The four elements may have failed as a scientific theory, but as Carl Jung understood, they nevertheless resonate deeply in the human psyche. The four elements remain a powerful metaphor essential to any art.
A red rose blooming perfume in a garden is an amazing amalgam of the four elements. Fire is there in the sunshine that warms the soil providing the alchemy of transformation called photosynthesis. Fire gives the light that allows us to see beams of reflected color bouncing off the rose. The rose turns leaves up to the sun climbing toward or turning away from that mystery of warmth and illumination.
Air is there, too, the oxygen that provides the fuel for photosynthesis, receiving and dissipating the exhalations of the plant. Air allows us to sample the magical molecules of a rose’s perfume. In fact, the rose and the rose bush are mostly air since more air than matter composes the objects of our only relatively solid universe.
Water, the evaporating lubricant, must be replenished regularly. It carries the minerals of earth up the roots into the trunk and stem all the way to the red petals in an amazing orchestration of materials that makes even our greatest artists and architects mediocre by comparison.
Earth provides all the building blocks of matter that will be reassembled into the complex and functioning forms that make up a rose plant, providing gravity to grow against , grounding and magnetism for discharging and recharging.
Other cultures have other elements and different numbers of them. The Chinese Wu Xing comprises five elements, or phases. For students of the tarot the four elements are essential for an understanding of the symbolism of the cards. For students of the I Ching the Wu Xing is essential for an understanding of the symbolism associated with the hexagrams and individual lines.
For example, ever consider the major arcana tarot card Last Judgement as symbolic of a seed bursting into life?
Balancing the four elements is the key to life. Too much fire scorches, too little freezes. Too much water drowns, too little withers. Too much earth smothers, too little stunts growth. Too much air tears up roots with destructive winds, too little kills. Today one could say the elements have become mixed. The toxins of earth are in our water and in our air. In some places there isn’t enough air to keep people healthy. In many places water poisons instead of purifies.
The four elements can be applied in our personal lives. Earth is the body. Air is thought. Water is emotion. Fire is the vitality of life force. Is one out of balance in your life? Too much earth and a person becomes obsessed with the body, it little matters whether they hate or love it. Too much air causes people to think and worry leaving them inactive and detached from their emotions and life force. Too little air invites thoughtless destructiveness, and the damages of ignorance. Too much water causes people to be swept along by torrents of emotion. Too little water makes for life unfeeling and unfelt. Too much fire creates fanatics and too little reduces human beings to passionless robots.
The four elements are key to astrology. The fire signs Aries, Leo and Sagittarius describe spring, summer, and fall. Fall is the end of the fire cycle, not winter, since on the winter solstice the days start getting longer. Air signs Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius have been compared to air, air in motion (wind), and airless space which contains all air. Water signs Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces have been compared to river, lake and ocean. Earth signs Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn have been compared to soil, field, and mountain.
Finding the four elements in your own life and patiently experimenting with balancing them can be useful for meditation and practice.