Worldwide Recognition of the Four Elements

Many cultures throughout the world include the four elements in their philosophical, religious, or mythological traditions. Most of these traditions postulate one primary energy which then manifests as "stepped down" energy currents known as the elements, a process resembling the working of an electric transformer. This primary energy has been called by many names: prana, vital force, Qi, and others. The essential characteristics of this energy have been identical for all cultures, although the names given to the primary force and to the elements themselves have varied.

In Tibet, huge structures called "stupas" were built as gigantic symbols of the structure of creation. The base of the stupa was a large cube (representing earth), upon which rested a sphere (water), and on top of the sphere was a spiral-like structure (fire). Then at the very top was a half-moon (air) in which rested a small sphere ("ether", the Tibetans' word for the primary force from which the others flow). The stupa represented the foundation of Tibetan cosmology, and the elements were considered therefore to be the fundamental energies of the cosmos.

A similar conception of the elements is found in the holy scriptures of India (such as the Bhagavad Gita) and also in the philosophical basis of Indian Ayurvedic Medicine. Chinese philosophy and Acupuncture are founded on the concept of the elements. Like Tibetan and Indian expressions of their nature, the Chinese speak of five elements: "The five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, water, encompass all the phenomena of nature. It is a symbolism that applies itself equally to man." (Su Wen) These five elements correlate with the four elements commonly used in the western world, with the addition of ether. Western tradition doesn't usually mention the fifth element since it is really distinct from the others and, in fact, the source of the other four.

Ancient Greek philosophy was also based on the doctrine of the elements, which were equated with man's four faculties: moral (fire), aesthetic and soul (water), intellectual (air), and physical (earth). Medieval and Renaissance Europe imported the idea of the elements chiefly from the writings of Galen and correlated them with four "humours" which in turn gave rise to four specific human temperaments. These are found in all of the early medical writings of Europe as well as in the works of Shakespeare and other literary artists. In Japan, we find many examples of the importance given to the elements. For example, in a Zen Buddhist tract on Bodhidharma written in the year 1004 A.D., our traditional four elements are represented as the four qualities that make up creation: light (fire), airiness, fluidity, and solidity.

The elements are also intricately woven into the fabric of mythology. In ancient Sumer, where religion encompassed every aspect and activity of life, the most important deities corresponded to the elements: Anu the heavens (air); Enlil the storm (fire); Ninhursaga the earth; and Enki the waters. The foregoing examples reveal how the elements themselves, like the zodiac, were considered not only a vital reality which had to be dealt with by ancient peoples, but indeed the foundation of reality itself.

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