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The Four Essences

"Whereas fire rises, air moves horizontally, and earth stands still, water tends to sink and to penetrate."

- Robert Hand (Horoscope Symbols)

People sometimes wonder why the ancient four-element model persists in esoteric and New Age circles, when we have known for centuries that it does not model chemistry. Certainly, if "modeling chemistry" had been its only job, it would have been fired, and we'd only know about it, along with the medical humors, as a footnote.

One reason is that dividing things into fourths is a primal, archetypal response in the human psyche. We're embodied, we move around, we have eyes facing front. This means that almost any time we are active, we are orienting ourselves to front-back, left-right, and sometimes North-South, East-West. Adding up-down-center gives us the magic Seven, but that's another topic.

Quartered Circle (Medicine Wheel)

I don't even like using the term "elements" for them. The Pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles of Elea used the Greek word meaning root, and in later Latin texts we read "essences," the source of the word "quintesessence" for the "fifth element," Spirit or Aether. I'm going to call them essences from here on.

More specifically, though, the four philosophical essences are a very accurate map of how we experience things. It's very similar to how four taste buds (sweet, sour, salty, and bitter) account for a vast range of taste experiences. Think about a nice day at the beach (since I just had one, and it was very therapeutic). Your experience is dominated by the intensity of four things: sunshine, wind, water, and sand. We know instinctively when they are nicely balanced, and it's a halcyon experience. Walking out in the water to a comfortable depth and just sort of bobbing in place feels wonderful in a primal way. You're being warmed by the Sun, massaged and cleansed by the water, cooled and caressed by the breeze, and supported by the sandy bottom. Swimming or floating has a different feel, as there is less Earth, so it can be even more ecstatic. Returning to the dry sand to sit above the tide line is another way of calibrating the experience: now we are actively "grounding" while still experiencing the sound and smell of the salt waves, the warmth of the Sun, and the cooling breeze.

The ideal time at the beach is nicely balanced, but some days it's too windy, or too hot or cold, or too crowded (so you don't get enough Earth to yourself).