Cultural roots of elements are difficult to pin down.

When an ancient source speaks, say, of 4 deities or of sea, underworld and heaven, does it then maybe also mean elements, in the latter case maybe water-earth-air? Since elements have so few attributes, almost any small group of items can be mapped to them, usually in several ways.

Nonetheless, it is my impression that a notion of '1+3', as opposed to 4 equitable elements as defined by Aristotle, may have also been quite prominent throughout the ages or even predated more symmetric approaches. Very roughly speaking, '1' might have been what makes things move, "energy", the element fire, and '3' would have been air-water-earth, the states of matter gas-liquid-solid. Colors may have been the green of leaves and white-red-black in the order of a ripening mulberry.


See leads below and articles under artemis for some ways in which this might have been structured, or not.

In a nutshell, the following scenario maybe comes close. Fire would have made a great impression on humanity, as it allowed to keep warm and have light at night, to grill, cook and bake food. It has even been speculated that easier to digest grilled meat allowed humans to grow larger brains. At first presumably people did not know how to make fire themselves, so trees that were known or believed to attract lightning might have been sacred. As lightning comes from the sky, the "fires" in the sky, i.e. sun, moon, planets and stars, would have been identified with deities in the sky that give fire. The main deity might have been the sun or maybe rather the moon who can shine both at night and at day and even cover the sun during a total solar eclipse. Attributes of such a deity may have been the berries ripening on such sacred trees in the colors of fire, the white of ashes, the red-orange-yellow of flames, the black of coal.

Sometimes it is close to impossible to tell what had been conscious in the distant past, since many things may at first only have been latently, unconsciously present, in the form of myths or poems that people hung on to so much to pass them on to the next generation. More conscious analysis of such a rather synthetic or even traumatic heritage may often have been a later achievement.

Ancient deities usually had parents. Thus, even though they were considered immortal, they were born, were 'only' eternal forward in time, while goddesses related to birth, like Artemis or Hecate or Heqet, may be different, more fundamental in that respect, representing something that has always been implicitly present, but always operated more in the background - more bohemian like the moon at night in the shadows than a bourgeois sun in plain daylight?

Could this maybe explain the "myth of a matriarchal prehistory" by suspecting that people would have hung on to it because in a way matriarchy would have subliminally been present ever since prehistory and would still be? Thus something that has maybe not yet become fully conscious? I suspect subliminally, "in moonlight", yes, but more likely also in the distant past rarely matriarchy in plain daylight?


A maybe wilder mix in this section, to spur imagination...
  • Can '1+3' be explained in the present model?

    Contrary to Aristotle's model, which is in the immediate sense based on measurable properties in the outer world (dry/wet and hot/cold), the present model involves also things inside the mind. So, assuming elements in '1+3' would be limited to the outer world, emo and ero could maybe be mapped via fire/earth to "energy/matter" and states solid-liquid-gas of that matter could be considered its "triple aspects".

    It is not clear whether the existence of three main states of matter outside could be derived from the model or whether it would maybe have to be added via experimental facts, like the observation that freedom inside seems larger than outside, which lead to passive/active, soft/hard, etc.

    Maybe mutual mirroring of elements between in and out could be imagined, yielding 8 "elements", like the trigrams of the I Ching, with maybe also both in and out a notion of '1+3'?
  • Time and space come in '1+3' dimensions, which, if each is homogeneous, implies preservation of energy and of all three components of the momentum vector. Preservation of angular momentum follows from the rotational invariance (isotropy) of space. Time, in turn, is not invariant to reversal.

    In The Animate and the Inanimate (1925), William James Sidis observes that inanimate processes can appear alive if time is reversed, because then entropy often visibly decreases. He uses the example of drops of mercury that flow together on a metal surface and then amalgamate with the surface. Reversed in time, drops of mercury would appear to grow out of the metal surface and divide like living cells.
  • If you toss four coins, there is a 50% chance to get '3+1', a 37.5% chance to get '2+2' and only 12.5% to get '4+0'. Even if coins are skew, '3+1' is always more probable than '2+2', and '4+0' only becomes the most probable result once they are about 1:4 skew. Thus, whenever there are 4 things in nature, chances are a priori high that they come as '3+1'.


    The 4 forces of nature known to date (at everyday energies), electromagnetic, strong, weak and gravitational forces, come as '3+1', since gravitation is the only one closely intertwined with spacetime and without quantum theory.

    But you could argue that at higher energies at least electromagnetic and weak forces become one, or conversely, that electric and magnetic forces are not really the same, even though intertwined, if only because magnetism seems to have no monopoles. You might even speculate that a hypothetical fourth family of quarks and leptons would then maybe likely have somewhat different properties.
  • Myths allow in some way to look very far into the past, but it is then also often not clear at what point in time people started to consciously realize the content of myths. Possibly a lot only became conscious in early CE, and the process appears to be far from completed, even after Freud and Jung. Then again, early records of myths often reveal a quite obviously more primitive, more immediate view of the world. Ancient Greeks apparently really made a difference there.

    Myths as mirrors of life and nature might thus still contain some mysteries that will only be explained in the future.
  • Empedocles would have the first to speak of four elements according to Aristotle in Metaphysics (Book I 3) and in On Generation and Corruption (Book I 1). In the former:

    "Anaximenes and Diogenes make air prior to water, and the most primary of the simple bodies, while Hippasus of Metapontium and Heraclitus of Ephesus say this of fire, and Empedocles says it of the four elements (adding a fourth - earth - to those which have been named); for these, he says, always remain and do not come to be, except that they come to be more or fewer, being aggregated into one and segregated out of one." (translated by W.~Ross)

    Since at least then, Empedocles is usually credited for having first mentioned the four elements, in the following fragment (DK31B6) of a poem usually called On Nature:


    It speaks of "fourtold roots" at the origin of all, and then lists four deities with some attributes, in this order: Zeus (flashing/shining), Hera (live-giving/-bearing), Aidoneus (no attributes), Nestis (moisture, tears/dew).

    If you take Empedocles literally, Zeus would maybe most immediately be the root of fire, because of his attributes and because he creates lightning, Hera the root of earth, because she bears (creates) a child, Nestis the root of water, because of dew and tears (rain?). This would leave Aidoneus as the root of air. Aidoneus is a variant of Aides (Hades}) since at least Homer, and maybe most likely means "unseen" or "invisible". Air and knowledge are typically invisible, and death arguably kills everything except an immortal, invisible soul, which then dwells in the underworld, in Hades.

    The above quote is from a work by Aetius (1st or 2nd century CE), which has only indirectly survived in several later works attributed to different authors. In most of them he would have attributed elements in Empedocles' fragment the same way as me above, but in some he would have flipped earth and air. See my related article under artemis for more information in the direction of these interpretations, which also provides a similar attribution of the deities in the Hippocratic Oath, reflecting my take on these things then.

    Today, I would rather lean towards interpreting things differently, namely Zeus as white, pregnant Hera as red and Hades as black, as the three colors of the great goddess, called Nestis here, in the ancient order of a ripening mulberry.
  • Near the end of Apuleius' The Golden Ass (around 150 CE), Apuleius encounters the goddess Isis at full moon at the sea shortly after moonrise:

    "Her many-coloured robe was of finest linen; part was glistening white, part crocus-yellow, part glowing red and along the entire hem a woven bordure of flowers and fruit clung swaying in the breeze. But what caught and held my eye more than anything else was the deep black lustre of her mantle. [..] It was embroidered with glittering stars on the hem and everywhere else, and in the middle beamed a full and fiery moon." (Chapter 17, translated by Robert Graves)

    Astrologer Antiochus of Athens and physician Galenus of Pergamon attributed colors resp. body fluids (humors) to elements around the time Apuleius lived, based on older roots going back at least partially to Hippocrates: white to water (phlegm, phlegmatic), black to earth (black bile, melancholic), yellow to fire (yellow bile, choleric) and red to air (blood, sanguine), the colors of Isis' dress above, plus stars and moon for the round fifth element in the sky.
  • In alchemy, also since about at least the same time, the transition of materials toward what is now called the philosopher's stone was believed to be from black via white and yellow to red, i.e. earth-water-fire-air, which is roughly in order of lightness of the elements and their relatively layered appearance on earth. It is apparently also the order of elements in the four tasks that Venus gives Psyche in an inner story in The Golden Ass, see artemis. All of this has ancient Egyptian roots, with Osiris, Isis, Horus, Seth, Nephthys, etc., as well as with ancient crafts of creating fake noble metals and gems.
  • One of the oldest ancient Indian Upanishads, the Chandogya Upanishad (around 700 BCE), speaks of three elements, fire (red), water (white) and earth (black):

    "The red colour of [gross] fire is the colour of [the original] fire; the white colour of [gross] fire is the colour of [the original] water; the black colour of [gross] fire is the colour of [the original] earth. Thus vanishes from fire what is commonly called fire, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the three colours (forms) alone are true." (Part 6, Chapter 4, translated by Swami Nikhilananda)

    Why do these three colors red-white-black appear in so many cultures as primary colors? Robert Graves links them to the moon and I guess he is right, but why stereotypically the colors of the moon at night instead of green, brown, blue, etc. of nature at daylight when there is so much more color?

    Maybe because the colors that remain when light gets dimmer would be more fundamental? Moon, stars and sky at night? And also the colors of a fire, humanity's own light source at night, independent of a full moon: Colors that reflect light for the passive elements earth (black coal) and water (white ashes), colors that create light for the active elements air (red embers) and fire (yellow flames)?

    Did ancient cultures maybe often not distinguish red and yellow as separate colors? Only three elements first?
  • Robert Graves in The White Goddess (1948):

    "I write of her as the White Goddess because white is her principal colour, the colour of the first member of her moon- trinity, but when Suidas the Byzantine [ca. 10th century CE] records that Io was a cow that changed her colour from white to rose and then to black he means that the New Moon is the white goddess of birth and growth; the Full Moon, the red goddess of love and battle; the Old Moon, the black goddess of death and divination. Suidas's myth is supported by Hyginus's fable [ca. 0 CE] of a heifer-calf born to Minos and Pasiphae which changed its colours thrice daily in the same way. In response to a challenge from an oracle one Polyidus son of Coeranus correctly compared it to a mulberry—a fruit sacred to the Triple Goddess." (Chapter 4)

    To me, the colors of the goddess would not directly reflect the change of visible colors of the moon during its phases, as one might think at first, but rather represent the hidden powers that make it change, which would confirm Graves above:

    The white goddess would be the power that makes the new moon brighter (more "white") again, towards full moon, from little baby girl to maiden, growth. The red goddess would be the fertile adult woman, who menstruates (red blood); she would make the moon pregnant, the round "belly" of the full moon. The black goddess would make the moon darker (more "black") again, towards new moon, withering towards crone. The "red phase" would be somewhat abstract as the blood would only come to light at menstruation if the bearer did not get pregnant. I guess the idea would have been that the child's blood and body would have grown from that.

    So the seed for a new child would be expected to grow each month from sometime after new moon until ovulation around full moon and, if the bearer did not get pregnant, would result in menstrual bleeding around new moon. Note, however, that most contemporary women do not have their individual cycles correlated with moon phases. The average cycle is 28 days (but varies quite a bit individually), which is closer to the time it takes the moon to return to the same spot relative to the fixed stars (27.3 days) than to new moon (29.5 days).
  • See the related articles under artemis for a closer look at these colors, with many interesting points of view that often go beyond what Robert Graves wrote and are at the same time more reluctant with drawing conclusions.

    And please do not miss the article "White-red-black and the "green" goddess" there. Even though it apparently goes in circles, it reflects the matter in many ways more precisely and comprehensively than the notes just below and above.

    It appears that there would have been at least in some cultures some sort of universal deity (female or male) responsible for all motion in the sky and likely also for everything down on earth. Since the moon can apparently temporarily "swallow" all stars and planets, and even the sun during a total solar eclipse, that deity might have been strongly associated with the moon. The sun would possibly not have been seen as causing day, but merely appearing in it, strictly in a sequence day-sun-night, while the moon would have been able to appear anytime during day and night and also morph from dark like night to bright like day, and back, thus appearing to be in control of everything in the sky. That sky deity may have been a cow or a bull in some cults, which would also have explained the milky way.

    Such triads might have also stood for water-air-earth, e.g. Poseidon ruling in the sea, Zeus in heaven and Hades down in earth, plus the universal goddess as fire, both down on earth and up in the sky as stars and planets, driving it all.

    Empedocles may have referred to that deity as Nestis in his poem, listing first Zeus, Hera and Hades as white-red-black as her triple aspects and then the goddess herself.

    Aristotle would have split up fire between down on earth and in the sky as the fifth element. Arranged in a circle, starting with fire, first and fifth element would be the same.

    The black mulberry tree with its light green (chlōrós) catkins and white-red-black berries, as well as other trees in various cultures (laurel, holly, etc.), may have been quite a central symbol for such a deity, too, often celebrated at the beginning of spring, which again symbolizes death and rebirth.

    The Slavic fairy tale of Baba Yaga, as well as the four horsemen in the bible fit the image also very well.
  • In ancient Egypt, Osiris stood for black, the fertile earth of the Nile valley; his brother Seth for red, the desert East and West of the valley. The mythological killing and dismembering of Osiris by Seth presumably reflects that in prehistoric times sometime after the annual flood the soil would dry up and become fractured into a mosaic of slabs, or even into sand and dust. Fortunately, every year the Nile, white Isis (also like milk), would restore Osiris to life with water and the fresh fertile black sediments carried along.

    This is certainly a simplification of Egyptian mythologies that evolved over millennia, but maybe still captures a core?
  • See this absolutely stunning article by the Ethiopian "Shakespeare", Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin: The Origin of the Trinity in Art & Religion: Ethiopian Roots in the Egypto-Greek & Hebrew, on page 99-120 of African Origins of the Major World Religions, ed. Amon Saba Saakana, Karnak House, 1988.

    KaBaRa to Kabbalah and Kaaba, Egypt as Kamit (black land), sacred tree, Osiris to Moses and others, and so much more. I guess Fela's song Shakara might fit in, too.
  • Some origins might lie in prehistorical times when humans had so little, just a few simple tools and at some point learned first how to "steal" fire and to kindle it very, very carefully, until at some point they learned how to make fire themselves. The colors white-red-black would be the colors of a fire: flame and also coal and ashes, especially as white/black also used to mean bright/dark and red often included at least also orange and yellow. The fourth color might relate to the green leaves of sacred trees, to trees that might have seemed to attract lightning more than others and likely even more so if they carried berries like the mulberry that ripen white-red-black.
  • The entry for the cow goddess Io in the first dictionary in history, the Suda (10th century CE), lists her color changes white-black-violet. The Greek word used for violet there seems to mean both Ionian and the color of the flower violet.

    The end of the "life" of a mulberry is often to be eaten, which is likely to give violet hands, the color a dead person's skin assumes (except where it touches the ground). So might purple robes of ancient rulers even have marked ownership by the goddess? In any case, one could imagine ancient tree cults involving basic alcoholic beverages made from berries. In ancient Greece (red) wine diluted in water was believed to make less drunk if drunken from a cup made of amethyst. Similarly to Osiris, the ancient Greek wine god Dionysos was cut to pieces and put back together.
  • A closer look at the passage from the Chandogya Upanishad cited further above shows that the words for gross fire and subtle fire were not the same, and that the word used for red, rohitam, is also the word for a female red deer, as well as as Rohini the name of the red star Aldebaran, one of the eyes of the bull in the constellation Taurus. In ancient Greece deer were sacred to the moon goddess Artemis. All in all this seems to point to ancient roots going back at least as far as ancient Egypt in the first dynasties when the Pharaoh used to run with the white-red-black Apis bull at the beginning of spring when the constellation Taurus was rising.

    The first version of The White Goddess, which Robert Graves wrote after new moon in the third degree of Taurus in spring 1944, was titled The Roebuck in the Thicket. Isis as the only woman in Isis-Seth-Osiris would be white, hence The White Goddess the accurate title? Once again, see also the mentioned articles under 'artemis'... Hail Artemis!
  • Plato talks about colors in the Timaeus, Aristotle in On Sense and the Sensible. Both start with black and white as basic colors, which is scientifically correct in the sense that by selectively taking frequencies out of the full spectrum of white, you get all colors, including black and white.

    There are three kinds of color sensors in the human eye, for red, green and blue, sorted from low to high frequency. None triggered (no light) is black, plus red gives red, plus also green gives yellow, plus also blue gives white, hence a sequence black-red-yellow-white or earth-air-fire-water.
  • Is attribution of colors and animals to points of the compass in the Lakota "Medicine Wheel" relatively new, dating to some time after the arrival of Europeans in America, or did it maybe already come to America with immigrants walking across the Bering Sea maybe over 10'000 years ago?

    The four points of the compass, plus a center, would be one reason for 4+1 elements.
  • The Yangshao culture "Xishuipo M45 Tomb" in China, which dates back to the 4th millennium BCE, features the mosaic of a tiger opposite the mosaic of a dragon, as constellations in the sky, exactly the animals that are traditionally assigned to West and East in China. Ra's nightly fight with the Apep/Apophis snake reminds of the phoenix and snake (plus turtle) standing for South and North in China.
  • In Greek mythology, as early as in Hesiod's Theogony, Cronos and Rhea had 3 sons and 3 daughters. Their parents were Ouranos and Gaia, which mean heaven (or mountain) and earth. Zeus, the third son, was close to his mother Rhea who tricked Cronos and hid Zeus from him, so that Zeus grew up on mount Ida and after his revolution reigned on mount Olympos. Just like the mountain trigram (3rd son) is close to the earth trigram (mother) in the circle?

    The mother might have been considered naturally closer to her youngest children because they emerged last from her.
  • Aristotle considers four "causes" in Physics and Metaphysics, which remind of the four elements. Matter reminds of earth, form of air, primary source of fire and final goal of water.
  • Some fragments of Heraclitus might suggest the same circle as Aristotle. DK22B76 seems to mention all four elements in the same circle, earth-fire-air-water-earth, but the original text cannot be restored for sure, according to Diels/Kranz (DK) in Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. See also fragments B31 and B36; and B90 might suggest that Heraclitus would have considered fire (the sun?) the primary substance.
  • See the pythagorean tetractys and oath. Pythagoras lived in the 6th century BCE, before Empedocles and Hippocrates. The tetractys is a triangle with four dots on each side:

    1 point monad (unity)
    2 line dyad (power)
    3 triangle triad (harmony)
    4 tetrahedron tetrad (cosmos)

    It relates also to music via the ratios between each line, octave (2:1), perfect fifth (3:2) and perfect fourth (4:3).

    The list reminds of fire-air-water-earth (light to heavy).

    But the above is apparently even more than usually for early Greek philosophers based on speculation, since Pythagoras reportedly never wrote anything down himself, so that there are even less credible sources about his views in his time, often surrounded by legends bordering on religion/sect.

    DK note that practically the same word that Empedocles used for "roots" in DK31B6 also appears in the pythagorean oath in DK58B15, with both fragments dating back to Aetius in early CE, so once more circular paths.
  • To ancient Greeks, the ancient Egyptians were apparently sort of like the ancient Greeks in modern perception, an admired ancient culture. It appears that the ancient Egyptians might have kept things more secret than the Greeks in their time, maybe only passing it on from master to pupil adept?
  • As a playful teaser, note that the pyramids have five corners, an earthly base of four, plus one on top...


    With maybe even opposites attached as below (or maybe with dry/hot and wet/cold flipped, or attached to faces instead), reflecting the heating and drying effect of the sun during the course of a day, similarly to the original image for yin-yang in China as the shady and sunny sides of a hill?


    But how pyramids evolved from single "floor" mastabas via step pyramids to their final form seems to be well researched. Especially how Sneferu had the first three pyramids without steps built and the first two attempts failed, does not suggest that all that much elemental symbolism would have been in the conscious minds of ancient Egyptians at that time.
  • Antiochus of Athens attributed elements to seasons the same way I did with faces of the pyramids, if winter is north, etc.: spring-air, summer-fire, autumn-earth and winter-water. The symbols for the four elements are triangles, reminding of the four faces of a pyramid, so whoever chose those symbols might maybe have related elements to pyramids.

    The symbols also stand for female and male sexes, overlaid to a hexagram "as above so below" for intercourse between Gaia (earth) and Ouranos (sky).
  • Zeus, Poseidon and Hades ruled in heaven (air), sea (water) and underworld (earth). Life can exist in all three of these elements, but not in fire, except in legend fire salamanders.

    Paris is chosen to give an apple to the most beautiful goddess among Hera, Aphrodite and Athena. Do Paris and the apple stand for fire, the sun, also since the name of the sun god Apollon might be related to the Greek word for apple?
  • The god of Jewish-Christian-Muslim religion, unlike the Greek Zeus, has nominally no parents, created everything else.
  • In August 2015, I assigned Greek goddesses to pairs of elements and moon phases, and tentatively flipped Athena and Hera in May 2018: Artemis/Hecate to birth/death at new moon as fire around water, Hera (and Clotho) to growth as a young woman or girl at the first quarter as earth around air, Aphrodite (and Lachesis) to bloom as a mature woman at full moon as water around fire, and Athena (and Atropos) to withering as an old woman at the last quarter as air around earth. Artemis/Hecate would thus contain both first and fifth element, and elements would touch as on the Möbius Strip.
  • Zhuangzi's famous butterfly dream:

    "Once Chuang Tzu dreamt that he was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly who felt at ease and happy and knew nothing of Chuang Tzu. Suddenly he woke up: Then he was again really and truly Chuang Tzu. Now I do not know whether Chuang Tzu dreamt that he was a butterfly or whether the butterfly dreamt that it was Chuang Tzu, even though there is certainly a difference between Chuang Tzu and the butterfly. This is how the change of things is." (translated by me from the Wilhelm translation to German)

    The same day I had first quoted the dream here, on the streets of Zürich, two butterflies on a truck, 21 Sep 2016 at 13:34. White, red, black, a little yellow, even a little circle and her.

    (In Apuleius' encounter with Isis, it is left open whether he was "just dreaming" or "it really happened".)


    The image is by Elena Vizerskaya (Getty Images 108350631); I bought the rights to use it, too, just to be safe.
  • (The walking cat of the metamorphosis section came to me at Delphi in Greece on Tuesday, 4 September 2018 at about 13:09, ate some of my food, a dry pretzel and salmon jerky, then, after a few burps (still a kid) and playing a little, took a nap of about 20 minutes on my lap, then left roughly in the direction of the Athena Pronoia temple, where I had been a bit earlier. During these few minutes there were no doubts what to do and felt so good, like having a child to care for. Was the AC maybe even an oracle for the AC of π, with the moon maybe late at glowing quincunxes, or early spring with almost shared progressed moons? Late, beyond doubt.)

© 2002-now Alain Stalder