Most modern magical systems feature the use of elements Fire, Water, Air, and Earth without really understanding why. Coupled with the neo-Platonic idea of emanation, which sees creation as the result of an emanation from simplicity to complexity, we appear to have missed something. Yet elements are part of most much even when modern science has rejected them for something better.
Neo-Platonism, as seen in the Western occultists’ Cabbalah, makes sense in many ways and has much in common with ancient thought. Life starts from a point, becomes a line and then a triangle, and from a divine triad, the rest of the universe is created ending with the four elements in Malkuth. This serves to create a universe which is thoroughly integrated with Matter.
But Plato’s ideas were not the only ones circulating in Antiquity. The earlier and more visionary work Theogony by Hesiod is a little more interesting. He says that in the beginning the Earth emerged from Chaos and formed a separate evolution. The Earth he is describing is more of a proto-matter the opposite of Chaos – the Egyptians would call it Order or Maat. It was the Earth who created the Galaxy while the Titans were created from her mating with her various children. Cabbalistically, Hesiod is describing the Great Mother of Binah and placing creation within her womb.
Sicilian magician Empedocles, who lived in the fifth century BCE, in his Tetrasomia, or Doctrine of the Four Elements, Empedocles described the four elements as the roots of all existence which were controlled by two forces Love (Philotês) and Strife (Neikos). Love is the force that draws things towards Order, while Strife causes them to break apart. In this system, Philotês is the force which creates Order while Neikos creates Chaos. Empedocles said that Strife also divided the one immortal soul of Love into many individual souls, each making up both Love and Strife in some proportion and placed them into mortal bodies, which were compounded from different mixtures of four elements.
Like Albert Einstein, Empedocles did not believe that Matter could be destroyed. He thought that the four elements were Gods:
Hear the fourfold Roots of all:
Life bringing Hera, Hades, Shining Zeus,
And Nestis (Persephone) who moistens the springs of humans with tears.
In his Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition, Peter Kingsley worked out that Zeus is Air, Hera is Earth, Hades is Fire and Nestis (Persephone) is Water. The gods enable the elemental forces to be approached.
Empedocles’ equation of the Roots with deities emphasises the fact that they were not natural material substances but spiritual essences manifesting differently in the material and spiritual worlds. They can be land, the sea, the sky and the sun, but also abstract concepts like Hades (which was said to be sub-terraranan Fire). Plato (427 to 347 BC) named four “faculties of the soul” based on the elements: Imagination, Demonstration, Intelligence, and Opinion.
Thinking of them as roots upon which a tree of life is built is a powerful image. It creates an idea that the universe was grown organically, like a crystal, from four primary ingredients responding to the influence of Love and discord.
This works within the classical magical frame of reference, but there are less apparent implications of looking at Hesiod and Empedocles which do not.
If the universe was created by matter (earth) the heavens, Titans, Gods and humanity evolved out of her it means that we are not looking for a god who is distant from its creation, but a Goddess who is within everything.
When magicians invoke the elements, they are using symbols of the four roots of everything. Rather than looking away or “up levels” everything is within Matter and right in front of you. Divine Ascension then is not going “up” but within and is a journey into what we see around us. Matter is not something to be escaped but experienced. Empedocles’ structure makes the most senior element, that of Fire, which is closest to the Divine, ruled by the King of the Underworld, Hades. Zeus might be the ruler of the World, but it is his brother who is closer to the Divine spirit from which we emerged.
Magicians can change the universe they are in by changing the elements using Love (Philotês) Order and Strife (Neikos) Chaos – magic which attracts or which breaks things down. Magic is interacting with these forces to climb the tree within creation.
I have gone into more detail into the Elements and how they can be used in my new book Helios Unbound which can be found here