg of the Hermaphrodite
One symbol of this union of opposites is the Divine Hermaphrodite, the Hermetic Androgyne. The metaphor is illustrated in this plate from the 16th century manuscript, Splendor Solis.
In the foreground and slightly to the left of center stands a winged figure in a lush landscape. Although across a distant river we see a town, the figure stands apart in the woods. Among the trees are many stumps, indicating the presence of those who transform the world through the imposition of will. The figure is elegantly dressed in black pants and doublet, artfully decorated in rich red and gold button closures and girdle. From the wide collar extend this being’s two necks, one with a female head, one with a male. The woman has a silver halo, the man’s is gold. The female side of the body has a white wing, whereas the man’s is red. In her hand, the woman holds an egg. The man holds a mirrored shield.
As we look carefully at the shield, we see that at its outside edge is a narrow, irregular, orange-red band. Within that is a wide band of marbled white. Closer yet to center, surrounding the circular mirror, is a narrow band of dark grayish blue and at last, just bordering the mirror, a very narrow dark green band. The mirror – it could be a painted miniature – reflects the surrounding landscape, grassy plains rising into mountains and sky.
Emblematic Representations of the Four Elements In Alchemy
But wait – we’ve seen this before. This is the center component of the Ptolemaic cosmos. Precisely as discussed above, we see the earth at center and the four elements radiating out. The dark green band is for the element Earth, the blue-gray is Water, the mottled white is cloudy Air, and the rayed orange-red is clearly solar Fire. The shield represents the cosmic layers of the four elements.
In the androgyne’s other hand is an egg. In the alchemical allegory of the egg, the hard, protective shell represents Earth. The white albumen of the egg is Water. The skin that holds the shape of the yolk is Air. And the central yellow yolk is fire.
The Rotation of the Elements Within Us
In the shield held by the masculine portion of the hermaphrodite, Fire is at the rim and Earth is in the center. Meanwhile, for the feminine half’s egg, Earth is external and Fire is internal.
That which is feminine without is masculine within. That which is masculine externally is feminine internally. In modern psychology, C. G. Jung called this the anima and animus. In the spiritual philosophy of Taoism, each polarity in the yin/yang symbol holds the seed of its opposite.
Alchemy and the Four Elements Conclusion
From the simple dichotomy of polarity, the wheel of becoming arises. In alchemy, we employ a variety of techniques that break apart and bring back together. Through these progressive stages of separation, purification, and recombination, we transform worldly lead into the philosopher’s gold. By performing these operations both externally and internally, we strive to perfect our own being.
Tarot and Alchemy: Polarities, Elements, and Essences Video
This 1 hour 40 minute video goes into detail on the basic premises of alchemy, including the polarities, essentials, and elements. The section on the four elements, based on the article above, starts at 48:52.
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- Burckhardt, Titus. Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul. United States, Penguin Books, 1971.
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- Godwin, Joscelyn, et al. Splendor Solis: The World’s Most Famous Alchemical Manuscript. United Kingdom, Watkins Media, 2019.
- Hauck, Dennis William. Sorcerer’s Stone: A Beginner’s Guide to Alchemy. United States, Createspace Independent Pub, 2013.
- Kingsley, K. Scarlett and Richard Parry, “Empedocles”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/empedocles/.