Modern Knowledge, Ancient Wisdom: “The Four Elements and the Four States of Matter” by Trellia

This is a the second in a five-part miniseries about the intersection of Paganism and science by Trellia.  This article first appeared at Trellia’s Mirror Book.

The Four Elements are, by definition, fundamental to many forms of Paganism, and particularly Wicca. In the modern world however, I find it difficult to reconcile the four classical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water with the 100 or so scientific elements — how can I refer to the four elements that make up our world when I know that the reality is far more complex?

Instead, like many modern Pagans, I find it much easier to attribute the Four Elements with the four states of matter in science — solid, liquid, gas and plasma.  In fact, the four classical elements fit the four states of matter so well, it could well be that our ancestors had a basic understanding that the world around them consisted of these states of matter, but not knowing about atoms they had to use the analogy of the four elements to explain them. This is how the Four Elements correspond with the four states of matter

solid

Earth = Solid
The Solid state of matter is the state that we usually feel most familiar with; most solid items can be seen, touched and represented easily. It is the state in which particles are the lowest energy, but most highly ordered. Solids are strong and stable, holding their shape; the word “solid” as an adjective has connotations of reliability, durability and truthfulness. When forced to change, solids break rather than change shape.

When working with the energies of Earth, we should think of these qualities — strong, stable, safe and orderly, but also inflexible, heavy, cold and low in energy.

liquidWater = Liquid
Liquid is the second state of matter. Its particles have a little more energy than a Solid, so they can slide over each other. This gives liquid its ability to take the shape of any container that holds it, and to flow.

As a liquid itself, Water exhibits these qualities. Water energy is slightly higher than a solid, and can be considered more versatile, but it is still fairly self-contained as well as being cold and heavy.

gasAir = Gas
Heat a liquid enough, and it’ll evapourate into gas. Gas is a highly energised state of matter; the particles have all broken free of each other and move in random directions. As a result, gas is formless and often invisible. It therefore exudes a lot of mystery for humans.

Air, the mix of nitrogen and oxygen that we are so familiar with and depend upon, is the element attributed with qualities of lightness, energy and warm. It’s also associated with intellect and intuition — perhaps because gases are generally invisible, just like human thought; we often tend to say things like “a thought came out of the air.” Being so formless, Air is also associated with freedom.

plasma Fire = Plasma

When a gas is heated to extreme temperatures, the very atoms themselves are ripped apart, the electrons breaking free from protons to become free-flowing. Plasmas in nature can be found in lightning, stars and some kinds of flame.

Although most flames aren’t really plasma (they are reacting gases), the element of Fire certainly has many of the qualities of a plasma: extreme energy and heat, a strong connection with light, chaotic behaviour, weightlessness, and destructiveness. That’s why working with Fire energy requires caution — it is extremely powerful, but can be dangerous! The word “plasma” often makes us think of futuristic, space-age techology, and this can be carried across to Fire energy — use it when invoking something new and revolutionary.

spacetimeAether/Void/Spirit = Spacetime

Many traditions include a fifth element, often called Aether or Void or Spirit, which is the most mysterious element of all. It’s either considered an “everythingness,” pervasive force throughout all the other elements, or a “nothingness,” devoid of anything at all, or somehow a combination of the two.

I equate the fifth element with Spacetime, the “structure” of existence itself which results in gravity, in which quantum foam, a seething sea of potential at the most subatomic scale possible in which virtual particles exist for almost no time before disappearing. It’s the ultimate “everything in nothingness,” equating very well to the idea of the aether.

The Author: Trellia

kodomonihiAlthough I’ve been interested in Paganism for many, many years, I have only recently started practising Paganism on a regular basis. As suggested in Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, I’ve decided to start a “Mirror Book;” a journal of my progress and thoughts in discovering my own spiritual path. You can read this progress online at The Mirror Book.

I would definitely describe myself as an Eclectic Pagan, borrowing from many different traditions, but I have a particular fascination with Shinto, the “indigenous” Japanese religion. This is partly because of my own background – I studied Japanese at university, lived in Japan for several years and currently work for a Japanese non-profit. It’s also partly because, as there is a thriving family of foxes living very near my house, I venerate Inari, a Japanese deity closely associated with foxes, as a patron deity; I have a shrine to Inari in my courtyard.

I’m also more than a little interested in the Gothic subculture; you can view my “Gothic Stereotypes” art here.

See Trellia’s other posts.

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4 Comments on “Modern Knowledge, Ancient Wisdom: “The Four Elements and the Four States of Matter” by Trellia

  1. The connection to the four states of matter makes a great deal of sense and makes the four elements much more interesting.
    I found myself wondering whether in general living things have a different relation to the four states than non-living things do. Living things do seem to make use of or combine solid, liquid, and gas in a sustainable, close way, while non-living items don’t. A living plant moves water through its solid tubes and processes gasses. A rock may be worn down by water and in some cases react to a chemical in the air, but such reactions do not sustain the rock. Perhaps the ancients wrote about such a comparison.
    Thanks again.
    Brock

  2. Yes! It’s great to see this in print – my family and I have seen and used the four elements to describe the phases of matter (without spirit/spacetime) for many years. As you point out, they fit so perfectly. I think we have discussed the “spirit” element in terms of consciousness, but not spacetime.

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